The COLD WAR
From Yalta to Malta
The many decades following the Second World War were years full of international political tension, caused mainly by the animosity between the two Superpowers, that is, the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1945, a disquieting agreement was reached during the Conference in Yalta, located in the Crimean Peninsula, between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill, regarding the spheres of power that each of the ‘victors’ of the War were to exert in the occupied territories of war-torn Europe.
In April 1949, the United States welcomed twelve countries under its wings to protect themselves from any form of aggression that the Soviet Union might ever intend to carry out against them. A military block, known as NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) was thus set up. This block was later joined by Greece, Turkey and the Federal Republic of Germany (1953). The Soviet Union did the same in 1955 by creating its own military block, known as the Warsaw Pact. This was made up of numerous East European states that Stalin had retained under his grip, following the end of hostilities in the Second World War. Both sides vied to hold on to Berlin, Germany’s capital, which ended up being encircled by the newly born Democratic Republic of Germany (Eastern Germany), but which was partially retained by the US and its Britain and France. Eventually, as late as 1961, East Germany, under the hegemony of the Soviet Union, erected a wall to separate the Easteern from the Western side of the city. This hotspot remained a major bone of contention throughout the Cold War years.
Both military blocks stocked themselves with a powerful nuclear arsenal, some of which was strategically positioned in various countries, while other assets in the form of nuclear missiles were installed on warships and submarines. For a long number of years, each side sought to outdo the other in a race for the most efficacious and powerful weapons meant to annihilate the other. The chances that a nuclear war would flare up into an almighty confrontational finale was at times very imminent. Throughout the following 40 years, tension and hostilities were constantly contained by a policy of ‘detente’, that is, a position whereby each side was held in check by the apprehension of consequential hit back. This animosity between the two Superpowers was termed as ‘The Cold War’.
The Cold War and the Mediterranean
In the 1950’s, Britain was economically and militarily still reeling back from the hardships and losses it had sustained, due to its leading role in World War II, when fighting Nazi Germany. The country needed time to heal by following a recuperative economic programme of austerity, thus refraining from investing in further military and civil spending overseas, especially in its colonies. Back then, Britain’s military interests in the Mediterranean spread across Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus, and Egypt. In 1947, Britain had given up its ‘protectorate’ in the Palestinian lands following the emergence of Israel into a new state. In 1949, Britain also conceded independence to India. Yet, the former empire now direly needed the backing of her American ally to retain a military presence in the Mediterranean. The Americans were only too pleased to step in as they were determined to set a more solid footing in the Mediterranean in order to stave off the U.S.S.R.’s ambitions, and Communist politics from taking hold in the region. A case of great concern was the strong Communist Party in Greece, a country which at some time veered towards the brink of a civil war. To this situation, one may add concerns related to the strong Communist parties in both France and Italy that were gaining strength. Besides, in later years, the new Russian President, Kruschev was using Egypt to spread his Communist progaganda in the Middle Eastern countries.
In 1951, the NATO leaders in Brussels opened a naval base in Naples in order to facilitate to the American Sixth Fleet’s guardianship of the Mediterranean Sea against any Russian military intervention. The Russian navy was based in the port of Odessa, in the Black Sea.
Britain and Malta
Throughout the 1950’s Britain was very much aware that its tenure of Malta, and for that matter, its holding on to numerous other colonies, was becoming financially crippling. Britain could ill afford to have its naval assets be repaired in the less costly Maltese dockyards while at the same time closing naval docks in the UK and elsewhere. When in 1957, Harold Macmillan became Prime Minister, he put his foot down and decided to curtail all military spendings. Britain’s policy was to enhance its own nuclear arsenal as this would require less spending on both troops and naval assets. Thus, despite NATO’s concern, Britain began to slowly diminish its military force from Malta as an outpost in the Mediterranean.
NATO and Malta
Meantime, by the early 1950’s, Britain had retained an ‘open doors’ policy for NATO to make use of Malta’s ports as a base. By 1953, NATO had established an administrative centre in Floriana, situated 100 metres away from the War Memorial. This sub-headquarters in the centre of the Med. became known as the ‘Allied Forces Mediterranean’. Not all NATO countries were part of this set-up. Only the flags of France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, England and America were hoisted on this building. The first commander-in-chief of this quarter was Admiral Earl Louis Mountbatten.
Malta’s defensive measures in case of Nuclear Conflict
In the meantime the chances of an escalation of war between the Soviet Union and NATO in the Mediterranean were not always high, but they could never be ignored. Close to Malta, the Americans had in 1957, set up a military airbase at Sigonella, in southern Sicily. NATO was aware that, were a nuclear confrontation to occur in the Mediterranean there was a great possibility that Malta would also be hit, directly, or as collateral damage, due to the heavy naval and military presence in the Mediterranean.
For this reason, Britain and NATO undertook to set up various civil and military precautionary measures on the island. In 1953, the first part of the Marsa power station was put into operation, in a hollowed-out space below Corradino Hill. To this, an underground pipeline connected the power house to the cavernous oil tanks of Ħas-Saptan, near Birżebbuġa. The whole project cost around six million pounds, which at the time was considered to be a huge expenditure.
The War Rooms at Lascaris, located as they were, 80 metres under the Valletta fortifications, built hundreds of years earlier by the Order of St John, and used during the Second World War, were once again designated to become the headquarters for the British and NATO military command in case of a nuclear war.
In between 1954 and 1955, eight flour mills were installed in underground shelters that were also hewn out of the rock. These mills were located in Xemxija, Mellieħa, San Ġwann, a double mill in Siġġiewi and two in Mġarr. Another mill was set up in Xlendi, Gozo. Each was operated by its own electricity generator and contained a silo that could hold approximately 1000 tonnes of wheat. Seven of these mills still exist.
Below the cliffs near Dingli, close to the radar station, underground passages were meant to be used as anti-nuclear shelters which offered an alternative administrative headquarters for the Royal Air Force that was then based in Floriana. In his memoires, Tifkiriet, 1934 – 2009 (2010), Carmel Portelli, then employed with the RAF clerical administration, recalls that ‘emergency exercises’ were simulated in anticipation of such nuclear warfare. At one time, at the Floriana headquarters, office files were urgently packed up and transferred on trucks to a miltary camp that was set up at Dingli’s military installation. The whole unit remained there for a whole week and at several instances, suddenly and without prior warning, a siren would sound the alarm for all personnel to ‘seek shelter in tents to defend themselves from nuclear fallout’. Those who reached the tents late were ‘showered’ from head to toe, to cleanse themselves from ‘radioactive contamination’.
Also, each year NATO members based in Malta held a military exercise called Maltex, both on land and at sea.
Post Independence Malta
When Malta obtained its independence by mutual consent from Britain, on 21 September 1964, the British retained their military base in Malta, mainly as its commitment to complement NATO’s operations in the central Mediterranean. At the behest of Malta, Britain thus provided some time for the newly independent island-state to implement its own plans to create various industrial and commercial opportunities, while the scheduled redundancy of troops and mariners took its course.
However, immediately the Labour Party was elected to government in 1971, Dom Mintoff closed down NATO’s headquarters in Floriana (1972), and sought to engage Britain in fresh discussions to formulate a contract whereby Britain would retain the use of its military facilities in Malta for a predetermined number of years, against a hefty annual fee. At the same time, the Labour Government also took a political stance ,whereby it tried to distance itself from both existing superpowers, opting to style Malta as a non-alligned country, similar to Yugoslavia, Egypt and India.
The End of the Cold War
In, the eighties, the race for nuclear weapons had escalated considerably, especially during President Ronald Reagan’s term of office. President Mikhail Gorbachev realised that the race for nuclear armaments was a double edged sword, and was proving too expensive in view of the ailing Soviet economy. By implication, the drive for more nuclear armaments was weighing down hard on the standard of living of the Russians.
Gorbachev thus embarked on a series of discussions with the United States to seek a mutual reduction of nuclear arms. Meanwhile, in the late eighties, Russia started to concede certain political liberties to its Warsaw Pact ‘allies’. More demands for further autonomous political control by the satellite nations were leading to street demonstrations, especially in Poland (Solidarnosc), and Hungary. The latter had now purged its parliament from the Stalin constitution. Subsequently on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was ‘let open’ by the East German Government and this signalled a huge step in the liberation of the Eastern Block from its Russian master.
The series of Reagan Summits continued, even during the office terms of President George Bush. They were held in various locations around the world. One such summit between Bush and Gorbachov was held in Malta on December 2 and 3, 1989, a few weeks following the downfall of the Berlin Wall. The talks were held on the Russian cruise ship Maxim Gorky, anchored in the stormy seas, at Marsaxlokk Harbour.
During the Malta Summit, a commitment was reached that promised the end of the Cold War between the two countries. However, during this summit, Gorbachev did not make any promises not to meddle or intervene any further in internal matters of the East European block.
On July 1, 1990, the Warsaw Pact was disbanded, thus bringing the Cold War between East and West officially to an end.
But has the Cold War really come to an end?
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