The imperial meaning. Jan Morris on a fine new book about a heroic wartime defence of an outpost of empire

Fortress Malta: an island under siege (1940-1943)

James Holland <em>Orion, 440pp, £20</em>

ISBN

In April 1942 the British king-emperor George VI awarded the colonial island of Malta the George Cross for gallantry. This was a very un-British act. The Russians declared places to be Hero Cities, Spanish possessions were dubbed Very Noble, Very Loyal or Very Invincible, Venice called itself the Serenissima, but never in British history had an entire community been honoured in this way. For years afterwards, people addressed letters to Malta GC - almost like a postal code.

The distinction commemorated the bravery of the Maltese people and its garrison during the most protracted siege in British history. Between 1940 and 1943, their small island, about the size of the Isle of Wight, was attacked from the air by hundreds of German and Italian aircraft, blockaded by submarines and surface fleets, indomitably holding out to play a crucial part in the Mediterranean war. But perhaps more pertinently, when the king honoured it he was recognising the island's heroism as an inspiring example of the loyalty of his worldwide but dying empire.

For the British, the Second World War was, though they did not always realise it, essentially an imperial war. It was fought not only in the cause of democratic freedom, but in the defence of their own status in the world, and fought not only by the island British, but by thousands of the king's subjects from every corner of his imperium. The spectacular resolution of Malta, which had been British since 1814 and was inhabited by 250,000 people of varied ethnic descent, was the grandest possible exhibition of the imperial meaning.

I had hoped, in a way, that this book would show the siege to be more exhibition than anything else - that James Holland would try to demonstrate that the defence of Malta was not militarily necessary anyway, but was really no more than an elegant gesture out of the imperial past, a cock of the snook at history. I like that kind of thing. But Holland is no debunker, and Fortress Malta turns out to be an excellent example of an almost abandoned form - steadily patriotic narrative history, balanced and fair, if occasionally tinged with tabloidism.

It is certainly not all gung-ho. Holland not only pays tribute to the skill of the German pilots who made Malta, at the height of its siege, the most bombed place on earth; more unusually, he illustrates how important was the contribution of the Italian air and naval forces to the Axis effort on the Mediterranean. The British on Malta may have been relieved when the formidable Luftwaffe took over from the less awful Regia Aeronautica (whose fliers were not above the occasional gesture of mercy), but the Royal Navy had to face a powerful modern Italian battle-fleet, together with Italian submariners so daring that they blew up two British battleships at anchor within Alexandria Harbour, temporarily upsetting the whole balance of Mediterranean power.

But good King George was right. The true heroes of Malta were his subjects on the island, whether they were islanders themselves, or the men and women from all over the British empire (plus some friends from the United States) who really did make of their ordeal a heroic epitome. Time and again they were so short of food, fuel and ammunition that surrender seemed inevitable within a few weeks, and was averted only by the navy's Magic Carpet submarine supply service, by a shuttle of fast minelayers, and by the convoys which, defying all that Junkers bombers, Macchi and Messerschmitt fighters, U-boats and E-boats could throw at them, struggled with fearful losses to keep the island going. And when Malta was able to act offensively too, aircraft and warships from the island finally made it impossible for the Afrika Korps to win its war in North Africa. As Rommel himself said, "Malta has the lives of many thousands of German and Italian soldiers on its conscience . . ."

Sixty years on, it all makes a marvellous story. It is like a fable of the true old times, "when every morning brought a noble chance,/ And every chance brought out a noble knight". Seen at least from our distance of time, it was one long Achillean epic.

It is a sad sign of our own day that the suffering of the civilians, men, women and children, though no less bravely borne, and hardly less conscientiously described in this book, is far less compelling to read about than the struggles of the hopelessly outnumbered Spitfire pilots, those splendidly eccentric fighting men. King George recognised the fortitude of the islanders - "Heroism and Devotion", said the citation of his medal, "that will long be famous in History" - but now that scenes of wrecked houses, limbless children and half-starved old women are almost inescapable on our television screens, I suspect many of Holland's readers will find themselves skipping the domestic miseries to the next display of young men's derring-do.

Above all, to the climactic allegory of it all, the saga of Operation Pedestal. In August 1942, when the island lay in ruins, food was running out and the Spitfires were almost out of fuel, two elderly battleships of the Royal Navy, together with four carriers, seven cruisers and 24 destroyers, set out from the Straits of Gibraltar to convoy 14 merchant ships to the relief of Malta. About 600 German and Italian aircraft lay in wait for them, with submarines, E-boats, cruisers and destroyers. For eight days they ploughed on through waves and walls of bombs and torpedoes, through unending swarms of screaming Stukas and U-boats. A carrier, two cruisers and a destroyer were sunk, as were nine of the 14 merchant ships, and the most vital vessel of the convoy, the tanker Ohio, which was carrying 11,000 vital tons of aircraft fuel, was so crippled that she was kept afloat and moving only by two warships lashed to her sides.

The arrival of this ship in Grand Harbour, cheered in to port by thousands of Maltese, saluted by soldiers of the garrison, serenaded with "Rule Britannia", was one of the great symbolic moments not only of the Second World War, but of the whole British imperial story. Flight Lieutenant George ("Screwball") Beurling, from Quebec, celebrated by flying his RAF Spitfire exhilaratingly upside down the whole length of the harbour, and he did the proper thing. The island was saved. The tide was turned. The King himself went to Malta to present his George Cross to the islanders, a last graceful gesture of the dying Pax Britannica, and James Holland was given a grand old tale to tell - beyond carp, beyond satire, beyond revisionism.

Jan Morris's A Writer's World: travels 1950-2000 is published by Faber and Faber in September

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