A loving enthusiastic account that focuses on the first-hand stories of combatants and civilians, setting them in the context of the battle being played out across the Mediterranean. He steers clear of politics, and concentrates on the breadth of personalities, on the hopes and fears of extraordinary, ordinary people caught up in the longest siege in British history.
Combines painstaking research with effortless prose, brilliant debut.
Holland has used survivors’ testimony and unpublished letter and diaries to give us a long-overdue and comprehensive account of the second great siege of Malta. This is a fine first book by a promising young historian.
Fortress Malta turns out to be an excellent example of an almost abandoned form – steadily patriotic narrative history, balanced and fair. 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. James Holland was given a grand old tale to tell – beyond carp, beyond satire, beyond revisionism.
In this full and well-researched book the reader is told one fact that embodies the horror of the island’s siege: more bombs fell on Malta in March and April 1942 than fell on London throughout the entire Blitz. Mr Holland has made extensive use of interviews and archives at the PRO and Imperial War Museum, along with other museums and personal manuscripts, to give the fullest account yet of the siege. By concentrating on individuals and their stories he has made this not just the story of an island but of the individuals who lived, fought and died there.
Iwo Jima stands as the most bombed spot in the Pacific War. Malta stands as the most bombed spot in history. James Holland brings alive this harrowing and heroic World War II story through the eyes of those who struggled and won. Journey back to a time when, as FDR said, ‘Malta stood alone but unafraid in the centre of the sea.’
Malta’s suffering at the hands of the Nazis is a story of tears and loss. But James Holland is a master craftsman. Fortress Malta is both compelling and heart wrenching. His account of the siege leavens devastation with hope, despair with courage; and, most important of all, celebrates the humanity of individuals against forces of evil.
Superbly engaging history. The sea and air battles around the island are so vividly depicted, but the real value of this book lies in its rare, intimate description of the Maltese perspective on the siege. Turning the last page, one understands why the island of Malta was collectively awarded the George Cross, the highest British civilian award for heroism.
It is no surprise that James Holland’s thoroughly researched and very readable account of the Malta story has attracted the attention of Miramax Films who have bought the film rights to the book.
Holland wins full marks for accuracy and for his effortless prose, following the story by using survivor’s testimony as well as the letters and diaries of those perished Fortress Malta is a tribute to the fighting services and the Maltese civilians who fortitude and courage helped to turn the course of the war in the Mediterranean and North Africa and enabled freedom to triumph.
An excellent account of Malta’s ordeal under siege during the Second World War One must thank Holland for recalling those difficult and heroic times that reflected the inner strength of a small people fortified by Christian ideals and principles. The marked enthusiasm with which Holland has written up events is evident throughout.
Powerful. Behind most great epic battles are the individual tales of human endurance and triumph, shards of tile that comprise the entire mosaic. Mr Holland provides those with painstaking care, frequently overlapping the daily lives of his subjects in real time, minute by minuteboth a scholarly work and a gripping read his meticulously researched book.
This was my first work of history and the whole process was an exciting and very steep learning curve. At university, the subject of my dissertation was to do with the English Restoration in the 1660s, and it was whilst studying for that that I first had a taste of the thrill of looking at original documents and sources. In that case, it was looking at contemporary books which I knew had not been read by anyone else for very many years. When studying the Siege of Malta I was not only able to speak with a number of people who had served there, but I was also able to repeatedly visit the island repeatedly, and visit archives where I could look at documents that had been signed by Churchill himself or written by many of the leading players in the story.
At the very beginning of the book, I begin with a letter I found in the archives of the Imperial War Museum in London, in which a mother, Margaret Mackie, is writing to the Matron at Imtarfa Military Hospital, close to the fighter airfield of Takali in the heart of the island. The Matron has obviously already written to Mrs Mackie, assuring her that her nineteen year-old son, a night fighter pilot, had died peacefully, and without being aware of his horrific injuries. I unearthed it quite by chance on my first ever visit to the reading room there, and I remember as I read it through I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. It was so moving, so touching – and so desperately sad.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it made me feel determined to try and find out more about this young man and the circumstances of his death. Soon I knew about his squadron, when he had first arrived over Malta, and the details of his death. Not long after, however, I made my first visit to the island itself. Takali is no more – a sports stadium now stands there – but at what would have once been the edge of the old airfield there is now the Malta Aviation Museum, run by a handful of dedicated enthusiasts.
At the time, they were working on the restoration of an old Hurricane and I was I was looking at their amazingly workmanship, I told Frederick Galea about the letter Alex Mackie’s mother had sent after her son’s death. Had Frederick ever heard of this particular pilot? I wasn’t expecting much of a response, but then Frederick smiled and said, ‘Look over there.’ He was pointing to a piece of grey engine cowling. ‘That’s from Mackie’s Hurricane.’ This seemed an incredible piece of serendipity. Nor was the engine cowling the only remains. Mackie’s elevator and a number of other pieces had all been recovered from the crash site. As I was gaping over these finds, Frederick said, ‘You know, you can still see the site. We’ll arrange a trip.’
So it was that one day in January 2001, almost fifty-nine years to the day, four of us piled into Frederick’s car and drove out of Takali, up the hill to Rabat, and out along increasingly winding and pot-holed roads until we reached the valley below St Katherine’s Church. One of those with us was Tony Spiteri. He knew the farmer, Francis Borg, one of the men who had rushed to help Mackie after the crash, and had been told about what had happened.
It is a beautiful valley, one of the prettiest and quietest on the whole Island. Figs and plum trees line the slopes, which are still dotted with old British military buildings. The Durham Light Infantry had manned the area back then, but most of the structures are ruined and derelict now. Down in the valley floor, the ground is divided into small sections of varying crops: wheat, vines, almond trees, caper bushes and onions. Tony assured me it would have looked much the same in 1942.’You can see from the vines that they have been here a long time.’ We stopped the car below the tiny church and looked across to the far side of the valley, to a stone wall halfway up the slope. At its highest, the wall rose over twenty feet, but one side was half collapsed.’That’s it,’ said Tony.’That’s the wall into which he crashed.’ We paused a moment, looking. It was so peaceful, and I felt a strange sense that I was looking a place trapped in time. Glancing to the right, I could clearly picture his black, spluttering Hurricane, smoke trailing behind, drifting round the curve of the hill, out of control. And Mackie, at the controls, desperately trying to get some lift until the moment of disaster. The noise would have reverberated around the valley. Francis Borg, working on the slopes above and behind where we were standing would have seen and heard it all. I could imagine the men rushing across the fields – the priest, the locals, soldiers of the Durhams – the remains of the Hurricane smoldering in pieces of tangled metal, the rest burning, dark smoke rising above the valley walls.
One man – a young, twenty year-old British pilot of no great note – had been fatally wounded here. His passing made little difference to the Island’s war effort. Yet, like millions of others, his life had been sacrificed in that terrible conflict. Sixty years on, it is easy to think of the War in terms of grand strategy and statistics. Standing there that day, I was reminded that it was about people, ordinary men, women and children; individuals who had never asked to be caught up in the middle of a war, but who had willingly joined the fight the ensure the safety of future generations.