My husband was in the Devons and when war broke out we had just got married. He was sent back to Malta. We had a honeymoon of a weekend and then he went off and I tried to get out to Malta as quickly as possible.
Was it easy to get out there?
No not really. There were two other Devon wives who got in touch with me and we went out together. We went across to France then took a train though Switzerland and Italy and Sicily and got a ferry to Malta.
It was a long journey.
Yes, but quite exciting; it was an adventure. I was 21 then.
Had you been abroad before?
Yes. My father was in the army in India but I was quite small when we came back. My father came from Madeira where his family had lived for quite a long time. He had to leave the army because his brother who looked after the family business out there died suddenly, so we went to Madeira and that was where I was brought up. I loved it. I haven’t been back for years but I’ve still got relations there.
When did you reach Malta?
10 October 1939. I can remember that!
Malta wasn’t really in the war at that stage but can you remember people worrying about the prospect of war affecting them?
No. We played tennis and had dances at the Club. There was no panic at all. I didn’t have a horse until the petrol ran very short. I’d always loved rising and I kept my horse at the stables at the barracks. Then I got the plotting pony and could go shopping and dash about on my own.
Where were you living when you first went to Malta?
In a hotel in Sliema becuase all the army quarters were occupied.
Were you working at that stage?
How did you get to meet Susanna?
I didn’t get to meet her for a long time because she was Navy and the Army and the Navy didn’t mix much and the Navy were often out at sea…. apart from the union club, it used to be called the snake pit, in Valetta. but we mainly kept to our own groups.
At what point did you get sent to St Andrews Barracks?
Probably the middle of 1940. Every now and then an Italian would come over and drop a bomb but no-one took much notice.
What were your feelings about being confined to barracks?
You just accepted it really. It was getting a bit more lively.
Did you see much of your husband?
Not a lot then. They were dotted about the island and would come back every couple of days or something like that. So we were on our own a fair bit. I didn’t start plotting until I should think another 6 months to a year after that because it was all done by the soldiers and the RAF and then they started asking for volunteers and when I went there, there were already quite a few girls who were plotters. They were mostly from a dance group.
So you knew Christina (?)
Oh yes, very well. She was the boss of my group. She was a lovely person. Really good fun, practical though and responsible.
It’s funny really isn’t it because she was a cabaret dancer and she’d been engaged to a French judge in Algiers, then she went to Malta and sent up the Whizz Bangs. You get the impression she was a care free, devil may care, girl about town. You didn’t have that impression?
I only knew her when we were working and she was very nice and I liked her very much.
Did she ever talk about Warburton?
We knew about him but there wasn’t much time for talking. We were too busy getting on with the job. You did your shift but I can’t remember how long the shift was.
You were in Lascaris. Did you know Dou Geer, the floor supervisor of the plotters. He looked after a number of people like yourself.
No I don’t remember him. By then it was getting quite alarming. I lived in Sliema in a little flat and got the ferry from Sliema to Valetta every day and walked up then down through a little hole and down into the ops room. It was very exciting in a way. You didn’t hear the guns underground.
In your role as a plotter could you hear what was going on up in the air?
No. We were given instructions from all the gunners and the soldiers and RAF who were dotted about the island and were told what height the planes were coming in at. They all seemed to come in 17,000 and you plotted away. I quite enjoyed it and it was quite exciting.
Did you have your pony in Sliema?
Yes for about a year, but then he had to go because there wasn’t time.
Presumably there wasn’t much food for him either?
I don’t remember that being a problem. I do remember that quite a lot of the hay came from Canada. There were horses with the regiment, used for ceremonial purposes, and maybe they used them for polo as well. All the Maltese horses eat clover. It was huge clover, not like ours, and locust beans. The Maltese were very kind to their animals. I never saw anyone being unkind to an animal. I left in March 42 and in April the raids got worse and worse and I think I was relieved to get off the island. I was a passenger on a Wellington bomber, in the bomb bay. I thought I hope they don’t release me! The Wellington’s took one passenger each and about 7 of us got off around that time.
That must have been quite hairy.
It was but it was like an unreal world. We went at night. We were told to be ready at 7pm….
When all this was going on, did you manage to get out at all?
Yes, although there wasn’t much of a social life then.
Before Italy entered the war, it sounds to me as though it was an amazing place to be incredibly sociable, parties all the time. Going down to Marsa base all the time.
Oh yes. There were dances every Saturday evening, racing and football but it all dried up really once things got bad. The Union Club in Valetta remained busy and you could get a meal there.
Did you go there after work?
No, not when it got really bad, you got back as quickly as you could.
Did you have any near misses?
No, I was incredibly lucky. Sue did though. It was quite frightening though hearing them coming over. Someone in the flats where I was on the ground floor had built this stone sort of coffin which you could get inside of. I did get inside it once.
Otherwise, you went to the shelters did you?
I only went once right at beginning, and up in the barracks we did occasionally.
So you just chanced it did you?
You just tried to be as normal as you could I think, and once you went down to the shelter there were lots of other people and you just sat. Better to be stoical and hope for the best. The worst of the bombing was after I left.
It must have been hard to sleep.
Well, we were quite tired by then and we just got used to it. I remember hearing the V boats. Those were the Italian manned torpedoes, and I also remember hearing the bombs that were chained together and it was a queer sort of sound, but that was only for a night or two as far as I remember.
What do you remember of your time in St Andrews Barracks with Sue?
We were there for about 6 months. We stayed with this lovely family who had been out in India with the Devlins. They had 3 children, although sadly their eldest son was killed when there was an air raid on his boarding school in Devon. They were in the shelter and it took a direct hit. Did Sue talk to you about Peter Labett? Their name was Labett. He was about 14 then.
So you stayed with Midge and Titch?
Yes. I had my pony and trap; that was my big polo pony and I used to go out early in the morning beyond St Julian’s and St George’s and I used to ride my horse early in the morning in the vineyards and I remember girls picking the grapes and laughing and handing me some, I’ll never forget that. There’s now a village there sadly. We didn’t learn anything about the history or archaeology of Malta and we certainly didn’t learn any Maltese except for the air raid warnings.
Did you have any Maltese friends?
Yes there was an awfully nice couple. They had twin girls. He was in the Malta artillery and she was Irish. I never kept up with them once I’d left, what with the war going on, and having children.
Did you have any children while you were out in Malta?
No, but I cam home because I was pregnant and they wanted to get as many people off the island as possible because of the food shortage.
Where did you go back to?
To my sister’s in Lincoln.
Was it hard leaving your husband in Malta?
Well, I don’t know if Sue told you but I had then really parted from my husband and had fallen for someone else. My story is rather like Sue’s. So, yes, it was awful…..however, we landed in North Africa in the desert and then went to Cairo. Sue had an uncle there and she had friends who we stayed with. I was very fortunate to be with Sue. Then we went by train from Cairo to the Red Sea. Just wooden seats and it was so uncomfortable and hot and the sand was coming through the sides, it was so rickety. Then we got the P and O, the troop ship which was mostly full of Italian prisoners who were down in the hold poor things. They were allowed to come up and get a bit of fresh air.. There was one really good looking chap with curly hair, a fine strong person and when they come up they wore trousers, no shirts and he had the whole of his back tatooed with mountains and Chamois and as he walked the deer all moved.
Apparently Sue was shy when she got to Malta and Malta brought her out of her shell.
She wasn’t shy when I knew her. I can’t imagine Sue being shy but she did have a very unhappy relationship with her father.
Did she talk about it at the time?
No, I didn’t know until I read her book. I was amazed at how awful her father was. She was Navy and I suppose I knew her for about a year, but she had different friend and we were doing different things, and didn’t get to know her well until the journey home. She was in Malta before the war. Of course I think we shared a room at Midge and Titch’s. Midge was such a darling. She became one of my daughter’s God mothers.
Were people scornful of the Italians when they started bombing?
Oh yes. People would stand on the balconies and flat roofs. I was a bit nervous about doing that but most people did to see what was going on. The Italians weren’t very adventurous.
Were you conscious that the Germans had arrived Sicily?
No I don’t think so, I wasn’t. I was too busy having fun and enjoying life I think!
So you still went to parties then?
Oh yes. I remember a very good party given by the RAF. I can’t remember where it was. It was one of the big Castilles. It was Air Vice Marshall Hugh Pughe Lloyd. My husband had vanished and I couldn’t get home so the Air Vice Marshall took me home in his chauffeur driven car.
What did you think of him?
He was very polite and quite grand. Quite self-important.
I suppose you were below ground most of the time, but can you remember seeing dog fights?
No. We got inside very quickly when we heard anything.
Can you remember the rediffusion system Was your flat linked up to that?
Yes it was.
Was it like a radio? Purely for the island? Did you switch it on or was it on all the time?
I think you switched it on.
Was it portable?
No, I’m sure it wasn’t. It was on a shelf in the siting room. It gave air raid warnings and they happened all the time, you would hear it every hour or so.
So you left it on all the time? Was there ever just silence?
No, we had programmes from London, Tommy Handley and those sort of programmes and then they’d be interrupted by the warnings. (Jamie, I won’t even try to type the Maltese that she speaks re air raid warnings, as I can’t make it out!)
Food was getting a bit scarce when you were there?
Yes, but I can’t remember feeling hungry. We had lots of bread with weevils in! Everything was very expensive. I bought an egg for 7 and 6 once! Once I went to the market and bought some scraggy goat which was absolutely disgusting!
So you were feeling the pinch. Luxury items must have been in very short supply and clothes and cleaning materials.
Oh yes, but it was the food mainly. I didn’t drink. I had a little Maltese Terrier. I was just walking along Sliema Esplanade and outside a wine bar there was a fat Maltese lady and tied to a chair by her was this little puppy. I stopped and said â€œwhat a lovely little dog and she said â€œyou can have it if you want and I said â€œhow much? and she said â€œa pound. â€œI said what do you feed her on and she said â€œspaghetti and tomato. I called her Gemma and she was my companion.
What happened to her when you left?
My husband took her and had her at the army camp and she got run over by an army truck or something…….. Did Sue tell you about our oatmeal face pack? We had plastered our faces with it as it was supposed to be very good for your complexion and then there was a raid. We’d been issued with tin helmets and we put them on and went out onto the balcony and the regimental dental surgeon came out on to the next-door balcony and took one look at us and practically fainted. I think he must have thought we were ghosts!
You had a few funny times didn’t you?
Oh yes. I was fortunate in that I didn’t see any awful things like dead bodies and mangled people.
That was very lucky. Really until you see that I suppose it all seems rather unreal. Did you ever go to the cinema?
Oh yes. I went occasionally to the one in Sliema.
Were you ever there when a film was interrupted?
No, I didn’t go that many times…….there weren’t many taxis then so you got a karrozin and I was going down out of St George’s and they used to make the horses trot down the hill and they used to slip on the tarmac and this horse fell down. So the driver said to me you hold the caroxi up while I get the horse up and the karozzin was a huge heavy thing and I was struggling. I think I could’ve got the horse up more easily.
I suppose it gave you a lot more mobility having the horse and trap.
Oh yes. I had wanted to be a ballet dancer when I was younger but my parents didn’t want me to and there was a Russian Princess, although I don’t know if she really was, and she taught ballet dancing in Sliema and I used to arrive in my pony and trap and tie him up outside. One day someone came in and said Toby and the trap were down by the harbour; I hadn’t tied him up properly. Another funny thing was that I couldn’t ever get Toby past the wine bars. There was a particular one in St George’s, and I couldn’t get him past and one day I said to the chap who ran it â€œI can’t get him past and he said â€œI am not surprised, his owner used to come and have a drink here ever day!
What happened to Toby?
I sold him when I was working so much.
ELIZABETH SAID THAT SHE THINKS ABOUT HER TIME ON MALTA MORE THAN SHE THINKS OF ANY OTHER PERIOD IN HER LIFE. SHE SAID IT WAS BECAUSE SHE WAS SO YOUNG AND IT WAS ALL SO EXCITING AND IT MADE SUCH A HUGE IMPACT ON HER LIFE.