Frank Rixon served with the Royal West Kent Regiment on Malta throughout the siege and later in the Dodeconese. His wife, Mary, lived on Malta throughout the siege.
Frank and Mary Rixon 17 March 2002
.took her down. I couldn’t do anything about it because I had sprained my ankle. Anyway after they had taken her over I tried to run to the shelter but I couldn’t make it. So I went into the first house, the door was wide open, and hid under a table. I didn’t know whose house it was and then, as it had quietened down in the village, I walked slowly to the shelter which was only just opposite. As I got there this man just stood in the doorway to see what was going on and in the meantime I was just going down the stairs when this man was machine gunned by the Germans and he was going down the stairs in pieces in front of me and I faintedfor about half an hour I think it was.
So he was pretty badly hurt?
Yes. Every time I talk about it, I get lumps here. When I got down, I was so bad, I thought I had lost the baby, but they called for a doctor and a nurse who came down to the shelter and they examined meI was still out. They stayed with me til I came tobut I was so bad. But the baby was alright.There was a terrible air raid, very bad, and we had just had our babies.there were six of us in the ward. The nurses and midwives came and took the babies away and put them in the nursery for us and left us six in the ward sitting there in bed. I was a bit worried about it and so I said to them why don’t we get out and go under the beds, and lets see what happens, and when we came back outI couldn’t get back into bed because it was full of glass and all the windows were broken at the back of us. The baby was about two or three days old. They took the babies away from us downstairs.
That must have been quite traumatic.
M. Oh yes. But what could we do, you couldn’t tell the hospital what to do. But we thought the babies should be all right with the nurses. We could have all been killed.
F. Sometimes the bombs would land and sit there and other times they would explode
Why did they sometimes implode and sometimes explode? Was it to do with distance?
F. You tell me! I’ve been told that people have been stripped off their clothing. Torn off. Other times there was shrapnel and all sorts going, so I don’t know whether it was a type of bomb. But I’ve seen a building where the bomb’s gone off inside and the roof’s gone flying and the four walls are still standing.
M. We thought all the windows were coming out and we didn’t know what to do. The nurses were downstairs, so we crawled out and just stood there. We couldn’t sit anywhere because it was full of glass.
Those were the dark days of 1942.When you got married, they were bad but not anything like as bad as
F.When we first started off, it was a lovely island. I was going to the Toc H and that’s where I met Mary.
Tell me a bit about the Toc H? That was down in Sliema?
M.It was a very old place where the young soldiers or sailors or airmen they come and it’s like home from home.
F. It’s like a hostel.
M.You feed them and they had beds of their own. There were three or four womenI worked there, I was the supervisor to make sure that the beds were clean and so on. And that’s how I met Frank. He was sitting in the lounge. We were engaged for six months before we got married.
F.None of us thought we were going to survive.
You really didn’t think you’d make it through?
F. Well you don’t when you’re on an aerodrome and you see all these cluster bombs coming downyou see 200 aircraft coming over the top, and you’re only protected by a sandbag or you’re laying in a little slit trench. We can talk about now, but we were scared. But something kicked in and you just got on with the job. One day I was just walking across the aerodrometwo of usand without giving any thought to it at all, we dived underneath the first thing available and it happened to be a Wimpy loaded upyou know what a Wimpy was like, fabric.
M. My mother was bombed out and the flat we had was bombed out.
You were in an air raid shelter at the time and you got up and found there was nothing left of your house?
M. Yes, I couldn’t get in. I was living with my mother for a little whileso there was no house to go to. Then we had a flat
F. I went into her mother’s house, I can remember it now. We looked at the holy pictures on the wall, they hadn’t been touched. There was a beam in there that had come down, a big girder and I went to move it out the way and it came straight down my shin. I can remember that to this day. It never left any effect
M. After that, the army gave us a married quarter and my mother was allowed to come with us because she had nowhere else to go.
So the home where you were brought up was just completely destroyed.
M.Oh yes, it disappeared. The holy pictures you saw in the hallway those were the only things left in my mother’s house, hanging on the wall. Everything else was gone except those. It was terrible. All the children in the shelter were crying because they were hungry. That was the worst partwe didn’t have anything to give themthat’s what hurt me.
I went into a shelter last week, on the other side of the island in injar. It was horrible. It was damp and quite humid and dark
F. And the smell.if you went down and it was absolutely packed.
M. Then one day, because I was pregnant, I wished I had a piece of orange and Frank went up the stairs of the shelter and saw a woman with an orange. He asked her for some and he got it. All these little things come to mind. It was so bad. The worst bit was when that man came down the stairs, shot in front of me. We had the Italians against us as well.
F. Yes, they weren’t so bad. It was the Stukas that werethey just let the bombs go. The funny thing about it was that this married quarter that we were in was in the direct line from Manhole island. Straight across from Tini is Manhole island and they used to come in from there or go out that way and the barracks hardly got hit.
M. They’re still there.
They’ve turned it into a whopping great hotel..When you lost your house, that was in 1942?
F. Yes, it would be.
Can you remember what the time lapse was between
F. Oh there was only a short while between.from when the Germans started bombing.
M. About three weeks.
F. About the end of ’42 was when it really happened.
M. You left in 1943.
After your daughter was born, it must have been really difficult to get her fed.no nappies and so on.
M. We lived in this quarter they gave us and then Frank left. My mother, she lived with me until I left for England. I still remember when Beth was about 8 months, she knew when her Daddy was coming up the stepswe lived on the top oneshe’d hear him on the steps and say Da da da!
F. I never knew when I was going to get time off. They used to say â€œIt looks like it’s going to be a quiet day todaytake a day, or two days
M. She was baptised in my bed at the hospital because the air raids were so bad and one of the sisters, she was the God mother and my youngest brother was the God father.
What was your younger brother doing then?
M. He was a civilian who worked for the army, bringing cars from England, backwards and forwards.
F. That was after the war.
M. I don’t remember what he did during the warI just remember it was something to do with cars.
Can you remember your first meeting with your future mother in law?
F. Oh yes. They were much stricter then. But You said to me, I’ll take you home to meet mum, and we got on straight away.
M. She loved him. She was a bit poorly you see.my father died when I was 6 weeks old. She was a very good looking woman, but I am the only one left now..
So you went home and got on immediately?
F. Seem to have done yes.
M. She used to wash his khaki. Did all them for him!
F. We had these sandals with soles made of big chunks of car tyres, which was a bit treacherous when you were chucking big lumps of stone around.
Tell me a little bit about what it like growing up in Malta in those days.
M. It was nothing special.well I was too young to know in those days. My mother got married again when I was six. He died when I was 22. He was very good. He was a very good father to us. My real father and my step father they were both in the Navy. My real father he had a terrible fever and died at 34. On his death bed in hospital he said he wanted to change his religion to catholic like the rest of the family and so his bed was surrounded with nuns and priests.
So the corners of the defence posts..
F. We used to build them into the corners of the forts. You could look through the stone work then you just poke your gun through and cover the arc or file whichever it was. Other proper defence posts were builtthey’re still there..you see them on the sea front, opposite the big hotel therethe caloona. You see them all round the islandthey’ll never be taken downthey’re solid concrete. Barbed wire all the way round at that time and you let people get to the fields where they could. The transfers were built very cannily into that.because if you see Malta, it goes up in stepssometimes you jump over a wall and it’s 2 feet, sometimes it’s 6. I knew a chap who hurt his leg by doing exactly that. But all these things happened and you took it as it came.
When you were growing up in Berkshire it sounded idyllic
F. It was idyllic. My father worked on the farm, he was a carter. In summer we used to go down to fields where they were cutting the cornused to catch the rabbits coming out of the stooksused to go where the threshing machines wereused to watch it all.used to ride on the backs of the shire horses. My dad said many a time he used to fall asleep on the broad back of the shire horses. Except when I was at school. There was a little school just down the road from me. Miss Chuter was the school mistress. I took my grandson to see her and she remembered my family from beginning to end. There was an old wooden bridge and we used to fish over it with a bent pin. I think we caught things but I don’t rememberI left that school when I was 8 or 9 and then went to the rather stricter Reginal Home.
That must have been pretty horrible.
F. Well it was but they were kind. They didn’t mistreat you or anything.we were in dormitorieswell fed, well looked after.It taught me a lot of discipline because I had to start living with people. You just mingled in with the boys and got on with what you had to doyou had to do different jobs.
Didn’t you miss your home and family?
Oh yes, like any young boy would and I’ve got the letters to prove it. My mother died and my father died shortly afterwards so my sister looked after mecame to visit me and took me on holiday
What did you do at holiday time?
F. I’ve got the letters..I am very sorry to hear my father is dead… that was 1931. â€œFrank was very good when I told him of his father’s death. It is sad that he won’t see him here. I’m sure you will have been pleased to know he has improved ..but I expect he finds life wearying and we cannot expect him to live much longertalking about my dad of course..Thank you for the rock you sent.
How many brothers did you have?
F. 3 in my side of the line, Arthur, Les.the others were on the other side. And one brother I can’t find anywherehe just disappeared but I’ve got a photograph and his birth certificate.
He just left home one day and that was that?
F. He must have gone when he was a young boy because I don’t remember him. After I was bornI’ve got a photograph of me with him, he was older than me. What happened I don’t know and I couldn’t get any sense from anyone about it.
You were the youngest?
F. Yes I was the baby. He was born in 1919 I think. I wasn’t happy when I found out and I started to investigate. I found out because my sister kept all these things for me .£8.50 for my mother’s funeral including coffin, grass footings, journey to hospital, hire of hearse, church fees the lot.I didn’t believe it, so I sent it away and got a full scale one. He was in Arborfield then1918what happened to him? I don’t know. I’ve got a photograph somewhere of him with my familythe complete lot. My sister Edith, she died when I was in Padworth. She was born in 1907.
You had four other brothers and two sisters.
F. Remember my father married twice. There was another sister Ethel, but she was from his first marriage.
When you were first out in Malta, war had already started. It was 1940. Things were pretty quiet
F. Very quiet. I don’t think they’d had an air raid til I got out there.
Where were you based?
Just off of Maza. We had a defence post just outside Maza.
You arrived in a troop ship?
F. Yes and were taken straight into the field. Which was a bit traumatic. First of all I was up in Luton, Bedfordshire because I was too young to go overseas. You had to be twenty to go overseas in those days. I kept badgering my sister to sign the certificate so I could go overseas.
So there were ways round it?
Yes because in 1941 I was only twenty then. I was sent back to Maidstone in Kent, put under draft, sent across from Southamptonto this day I don’t know where I landed because it was night and we were shunted off onto a train, and no-one said where we were going or anything because it was kept quiet. Got put on this French train with wooden seats and it was all a bit traumatic. Went down to Marseilles and sailed off to Malta. We went into Grand Harbour and landed and then were taken by truck..
Did you have particular mates at that time?
F. No not particularly. I knew a lot of people in the regiment.because they were sportsmen or something. I was interested in running and boxing. We were on the edge of Maza race course. Then we went into a little building alongside the gun battery that was on Maza.
Was the whole battalion out there?
F. Yes second battalion. Round about 900 men. Five companies, A,B,C and D and Head Quarter company.
Where were you billeted to start off with?
F. We slept where we couldout in the open.
How were you fed? Would the NAAFI come round?
People came roundnot the NAAFIsomeone used to come round with a horse and cart untilit was only for a short while it was like this until you went out into the field.
The whole Battalion was doing this?
In different places, not all in the same buildings.Battalion HQ was in the club house down at the Marlborough Stadium I think it was. We were scattered. There was a little building off Maza race course which was like the entrance to a school and eventually my Company got into that school building and that was luxury. We slept on three boards, on trestles, two blankets and the head of the bed was your haversack. We had the chance of getting washed and occasionally we’d go down to the sea and swim about. There was a shortage of razor blades but anyway we only had bum fluff! We didn’t need to shave much! We still had to be clean and tidy though. We did everything we could.
What were you doing all day?
F. There were all kinds of things we had to do. Defence works and going up on the aerodrome to build things. Shelters, aircraft pensnot really before the war broke out but when it began to get serious. There was always training. When I became a Lance Corporal, I had to go on a gala courselearn about guns and drills and so on
When you were first there, Battalions hadn’t declared war had they?
But presumably there was a sense that war was only a matter of time.
F. We were preparing for it. Building defensive walls, barbedwiring..
You’d get round the island by truck?
F. Sometimes but eventually we ended up on bicycles. They got a load of bicycles in and I leaned how to be a mechanic on a bike!
So to start off with it was fairly quiet then war was declared. There was bombing but fairly sporadic.
F. Fairly sporadic then in 1942 that was the worst of the time.
Can you remember the blitz on the Illustrious?
F. You could see that from Luqa. I was on Luqa at the time and Marsa was in between the two. We could see everything that was going on. We couldn’t see the ship because that was tucked away in the harbour but we knew something hectic was going onyou mentioned the Illustrious but there were other places that were blitzed just as badlythe Penelopeit was all full of holes. I never actually went and saw those ships in the harbour because they was in and as soon as they could get them out, they were out and there was other jobs that had to be done
Presumably you kept pretty fitall that lugging blocks of stone around.
F. We were stripped to the waist most of the time, with shorts on. Sometimes two of us had to tackle a block because of the size of them. You built the defence posts, put a bit of wood on the sides and corrugated iron on the top and let things grow on the top
How long were you based at Marsa?
F. Most of the time. I don’t think I moved away from Marsa.
Battalion HQ was always there?
F.Yes. Well, we did move towards the end up onto the hillside.
Presumably you sometimes had to do things down the other end of the island?
F. Oh yes, but we’d just get on a bike and get going. All kinds of things were happening. I can remember one night being in the cemetery and that’s where we slept that night. I don’t know what the scheme was but I can still see these people being thrown in to.dressed in uniformyou could see what I thought were bodiesI don’t know if they were. It was quite eerieyou never knew where you were going to end up. You had a map reference. We were all given a bicycle. Even Lord Gort went around the island on a bicycle. I can prove it, I’ve got a photo.
If one morning you were told to go down to Takali, what sort of strength would you go down in?
F. It would depend on what duty you were given. It could be a platoon, a sectionyou never knew. You got up at 6am, washed and shaved, grabbed a bit of breakfast..it became routine in the end. Towards the end when rationing began, we were told to sleep ion the afternoon we hadn’t got the strength.we were undernourished we were only getting 2,000 calories instead of 4,000 calories.
Can you remember feeling hungry all the time?
F. Oh yes. I used to get obsilbite (**not sure if that’s exactly right!) which was eggs and bread from the local farm and it used to cost sixpence. It was blackmarket. Maltese bread was different, it looked more like cake but it was very nice and you got a couple of eggs. Many of us used to do that. You’d do anything I will admit that. When we left Maza and we were up in the field we’d get big melonscut it up quickly and eat it. The farmers in some cases would go round with a loaded shot gun! To protect their crops. When you’re hungry you do all kinds of thing you’d never normally think of doing. It just happened and you lived with it. You just existed and in the end you began to think you were existing rather than living. I had something to go home to. A lot of them didn’t.
You must have been worrying about them.
F. Of course. Whenever you saw a raid over near Sliema you’d think â€œOh my God – are they alright Then you see Takali next door being bombed. When you get up and look, if you go to Medina and look down..
You clearly were scared at the time you must have been terrified weren’t you with all those bombs coming down?
F. Oh yes. I can remember I was running to a gun post and we had twin Lewis guns in there and I fell over and caught my leg there and I’ve still got a lump thereand I was so angry I got on these gunsas the Stukas were going oversomeone was helping meif you were near a gun you went to it.I saw these coming downthe sky was full of these Stukas screaming down at you and you can’t imagine the noise unless you’ve heard it. You’ve probably heard it on TV but when they’re coming down towards you and the bombs are slipping down past you and the dirt was flying.
Would you always get showers of dust..?
F. Oh yes, and shrapnel as well from the ack ack guns. You’d hear a ping on top of your head.you’d always have your steel helmet on. In the hot weather you nearly cooked, but you had to do that. Some people got injured by things that fell on them, sometimes the caps used to come down. They used to set them before dropping them, but I don’t know all the technical details.
So you were firing on these Stukas. Did you get anything?
F. I don’t know. I can’t say that I did. I was aiming at the front like I was trained and then you see one coming down.it’s like that coming at you, if you hit something vital it would’ve gone down but was it your shot or ack ackyou just didn’t know.
So if you saw an Italian or German plane come down, did you cheer or didn’t you react?
F. At the time you were too busy getting on with the job. Sometimes I’d think poor..you know he didn’t stand a chance. One thingthey were brave. I don’t care what anyone says. They might’ve been cowards in their own country killing all these people off but the pilots were brave. They went through hell. You could see the guns firing up at them and they flew through itbombers on a level course.
There must have been smoke and gritgetting in the back of your throat
F. Oh yes. Smoke, grit, buildings coming down, the smell of cordite, the dust flew, being a soldier you just accepted it. You just got on with your job. A lot of the time you didn’t have time to be scared, you got past that stage.
Mary was saying that seeing that chap getting machine gunned was very traumatic, and seeing people being blown updead bodies and so on must have been difficult to deal with.
F. It was originally. I saw people go out and be sick. I wasn’t sick but you may not be sick at the time but you’d feel awful afterwards. After you did what you had to do. I mean nothing’s worse than picking up bits.
You had to do that?
F. Everybody had to do it on the aerodrome. You’d see people trapped in burning planes and there was nothing you could do about it. All this was traumatic, but it just went on, it was just what happened. Sometimes you felt so frustrated, you cursed because you couldn’t get back at them.at times we were even rationed on ammunition. We were lucky at the aerodrome because the RAF used to get spare ammunition and use it in our weapons. People used to grab a rifle and fire at them! What’s the good of that? You haven’t got time to be scared when you’re doing something. If you were really scared, you’d be cowering down in a hole and that would’ve been it. I never saw that happen. It surprised me really but it was the discipline I suppose. If you got a cluster of butterfly bombs coming down some exploded on contactsome had to be handled before they exploded and some had timers onyou just didn’t know. A bomb comes down, it’s in a hole and you just don’t know if it’s timed or what and that’s when the mine disposal people came in. I’ve seen people put a piece of string round the top end and pull and pull and see if it would go off and I’ve seen one or two go off. People do daft things in wartime. A man who wins the DC, he doesn’t think about what he’s doing he just gets on and does it. You just get on with it. You’re trained, fit and well
When you had time off you went off, to see your wife?
F. Yes. But before I met her I went down Strada Stretta but I didn’t like that. Didn’t like the atmosphere and I wasn’t a big drinker. There were prostitutes ***Jamie, can’t get the exact term he uses here – sounds like Rosas?? That didn’t suit me. I was brought up to be a good upstanding man..There was a cinema there in Sliema and we used to go in there from time to time, until it got bombed. Then I met my wife and Toc H was my port of call. Then I went down to her mother’s and I used to sleep on the floor in the front room. You had no use for moneyapart from going to buy eggs once or twice a week if you were lucky, but there was nothing really to spend money on. How the ordinary civilian families coped out there I don’t know.
Once the convoys started getting through, things must have slowly started to improve on the island.
F. No because we used it all up too quick. Only a few of these ships ever got through. They had a mixture of everything on them, food, petrol, explosives, and if they got hit they went up with a bang.
Even when you were just about to go to Egypt, things were still pretty bad were they?
F. They began to ease off after the Pedestal Convoy came in because we had air superiority and the mine sweepers meant that we had things that we hadn’t had before. But by the time we got to Alexandria, some of them were getting a bit piggish, but I had common sense and wasn’t going to over eatI’ll something I’ll enjoybut some of them would eat as much as they could. We were very unfit when we got there because we’d been underfed for so long.
You were hospitalised with jaundice
F. Oh yes
You didn’t get scabies or anything like that
F. No, no, nothing like that. You had to be pretty good on the hygiene side. You had disciplineyou had inspections, even during the darkest days you had those. You kept yourself neat and clean. You scrubbed your equipment. Soap and razor blades were in short supply. When your razor got blunt, you’d find a bit of leather and try and sharpen it up. But I only had bum fluffmine hardly ever showed. Anyway, the senior ranks who carried out the inspections, they knew the problems so they weren’t all thatsometimes you’d work for hours on end then you’d nip down to the harbour because a mine sweeper came in.I had no problems with discipline I lost my stripe when I first went out there because I wasn’t trained. I wasn’t trained to be a lance corporal but I got it back quick enough.
When your wife’s house was bombed, where were you?
F. I was away doing my duties. I got the message..got the ok.
How did you get the message?
F. Don’t know, telephone or bush telegraph maybe. Couldn’t tell you.
So when that happened, you CO said
F. They were very good. Your people are only as good as you make themit’s called man management. You treat people wrongly and it backfires on you.
How often did you get to see your wife?
F. Maybe once a fortnight. You never knewnever knew when you’d be wanted so you couldn’t say â€œI’ll see you tomorrow