Christina Ratcliffe with Wing Commander Adrian Warburton and her orchestra.
Role of the women of Malta in war. Malta is a small archipelago 60 miles south of Sicily. In 1565 the Turks invaded Malta with 40,000 troops. The defense was led by the Knights of Malta with 600 knights, 2,600 infantry, and 3,000 Maltese militia (Balbi 1965, 41). Elderly men, as well as women and children, were also recruited. Women worked side by side with men repairing breaches in city walls, manufacturing incendiaries, and carrying supplies. Women and children collected wood to keep pots of pitch boiling, ready to tip onto the invaders.
The siege began in late May and extended throughout the summer. By July the Turks were assaulting the cities of Birgu and Senglea, where the majority of the people had taken shelter. The Turks shifted their attacks from one city to another, coming close to success on numerous occasions. The most serious crisis occurred on August 7 when both towns were assaulted simultaneously with 8,000 attacking Senglea and 4,000 coming against Birgu. The attacks, starting at dawn, lasted 9 hours. In time the Turks gained a foothold in Senglea (Balbi 1965, 145).
According to the knight Louis DeBoisgelin’s account of the siege, the women of Malta responded vigorously to this threat and “performed actions which in some degree equaled the resolute valor of the knights . . . the women likewise nobly exposed themselves to the greatest dangers, in order, if possible, to save by their exertions husbands, fathers, brothers, and children” (DeBoisgelin 1988, 105–106). Women flung themselves into the battle, attacking invaders with incendiaries, boiling water, and melted pitch.
The dread of being deprived, not only of their liberty but of their honor, should they be taken by the infidels, made these valiant women rise superior to the fear of death. The Turks . . . were so incensed at being opposed by such weak though courageous enemies, that they showed them no quarter, but slew a great number with the sword, and destroyed others by throwing, in their turn, fire-works amongst them. (DeBoisgelin 1988, II:105–06)
This fierce resistance, coupled with a timely cavalry raid on the enemy camp, forced the Turks to withdraw after having lost 2,200 men (Balbi 1965, 147).
The smaller town of Mdina was also threatened with attack. The governor dressed all the women as soldiers and marched them back and forth along the walls. The Turkish general, thinking Mdina too heavily defended, called off the attack. The invaders left Malta on September 8, which became celebrated as the Feast of Our Lady of Victory. The civilian casualties were high, with 7,000 Maltese men, women, and children killed (Balbi 1965, 189).
Malta suffered another siege during World War II. Malta was the only Allied base in the central Mediterranean and from there British planes attacked Axis convoys in North Africa. In turn, the Axis blocked convoys to Malta and dropped over 15,000 tons of bombs on the 90- square-mile island.
Despite the harsh conditions, life went on. Censa Bonnici recalled her marriage in November 1941. The wedding took place in the remnants of her bombed parish church. An air raid took place during the service, sending the congregation to a shelter, leaving just the priest, the couple, and two loyal witnesses to complete the ceremony (Mizzi 1998, 96).
Although the Bonnicis survived their wedding day, others were less fortunate. Guza Bondin was caring for her nine-month-old daughter while her husband served in the army. One day she and the baby ventured out to get a milk ration. Guza was careful, waiting for the all-clear to sound before venturing into the streets. But an earlier raid had dropped delayed-action bombs that were designed to cause civilian casualties. One of these exploded as she passed nearby. Guza pressed herself against a door and shielded her daughter’s body with her own, but it was too late. The infant was hit in the head by a rock shard and killed (Mizzi 1998, 91–93).
By the summer of 1942 the Maltese were starving. The daily ration for adult males was 14.6 ounces (413.9 grams) of food and even less for women and children (Jellison 1984, 221). Mothers often gave their scanty ration to their children, but it could not satisfy their hunger. Nevertheless, Malta did not surrender, and the courage of the Maltese women, along with the rest of the civilian population, was recognized when King George VI collectively awarded them the George Cross.
References and Further Reading Balbi, Francisco di Corregio. 1965. The Siege of Malta. Trans. by Ernle Bradford. London: Hodder and Stoughton. Boisgelin, Louis de. 1804. Ancient and Modern Malta. Vol. I–III. Repr. Valletta, Malta: Midsea Books Ltd. 1988. Bradford, Ernle. 1961. The Great Siege: Malta, 1565. London: Hodder and Stoughton. Jellison, Charles A. 1984. Besieged: The World War II Ordeal of Malta, 1940–1942. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England. Mizzi, Laurence. 1998. The People’s War: Malta, 1940–1943. Trans. by Joseph M. Falzon. Valletta, Malta: Progress Press.