Tim Heald

The Weight of History

Fortress Malta: An Island Under Siege 1940-1943


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AT FIRST GLANCE James Holland’s book looks like a tremendously serious piece of history: 400-odd pages including detailed maps; appendices with the precise figures for Hurricane and Spitfire production from November 1940 to December 1941; a note on pronunciations explaining why the author has preferred British military usage to authentic native Maltese; ten pages of notes citingobscure files from the Imperial War Museum; a glossary telling us what ‘folbot’, ‘sangar’, ‘scramble’ and ‘trim’ mean in military parlance; eight pages of bibliography and sources, including the combat patrol reports of HMS/S Unseen. and interviews with thirty or so of those who were in Malta during the siege; and two pages of acknowledgements, beginning with a mention of the former fighter pilot and recent best-selling autobiographer, Geofh-ey Wellum, who had a seminal conversation with the author in a pub.

By the time I got to the bottom of page 4, however, I was confused.

Flashes of light pulsing across his wing catch his eye, then a loud crack and the plane reels as though punched by a giant fist. A lurch in his chest and a glance in the mirror – Messerschmitts, two of them, and his Hurricane has been badly hit. Where the hell did they come from? Alex flings the plane from side to side, but he simply doesn’t have enough height or speed. A frantic glance behind: they’re still there, still firing at him. Try not to panic, try not to panic. More bullets riddle his plane and now there’s smoke, pouring from the engine and rapidly filling the cockpit. Fear – stark fear. So little time to think clearly. Another glance around and the planes have vanished – they know they’ve got him.

Steady on, I thought. Any moment it will be ‘Bandits at dawn, Jerry’s on your shoulder’. This is Biggles meets Antony Beevor. In a rather defensive-sounding note at the end of the book Holland concedes that this part of the book (the Prologue) has been ‘largely dramatised’. However, he says, he has visited the crash-site twice with people from local museum foundations and associations, and the story as he tells it represents ‘what we considered to be the most likely course of events’.

In fact the pilot concerned, a young man named Alex Mackie, died of his wounds four days later and, as Holland admits, what he thought or said to himself in those last moments ‘can only be imagined’. This is, of course, what the author has done, and continues to do from time to time and in different ways throughout the book.

Inevitably, I think, this leads to confusion. One minute you’re digesting a learned tract on the precise Defending working of the ‘asdic’ device pioneered by the Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee and the next you feel as if you ‘re reading a film-script.

This is a pity because the story of Malta GC is good enough to need no varnish: gallant little British colony in the Mediterranean defies might of Third R eich. As the author makes plain, there is a wealth of published and unpublished material to draw on, including extraordinary heroics, romantic interludes, bungling at every level and on all sides, and ultimately a victory of sorts snatched from the jaws of defeat.

The painstaking research is there for all to see, but I have some niggling doubts. Take the Battle of Taranto, for in st an ce. This was an engageme nt in which Swordfish biplanes from the aircraft carrier Illus trious effectively destroyed the Italian fleet at anchor in its home port. My understanding was that a key player, if not the actual leader of the attack, was a ‘ Flying Marine’ called ‘Ollie’ Patch, who was awarded the DFC for his part in the battle. Patch was a neighbour of my parents’ in Wiltshire and I wrote hi s obituary for the Daily Telegraph. I suppose, on reflection, that I only have his word for what happened, but he was an exceptionally modest man and I don’t think he’d have made it up. So I’m surprised he doesn’t get a mention here. Actually the pil o ts w ho carr ied out the ac ti on ge t very little attention, unlike th e o bviously ga llant and much-decorated Flight Lieutenant Adrian ‘Warby’ Warburton. I am certa inly not disputing Warby’s importance or bravery, but at the end of the day it was the pilots who did the damage. Warby only took the photographs.

Holland also Malta describes the Battle of Ma tapan . H ere too , w hil e no expert, I have th at dan gero us thin g: ‘a little knowledge’. A young officer present at Matapan was Prince Philip, then a Prince of Greece rather than Britain but a fully paid-up member of our R oyal Navy. His logbook account of what he witnessed is in the public domain and is just the sort of vivid first-hand reportage on which this book thrives. I’m surprised it’s not quoted here.

Malta, where my father was Brigade Major with the Royal Marines less than five years after the famous siege ended, provided me with some of my earliest and most vivid memories. And in these pages I find, sadly, that the island does not quite come alive. The author has obviously spent a lot of time there, but for me he doesn’t really evoke its unique smell, feel and atmosphere.

In many ways this book reminds me of Wellum’s au tobiography, and I find both most resistible for the same reason. There are some passages where the recall is just too total and too vivid to be convincing, and I had a nagging aware ness that in making so much of the exploits of a relative few, the author has served too many others less than justly.

I feel guilty about saying this, James Holland is obviously young and this is his first book. It’s full of work. Many o th ers will enjoy it more than I did . Indeed, I can well imagine it selling a great many copies, and possibly being made into a film.

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