Carole Pietrzak

Blog 56- The History of Birgu - Part 8

In this article we shall see what happened to Birgu during World War 2.

On June 10th, 1940 at midnight, Italy was at war against Great Britain and France and by 07.00 hours on June 11th, Italy was already dropping high explosives bombs on the Three Cities. Comments went high at Birgu main square, occasionally insults were even hurled at some Italian sympathizers and suddenly the streets were deserted and a strange, eerie silence fell on Birgu.

The Three Cities were at that time the most densely populated area in Europe and had to face a high number of casualties. The situation in the underground tunnel at Castille Place was inhuman. The lack of sanitation and water, rubbish dumps, squalor and misery clearly forced the government to evacuate Birgu for fear of epidemic outbreaks. The 1938 Evacuation Scheme was never set in motion and In four days Birgu became a ghost town after the evacuation of its population. Many families stayed in Coronation Ditch, making these underground shelters their troglodytic homes. On August 10th 1940, the feast of ST Lawrence  patron Saint of Birgu, the church service at the Parish Church was well attended by a substantial number of evacuees who returned to Birgu for the day. Later in the month, the feast of St Dominic was celebrated at the Church of the Annunciation and special prayers were said.

The first high explosive bomb fell on Birgu on September 7th, 1940 when a number of adjoining houses in St Lawrence Street were completely demolished. The raid caused the first Birgu deaths when a mother and her three young children were killed in the Armoury Stores near the Government Elementary School. Towards the end of December 1940 the German High Command despatched Fliegerkorps X, an elite crack force from the Luftwaffe to Southern Italy and Sicily in order to strengthen Italian units  in attacking British maritime units at sea. There were ominous signs of the impending war scenario in the Harbour Area but despite the black-out and curfew restrictions the spirit of Christmas did not completely die out in Birgu.

On January 16th 1941, the first dive-bombing raid by the Luftwaffe devastated Birgu and Senglea. There were at least thirty-three dead entombed in the Sacristy of St Lawrence Church.

On January 19th, 1941 the Church of the Annunciation and the Priory received direct hits. The second mass exodus was under way and all types of vehicles were contracted by the government to speed up the evacuation. The Army was requested to provide trucks and to help with general organization. Every effort was made to force people out of the public shelters.

The 1941-42 winter was terrible, cold and wet adding up squalor and misery to malnutrition in the shelters. The ditch dwellers felt ignored and forgotten. Official records show hat there were sixty-two raids in January, two hundred and thirty-six in February and in March and April the tonnage dropped on Malta was twice the bomb tonnage dropped on London during the worst whole year of the blitz. In fact in April 1942, Malta was the most bombed place on Earth.

On the war front, the Allied victory at El Alamein in October 1942 proved to be very decisive and within a few months all North Africa fell into Allied hands. Malta was now on the offensive and the spring-board for air and sea attacks on enemy targets. Air raids became less frequent, the food situation began to improve and rations were gradually increased. As the siege was lifted many Birgu residents progressively adjusted themselves to a normal life. On May 8th, 1943, the bell of St Angelo was once again the bearer of good tidings , announcing to the whole island the defeat of the Axis in North Africa.

Victory was now secure but the devastation was terrible .

In the next and last blog in this series we shall take a look at Birgu after the war and in Modern times.