Finest Hour 139, Summer 2008
Churchill and Malta: A Special Relationship, by Douglas Austin. Stroud, UK, Spellmount, 180 pages, hard-bound.
By Christopher H. Sterling
Winston Churchill visited Malta six times, and around those visits an interesting history has been constructed. Part of a growing trend of “Churchill and…” books, this one focuses on the tiny but vital real estate in the middle of the Mediterranean. An archipelago of seven islands, three inhabited, Malta had been a British colony since the early 1800s and for a time it was the largest Royal Navy base outside Britain. The Maltese author was a long-time banker before becoming a military historian; this is his second study of Malta’s role in British military history.
Churchill first saw (but didn’t visit) Malta en route to India in 1896, when he scanned the island’s shoreline with a new telescope presented to him by his mother. A decade later he arrived at the fortified city of Valletta and its Grand Harbour, on the way to East Africa as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. In that office, Churchill was drawn into Malta’s quest for local government and a constitution. He stayed nearly a week, enjoying the palatial former palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta.
In May 1912, now First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill sailed into the Grand Harbour on the Admiralty yacht Enchantress for a three-day meeting with Lord Kitchener, who had arrived from Alexandria. At issue was security in the Mediterranean, and specifically, what portion of the Royal Navy would be based in Malta, Alexandria and Gibraltar. WSC returned a year later on Enchantress (her final prewar voyage), this time with Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, among others. A number of Royal Navy battlecruisers was now in the harbor, indicating Malta’s growing importance as a naval base.
In January 1927, now Chancellor of the Exchequer, Churchill came to visit Admiral Roger Keyes at Admiralty House in Valletta (now the island’s museum of art). Here he played his final game of polo, at age 53. After three days, he went on to Rome to meet, and initially to be impressed by, Benito Mussolini.
Il Duce had been dismissed, arrested, and rescued by Hitler when Churchill paid his fifth call on Malta, this time aboard HMS Renown, in November 1943. For the space of a couple of days he toured the dockyard and other areas, usually to thunderous applause from the Maltese. His sixth and final visit came in January 1945 on the way to the Yalta conference. This time he arrived on his new, four-engined C-54 “Skymaster” (military version of the DC-4), though he slept aboard HMS Orion to get the peace and quiet he had missed in 1943. Not in the best of health, he limited his excursions, meeting Roosevelt on the island before they both flew separately to the Crimea.
Churchill’s six visits form the core of Austin’s tale, but he fleshes out his study with discussions that provide context on the man and the island. Half his book is devoted to Malta’s heroic resistance during the war, especially during 1940-42, when Axis air raids caused much damage and carnage. Supplies ran low and rationing was begun. For a time, three “Gladiator” biplane fighter aircraft— soon dubbed Faith, Hope, and Charity—provided the only air cover. The situation began to improve after the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942. Austin describes Churchill’s concern for the survival of Malta through this period, drawing from documents at the British National Archives. Interestingly, Churchill’s own Malta file stops with 1943, one indicator of the war’s turning tide.
While his total time on the ground in Malta was only two weeks over a period of four decades, Churchill did play a large role in the island’s history. Concerned with Malta’s governance before the war, he focused on its strategic location and value (and the Axis threat to that status) from 1940 through 1943—to a perhaps surprising degree given other battle-fronts. He never returned after the war, preferring the French Riviera. Malta achieved independence in 1964, and is a member of the Commonwealth and the European Union.
Douglas Austin’s history sheds useful insights and deserved light into Churchillian corners not well covered elsewhere. As Sir Martin Gilbert concludes in his foreword, it offers “both true history and high drama.”