At 6.55 am on 11th June 1940, less than 24 hours after Italy’s declaration of war, the wailing sirens heralded the approach of the first Italian aircraft over Malta.
Ten bombers, escorted by fighters, crossed the narrow channel from Sicily, targeting the Grand Harbour and the airfield at Ħal Far.
During this first raid, a stick of three bombs fell over Upper Fort St. Elmo, killing six gunners of the Royal Malta Artillery, including boy soldier Philip Busuttil, aged sixteen. These were to be among the first casualties.
The first day saw a total of seven bombing sorties and a reconnaissance flight, causing negligible damage to military objectives. However, although Italian aircrews were ordered to avoid bombing populated areas, several buildings around the harbour area were hit, with 11 civilians killed, and 130 injured.
There was panic on the island. In the absence of adequate shelters, many people sought refuge in the disused railway tunnels, and in the basements of their houses. People had been told that they would be safe underneath a staircase, or under a table with a mattress placed on top of it.
At the end of the first day, many people residing in the harbour area packed a few essential belongings and left their houses to seek refuge elsewhere. Most refugees went to rural areas of Malta and found accommodation with relatives and friends. Others were taken in by those with rooms to spare. Public buildings, such as schools, clubs and churches were also used to accommodate them.
The pattern of the first bombings was to be repeated in varying degrees over the next days and weeks, and the face of Malta gradually started taking a new aspect. Destroyed and dilapidated buildings became a common sight, while hastily-filled bomb craters added to the deterioration of the local roads.
The need for proper air raid shelters had become apparent, and as a result, an extensive programme of digging such shelters underground was begun. This process was hampered because of a lack of tools to do the job, and because there were not enough experienced miners. Volunteers, including women and children, also helped out. In less than two years, enough shelters would be dug for the entire wartime population of the island.
For the duration of the siege, people would be forced to spend long hours and sleepless nights in these shelters. Sanitary conditions were primitive. Only the large shelters had electricity, while the others had to rely on paraffin lamps and other means. There was also no privacy. The railway tunnel in Floriana, which was the largest shelter on the island, usually accommodated around 3,000 people. The shelter became the new home of those whose houses had been bombed.
Eventually, the frequency of Italian air raids started to diminish, and this even encouraged numerous refugees to return to their homes. Christmas 1940 was by no means a happy one for Malta, yet in the first six crucial months, the Italians had failed to overcome the island’s defences and weaken civilian morale. This failure compelled the Italian Chiefs of Staff to seek the intervention of the Germans to intervene in the Mediterranean war.
Vella, P. (1985). Malta: Blitzed but not Beaten. Valletta: Progress Press Co. Ltd.