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Operation PedestalFor many people, Malta’s Valletta is a one-day stop on a Mediterranean cruise. As you roll up, you first marvel at the height of the ancient walls built by the Knights of St John to protect the settlement. A quick stroll, and you are at what is called the Upper Gardens—a magnificent lookout over the entrance to the port and beyond.

From here, a short walk and you are in the colourful streets admiring the elegant baroque-style buildings. There are moments when you could be in Barcelona – even Venice. People are everywhere – many enjoy a glass of local wine in one of the never-ending street restaurants. The culmination of the walk is to arrive at Malta’s most famous church, the spectacular  St. John’s Co-Cathedral, located in the city’s centre, just off Republic Street. It was built by the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar for the Knights of St John between 1573 and 1578.

Detail from the beheading.

Detail from the beheading.

The church’s interior is considered one of Europe’s finest examples of high Baroque architecture. Mattia Preti, the Calabrian artist and knight, designed the intricately carved stone walls and painted the vaulted ceiling and side altars with scenes from the life of John the Baptist. Despite this magnificence, one work of art stands supreme—Caravaggio’s The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (1608) (1571–1610).

Considered one of his masterpieces, the enormous canvas he painted and the only painting signed by the painter is displayed in the Oratory. Having explored these wonders, the cruise passenger heads back to the ship, satisfied with a great day of visiting a charming and memorable destination. Few will know that most cities they have just explored were reduced to rubble during the Second World War.

Despite being one of the smallest countries in Europe, Malta endured some of the fiercest fighting thanks to its strategic location on the main supply lines to North Africa and the Suez Canal. On 30 April 1942, Malta endured a greater tonnage of bombs than any month during the Battle of Britain. Between them, German and Italian forces held the island nation to siege for almost two and a half years in the hope of starving and bombing its people into submission.

Out of date, Gladiator biplanes, named Faith, Hope and Charity, provided the only defence. As the attacks worsened and the siege lengthened, Spitfire aircraft were sent from Britain to defend the skies above. Only about 1500 Maltese people died during the bombings – mainly because families lived like rats in tiny tunnels dug out by the knights as escape routes. We explored their underground world today – horrific barely describes how they had to exist.

Surprisingly, several Australian pilots were involved in the constant air duels, and the British had their problems to contend with. Our flyboys were hailed as heroes by the locals.

The island might have capitulated and surrendered if not for the supply convoy Operation Pedestal, which landed in August 1942. The most crucial supply item in Operation Pedestal was fuel, carried by Ohio, an American-owned tanker with a British crew. The Axis (Germany and Italy) attempted to prevent the 50 ships of the convoy from reaching Malta, using bombers, German E-boats, Italian MAS and MS boats, minefields and submarine ambushes. More than 500 Merchant and Royal Navy sailors and airmen were killed, and only five of the 14 merchant ships reached Valletta’s Grand Harbour.

You can meet with one of the Gladiators at the must-see Valletta War Museum. By the way, it was found to have crashed in a local quarry and was restored by the RAF. However, the highlight of the many informative displays in the museum is a vast live ground screen that shows Operation Pedestal in operation from above as the ships are torpedoed and strafed by aircraft. This brilliant concept brings the horrors of this epic voyage to life.

The wonder of it all today is that it’s almost impossible to believe that most buildings around you have been reconstructed.




Written by: Ian McIntosh