(Note: As the description of our journey out to Malta would not really constitute a chapter in itself, I have included early impressions of the island, not all of which were actually gleaned during the first weekend!)
It was like old times to travel to Reading and scramble into a lorry outside the station. I was delighted to find, among the ten others going on draft to Malta, one ‘Ginger’ Covell, a Wren Telegraphist who had been a cabin-mate at Soberton. Unfortunately, she was going to the Royal Naval Air Station at Hal Far while I would be working in the Main Signal Office at Lascaris, Headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, in Valetta, but we realised that Malta is not so big and we would probably be able to meet up from time to time.
There was a pleasant surprise awaiting us at DAUNTLESS - which hadn’t changed a bit. We were each to have a single cabin and the extra space provided a touch of luxury to our last few days in England before flying out to the sun. After arriving at Burghfield on the Monday afternoon we spent the evening in the NAAFI where we shot a few lines for the benefit of the new entries - who seemed a little cheekier and less easily impressed than we had been in 1956.
The main purpose of our return to DAUNTLESS was the issue of tropical kit so on the Tuesday forenoon we reported to the clothing store where we each collected six sets of short-sleeved white blouse and white skirt for No 2 rig, three white No 1 dresses, and two pairs of white lace-up shoes. For each dress we were given six white horn buttons decorated with an anchor, of the same pattern as those on our Winter uniforms. There were also such items as cotton footlets (very necessary as we would be stockingless), aertex underwear and white covers for our handbags. All these items, issued on a cold blustery day in Berkshire, brought closer the promise of a Mediterranean Summer.
Finally we picked up our category badges and tally-bands. The latter bore various titles: those of us working at Lascaris (Communications Wrens and Shorthand Typists) would wear the proud legend ‘Commander-in-Chief’ as we would be (very lowly) members of his staff; the Hal Far contingent would wear ‘HMS FALCON’; and the remainder, including Writers, Radar Plotters and Sick Berth Attendants, were given ribbons indicating that they belonged to HMS PHOENICIA. The latter establishment, situated on Manoel Island, would also be our administration establishment where we would go for Divisions and other ceremonies, or to visit the pay office and clothing store.
During the next few days, as well as pressing our new garments, we had to sew blue and white category badges on our dresses, as well as sinking the buttons. My badges showed crossed signal flags and, now that I had achieved Able Rate, they also carried a star above the flags. Leading Wrens had a star above and another below the flags, this enhanced category badge being worn from the time of professionally qualifying for the rate by passing a course; when actually rated up into a vacancy, a hook (badge showing an anchor) would be attached to the other sleeve.
We wore category badges on the right sleeve of our uniform suits and tropical dresses. Hooks were worn on the left sleeve of suits, greatcoats, white blouses and tropical dresses. The Leading Wrens among us attracted much sympathy, and as much help as we could offer, in their task of button-holing (neatly) round and attaching nine hooks and three category badges each. This made our task of three apiece seem quite trivial by comparison!
On Thursday morning came the ordeal of a full kit muster and it looked strange to see our Winter greatcoats, raincoats and suits laid out cheek by jowl with thin cotton blouses and white shoes. Everything proved acceptable so we spent most of the forenoon packing. Luggage had to be split into two parts - ‘accompanying’ and ‘delayed’; our allowance to take with us was one suitcase or kitbag apiece in the aircraft’s hold and one small bag as cabin luggage, so the residue of our kit had to be taken to Malta by sea.
We were warned sea luggage might take some weeks to arrive so we must have with us all our Winter uniform and enough tropical rig to cover every contingency in case the sea luggage was delayed beyond the time we went into whites. This was not quite as daunting as it seems, for we would of course be travelling in a sizeable portion of our ‘blues’ so this allowed more packing space.
We had to break off for pay parade - enhanced briefly for me by having a Leading Wren’s pay packet in my hand until Leading Wren Sue Martin retrieved it, substituting the lighter object which was mine! Next came a farewell talk from Superintendent, still Miss Hoyer-Millar; it had been good to see our old friend Bodkin walking round the camp during the past few days. Superintendent wished us luck, felt sure we would enjoy ourselves, envied the weather we would soon experience and said she hoped, before too long, to visit us in Malta after she became Director WRNS, which was shortly due to happen.
Having sent off our sea luggage in a lorry, on Thursday afternoon we were given a make-and-mend (navalese for a half day, based on the order which would be piped in the old days ‘Hands to make and mend clothes’ signifying, if not actually a break, at least a change from heavier duties. The old pipe for recreational free time was ‘Hands to dance and skylark’. Over the years make-and-mend had evolved to indicate a half-day and dancing and skylarking faded from the scene.) We took the opportunity to visit a Reading cinema followed by a meal before we caught the late liberty boat back to DAUNTLESS.
Next morning we were up at dawn, handing in our sheets and leaving our cabins tidy. After breakfast we mustered on the parade ground with our air luggage; we were wearing our greatcoats and carrying our respirators so these heavy items were fortunately excluded from the allowed baggage weight.
At Waterloo we found a lorry parked to take us on the next stage of our journey; the morning was bright but very cold and we shivered even in our greatcoats but were comforted by the thought that by evening we would be in Malta, and warm. How naive! After a long ride across London we arrived at the Air Trooping Centre at Hendon where, having consumed very welcome sandwiches and coffee, we were weighed with our luggage; our documents were then checked and we found we were to complete our journey to the airport in the relative comfort of an RAF bus.
The size of London Airport (now Heathrow) surprised even those of us who had passed it previously - truly a town in itself. We drove for several minutes within its perimeter before drawing up in front of the Air Terminal Building. If my memory serves me correctly, in those days there was only one terminal compared with the several in use today. There was little time to appreciate the modernity, size and staff efficiency of this very busy part of the airport because, almost as soon as we had passed through Customs, our flight was piped over the tannoy and out we went to another bus.
Our small group from DAUNTLESS had now been joined by other passengers for the Malta flight: a couple of high-ranking Army officers; a naval Commander; a Captain of Marines; male personnel from all three Services and a party of lads from HMS GANGES - the juniors’ training establishment in Suffolk - flying out to join their first ships. There were also a number of wives of serving personnel, complete with children of all ages.
The plane was a BEA Viscount, chartered as a trooping flight. It was very comfortable and surprising in its capacity. Sixty passengers were carried though the cabin hardly seemed large enough at first sight. Ginger and I bagged two seats near a porthole so we could see anything interesting. The seats were arranged three deep at one side and two deep at the other side of the gangway, all facing the tail. On my homeward journey, eighteen months later, I found how boring a flight can be when sitting in the aisle-side seat of a trio, well away from any portholes; those were the days before in-flight videos and such refinements!
No time was wasted in getting settled and fastening our seat belts, and soon we were taxi-ing round to the runway. We amused ourselves during this interval by imagining the routine exchange of verbal signals between the pilot and the control tower - ‘Clear to taxi’, ‘Clear to take off’, ‘Runway (whatever)’ and so on. The runway sped by and soon we were airborne, the giant hangars and airport buildings growing ever more like toys and the broad runways diminishing to narrow ribbons criss-crossing the ground far below.
Flying is hungry work and, although we had spent the forenoon over sessions of coffee and sandwiches, we were more than ready for the lunch trays which were soon brought round by the three stewardesses. Flying over the English Channel we waved farewell to England and settled down to chicken and ham salad, fresh buttered rolls, fruit, coffee and biscuits, followed by cigarettes and drinks of all kinds for those who wanted them.
Unfortunately the coast of France was hidden by cloud as we flew over it at 25,000 feet but the clouds parted just in time to give us a superb view of Paris, looking like a street map with its avenues radiating from the Arc de Triomphe. Before long we looked down on the Alps, a never-to-be-forgotten experience. The clouds were high enough to give us panoramic views of great mountains, snow-capped, with toy-like villages nestling in the sun on their lower slopes. These were views enjoyed by mountaineers - perhaps we didn’t have their sense of achievement at scaling the heights, but neither had we made any effort to climb there.
The pilot announced we would soon be landing at Nice, where we were scheduled for refuelling and a thirty-minute break to stretch our legs. Sure enough, the portholes on the starboard side soon gave a view of the inky blue Mediterranean. The runway at Nice Airport sticks out to sea and some nervous folk thought we were falling into the water as we flew lower and lower over the waves but all went well and we made a perfect landing.
The airport was a luxurious affair, very bright and shining and clean in the dazzling sun and we felt very dingy and dishevelled that day as we left the plane and made our way towards the terminal building. A number of superior looking sightseers, in light Summer clothes, were sitting round under beach umbrellas taking afternoon tea, and they looked at our party as if we were beings from another planet as we trudged across the road in our thick uniforms and heavy shoes to thankfully enter the cool building. We knew we would be having tea shortly after take-off so spent this half-hour just looking round and buying some very expensive postcards to prove to our friends and families that we really had been in Nice, albeit for only thirty minutes.
Clouds were gathering as we took off again, and it seemed we would have no more good views through our porthole. Only once was there a break large enough to see below us a stretch of brown, rather uninteresting land, which the pilot reported to be the coast of Sardinia. Soon, after a glorious sunset, we noticed the sky on the eastern side of the plane was noticeably darker than that on the west, an effect no doubt due to our height and the clear sky above the clouds.
As we flew on over the billowing cotton wool it grew quite dark; before very long we began our final descent and saw a cluster of lights which we knew must be Malta. The plane banked sharply for its approach but we were soon on an even keel again and felt only a slight bump on touching down at Luqa Airport. Scrambling out of the plane we wondered at our ignorance of the morning when we had imagined landing in the heat. For a gale was blowing and the nissen hut to which we ran through driving rain was cold and draughty. We didn’t have long to wait, though, and soon our little group was split into two, some going to Hal Far, while the PHOENICIA and Commander-in-Chief people were bound for the Wrens’ Quarters at Msida, Whitehall Mansions.
A small naval bus took us to Whitehall, driven very fast by a Maltese driver. It was dark but we could make out light-coloured, flat-roofed buildings and one of our number, who had imagined Malta as a slab of rocky desert, was relieved to see trees at the roadside and grass in the fields. As we passed through several small villages we could see the shops were still open although it was now nearly 2100, and the names over the shops were those which every British sailor would recognise as typically Maltese - Borg, Mifsud, Muscat, Azzopardi, Camilleri. There were many bars, all being well patronised, and we would find they were open all day, selling coffee and snacks as well as stronger drinks.
Almost as numerous as the bars were the churches, mostly very ornate with one or two towers from which - with any excuse at all - would come forth the peals which earned Malta its reputation as the island of bells. Nearly every church tower carried two clock faces, one perpetually showing the wrong time to confuse the Devil.
Finally rounding a corner in front of yet another huge church we found ourselves driving along the water’s edge and soon pulled up at the foot of a flight of stone steps; climbing these we thankfully entered our Quarters, Whitehall Mansions.
Whitehall was situated at Msida between Valletta, the Maltese capital, and Sliema. Actually, a number of inter-connected districts joined these two places and, travelling from Valletta to Sliema, one passed through Floriana, Pieta, Taxbiex, Msida and Gzira. Msida took its name from the creek, one of many emptying themselves into the harbours along this coastline.
The creek contained the headquarters of the Royal Naval Submarine Base, and directly opposite Whitehall the submarine depot ship, HMS FORTH, rode majestically at anchor amidst her brood of ugly little submarines. FORTH was a rather ungainly ship, high out of the water with two funnels. During the daytime her decks were usually filled with off-duty submariners whose binoculars (quite unnecessary for such a short distance) were frequently trained on the flat roof of Whitehall Mansions where off-duty Wrens would be sunbathing. Our view from the Mansions was generally blocked by FORTH but once or twice a year she sailed off on exercises for a week or two, moving with matronly dignity through the creek and protected by fussy little tugs.
Whitehall Mansions was a huge building, very confusing to newcomers. The floors throughout were mosaic tiled and there were many low archways leading off into various identical passages and stone staircases. The cabins, containing four or six girls apiece, were arranged in ‘flats’ each of about six cabins, with bathrooms and laundry rooms for dhobeying, while rows of wardrobes stood in the narrow passageways to save cabin space. The most coveted cabins were at the front of the building (not just because of their views of FORTH and the creek but because of their lightness and fresh air). Some cabins were very dark, looking out on to small courtyards, and these tended to be oppressively hot in Summer.
I was in Cabin B1-6 (number 6 cabin in flat B1) which was on the first floor of the building and over the galley, which made it both aromatic and noisy, but at least we were on the cool side of the house. We overlooked the Goat Track, a continuation of the flight of steps from the road, which would have been a useful short cut to Sliema. Unfortunately it was strictly out of bounds to Wren ratings, to the extent that any Wren seen along the Goat Track was returned to the UK in short order.
Over each of the four beds were rails from which mosquito nets hung throughout the Summer. These were a more than necessary refinement in the hot weather when we would lie awake longing for a cool breeze and listening to the little pests whining hungrily and angrily round the cabin outside our tightly tucked-in nets.
Another menace in our cabin, probably due to being over the galley, was a plague of flies. After trying various proprietary sprays and fly-papers to no avail, we finally discovered a fly repellent in the form of a black disc which had to be dampened and placed in a saucer on the floor. This proved really deadly to the flies, and next morning there were dozens of stiff-legged little corpses to sweep up. From then on we had no trouble; the disc proved potent every time we put it down and word must have got around in the fly world that B1-6 cabin should be avoided for only a few brave insects ventured through our open windows after that.
Our first weekend in Malta was free to explore the island. We found there were no Wren Cooks or Stewards and the general cleaning of the Mansions was performed by Maltese women though we had, of course, to clean our own cabins and washrooms. The Cooks and Stewards were Maltese male RN ratings and the women also helped out in the galley. One of the Cooks looked far from Maltese - known as ‘Ginger’ he had curly sandy hair, light blue eyes and a fair complexion, but he was as Maltese as they come. Perhaps he had an ancestor among the British Servicemen on the island in years gone by.
Two of us lost no time on Saturday morning in going out for a look round; the nearest bus stop was at the end of the creek and about a quarter of a mile from Whitehall. On our way there, we discovered the Whitehall Mansions ‘local’, the Busy Bee Bar, where we sampled the coffee and had our first taste of goat’s milk. There were no cows on Malta and the Service establishments used tinned milk, but we found the goat’s milk not unpleasant, though very rich.
The bus stop was a long glass shelter from which a bored girl sold tickets. The buses carried conductors - often boys of tender years - whose sole function appeared to be checking passengers’ tickets. The ticket-selling kiosks closed during the evening and the conductors would then issue tickets but only if the exact money was tendered. They would not dream of ringing the bell to stop the vehicle, the practice being for any passenger wishing to alight to heave on an overhead piece of string, causing a loud and usually cracked bell to signify the bus should stop. Sometimes the driver took no notice, but there were so many stopping places that missing one did not matter too much.
The buses were all single deckers, rather old-fashioned , and all painted in different colours to indicate their route to a partly illiterate population. This was all very well at the terminus in Valletta when you could see all the buses together and knew you needed the dark green one for Sliema. It was also all right at the end of a route, when you knew any bus would eventually
return to Valletta. The difficulty came when in a village part way along a route when there was no indication whether a bus was going to or from Valletta; the direction of travel was nothing to go by, as several routes retraced their tracks several times during the journey. Enquiry from the crews was useless; they would shrug, confer briefly with one another and eventually decide they didn’t understand English. Sometimes, if not in a hurry, it paid to get on board anyway and complete the journey some time. At least this form of transport was very cheap.
Behind the driver’s seat on each Maltese bus was a little shrine, complete with a small religious icon and some flowers. The Maltese are a very devout race and would always cross themselves when boarding a bus. Until we realised they were saluting the shrine, we thought they may be casting doubts on the driver’s competence. This was a reasonable assumption as the roads were built without camber and the buses and cars sped and rocked over them at a rate of knots; drivers of most vehicles seemed to keep one hand permanently on the horn, making it an earsplitting experience to linger too long in a busy street.
It was a little disconcerting to see the bus driver’s seat was not plumb behind the wheel, giving him a good excuse to drive single-handed. On making tactful enquiries of our Maltese NAAFI manager - Charlie, a huge and jolly man - we learned that the Holy Ghost actually drove every bus, the driver being there to lend a hand - literally. Whatever the reason this arrangement seemed to work for I don’t remember a single accident involving a bus throughout my time in Malta.
Maltese girls were very closely chaperoned; even when engaged they did not go out alone with their future husbands but took along mother, sister or brother to ‘play gooseberry’. This tended to cause some Maltese men and boys to make themselves objectionable to English girls because their own countrywomen were so sheltered.
It was not allowed for any woman, English or Maltese, to walk on the street in a swimsuit - even crossing the road from the beach to buy an icecream brought the requirement to dress first. Bikinis, just coming into their own in the UK, were heavily frowned upon and a certain Chief Yeoman’s wife - a jolly but very respectable lady in her mid-30’s - was approached by a policeman in Hamrun and told she was breaking the law by wearing shorts in the street. The shorts were not brief, and she certainly had legs and a figure to be proud of, but she was taken to task nonetheless.
On the beach I once saw a matronly lady, accompanied by numerous children, about to take a dip. To be sure she donned a black one-piece swimming costume but she wore it over all her other clothes, including dress and slip, and swimming must have been most uncomfortable. Those of us who later went to Sicily on holiday could not help contrasting Maltese and Sicilian customs, for very brief swimsuits abounded on the larger island, as did the practice of men stripping off entirely on the beach.
Maltese priests were treated with the utmost respect; they walked round the streets in flowing black cassocks and black hats with wide, round brims. On special religious feast days, or when they were going to administer the last rites to the dying, it was impressive and touching to see the people fall to their knees in the street as the ‘Father’ walked past.
Even in the buses the priests were supreme. If a priest entered a crowded vehicle there was a scuffle and a scurry as mothers hustled their children up to make way for him. Each mother wanted her child to be the one whose seat was chosen, but mothers and children all sat tight if the seated passengers included a lady in a certain condition. I was once on a bus when a young woman, looking almost too pregnant to travel and already accompanied by two small children, scrambled to her feet to give up her seat to a priest - who took it, after blessing the mother. At this
a sailor, probably new to the island, who had been watching in disgust jumped up and tried to persuade the girl to take his seat. Immediately an uproar arose from the other passengers, and the mother-to-be indignantly and quite rudely refused his offer, making it plain that it was her privilege to give the priest her seat. The cause of the brawl sat blandly smiling and surveying the scene while the sailor’s friends explained and persuaded him to sit down again.
The Maltese priests had their own film censorship committee which, not content with cutting harmless and quite important scenes out of films and ruining the continuity, would also censor film posters. Decolletage was frowned upon and posters showing girls in quite respectable one-piece swimsuits would have long sleeves and trousers painted on, covering their bare arms and legs.
Priests also played a large part in the running of the Government lottery which regularly paid out large money prizes. My father more than once received bunches of ten-shilling tickets from a Father Camilleri of Hamrun; the tickets always went straight on the back of the fire, but we couldn’t imagine how he had got my home address. The only explanation was that shops, which packed up and despatched parcels for customers, possibly provided lists of our friends and relatives to the lottery organisers.
We hadn’t been in Malta for long, though, before we were able to accept, while still not quite liking, the apparent parody of religion we saw around us. After all, the people themselves seemed happy enough so it wasn’t really up to us to criticise.
Lots of religious aspects were moving and impressive and the processions through the streets of Valletta on Holy Days were a wonderful sight. Great religious statues, beautifully made and coloured, would be drawn slowly on open carriages through the silently admiring crowds. There were effigies of Saints and some lovely models of the Virgin Mary, always depicted in a glorious blue robe. The processions were led by silver bands, formed by men and boys of all ages, and their playing was very good indeed. It had been stressed to us that we must never try to cross the street through a religious procession but I don’t think anyone would have been so thoughtless or rude; whenever we saw a procession, we were only too happy to stop and admire it.
The Maltese people are a simple race, in the kindest sense of the word. In colouring and features they are a cross between the Italians and North Africans but they certainly have the Latin temperament. Often we would hear the Cooks and Stewards at Whitehall shrieking at each other, sometimes brandishing knives, but within minutes the combatants would calm down and carry on with their work, singing as they did so.
On one such occasion, when Ginger and another Cook almost deafened us outside the canteen with their recriminations, we asked the NAAFI manager what the trouble was. Charlie smiled, shrugged his huge shoulders and said ‘Ah, nothing. It is that Ginger does not think Toni’s team will win the match tomorrow and Toni says Ginger knows nothing about football or any other game.’ Someone said she had been expecting bloodshed and Charlie chuckled fatly. ‘Ah no, they are friends’ he said. ‘See them now.’ Sure enough, Ginger and Toni were laughing and sharing a bottle of Coke with two straws before going back to work.
Maltese children are quite lovely, olive skinned and dark haired, usually with curls and great brown eyes. The older ones were proud to try out their English with the Service people on the island and knew just how much to flutter their lashes in order to conjure up sweets and sixpences.
Almost as appealing as the children were the animals. Apart from buses and cars, road transport could be enjoyed in a ‘gharry’ or ‘carrozin’, a square open-sided four-wheeled cab complete with roof and curtains. The gharry horses would have their manes and tails plaited with ribbons to improve the vehicle’s appearance. Gharry rides tended to be rather unnerving experiences, as the seats were quite high above the road and there were no sides to the cab, just four poles supporting the roof, but they certainly provided a novel and elegant form of transport.
Also in the streets could be seen two-wheeled carts drawn by plucky little donkeys with great sad eyes. These animals would trot gamely round pulling quite heavy loads while the drivers sat on the front of the cart with their legs dangling between the shafts and their feet almost touching the ground. Sometimes we thought the drivers unnecessarily harsh as they cracked their whips continuously and frequently flicked the animals’ backs sharply, but the donkeys seemed used to it and they had the last word. When a donkey had had enough he would stop and remain unmoving, with the tenacity of his kind, oblivious to whip crackings, cajolery, blows and pushing from his driver. One of my cabin mates found the donkeys were suspicious of kindness. She once offered a lump of sugar to an animal waiting patiently outside the Busy Bee Bar for his driver, only to be frightened out of her skin as Neddy threw back his head and began to bray deafeningly, shaking off the hand with which she was attempting to stroke him. She was afraid the driver would come out to investigate but nothing happened so she scuttled off and up the steps into Whitehall. From time to time, usually on Sunday afternoons, some streets would be closed and the donkey drivers would put horses into the shafts of these same carts and have trotting races, the horses running with their heads held up and back by the reins, and their hooves flung high at each step.
The Maltese ‘shoats’ - cross between sheep and goats - were very appealing animals with long curly hair, often of a gingery brown colour.
Water transport was by way of a ‘dghaisa’ - the spelling varied but it was pronounced ‘dhi so’. Dghaisas were brightly coloured boats with a vertical projection at either end and they were propelled by an oarsman standing in the centre of the boat, manipulating crossed oars. Four passengers could be carried easily and it was especially pleasant to cross Grand Harbour in one at night, with ships’ lights reflecting in the calm water.
The streets in the island until a few years’ previously were known by their Maltese names but by the time we arrived they also bore English names. A street of ill-repute in Valletta - strictly out of bounds to Wrens - had formerly been known as Strada Stretta; now it was called Strait Street or, more commonly, The Gut. The main street in Valletta, known to generations of British sailors as Strada Reale, had become Kingsway. Most of the streets were signed by both their old and new names, just as public notices were often printed in the two languages; this helped us to pick up a smattering of Maltese, though today the only word I can remember is ‘Twizzieja’ meaning ‘Notice/Attention’. Another word we often heard was an exasperated ‘Aywa?’ meaning, we gathered, ‘What do you want now?’ which was usually screamed at grizzling children by their mothers.
The Maltese had developed to a fine art the Continental shrug of the shoulders which required no verbal support and, depending on whether or not it was accompanied by a lazy smile, meant either ‘It doesn’t matter’ or ‘I couldn’t care less - so what!’
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