||Besieged: The World War II Ordeal of Malta, 1940-1942,
by Charles A. Jellison. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1984.
This lucidly and incisively written book, which deservedly received the University of New Hampshire Book Prize for 1984, tells the fascinating and epic saga of the defense of the island of Malta, for over two years during WWII the sole British base in the 2,000-mile stretch between Gibraltar and Alexandria.
The author describes the history of Malta up to the outbreak of WWII, including an interesting narration on the role of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem in the development of the harbor-fortress. Immediately preceding WWII, it is apparent the British government decided Malta was expendable, and only provided a token amount of equipment and armament to the island.
Inexplicably, Mussolini never seriously tried to capture Malta, but did bomb it sporadically, even though it was less than 20 minutes flying time from Sicily. After it became obvious the Italians were losing in North Africa, Hitler was obliged to assist the Duce, which included the dispatch of Rommel and the Afrika Korps to Libya. To protect the precious German convoys of troops, equipment, and petroleum going to support Rommel from British air or naval interdiction, the Luftwaffe needed to neutralize Malta. After Churchill became Prime Minister, the defense of Malta became a high priority. Until November 1942, Malta, the main island of which is about the same size as the District of Columbia, survived at least 1,199 enemy air raids, at a cost of at least 5,264, and probably closer to 15,000, Maltese casualties. But by sheer determination and faith, Malta survived.
The author completely succeeds in weaving a rich tapestry of a narrative, the threads of which consist of first-hand interviews and unpublished documents, among many other sources. Jellison does not write from a detached point of view, but was able to live on Malta for a year as an exchange scholar, and was able to visit the sites, villages, and people that comprise his book. Not only is this a social history of the primarily peasant population that endured the Axis aerial onslaught, but it is a military history as well, also shedding new light on the row between the Governor of Malta, Dobbie, and the General-Officer-Commanding, Beak, which led to the former’s recall. Of additional significance, this is the first book to present the Maltese war experience from the Maltese point of view, contributing greatly to a better understanding of the important role of Malta in WWII.
This book is highly recommended to military historians, who will be richly rewarded by reading this enthralling account of the courage and defiance of the people of the George Cross Island, the “beacon of hope” in the Mediterranean during WWII.
Book Review, Besieged: The World War II Ordeal of Malta, 1940-1942, by Charles A. Jellison, Military Affairs 61 (January 1987): 42-43.