This month in history: Malta's George Cross

Malta memorial bellTo honour the brave people’

On 15 April 1942, King George VI awarded the people of Malta the George Cross in recognition of their continuing and heroic struggle against repeated and continuous attacks during World War 2.

Malta was the first British Commonwealth country to receive the bravery award, which is usually given to individuals, and is second only in rank to the Victoria Cross. The George Cross was 'intended primarily for civilians and award in Our military services is to be confined to actions for which purely military Honours are not normally granted.' (Gazette issue 35060)

Why was Malta so crucial to both the Allies and Axis?

The island was of vital strategic importance for the Allies to sustain their North African campaign, being situated between Italy and North Africa. The Navy’s Force K was based at Malta, from where ships and RAF aircraft could attack Axis convoys trying to supply their forces in North Africa. 

Since 1940, Malta had been under almost constant attack from German and Italian aircraft, day and night. Field Marshal Kesselring made his plans for Malta quite public – that he wanted the island to be taken, and that his 2nd Air Corps (Fliegerkorps II) was capable of achieving this. An invasion in 1941 was foiled when coast defenders spotted Italian torpedo boats.  

In early 1942, Hitler ordered Malta to be ‘neutralised’ in preparation for a German invasion. The Luftwaffe carried out hundreds of air raids on the island, and from January to July 1942, there was only one 24-hour period when no bombs fell on the island.

Malta holds the record for suffering the heaviest, sustained bombing attack of WW2 –154 days and nights and 6,700 tons of bombs. During the entire time, the island’s population of 270,000 were unerring in their refusal to capitulate.

How did conditions affect the people of Malta?

Food was in extremely short supply, fuel was restricted to military use, and ammunition was running so low that only a few rounds could be fired each day from anti-aircraft guns.

The people of Malta were on the brink of starvation, and spent so much time in underground shelters that health standards declined, and malnutrition and scabies became widespread. Medical supplies were also scarce. Whole families dug their way into the sandstone, and made homes in stifling underground shelters.

The war left the island devastated, with over 10,000 buildings damaged or destroyed, and the docks at Valetta heavily damaged. Thousands were injured, and it took several decades to rebuild the economy.

Why the George Cross?

The George Cross was instituted by King George VI in September 1940 as a replacement for the Empire Gallantry Medal, and as a civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross (Royal Warrant, Gazette issue 35060). It was awarded for ‘acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger’ and ‘which we desired should be highly prized and eagerly sought after’.

The award for the island of Malta was announced by Buckingham Palace with the publication of a citation written in the King’s hand in a letter to General Sir William Dobbie (GCMG, KCB, DSO) (Gazette issue 3560633566 and 29438), the governor of Malta. The award was not, however, formally gazetted.

In his message to the island's governor, King George VI said: “To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta, to bear witness to a heroism and a devotion that will long be famous in history.”

Dobbie accepted the award with these words: "By God's help Malta will not weaken but will endure until victory is won." 

The George Cross was formally presented to the people and garrison at a ceremony on the Palace Square in Valletta on Sunday 13 September. The delay was due to the need to wait for the raids to have declined in intensity. Dobbie had been replaced due to ill health by John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort (VC, KCB, DSO, MC) (Gazette issue 3103434469, 30111, 30308, 29202), who took the George Cross to the island. 

The end of the siege

In May 1942, Germany prematurely declared that Malta had been ‘neutralised’ and diverted the Luftwaffe elsewhere. In the brief lull that followed, over 60 RAF Spitfires arrived on the island, together with other reinforcements. 

Conditions started to steadily improve for the people of Malta, as supplies began to get through. On 15 August 1942, a British convoy, Operation Pedestal, fought it's way to the Grand Harbour to bring 32,000 tons of supplies to the islanders. It became known as the Santa Marija Convoy, after the national religious festival. There were heavy casualties and much damage to the escorted convoy due to constant aircraft and submarine attacks; of the 14 merchant ships that set out, only 5 survived, and 4 warships were also sunk. 

For his actions during Operation Pedestal, Vice-Admiral Edward Syfret was knighted for his 'bravery and dauntless resolution in fighting an important Convoy through to Malta in the face of relentless attacks by day and night from enemy submarines, aircraft, and surface forces.' (Gazette supplement 35695)

The George Cross was awarded to Captain Dudley William Mason, master of the fuel-carrying tanker Ohio: ‘The violence of the enemy could not deter the Master from his purpose. Throughout he showed skill and courage of the highest order and it was due to his determination that, in spite of the most persistent enemy opposition, the vessel, with her valuable cargo, eventually reached Malta and was safely berthed.’ (Gazette issue 35659)

Malta's flagOther awards, from the Distinguished Service Order to Mentions in Depatches, to mark the bravery of those who were part of the convoy, were gazetted on 6 November 1942 (Gazette issue 35780).

Germany launched another all-out offensive to take the island in October 1942, which failed. The siege of Malta was finally lifted in May 1943, when the Axis forces faced defeat in North Africa.

The George Cross is woven into Malta’s flag on the upper left-hand corner, clearly visible when the flag is flown.

King George VI’s message and the cross are on display in the War Museum in Fort Saint Elmo, Valletta.