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70 Years of Heroism and Devotion – Malta’s George Cross

In the dim and eerie candlelight, with the drone of low-flying aircraft above their heads, people huddled in underground, rock-cut shelters, thumbing their rosary beads in silence as their stricken eyes darted towards the shaft of light coming from the entrance whenever an on-coming bomb sent shockwaves through the rock.  New Year 1942 was decidedly not a happy one.  From the 1st January till the 24thof July there was only one 24-hour period when no bombs fell on Malta.  Hygiene was poor, people were becoming increasingly malnourished and scabies was rampant.  Praying for deliverance was the only thing they could do, or so they thought, as the entire harbour area was laid to waste and the beautiful baroque city of Valletta, originally built to celebrate the victory of the Great Siege lay half in ruins, as the second siege of Malta by the Axis forces was underway.

The majority of boats sent to the island in food convoys between August 1940 and August 1942 had been under heavy attack by the Luftwaffe and were sunk or damaged.  Food was running desperately short and living standards were appallingly dire.  The Maltese had resisted and defeated the Ottomans in 1565 – they’d be damned before they succumbed to the Nazis.  But it wasn’t just prayer that brought them through on of the most trying periods in Maltese modern history.  It was their fortitude, their courage and their drive and optimism which helped them survive.  Vera Lynn couldn’t have described it better when she sang the words:

“Keep smiling through
Just like you always do
Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away”

 

And what dark clouds they were.  Although by late summer 1942, the Germans had eased their incessant targeting of Malta, the blow sustained in those first gruelling months of the darkest year of the Second World War on the Island, was huge.  The stoicism and strength shown by the Maltese did not go unnoticed by King George VI of the United Kingdom – then sovereign over the island.  The King awarded the people of Malta the highest civil decoration for the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth – the George Cross – regarded as the civilian counterpart of the Victoria Cross.  In a letter dated April 15th1942 to the island's Governor Lieutenant-General Sir William Dobbie, King George VI expressed his wish to give the award collectively to the people of Malta to "To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history."  Sir Dobbie replied “By God's help Malta will not weaken but will endure until victory is won.”  And his hopes were indeed fulfilled by a nation of brave men and women, of whom tens of thousands had answered the call to arms and risked life and limb, in the caring of others, building clean-up and reconstruction of shattered infrastructure, the manufacture and maintenance of machinery, planes and warships and in the preparation of food and its distribution. As the threat of death fell from the skies and shells exploded around them while in the line of duty, those brave people were truly worthy of being honoured for their "acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger." 

With a medal designed by Percy Metcalfe, the George Cross was instituted on September 24th1940 by King George VI in an effort to give even higher recognition to all those who were suffering yet fighting bravely on at the height of the London Blitz.  Civilian acts of courage made the most unlikely people into everyday heroes who deserved to be acknowledged for their deeds by means of two awards which had a higher significance than the existing Empire Gallantry Medal.  The George Cross and the George Medal were thus instituted to recognise both civilian gallantry in the face of enemy action and brave deeds more generally.  In announcing the institution of the new award, the King said: "In order that they should be worthily and promptly recognised, I have decided to create, at once, a new mark of honour for men and women in all walks of civilian life. I propose to give my name to this new distinction, which will consist of the George Cross, which will rank next to the Victoria Cross, and the George Medal for wider distribution."

Until 1999, Malta was the only recipient of the George Cross as a collective award.  In November of that year, Queen Elizabeth II followed in her father’s footsteps and made the second collective GC award to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, 57 years after Malta was honoured.  With the Royal cipher "GVI" in the angle of each limb, the GC is a plain silver cross in whose centre is a round medallion showing St George and the Dragon surrounded by the inscription "For Gallantry".  The name of the recipient and the date awarded are inscribed on the reverse.  The George Cross is woven into the upper corner on the mast-side of the Maltese flag and can be seen wherever the flag is flown, and up until the early 1980s, it was customary to append the letters “GC” to the word “Malta” at the end of written addresses.  Nowadays, it’s more likely to write “EU” on address forms, but on this 70thanniversary, our forefathers’ acts of humanity and courage should be celebrated and remembered for the incredible difference they made to the Allied war effort and in boosting the country’s reputation as a proud, stoic and heroic nation of people who did what it took to succeed.

Source: Malta Tourism Authority

 

 

 

 

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