When Britain’s King George VI died in 1952 – Malta went into deep mourning Malta Diary
There are some things etched in childhood memory that one never forgets. When King George VI (Albert, Frederick, Arthur, George Windsor) died on 6th February 1952 I was five years and eight months old and at school in Malta at a nun’s convent in Hamrun run by the Sisters of Egypt.
Sometime in the afternoon our teacher sombrely announced that BBC World Service radio had just announced that “our” King George VI had just died in London.
The significance of death has no meaning for a quasi six-year-old except that death seems to bring about sadness, silence and tears and the teacher’s voice and demeanour fully reflected those.
She made us stand up and hold hands with the boy or girl next to us. We made the sign of the cross, hung our heads and she said a little prayer about God opening his hands to embrace the dead King and to take him into His Heaven where he will Rest in Peace which he so much deserves.
Going back home to Gzira in the school bus shortly after it was noticeable there was much less traffic than usual – not that there was so much traffic in those days, but certainly much less. There were very few people in the streets and a sullen and hushed silence everywhere. Most house doors were either closed or half closed and adorned with coiled black drapes or a strip of black to show mourning.
When the bus arrived in our road in Gzira, a main road, a large military truck was stationed on the corner and sitting in the truck were two sets of soldiers in full military uniform seated rigidly and facing each other and holding rifles. The rifles were placed upright between their legs and were fixed with full bayonets. There was complete silence.
World War II had ended seven years earlier and the vast majority of Maltese and Gozitans had endured five horrendous years of death and injury through almost continuous Axis aerial bombardment and many more thousands had died in British military service.
In later years I appreciated how King George’s death brought back those memories and how through the sad loss the Maltese people felt at one with a King who had constantly kept in touch with them and had taken the unprecedented step in 1942 of awarding the revered George Cross to the whole nation “for bravery”, an award that is still much treasured today and is borne on the top left hand corner of the official Maltese flag. Malta’s official name – no longer used – is Malta GC.
The King’s handwritten letter addressed to the island’s Governor-General in making the award said: “To honour the 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”. It is signed by him and dated 15th April, 1942.
There has always been an affinity and there still is a close bond between Malta and the British royal family, mainly through Royal Naval connections. This year’s November Heads of Commonwealth Countries Conference (CHOGM) to be held in Malta is due to be attended by both Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, which is a signal honour.
A year after WWII ended, the then Princess Elizabeth visited Malta for the first time in 1946 and subsequently returned on many occasions both as Princess and Queen, in the earlier years as a family together with Prince Charles and Princess Anne. Shortly before her father’s death she and the Duke of Edinburgh had lived in Malta for a number of months due to Prince Philip’s Mediterranean naval posting. Without need for special security in those days, the Princess roamed the island freely and often drove unaccompanied through the streets.
Naturally, all this and many other memories flooded back into people’s minds at the announcement of the death of the King.
For the next two days all of Malta’s main roads had military trucks showing mourning stationed on street corners, sets of soldiers sitting rigidly and staring straight ahead. All flags were at half mast and the oppressive silence remained paramount. People spoke in hushed tones and as children we were repeatedly instructed not to shout or laugh out aloud because “that was not dignified”.
On the day of the funeral, all cable Rediffusion sets (this company provided an exclusive cable service) relayed the funeral on BBC World Service and Tannoy loudspeakers were strategically placed on street corners to relay the funeral commentary for those who could not afford Rediffusion in their home. Streets were empty of people and traffic.
Only many years later did I appreciate the symbolism and meaning of all this. At the time, the silence and “shutting up” were just another adult imposition to be taken in one’s stride and ignored at the risk of getting a clipped ear or a stern admonition to “show respect” and not be “an ungrateful boy”.