Malta Diary ‘Drake is in his hammock and a thousand miles away….’ The Maltese in the fabric of the British Royal Navy and the British Merchant Navy
The opening stanza of the poem ‘Drake’s Drum’ heading this piece, written by Henry Newbolt at the turn of the 20th Century, was one of the first poems I learnt in the English language, recalling the British naval hero Sir Francis Drake during his Spanish Armada feats.
Sixty or seventy years ago it would have been highly astounding – indeed virtually impossible – to meet a Maltese or a Gozitan, or their families who did not have at least one relative engaged with the British Royal Naval Fleet or the British Merchant Navy in some capacity or other. That still very much prevails today although of course it is now grandfathers, great grandfathers or great uncles.
My own paternal grandfather Nannu Gianni was a Chief Petty Officer and an Officers’ Cook – which he always strongly emphasised, making Beef Wellington and Yorkshire Pudding or Duck-a-l’Orange for the formal evening dinner for Ship Officers rather than pie ‘n mash or stewed beef mince and boiled potatoes for the crew.
A number of his brothers and my grandmother’s brothers were RN Messmen, the equivalent of Pursers or Purchasing Officers and indeed one, nicknamed ‘ta’ Fashoda’ (after the Egyptian naval encounter between the RN and the French military) was Chief Messman for the whole of the British Mediterranean Fleet. Based in Alexandria in Egypt he held a tremendously influential position, with all its corollary perks …..
Thousands of Maltese were in service with the two navies while many more thousands were employed as welders, fitters, plumbers, boilermakers or electricians at the British RN dockyard in Cospicua or at the submarine depot in Msida.
Yet many more served at the Bighi RN Hospital (where the famous international porn star Magdalene St Michael’s was born as her father was a Naval rating stationed in Malta – she actually wrote and told me so!) or the RN Primary School at Verdala or the RN Secondary School at Tal-Handaq.
Bars in Valletta’s Strait Street and along the Gzira Seafront teemed with sailors keeping hundreds of cooks, barmen, waiters, hostesses and prostitutes busy. Scores of ferrymen plied their ‘dghajsa’ boats in a ship-to-shore and vice versa service on a 24/7 basis, often coming to blows with drunken sailors returning to their ships.
The British Royal Navy was Malta and Malta was virtually a British Royal Navy.
Naturally, this also meant long-standing links with the British Royal Family. A number of Queen Victoria’s sons were stationed in Malta, and one in particular was always strongly rumoured to have left ‘offsprings’ behind as a result of various illicit relationships.
Lord Louis Mountbatten was also stationed in Malta together with Lady Mountbatten after departing from India shortly after the end of WWII and thus managed to keep an eye on his nephew Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, then still a youngster, and his wife, heir to the British throne, Princess Elizabeth who openly state even today they spent their best time in Malta shortly after their marriage. Since then they have returned many times, often accompanied by their young children at the time, particularly Prince Charles and Princess Anne. They have always been welcomed and well met with thousands taking to the streets to greet them.
In those days security concerns were almost nil and Princess Elizabeth had her own car and drove around the island freely and unhindered!
During WWI Malta became known as ‘the nurse of the Mediterranean’ treating thousands of wounded allied sailors and soldiers, mostly from Gallipoli, while WWII took a strong toll on Maltese serving at sea and at the dockyard, particularly scores of Maltese sailors who went down with the unexpected sinking of the battleship HMS Hood (known as ‘The Mighty Hood’) during the Battle of Denmark on 24th May 1941, an enormous death toll that included my Great Uncle and his son.
In my own boyhood sixty years ago I still vividly remember Malta’s Grand Harbour and Sliema Creek packed with British RN ships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and mine sweepers. My father berthed his small fishing boat in Sliema Creek and I always accompanied him on fishing trips around the creek, weaving around the ships, smelling the food being cooked on board, listening to the shrill naval whistles as launches plied between the ships conveying various officers between the ships.
One curious custom linked entirely with Maltese sailors boarding a ship was that of acknowledging the British ensign flying aft of the ship. However, besides acknowledging their allegiance to the flag this stretched back to the days of the Grandmasters’ galleys in the 16th and 17th Centuries when a large crucifix was always displayed aft on each galley.
All of this has faded into history now, but Malta still proudly relishes its links – particularly with the Royal Navy and the Royal Family – and nowadays commemorated strongly at the Malta Maritime Museum.