Until the Second World War, the development of local history took place in a laissez faire manner, without much direct intentional intervention from the British state.
Because of its historical and cultural awareness, Birgu had an « intelligentsia » who hankered for greater affinity with the mainstream of Italian culture and, though not necessarily fascist, the people in Birgu were pro-Italian. On the other hand, the pre-war days brought to Birgu a sense of optimism due to the presence of the mighty British Navy. To the Dockyard workers, who formed the majority of the city’s working population (there were about 7,000 residents in Birgu then), the presence of the British Navy in the Grand Harbour meant work and prosperity. Moreover the festivities on the occasion of the coronation of King George V and Queen Elizabeth in May 1937 were particularly impressive in Birgu. Primary school-children waved their Union Jack and sang English patriotic songs.
When in 1939 the gathering clouds of war were thickening, the Birgu promontory was essentially British in allegiance . Proof of this was the HMS St Angelorising defiantly on the North point, the Marina stretching along Dockyard Creek including the shipping yard which catered for the whole Mediterranean Fleet, the colourful bars that were making a roaring trade and across the bay Bighi Hospital, the Royal Naval Hospital for the Fleet across the bay.
When in the latter half of 1939 war hysteria reached an unprecedented scale, there was an uneasy feeling in the narrow winding streets of Birgu and many families shed their familiar surnames in favour of an Anglicized version. All conversations in the numerous bars and band-clubs in the medieval piazza centred on political issues and the imminence of war.
Following the experience of the Spanish Civil War in 1936-38, the government directed much attention towards the provision of shelters against high explosives and worked out an Evacuation Scheme. Birgu being a peninsula with limited access by land, an extensive air attack would result in very heavy casualties. The Post of Castille and St James Cavalier tunnels were examined to ease evacuation of the population.
The Governor of Malta, Sir Charles Bonham- Carter, who had endeared himself to the people of Birgu by visiting the Conventual Church and its treasures two years earlier, in his address to Parish Priests a few days after the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, alerted the population of the possibility of war reaching their shores. While war was raging furiously in Europe, it was evident that it would move further south. Early in 1940 Italy’s position was manifestly clear in its eagerness to jump on the victorious Nazi bandwagon. On the eve of his departure from Malta on 24 May 1940, Sir Charles Bonham-Carter regretted that he had to leave Malta at a time when the Empire was « passing through a fiery trial- a time of terrific stress ». In his farewell speech he reminded the Maltese of Churchill’s famous words : « I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most generous kind ». In the light of these pronouncements, it is inconceivable how, to the average Maltese, war only started on the 10th of June 1940.
In next week’s blog we shall see what happened to Birgu during another dark chapter in it’s history – the immense devastation brought about by World War 2.