The First Air-Raid

Joe Lanzon

Ċetta and Ġużi were married on 15 August 1939 at the Immaculate Conception Parish church of Bormla. They took their vows ‘to love and honour, in sickness and in death, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer until death do us part’, clearly and reverently. They had never broken a promise and both were determined to fulfill those vows come what may.  They set up house in the narrow stepped Strada Buongiorno. Ċetta received many presents from her family and neighbours, but her favourite present was the white pearl necklace from her Ġużi. It was not only very beautiful but, for her, it also had great sentimental value. 

When war broke out between the Allies and the Axis in September 1939, the Maltese feared the worst. But six months since the start of the war, the Maltese were lulled into a false sense of security. The war in northern Europe seemed a million miles away.  However, when Dictator Benito Mussolini appeared from his balcony  in Palazzo Venezia in Rome at 7 o’clock on the evening of 10 June 1940 ordering the Italians to ‘take up arms and fight’, the war came to Malta’s front door. Italy, just 60 nautical miles away, felt that this little island was theirs for the taking. Just twelve hours later, exactly at 7 am on Tuesday June 11, the ‘air raid’ siren sounded the warning that enemy aircraft were approaching towards Malta. Near the Dockyard, employees were still arriving in buses to go to work and in the Grand Harbour, the ferries and the small traditional boats  – the dghajsas –  were ferrying workers and shoppers from the Three Cities to Valletta. 

Ċetta heard the siren, then the drones of the oncoming aircraft, then the noise of the ack ack guns firing from the ground. As the bombs were raining down on the surprised and bewildered people, Ċetta crawled under the table for protection and prayed to the ‘Kunċizzjoni’ for her survival. As the barrage of the ground gunners pounded the sky, the house rocked to its very foundations. “Oh Mother of God help us!!” exclaimed Ċetta. The words had hardly been completed when there was a sudden, deafening explosion, followed by a blinding blue flash. In one horrifying moment of unreality, as if in slow motion, the entire house came tumbling down – stones, glass, furniture and personal possessions. The thick black smoke was dense; nothing could be seen but a pile of rubble. 

During this attack 25 Italian aircraft, flying in formations of 5, approached the Island from various directions, dropping heavy bombs on the Three Cities with Bormla suffering heavy losses – 200 houses were destroyed or were heavily damaged; 22 persons were killed and about 40 were taken to hospital; many others were treated by doctors and nurses on the streets. There was chaos and confusion everywhere. It was Malta’s baptism of fire and Bormla felt the brunt of it all.

As soon as there was a lull during this ferocious attack, Ġużi got permission to leave the Dockyard. He went straight to Strada Buongiorno. The sight that met his eyes was devastating. The house was a pile of rubble. “Where is Ċetta?” he agitatedly asked the neighbours, nurses and helpers who were all giving assistance. At the end of the street, ambulances were racing to the hospital with the injured. Hurriedly, he made his way to the emergency wing of the hospital. The place was jam-packed with ambulances bringing casualties from bombed-out buildings all over the Three Cities. In the waiting area itself, there were so many seriously-injured patients waiting to be attended that there was hardly enough room to move.  He made enquires about Ċetta. She was located by a helpful nurse. “Come straight in” said the nurse “I’m afraid there may not be much time left.” Ġużi had to steel himself to go in, but when he did, he was horrified to see the state his young wife was in. Ċetta, lying helplessly on a bed, was behind a screen. Swathed in bandages that were blotched with leaking blood, and with tubes coming out from all parts of her body, it was obvious that his Ċetta was fighting for her life.   

We had to operate to try to save her lung,” said the nurse softly. “There was so much debris on her; it just crushed her entire body”. “Will she survive?” he asked the nurse. She responded by lowering her eyes. After the nurse was gone to see to another emergency patient, Ġużi went to his wife’s bedside and searched for her hand beneath the bedclothes. As she felt his fingers closing on her hand, she took hold of it and gently squeezed it. When she slightly opened her eyes, Ġużi whispered, “I‘m here love, I will always be with you.” Ċetta tried to smile. Then she tried to open her starched lips. She was very thirsty. He immediately found a glass of water on her cabinet and, using a spoon, eased a few drops of water between her lips. “Is that better love?’ he asked. Ċetta’s head nodded just enough to be noticed. Then she tried, unsuccessfully, to open her mouth and say something.  

For a moment he thought that she was gone. But he was relieved when Ċetta half opened her eyes again. “l love you”, she whispered softly. Tears were now welling hard and fast in Ġużi’s tired eyes as he looked down at the frail figure of his young wife. At that moment her hand quivered and went limp, letting go of his hand. She was gone. 

Three days after Ċetta’s funeral at the same church where they were married, only one year before, Ġużi approached the utter devastation that had once been his home. The numb feeling in his stomach almost made him turn back. But something made him go on. As he was standing there, he paused just long enough to contemplate what had really happened on the night of the bomb direct hit. Then he moved on, climbing over the mass of broken stones. He had gone only a short way when something caught his eye, gleaming in the bright glow of the hot June sun. He crouched down and started to retrieve the object from the pile of rubble that had once been their bedroom on the first floor. It was the pearl necklace he had given Ċetta on her wedding day. He hugged it to his chest, cried like a small child, climbed down the debris and went his weary way.