War and Disruption

Prolonged air raids over a long period on a very restriced area caused immense material destruction and great mental strain on the inhabitants. Historical buildings were forever destroyed, more than 35,000 houses were reduced to rubble and numerous bomb craters marked the landscape. The losses among civilians were considerable. About 1,495 were killed, including 386 children under the age of 15. The constant bombings forced thousands to flee from the more exposed towns and villages and by May 1941 more than 55,000 civilians had been moved to safer areas. Such an upheaval caused immense social tensions among the Maltese who had been used to live in the same area, if not in the same houses, for generations. (2)

This forced internal evacuation of families was to have a determining effect on the traditions pattern of population because many of those who hastily left their original towns and villages never went back. Old historic towns which were heavily populated before 1940 suffered serious loss in population, a loss which was even to be more accentuated once the flow of post-war emigration was to gather momentum.

The terrible legacy of war was to be felt long after the bombs had disappeared. The scarcity of nutritious food, coupled with living in the cramped and unhygienic conditions prevalent in the rock-hewn shelters caused serious epidemics. Health reports show many cases of meningitis, whooping cough, scurvy, diphtheria and infantile paralysis. The death rate among newly-born babies stood at 300 for every one thousand births. To make the health situation even more hazardous, as soon as open hostilities ceased and the Maltese skies cleared of warplanes, an outbreak of bubonic plague took place in 1945.

Between June and July of that year nine suspected cases had been reported. One such case was of a 15 year-old boy who worked as a rubbish collector. He felt unwell on June 24 and was dead on the next day. The British Governor Sir Edmond C. A. Schreiber launched a campaign against filth and rats normally found abundant in the many bombed sites. One particularly infected area was near the Valletta market. People were urged not to throw out their rubbish, not to touch dead animals, not to walk barefooted and to be meticulous about personal cleanliness. (3)

The fatigue due to the hardship brought about by the war and the sanitary problems that were consequent to fear, shock, lack of food and health problems weighed heavily on the people of Malta. Not surprisingly, with a decline in marriages, a high rate of infant mortality and a poor state of general health, the rate of population during and after the war slowed down. The situation improved slightly with the Allied invasion of Sicily in June 1943. On September 8, 1943, that neighbouring island was subdued and the control of it by the Allies meant that enemy bombers were unlikely to attack the Maltese with impunity. By 1946 the much beleaguered island of Malta could start to hope for a return to normality.

Normality itself carried with it long term problems. The war had provided immediate employment to 11,000 men and women, most of them with the Maltese Territorial Forces. That figure involved roughly one in every six of active workers. Demobilisation was carried out in the period from January 1944 to August 1946. Some 9,000 men found immediate employment, while others had asked for a voluntary release. (4)

Source: The Safety Valve (1997), author Fr Lawrence E. Attard, Publishers Enterprises Group (PEG) Ltd, ISBN 99909-0-081-7

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