Contemplating my shelves of souvenirs I reflected on the thousands of memories – mostly pleasant- that these objects recall. One of the oldest is the Malta cigarette lighter from 1959 given to me by Corporal Vella of the Royal Malta Artillery, when I left Malta after two years National Service as a doctor in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Corporal Vella was in charge of St Patrick’s Medical Centre (for which I was responsible).Looking back I believe this was one the first of the hundreds of souvenirs that adorned the shelves in my study in Bardsey and since 2016 in Radcliffe on Trent. Since 1959, when I was given this lighter by Corporal Vella, Ann and I have having travelled quite extensively both on holidays and as part of my cystic fibrosis work and I have acquired many shelves of souvenirs – not always in the best of taste I would add!Corporal Vella and I worked together and had a good working relationship for the 2 years I was in Malta. He was a bustling, nervous man who smoked numerous Flag cigarettes, he smelt heavily of garlic and had a large family of 10 children. He was a soldier in the Royal Malta Artillery but essentially functioned as the full time manager of the St Patrick’s Medical Centre. Half the accommodation was used by myself and the RAMC for service families and half by the Royal Marine Commandos (40 Commando and 3 HQ Commando). The marines had their own medical officer – Lt Commander Guy Bradford; their clinics were organised by a naval Petty Officer. My clinics for the army families and marines’ families were organised by a Naval Nursing Sister.When Guy Bradford was off on exercises with the commandos (as occurred frequently) I would do his clinics and see the commandos with the help the Petty Officer. This was useful on occasion when there were problems outside my experience. For example one morning I was standing in for Guy Bradford doing the Marines sick parade. A young soldier came in comparing of some irritation “down below”. I had a look and suggested there could be some allergic problem. The Petty Officer learned over to my ear and said “If you look carefully Sir I think you’ll see that allergy is moving” I did – and it was. There were numerous crab lice causing the man’s itching. The PO ordered him to “Report back here with your razor and clean clothes for treatment”. So it seemed I had much to learn about the problems of soldiers which I had not encountered in my six months paediatrics and six months thoracic surgery! This was a new world from the Leeds General Infirmary.
Six weeks basic training in the ways of the army
So I served in Malta in the RAMC for nearly 2 years National Service as a families medical officer but only after completing 6 weeks basic training in the UK. During this six weeks we were taught the various customs of army life and how to behave as an officer. This was good fun as most of our small intake of 10 young doctors were friends and from Leeds. We had been qualified for only 12 months and had just completed a very hard year as house doctors (half day a week and one weekend per month otherwise on duty all the time). So these first 6 weeks in the army came as a welcome holiday particularly, as qualified doctors, we started as officers with the rank Lieutenant.Our 6 weeks basic training consisted of 2 weeks at Aldershot, 2 weeks at Mytchett Army Camp and 2 weeks at Millbank – the headquarters of the Royal Army Medical Corps in London.
Our first two weeks were at Aldershot
During our first two weeks at Aldershot we were issueed with army uniforms, hats, belts, gaiters, boots etc, etc. We received basic instructions in army routines such as cleaning our new boots, the basics of discipline, saluting and using a 303 army rifle. I found this not too difficult having been a sergeant in the Junior Training Corps (JTC) at Giggleswick school. I think we all enjoyed doing something other than medicine for a spell. We competed to see who could get the most shine on their army boots! Learning to march correctly on the parade ground was an important part of this fortnight as most of us would eventually have to take part in the occasional formal parade such as on Remembrance Day.
Our drill instructor at Aldershot was a very fierce Sergeant Major who strongly resembled Windsor Davies, the Sergeant Major in “It ain’t half hot Mum”. (although this comedy was first broadcast in 1974). We had great difficulty in keeping a straight face and not laughing aloud. As we were officers and he was an “other rank”, even though a warrant officer, he would always address us as “Sir” – admittedly in a rather sarcastic tone When eventually he had each of us out in front drilling the squad it was too much to bare when one of our group, Mike Harland who was a brilliant mimic, gave a perfect imitation of the Sergeant Major – who was not amused! However, the rest of us lost control and collapsed laughing.
At the end of our 2 weeks at Aldershot we were beginning to look like soldiers. We even had an official photo taken with the officer, who was responsible for our little group, and his bulldog.
Our next two weeks were at Mytchett Barracks
The barracks were commissioned to accommodate the Army School of Hygiene and are named after Sir Alfred Keogh, a former Director-General of Army Medical Services. In 1954 the RAMC Field Training Centre took over administration of the barracks. Subsequently the depot of the RAMC arrived from the Queen Elizabeth Barracks Crookham in 1964 and the Field Training Centre subsequently became known as the Royal Army Medical Corps Training Centre.
At Mytchett we learned more of the medical and public health aspects relating to the military. Unfortunately, I remember little of what we were taught there. But I do remember that during our stay there we were visited by an impressive fellow from the Paratroop Regiment. He gave us a rousing talk on the “Paras” after which many of us seriously considered volunteering. However, when we realised what it entailed most of us decided not to join; Ian Adams and Will Kershaw from our Leeds group did volunteer and spent their 2 years as MOs with the Parachute Regiment.
The other memory of Mytchett was the leaving party at the Officers’ Mess where drinks were served in the garden. Numerous White Lady cocktails (gin, Cointreau, lemon juice and egg white) were served and we all indulged excessively to the extent that one of our group “became unwell”. The permanent residents of the mess were not impressed by the Leeds contingent!
Next two weeks were at the Royal Army Medical College, Millbank London
The college was on a site south of the Tate Gallery (now known as Tate Britain) Millbank, in Westminster overlooking the River Thames.
The college moved from that site in 1999 and the buildings are now occupied by the Chelsea College of Art and Design.
This was a very interesting two weeks. We had no great experience of London and also were rather apprehensive of meeting the people at Millbank. On our first evening, we had been out to look at the sights and on returning to the mess decided we would go into the main anteroom for a beer of which a number were laid out on a side table. No sooner had we opened our beers when there was a sound of “important talking” coming from the hall and in came a group of very senior officers in full mess kit – obviously returning from an important function. Their leader saw us and demanded to know who we were. We admitted to being very new medical recruits from Leeds.
The “Sir” in question was Lieutenant GeneraL Sir Alexander Drummond KBE, CB, QHS, LLD who was Director General (DG) Army Medical Services from 1956 – 1961. He was regarded as undoubtedly one of the greatest Directors General, being chiefly remembered for his insistence that specialist medical officers within the Army Medical Services achieved appropriate qualifications and the approval of the Royal Colleges before being appointed as consultants. Apparently, in the earlier part of his career, he distinguished himself as an ear, nose and throat surgeon, and served in both the 1939-45 War and the Malayan Emergency.
So here we were in the Officers Mess at the RAMC Headquarters in London, late in the evening drinking beer in the presence of the Director General of the RAMC – who was generally regarded as a very fierce demanding character. He swept over to our little group with his entourage and genuinely seemed interested when we told him we were new boys from Leeds. After that he gave us a tour of some of the important pictures on the wall – one in particular of a previous DG who eventually turned out to be a woman! Altogether a very memorable evening. I was destined to meet General Drummond next year when he visited our medical centre in Malta as I will describe later.
Now to our various postings for our 2 years National Service
So our 6 weeks training was over and we were released to various branches of the armed forces as fully fledged army doctors. I had volunteered for Hong Kong but as one of the RAMC doctors in Malta had to return home on compassionate grounds I was posted there.
We flew out to Malta in an old Viking aircraft. BEA operated their large fleet of Vikings on many European and UK trunk routes until 1954. These had been developed from the old Wellington bombers and the last was displaced by the more modern and pressurised models. The aircraft in which we flew to Malta needed to stop at both Cannes and Naples on the way for refuelling. The only other memory of that flight was the soldier in the next seat had severe earache until suddenly it stopped and there was a discharge for his ear – when the ear drum burst.
As we approached Malta from the air it appeared to be a very small, dry looking place – as indeed it was in the middle of August. For some reason I had expected it to be greener and much larger. I suddenly realised that this would be my home for the next two years and I did not know a single person who lived there. However, having left home for boarding school when only just 13 years old I was used to new places and changing environments
I was greeted at the airport by the RAMC doctor I was to replace. We drove to St Patrick’s mess on the East coast, where I was to live for the next year or so until I moved into a house on the seafront in Sliema with Bob and Mary Watson. Bob was a regular soldier – a Captain in the REME.
First I had a room at the side of St Patrick’s mess but eventually moved to one of the rooms over the front door with a sea view opening onto the balcony (photos). St Patrick’s mess housed a variety of officers who did not have a regimental mess of their own. They included the Army Padre (a Lieutenant Colonel), the head of the medical services Colonel Richards RAMC (my boss), Captain Chester Armstrong (Army Education Corps), Major in Military Police (Mess President and head of the military police), Derek Dalby – a Captain in the Engineers (army bomb disposal officer for the island), Geoff Graham – Captain (Army Dental Corps), Les Dennis and Freddie Upfold (two captains in the REME) and two RAMC captains soon due to return to the UK.
During my second year in Malta I persuaded the Colonel to allow me to “live out” of the mess. I was fortunate to know Bob and Mary Watson a regular army couple who lived in a small Maltese house a short distance down the coast from St Patrick’s. Bob was a captain in the REME. They were a very pleasant couple and I lived with them for many happy months as their lodger until I returned to the UK.
The political situation in Malta during my stay in 1957-1959
The general political situation was very unsettled during my time in Malta to the extent that, at the height of the troubles, our Land Rovers had grilles over the windscreens to protect against stones thrown during the riots of April. However, the individual Maltese people I dealt with, both the soldiers and their families, were very friendly.
The following background information is based on http://www.maltaramc.com
In the Defence White Paper of Apr 1957 the Ministry of Defence chose nuclear deterrence against maintaining a large conventional force. Military conscription ended and combined strength of the three Services was to fall from 690,000 in 1957 to 375,000 by the end of 1962. The Maltese economy which had been intertwined with defence spending suffered a major blow. The Services not only employed 27% of the work force, but also Forces spending provided four-fifths of its foreign exchange. As a consequence of defence cuts, the Admiralty had excess dockyard capacity and closed its dockyard in Malta.
In Jan 1958, the 41 year old Prime Minister Dominic Mintoff (1916-2012) (photo) proposed a resolution in the chamber of Malta’s Legislative Assembly to the effect that representatives of the Maltese people in parliament were no longer bound by agreements and obligations towards the British Government.
The declaration, which was passed unanimously was provoked by the Admiralty’s decision to lay off 40 workers at the Royal Naval Dockyard, which, together with a NATO HQ, constituted the chief source of employment in the island. Mintoff complicated the integration negotiations with Britain by insisting that whatever became of the dockyard, the British had also to promise to raise economic standards within 12 years to the same levels enjoyed by Great Britain itself. This threatened break with Britain endangered the jobs of all the 13,000 workers at the dockyard.
Mintoff cabled the Colonial Secretary Lennox-Boyd proposing a truce and urged the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, to intervene with the Admiralty to get the dockyard redundancies cancelled. Britain responded by reducing the layoff to 30 from 40 and by offering alternative jobs to all 30 discharged workers. Lennox-Boyd bluntly warned the Maltese leader that with this move he had recklessly put the whole integration plan in jeopardy.
In Mar 1958, further talks on integration were held in London. In April, Mintoff declared Britain’s terms for integration impossible. He resigned and called a national day of protest. Riots broke out on 28 April 1958. The Government declared a state of emergency and placed troops on standby to support the civil police led by Commissioner Vivian de Gray.
Police were pelted with stones and potatoes by angry protestors, an army jeep and a naval tug were set on fire and the cables of the Rediffusion radio service were cut. Early in the morning, a Land Rover of the Malta Royal Artillery was stopped by protestors, and the captain and the driver were dragged from the vehicle. Petrol was thrown on the car before it was set ablaze and pushed into the sea.
Hours later, a gang climbed aboard a small Royal Navy tug in the Grand Harbour and set it on fire. Police who rushed to the scene were pelted with stones but eventually managed to quell the riot.
After the day of violence, British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan suspended the Maltese constitution and decided to impose direct colonial rule. Malta’s Governor Sir Robert Laycock banned all demonstrations and meetings for three months, and ruled using emergency powers until the end of his term of office in 1959. The riot in 1958 created fertile ground for Maltese demands to be an independent state.
The Diamond Jubilee of the RAMC commenced on 22 June 1958 with a parade in the grounds of the David Bruce Military Hospital and a church service at St Oswald’s celebrated by the Rev E A Cooke. The lessons were read by Deputy Director of Medical Services Col Philip John Richards (my Commanding Officer).
The Royal Naval Hospital Mtarfa was at one stage in the Fifties renamed the David Bruce Royal Naval Hospital Mtarfa after the wrongly believed discoverer of the cause of Brucellosis which was actually discovered by Sir Themistocles Zammit. In recent years it has been converted into a state secondary school named after Sir Remi Zammit.
The officers of the RAMC and RADC held their traditional cocktail party in the hospital grounds which made a picturesque setting against a background of oleanders and hibiscus in full bloom and coloured lights. The guests were greeted by the Deputy Director of Medcial Services and Mrs R G Gray, wife of the commanding officer David Bruce Military Hospital.
The families had their usual day out on the June 24th at Paradise Bay
In Aug 1958, RAMC cover was required for 3 Commando Brigade following the periodic Middle Eastern flare up. This was organised by making over No 1 MASCAS team (mass casualty) the nucleus of a Brigade Medical Support Group. The members of the team had already taken part in amphibious exercise landings off the coast of Malta and Tripoli. More about this adventure later!
My medical duties in Malta
My work in Malta was essentially as a general practitioner or families medical officer for the UK service families and the families of the Royal Malta Artillery troops most of whom had very large families. In my clinic at St Patrick’s medical centre I also saw many of the wives of the 40 Commandos and 3 HQ Commandos who were based nearby in St Patrick’s barracks or rented property. I worked in one half of St Patrick’s Medical Centre, the other half was used by the Royal Navy doctor (Lieutenant Commander Guy Bradford) and the commando medical set up was under the direction of Petty Officer Knobs.
My half of the centre was organised by Corporal Vella and Gunner Camilleri – regular soldiers of the Royal Malta Artillery. There were naval nursing sisters of the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service attached who were excellent; they took the wives and family clinics with me and also did home visits when required. We would have a clinic daily in the St Patrick’s medical Centre after which I would do visits with my Maltese driver in the Land Rover to English or Maltese military families anywhere on the island. After 2 years of this work I knew most of the towns and villages and their streets on the island – in fact, sometimes I had to direct the drivers to a particular street in the smaller less visited villages!
Our hospital support was provided by the Royal Naval Hospital Imtafa in the north of the island where there were a full range of RAMC consultants. I had very little contact with the hospital except for occasional cocktail parties and professional contact regarding patients I had referred there. However, they were always very helpful with regard to giving a specialist opinion or arranging an admission. I recall receiving great support from the army consultant physician when dealing with an unfortunate colonel’s wife who had the most terrible asthma, for which she was eventually invalided home to the UK.
As mentioned, when I first arrived in Malta in August 1957 the heat at the time was intense. I was greeted at the airport by Tony Membry one of the RAMC doctors from whom I would take over. We drove to St Patrick’s Mess and I was shown my room and the various facilities. A combined arriving and leaving party had been planned. I was freshening up in one of the bathrooms with the windows and shutters wide open when an enormous flying beetle landed on my shoulder. I let out a scream but fortunately no-one heard me. I learned that these beetles had a loud drone and were relatively common. Also mosquitos were a real problem and nets were an essential. I learned this to my cost as, after a rather too convivial evening, I just piled into bed without putting the mosquito net down. Next morning my face was so bitten and swollen by the mosquitos I could hardly see out.
My new RAMC medical colleague, Tony Membry, took me to a house in a nearby village the following night where a party was in progress on the flat roof (photo). It was sweltering hot. Tony had been a families MO and wanted to introduce me to some of the other people I would be meeting in the course of my new duties. We had a jovial evening in the roasting heat under the stars with rather too much to drink.
The next morning, feeling rather fragile, I managed the clinic and then had a list if home visits to do. This was the first time I had done home visits to Maltese families and it was quite an experience!
At every house I visited I was greeted with great respect and introduced to everyone including the patient – usually a child. I took a history – often with the help of the civilian Maltese driver – and examined the patient. Again with the help of the driver explaining we would decide what action to take. This was fine but at the end of the consultation a tray was produced with a small tot of whisky, a fresh bar of soap, a bowl of water and a clean towel. This occurred at virtually every Maltese house. It was so very kind but after a few drinks the previous night, in a boiling hot weather it was difficult to drink the whisky. Initially I was very careful not to offend and so thanked them for the whisky and knocked it back. However, after a few busy series of visits it was becoming more and more difficult to get in and out of the Land Rover! So I hit on a solution – I would be a teetotaller, offer my thanks but just wash my hands. However, this caused a new problem. When I refused the whisky, a soft drink, usually a Kinnie, a popular local soft drink, was produced and I was obliged to drink this. So after a few visits I was full of Kinnies and looking for a toilet! However, seriously, the Maltese families were so kind and it was a great pleasure to visit them.
As I became more experienced it was obvious many families in the more remote villages did not speak much English and their Royal Military Artillary husbands were usually at work in the day. I spent a great deal of time with the civilian Maltese drivers and they taught me sufficient Maltese to take a brief medical history.
I found the Maltese civilian drivers to be very helpful and over the course of 2 years came to know a number of them very well. They would help me with local customs and as mentioned would help with translating at home visits. They were obviously embarrassed when we were interviewing one of the wives but would often add useful bits of local informations relating the family situation.
I saw a wide variety of medical and surgical conditions on home visits – everything from a small boy with acute appendicitis to a colonel’s wife who was found dead in the bath due to carbon monoxide poisoning from a defective water heater in the bathroom. Many of the UK military families rented local accommodation where safety standards were not always adequate as was the case with the lady who died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Also most houses had no air conditioning or central heating; they were unbearably hot in the summer and quite cold in the winter when the temperature could be as low as 9C. The tap water was undrinkable and boiled or bottled water was required.
Sewage and drains were not of the best in Malta in the Fifties. One would occasionally come across a old tanker-type lorry clearing drains – the smell was very bad. In fact Malta has been described as “the island of yells, bells and smells”.
Many of the older women wore the għonnella (pronounced “ee-nee-nal”), sometimes referred to as a Faldetta, a form of women’s head dress and shawl, apparently unique to the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo. For centuries, the għonnella was worn by virtually all adult Maltese women.
It was so popular that there were many seamstresses whose sole job was to design, cut and sew the garments. However, it rapidly fell into disuse in the 1940s and 1950s. By the end of the 20th century, it had disappeared altogether. The hooded garment took a lot of space, and for this reason it became impractical to wear on Maltese public buses.
Transport around the island
Buses were an important public facility in Malta and there is an interesting very detailed account of the Maltese Public Transport since 1856 on the internet from the time of the first sedan chair!
The Malta Railway operated from 1883 to 1931 and consisted of a single railway line from Valletta to Mdina. It was the only railway line ever on the island of Malta. Trams appeared in 1905 and ran until 1929. A bus service commenced in 1905 and eventually became the major transport system. I rarely travelled on the buses but recall on every bus there was a lighted crucifix and decorations at the front with the driver. Definitely buses and old buses were important in the development of the transport system.
There were many old cars on the roads of Malta in 1957, somewhat analogous to the present situation in Cuba. Soon after I arrived I realised a car was essential as St Patricks Mess where I lived was only reachable by taxi when not being driven in the Land Rover for my work. So I purchased a black Morris 10 (photo) of indeterminate age for about £200 (actually not too sure how much I paid for it – I think it could have been more). The car was not good and was well known to some of the locals, but I had it for most of my stay in Malta. A major problem was it would overheat particularly in the very hot summer months when there would be an alarming rumbling from under the bonnet. All the tyres were in bad shape some had small bulges on the sides. Finally, some time before I left the island the starter motor gave up and I always had to park at the top of a slope to start the car. The chief Maltese steward in our Mess said the car was well known on the island but he repeatedly offered to buy it; I eventually sold it to him for £50 shortly before I left the island in 1959.
During my two years in the island I travelled thousands of miles to virtually every corner of the island in the army Land Rovers (I think the army used 1950 Series 1 Land Rovers). They were uncomfortable with hard seats and very chilly in the winter at night. The other problem was in the autumn, when there was much rubber on the roads, when it rained the roads would be like ice and even in the 4-wheel drive vehicle would slide about in an alarming manner.
After some months of doing night calls in the Land Rover it came to my notice that there was a carpark full of comfortable Standard Vanguard army staff cars totally unused during the night.
After discussions with our colonel he eventually agreed to make arrangements that for night calls we could use these staff cars rather than the Land Rovers! So that made life much better for night calls particularly in the winter; we MOs felt quite important sitting in the back of an army staff car. The illustration shows a 1948-1963 model Standard Vanguard of the type used as army staff cars in Malta in 1957/9 but, of course, they were painted in pale sand desert camouflage colour. This was one of the “reforms” I achieved during my 2 years stay in Malta!
Talking of “reforms” – the other change of significance I recall was managing to persude the army to supply oral penicillin as liquid for children rather than as tablets. When I arrived the medical orderlies were crushing up the bitter penicillin tablets to make a solution to give to children. The only palatable oral antibiotic for young children available was chloramphenicol which, although very effective, did carry a small but definite risk of aplastic anaemia. After long negotiations with army headquarters I managed to get oral penicillin liquid supplied as routine for the army families.
The Royal Malta Artillery.
We families medical officers were on call for families of military personnel including those of the Royal Malta Artillery, at that time a major source of employment for men in the island.
Apparently, the Royal Malta Artillery was a territorial artillery unit on the British Army colonial list prior to Malta’s independence. It was formed in 1889, then called the Royal Malta Fencible Artillery from 1861 until 1889. (Fencible = soldiers belonging to a British Militia which could be called up only for service on home soil). Initially on the British Establishment, in 1951 the RMA was transferred to the Malta Territorial Force before becoming part of the Malta Land Force on Malta’s independence in 1964. The regiment was disbanded in 1970 with its personnel and equipment being handed over to the Maltese Government.
Families Medical Officers and the 1957 influenza epidemic.
The medical officers responsible for the families had a very busy time during a major the influenza outbreak in 1957. The Maltese people were significantly hit by the Asian Flu pandemic, which was first seen on the island in August 1957, soon after I arrived. The epidemic peaked the following month. After a decline, a second wave started in November. A total of 8,783 cases were reported and 11 people died of the infection. Although the epidemic remained quiescent throughout 1958, when only 39 cases of influenza were reported, this was followed by resurgences of the infection in 1959 and 1961, when more than 5,500 people were affected. We medical officers were fully stretched with numerous home visits all over the island and our service came under considerable pressure and some criticism. We would visit the houses and check the patients had flu – they were mainly children I suppose because there were so many children in every family.
Corporal Vella managed my St Patrick’s Medical Centre and I recall going with him to see his family – all his ten children had flu! We did what amounted to a ward round at his house. Vella provided the child’s name, age and temperature. I checked them over and provided soluble aspirins! They all did well but there was great anxiety about the outbreak generally and as mentioned their were 11 deaths. We families medical officers were certainly stretched visiting all those affected but only a minority of patients with complications such as pneumonia were admitted to hospital.
The homes we visited varied from a small crowded apartment down a narrow street in Valetta, to small houses in the various villages, to a spacious villas occupied by more senior members of the military forces.
The Catholic Church – a major influence on the island
The influence and presence of the Catholic Church was very great in Malta and many of the local people, particularly the women, were very religious. Evidence of the Catholic religion was everywhere – shrines in the houses and buses and cars and at the side of the road. There were always Catholic priests in evidence in all the villages. The churches were massive even in the modest towns and larger villages. It has been estimated that on the islands of Malta and Gozo, there are a total of 359 churches (313 in Malta and 46 in nearby Gozo). This means that there is a “church density” of slightly more than one church per square kilometre! All were Roman Catholic except three, two of which were related to the British army and navy.
For example there was a huge church in Mosta, a town of some 20,000, in the centre of the island. It is said to have the fourth largest unsupported dome in the world. In 1942 a German bomb pierced the dome and fell into the church but failed to explode – an event regarded as a miracle by the Maltese.
The Maltese Islands have a number of religious festivities and cultural events that take place every year. Feast days are the life of the Islands and some holy days are actually national holidays and others are steeped in folklore. However, the most important events for all villages are their individual festas, honouring their own parish patron saint. Christmas and Easter were also a time to strengthen the sense of community as well as reinforce family bonds. Church services play a large role during this time of year. During the Holy Week of Easter, many people flock to the churches in great numbers for the ‘seven visits’, the visit to seven churches, to pay homage to the Altars of Repose.
The festive commemorations are also a time of food, drink and merriment which brings out the Mediterranean roots of the locals. Families prepare large Christmas and Easter lunches; giving thanks for all that they have with their relatives. During these festas the streets are lined with carts, selling a wide assortment of different foods as well as the more traditional sweets and delicacies.
The main highlight of any festa is undoubtedly the procession where a group of around eight people carry a heavy life-size statue of the Patron Saint or Jesus followed by a huge crowd of people (photo). The procession is led by music from the village band and moves slowly through the principal streets of the town. Some of those taking part are hooded and chained (photo). These prospective “penitents” have to reserve their chains up to three years in advance. The tradition for these customs goes back many generations.
Various exercises with the army and Marine Commandos
I had only been in Malta a few weeks when Colonel Richards RAMC, my new boss, informed me that I was to be the medical officer on a Landing Ship Tanks that was taking various motorcycles to Cyprus.
I was allocated a small cabin on the starboard side and soon realised the true significance of the word POSH – “Port Out Starboard Home”. We were travelling east along the Mediterranean to Cyprus and the sun was beating down all day long on the starboard cabins which were like ovens! We had quite a pleasant, if very warm, trip which lasted about a week. I remember playing pontoon with, and loosing substantial sums to, the Marine Commandos who were the other passengers travelling back for their next spell of duty in Cyprus Everyone remained healthy on the voyage thank goodness and I had virtually no work to do. We eventually arrived at Famagusta on the east side of Cyprus. The docking was eventful in that the bow of the ship was damaged by the harbour wall. However, we eventually disembarked and were transported across the country to the army camp at Nicosia. We were allocated tents which were very hot in the summer heat. As the troubles with EOKA (v. infra) were still a major problem we were not allowed out of the camp.
The following morning we were taken to the airport and boarded a rather “mature” looking Viking aircraft with a number of other military and civilian service personnel. As the 40 Commando were based in Malta but deployed in Cyprus there was a regular shuttle service between the the two countries. The only excitement was a stop at Tripoli when the aircraft clipped the tops of some palm trees at the end of the runway during takeoff but carried on regardless! So after this trip it was back to routine.
EOKA was a Greek Cypriot nationalist guerrilla organisation.
EOKA fought a campaign for the end of British rule in Cyprus, for the island’s self-determination and for eventual union with Greece. It’s a long complicated story but well explained on the internet. EOKA’s main target as stated both in its initiation oath and its initial declaration of existence, was the British military. During the course of the Cyprus insurrection, 105 British servicemen were killed as well as 51 members of the police. Colonial and civilian police officers were targeted along with British expatriates who were targeted due to their nationality. So one can appreciate the anxiety of the service families left in Malta when their men were in Cyprus.
Other “adventures’ with the Marine Commandos
There were other “adventures” with the Commandos as I gradually came to know them better working in the same medical centre, taking their sick parades when their own MO was away and providing medical services for their families.
The Commandos were an interesting group who seemed to enjoy severe physical activities that involved some degree of risk and danger – the more the better. They were definitely very tough individuals. My heart would sink when a cheerful marine would say, “We’re doing something today that would appeal to you Doc!”.
The first of these was a diving exercise wearing underwater breathing apparatus. Pure oxygen was used in those days and the tanks were small – I believe there were some problems with pure oxygen and eventually the gas was changed to compressed air. I quite enjoyed this, my only problem was I found it difficult to sink and each time I came to the surface I was fitted with more weights until eventually I stopped popping up!
This was fine and I was pleased to perform reasonably well when I became familiar with the apparatus but that was not the end. Some weeks later “Hi Doc! You know how you enjoyed the diving, well we’re diving again but jumping into the water from a low flying transport aircraft. You’re very welcome to come along. Sure you’d enjoy it”. On this occasion I declined their kind offer.
North African exercise with 40 Commando
The other occasion when I was involved in significant military activity was in 1958 in North Africa with 40 Commando in “amphibious manoeuvres”. Major Irwin, a regular RAMC doctor, and myself went along to provide general medical support if anyone became ill rather than take part in the physical action – that was covered by the Commando doctor, Lt Commander Guy Bradford.
There had been some concerns regarding the situation in North Africa hence the exercise was planned as a show of presence. A contingent of commandos and vehicles would land on the Libyan beaches near the Egyptian border and during a week would drive along the coast road to Tripoli. On the way the troops would have various military exercises. Major Irwin and I had a Land Rover and driver and an ambulance and driver and an orderly with a selection of medical supplies as our part of the convoy. The vehicles were landed from a large LST at a different part of the beach but part of the excise for the troops was to make an assault on the beach. I was designated to land on the beach with them!
First we had to transfer from the large LST to the much smaller landing LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle and Personnel). This involved climbing down a net over the side of the ship and jumping into the LCVP. (photo similar). This was not easy as there was quite a swell and the smaller landing craft kept rising and falling so one had to wait until it rose then jump onto it.. For the commandos this was everyday routine but to us it was rather stressful! We then went to the landing area of the beach in the smaller LCPV. I had various pieces of equipment in a oblong doctor’s bag for emergencies during the landing.. When we neared the beach the front of the landing craft went down and everyone rushed forward. (Photos depict not ours but similar landings). Unfortunately, the water was at least waist deep and I dropped my medical bag. Fortunately a friendly commando retrieved it for me.
We joined our vehicles and the exercise began.
We would drive one to two hundred miles each day and the commandos would do military exercises on the way. I decided to sleep in the ambulance as there were definite scorpions about.
On one evening the men were fooling about with a scorpion around a camp fire trying to make it sting itself. As I was not keen to be treating scorpion stings and had my boots on I went over to the group and trod on it. There were various mutterings about spoil sport! Their fire was not going well so I went to the ambulance and brought over a metal tin of surgical spirit and poured this over the fire. There was a flash, the tin exploded into a flat piece of metal but the fire was now burning brightly. They thanked me – I was lucky not to be injured.
We travelled from the east to west along the Libyan coastline starting near the Egyptian border east of Tobruk and finishing at Tripoli. The distance was in the region of 650 miles and mostly along roads of variable quality surrounded by sand. There are a few things I remember about the journey.
The young army driver of my Land Rover had a habit of “crab driving”, going from side to side which after a few hundred miles was very irritating, So I had to have a word with him about that.
Another thing we noticed was whenever the convoy stopped, however distant for apparent civilisation, there was always one or more local nomads appeared from over the sand dunes sometimes with local souvenirs for sale.
One of the more interesting sights on the route towards the end of our journey was a visit to the ruins of Leptis Magna, which are located in Khoms, 130 km (81 miles) east of Tripoli, on the coast where the Wadi Lebda meets the sea. Apparently, the site is one of best preserved Roman ruins in the Mediterranean.(en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leptis-Magna).
When we eventually arrived in Tripoli the convoy parked in a large open area in the city. Some of the local people gathered round the vehicles. We thought they looked hungry so we threw some of our packed food that we had left to them. They did not appreciate our kindness, threw it back and pelted us with stones! We were quite ready to fly back to Malta and were very grateful not to be stationed in Libya.
Letter of thanks from Brigadier Houghton to Col. Richards
Some time after we returned to duties in Malta I received a nice letter from Colonel Richards RAMC, Deputy Director of Medical Services Malta. I knew Colonel Richards quite well by this time as he also lived in St Patrick’s Mess. In fact we frequently had breakfast together at 8am. Most of the other officers had very early breakfast but there was no point in my eating very early and then waiting for patients to arrive at the medical centre. So it happened that the Colonel and I were frequently the only two having breakfast in the mess when the others had gone to work. During the summer the working day started early and there was time off after lunch in the afternoon when the temperature was very high. Work stopped in the afternoons in the summer and the shops closed to reopen in the evenings.
I copied the letter as I was impressed and also pleased that we had done well.
During my time in Malta Brigadier Robert Houghton (1912-2011) was the overall commander of the Commando Brigade comprising 40 Command and 3 HG Commando. I saw him professionally on a number of occasions and also taught his adjutant how to give anti-snake venom injections for when the Brigadier travelled to N. Africa.
He had a very distinguished career in the Marines after being taken prisoner for 411 days in the failed raid on Dieppe in August 1942. In August 1957 he was appointed Commander 3rd Commando Brigade, which was based in Malta. In 1959 he was appointed commanding officer of the Royal Marines in Deal and commandant of the Royal Marines School of Music. Promoted to major general on 4 September 1961, his last two appointments were as Director Joint Warfare Staff at the Ministry of Defence and Major-General Royal Marines in Portsmouth. He was appointed Companion of the Order of the Bath and retired in 1964.
The more I think about my time in Malta the more memories keep returning but I’m not sure they would be of much interest to readers. So perhaps I’ll finish with a word about my last day in Valetta.
Adventure with duty free watches
Service personnel were allowed to purchase items such as watches duty free to have returned to them only when they left the island. I bought a Rolex Tudor (photo) with gold case and gold back for which I think I paid £18 and an extra £5 for the gold back. I can’t remember exactly how much the watch cost.
On the last day in Malta we had a rather long cerebration at lunchtime in Valetta and, walking for a taxi, I passed a jewellers. In the window was a Rolex Oyster priced at £27 (photo). What a bargain I thought. I’ll buy it and offer one of my watches to my brother Douglas when I get home. So I spent my last £27 on the Rolex.
Now I had problems. The gold Rolex Tudor would be given to me at the airport and would obviously be declared and not due for duty. However, the new Rolex Oyster would need to be declared and duty would need to be paid. I did not have any money left so I wore it. All went well. However, when I asked my brother Douglas if he would like to buy one of the watches he said, “I’ve got a watch. What would I do with another one?”. So I still have the two watches in 2022!
I certainly enjoyed my stay on Malta. Although I had a interesting and happy 2 years there, I did not follow up a suggestion from our Colonel that I apply to stay on in the regular RAMC with the opportunity to receive higher surgical training while receiving a good salary as an army officer. Instead I opted to return to the NHS as a junior doctor in the Accident and Emergency Department at the Leeds General Infirmary. I would add I have never regretted that decision to return to the NHS..