Leaving the Navy to follow forbidden love
Back in the 1960s, Malta was very different from what it is today. The country was still trying to get back on its feet after the war and many still struggled to make ends meet. Despite all this, the mood was positive. It was, after all, a time of peace and the young people who lived in those years, Maltese and foreign, wanted to make it all worth living for.
Relationships did not generally last long and serious affairs between women serving in the Royal Navy and Maltese was practically forbidden.
Coming from Sheffield to serve with the British Navy, Elaine Zerafa (née Eyre) was in her twenties and one of the 250 WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service staff, commonly referred to as ‘the Wrens’) stationed on the island.
“With all the ships coming in and out of Malta’s ports, the parties were incredible,” she recalls, as she shares her story with The Malta Independent. She explained that steady relationships were not common, in fact relationships would usually only last for a couple of days. “A ship might come in one day and leave two days later. Still, there was me and a friend of mine who were going steady with two American guys. You would only go out with a Maltese man if there are no ships coming in.”
Her friend’s boyfriend arrived but she was left waiting, that is until another friend came by and asked if she would like to go out for a meal the next day. “I asked her with whom and she said she was going out with a Maltese chap who was going to bring a friend. I asked her who was paying – and she said they were – so I said ‘yes’.” The four of them went for a rabbit meal at a place in Qawra – her friend, who was accompanied by a certain Max, and Elaine and a Maltese man who was soon moving to Australia. This man went to the other side of the world and that was it.
The following week, Elaine was sitting quietly outside Whitehall Mansions and Max turned up. She told him that her American friend was stuck in Naples and he decided to take her out to a popular dance club in Rabat.
“That night went really well, but then I didn’t see him for a couple of weeks so when my American boyfriend came back to Malta, I accepted his invitation to a party.”
But Elaine had already set up a date with Max and so she had to find a good excuse to explain her being absent. The navy had taught her some good tricks. “I remember putting a wet handkerchief over the phone to distort my voice and I told Max that I couldn’t make it that night
because of tonsillitis.”
But Max and Elaine would eventually meet again.
“That same day, Max came to our residence with a box of chocolates because he believed my story that I was sick. But the girls in the regulating office had seen me sign out and told Max I was not in the sick bay – I was out at a party!”
Max found another girl and went to the same party, so the four of them ended up going out altogether.
“This is how it started, although at that point I didn’t really know him that well. We had only met on and off, just like everyone else.”
One day Max went to talk to Elaine and told her he wouldn’t be able to see her for a couple of weeks as the daughter of a friend was coming to Malta and was expecting to meet him.
“Relationships were just like that – open-ended. It was a time of parties. I remember me and my friends would rent an apartment, fill the bath tub with alcohol and bits of fruit and have a good time.”
But despite what many people think, the Wrens’ time in Malta did not mean sleeping around. They had strict orders to be inside by a certain time and serious relationships were basically forbidden.
“You have to understand that the British government would not invest all that money in secret jobs just for you to get pregnant. We had to behave and this is why they flipped when they realised that Max and I were in a sort-of-serious relationship.”
The Navy did, in fact, find out that Elaine was dating ‘a local’ and were not happy about it – in
fact it did try to physically separate the couple.
“They called me in and told me that they were going to transfer me to Hong Kong because they did not want me dating a Maltese.”
One particular Admiral did not agree with the Navy’s view and decided to meet Max. “They met and the Admiral told me that Max looked like a nice guy. Then he just opened his diary and started leafing through it.” Then the Admiral looked at Elaine and asked: “Are you free on the 27April?”, to which she replied “What for?” “To get married,” he said, to her surprise.
And that is how, on 27 April 1967, Max and Elaine came to be married in Malta. Before she could tie the knot, Elaine had to leave the Wrens. “I remember Max flew to England to meet my family and then he bought me this ring from Zachary Street that was too big even for my thumb! I had to leave the Wrens and from that day onwards, I was a civilian again.”
Asked if she missed those days in the RN, Elaine says that she did, especially the very particular sense of humour that people in uniform have. “Being in the Navy, you get to see a lot of horrible things and so your sense of humour is somehow shaped by it all.”
Having stopped pursuing her passion for dancing to join the Navy, back as a civilian Elaine found an opportunity to dance again by joining a teacher in Malta. Today, she serves as Secretary to the Malta branch of the Royal Naval Association and, at the age of 75, still holds dance lessons three times a week.