The Malta Independent on Sunday
Lord Gort and Malta
Malta’s towns and villages have been graced by many a distinguished personality. These Maltese sons and daughters have left an undeletable mark on Malta’s history. ĦażŻebbuġ is one of these towns with a remarkable number of persons ranging from warriors, historians and heroes. Not only has Malta been regaled with such long lists of men and women noteworthy of praise and honour but Malta has also been blessed to have among its fold, foreigners who helped in its defence against the tyranny of Nazism and Fascism.
A few Sundays ago, this newspaper published a feature by Matthew Camilleri, titled, Ħaż-Żebbuġ: Birthplace of famous Maltese personalities. In reading this detailed and interesting feature, I could not help myself in not adding more to the list of personalities who over the centuries further embellished the prestige of ĦażŻebbug. On the same vein, I am also remembering in this writeup, the distinguished British personality, Field-Marshall Viscount Lord Gort V.C. who, at Haż-Żebbuġ was presented with the Sword of Honour by the Band and Allied Clubs of Malta and Gozo on 12 March 1944.
It would be superflous to recall Ħaż-Żebbuġ without mentioning Dun Mikiel Xerri, Fransesco Saverio Caruana, Mikiel Anton Vassalli, Dun Karm Psaila and so many painters and sculptors all hailing from Ħaż-Żebbuġ as Matthew Camilleri excellently included in his feature.
Reading through the souvenir programme of 12 March 1944, titled, Ceremony of Presentation of the Sword of Honour, the author mentions the following personalities who have contributed to this town:
• Mgr Buttigieg, who at the time of the Great Siege of Malta (1565) was appointed Bishop in the East and after the death of St Francis Xavier was sent as Apostolic Delegate to India
• Father Alfonso Buttigieg, who much to the honour of the name of Malta preached the Word of God among the heathens
• Marku Buttigieg, Duke of Biron and Field Marshall of the King of France
• The young Żebbug lady who became Princess of Vallakia (in ex-Yugoslavia) where her husband Bazilkon, by some thought to be himself a native of his wife’s birthplace, ruled the land – Basalicon Melitensis et milas Egregius Vallachiae Princeps.
• The nephew of the above Prince, Mgr Bogdano, a renowned and learned missionary, whom Pope Alexander VI made Archbishop of Uskob, the then capital of Albania
• Mikielang Mallia, a personal friend of Emperor Charles VI, living in Vienna
• Karlu Dimech, who is traced to have lived first in Portugal and then in Rome
Ħaż-Żebbuġ during wartime
The town was mainly a refugereceiving centre where many Maltese from hard-hit Blitz areas evacuated themselves together with their loved ones and the few belongings they could carry.
For instance, Villa Coledonia was one of these refuge centres at Ħaż-Żebbug. It was owned by Is-Sur Ġuże (Mr Ġuże) or as he was gingerly known, Is-Sur Ġuże tal-Warda, (Mr Ġuże of the rose) as he always kept a red rose tucked under the lapel of his suit.
Though a centre for evacuees, Ħaż-Żebbuġ was every so often targeted by bombers and the owners of the villa commenced shelter excavation beneath the villa. Until this was ready, the residents would quite unsafely take cover under some large arch beneath a stairway.
Even, taking cover in a shelter was fraught with danger as on the night of 29/30 April 1941, shelter number 4 in Ħaż-Żebbug, Siġġiewi Street was hit by bombs with both entrance and exit blocked. Six people lost their lives in this tragedy, three of whom were Discalced Carmelitans.
Having watched the epic film Dunkirk, I could not help admiring the portrayal of Lord Gort’s courage and determination (1886-1946). His mettle proved crucial in organising the huge armada of small boats and ships to bring back to Britain the bulk of the British Expedionary Force (BEF) in what is known as, Operation Dynamo or in more familiar terms, “The Miracle of Dunkirk”.
Some 400,000 men from the allied force were ferried over to safety from France. Although considered as a defeat it was still a victory in terms morale for the British people.
Lord Gort arrived in Malta on 6 May 1942, at the height of the Malta siege. The worst year was 1942 with 2,031 air raid warnings. Churchill had asked to replace the Governor and Commander-in-Chief, Sir William G. S. Dobbie (18791964) who flew back to England the next day.
Dobbie had previously arrived in Malta as Acting Governor and C-in-C on 28 April 1940, and it was during his governorship that Malta was awarded the George Cross. The recalling of Lord Dobbie was mainly attributed due to his poor health and exhaustion that was affecting the leadership of Malta at such a critical time.
One of the highlights of Lord Gort’s leaderhip is that he shared with the civilian population their trials and tribulations during the dark days of wartime. He opted to use a bicycle as his personal transport even though he could make use of much more comfortable means of transport. This gesture captivated the population’s attention and helped in no small way in raising their morale at a time when Malta was facing starvation and lack of fuel.
In a letter addressed to the president of St Philip Band Club, Żebbuġ the words of FieldMarshall, the then Viscout Lord Gort V.C. as Governor of Malta on 26 July 1943 expressed his enormous gratitude in serving the people of Malta as follows:
“..... Never shall I forget the days through which we passed together; never shall I forget how proud I felt, and still feel, to have been associated with the Maltese people during those difficult times. Everyone stood ready, cost what it might, determined that Malta should once again prove worthy of her glorious history.
I am proud to have had a part to play in the siege and I know that without the loyal support and cooperation of everyone in these Islands no efforts on my part would have availed.”
The sword of honour was considered as a suitable gift rather than the originally planned replica of the FieldMarshall’s Baton suggested by the St Philip Band Club. In their letter the president and honorary secretary of the St Philip Band Club had expressed that the Band and Allied Clubs of Malta presenting the Sword of Honour are the very life of the villages and towns in the islands and were the best representatives of the people.