While Italian and German bombers brought havoc to the Maltese islands, the problem of supplies was soon felt. An invasion threat in July 1941 ended in complete failure when coast defenders spotted E-boats of the Italian Decima Flottiglia 10th Fleet MAS. Whilst people suffered hunger, a final assault to neutralise the island was ordered by the German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring. However, the people's heroism withstood every attack. On the 15 April 1942 King George VI awarded the 'George Cross' to the people of Malta in appreciation of their heroism.
The George Cross was awarded during the worst period for the Allies during the Second World War, as the Axis-force clearly appeared to have the upper hand. German planes were striking the island around the clock, day and night, with an incredible amount of bombs and munitions in an attempt to neutralise the British bases in Malta, since these were constantly getting in the way of their naval attempts to supply Rommel's North African campaign. Malta's geographic position, wedged as it is between Italy and North Africa, as well as dividing the Mediterranean basin into east and west put the islands in heavy danger. Malta-based British aircraft could reach as far as Tripoli in Libya to the south, Tunisia to the west and right over German bases in Italy; on Pantelleria, Sicily and even as far as the port of Naples farther to the north. Thus, standing right on the route of Italian convoys supplying Rommel's Afrika Korps.
At the time of the George Cross award, military resources and food rations in Malta were practically finished. Fuel was restricted to military action and heavily rationed, the population was on the brink of starvation, and even ammunition was running out, so much that Anti-Aircraft (AA) guns could only fire a few rounds per day.
Italian battleships of the Regia Marina out-gunned the British, yet the Royal Navy was far from out-classed. The German airforce, had superior aircraft until late in the day, when Spitfires were finally sent to Malta. Also at this time, German and Italian strategists were planning 'Operation Hercules', a sea and air invasion of the Maltese Islands, an effort continuously postponed - until it was too late, because the Maltese Islands finally received their vital supply of fuel, food and munitions.
On August 15 1942, on the feast of Santa Maria, a convoy of Royal and Merchant Navy ships made port at Valletta's Grand Harbour, after completing one of the more heroic maritime episodes in recent history. To-date, this event remains commemorated in Malta in remembrance of that gift from heaven, the Convoy of Santa Maria, and all the men who lived and died in this and previous attempts to bring supplies to Malta.
The George Cross is a decoration, of equal status with the Victoria Cross, instituted by George VI on 24 September 1940, replacing the Empire Gallantry Medal. While intended mainly for civilians, it is awarded also to certain fighting services, confined however to actions for which purely military honours are not normally given. This medal is awarded only for acts of the greatest heroism or the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger.
"To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.", (sgd) George R.I.
Lieutenant-General Sir William Dobbie answered:
By God's help Malta will not weaken but will endure until victory is won.
The citation read by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he visited Malta in December 1943, also commemorating the fortitude and strength of the island reads:
"In the name of the USA I salute the Island of Malta, its people and its defenders, who, in the cause of freedom and justice and decency throughout the world, have rendered valorous service far above and beyond the call of duty.
Under repeated fire from the skies Malta stood alone and unafraid in the centre of the sea, one tiny, bright flame in the darkness - a beacon of hope in the clearer days when which have come.
Malta's bright story of human fortitude and courage will be read by posterity with wonder and gratitude through all the ages.
What was done in this island maintains all the highest traditions of gallant men and women who from the beginning of time have lived and died to preserve the civilisation for all mankind.", (sgd) Franklin D. Roosevelt, 7 December 1943.
The Cross and the King's message are today found in the War Museum in Fort Saint Elmo, Valletta. The fortitude of the population under sustained enemy air raids and a naval blockade which almost saw them starved into submission, won widespread admiration in Britain and other Allied nations. Some historians argue that the award was in fact a propaganda gesture to justify the huge losses sustained by Britain to prevent Malta from capitulating as Singapore had done in the Battle of Singapore. Some Maltese claim that a foreign award does not belong on the nation's flag.
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