Monday, July 10, 2017

Book Review 393: Siege: Malta 1940-1943

SIEGE: Malta 1940-1943, by Ernle Bradford. 304 pages, illustrated. Morrow, $19.95

A few years ago, I would have predicted that sieges were a thing of the past. Under 21st century conflict conditions, with  light-armed guerrillas usually having the upper hand, there seemed hardly any opportunity for an army to mount a siege.

That turned out to be incorrect. In Syria and Iraq, we have seen the unexpected sight of guerrillas mounting successful sieges, and, almost as surprising, armies besieging guerrillas.

There were two very long sieges during World War II. The siege of Leningrad has been widely covered; the siege of Malta much less so. Yet the (second) Siege of Malta presents some interesting phenomena, worth reviewing in the context of 2017.

Ernle Bradford’s history is short on statistics and details but usefully informed by a man who lived on Malta for 10 years, although after the war. Bradford, a sailor who wrote extensively about places in the Mediterranean, understands that Malta’s survival depended, in principal part, on its geography:

Two small islands (Malta is about four times the size of Manhattan and had a population of about 250,000 in 1940) made out of limestone. Easy to tunnel into, hard to disturb with high explosive. Hard to storm, with steep cliffs on the south and small beaches and wide creeks (what Americans would call inlets) on the north, fairly easy to defend, especially when indestructible forts had accumulated over 400 years.

As a result, and because of a vast overestimation of the capabilities of air power, Malta became the first place to be besieged almost entirely by air. (Submarines and light naval forces were used to cut off relief ships, but air attack was where the heavy fighting occurred.)

The Royal Navy, the Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Air Force took enormous casualties to keep supplies flowing to the island, and by the end of 1942 the island was on very short rations. (Nothing like as stringent as the besieged at Leningrad or Japanese bases in the Pacific faced.)

The story of the Pedestal convoy, and especially of the two civilian seamen who reboarded the abandoned tanker Ohio and fought off the Luftwaffe by themselves, would have dressed up “Malta” a great deal, but Bradford does not tell it. (Sam Moses does, in a 2007 book, "At All Costs.")

The inspiring story he does tell is the staunch stand of the Maltese, who had come to like their position as the home of the Mediterranean Fleet over generations. (This did not keep the from choosing independence after the war.)

Of interest in the light of the sieges of Aleppo or Mosul is the list of diseases that exploded in the undernourished population: vitamin-deficiency diseases like pellagra, ulcerative stomatitis, rickets and even — on an island that grew lemons — scurvy; trachoma and eye diseases (blamed on dust from explosions); tuberculosis, typhoid and dysentery.

Those were expected. Also expected were mental breakdowns, including what is now so popular, post-traumatic stress disorder.

That did not happen. Mental cases went down.

This despite absorbing the greatest weight of aerial bombs of any target during the war.

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