Saturday, 25 May 2019

Travel: Malta and Gozo: a potted history

I recently visited Malta. The island and its nearby smaller sister-island of Gozo are unique in many ways. Malta is rocky, with thin soil on top of the limestone base, and is almost wholly without rivers. (Gozo, having more clay in its makeup, is rather greener) The stone, being rather soft, has been eroded into unusual shapes, and has given rise to natural features like the Blue Grotto

 and the "inland sea" at Dwejra, reached through a narrow passage (though the famous "Azure Window" there has now collapsed into the sea).


   During the last Ice Age there was a land bridge northwards to Sicily and Italy, and as the increasing cold drove subtropical animals southwards, they reached Malta, from where they could advance no further; so when the ice melted and sea levels rose, they were cut off. The poor vegetation and lack of many natural predators meant that evolutionary natural selection produced and extraordinary range of creatures, all now extinct, such as dwarf elephants and hippos alongside giant dormice. The bones of many of these strange beasts, all now extinct, can be seen at the archaeological musem at Ghar Dalam in the south-east of Malta, near Marsaxlokk. 


In the Neolithic period, some time before 3000 B.C., much earlier than the Pyramids, an unknown people built temples of enormous stones at Ggigantija, Hagar Qim and several other sites. The absence of large trees on the islands meant the stones were apparently rolled into place on pieces of limstone roughly carved into balls.


Then, approximately 500 years later, these people disappeared; the temples were abandoned and only rediscovered recently.


In recorded history the islands were occupied by a succession of neighbouring powers: the Carthaginians, the Romans and then the Byzantines. In A.D. 60 Saint Paul was shipwrecked on a tiny islet off the east coast on his way to Rome, and according to tradition converted the Roman governor Publius to Cristianity. There are masses of early Christian catacombs below Rabat in the centre of Malta.


 In 870 came Moslems from North Africa, who bequeathed Arabic place-names which are still in use, such as Mdina and Rabat, and also introduced dry-farming techniques, terracing the hillsides with drystone walls to create tiny fields. The result of all this was a Maltese language that is like no other: of Punic and Arabic roots but with borrowings from French, Italian and English. Until recently it had no written form; then it was rendered into the Latin alphabet, with often confusing results.


Roger, the Norman King of Sicily took the islands in 1090, and for the next 500 years they were ruled by whoever controlled southern Italy: Normans, Germans, French and Spaniards. But in 1530 there came a major and decisive change.
   The Knights of the Hospital of St. John, commonly known as the Hospitallers, were an order of fighting monks, originally established soon after the First Crusade. After the final expulsion of crusaders from the Holy Land, they took to the sea, basing themselves first at Cyprus and then at Rhodes, harrying the Turks with their swift war galleys. In 1523 they were driven from Rhodes after a protracted and bitter Turkish siege,and in 1530 the Emperor Charles V granted them Malta as a base. The island was in many ways inferior to Rhodes, but enjoyed the great benefit of a deep and easily defended harbour. This is the view across the Grand Harbour, from where the city of Valletta now stands. The Knights established themselves on the twin promentaries of Birgu and Senglea (The guns in the foreground are British, dating from the 19th century)



The Knights had little contact with the native peoples of Malta, who were for the most part illiterate peasants; but the Maltese probably appreciated that the Knights at least protected them against pirates and slave-raiders from north Africa.
   They had only a few years in which to fortify their new home before the Sultan Suleymain the Magnificent despatched an enormous expedition to destroy them once and for all. From May to September 1565 the Knights survived the siege, though barely. The old capital of Mdina in the centre of the island also held out, and eventually the Turks withdrew, having suffered huge losses. (I shall be describing the great siege in more detail in a later Blog post).

The fortifications around the Grand Harbour are very impressive




but it should be remembered that all these massive defences were erected after the siege, in case the Turks ever attacked again. The same applies to the equally impressive fortifications at Mdina

and the citadel of the town now called Victoria, on Gozo


   After the siege the city of Valletta was built; named in honour of the Grand Master who had successfully repelled the Turks, Jean Parisot de la Vallette, who died in 1568. It is very much a planned city, with a gridiron street plan, magnificent Baroque buildings

and the "Co-Catherdral" of St John the Baptist, which is supremely and stupendously over-the-top. It is home to two Caravaggio paintings,one of them enormous!

In fact,the Turks never did attempt another invasion, and the next time Malta was attacked was by Napoleon in 1798, on his way to Egypt. The Knights promptly surrendered without firing a shot. A few years later the French occupying force surrendered to the British navy, and Malta became part of the British Empire 

After a long period of peace, the coming of the North African campaign in the Second World War found Malta perilously positioned right on the crossroads of the supply routes of British and Axis forces; and with only a handful of outdated aircraft for its defence. The country was heavily bombed by the Germans and Italians, with the dockworks in the Grand Harbour being the main target; and submarines placed the islands under a tight blockade. Spitfires and Hurricanes were dispatched in summer 1942; but even so that August the country was within a fortnight of being forced to surrender by sheer starvation before the battered remains of a convoy of food and fuel were towed into the Grand Harbour, and Malta survived. Malta was granted the George Cross for its heroism: a unique award. 
   There is a fine exhibition of Malta in the war at Fort Elmo in Valletta. Every day there are ceremonial firing of British cannon from Valletta in celebration of Malta's survival.

In 1964 Malta became and independent state within the Commonwealth, and voted to become a republic ten years later.    

Friday, 17 May 2019

Memories: the 1966 World Cup

I watched the 1966 World Cup final, and England's famous victory over West Germany, at the home of a friend. His father insisted on watching the match on ITV, so I never heard the famous commentary, "They think it's all over... it is now!" which greeted Geoff Hurst's final goal. But I was left with several memories of the tournament besides this. 
   The best match, I have always felt, was Hungary vs. Brazil, in one of the pools. In the first half the Hungarians scored two goals, each quickly followed by an Brazilian equaliser. Pele wasn't playing because of injury, and a certain Florian Albert dominated midfield. In those days no substitutes, no even in the event of serious injury; so when one of the Hungarians (I can't remember his name) broke his collarbone, he continued playing with his arm in a sling. The final score was 4-2 to Hungary.
  In the quarter-finals, England were up against Argentina, whilst simultaneously Portugal played North Korea. One of the stars of the tournament was Eusebio, an incredibly brilliant striker, whereas the North Koreans were complete unknowns who had not been expected to get this far. So the expectation was that if we could win what promised to be a tough match with Argentina, we would meet Portugal in the semifinal. 
  On television I watched, as Rattin, the Argentinian captain, committed foul after foul and disputed evey decision. There were no coloured cards for offences in those days, and eventually the ref said to him something like, "I've had more than enough form you: on your bike!" and sent Rattin off. But Rattin refused to leave the pitch, and the match was held up for some time. During this impasse, scores from the other match were flashed up on the bottom of the screen. They read, "Portugal 0, North Korea 1", then "Portugal 0, North Korea 2", and "Portugal 0, North Korea 3"; which was quickly repeated in block capitals in case viewers didn't believe it. In the end, England managed to beat a ten-man Argentina, whereas in the other match the North Koreans couldn't cope with Eusebio and resorted to hacking him down and conceding two penalities, so the final score was 5-3 to Portugal. 
   But what this showed was that the Portugese defence was pretty rubbish, and that provided we could keep Eusebio quiet, we should be able to beat them in the semi-final; which was in fact what happened. But what I will always retain as a TV memory is Rattin arguing with the ref whilst across the bottom of the screen was the message, "REPEAT: PORTUGAL 0, NORTH KOREA 3"

Friday, 3 May 2019

1938: the Munich Conference

After Hitler's successful Anschluss with Austria in March 1938, it was in retrospect obvious that his next target would be Czechoslovakia; a far stronger state which was, furthermore, allied with France and the Soviet Union. It was necessary for Hitler's expansionist plans that Czechoslovakia should be destroyed: he had described it as "an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the heart of Germany", and at the Hossbach meeting the previous autumn he had discussed various scenarios in which he could crush the Czechs without provoking a general European war. Soon afterwards he had directed his generals to give priority to "Plan Green": a pre-emptive strike against Czechoslovakia.
   Hitler's excuse for an attack would be the matter of the Sudetenland: the western fringe of Czechoslovakia.The frontier between Czechoslovakia and Germany was a natural geographical one, marked by a ring of mountains to provide a strong defensive position, rather than an ethnic one. The Sudetenland was inhabited mostly by ethnic Germans; though these people had previously been citizens of the Austrian Empire, not of the prewar German Reich. Hitler now instructed Konrad Henlein, the leader of the Sudeten Germans, to keep making demands which the government in Prague could not accept. However, Hitler had no specific plans at this stage, and on May 20th he told his generals that it was not his intention to attack Czechoslovakia in the immediate future.
   This patient approach, however, was to change abruptly. On May 20th, in response to rumours of an imminent German attack, the Czechs ordered partial mobilisation of their forces, and Britain and France warned Hitler of the dangers of war. Hitler was forced to deny that he had any aggressive intentions (which was in fact true at this stage) and felt humiliated. A week later he held another meeting with his generals, where he told them, "It is my unalterable decision to smash Czechoslovakia by military action in the near future". A new order was issued for "Plan Green", with a covering note that it go ahead before October 1st.

The Czechs were allied with France and Russia, though not with Britain; though if the French were dragged into war, Britain would certainly support them. But would the Czechs put up any resistance unless they were certain of help from their allies? and did the French really want to fight? and did the western powers really want the Russians to be involved? Hitler was well aware of these imponderables; he was not seeking a general European war, and he saw his political role as engineering a situation whereby he could destroy Czechoslovakia without other countries becoming involved. The early summer of 1938 accordingly featured psychological warfare, where German propaganda trumpeted the alleged sufferings of the Sudeten Germans, together with vague threats of military intervention on their behalf.

On the opposing side, the initiative was taken by the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. Now in his seventies, he had not taken part in the First World War, but he was well aware of the immense suffering involved (his cousin and closest friend had been killed in action), and he foresaw that any future war would be even worse. He accordingly set himself the task of preserving peace. His policy of "appeasement" was based upon the acknowledgement that some German demands were justified, and ultimately that Hitler was a reasonable man who could be persuaded to refrain from war if a sensible deal could be negotiated.
   Accordingly, representatives of Chamberlain's government, far from urging the Czechs to stand firm and assuring them of British support, now instructed them to make concessions on the Sudetenland, and warned them that if they insisted on fighting over the issue, they would be on their own. The Czechs in their turn never did threaten to fight whatever the cost. The result was that on September 4th the Czech government finally conceded autonomy for the Sudetenland.

But of course this did not end the crisis, because Hitler was never interested in the Sudeten German issue except as a way of putting further pressure on the Czechs and their allies. Accordingly on September 12th he delivered a violent speech in which he made further demands and directly threatened war. 
   As the danger of war loomed, Chamberlain decided to take personal control of the situation, and accordingly on September 15th he flew to meet Hitler at the Fuhrer's mountain retreatof Berchtesgaden. We are so used to such meetings nowadays that we need to remind ourselves that it was the first time Chamberlain had ever boarded a plane,and the first time that face-to-face negotiations of this kind had ever been held. His message was to be that Britain had no objection in principle to the Sudentenland changing hands, provided it could be achieved without violence.  
   Hitler was delighted to receive him, and spoke warmly about his respect for Britain, but stressed the urgent need for the Sudeten "problem" to be solved speedily. Chamberlain returned to London, and the Czechs, under pressure from Britain and France, agreed to the secession of the Sudetenland. 
   With this agreement in his pocket, Chamberlain flew to a second meeting with Hitler on September 22nd, this time at Bad Godesberg. But to his astonishment and dismay, he was informed, "I am very sorry, but that is no longer of any use". What had happened in the interim was that Hitler had persuaded the Poles and Hungarians to make their own demands of the Czechs, and he told Chamberlain that he would be supporting them.  He now demanded that the Czechs must evacuate the Sudetenland by October 1st. 
  War now seemed imminent. Although Chamberlain was reluctant to stand firm, and his close adviror Sir Horace Wilson promised Hitler, "I will still try to make those Czechs sensible", the cabinet was divided. On September 25th decided that Britain could not recommend this new development to the Czechs, and promised to support France in the event of war. Meanwhile precautions against air raids began, gas masks were distributed and the fleet mobilised. It was at this stage that Chamberlain made his famous speech about "Quarrels in a faraway country about which we know nothing".
   Hitler's initial response was to become even more belligerent, but he quickly became aware of problems of his own. The German generals, it transpired, were alarmed at the prospect of a war on two fronts, and the German people decidedly unenthusiastic. Accordingly, when Mussolini suggested an international conference to solve the crisis, Hitler grundingly accepted. This became public in a dramatic scene in the House of Commons on September 28th: Chamberlain was speaking when a note was passed to him to say that Hitler had agreed to a conference. M.P.s met the announcement with wild cheering.

The famous Munich Conference took place on September 29th. In attendance were Hitler, Chamberlain, Mussolini and the French Prime Minister Daladier. The Czechs were not invited, and neither were the Russians, allied to the Czechs. The final agreement decreed that German troops would occupy the Sudetenland in stages, between October 1st and 10th. There would be plebiscites in disputed areas (which never took place) and the question of Polish and Hungarian demands on Czechoslovakia was left open. Britain and France gave an international guarantee to what was left of the Czech state. 
   Chamberlain returned home to a hero's welcome,as the man who had preserved peace in Europe. There was some violent criticism, notably from Churchill, but also a telegram from President Roosevelt that simply said, "Good man!" Chamberlain was accorded the rare privilege of an appearance with the Royal Family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, before cheering crowds.
   In fact, the only change achieved was that Hitler now occupied the Sudetenland in stages, instead of all at once. Soon afterwards, the Poles took Teschen from what was left of the Czech state.
   A more sensible leader than Hitler (Bismarck, for instance) would have paused for thought after this bloodless triumph. But Hitler was by no means satisfied with the Much agreement: he was heard to say, "That fellow Chamberlain with his umbrella has ruined my entry into Prague!" He now directed his energies towards destroying the rump of Czechoslovakia, and preparing theGerman public for the coming of war. 
   We now know, of course, that six months later Hitler would use divisions between Czech and Slovaks to seize Prague and set up a Reich Protectorate of Bohemia, together with a collaborationaist government in Slovakia, which was now shorn of territories grabbed by Hungary. Deprived of their defensive frontier and much of their manufacturing industry by the Munich agreement, the Czechs could put up no resistance.
   However, this blatant aggression shook British confidence in Hitler's intentions, and when in the summer of 1939 Hitler put pressure on Poland over the city of Danzig, Britain and France gave clear commitments to Poland, and much to Hitler's surprise,  declared war on Germany in September. After the feeble performance at Munich, Hitler was not planning for this.

So in retrospect, all Chamberlain achieved was to delay the outbreak of war by twelve months. Was this a correct and justifiable course of action? My next blog post on the subject will be and examination and evaluation of Chamberlain's policy.