The Siege of Malta Monument
Earlier this year a friend and I took the time to visit the Siege of Malta Monument in London’s Byward Street, not far from Tower Hill. I had multiple motives for visiting it: I wanted to see it for its geological interest and for the history it commemorates as well as wanting to see it because I have personal memories of the island - albeit childhood memories from the late 1960s/early 1970s, some two decades after the Second World War and the siege in question had ended.
In terms of its geology, the monument is a block of 23 million year old limestone from a bed of rock called the Scutella Bed, a layer of the snappily-named Lower Coralline Limestone Formation. It is worth commenting that the Scutella Bed, lain down in a shallow sea, is named after the many fossils of shield-shaped echinoids (sea urchins) it contains, and this is a rare (if not unique?) opportunity to look at it in the UK. If I remember rightly, ‘scutella’ actually means ‘little shield.’ The rock of the monument actually came from Gozo, the largest of Malta’s sister islands. It is starting to look rather sad, blackened and weary now, which is a real shame.
Malta certainly deserves this monument – it took a tremendous pounding from thousands of bombing raids and was indeed under siege by Axis forces. Relief came not a moment too soon, with islanders and Allied Forces alike going hungry as supplies ran low. The engraved black basalt plaques on the monolith’s four sides tell the story. I can only salute the people who were there.
I remember, from living there, the still-extant air raid shelters and the obsolete or abandoned coastal fortifications and defences as well as, for instance, RAF Luqa and the naval facilities still in use. Living at RAF Kalafrana, I remember the redundant buildings and the hangars by the slipways. There were doubtless many more recent military relics but I was still – just, by a matter of weeks - in junior school when we left to return to Britain shortly before Dom Mintoff was elected.
In contrast, what I remember of Malta is seeing the stunning Mediterranean blue of the sea at Sliema on our first day there, swimming on term-time afternoons as well as during school holidays, the colour of the rock, the smell of hot dust, tea made with condensed milk, visits to American aircraft carriers (they were huge!) and to a printing press, my First Holy Communion, the brilliance of the stars in the unpolluted night sky, eating wild prickly pears, seeing my first ever glow worms, and the sheer noise of a Buccaneer jet turning around 100 yards from the sports field we were on one day. I remember the citadel of Mdina, the dome at Mosta, the shops of Valletta, the fortifications around Grand Harbour, and the sheer history around us. I remember how the vivid greens of winter contrasted with the dusty browns and yellows of summer...
To my innocent eyes, Malta was in many ways a paradise; to my father, posted there by the RAF, it was a foreign posting to be treasured – but also the potential scene of another conflict, even worse than the World War he had already fought in, and one bearing the scars of all-too recent war. The Siege of Malta was called that for a reason, and the island was awarded the George Cross for a reason.
Going to Byward Street to see the monument meant so much more than going to see, say, an unusual variety of granite in a shop front. This may not be the most technically-adept photo I have have ever taken but it is one I will treasure more than most, and it evokes a whole host of memories and thoughts.