Culture
Memories of the Santa Marija Convoy: 'The Ohio was our salvation'
Cecil Bartoli, 92, recalls the run up to that fateful day and remembers watching the stricken convoy enter the Grand Harbour.

Rebecca Anastasi

Memories of the Santa Marija Convoy: “The Ohio was our salvation”

Cecil Bartoli with an artist's interpretation of the Santa Marija Convoy. The picture is a copy of an original by Edwin Galea. 

“During the war I saw so much, and, at the time, all I wished for was a camera - just a box camera.” Cecil Bartoli, 92, has many stories to tell. He was only a teenager – “a daredevil” as he describes himself then - when Malta was blitzed by aircraft bombers during the war. “Malta had a very hard time. We had over 3,000 air raids and we used to live like rabbits. As soon as we heard the siren, everyone would go down to the shelter.”

Memories of the Santa Marija Convoy: “The Ohio was our salvation”

hoasauom / Instagram

But, while his “mother used to be terrified” and take all his siblings underground, Cecil and his brother, Harold, used to run up the belfry in the Floriana church, on the Granaries, adjacent to their family home. “We used to go to the roof and watch from underneath the Floriana church bells. There were two church bells – one each – which we used as steel helmets,” he laughs. “I was in my teens and very naughty. We used to see a lot of dive bombing. The sound was terrifying! We even saw the bomb falling on the opera house!” He was also witness to “dog fights” – planes battling it out in the skies above – and to the sight of pilots descending with a parachute.

Cecil’s remarkable memory recalls specifics – he tells me that the aircraft which bombed the Royal Opera House “was coming from Hamrun” – as well as moments which impacted the family directly. “One time when we were living in Floriana – we were evacuated three or four times inland to places like Birkirkara and Rabat – an Axis mine on a parachute went astray from the Grand Harbour and fell on the granaries. Some soldiers tried to save it from exploding, but they didn’t survive. All our windows were shattered in the blast!” He even remembers the timpana the family housekeeper had cooked that day, saying it had to be thrown away because of all the glass, in a time “when we needed food more than anything.” 

Memories of the Santa Marija Convoy: “The Ohio was our salvation”

Cecil Bartoli after the war, as a Territorial Officer

Safety was a priority. Being a boarder in a school in Cottonera - an area which was heavily bombed due to the presence of the dockyard just half a mile away – Cecil was evacuated, together with his schoolmates, to Mdina, where they would be better protected from the onslaught. “We were around 100 boys and we frequently had to sleep in the shelter filled with bunk beds.” One day, he witnessed another air raid – “enormous” is how he describes it – on the airfield in Ta’ Qali. “These were not dive bombers but Junker 88 aircraft. Air raids were so common that we would recognise the planes from the noise they made. I counted about 100 aircraft, and they attacked so that the British planes couldn’t land back down.”

During that fateful year, 1942, the situation aggravated with supplies, such as food, ammunition and aircraft fuel, running perilously low. “People don’t know what we went through during the war. We had nothing. We had absolutely nothing. Our food was rationed. Even our guns and ammunition were rationed. As a matter of fact, I saw, with my naked eyes, submarines coming into Malta with aviation spirit in jerrycans. Nobody knew this, but they used to come in.”

When Operation Pedestal got underway, Cecil tells me they had “maybe a week’s ration” left. “It was terrible, and the Ohio was our salvation.” He describes the large number of people who went to the bastions and the Grand Harbour “to see our salvation coming in, escorted by two destroyers”. How did everyone know when it was coming in? “I don’t know how we knew, but I remember that everybody went. We used to get the newspaper – it never missed one edition during the war – and we didn’t have any television, then but we all knew somehow.”

Memories of the Santa Marija Convoy: “The Ohio was our salvation”

maltamilitarybookshops / Instagram

The sight of the destroyer limping into the harbour is imprinted in his memory. “I remember the sight distinctly. The Ohio had a big hole in the front, having been torpedoed. And the two destroyers on either side were apparently keeping it afloat. It was such precious cargo that they had to get it in at all costs!” Indeed, the convoy had started out from Britain with 50 ships, but these had been bombed en route, with the Ohio also afflicted. “It was dilapidated by the time it had reached Malta,” Cecil explains.  The convoy brought with it essential resources, without which Malta would have floundered: more food, more ammunition and – critically – more aviation fuel. Cecil describes the emotions the Ohio also brought with it. “There was a lot of celebration because it gave us a new lease of life. The feeling was of great satisfaction. We had been on the brink of starvation, and now people had a little more hope to live.”

Memories of the Santa Marija Convoy: “The Ohio was our salvation”

mynameismalta / Instagram

Following the war, Cecil joined the Territorial Officers and eventually opened up a business with his brother, Harold. He never stopped wanting that box camera, though. Over the years, his passion for photography and film saw him travel the world, video camera in hand, recording new memories. 

14th August 2022


Rebecca Anastasi
Written by
Rebecca Anastasi
Rebecca has dedicated her career to writing and filmmaking, and is committed to telling stories from this little rock in the Mediterranean.

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