“From the bell tower I saw the bomb which destroyed the Royal Opera House”
The feast of Santa Maria is also linked to the WWII convoy which brought provisions to Malta so that the island could continue fighting and not surrender. There are not many people left who remember the war and the convoy, but among these are Doris Cannataci and Cecil Bartoli who described their memories of the war to TVM.
The noise of the air raid sirens still echoes in the mind of Doris Cannataci who remembers the first hiding place her mother used to hide her and her siblings in, as if it were yesterday.
“My father had just died. I only had my mother. How did she used to look out for us? She was even more frightened than we were. She used to ensure that as soon as the air raid started, we were all gathered round her and we would go hide under the table.”
On the other hand, Cecil Bartoli was rather naughty. Together with his brother, they would escape from under their mother’s eye to climb up the bell tower of St Publius Church.
“We had two huge bells above us which were like steel helmets. We used to see everything. The dive bombing. Everything”
From the bell tower, Cecil said that he saw a war plane drop a bomb. “It was coming from the direction of Hamrun and it dropped its bomb which passed from over us and exploded in Valletta. We then learnt that they had bombed the Opera House. Madonna. That was devastating.”
Doris recalls how her mother used to pray with all her might in front of a portrait of Our Lady of Sorrows. “She prayed for the Madonna to protect us even in the shelter, because there were those who died inside the shelter.”
Cecil believes that it was Our Lady who saved him from the jaws of death. “We were scared. One time a bomb passed right by us. I thank God that it did not explode. It exploded further down on the pavement.”
Doris’ mother decided to go to Gozo with her children. There the attacks were not as frequent as they were in Malta. She said that they very lucky not to miss getting on the Gozo ferry.
Doris Cannataci said, “My mother was holding the painting of Our Lady in her arms, and told her, “Madonna if you wish it to be so, the ferry can stop, and suddenly we saw that the ferry had stopped, a fishing boat came for us and took us onto the ferry,”
They dug out a shelter at Wied tal-Lunzjata in Gozo.
Doris says, “We used to live in Rabat, and we were three families all in the same house.”
The Maltese suffered hunger and disease also began to spread.
Doris Cannataci said, “we had already been making lots of sacrifices. They kept cutting down on our rations. We kept receiving less and less, especially bread.”
Cecil Bartoli said, “people were even searching through dustbins to find something to eat, poor things.”
After months of defying death, the crew on the convoy of Santa Maria entered the Grand Harbour on Santa Maria. This moment will remain stamped in Cecil’s memory for the rest of his life.
“The Floriana bastions, as well as those in Valletta and Senglea were packed with people, everyone clapping and cheering. The joy was indescribable. That was Malta’s salvation.”
As quick as a flash the news also arrived in Gozo where Doris’ family was taking shelter. “We all went down, waving our handkerchiefs, to show our happiness and appreciation towards them, and people began wiping their tears of joy with those handkerchiefs, because it was that convoy which saved Malta.”
They believe that if the Ohio had not entered the harbour, Malta would have surrendered. Doris Cannataci said, “if there had not been divine intervention, the convoy definitely would not have made it.”
Cecil Bartoli said, “the Ohio had a huge hole in its bow, but thank God it made it.”
For Doris, who is 87 years old, this is an experience which will always stay with her.
“We suffered a lot. But it made us more independent and taught us how to face life with a certain courage.”
As for Cecil, who is 93, he still dreams about this event.
“I appreciate life even though I’m 94. I’m still going strong.”