Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
The siege of Malta in 1942 is reasonably well known. The island was the only territory to itself be awarded the George Cross – the highest award for civilian valour. The Axis tried very hard to bomb and starve the population into submission. Had they pursued the battle when the island was on its knees, they could have walked in. But Malta hung on by a thread. This is the first pilot’s eyewitness account of those times that I have read.
Denis Barnham was not long married when he touched down in Malta for the first time, in April 1942. The foreword is written by Diana, his widow. Her literary style is so graceful that one wishes she had written more. One can quite see why she and Denis were so suited, because he is a man of great refinement. An artist, he sees beauty amidst the savagery of the battlescape, and indeed whips out his sketchbook in his rare moments of leisure on the island. (He went on to teach art at Epsom College after the war).
The book is based on the diary he kept through this horrendous period, and throughout it shines with an artist’s eye for scene and detail. He is a gifted observer and a good writer. The only volume that I can compare it with in that sense is Geoffrey Wellum’ s First Light, which is of course one of the best known tales of a WW2 fighter pilot.
Barnham avoids a focus on the technicalities of war. Indeed one wonders if he had any interest in them. He was not a terribly successful fighter pilot – his tally was ‘only’ seven or so victories. However he was clearly a good developer and leader of men, and acquired strong survival skills. For as is evident early on, the battle for Malta made the Battle of Britain seem like a picnic. After flying even more intensively than the pilots of 1940, these few men could not retire to a welcoming local and down frothy pints on an English summer’s eve. No, they were being bombed to destruction in their work and off-duty hours alike. Living conditions were hellish. At one stage the cooks had to resort to cooking food with the oil salvaged from crashed aircraft. Stocks of essentials were measured in days not weeks.
Malta Spitfire Pilot:
Ten Weeks of Terror April-June 1942
Grub Street, to be published 1 June 2013
ISBN 9781 909166035