A former teacher and charity worker from the North East of England, I love people and places and like to try out new experiences wherever possible. Capturing that 'perfect pic' is all part of the pleasure. Access issues are a particular interest.
Published November 3rd 2013
A Slice of Heroic History in a Small Mediterranean Town
At first glance, the town of Mosta in Malta appears to be nothing to write home about. It's an average sized market town in the middle of the island with shops and roads and people going to work and school. But on closer inspection there are two stunning features that draw visitors to Mosta time after time – the magnificent 19th century domed church at its centre and the story surrounding it.
The grandeur of the magnificent architecture seems out of place in such a small settlement but it expresses the strength and commitment of an entire community as it was built by the local townspeople around an original structure in the late 19th century and exhibits the third largest unsupported dome in Europe, after St Peter's in Rome and St Paul's Cathedral in London.
Looking up at the tall columns and ornate entrance to the church, which is dedicated to St. Mary, is one way to absorb the beauty and magnitude of the undertaking of such a fantastic structure and the devotional energy that created it. It sort of raises the question 'why is this here'? Unlike the aforementioned cathedrals of St Peter and St Paul, which provide an epicentre for religious worship and administration in two of the world's great cities, the appearance of this type of structure in supposedly the 'middle of nowhere' can create a kind of baffling wonderment. But, on the other hand, it truly reflects the the Christian community of people that live there.
Coming to marvel at the Rotunda, with its twin bell towers and impressive colonnades at the entrance is worth a visit in its own right, but the thing that draws you to Mosta, however, is the story of the events that occurred on 9th April 1942 when a full congregation of over 300 people inside the church survived an aerial attack from enemy planes that dropped at least four 1000 pound bombs, aimed directly at the church in the centre of Mosta.
One might ask why a seemingly isolated church in a rather small Maltese town might be a target for enemy bombs? There are no apparent military or industrial installations there but in the light of the bigger picture the pieces start to fit together.
Malta was relentlessly bombed by Axis forces to such an extent that more bombs fell on Malta in just two months during 1941 than on London during the whole of the Blitz. Many Maltese people fled the cities as their homes were destroyed and lived in rural areas, tunnels and caves for large sections of the Second World War. So strategic was the island of Malta in the battle for Europe that it became the linchpin of supply routes to the North African campaign on both sides of the conflict with the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and their allies stationed around the naturally deep harbour of Valletta intercepting supplies to Axis forces commanded by Field Marshall Rommel on the North African Front, while Axis commanders viewed Malta's collapse as vital in their battle to take Egypt and the Middle East in its efforts to crush the Allied forces and prevent them from gaining entry to Europe from its southern borders on the Mediterranean. Malta was under siege and in danger of being starved into submission.
One of the enemy bombs came through the roof of Mosta's dome and bounced off two of the church's interior walls before coming to rest without exploding inside the church. No one was hurt. Two others hit the building but again rebounded and then landed in a crowded marketplace; they too failed to detonate while a fourth bomb landed in fields nearby. There were no casualties. The incident was deemed a miracle – an episode which no doubt strengthened the resolve of the Maltese people and ultimately helped turn the tide of the war.
My husband and I wandered around the church in fascination and joined other visitors in seeing the bomb (now defused of course) which is on display along with photographs of the event in the Sacristy at the rear of the church. We were quite lucky in that we didn't realise the church wasn't open all day and we arrived in the early afternoon to find it closed. A little chat with a waitress at the nearby restaurant where we stopped for a light lunch however revealed that the church would be open again at 3pm.
The church is opened by volunteers and the opening times seem unclear as church leaflets didn't state this particular information but our visit was between 3pm -5pm on a Monday afternoon and a chance conversation with other holidaymakers revealed that morning time openings were also available (but they arrived shortly before mid-day – just in time to see it closing).
The island of Malta was awarded the George Cross, Britain's highest civilian award for bravery by King George VI in 1942 to honour the sacrifice and bravery of the Maltese people. A similar acknowledgement was also made by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The plaques from Buckingham Palace and the United States situated in Malta's capital Valletta attest to the eternal gratitude of the British and American governments to the Maltese people.
As the children of parents who grew up during World War 2, my husband and I have grown up hearing first hand accounts of air-raids over our native Tyneside and we both had relatives who served in the Mediterranean during this time, so to see things for ourselves it is always a poignant reminder of how close a call some of these events were, and with it fast approaching Remembrance Day, a chance to show our respects.
Hi Margaret I am helping my 12 year old do a project on WW2 and I found your article...my grandfather was in Valetta when the bomb came through the roof and it was, from his recollection, his sergeant who diffused it!