Malta’s World War II underground shelters

24/02/2014 16:29

Written by Juliet Rix

WWII shelter Malta by Juliet Rix

Underground shelters were indispensable to one of the most bombed places in Europe. © Juliet Rix

Until 1944, Malta was the most bombed place in Europe, hit by some 16,000 tons of bombs. Underground shelters were obviously essential. At the start of the war there were only five (including part of the Malta at War Museum shelter) but by the time it was over the entire population could be housed underground – albeit in far from ideal conditions.

Some people sheltered in old wells (cisterns), catacombs or tunnels but many of these needed to be extended and plenty of shelters were dug fresh from the rock. All the work was done by hand and the walls are lined with chisel marks. Fortunately Malta was a nation of quarrymen and stonemasons skilled in techniques that had been in use here for centuries if not millennia. Two parallel channels were cut, then the stone between broken up with sledgehammers. During the war everyone, from the Royal Engineers to local children, was involved.

The standard pattern for a shelter is long corridors with rooms off to the sides. The corridors were the public shelter, where most people waited out the air-raid alert and, when necessary, slept. The rooms were ‘private’. Better-off families paid for a stretch of wall 6ft long into which to build a family shelter. These rooms offered some privacy and elbow room but little protection from the diseases that spread in the crowded corridors (tuberculosis, scabies and dysentery) and they were as rough, damp and dark as the rest of the shelter. If conditions became too overcrowded, even the private rooms had to be shared.

When it rained, water seeped quickly through the porous limestone, and in the deeper corridors people were sometimes knee-deep in water. Some shelters had electricity but enemy bombing often interfered with supply. Candles were used briefly, but Malta imported its candles from Italy, so the Maltese were soon reduced to burning olive oil in hollowed out bowls in niches in the shelter walls (much as the Romans did in the catacombs 1,000 years earlier). The oil was smoky but effective: 500ml of olive oil would burn for two days. This, like much else about the shelters, was not ideal – but it worked.

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