HC Deb 15 April 1991 vol 189 cc140-4

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Boswell.]

11.45 pm
Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)

I am especially pleased to have the opportunity to speak tonight, because tomorrow afternoon the British-Maltese parliamentary group will be hosting a reception here for the Prime Minister of Malta, Mr. Fenech-Adami. I know that he will read the report of tonight's debate with interest, and will be particularly interested in the Minister's reply.

Given all the horrors that surround us today, highlighted so vividly on our television screens night after night, this may seem to some people rather a strange time for the George Cross island memorial siege bell trust to be set up. The aim of the trust is to fund and provide support, from both Malta and the United Kingdom, for the building of a suitable monument to the gallant people of Malta and all our service men—including many of the 14,650 Maltese who enlisted—ho between 1940 and 1943 lived under siege conditions, facing constant attack from air and sea, as well as suffering great hardship through lack of food and all other basic necessities.

In my view, there can never be a wrong moment to commemorate heroism and sacrifice. What more appropriate time could there be for a monument such as this to be dedicated than 1992, to mark the 50th anniversary of the award of the George Cross to the island of Malta?

I was about 14 in 1940, and served as an air-raid messenger throughout the worst of the bombing raids on London in both 1940 and 1941. They were hard times, and there was little good news to give us comfort. However, I well remember that we all took heart from the example set by Malta, and we were all delighted when the courage and fortitude of all those involved in that siege were recognised in such a unique way by His Majesty King George VI on 15 April 1942, with the award of the George Cross to Malta.

In his message to the people of Malta, His Majesty said: To honour her brave people, I award the George Cross to the island fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history. Many people believe that that siege was much greater than the many earlier sieges from which Malta suffered.

The award came just after the worst bombing of Malta. Between 24 March and 12 April 1942, more than 2,000 sorties were made by the Germans and the Italians against the Grand harbour, with 1,870 tonnes of bombs dropped. In April 1942, 6,700 tonnes of bombs fell on the island, almost evenly split between the dockyard area and the airfields.

That Maltese ordeal continued until June 1943, but always the morale of the islanders was buoyed up by the, at times, unbelievable bravery of our armed forces, who battled their way through to the island with all the men, material and supplies necessary to sustain resistance to the enemy.

As an aside, I point out that when I read the history of those times I was struck forcibly by the fact that, for a large part of the siege of Malta, many of the Maltese people were genuinely near to starvation. The ration for a service man in those days was 4,000 calories. In Malta that was reduced to 2,000 calories. Dock workers, working perhaps a 12-hour day under the terrible conditions that I have already described, were reduced to a ration of 1,750 calories a day. The ration for a woman was only 1,500 calories a day. On top of all the bombing and hardship that the Maltese people had to suffer, there was a slow but gradual decline in the well-being of the population, a point that we tend to forget.

After that digression, I return to what our forces did at that time. They fought their way through to the island. The losses in all such operations were appallingly high. They reached a climax in Operation Pedestal in 1942, when a convoy, vital to the survival of Malta, battled to get through to the island. The story of that convoy and the losses sustained by it bear witness to the dedication of our armed forces throughout the battle for Malta. From that one convoy, originally consisting of 14 ships, only five survived to unload in Malta. Nine of them were sunk at sea. Of the five that limped into Malta—limping is, I believe, the right word—about three of them were very severely damaged and only survived because of the work and dedication of the crews of those ships.

The monument, when erected, will commemorate this great page in the history of two island peoples. It must, and indeed it will, be completed by April of next year. The trust has a target figure of £250,000. With the support of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh as patron and of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Lewin, both of whom served in the Mediterranean during the war, almost £150,000 has already been raised. That figure includes a Foreign and Commonwealth Office commitment of £25,000, for which I know that the officers of the trust are very grateful.

At this point, may I ask my hon. Friend who is to reply to the debate one question? Grateful though the trust is, as are all the trust's friends, for that donation, is there not another Department of State that might consider it right and proper to search in its coffers and find some contribution, however small, towards such a worthy cause? If there were any way in which my hon. Friend could forward such a process in that Department's thinking, I should be deeply grateful to him. I know that life might then be slightly easier for Lord Lewin, who will be on the warpath trying to get money wherever and whenever he can.

We have the wholehearted support of both the British and Maltese Governments for this worthy project. The site—overlooking St. Elmo point—has already been chosen and the impressive monument designed. To date, 167 Members of Parliament have signed early-day motion 366, which relates to the erection of the monument. I can give you a firm assurance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that many more will do so in the weeks to come.

Finally, I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the support given thus far by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We look forward to continuance—perhaps even extension—of such support before building commences.

11.54 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd)

At the outset, I wish to express clearly the British Government's strong support for this project. We welcome this initiative by the George Cross Island Association, and are following its progress closely.

As the House will recall, Malta played a vital strategic role in the second world war. I therefore very much share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Sir Jim Spicer) that it is entirely fitting and appropriate that the many who died in the siege of Malta between 1940 and 1943 should be remembered in this way. My hon. Friend has talked of these dire events. I can confirm that during April 1942 alone more bombs fell on Malta than fell on the whole of this country during the worst month of the Battle of Britain.

As my hon. Friend has said, Malta's heroic struggle and survival during that period, which culminated in the unprecedented award to the island of the George Cross by King George VI in April 1942, has rightly been identified as one of the main turning points of the war. The Malta memorial will remind coming generations of the endurance, steadfastness and heroism of the Maltese people, and of the sacrifices made by so many men and women of the allied forces and civilians during the siege.

I therefore happily applaud the George Cross Island Association's imagination, foresight and initiative in seeking to have the memorial ready for unveiling by the fiftieth anniversary of the George Cross award to Malta in April 1992. We are pleased to hear that the Maltese Government are to provide the site for the memorial and construct the monument. We are also glad to learn that the siege bell is likely to be cast in Britain.

The Government believe that it is right to contribute to this worthwhile cause. Therefore, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office made available the £25,000 to which my hon. Friend referred. The Government are not unsympathetic to the view, expressed tonight by my hon. Friend, that more public funds should be made available for this project. However, in our present financial climate, when Government funds are very hard pressed, it would be quite wrong of me to offer any hope of an increased contribution from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is right that the bulk of the funds required should be raised through public subscription. My hon. Friend referred to the excellent start that was made to the siege bell trust appeal following the inaugural presentation at the Imperial War Museum in December last year. The fund-raising committee deserves our full appreciation for its efforts.

Of course, Maltese heroism during the war is not the sum total of our relationship with the island. Many hon. Members will no doubt be aware that formal ties between our two countries go back as far as 1799, when Maltese patriots invited the British to remove Napoleon's troops from the island. Hon. Members are aware of the current visit to London by the Maltese Prime Minister. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his astute timing.

The Government welcome the present Maltese Government's policies aimed at securing Malta's links with western countries that share the same democratic values and traditions. In this context, we have noted Malta's bid to become a member of the European Community. Equally, we have valued its renewed and vigorous role in such forums as the Council of Europe, the United Nations and the Commonwealth. We shared its disappointment when its bid to be host to this year's Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting was ultimately unsuccessful.

But our relationship is not only a matter of official visits and common interests. Many people in Britain have close links with Malta. Britons go in their thousands to soak up the Maltese sun and enjoy the island's hospitality and unique historical heritage. In 1990 the number of British tourists to Malta was nearly 500,000.

I am, therefore, delighted that from April next year when, as we know, the siege memorial will be dedicated, tourists of all nationalities, but in particular those from Britain and the older Commonwealth countries, will be able to visit a new monument which will combine historical interest and poignant remembrance.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Twelve o'clock.