War on Film: Malta Story

Taylor Downing reviews a classic war movie.

In the spring of 1942, Malta had the dubious distinction of being the most-bombed place on earth. The first air raid on the island took place seven hours after Italy entered the war in June 1940. Between then and November 1942, there were 3,215 raids and 14,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on Malta and Gozo, averaging just under 100 tonnes per square mile, although much of the bombing was concentrated on the dockyards of Valletta and on the island’s three major airfields. Nearly 1,500 Maltese civilians were killed in the raids and 24,000 properties were damaged or destroyed, including a high proportion of the islanders’ homes.

However, the island survived this long siege by Italian and German forces and played an important role in turning the tide of war in the Mediterranean. Its strategic position, as a staging post between Gibraltar and Egypt, its importance as both a Royal Navy and RAF base, and the ability of aircraft flying from the island to strike at Sicily, mainland Italy, and much of the North African theatre of war gave the tiny outcrop in the blue waters of the Mediterranean a central and heroic role in the war from 1940 to summer 1943.

Five years after the Allied victory, the Central Office of Information decided to encourage the making of a film to promote the combined operation of the three armed services. The siege of Malta was suggested as a good way to illustrate this. This highlights the film’s greatest strength and also its greatest weakness. While it tells something of the suffering facing the Maltese people, it is primarily a film about Britain at war – with the island as a backdrop.

William Fairchild wrote a script based around an affair between a British photo-reconnaissance pilot and a Maltese woman. Thorold Dickinson, one of the leading British directors of the day (Gaslight, 1940, and The Next of Kin, 1942) prepared to direct. They formed a company with producer Peter de Sarigny, called Theta Films, to make the movie, which they intended to call The Bright Flame.

But there were financial problems, and when J Arthur Rank agreed to fund production, he asked for substantial changes. Nigel Balchin, a hugely popular wartime novelist, was brought in to reconfigure the script. Thorold Dickinson was replaced by Brian Desmond Hurst as director. He had worked for the Ministry of Information during the war and had directed the hit Theirs is the Glory (1946) about Arnhem, using many Paras from the original battle.

Filming took place on the island of Malta and at Pinewood Studios, with cinematographer Robert Krasker using the style of black-and-white newsreels and archive film to create an almost documentary feel. Original footage shot on the island during the siege was combined with newly originated footage to add to the authentic sense of location. Even today, only the occasional model shots look cheap and unconvincing.

Serious role

Alec Guinness lobbied to play the central role of Flight Lieutenant Peter Ross. Originally a stage performer, Guinness had successfully made the transition into movies after the war. By the early 1950s, he was best known to audiences for his roles in Ealing comedies, including Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), in which he plays nine separate characters, and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951).

But Guinness wanted to play a more serious and glamorous role – and the part of Ross offered exactly that. The character was very loosely based on Adrian Warburton, a photo-reconnaissance pilot who flew from Malta for three years and had an affair with a cabaret dancer named Christina Ratcliffe (see box opposite).

At the beginning of the film, Ross arrives in Malta en route to Egypt. His Hudson transport plane lands during an air raid and is destroyed after landing. As Malta needs a new photo-reconnaissance pilot, Ross is transferred to Malta Command. The island’s forces are led by Air Vice-Marshal Frank, grittily played by Jack Hawkins.

In the early 1950s, Hawkins was one of the most popular stars of the British cinema, epitomising the stiff upper lip spirit of British commanders. He had just played Captain George Ericson in one of the best British war films, The Cruel Sea (director: Charles Frend, 1953). His part in Malta Story is based on Air Vice-Marshal Hugh Pughe Lloyd, a popular figure on the island, who later wrote the book Briefed to Attack (1949) that helped inspire the film’s writers.

Ross is thought of as ‘an odd fish’, an archaeologist who has joined the RAF and specialises in taking aerial photos of railways. On his first mission from Malta to photograph Brindisi harbour, he deviates from the flight-plan to photograph a train in southern Italy. He is threatened with court martial for wasting fuel, until it is realised that he has photographed a cargo of gliders being taken to Sicily, for what will probably be an invasion of Malta.

In his spare time, Ross wanders around the island and sees the incredible resilience of the Maltese people, who are carrying on with their lives amid the rubble of their homes, schools, and hospitals. Such scenes would have been familiar to British audiences who had endured the Blitz.

Ross meets Maria, a Maltese girl played by the attractive Muriel Pavlow, a British actor who had been a child star. Maria is one of the young women working in the RAF control room at Luqa, moving models of aircraft around the large operational table map. In Britain, this work was done by WAAFs, but in Malta it was the job of civilians. Ross and Maria fall in love.

Maria takes Ross home to meet her family, which is dominated by her mother, superbly played with a suitably Maltese accent by Flora Robson. The matriarch is troubled by the increasing intensity of the air raids and wants to know if the island is going to be invaded.

Parallel stories

The film is set in spring 1942. Enemy air raids on Malta are not only a daily occurrence, but sometimes hourly throughout the day. In April, sorties over Malta dropped more than 6,700 tonnes of bombs. The RAF are down to their last 15 fighters, and, with heavy raids every day, have lost control of the skies.

The film shows how hopes are raised every time a convoy is due to arrive. On one occasion, crowds gather to cheer, but only two ships have made it out of a convoy of 17 vessels. Everywhere rations are cut back and the Maltese queue for basic supplies.

Flown to the island from an American carrier, 47 Spitfires are parked in dispersal pens. But, in heavy raids, most are destroyed on the ground and only 20 can fly a day later. Slowly over the summer, the tide begins to turn. When 60 more Spitfires are flown in, the RAF does not make the same mistake. They are refuelled and armed immediately on arrival, and scrambled within 30 minutes. They strike hard at the bombing force, which this time suffers heavy losses.

A series of parallel stories run alongside the tale of the siege. Ross and Maria’s relationship deepens and, on a day off, they visit an archaeological site on the island. They talk about their future after the war. Ross says they will move to Cambridge where he will become an archaeology don. Maria has never heard of Cambridge. He asks her how many children she will want. To his amazement, she replies: ‘Six!’.

Ross asks her mother for permission to marry Maria. In a powerfully written and acted scene, Robson’s character tells Ross that her daughter has never left the island and that she is not yet ready to marry. Ross questions the mother’s loyalty and says she must blame Britain for bringing so much suffering to the island. She denies this, telling him: ‘If we are to be at war, yours is the side we would choose.’ Ross decides it is too soon to marry Maria.

Meanwhile, a new convoy is bound for the island – Operation Pedestal, the largest ever assembled in Gibraltar. It is vital that the supplies get through, especially oil being transported in the merchant ship Ohio. Then British security arrest a Maltese man carrying a radio transmitter that has been landed on the island by an Italian sub. After the politest of interrogations (presumably intended to contrast with filmic depictions of Gestapo torture), the security officer (Hugh Burden) discovers the man’s real identity. He is Maria’s brother, Giuseppe (rather unconvincingly played as a Maltese by a young Nigel Stock), whom the family thought had been interned while studying in Italy.

ABOVE Wing Commander Adrian Warburton (centre), Commanding Officer of No.69 Squadron RAF, with his crew in Malta during the Second World War. Alec Guinness played a loose version of ‘Warby’, who went missing over Germany in 1944.
Wing Commander Adrian Warburton (centre), Commanding Officer of No.69 Squadron RAF, with his crew in Malta during the Second World War. Alec Guinness played a loose version of ‘Warby’, who went missing over Germany in 1944.

Maria’s mother is allowed to visit Giuseppe who, as a spy, will be shot. He pleads with his mother that he is no traitor but a patriot. He wants to save the island. ‘The British are finished,’ he tells her. ‘They cannot win.’ In another powerful scene, his mother tells him: ‘We have all chosen what side we are on.’ She departs in tears.

Back to Operation Pedestal. The Ohio has been badly hit and abandoned. But volunteers return to the ship, which limps into the Grand Harbour lashed to a destroyer. In moving scenes, the British commanders and the people of Valletta look on. Jack Hawkins sums up everyone’s view when he proclaims: ‘Thank God for the Navy.’

Now his aircraft have fuel to fly on, and they begin to attack convoys carrying supplies to Rommel, whose advance is threatening Egypt. Wellingtons, Beauforts, and Fairey Albacores are seen in archive footage attacking German convoys.

The film builds to its climax. Bad weather has made it impossible to find a German convoy that must be attacked to prevent Rommel from advancing further into Egypt. Air Vice-Marshal Frank orders Ross to find the convoy, but as there is so little time he must report back by radio with its location. Breaking radio silence will mean his position is likely to be picked up by enemy fighters. Ross manages to find the convoy and radios back the details. In the central control room, his message is transmitted on the tannoy. Frank and Maria stand by and hear what follows.

Enemy fighters rapidly pursue Ross and move in to attack. ‘This is where it gets tricky,’ transmits Ross. Then silence. In a dramatically held shot, a Spitfire bursts into flames and goes into a long, slow spin. Maria follows the action in horror. She picks up the marker representing his plane and removes it from the operations table.

RAF bombers attack the convoy that Ross found. There is a montage of smoke and explosions. Newspaper headlines announce that, short of fuel, Rommel has been defeated at El Alamein. Ross’s sacrifice was not in vain.

Malta Story was a great box office hit, the fourth most-popular film of 1953. That’s no surprise: it combines a human love story with wartime resilience, action and adventure. And it pays tribute to the Maltese people, even if most of them are played by British actors.

But only a few performances stand out. Flora Robson’s Maltese matriarch is superb. But Guinness is not given much scope with Ross, other than to smile and look determined. There is none of the magnificent nuance of performance that he gave only four years later in The Bridge on the River Kwai (see MHM October/November 2020).

But, although some of the moral challenges posed by a Mediterranean society effectively occupied by Britain are explored, in the end Malta Story is more about plucky Brits holding on against adversity. Its human stories are all rather two-dimensional. It is more of an action war movie, and in that it is only partially successful. •

Taylor Downing’s book Spies in the Sky tells the full story of aerial photography and photo-intelligence in World War II.

On p.70, Lucy Woods and Timmy Gambin explore the Virtual Museum: Underwater Malta.


Adrian Warburton lived most of his life as a misfit – first at school, where he refused to play games, then in civilian life, and finally within the RAF. He qualified as a pilot in early 1939 with ‘below average’ marks – meaning he only scraped through. In the summer of 1940, he was on a navigational course and played no part in the Battle of Britain.

But he found his niche later that year, when he was transferred to Malta as a photo-reconnaissance pilot, initially flying a twin-engine Maryland light bomber. Life on Malta, with its incessant air raids and desperate shortages of fuel and rations, was not for everyone. But the relaxed atmosphere within the RAF there suited Warburton’s character. He soon developed a reputation as a brave and brilliant flier who would stop at nothing to get his aerial photographs.

For instance, after one extremely low-level sortie over Taranto harbour, he returned to Luqa airfield with an Italian ship’s radio aerial wrapped around his rear wheel. Warburton went on to win a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), a Distinguished Service Order (DSO), and then a double bar to his DFC. Known as ‘Warby’, he became famous on the island.

In Malta, Warburton met Christina Ratcliffe, an English cabaret dancer who was thought to be the most beautiful girl on the island. They soon moved into a flat together. But Warburton’s disregard for formalities, his long hair, his refusal to wear proper uniform, and the fact that he did not socialise with other officers in the mess and lived with his girlfriend off base soon brought him into disrepute with the authorities.

Fortunately, when Air Vice-Marshal Hugh Pughe Lloyd arrived in Malta in May 1941, he realised Warby’s great potential and became his principal supporter, overlooking his various breaches of regulations. First in a modified Hurricane and then a Bristol Beaufighter, Warby continued to photograph enemy ports like Naples, Palermo, and Messina, where convoys gathered to take supplies to Rommel in north Africa. He also photographed the battle-lines in Libya, on one mission photographing in a single day what had been estimated it would take a week to cover.

Warburton finally left Malta in September 1943, after the capture of Sicily, as Leader of 683 Squadron. He never really fitted back into regular RAF operational flying and, after a car accident in Tunisia, was taken off ops. In 1944, back in England, the RAF refused to class him as operational, but he inveigled some American friends to let him fly a US F-5 (the photo-recon version of the Lockheed Lightning) on a mission over Munich. He never returned.

Rumours abounded, some even suggesting that he had flown back to Malta to live incognito with Christina. But in 2002 the German authorities dug up the remains of his plane in southern Germany. He was given full military honours and buried at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Durnbach – a conventional funeral for a very unconventional figure.

Malta Story
Producer: Peter de Sarigny. Director: Brian Desmond Hurst. Writers: Nigel Balchin and William Fairchild. Starring Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Muriel Pavlow, and Flora Robson. A Rank production released by ITV DVD.

Review by Taylor Downing.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons