Leigh Fraser was in her early teen years when the bombs started falling over Malta. She recalled how the 1940 – 1942 World War II siege of Malta started around 7 a.m., as Italian Royal Air Force sent eight raids of bombers against the unsuspecting Mediterranean archipelago.
“Unfortunately, there was nowhere to go, they had not experienced anything like it,” Fraser said. “It was a taste of things to come.”
Fraser, who is in her mid-80s, shared stories about the history and her personal experience with the siege of Malta, when she spoke during the Feb. 19 WWII Lecture Series at the Abington Free Library.
Fraser grew up on Malta with her brothers and sisters and their British Royal Navy admiral father. While the Republic of Malta is known today as an independent nation, during World War II, it was under British control.
Fraser said that Malta is not comprised of much land (approximately 122 square miles), but its location between Italy and North Africa has made it hotly contested throughout history.
She said that Malta is not a paradise island, as citizens had to brace themselves against a harsh North African climate, mostly doing so in native limestone houses. Most of all, she stressed, nearly all supplies, such as wood, oil and food not native grown, had to be imported via ship convoys.
Through a Power Point presentation, Fraser was frank in her descriptions of the carnage Malta faced, showing black-and-white images and newspaper clippings of civilians amidst limestone rubble. During the siege, she described how citizens were forced into communal meals, as supply convoys were continually being delayed or destroyed.
She also showed images of German Luftwaffe planes, who later joined the siege. She highlighted the Stuka, or German dive-bombing plane, used to attack British and merchant ships carrying the important supplies.
She recalled, at the age of 12, how she and her brother helped wounded British seamen to shore, when their ship was destroyed in such an attack.
“That’s when I learned what it’s like to be dive-bombed,” Fraser said.
In talking about the British Royal Air Force and Navy defense of Malta, Fraser spoke proudly of their efforts. She described the “box barrage” system of anti-aircraft artillery fire.
“The universal description of that gunfire was that it was ‘Hell on Earth,’” Fraser said. “It lasted quite awhile.”
Ultimately successful in defending Malta, Fraser entered the British Royal Navy, later earning the rank of captain.
The Ongoing Mission of the WWII Lecture Series Institute
The World War II lectures at the Abington Library began in October 1997, leading to the creation of the WWII Lecture Series Institute. The series was conceived by veteran Don Lee, who pitched the idea to library director Nancy Hammeke.
According to the institute’s website, its mission is to preserve the legacy of World War II veterans through their personal stories. Since 2003, the institute, a nonprofit organization, has worked to preserve veterans’ stories with the Veterans History Project, which is part of the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. In 2002 the institute was awarded with a state senatorial commendation. And, in 2005, the Eastern Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce recognized the institute as Non-Profit of the Year.
Fraser, a Quakertown resident, has participated as a lecturer with the institute since 2006. She had lectured at least four times prior to her most recent visit, discussing other subjects, such as her experience working with post-war Holocaust survivors.
She said the only way to give justice to the history and legacy of World War II veterans is to speak about them unapologetically straightforward and honest.
“I feel the younger generations are not having this explained to them properly,” Fraser said. “There are people that think this is entertainment, but it isn’t.”
According to Tom Brennan, WWII Lecture Series Institute Abington coordinator, there were over 30 people that attended Fraser’s afternoon session, which he said was a good turnout.
Karen Burnham, the Abington library’s graphic specialist, further explained that the library had to create two sessions, one at 3 p.m. and another at 7 p.m., in order to accommodate large audiences. The lectures occur at the library every third Tuesday of the month.
She said the library is proud to have the WWII Lecture Series.
“It’s wonderful to see the veterans walk in,” Burnham said, adding that the library is continually increasing efforts to serve its senior patrons. “It’s wonderful to hear the personal stories from those who were there.”
A Grateful Audience
After Fraser’s lecture, she showed an authentic World War II German uniform of a high-ranking Luftwaffe officer, as a way to further personalize her story on the bombing of Malta.
As she and Brennan were explaining details of the uniform, one member of the audience, wearing a “WWII Veteran” baseball-style cap, had quipped, “Why are we admiring a Nazi uniform?”
While everyone in the audience gave a resounding applause in response to Fraser’s lecture, it was clear that some members of the audience did not attend the WWII Lecture Series to just learn about history, but also to remember it.
“You didn’t talk about the war when you first got out,” Matthew Reluga, who served as an infantry sergeant in the U.S. 90th Army division during World War II, said. “Now we bring up the war, because it doesn’t bother us anymore.”
He then added, “But, when you sleep, you still think about it.”
Reluga said in recent years, there used to be at least 300 fellow World War II veterans who fought in the 1945 Battle of the Bulge, and would regularly meet at the Philadelphia U.S. Coast Guard base. Prior to the lecture, Reluga had announced that a member of the group had passed away this week, leaving the number of veterans still attending this group to approximately 58.
Reluga said that he is grateful to the WWII Lecture Series Institute for providing an event in which the general public can discuss, share and preserve experiences from the war.
“It’s very worthwhile,” Anne Muldowney, a Jenkintown resident, said.
Muldowney, who attended the afternoon session with her husband Joe, said that he often attends the lectures, describing him as a history buff. Joe Muldowney added that the lectures also hit close to home, as they remind him of his formative years.
“I grew up in World War II. I remember a lot,” Joe Muldowney said. “But, you always learn something when you are here.”
The lecture series is free and open to the public.