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Monday, 30 September, 2002, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
The men who remember war
Medals on a chest of a Malta veteran
For bravery: Medals earned in naval campaigns

As our talk turns increasingly to war, a group of old men gathered elsewhere, perhaps for the last time, to remember the horrors of conflict, and their courage, saving one small but important island 60 years ago.
When they stepped up for the group photograph, not all of them did it without the aid of a walking stick or a relative on their arm.

But the medals on their blazers were polished so that the Mediterranean sun bounced off them and winked at the tourists wondering who these 100 old men were.

"It makes me feel proud," said one relative as she smiled at her dad. "No, it makes me feel humble."

Operation Pedestal veterans
Honoured: Awarded citizenship in Malta
These men, most in their 80s and gathered together in Malta, were among the servicemen who gave their all at one of the most important battles of the Second World War.

Sixty years ago the direction of the southern end of the war changed when Operation Pedestal involving 80 battle and merchant ships, succeeded in supplying the strategically vital Malta, then on the verge of starvation and surrender.

Against all the odds and despite the loss of 400 men and 13 ships, a third of the convoy got through.

The Mediterranean, declared Churchill, did not belong to the Axis powers. Within months, the Allies turned the tide in the north Africa campaign and were preparing to invade Italy.

Open in new window : Remembering Malta
Veterans tell their stories in sound and pictures

Today Malta, awarded the George Cross in 1942 for the bravery of its civilians, is a tourism destination with a curious mix of Mediterranean culture and left-hand driving, a legacy of the British Empire.

Valetta Grand Harbour, Malta
Malta: Tourist destination
The islanders have not forgotten the events and for the 60th anniversary, they tracked down as many of the men as possible so they could say, one last time, "Grazzi Pedestal, thank you".

And so last week, the former servicemen, including some from North America and New Zealand, arrived to receive honorary citizenship.

The modern Royal Navy sent its own tribute in the form of HMS Ark Royal and HMS Southampton.

The week had seen many emotional moments as old shipmates met again.

Seeing these gentlemen brought tears to my eyes. I remember my parents telling me what the British did for Malta

Christopher Bonello, Valletta resident
The climax was a harbour-side re-enactment of the arrival of the heavily damaged oil tanker SS Ohio which limped past the medieval battlements into Valletta's Grand Harbour, held afloat by two warships.

As the men walked to their seats, they were greeted by local people dressed in the clothes of the 1940s.

But when the children began running up and shaking the hands of the old men, few could hold back the tears and the memories of 1942.

Alan Siddle, 79, survived the sinking of HMS Eagle on the first day of the convoy.

As for many of the men, it had been a hard decision to make the trip.

A veteran with a walking stick
Age and infirmity: Only 100 of 250 found attended
"Over the years you hear about reunions and a lot of them you don't want to go to because they are sad affairs," said Mr Siddle.

"But this has been something different because it's involved the Maltese who have been so kind to us. It's made all the difference."

Christopher Bonello, was one of the Valletta residents who had taken part in the re-enactment.

"Seeing these gentlemen and what they did for us brought tears to my eyes. I remember my parents telling me about Pedestal and what the British did for Malta.

"I think these men are part of us and we are part of them."

Meeting the enemy

Among the servicemen at the commemoration were Georg Voegerl and Alfred Partzsch, two former Luftwaffe pilots who bombed both Malta and the convoys.

Georg Voegerl, former German Luftwaffe pilot
Georg Voegerl: "Honoured to meet the British"
They too had been invited by the Maltese government.

"I thought quite hard about coming, but I wanted to meet some of the men who we had engaged with," said Mr Voegerl, who now lives in Berlin.

"There are many difficult issues for us at an event such as this.

"The English have a sense of having a lot more to be proud of. We returned home believing we had done our duty and served our country in the armed forces, only to find that this was apparently not the case.

"But all these years on, it has been a great, great honour to meet these men."

Enemies at war, philosophical in peace, they found a gentlemanly way to get round the awkwardness of the moment.

"Are these the Germans?" asked Tim Foster, a 79-year-old veteran of HMS Sirius. "Tell him I don't recognise shooting at him from our ship."

"And I don't recognise shooting at you from our plane," came the reply via the translator.

"Well let's sit down and have a photo," laughed Mr Foster. "They won't believe this when I show them."

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01 Oct 02 | Europe
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