Paul Crossfield grew up in Vienna and witnessed the Anschluss when the Nazis unified Austria with Germany in 1938.
As enemies of the Nazis, the Crossfields had to flee for their lives. They lost their home and all their possessions. During the escape the parents and children were separated and were not reunited again for several years. Paul escaped to North Africa where he joined the British Air Force stationed in Malta.
While on a weekend pass with friends they met a group of WRENS, one of whom, Isobel Williamson, he would propose to six weeks later. They served overseas for the duration of the war. After the war they moved to Canada where Paul pursued his medical career.
Paul and Isobel Crossfield
My father, Paul Crossfield, grew up in Vienna, Austria. He had two brothers and a sister. Their house was full of beautiful murals and art, opera and classical music, and they were absorbed in the culture Vienna had to offer. They were however, enemies of the Nazis and when Germany entered Vienna the family had to escape. They lost their home and all of their possessions. All of the children and parents separated and did not see each other for many years.
My father, who was very young at the time, traveled in secrecy, often hiding in boats, floating down the rivers, or by any method possible to escape the Nazis and eventually arrived in North Africa and Egypt where he joined the British Royal Air Force. After fighting in North Africa, he was stationed in Malta, a fortress island in the middle of the Mediterranean. While in the Air Force and in the war, he also went to medical school. His position in the Air Force was that of a navigator initially, but then he became part of the medical core.
My mother, Isobel Williamson, (her maiden name) was from Glasgow and also had two brothers and a sister. One brother, David, was also a navigator in Royal Air Force. Her mother stayed at home raising the children, while her father was a rail engineer who loved football. For my mother it was exciting to leave Glasgow and the constant bombing and she joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRENS). While she was not originally recruited to go to Malta, fate intervened as she replaced another woman at the last moment on a troop ship to Malta. My mother always remembered how scared but excited she was in the boat trip from England to Malta through the Mediterranean.
While stationed in Malta, my parents met on a weekend pass to a village called Taormina which is in Sicily, Italy. It is beautiful and is situated in the middle of the Mediterranean about 1000 feet above sea level. Once an ancient Greek city with a coliseum, that still remains, the village is full of cobbled stone roads, small restaurants, and breathtaking vistas. To the south is Mount Etna, still to this day spewing lava and steam from the volcano’s mouth. Below Taormina are the turquoise blue waters of the Mediterranean. It is one of the most beautiful and romantic places that you could ever meet in.
My father was there on a weekend pass from Malta with two other Air Force friends. My mother was there, also on a weekend pass, with two girls from the WRENS. The three men were walking one way, and the three women walking the other. One of the men turned around and asked the girls if they wished to go sailing. The girls accepted and my parents rapidly fell in love with each other.
Within six weeks my father had proposed to my mother and they lived a long and healthy life moving to Calgary, after the war in 1950. They stayed together until my father died in 1991. My father, who became a doctor, and was head of the intensive care unit at the Holy Cross Hospital for over 25 years. He loved being with people and his family. Our house was full of music, the arts, friends, and wonderful conversations of many languages. They often entertained and it was joyous.
Some of the stories my father told were quite horrendous and often he did not want to speak of the war. Other times he spoke of the excitement and good times including skiing at Mt. Etna and field hockey in Kenya for the Royal Air Force. My mother did not have the same adventures or misadventures as my father other than living in such dramatic times. They were deeply in love and that romance helped them through the war years together in Malta.
In 2001, a week after 9/11, my family and my mother went to Malta and Taormina to revisit where my parents had met. When we arrived at Taormina, I lost the hotel reservation and I therefore had to walk through the town of Taormina to find new accommodations, as most places were booked. I was stunned by the beauty and magnificent views. At last I found a hotel terracing down the cliffs. My mother, who I had left behind at a square, walked with us to the hotel. To her amazement, and ours, the hotel was situated at the exact place where my father and mother had met in World War II.
A short while ago, I was going through some papers of my mothers to help her and I found a picture of three young girls including my mother. On the back of the photograph were the words, "Me and the two girls when I met Paul". For my parents, human spirit and love shone through despite the horrors of war.
The Seige of Malta
On April 15th the island of Malta became the first British Commonwealth country to be awarded the George Cross for bravery – an honour normally reserved for individuals. The small Mediterranean colony, located between Libya and Sicily, was one of the most strategically vital Allied outposts of the war.
It was the only British base between Egypt and Gibraltar and it was from Malta that German and Italian supply lines to North Africa could be harassed, while its denial to the enemy prevented the Axis from completely closing off the central Mediterranean. Until the capture of Libya in 1942 it was an island under siege, suffering more aerial bombardment per square foot than any other area during the Second World War.
Malta during the Second World War
Since it was first captured during the Napoleonic Wars, the small island of Malta had been one of Great Britain’s most important bases. Located at the center of the Mediterranean, it sits astride the shipping lanes near the Sicilian Channel between Italy and Africa and the Eastern and Western Mediterranean.
During the Second World War, Malta’s strategic importance was magnified by the early catastrophes which befell the Allied powers. With France and the French Navy removed from the fight, and with the Italian declaration of war in June 1940, the Royal Navy found itself in an extremely precarious position.
From the outset, Malta was surrounded by Axis territory and was not expected to hold out. As a result, the Mediterranean Fleet’s base was transferred from the Maltese capital of Valletta to the port of Alexandria in Egypt. However, after the first feeble Italian air assaults were fought off however, the British reconsidered their position – deciding that Malta could and would be held.
A small handful of RAF Sea Gladiators and Hurricanes managed to protect the island and limit Axis attacks on Allied shipping during 1940. And Malta soon proved itself a valuable base from which British aircraft and submarines could strike at the Italian and German convoys proceeding south to reinforce their armies in Africa. By 1941 the impact on the German Afrika Corps was significant.
In November a force of British cruisers and destroyers operating out of Malta destroyed an entire Axis convoy bound for Libya. The Italians suspended their re-supply missions and declared that the Libyan port of Tripoli was “practically blockaded.” By December 1941, German aircraft were limited to one sortie per day for lack of fuel and Rommel was forced to fall back and shorten his lines.
However, the island fortress was also in a precarious position. It needed to be supplied by sea; and running the gauntlet between either Egypt or Gibraltar to the Grand Harbour at Valletta was a dangerous task. Axis aircraft and submarines targeted every convoy that attempted to reach Malta. Out of the 86 supply ships which ran this course between August 1940 and August 1942, 31 were sunk and many others were severely damaged.
The battle was in large measure one for supplies. The British were resolved that they would do whatever was necessary to get the vital convoys of food, bombs and fuel to the island while the Germans and Italians did everything in their power to sink the supply ships before they arrived.
In 1942 the supply situation in Malta had become critical. Constant air battles had taken a toll on the defenders. In March 1942 the British carriers Argus and Eagle flew in the first Spitfire Mark Vs, and in April the American carrier Wasp delivered more, but the pace of battle was such that the Germans succeeded in destroying most of them – either on the ground or in the air – in short order. By March the British had lost air superiority over Malta and found the only way to bring in supplies was by submarine. With petrol, ammunition and food dwindling, it was feared that the island might soon have to surrender.
In desperation, Operation Pedestal was launched in August 1942. Designed to re-supply Malta before it was forced into submission, the British convoy was an attempt to run some fifty ships past the Axis bombers and submarines. For five days the convoy was subjected to constant attacks. Of the original fourteen supply ships, nine were sunk. In addition, the Eagle, two cruisers, a destroyer and more than 400 lives were lost. However the ships that got through brought close to 32,000 tons of general cargo into the Grand Harbour. The supplies were enough to give the island about ten weeks more life beyond its existing stocks.
It was only in October 1942, with the British victory at El Alemain that the siege was lifted. For months the British 8th Army drove the Axis forces back and by January 1943 Rommel and the Afrika Corps were being forced into Tunisia. The stranglehold on Malta was broken and the island was secure.
For the two years of the siege Malta lived with constant Axis air attacks. Between June 1940 and December 1942 the British lost 289 Spitfires and Hurricanes in action, and some 844 aircraft of all types lost to all causes in the air and on the ground. RAF fighters shot down some 570 enemy planes. Canada’s most successful pilot of the war, Flight Lieutenant George “Buzz” Beurling, was responsible for 27 of theses.
During the siege, Malta suffered a total of 3,000 raids – making it the most bombed place on earth. More than 14,000 bombs were dropped, destroying about 30,000 buildings and killing more than 1,500 civilians. However, the island fortress had held. For three years Malta was a thorn in the side of the Axis forces in the Mediterranean, starving their forces in Africa of supplies and keeping the Sea open to British and Allied forces. Holding the island was a costly affair, and one of the greatest strategic victories of the war.