What happened to the enemy airmen?

After the Second World War, Malta was left with thousands of casualties, most buried in cemeteries such as Addolorata, others buried beneath debris, unidentified, lost to the sea (or their remains picked up from it), and even scattered across fields. Some were airmen of the Royal Air Force, Regia Aeronautica, and Luftwaffe. The RAF servicemen were, if recovered, buried in war graves. Axis airmen had a different experience after life. 

Those that did not perish on impact were buried in several cemeteries, most commonly in Pembroke. Despite the expected dehumanization of enemy airmen during the siege, evidence suggests they were buried in war graves, at least eventually. The German Federal Political Department did, in fact, send a request to the Swiss legation concerning airmen buried or found in Malta and the lack of information being provided, as early as August of 1943. All notifications of burial were received from the Red Cross based Geneva, via Cairo, but no death certificates, cause of deaths, identification tokens, and other documentation/articles such as grave registration. Following internal checks on what Britain was actually obliged to send, relevant information was dispatched.

Italian servicemen buried in Malta were also under Italy’s eyes. A clear example can be observed in 1944 when Vice Admiral Gonzaga’s request to place crosses on graves of Italian personnel was granted. However, with the condition that the British would take care of the task. 

The enemy war graves were unofficially cared for by the R.E. (as part of general maintenance of WD cemeteries) until a certain point. In November 1955, the question was raised on who has responsibility over such graves. The GWGC pointed at the local government, which then requested if the Federal Republic of Germany wanted to take up responsibility for this task. 

In July of 1955, during Admiral Vittorio Da Pace’s visit to Malta a wreath laying ceremony was held at St Andrews cemetery in Pembroke.  With an honour guard provided by the Royal Navy, this is just one instance where the cemetery was used as an unofficial memorial for the Italians. The Germans were, seemingly, absent from such mnemonic and symbolic efforts.

Snapshot from IWM footage in which one can clearly see the concrete crosses set up in 1944 on the request of the Italian government, some examples of which are still standing in Gozo. (© IWM ADM 1555)

Evidence suggests that even during the war informal communications existed, at least between Malta and Italy concerning missing airmen. Cardinal Maglione even contacted Archbishop Caruana concerning one such case in 1941. 

The search for missing airmen drastically increased in the years succeeding the war. As the conflict came to a close, Malta received ample requests (through the Red Cross and/or the Volksbund register) from relatives requesting information about their missing sons. Many parents had only a date when their son was lost over or near Malta. Some went through great lengths to figure out more of the story and, if buried, a picture of their gravestone. Most never got far, leaving hundreds of stories yet to be discovered, if even possible.

The original letter held by the National archives (LGO 437/1941). One of hundreds.

However, some form of closure would happen soon enough, for those whose burial was known. ‘Experts’ from West Germany were to be sent to Malta to identify war dead, the exact number reported to be “180 graves”. It is known that in April of 1960 these German and Italian airmen would later find their way from Pembroke to the Addolorata cemetery. They were then placed in new coffins, covered in their respective national flags, and transported to be loaded onto the Proteo of the Italian Navy and received absolution on their way to their final resting place in St.Michael’s cemetery in Sardegna. In Malta, they received full honors from a guard set up by H.M.S. Forth and Italian sailors on the Proteo. This ceremony held on the 3rd was not publicized. In the words of the Maltese consul for Germany: “this particular Function is not a matter for wide ceremony or recognition, but is an arrangement made by Germany and Italy of a private nature”. Some months later the Italian Navy’s Airone came back to Malta to pick up two Italian airmen and 1 merchant seaman buried on Comino which had not been found until then. 

It is interesting to note that, at least in the first burial, the ceremony was conducted with much pomp and circumstance. In Cagliari, the airmen were received with full military honors and a parade leading to their reburial at St Michael’s cemetery. 


Brain N. Tarpey, ‘ Servicemen’s remains overlooked’, Times of Malta, 2008. 

NAM, LGO-752/44, Setting up of crosses over the graves of Italian service personnel buried in Malta- Vice Admiral . 

NAM, SEC-190/1960, Transportation of German and Italian War Dead to Sardinia. 

National Archives (Kew), WO 307-3, Notification of German dead in Middle East and Malta.

National Archives (Kew), FCO 141/10743, German War Graves in Malta.

Thanks to Anthony Rogers, Matthew Curmi and Mark Said
By Nikolai Debono, on behalf of Battlefront Malta