By Mark McConville
THE REMARKABLE life and tragic end of the English singer and dancer who became an aircraft plotter in Malta in the Second World War has been told in a new book.
Christina Ratcliffe worked in the underground Royal Air Force operational headquarters beneath Lascaris Bastion in Valletta. In June 1942 fifty-three female civilian plotters worked at Lascaris, some as young as fourteen.
Six including Christina were decorated for gallantry. What they did, how they lived and how some of them died is told in part using their own words. Plotters were employed on an early form of air traffic monitoring that played a vital role in World War II, particularly during the Battle of Britain, The Blitz and the bombing of British cities that followed.
Their descriptions of life beneath the most intensive, prolonged bombing the world has ever seen are extraordinary and rare: female perspectives at the heart of military conflict.
The extraordinary story is told in Paul McDonald’s new book, Ladies of Lascaris, published by Pen and Sword.
“She took the call on her headphones from the filter room and then pushed a new plot onto the table, a single aircraft,” McDonald writes of Christina in the book.
“It was a friendly, heading south into H for Harry. She sensed it was him, she just knew it. Soon the aircraft called up on the radio: Stallion Two-Seven. That confirmed it. It was Warby.
“The controller answered in his normal calm manner. But there was another plot, only a few miles behind and it was a hostile. They were fighters. She hoped beyond hope they were Eyeties. In his blue Beaufighter he could outrun the best old Benito had, provided his faithful steed wasn’t damaged.
“But his aircraft was often damaged. And they weren’t Eyeties were they, they were Germans, almost certainly Me109s and they were getting closer, ever closer. She felt the blood drain from her face but she had to stay calm, be professional, regardless; others counted on her and looked up to her too.
“It was only a few minutes flying time from the Sicilian coast to safety but it seemed to take forever. There was little they could do or say. He was descending, trying to gain more speed; he must have known he was being chased. Then the controller spoke once more: ‘Look out, Stallion Two-Seven, two 109s on your tail.’
“Warby didn’t acknowledge; he would have his hands full, wringing every knot out of his aircraft; twisting his head to check if either of his assailants was within range for that killing shot.
“As he closed the island, Christina continued to plot his course trying not to think too much, just getting on with her job. He was now in N for Nuts. She also plotted the course of the two Messerschmitts. They were dangerously close.
“Then all went silent in the Ops Room; a deadly hush as all eyes were focused on the table. It was as if they were up there with him. The plots merged. Then Christina heard the words from the filter room she hoped never to hear in her headphones: ‘Plot on Stallion Two-Seven faded.’
“Her heart thumped. But she was determined not to show the tension she felt inside. ‘Plot on Stallion Two-Seven faded,’ she repeated. The senior controller’s face was grim, fearing the worst.
“Christina was having the utmost difficulty carrying on. But she had to. Personal feelings didn’t count in this game. There were no further plots on Stallion Two-Seven, only on the Me109s. She knew what that meant. Her Warby had been ‘bumped’. It was the end.
“Five minutes later a message came from Luqa: ‘Stallion Two-Seven landed safely.’ Christina allowed herself to breathe again. He had flown in so low the radar stations were unable to detect his aircraft.
“That was all he could do to stop the pursuing 109s from getting into a killing position. I bet he’ll laugh about the worry he caused, Christina thought. And he did. ‘Didn’t they know about Warby’s luck?’ he said.”
Christina Ratcliffe was born in Dukinfield near Manchester on 1st July 1914. She moved to London in 1933 at age 19 found work and danced in the film Charing Cross Road, starring John Mills and June Clyde, which was released in 1935.
Christina then joined an English dancing troupe, Miss Frances Mackenzie’s Young Ladies and the lavish show, complete with nudes, was produced in Paris. It was called Jusqu’aux Etoiles – To the Stars – and toured France, Italy and Switzerland, as well as Algiers in North Africa.
She went to Malta in 1937 to work as a cabaret artiste in one of Valletta’s music halls.
Described in the Times of Malta in 1942 as ‘Christina of George Cross Island’, she herself said Malta ‘is carved on my heart’.
For years after the Second World War in small corner cafes and bars that are such a feature of Malta’s towns and villages, people talked about a remarkable RAF photo-recce pilot called Warby and his stunning companion Christina, a true heroine, they said. Yet she died alone and unnoticed and was buried in a shared grave.
Malta played a key part in the Mediterranean campaign in World War Two. Malta’s strategic position in the Mediterranean Sea was key to the island’s importance. Royal Navy ships and RAFaircraft used the island as a base to attack Axis convoys trying to supply their forces in North Africa.
The George Cross was awarded to the island of Malta by King George VI in a letter to the island’s Governor, Lieutenant-General Sir William Dobbie, so as to “bear witness to the heroism and devotion of its people” during the great siege they underwent in the early part of World War II.