Valletta, Malta Two British tourists were looking at the plaque high on the wall in Valletta's main street. It read: "To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history. George R.I., April 15th, 1942." "What's all that about?" the young woman asked her friend. "Don't know," I heard him reply. "They must have been brave or something." Don't know! I had thought that everybody who visited Malta would know why the late King George VI had awarded Britain's highest medal for civilian gallantry to the Maltese people. But then, 1942 is a long time ago, and the Second World War finished before most people alive today were born . So let's tell the story once again. It is inspiring, and it will help us to understand the tough little nation of Malta today. It is Malta's blessing — and curse — to be situated near the geographic center of the Mediterranean Sea, about 60 miles south of Sicily. There are three islands that make up the Maltese group: Malta — 17 miles by 8, the smaller Gozo, and tiny, almost deserted Comino. Today Malta is a tourist haven for visitors from all over Europe, who come to take advantage of the magnificent climate and still reasonable cost of a holiday. But in the first years of World War II, Malta was one of the most dangerous places on earth. In those days, Malta was a part of the British Empire. When the armies of Hitler and Mussolini swarmed across Europe and North Africa, Malta found itself surrounded and isolated. After France capitulated, Malta was separated from the closest friendly Allied-held territory, Gibraltar, by more than 1,000 perilous miles. Military strategists reluctantly decided that the islands were indefensible and would have to be left to their fate . It seemed to be just a matter of time before Malta, with its magnificent harbors and vital dockyards, succumbed to invasion and occupation. But both sides, Axis and Allies had underestimated the Maltese people. The task of softening up Malta before invasion was given to Mussolini's air force . The first bombs fell in the early dawn of June 11 , 1940. It was the first of more than 3,300 air raids during the next three years. Day after day the bombers came back-raining down thousands of tons of explosives, pulverizing the picturesque towns and villages as they tried to beat the people into submission. But the Maltese didn't give in . At the start of the bombardment, there were only four serviceable aircraft available to meet the attackers in the air. They were slow, practically obsolete Gloster Gladiator biplanes — good in their day — but hardly a match for Mussolini 's bombers and fighters. One Gladiator was kept in reserve for spare parts. The others, affectionately named Faith, Hope and Charity , took to the air time and time again, to do battle with the Italians. The three little airplanes — always short of fuel and spares, often going aloft on "a wing and a prayer" — seemed to live charmed lives as their exhausted RAF pilots succeeded in inflicting some damage on the vastly superior enemy force. (Faith still survives, and has pride of place in the Valletta War Museum.) By 1941 the Nazi Luftwaffe became frustrated with the Italians' failure to break the will of Malta, and took over the attack. For the next two years they turned the full force of their fury on the little island — 963 raids in 1941 — more than 2,000 in 1942. As their homes and cities were smashed into heaps of rubble, the Maltese people took to the caves and catacombs that abound in their homeland. Even so, many were killed, and thousands more were injured or buried alive in the debris. But they did not give in. Then Hitler decided that if he The tide turned in 1943, and Malta went on to become an important staging post for the invasion of Sicily and North Africa. Maltese courage had played a decisive part in winning the war on the Mediterranean front. It had not been the first time that the Maltese had stood in the path of an invader. Indeed, located as they are at the heart of the Middle Sea, it is hard for them to get out of the way. In their long history the Maltese have been caught up in the ebb and flow of empires. They were occupied successively by the Romans and Byzantines, and then the Arabs. In A.D. 1090 the Arabs were driven out by Normans who had established a kingdom in Sicily. For the next 400 years, Malta was sold and resold to various feudal barons, until in 1530 Charles V of Spain gave the islands to the powerful military-religious order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. Thirty-five years later, the Knights and the Maltese together held off the besieging forces of the Turkish leader Suleiman the Magnificent, thus halting the advance of a new Islamic Empire in Europe. And so it remained for 150 years. Napoleon invaded and occupied Malta in 1798 on his way to Egypt. But almost immediately, the people rose in rebellion, and with the help of British troops evicted the French garrison. And then, in 1814, the Maltese people decided to become a part of the British Empire. Malta remained a colony longer than most other British possessions when the Empire disintegrated after the Second World War. Many Maltese resented this, arguing that whereas barely viable African colonies were given independence, they, the only remaining European colony — of proven ability, loyalty and stability — were not. But in the anxious years of quasi-peace after the war, Britain and her allies did not feel that they could afford to let Malta's vital harbors and dockyards slip from their control. There was even talk of making Malta an integral part of the United Kingdom, but that plan came to nothing. It probably wouldn't have worked — Malta's Mediterranean culture and religion (the islands are 98 percent Roman Catholic) were just too different from predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant Britain. Independence did come, on September 21, 1964. The Maltese quickly let everyone-friends and the not-so-friendly-know that independence meant just that. Initially Malta negotiated a defense agreement that allowed British air and land forces and the Royal Navy continued use of the military facilities — for a price. Malta remained an important base for NATO, although the new nation itself was not a member. But in 1971, Prime Minister Dom Mintoff — a man that the foreign press often describe as "mercurial" — served notice that his government would no longer permit the nation to be used as a military base by the big powers. He sent the NATO commander packing, suspended visits from the U.S. Mediterranean fleet, and raised the rent for the Royal Navy's use of the dockyards. Mr. Mintoff's price was more than Britain was willing to pay, and so muttering under their breath that "Malta wasn't really of strategic importance anymore, anyway," the Navy made plans to go home. The last British forces left Malta in 1979. The pullout cost Malta dearly in reduced income and loss of jobs. In a controversial decision to reduce the loss, Soviet ships were granted repair and refueling rights, and the links between Malta and the Soviet Union grew stronger. The West feared that Malta was in danger of becoming another Cuba. The Maltese insisted that their facilities were only available for Soviet merchant ships, and then only on Maltese terms. Equally disquieting were Mr. Mintoff's overtures to Libya's leader, Colonel Muammar Kadafi. Libya, just 180 miles to the south, is, after Italy, Malta's closest neighbor. But a serious rift in Maltese-Libyan relations developed over a dispute about access to the continental shelf between the two countries for offshore drilling. The Maltese are showing that they are afraid of nobody, and will strongly resist being — ever again — under any big power's thumb. But neither are they looking for trouble. They want to be considered a strictly neutral, nonaligned nation. They show a special interest in having the whole Mediterranean area declared a "zone of peace" (whatever that is supposed to mean in an age of potential global destruction). Because of its small size and scant resources, Malta needs foreign trade and investment, but it would rather be poor than beg. Until September 1983 the nation resisted joining the World Bank, refusing to be classified as either a developed or a developing nation. The Bank needed another category, they claimed, for nations who need an occasional helping hand, but not a handout. Malta, in short, is one of those little nations that refuse to be insignificant. Mr. Mintoff, although the ruler of only 320,000 people, is not afraid to make his presence felt on the world scene. Not all Maltese agree with Mr. Mintoff, of course. The voting population is almost evenly divided between the Labor party who have ruled for the last 14 years, and the opposition Nationalist party. Rivalry between the two parties is strong and relations are at an all — time low, following disputed returns after the last election. Tempers flare and boil over from time to time, and so intense is the feeling that some have even speculated that Malta could become "another Lebanon." But probably not. Whether Nationalist or Socialist, they are all Maltese, with a basic common sense and stability. A Maltese friend reassured me, "We may move right or left, but we won't do anything too stupid." The biggest threat to Maltese well-being today is not whether they move to the left or right I politically, but that they can't move geographically. Whatever else Malta is — or does — it is still right in the middle of one of the world's potential hot spots. Malta is trying to keep out of trouble — steering a strictly neutral course between East and West and North and South, maintaining cordial but cautious terms with as many as possible. But what the Maltese need to know is that the balance of power in this region is going to change drastically. It will stagger the world and leave even the most skillful politicians reeling. The frustrated nations of the European Economic Community are being forced by circumstances toward a political union that will probably become the most formidable military superstate the world has seen. The prophecies of the Bible, a source of information on current events that few people take seriously, reveal that this union of nations will come into conflict with Malta's southern neighbors in North Africa. The latter will be part of a rival power bloc. And Malta — inevitably — will be in the way. The prophecies of the Bible therefore have some somber news for the Maltese people. But there is also good news. Jesus Christ has promised to return in time to prevent the destruction of all human life (Matt. 24:22). He will stop the final human conflict before it is too late. Then, from Jerusalem, he will rule the earth and teach all nations how to live in peace (Isa. 2:1-4). The influence of his rule will spread across the earth as the waters cover the ocean floor (Isa. 11:9). Malta (fortunately, this time) will again be in the way as the Mediterranean at last becomes a zone of peace. And Malta will be defended once more by Faith, Hope and Charity — not three battered, brave old warplanes, but a way of life that will guarantee happiness and prosperity for a thousand years.