Naafi wasn’t just operating in Cyprus during the Second World War, a new book about the British military trading organisation sheds new light its role during the bombardment of Malta.
In Canteen Army: The Naafi Story, author Nathan Morley chronicles the history of the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes – a retail operation devised by Winston Churchill in 1921 that has seen action in almost every theatre of war over the last 97-years.
“Naafi was as we know was very active in Cyprus, but in Malta the number of canteens and shops from went up from 17 in 1939 when war broke out, to 80 by 1942, but hardly a day went by without 4 or 5 canteens being damaged by German bombs,” Morley said.
Whilst Rommel’s successes in North Africa may have brought him adulation in Berlin, new victories became scarce as it became increasingly tricky to keep his men supplied the further they advanced, given that RAF pilots flying out of Malta were sinking three in every four German supply ships sailing between Sicily and Tripoli.
For many Allied soldiers on the island, there was not a lot of point in going into Valletta because there was nothing to buy, Naafi seemed to have stocks, but they were extremely limited.
“When the raids were over, Naafi canteen staff tended the wounded, swept up the debris and opened up again – regardless of the terrific intensity of the barrage. It was a pretty horrible existence,” Morley adds.
Brigadier W.N. Hamilton, the wartime Naafi supervisor in Valetta, later recorded that only two staff members were killed during the siege, which Naafi counted as a blessing, given the massive destruction caused.
As a distraction, an ENSA concert party – under the guidance of Naafi – continued to play to the troops without a break for nearly three years. The Whizz Bangs —comprising four men and four women—were the only wartime performers on the island. Each night, as the bombs fell, units of the garrison would settle down to enjoy a twenty-six-item programme.
“Of course we all know that Malta was not subdued,” Morley says. “ In fact, Major J. C. Burke, Naafi’s commander on the island, wrote after the war that his greatest moment was watching Italian Fleet sail to Valetta to surrender in September 1943. ‘The islanders,’ he said, ‘did not cheer. They simply stared open-mouthed, at the awe-inspiring sight.’”
“But Naafi wasn’t just in Malta,” Morley adds, “they also operated thousands of canteens, pubs, cafes, shops and hotels from the deserts of North Africa to the freezing wastelands of Iceland.”
British forces retained a presence in Malta until 1979, when their military bases on the island were closed, along with the Naafi.
“The men and women of Naafi, while sharing the dangers of their comrades in uniform, provided the small luxuries that make life in a war zone or foreign postings more bearable, and there are still many Maltese that either remember Naafi, or indeed worked for the institute.”
Canteen Army: The Naafi Story by Nathan Morley is available at Amazon, as either paperback or Kindle book.