In 1939 Major General Dobbie retired from the Army at the age of 60. War in Europe was declared the following month. With patriotic loyalty, he offered himself for any appointment the War Office might offer.
Months of frustration followed, until, while lunching at the United Service Club (now occupied by the Institute of Directors), a member of the club staff informed him that the CIGS, Field Marshal Ironside, who was also lunching, wished to speak to him.
Ironside informed Dobbie that he wanted him to go to Malta. After asking in what capacity he would be going, he was astonished when Ironside replied, ‘As Governor and Commander-in-Chief’.
Being a well trained officer, Dobbie’s next remark was, ‘May I ring my wife?’! Twelve days later the Dobbies flew over France and Italy to arrive in Malta. In the weeks that followed, Germany overran the Low Countries, and the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force through Dunkirk and entry of Italy into the war occurred.
Malta, an island smaller than the Isle of Wight, but with a superb deep-water harbour vital for the Royal Navy, was now placed about 1000 miles from any friendly territory. Yet it was essential to maintaining a British line of communication through the Mediterranean.
With minimal military resources available, Dobbie put in hand immediate action to defend the island and its inhabitants from a four-fold threat — aerial bombardment; airborne and sea invasions; slow attrition; and blockade.
He made regular use of broadcasts to give assurance to the people of Malta. On the day that France fell he issued this Order of the Day: ‘The decision of His Majesty’s Government to fight on until our enemies are defeated will be heard with the greatest satisfaction by all ranks in the garrison of Malta.
‘It may be that hard times lie ahead of us, but I know that, however hard they may be, the courage and determination of all ranks will not falter and that with God’s help we will maintain the security of this fortress. I call on all officers and other ranks humbly to seek God’s help, and then, in reliance on him, to do their duty unflinchingly.’
The defences of Malta were grievously inadequate, with only five weak battalions, sixteen obsolescent anti-aircraft guns and four out-of-date fighter aircraft.
Dobbie will have been greatly encouraged by Field Marshal Ironside sending him a telegram at this time: ‘Deuteronomy, chapter 5, verse 22’ (‘You shall not fear them, for the Lord your God he shall fight for you’).
Dobbie himself was to say later: ‘In the siege of Malta when we were very weak, and the enemy was very strong, we gained much help from the story of Jehoshaphat recorded in 2 Chronicles 20 … We are told that Jehoshaphat prayed to God, “We have no might … neither know we what to do … but our eyes are upon you”.
‘We were encouraged to do that in Malta, and we received the same answer that Jehoshaphat received: “Be not afraid, for the battle is not yours, but God’s”.’
Dobbie also began the invariable habit every evening after dinner, when all his guests were in the drawing-room, of offering a short ex-tempore prayer for the war situation in Malta.
On 11 June 1940, the first of 2300 air raids on the island during Dobbie’s governorship took place. The courage of the people of Malta, who made extensive use of the limestone shelters prepared under Dobbie’s direction to place 25 feet of rock between them and any exploding bomb, was exemplary.
The performance of the Royal Navy’s submarines, whose destruction of the Axis power’s logistic shipping assigned to reinforce Rommel’s Afrika Corps, caused Churchill to describe Malta during the siege as ‘a veritable hornet’s nest’.
The valour of the Royal Air Force pilots and air defences and dockyard engineers won the admiration of all, and, not least, in the protection of the aircraft carrier, HMS Illustrious, which had been badly maimed on its approach to Malta in 1941.
Churchill signalled the Governor after this ship’s successful escape to Alexandria: ‘I send you, on behalf of the War Cabinet, our heartfelt congratulations upon the magnificent and ever-memorable defence which your garrison and citizens, aided by the Navy and, above all, by the Royal Air Force, are making against Italian and German attacks. The eyes of all Britain, and indeed the whole British Empire, are watching Malta in her struggle day by day, and we are sure that success as well as glory will reward your efforts’.
A few months later, Churchill was to say in another signal: ‘You may be sure that we regard Malta as one of our master-keys of the British Empire. We are sure that you are the man to hold it, and we will do everything in human power to give you the means’.
‘In General Dobbie’, wrote Churchill some years later, ‘Malta found a Governor of outstanding character, who inspired all ranks and all classes, military and civil, with his own determination. He was a soldier who, in fighting leadership and religious zeal, recalled memories of General Gordon and, looking further back, of the Ironsides and Covenanters of the past’.
One of the remarkable facts of Dobbie’s leadership was his God-given competence to hold the confidence of the people of Malta (often described as ‘more Catholic than the pope’) in their fearsome ordeal.
Its archbishop was recorded as saying, ‘All my life I have read in the lives of the saints and elsewhere of that queer look which was observed to come over the faces of certain saints when speaking of God. It has been described as a mystic radiance which seemed to light up their countenance from within. I, myself, have met it but once in a long lifetime. That was in the present Governor’.
This was not the only occasion in which a senior figure expressed his admiration for the evident godliness in Dobbie’s life. A general who had been his adjutant remarked that he had learnt more from Dobbie’s unconscious actions than ever he would know.
By April 1942, the siege had reached its darkest hour, with supplies rationed to almost subsistence levels and defences with minimal capability. Now came a token of great encouragement from King George VI in his own handwriting. It read as follows:
‘The Governor, Malta. To honour her brave people, I award the George Cross to the Island of Malta, to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history. George RI’.
To this Dobbie replied: ‘The people of Malta are deeply touched by Your Majesty’s kind thought for them in conferring on this fortress this signal honour. It has greatly encouraged everyone, and all are determined that, by God’s help, Malta will not weaken but will endure until victory is won…’
It is not surprising that two years of unrelenting, fearsome responsibility took its toll on Dobbie’s health and, in early 1942, Churchill rightly decided to relieve him with General Lord Gort, who had won the VC in World War 1.
The handover only took one hour, as an air raid was taking place. Gort, who had the George Cross in his pocket, forgot to show Dobbie this remarkably won accolade, so Dobbie never saw it.
An embarrassing situation occurred as the swearing in of the new Governor was to take place — no Bible was to hand! Then Dobbie produced from his pocket the New Testament and Psalms which always accompanied him and the ceremony was completed.
On returning to England, Dobbie was received by the King, who invested him with the GCMG, as well as Churchill. At a press conference, the journalists greeted him with a standing ovation.
He broadcast on the BBC radio and did not hesitate to assure the nation that, with God’s help, Malta would stand. A day or so later he was taken into hospital and was soon fighting for his life, but, thankfully, he recovered to undertake two more decades of Christian service.
William Dobbie knew that God calls his servants to serve him in holiness and righteousness all the days of our life. He determined to make it his business on retiring from public service to testify to the faithfulness of God.
Before the Second World War had ended, he had written two books, Active service with Christ and A very present help, the latter being a testimony. He was much in demand as a speaker and, by the end of 1944, had addressed at least 369,000 people at Christian meetings.
Under the auspices of the Moody Bible Institute and Inter Varsity Fellowship respectively, he and his wife undertook extensive tours of Canada and the United States, and then Australia and New Zealand. As a Bible expositor he was not an exceptional speaker, but at giving a testimony to the power of Christ to save and keep a man, he was arguably without peer.
Having settled in London, it was inevitable that he was in demand to take part in the governance of several Christian organisations. He accepted at least seven, including the presidency of the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Scripture Readers Association and chairmanship of the London City Mission. He was one of the referees who supported Billy Graham’s Haringey Crusade in 1954.
When Dobbie died in October 1964, those who knew him could testify to his having ‘lived godly in Christ Jesus’ for over 70 years, spiritually, domestically and professionally.
The light of the gospel, first lit in his new birth at the age of 14, glowed ever stronger, even through the challenges of bereavement, deafness, blindness and old age, until with a glorious assurance in the finished work of his Saviour at the cross of Calvary, he was welcomed by his Father in heaven.
Brigadier Ian Dobbie OBE
The author, who is a grandson of Lieutenant General Sir William Dobbie, is chairman of SASRA