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The West End showgirl who became a heroine in the Second World War

Christina Ratcliffe in Malta in the 1940s Christina Ratcliffe in Malta in the 1940s
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While dancer Christina Ratcliffe was touring, war broke out. She found herself in Malta where, after volunteering with the RAF, she decided to stay. Nick Smurthwaite speaks to Paul McDonald who has written a book about her life

Christina Ratcliffe, a long-forgotten West End showgirl turned war heroine who died 30 years ago, is brought vividly back to life in a new book.

Former RAF pilot Paul McDonald stumbled on Ratcliffe’s story when he was researching a book on the legendary wartime flying ace Adrian Warburton seven years ago. The book about Warburton, famous for his defence of Malta, was eventually published in 2015 but McDonald always felt there was another story from wartime Malta to be told.

“While Warburton was a typical Boy’s Own hero, I always felt Christina’s story the more intriguing of the two,” says McDonald. What propelled him to write the follow-up book was a visit to the Phoenicia Hotel in Valletta, the capital of Malta, in 2012.

“It was 25 years after Christina’s death but people still remembered her,” says McDonald. “Everywhere I went there was some connection. One day I was sitting in the Club Bar in the Phoenicia when I saw a framed photograph of Christina reading the Times of Malta. When I returned to my seat I saw there was another of her right above my head. That was it. I had to write her story.”

The Whizz Bangs' concert party. Christina is third from the right on the front row
The Whizz Bangs’ concert party. Christina is third from the right on the front row

Cheshire-born Ratcliffe always wanted to be a dancer. Having made her debut in the early 1930s at the old Manchester Hippodrome – on the same bill as the great George Formby – she was engaged by Miss Frances Mackenzie’s Young Ladies to tour France, Italy, Algiers and Switzerland, in a Parisian-style show entitled Jusqu’aux Etoiles (Up to the Stars).

A dancing contract at the Tivoli in Barcelona ended before it began when the train carrying Ratcliffe and her fellow dancers ran headlong into the start of the Spanish Civil War. Later she landed a six-month engagement in Malta at the Morning Star in Valletta, with an all-female cabaret act. For two years after that, Ratcliffe and friends toured Tunis, Casablanca, Marrakech, Tangier and Dakar.

Author Paul McDonald at the Phoenicia Hotel, Valletta, May 2018
Author Paul McDonald at the Phoenicia Hotel, Valletta, May 2018

By 1940, when Ratcliffe returned to Valletta, Britain was at war with Germany, closely
followed by Italy. Malta became isolated and a night-time curfew meant all places of entertainment were closed. Ratcliffe joined forces with her fellow entertainers on the island to form the Whizz Bangs, entertaining Allied troops based on Malta during daylight hours. Over Christmas 1941 they were given permission to produce a pantomime, Cinderella, at Valletta’s Manoel Theatre with Ratcliffe in the title role.

While the glamorous and vibrant Ratcliffe was not short of admirers, she had eyes only for the dashing RAF photo-reconnaissance pilot Warburton, who was based on Malta.

Through one of her cabaret friends, Ratcliffe volunteered to become an aircraft plotter in the underground RAF operations room beneath Valletta’s Lascaris Bastion. Their task was to plot the many incoming enemy raids and track the RAF fighters. Ratcliffe became captain of her watch of 14 women within six months. She served with the RAF throughout the war, doing war work by day and occasionally appearing in cabaret in the early evening when the curfew was relaxed. She was awarded the British Empire Medal for her war work in 1943.

In 1944, by then the assistant controller, Ratcliffe was devastated to discover, while she was on duty, that Warburton – known to everyone as “Warby” – was missing believed killed over Germany. She remained on Malta, working for the RAF and running Café Christina in Valletta. She also wrote a series of newspaper articles published in Britain and Malta. She never married and died a recluse in 1988. Warburton’s body was found in the wreckage of his aircraft in Bavaria in 2002.

Christina Ratcliffe in Casablanca
Christina Ratcliffe in Casablanca

McDonald, who was himself an RAF photo-reconnaissance pilot based in Malta in the 1970s, says: “Warburton’s disappearance remained a mystery. No one knew what had happened to him, and for years there was speculation that he was trying to get back to Malta to be reunited with Christina.”

According to McDonald, Warburton was considered “the most valuable pilot in the RAF”, having flown 395 operational missions, mostly from Malta, to provide vital information that helped prevent the Axis from capturing Egypt and the Suez Canal.

In his research for the book, McDonald worked closely with the Maltese author Frederick Galea, who edited Ratcliffe’s articles in his 2004 book, Carve Malta on My Heart. Galea’s role in preserving Ratcliffe’s memory extended to restoring the ribbon on her BEM medal, and relocating her remains from a shared grave to a separate plot with a marble headstone, saying: “Christina of George Cross Island.”

McDonald’s earlier book about Ratcliffe and Warburton, Malta’s Greater Siege, inspired veteran playwright and composer Philip Glassborow to write a one-act musical, Star of Strait Street, based on her life. It was premiered in Valletta, as part of the city’s European Capital of Culture programme, and has been performed in London, Australia and San Francisco.

Ladies of Lascaris: Christina Ratcliffe and the Forgotten Heroes of Malta’s War, is published by Pen & Sword

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