The Maltese are a people of courage. St. George’s Cross adorned the national flag for defiance during the last World War that saw the island bombed more than London’s Blitz. But there is one Maltese woman who deserves recognition in her own right – Henrietta Chevalier – a textbook example of a World War Two heroine.
A year after the turn of the 20th century, Henrietta or “Chetta” Chevalier was born in Sliema to Emmanuel and Maria Scerri. At 19, she married Thomas Chevalier. Just before the start of World War Two, the pair moved to Rome, where her husband worked as an agent for the British company Thomas Cook & Sons and went on to have six children.
Her life would be thrown into chaos after Benito Mussolini’s rise to power in a facist coup d’etat. After the death of her husband and the imprisonment of one of her sons in 1939, Chevalier found herself trapped inside the facist state as it descened into chaos with the onset of WWII. This when Henrietta, widowed with children and an elderly mother to care for, took it upon herself to be a different kind of agent.
From Henrietta Chevalier to Mrs M.
Her journey as a crucial uncover spy in World War Two started when she was recruited into O’Flahery’s network. Founded by clergyman Hugh O’Flaherty, the network was a notorious escape organisation for Allied prisoners of war and civilians running from the clutches of Axis powers.
The network is attributed to have saved over 6,500 lives during the year it was in operation. At least 4,000 of those were helped by Chevalier, or, known by her nom de guerre, “Mrs M” for Malta.
Mrs M gave O’ Flaherty a carte blanche to use her third-floor apartment on Via Imperia. Despite its modest size, the apartment was used as a storehouse and safe house for anyone fleeing fascism. Thousands of men, women and children found solace there, hidden away in every corner of her few rooms.
Chevalier and her family lived at the constant risk of execution and ruthless eye of Hitler’s SS, to save the lives of others. Still, it never deterred Mrs M’s unsurmountable sense of hope and humour.
There were, of course, several times when the plan was nearly foiled, including one in which involved her daughter. Their apartment acted as a depot for food and supplies, which added a layer of risk because black bags could easily arouse suspicion.
On one occasion, her daughter Gemma just narrowingly escaped fascist police while buying supplies – a fact she kept from her unbeknownst mother.
Despite the constant danger, risk and drama, the Chevaliers were never caught, and Mrs M always wanted her lodgers back.
At one point in time she had four British soldiers staying with her and when asked by the Major about the risks her comment was:
“They are absolutely grand, these boys. They are just like my own children. It is all so marvellous!”
As a housewife, she knew how to make her extraordinary guests feel at home, while war loomed just outside the apartment walls. With brief experience as a nurse, she was known to head out and give medical assistance to those on the run in the city.
She made sure to make everyone welcome.
“At Christmas, she served brandy instead of tea, Christmas gifts were exchanged among the family and the three British lodgers,” a biography notes.
A senior British officer, John Furman, who also acted as a main operator of the Rome Escape Organisation, praised Mrs M as a beacon of light in times of terror.
“What can be said of this incredible woman. I would not call her brave for it seemed to me she had no conception of fear. Her kindness and generosity were unparalleled, her maternal spirit and compassion boundless”.
The Chevalier family continued their risky, undercover mission until they were evacuated, one by one, to a nearby farm on the outskirts of Rome. They lived in hiding themselves until the war ended.
After the war was declared over in 1945, Mrs M returned to her beloved island of Malta, alone, probably because her children married off in Italy or chose to remain there. She was recognised for her outstanding contributions with a British Empire Medal.
However, no one really took notice of her on the island, and she passed away quietly in 1973 at the age of 72. She was buried in Santa Maria Addolorata Cemetery. More recently a memorial garden has been planted in her honour at the Malta Aviation Museum and she featured in a vivid children’s book called Amazing Maltese Women.
Not only did Chevalier risk her life and her loved ones for the sake of others, but she also did it with a shining attitude – a true Maltese heroine by any definition. If we can take anything from Mrs M, it’s that it takes courage to risk it all, even more so to do it with a smile.
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