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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Battle for Malta (1940 - 1943): 'Prelude' - Malta Prepares for War

Updated: Apr 12, 2023

The interwar years had also seen a number of developments in Malta, particularly in the social and political scene. The First World War created a lot of employment in Malta. After the war, however, the cost of living increased dramatically, and imports were limited. As food became scarce, prices rose, leading to poverty and hunger, as well as dissatisfaction with the British administration.


In February 1919 a National Assembly was convened to obtain better constitutional concessions for the Maltese. On 7th June, riots broke out in Valletta, during which four Maltese were killed, when British troops fired into the crowd. The riots reflected the unsatisfactory nature of economic and political life in Malta and underlined the urgency for reform. They led to the granting of self-government to Malta for the first time, in 1921.


Local politics during the next few years were characterised by two distinct movements: those who were anti-British, and those who were pro-British. One of the main issues which divided them was the 'Language Question'. Before the arrival of the British, the official language in Malta had been Italian, but this was downgraded by the increased use of English. The 1921 Constitution proclaimed both English and Italian as official languages, but in 1927, when the pro-British Constitutionalist and Labour parties came to power, a general offensive against the Italian language was launched. This angered the Nationalists, who in turn, after winning the 1932 elections, tried to reintroduce the teaching of Italian in primary schools.


In the meantime, however, the British Government had become concerned with the spread of Italian Fascist propaganda in Malta, while fearing a future war with Italy. From 1933 onwards, it took decisive steps to eliminate the remaining influence of Italian in Malta and used the Language Question to suspend the Constitution.


The Abyssinian Crisis between 1935 and 1936 led to the construction of a number of pillboxes in Malta

As part of Italy’s expansionist policy in the 1930s, Italian espionage became strong in Malta during this time. The British monitored the Italian consulate, a number of Italian institutions in Malta were closed, and there were a number of deportations.


The Abyssinian Crisis between 1935 and 1936 built up further tensions. The British feared that Italy would launch a surprise invasion of Malta, and the island was ill-prepared for such an eventuality. In the years following the end of the First World War, there had been a neglect of the island’s fortifications, but the British were now forced to reassess the island’s defences.


A number of pillboxes were constructed. These consisted of concrete machine-gun emplacements that could defend particular strong points. The beach posts along the coast were intended to prevent the enemy from gaining a foothold on the beaches, whilst the depth posts and reserve posts further inland were intended to engage enemy troops if they managed to advance further. Barbed wire entanglements and other obstacles ringed Malta’s coastline, and the number of infantry battalions stationed on the island was significantly increased.


Between 1937 and 1938 Fort Campbell was constructed in Selmun

The old coastal forts came alive again, as a programme of rearmament was launched. Between 1937 and 1938 Fort Campbell was constructed in Selmun, to challenge enemy ships approaching the Grand Harbour from the north, as well as to protect Mellieħa and St. Paul's Bay. Designed in an irregular pattern that blended in with its surroundings, it was enclosed within a high, camouflaged boundary wall. Only those buildings that were essential to the fighting capability of the fort were built above ground, with the rest being built beneath ground level. The barrack accommodation was located outside the boundary wall, in order to keep the buildings within to the barest minimum. Furthermore, these few buildings were scattered, so as to prevent clusters and identifiable patterns that could be picked up by enemy aircraft. All this reflected the new threat posed by the aerial bomber.


In fact, whereas up to this point the main threat to the Maltese Islands had always come from the sea, the fact that Sicily was only 30 minutes flying time away meant that the aerial threat was now much more serious, and new measures had to be taken.


An early-warning system, the Parabolic Acoustic Mirror known locally as "il-Widna" (the ear), was constructed at Magħtab. It was intended to provide early warning of incoming enemy aircraft and was the only one of its type to be built outside the United Kingdom. It was estimated that the mirror would provide a 6-minute warning of enemy aircraft approaching Malta at 250 mph. It was intended to build a total of five such mirrors around the island, to give 360° coverage, but the plans were scrapped when the early development of radar rendered this technology obsolete.


Then known as RDF (Radio Direction Finding), radar was first introduced to Malta in March 1939, with the establishment of Air Ministry Experimental Station (AMES) Nº 242 on Dingli Cliffs. Once again, this was the first of its kind to be installed anywhere outside the United Kingdom and the number of such stations would later be increased.


An early-warning system, the Parabolic Acoustic Mirror known locally as "il-Widna", was constructed at Magħtab

Aerial bombardment also posed a great threat to civilians, as had been clearly demonstrated when Franco’s Nationalist Air Force, assisted by Italy and Germany, attacked the Republican-held Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. Furthermore, there was also the fear of poison gas, which had first been used during the First World War. The use of gas in war had been forbidden by the Geneva Convention in 1925, but in 1936 Italy used gas during the war in Abyssinia, and there were fears that in a future conflict it might also be used against civilians.


As a result, the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) was set up in 1939 to cater for the protection of civilians against aerial bombardment and the use of war gases. In the years leading to war, the ARP embarked on a nationwide campaign to educate the masses on how best to counteract the effects of air raids, and to issue gas masks to the civilian population.


In spite of all this preparation, the state of Malta's defences was in reality still poor. This was because in the years before 1939, against the protests of the Royal Navy, Malta had been written off as indefensible by the British air force. The RAF became convinced that however thorough the preparations made to resist air attacks on Malta, Italian aircraft could not be prevented from breaking through to bomb the naval dockyard and the airfields. The British Army also came to similar conclusions, with the result that only limited preparations were made for the defence of the island.


All this uncertainty meant that by the summer of 1939, the general policy for Malta had still not been decided. However, despite concerns that the island could not be defended, the British decided in July 1939 to increase the number of anti-aircraft guns and fighter aircraft in Malta, as a deterrent to enemy action. The implementation of this plan, however, was slow, and by the outbreak of war, the number of anti-aircraft guns was nowhere near what it should have been, and there was not a single fighter on the island!

 

On 1st September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Britain and France, who had an agreement to defend Poland if it was attacked, declared war on Germany two days later after an ultimatum asking for the withdrawal of German troops was ignored. The war, which for quite some time had seemed inevitable, had finally arrived.


Despite this, however, neither side was to launch major operations against the other until April 1940. The French opted to fight a defensive war, forcing the Germans to come to them, whilst most of the German army was engaged in Poland. This period of relative inactivity was to become known as the 'Phoney War'.


In Malta, there had been great anxiety when war was declared, as it was expected that Italy would join the conflict on Germany’s side, and threaten the island. However, despite Italy’s military alliance with Germany, Mussolini was reluctant to go to war with Britain and France at this stage, and Italy remained neutral for the time being.


Nonetheless, preparations for war were intensified. Maltese authorities started interning German and Austrian, and later Italian citizens, as well as a number of Maltese who were self-declared pro-Italian, and considered dangerous to the internal security of Malta. Mobilisation and recruitment continued at a steady pace. A number of British families were evacuated from Malta, while the issuing of gas masks to the local population was stepped up. There was training for the population on what to do in case of air raids. Curfew came into force, meaning that everyone, with the exception of authorised persons, had to remain indoors from 11 pm to 5 am, while blackout regulations were introduced to make it difficult for enemy bomber pilots to locate their targets. All windows, skylights, and other openings which would show a light had to be screened with blankets or brown paper pasted on the glass so that no light was visible from outside. Instructions were also issued about the dimming of lights on vehicles, while street lighting was put out.


In April 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway, while the following month, the Netherlands and Belgium were quickly overrun using blitzkrieg tactics. The Germans also swept into France, forcing British troops to evacuate the continent at Dunkirk.


Mussolini declares war on Great Britain and France

It was at this moment, with France on the verge of surrender, and Britain surely to follow, that Mussolini considered the time was ripe for Italy to join the war, so as to share the fruits of victory. On 10th June 1940, he appeared on the balcony of Palazzo Venezia in Rome and communicated his decision to declare war on Britain and France. As from midnight, Malta found herself on the front line.

 

References


Blouet, B. (1972). The Story of Malta. London: Faber & Faber Ltd.


Vella, P. (1985). Malta: Blitzed but not Beaten. Valletta: Progress Press Co. Ltd.


Zarb-Dimech, A. (2003). Mobilisation in Action. Malta.

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