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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Battle for Malta (1940 - 1943): 'The Defenders of Malta' - The Land Forces



When war broke out in Europe, all aspects of Malta’s defences, including the army, were ill-equipped to tackle a sustained enemy attack. When Italy entered the war, there were only five trained infantry battalions on the island: 1st Battalion, The Dorsetshire Regiment; 2nd Battalion, The Devonshire Regiment; 2nd Battalion, The Royal Irish Fusiliers; 2nd Battalion, The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment, and the recently arrived 8th Battalion, The Manchester Regiment - less than 4,000 men in total.


In addition, there was the 1st Battalion, The King’s Own Malta Regiment, which had been re-formed as a territorial infantry regiment in 1932. During the war, the regiment was expanded to four battalions.


Armour support was provided by six tanks from 1st Independent Troop, Royal Tank Regiment. This unit was later reinforced by an additional eight tanks from 6th Royal Tank Regiment, in January 1942.


The infantry strength was also gradually increased. In November 1940, 4th Battalion, The Royal East Kent Regiment, popularly known as 'the Buffs', arrived from Gibraltar, while a further four regiments came to Malta during 1941: 1st Battalion, The Hampshire Regiment; 1st Battalion, The Cheshire Regiment; 11th Battalion, The Lancashire Fusiliers, and 8th Battalion, The King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment. After having taken part in the fighting in North Africa, 1st Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry was also sent to Malta in January 1942.


The number of infantry units based in Malta was gradually increased as the war progressed

These battalions were mainly tasked with performing an anti-invasion role, in case the enemy attempted to land, either by air or by sea, and so were kept busy building and manning defence posts, wiring the beaches, and keeping vigil along Malta’s coast.


They soon found themselves also carrying out a variety of other roles, such as helping to unload the vital cargoes brought in by the convoys, as well as assisting in rescue and clearance work after air raids.


Perhaps their most important role, however, was keeping the airfields operational. Whenever there was a bombing raid, no matter how heavy, a party of soldiers stayed on the aerodrome, and as soon as it was over, they were out filling in the bomb craters on the runways. The soldiers were also roped in to help the Royal Air Force (RAF) ground crew to refuel and rearm the aircraft.


An important task carried out by British soldiers in Malta during WW2 was to assist the RAF in the role of ground crew

They also constructed protective pens for the aircraft - so as to minimize bomb shrapnel damage as much as possible - and enlarged the airfields by building many extra miles of runway. Without the ceaseless efforts of these infantry battalions, the RAF would simply not have been able to function.


Apart from the regular army, just as in Great Britain, steps were taken to create a force from the local population, to assist with a possible invasion, and on 3rd June 1940, the Malta Volunteer Defence Force (MVDF) was created. It was formed primarily from the local hunters and farmers, and anyone else capable of using a gun, with volunteers ranging from teenage boys to very old people. Within the first three days, 3,000 volunteers came forward to join.


This part-time force of unpaid volunteers was subject to military discipline and was under the direction of the regular infantry battalions. Its members were given military training by army instructors. Their main task was to guard the countryside against possible landings of enemy parachutists. At first, the men were just issued with an armband with the letter 'V' on it, and a steel helmet. They were equipped with shotguns, revolvers, and antiquated weapons owned by the men themselves.


Volunteers for the Malta Home Guard ranged from teenage boys to very old men

By July 1940, the MVDF changed its name to the Malta Home Guard, following the example of that in Great Britain. The Home Guard was eventually issued with a khaki battledress, and in 1941, with captured Italian weaponry resulting from the heavy Italian defeat at the hands of General Sir Archibald Wavell in Egypt between December 1940 and January 1941. As with the British Home Guard, it increased in strength and experience as time went on.


Although many Maltese had already enrolled in the different branches of the three services, conscription was introduced in Malta on 3rd March 1941. All males between the ages of 16 and 65 were liable to be called up for national service, and those between 18 and 41 for service with the armed forces. Only persons considered to be holding vital jobs were exempted. It was made clear that conscripted men would not be called upon to serve outside Malta.


A recruit training centre was set up at Fort Ricasoli, where army instructors had the task of making soldiers out of a crowd of clerks, farmers, shop employees, and other persons with no previous military experience. After completing their training, they joined either the Royal Malta Artillery or the King’s Own Malta Regiment.


In spite of all these preparations, the much-anticipated invasion of Malta never occurred. This is not to say that it had never been considered by the Axis powers. Since the mid-1930s, the Italians had conducted military studies to investigate the feasibility of invading the island, and by 1938, an outline plan for a seaborne assault was drawn up. It envisaged the use of 40,000 men, as well as the entire navy, and 500 aircraft. However, the lack of logistical means meant the planners did not believe the operation could be carried out. Furthermore, with Germany's success in May 1940, Mussolini believed that Britain would sue for peace, and Malta could be annexed without the need for military action.


The British Army in Malta was mainly tasked with performing an anti-invasion role

A much more realistic plan for invasion, codenamed Operation 'Herkules' by the Germans and 'Operazione C3' by the Italians, was approved by Hitler and Mussolini in April 1942. This time, it would consist of a joint German and Italian airborne assault, followed by a seaborne landing. Though extensive preparations were made by the Axis, the invasion kept being postponed, as the Germans gained the ascendancy in North Africa after General Rommel captured Tobruk, and significant resources earmarked for the invasion were instead diverted to assist in the Afrika Korps’ drive into Egypt. Furthermore, Hitler was reluctant to use German paratroops, after they had suffered heavy losses during the capture of Crete in May 1941, and this, along with the Germans’ lack of faith in the Italian Navy's ability to protect the invasion fleet from British naval attacks, led to the scrapping of the plan by November 1942.

 

References


Forty, G. (2003). Battle for Malta. Hersham, Surrey: Ian Allan Publishing.


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

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