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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Battle for Malta (1940 - 1943): 'The Defenders of Malta' - The Royal Malta Artillery

Updated: Jan 15

The Royal Malta Artillery (RMA) was formed in 1889 as a locally raised gunner regiment, forming part of the Royal Artillery, and with the role of defending Malta. During the Second World War, the RMA was tasked with anti-aircraft as well as coastal defence and was expanded to include five regiments: the 1st and 5th Coast, 2nd and 11th Heavy Anti-Aircraft, and 3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiments.


During the Second World War, the RMA was tasked with anti-aircraft as well as coastal defence

The very first military casualties of the war in Malta came from this unit, when six men of the RMA were killed at Upper Fort St. Elmo during the very first bombing raid, on 11th June 1940. Over the next few years, the anti-aircraft batteries of the RMA, together with those of the Royal Artillery, bore the responsibility of defending the island against the enemy’s constant air attacks.


Anti-aircraft defences were sited in particular around the area of the Grand Harbour and HM Dockyard, as well as in the vicinity of other primary targets, such as the airfields. Their aim was to engage enemy aircraft before they were able to release their bombs, or at least to harass them so as to make them miss their target.


The gunners would sometimes target individual aircraft, but another very effective method was that of the 'box barrage', which was particularly effective when repelling heavy attacks against vulnerable points. In this case, each gun would fire on a predetermined bearing and height, so that all the shells would be exploding in the same area, forming a 'box' of explosions above the vulnerable point, through which the enemy had to fly in order to bomb the target. This tactic proved highly effective, especially during the ‘Illustrious Blitz’.


The 'box barrage' method was particularly effective when repelling heavy attacks against vulnerable points

This was also a very dangerous job. While others could take cover during an air raid, the anti-aircraft gunners had to keep firing away, while hoping that they would not be hit by the falling bombs. Anti-aircraft batteries were often targeted by the enemy, being bombed or strafed, and many gunners lost their lives in this way.


Their job was made even more difficult when the ammunition stock was low. This was a common situation since the constant air raids meant that great amounts of ammunition were expended, and not always easily replenished. In such situations, the gunners were sometimes restricted as to the number of shells they could fire.


One of the heaviest periods of air raids was the month of April 1942, during which the anti-aircraft gunners were almost continuously in action, shooting down no less than 102 enemy planes by the end of the month. Their contribution to the defence of the island cannot be underestimated. They repeatedly showed great courage and determination in the face of ferocious attacks, and earned for themselves the reputation of 'the deadliest gunners on Earth'.


Unlike the anti-aircraft gunners, their comrades manning the coastal batteries did not have the opportunity to engage the enemy but were kept in a constant state of preparedness for a possible seaborne assault.


The chance for them to prove their mettle came on 26th July 1941, when the Decima Flottiglia Mezzi d'Assalto, also known as Xª MAS, an elite unit of the Regia Marina - the Italian navy - carried out a daring attempt to infiltrate the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett. Their mission was to destroy a convoy that had reached Malta two days earlier and to paralyse the submarine base at Manoel Island.


The expedition left Augusta in Sicily at sunset on 25th July. It consisted of the sloop Diana, and a small naval force, which included two large motor torpedo boats (MAS), two manned torpedoes (SLC) nicknamed ‘maiale’ by their crews, and eight motor assault boats (MT), nicknamed ‘barchino’. The latter carried an explosive charge in their bow and were crewed by one man, who would steer the assault craft on a collision course with his target and jump from the boat just before impact.


The ‘maiale’ was a manned torpedo used by the Decima MAS

At about 10.30 pm on 25th July, the radar station at Madliena detected Diana about 45 nautical miles off the coast. Shortly after, the smaller boats were unloaded, and they began their trip towards Malta, approaching at slow speed, in order not to alert the defences with the noise of their engines. Their plan was for the SLCs to breach the outer defences of the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett, allowing the MTs to enter and target the merchant ships.


The assault was launched at 4.44 am, as the Italians tried to breach the net guarding the entrance to the Grand Harbour. This proved to be more complicated than first thought, and in a desperate attempt to make it through, one of the boats was directed towards the breakwater viaduct in a suicidal attack, hitting the centre pylon. The resulting explosion brought down the outer span of the bridge, which came to rest between the pylons, thus blocking access to the harbour.


The destroyed breakwater bridge in the aftermath of the attack

Apart from this setback, the harbour defences now also sprang to life, as searchlights came on to illuminate the whole area, exposing the rest of the assault craft. Twin 6-pounder guns from Fort St. Elmo and Fort Ricasoli, as well as from other posts guarding the harbour approaches, came into action. The ensuing battle lasted six short, hectic minutes, during which the majority of the craft were destroyed or immobilised.


At dawn, Hurricanes were sent up from Malta to finish off any craft trying to escape. The rout was now complete. Later on in the morning, the crew of the second SLC, who, having become lost, had scuttled their craft at St. George's Bay, were captured. In all, fifteen Decima MAS crewmen were killed, and eighteen were taken prisoner.


The invaluable work of the Maltese gunners did not go unnoticed, and on 3rd April 1942, a great honour was bestowed upon them when King George VI became Colonel-in-Chief of the RMA, in recognition of the outstanding role that the unit played in the defence of the island.

 

References


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


Rollo, D. (1999). The Guns and Gunners of Malta. Malta: Mondial Publishers.


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


Wismayer, J. M. (1989). The History of the King's Own Malta Regiment and the Armed Forces of the Order of St. John. Valletta, Malta: Said International Ltd.

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