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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Battle for Malta (1940 - 1943): 'Under Attack' - Civil Defence

As the bombings went on, the number of civilian casualties increased, but thanks to a number of Civil Defence Organisations that had been set up before the war to ensure the protection of civilians, many lives were saved.

The Air Raid Precautions (ARP) had been formed in July 1939, following the example of Britain in 1924, as a response to the growing fear of the devastating power of aerial bombardment, and to protect civilians against the use of war gases. Its headquarters were located at Fra Diegu Institute in Ħamrun, while a number of government schools served as regional quarters.

Before the outbreak of war, the ARP had been crucial in educating the public about the effects of modern warfare on the civilian population, through regular radio broadcasts, training demonstrations, and the distribution of printed material. The ARP was also responsible for the establishment of first aid and anti-gas decontamination centres all over Malta, as well as the large-scale distribution of gas masks to the population at the outbreak of war.

The ARP was formed as a response to the growing fear of the devastating power of aerial bombardment, and to protect civilians against the use of war gases

ARP personnel always carried a gas mask, as well as a whistle to alert civilians. A rattle was also issued, to be used when suspicion of gas existed, as well as a torch, in order to check that blackout hours were being observed. However, their most important task was that of ascertaining damage and casualties, as well as administering first aid, after an attack.

The Malta Police Force was placed on a war footing, to perform additional duties other than the maintenance of law and order. After air raids, they were entrusted with the responsibility of calling into action other departments when damage or casualties were ascertained. They cordoned off dangerous areas from the public, assisted in salvage operations, and were responsible for taking custody of and removing dead bodies.

In May 1940 the Special Constabulary was set up to assist the Police. Special Constables enrolled on a voluntary basis, and at its height, the organisation had around 2,000 members. They did not have the wide law-enforcing powers of policemen, but they were meant to take up some duties to keep the Police free to concentrate on other jobs. The duties of the 'Specials', as they were known, included ensuring people took refuge during air raids, controlling and protecting refugees, recovering people’s belongings from bombed houses, and keeping guard to prevent looting.

In May 1940 the Special Constabulary was set up to assist the Police

The Public Works Department was mainly responsible for the excavation of shelters, a crucial job on which the survival of the population depended. Another important department was that of Demolition and Clearance, which was made up of engineers, stonecutters, masons, as well as skilled and unskilled workers. These men would be sent to bombed-out areas, equipped with picks, shovels, axes, and other tools, to help recover persons buried under debris, as well as to clear debris from the roads, and demolish buildings rendered dangerous as a consequence of bombing.

One cannot underestimate the work also done by the District Commissioners and Protection Officers in providing protection and assistance to those affected by the war. Malta was divided into Districts, with each District having a Regional Protection Officer, and each town and village having a Protection Officer. Following a call by the government for people of a certain educational level, a number of such persons were appointed in every part of the island. Among them was Dr. Paul Boffa, a future Prime Minister of Malta, who was awarded the OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) for his work as the District Commissioner of Cottonera. Among other duties, the Protection Officers were responsible for providing accommodation for those who lost their homes, either through bombardment, or as refugees, and providing them with the most basic necessities, such as food and clothing.



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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