ARMY IN MALTA 

All aspects of Malta’s defences were ill-equipped to tackle a sustained enemy attack and this was as true of the Army as any of the other services. When Italy entered the war on June 10, 1940, there were only five trained infantry battalions on the island: the 2nd Devons, the 1st Dorsets, the 2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers, the 2nd Queen’s Own Royal West Kents, and the recently arrived 8th Manchesters – less than four thousand men in total.  In addition there was the King’s Own Malta Regiment, but these were entirely locally based territorials, of which one whole company was made up of Boy Scouts.

They were there to defend the island against invasion and so were kept busy building pill-boxes and defensive posts, wiring the beaches and keeping vigil along Malta’s coast.  Soon after hostilities began, however, the Army found themselves toiling each day with a variety of other roles: filling in bomb craters on the airfields, clearing rubble and helping to unload precious cargoes newly arrived in port.  Later on they were also roped in to help to refuel and rearm the fighter aircraft.  Without the ceaseless efforts of the island’s infantry battalions, the RAF would not have been able to function.

While the infantry were carrying out the kind of duties they had never trained for before the war, it was left to the island’s gunners to work alongside the RAF in defending the skies.  Malta began the siege with just 34 heavy anti-guns and 22 light anti-aircraft guns, which was hopelessly short of the number needed.  However, more soon arrived and by the time of the first German blitz in January 1941, they were able to send up a formidable ‘box’ barrage over the harbours and three airfields. 

During the worst months of the siege in January-April 1942, the gunners never wavered.  While civilians and the majority of servicemen could take cover during an air raid, the gunners had to brazen it out, firing shell after shell and praying they would be lucky and survive the falling bombs.  For many, however, luck escaped them.  In fact, during the first enemy raid on 11 June, 1940, six Maltese gunners were killed at Fort St Elmo, including Philip Busuttil, just sixteen years old.  Ken Griffiths, a young gunner with the 32nd Light Ack-Ack Regiment, quite openly confessed to feeling ‘terrified’ most of the time – an entirely understandable reaction, but he, like all his colleagues, valiantly stuck to the task in hand.

April 1942 was a notable month for many reasons, but it was also the gunners’ finest hour. In January they had fired 28,788 rounds; in April 160,829 rounds – a staggering amount, which says as much about the grim determination of those firing as it does about the hordes of enemy aircraft flying over from Sicily every day.  Gun barrels were worn out through over-use and mountains of empty shell cases soon piled high, but by the last day of the month, Malta’s gunners had shot down no fewer than 102 enemy planes, a considerable tally and a heavy loss for the Axis air forces. 

The RAF’s great aerial victory on 10 May helped relieve the pressure on the gunners – after April’s efforts they had all but used up their arsenal of shells - but by October, when the final Axis blitz on the island was launched, the number of shells available had once again been substantially increased, and they were able to put up another fearsome barrage.  One German Junkers 88 for example, flying over Malta on 15 October, was hit by no less than four separate Bofors shells.

The contribution of the Army – infantry and gunners alike – cannot be underestimated and, working in tandem with the RAF, proved that inter-service co-operation could pay dividends in times of peril.

 

 

 

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