In June 1940, despite the long anticipated and fast approaching storm of war, Malta was far from sufficiently prepared to counter any potential Axis invasion. Land defences were manned and put on high alert, RAF landing strips were augmented, new Anti-Aircraft sites set up, and an intensive construction programme for additional coastal and inland structures implemented. This included a vast array of fortified observation posts, searchlight positions, trenches, shelters, sandbag pens, barbed wire obstacles, concrete structures and anything else required to impede the enemy in case of invasion. Work required for the digging of air-raid shelters was upscaled and a voluntary defence force established, eventually becoming known as the Malta Home Guard.
Camouflaged Howitzer at Marfa Concrete Pillbox at Mosta Barbed Wire at Sliema
Malta's Land Force consisted of the Royal Malta Artillery (RMA), the King's Own Malta Regiment (KOMR), and a number of Army Battalions from different British regiments. The line infantry was organised into a single Malta Brigade and supported by several logistic support detachments from an array of British Army Corps, supplemented by units from the other services such as the Admiralty's Royal Marines. An armoured unit from the 44th Battalion of the Royal Tank Regiment arrived in November 1940, further bolstering Malta's defensive capability. The entire garrison was under the overall jurisdiction of Malta Command, with Malta's Governor serving as Commander-in-Chief.
Charles Bonham Carter Flag of the Governor of Malta in use between 1898-1943 William G.S. Dobbie
In April 1940, Governor Sir Charles Bonham Carter was replaced by Sir William George Shedden Dobbie. The Command established its headquarters in a series of secret underground chambers and tunnels within Lascaris bastion, beneath the Upper Barrakka Gardens and Saluting Battery, in Valletta. The War Rooms comprised separate operations centres for each of the fighting services and a Filter Room for consolidating individual incoming reports. The operations HQ was equipped with Type X Cipher Machines and connected directly to the Naval Station at the Auberge de Castille, radar stations, and other strategic outposts around the Maltese Islands. Air defence was co-ordinated by the Anti-Aircraft Guns Operations Room icw the Royal Air Force Sector Fighter Control Room, while maritime fleets were led from the Navy Plotting Room. A Coastal Defence Room was responsible for planning defensive operations in case of invasion.
Malta Command HQ at the Lascaris War Rooms in Valletta
In June 1940, the garrison's strength was 4,303 men and 237 officers with an additional 1,552 Maltese troops. Steps were taken to reinforce and expand the original pre-war brigade to divisional strength, duly reforming it into four brigades.1 Each brigade was allocated a chosen sector with its own regional headquarters and order of battle. The 1st Infantry Brigade was assigned to the Southern Sector with its HQ at Luqa. The 2nd Infantry Brigade was responsible for the Northern Sector with its HQ at Melita Hotel, Attard. The 3rd & 4th Infantry Brigades were assigned the Central and Western Sectors. In 1943, the formations were renamed as Nos. 231, 232, 233 & 234 Infantry Brigades respectively.
S. John P. Scobell British Reinforcements Malta Camouflage
The entire force was commanded by Major General Sir Sanford John Palairet Scobell and deployed to fixed points in the countryside and around the coast. Other preparations included the application of a camouflage pattern mimicking rubble walls to vehicles, armour and helmets as to hinder detection. On the day Italy declared war Sir William Dobbie issued the following proclamation to the garrison:
"The decision of His Majesty's government to fight until our enemies are defeated will be heard with the greatest satisfaction by all ranks of the Garrison of Malta. It may be that hard times lie ahead of us, but I know that however hard they may be, the courage and determination of all ranks will not falter, and that with God's help we will maintain the security of this fortress. I call on all officers and other ranks humbly to seek God's help, and then in reliance on Him to do their duty unflinchingly."
The hard times did come all too soon and in many forms. The bulk of the infantry was deployed to an extensive network of Beach Observation Posts constituting defensive lines in strategic locations. Several of these concrete pillboxes had only been recently constructed and were damp, especially in winter, or very humid and clammy in summer. The men practically lived within their crammed interiors and in the fields or garrigue around them, often in windswept areas, well exposed to the elements. Despite Malta's warm climate, its winters can be quite harsh, with high levels of humidity which tend to make a person feel cold irrespective of how many layers of clothing are worn. Then in summer, the elevated humidity and south winds generate additional heat and discomfort to direct sun exposure which can easily cause sunstroke, sunburns, rashes and other harm.
External and internal appearance of typical Pillboxes in Malta
These conditions inevitably generated a wide series of health issues. Long sentry duties in moderately ventilated bunkers wearing thick woollen socks in heavy standard issue drill boots led to fungal and other infections. The men also had to deal with a multitude of pests such as lice, fleas, mosquitos and flies. Rats posed a threat to food supplies and wires or cables. At some point or another, every man in each unit would find himself in need of medical attention due to one or more of the above mentioned afflictions. Rations were rudimentary and often of limited nutritional value and palate. The tedium of guard duties was sometimes broken by occasional small-scale field exercises, or increasingly by shifts required to clear debris from heavily bombed areas, fix runways, improve airfield defences and to help unload convoy ships.
Auxiliary Duties being performed by men from Infantry Battalions
The entire affair was capped by the nervous strain due to an ever-escalating savage aerial bombardment campaign by the Axis and harshening siege conditions. Men from other units such as the artillery and other corps were less subject to tedium from prolonged sentry duties, but neither did they benefit of the relative protection afforded by pillboxes in remote rural or coastline settings. Batteries were often targeted by enemy aircraft and casualties frequent, while logistic troops often had to carry out their duties amidst frequent, intense raids.
Bombs exploding in the vicinity of Guarena and Hompesch Batteries
The most defining year in Malta's struggle for survival was 1942. As the siege intensified, dwindling fundamental provisions including potable water and Anti-Aircraft Ammunition added to everyone's misery. The food situation was so bad that by summer, the authorities were compelled to face the prospect of surrender. On the other side of the Front, the Axis had drawn up plans for a seaborne invasion supported by elite paratrooper formations, but disagreements between German and Italian High Commands led to the Operation's indefinite postponement.2
Hitler & Mussolini planning the Invasion of Malta in Spring, 1942
By mid-1942 the Malta Garrison had been fully reinforced and counted eleven British and three Maltese Infantry Battalions supported by three Regiments of Artillery, several Corps detachments, and a 3,000-strong Home Guard. In March, Malta Command was placed under the jurisdiction of General Headquarters, Middle East Forces (G.H.Q.-M.E.F.) and on 7th May, Sir Dobbie was replaced by Field Marshal, Viscount Gort.
British 5D Postage Stamp from 1942 portraying King George VI, overprinted for Military use by the Middle East Forces
Changes also came to effect in the field: Back in January Major General Scobell had ceded his role as General Officer Commanding (GOC) to Major General Daniel Marcus William Beak. In July Beak was re-assigned other roles and temporally replaced by Major General (Acting) Clifford Thomason Beckett. On the 6th of August 1942, Major General Ronald Mackenzie Scobie was appointed as Malta's GOC, serving until the end of the siege in March 1943.
The arrival of a supply convoy in mid-August 1942 was providential in re-igniting morale and the Island's fighting capability. The services remained on high-alert but by the end of the year, no invasion attempt had taken place. 1943 brought major setbacks to the Axis, on both the Russian and North African Fronts. Malta had progressively moved on to the offensive, striking German / Italian convoys and military installations. The siege was eventually reversed into a counter-siege on the Axis forces in North Africa, leading to an Allied victory there in May. Malta then became an integral component of Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily in July, leading to an Italian armistice in September, 1943. For the first time since June 1940, the men of the Malta Garrison could finally catch some breath.
The arrival of a Convoy Vessel during Operation Pedestal Montgomery planning Operation Husky in Malta
There was to be little reprieve however since the war was far from over. The British battalions of the 231st Infantry Brigade were redeployed to North Africa in April, to refit and prepare for Operation Husky. The rest of the British infantry units soon followed suit. Some of these battalions wound up in the Greek Island of Leros where they suffered heavy casualties. Most of the survivors from this cadre of Malta campaign veterans would spend the rest of the war in German POW camps. Other ex-Malta garrison battalions were recommitted to the land battles in Italy and eventually to other fronts in Western Europe.
British defeat at Leros in 1943 - Several men who had served in Malta were killed or taken prisoner
The battalions comprising these brigades, their battle stations, duties, weapons, uniforms and equipment are described within this section of our virtual museum. To read more click on the links below - Click on image to leave page or underlying text to open in a new tab
1, The Malta Infantry Brigade was originally expanded to two formations as the Northern and Southern Infantry Brigades in August 1940, then further reinforced to form four Brigades by 1942. 2. The planned invasion of Malta was termed as Unternehmen Herkules (Operation Hercules) by the Germans and Esigenza C3 by the Italians. The attack was to be spearheaded by an Italian amphibious assault supported by German and Italian paratroopers.
Malta Command /Charles Bonham Cater / William Dobbie / - Wikipedia.org Lascaris War Rooms - Wirt Atrna Heritage Trust via lascariswarrooms.com Visual Management during WW2: A Visit to the Lascaris War Rooms in Malta - Christoph Roser via Allaboutlean.com The Malta Home Guard - Denis Darmanin via Timesofmalta.com The Malta Garrison, 1939 - Maltaramc.com A Concise History of Malta Command (History & Personnel) - Robert Palmer via Britishmilitaryhistory.co.uk
Images Howitzer at Marfa / Mosta Pillbox / Sliema Defencs - X Governor Portraits - Elliot & Fry / Bassano Ltd. via the National Portrait Gallery, London (Npg.org.uk) Governor Flag - Orange Tuesday / Man77 via Wikipedia.org Lascaris Bastion and War Rooms - Allaboutlean.com / Frank Wincentz via Wikipedia.org / Visitmalta.com / Major G. Keating, No.2 Army Film & Photographic Unit via the Imperial War Museum Collection in London (Iwm.org.uk) John Scobell in his younger days by H.W. Watson via Wikiwand.com Troops come ashore in the Grand Harbour - Lt. H.E. Cook, WO Official Photographer via Iwm.org.uk Cruiser Tanks & Bofors A.A. Gun being unloaded in the Grand Harbour - Ditto Typical Pillbox Layout - Stephen Spiteri Ta' Kaccatura Heights Pillbox l/o B'bugia - AAFM Archive Photo from 2014 Interior of a Pillbox at one of the Zejtun / Marsaxlokk crossroads - Ditto Governor & Commander-in-Chief Sir W. Dobbie - Zscout370 via Wikipedia.org Men from Infantry Battalions help with construction of Aircraft Pens - NWMA Royal Engineer personnel looking for casualties and unexploded bombs - AAFM Photo Infantry hastily unloading supplies from HMS Welshman in a special operation in July,1942 - Iwm.org.uk Axis Invasion Plans - Jim H. via Comandosupremo.com MEF Postage Stamp - Stampcommunity.org Governor and Commander in Chief, the Viscount Lord Gort - Alamy.com Major General Beak - Generals.dk Major Generals Beckett & Corbie photographed by Walter Stoneman - National Portrait Galley (Npg.org.uk) Port Chalmers Convoy Ship entering Harbour on the 13th August, 1942 - Timesofmalta.com Montgomery with Combined Services Command Staff planning Husky in Malta, 1943 - Major G. Keating via Iwm.org.uk
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