German POW Compound at Ta' Qali built by the Royal Engineers and manned for some time by 'A' Company, 2nd Battalion KOMR. Notice the Bren Machine Gun and manual Air Raid Warning Alarm next to the sentry in the guard tower
The first half of the 20th century was defined by two major global conflicts that changed the world. While the First World War did not spread directly to the Maltese Islands, World War Two put Malta on the frontline, resulting in much death and destruction. By the 1930s, Malta had long since been incorporated as a crown colony within the British Empire. Its strategic geographic location, harbours, and climate made it an ideal naval outpost, facilitating British control across the Mediterranean. The first fifty years after the 1813/4 accession presented no serious military threats, however the situation changed in the early 1860s when a reformist movement unified the Italian kingdoms and states into a single country, placed under the Savoy Monarchy.
Saluting Battery overlooking the Grand Harbour facing Senglea Point
British interest in the matter grew to concern when the Italians started investing in military means and building a navy.1 This compelled the British administration in Malta to host a commission of military engineers with the aim of reviewing the Island's defences. The Commission noted that practically all existing fortifications were those inherited from the Knights' period, with many of the structures having fallen to abandon or disrepair, and lacking sufficient or modern ordnance. A list of recommendations was drawn up to rectify the situation and ensure Malta could be well defended in case of aggression by the fledging Regno d'Italia.
King Vittorio Emanuele II of Savoy Duillo & Dandolo Ironclad Warships Kingdom of Italy Coat-of-Arms
A fervent programme was implemented to build a widespread spate of modern forts, batteries and entrenchments. A defensive wall running across a geographical fault was built in order to counter a potential invasion from the north. The extensive wall stretched from one coast to another in a relatively straight line, incorporating a series of powerful forts, artillery positions, troop catchments and other such hubs. It was inaugurated in 1887 and named after Queen Victoria. Elsewhere, several older structures were restored, modernised and enlarged, ordnance replaced and augmented, with two of the newer fortifications fitted with an Armstrong 100-Ton Gun.
The restored Armstrong 17.7 Inch 100-Ton Gun at Fort Rinella
Despite these preparations, an attack by the newly unified Kingdom of Italy never materialised, and by the end of the First World War most of the fortifications, including the Victoria Lines, had become obsolete. The British bid to ensure peace by preparing for war was well-met by the Maltese, since not only did it serve to protect the people, but provided much demand for local manpower required during construction.
The Victoria Lines
On the another hand, the long-standing historical and cultural ties between the Maltese and Italians, led some to frown upon Britain's military initiatives, particularly since these were inspired and specifically aimed to counter an Italian 'foe'. Others argued that the British forced Malta's hand when it was integrated as a colony with no regard to local opinion. The subsequent unification of Italy fuelled mistrust in the British and a growing notion that Malta should belong to Italy not Britain. This went hand-in-hand with a novel political ideology termed Irredentism, which advocated the return to Italy of all Italian-speaking districts subject to other countries including Malta, with Italian having been the national language since the 16th century and before.
A Quote by Nelson from 1798 asserting that Malta belongs to the King of Naples
By the 1930s, the Maltese had attained their first self-government and consolidated their views into a political spectrum: The irredentists and others inspired by Mussolini's Italy evolved into the Nationalist Party.2 On the other hand Lord Strickland's Constitutional Party and the Labour Movement were those in favour of British rule. Political turmoil led the British Administration to suspend Maltese self-government in 1933, while Italian was abolished as Malta's official language and replaced by English and Maltese in 1934, amidst an uproar.
The Nationalist, Constitutional & Labour Party Emblems
The situation escalated further when Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1935, with open praise for Mussolini's quest for Empire and Mare Nostrum policies by Maltese Nationalists and Fascists. In contrast, as the prospect of war between Britain and Italy grew steadily, so did an anti-Italian sentiment harboured by the working classes. The Abyssinian Crises compelled the local administration to review and upgrade local defences. This led to the construction of a series of Beach Observation Posts across the shoreline followed by a large modern fort at Selmun.
Beach-post at Wied iz-Zurrieq & Fort Campell outer perimeter Wall
These limited countermeasures were followed by a trickle of upgrades to existing fortifications and ordnance, but when war finally broke out in June 1940, Malta was caught off-guard in terms of preparedness for the impending onslaught. Despite the imminent threat, many were those misled by a widespread notion that the Italians would never attack their Maltese kinsmen and only throw flowers out of their bomb pits! Sadly for all, the attack came and so did the bombs, with the flowers appearing only on graves and tombstones of the fallen.
The first Maltese Civilian Casualties of World War II
The onset of war led the British to conduct large-scale arrests of all those harbouring pro-Italian or pro-Fascist sentiments, including most of the Nationalist Party's leadership. As the war drew on, forty-three of these internees were exiled and deported to Uganda for the duration of the conflict. A few of them would never come back. Conversely, the Italians arrested a large number of Maltese citizens living or working in Libya, deporting them to Italy and placing them in camps. In this case too, some would not survive the war.
Stills from a 2018 Public Broadcasting Services Docu-drama featuring the Maltese Internees in Italy
German involvement in the Battle for Malta began in early 1941 leading to a ferocious escalation of the conflict. Determined attacks by German Fighter Bomber Squadrons would escalate over time, earning the Island the reputation as the most heavily bombed place on Earth. Despite severe shortages of provisions and ammunition the Islands held out, but the situation became more desperate when a growing number of inbound Allied convoys failed to reach port.
Luftwaffe Aircraft sortie over the Grand Harbour and the Bombing of Tigne Barracks as seen from Valletta
On the 15th April 1942, King George VI awarded the George Cross to the Maltese nation in recognition of their huge sacrifice and contribution to the war effort. This gesture was well-received and uplifted morale, but did little for growling empty stomachs. As Summer approached the steady dwindling of supplies forced local authorities to consider surrender and stipulate a timeframe for capitulation. A collective effort to scrape the bottom of the barrel enabled a series of providential delays until one fine day in mid-August, the remnants of a large convoy started trickling into the Grand Harbour. This event was a game-changer and the convoy allowed the Island to fight on.
The state of devastation in Malta & S.S. Ohio limping into the Grand Harbour on the 15th of August, 1942
An odd year later, Malta would play a crucial role in the Allied invasion of Sicily following the defeat of Axis Forces in North Africa. This was soon followed by an Italian Armistice and Allied control of Sicily and Southern Italy. Peace returned slowly to our Islands as the war ebbed further and further away. Germany's catastrophic loss of its Sixth Army in Stalingrad earlier in 1943, and mounting losses on the Eastern Front, ensured no resources could be spared for any major attempts to retake lost territories in the Mediterranean.
German POWs in North Africa Operation Husky: The Allied invasion of Sicily German setbacks in Russia
The fading threat allowed Malta to start recuperating from a massive siege which had devastated the Islands completely. Conditions improved albeit at a snail's pace while efforts were stepped up to clear the debris and rebuilding lost abodes. The war in Europe ended in Germany's defeat on the 8th of May, 1945 leading to widespread local celebrations. Malta had played a pivotal role in the conflict, denying Axis control of the Mediterranean and disrupting Italo-German efforts in North Africa. Its resistance caused the Axis several losses and led to a drain of resources badly needed elsewhere, further contributing toward the fall of the Reich.
The George Cross, Commemorative Postage Stamps & the Siege Bell War Memorial in Valletta
To read more about the various perspectives of Malta's wartime experience, and to view original items from our collections, kindly access the links below. Click on image to leave page, or the underlying text to open in a new tab
1. In particular, the launch of two new Italian ironclads fit with 100-Ton Guns became an issue of great concern, since such firepower outranged all of Malta's ordnance. This led to the construction of two batteries in Malta and another pair in Gibraltar purposely built to host the massive 100-Tonners. 2. Pro-Italian sentiments were also harboured by some factions within the Malta Union of Fascists. Their motto of Religio e Patria also won the support of the Church, in its own efforts to ensure Malta remained Roman Catholic and not Anglican Protestant.
Salute to Maltese Infantrymen by Col. C.L. Borg - Valletta Publishing, 1990
The Guns & Gunners of Malta by Dennis Rollo - Mondial Publishers, 1999 Eight Fascist Propaganda Posters for Wartime Malta - Giovanni Bonello via Timesofmalta.com Italy's First Attack on Malta in WWII - Charles Debono via Timesofmalta.com
Images POW Compound at Ta' Qali original photo - AAFM Archive Saluting Battery original postcard - Ditto King Vittorio Emanuele II of Savoy portrait by Tranquillo Cremona - Regione.piemonte.it via Wikipedia.org Duillo & Danolo Armoured Ironclads - Brasseys Naval Annual (1888) via Gwpda.org / L'Illustrazione Italiana (1879) via Wikipedia.org Kingdom of Italy Emblem - Hotcore.info Fort Rinella Gun - F.W.A. via Timesofmalta.com The Victoria Lines - F&S Unlimited Collage Nelson Quote from Italian Propaganda of the Fascist era - Giovanni Bonello via Timesofmalta.com Party emblems (not to scale) - AAFM Collection & Photos First Civilian Casualties - Charles Debono via Timesofmalta.com Stills from a scene depicting German soldiers shooting a fugitive Maltese internee in Italy from a 2018 TVM / PBS Docu-drama by Mario Xuereb: Il-Maltin Internati fl-Italja. The production features re-enactors from BattleFront Living History Group and an array of props loaned by the AAFM. JU 87 Stuka Fighter-Bombers Sortie over Malta - Albrow Aviation Art via Timesofmalta.com Air Raid on Tigne Barracks - Unrecorded source Laundry in the Ruins - Imperial War Museum, London (Iwm.org.uk) S.S. Ohio photographed by Lt. H.E. Cook, an official War Office Photographer - Imperial War Museum via Wikipedia.org German POWs In N. Africa - X Operation Husky - X Dead German Soldier on the outskirts of Stalingrad from a televised Docu-drama by Media-Coop Ltd. Ittri ghal Erika was filmed and aired in 2021 featuring re-enactors from Battlefront Living History Group and an array of props, including period items and photographs held in our collections and archives. The production was nominated as one of the top-five best Maltese documentaries during the Malta Film Awards event held in 2022 The George Cross - David Monniaux via Wikipedia.org Part of a Postage Stamp Set designed by Chev. Emvin Cremona, issued in April, 1958 commemorating the Battle for Malta and the 16th anniversary of the George Cross award - Commonwealthstampsopinion.blogspot.com The Valletta War Memorial - Anna Purpurpurpur via Purpurpurpur.co.uk
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