The Land Forces
In the breathing space between Munich and Italy’s declaration of war on l0th June, 1940, everything possible was done, with the scanty resources available, to strengthen the island’s defences. It was envisaged that in the event of war Italy would come in on the side of Germany and would attempt a sea-borne invasion of Malta. Along the coast, except in the north and around the Grand Harbour, Marsamuscetto Harbour and Marsaxlokk Bay, cliffs made it secure from large-scale landings. In the north, although there were many open beaches suitable for assault landings, about five miles inland there is a formidable natural obstacle, a precipitous escarpment known as the Victoria Lines stretching right across the island, and already reinforced by fortifications. The defence scheme was therefore based on the coast. The anticipated attacks by sea did not, in fact, develop; the first and last attempt upon Malta by sea was a raid by Italian E boats and one—man torpedo boats on the Grand Harbour, on 26th ]uly, 1941, just after the arrival of a large convoy. The Malta coastal gunners wiped out the entire fleet and not one of the supply ships lying in the harbour was lost. Nor was airborne invasion attempted, and the battle for the island developed into blockade by sea and bombardment from the air, to starve and blast Malta out of existence.
Normally the island was but lightly garrisoned. There were a number of defence posts on the northern beaches, and there were the immensely strong fortifications of Valletta Harbour. When war broke out on 3rd September, 1939, the garrison consisted of the 2nd Bn. The Devonshire Regiment, 2nd Bn. The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment, 1st Bn. The Dorsetshire Regiment, 2nd Bn. The Royal Irish Fusiliers, 7th A.A. Regiment R.A. (renamed, in 1940, 7th H.A.A. Regt.) and one battalion of the local territorials, the 1st Bn. The King’s Own Malta Regiment. There were three airfields; Luqa, the largest but not quite ready for use, situated about a mile from the base of the Grand Harbour; Halfar, the Fleet Air Arm aerodrome, in the south of the island with its anchorage in Marsaxlokk Bay, small but in running order; and Takali, near the centre of the island, equipped with a reception building and used by small passenger aircraft.
By the end of September 1939 voluntary recruiting had produced enough men to form two more battalions of the King’s Own Malta Regiment. The Maltese Auxiliary Corps had been formed and its personnel had joined various regular units. In November 1939 the status of the army in Malta was raised to that of a Division, and a draft of officers and other ranks from the reserve arrived from England. In May 1940 the 8th Bn. the Manchester Regiment arrived. Steps were taken during the first nine months of the war to provision the island, but only regular convoys could sustain her, and it was planned to bring these from Egypt in the east and from Britain in the west. Not all ships sailed in convoy, however. In 1941 a number sailed alone, adopting what means they could devise to hoodwink the enemy. Losses were heavy, but the vessels which reached Malta were vital in keeping the fortress in being. Up to the end of 1941 most convoys struggled through, bringing not only food, ammunition, guns, lorries, cement for gun emplacements and many other necessities for total war, but reinforcements too. In September 1940 the 27th H.A.A. Battery arrived, to strengthen the 7th H.A.A. Regiment. At the same time came eight 3.7 inch mobile guns and 12 Bofors light anti-aircraft guns, which almost doubled the island’s gun density. In November the 59th L.A.A. Battery reached Malta and was incorporated in the regiment. In the beginning, until more aircraft were available, defence against air attack rested largely upon the shoulders of the R.A., as it did again in 1942 when, after day and night bombing by the 2nd German Air Fleet from January to April, only a few aircraft were left to oppose the enemy.
In February 1941 the 1st Bn. The Hampshire Regiment and the 2nd Bn. The Cheshire Regiment arrived from Alexandria, and later two substantial drafts brought the strength of the Buffs up to nearly 1,000. In February 1941 also, a conscription act was passed in the Malta Council of Government which made all males between 16 and 65 liable for national service, and men between 18 and 41 for service with the armed forces. These Maltese recruits were trained by the regular United Kingdom battalions, and each formation was enrolled as a unit of the British regular army.
The multifarious duties of the army included regular patrols along 90 miles of intricate coastline; manning defence posts; providing the boarding party which accompanied every Naval vessel engaged upon contraband patrol; unloading and transporting to safety the cargoes brought in by the convoys; the enlargement of the airfields, the building of defence posts on and around them, and of over 300 protective pens for the aircraft. The soldiers created 27 miles of dispersal area between the Luqa and Halfar airfields, which linked the two and was known as the Safi Strip. Save for some labour
provided in the early stages by the Malta Police, the Hampshire Regiment made this strip without assistance. To these labours the disposal of delayed action bombs, and rescue and clearance work after air raids were added.
There was no R.A.F. ground staff in Malta, and men of the infantry and field artillery came to the rescue. Luqa Aerodrome, which became the bomber base, was maintained by the Royal West Kents and the Buffs; Takali, the fighter aerodrome, by the Manchesters; and Halfar by the Devons. They kept the runways in repair, filled up bomb craters, bombed up bombers, refuelled the aircraft and became expert belt fillers and armourers—all under ceaseless day and night attack. Some days there were as many as 3,000 infantry and R.A. troops at work. Air Vice Marshal Lloyd said afterwards, “I’d have been out of business but for the soldiers ".
The gradual accretion of land strength laid the foundations of the island’s resistance against the second and third appearance of the Luftwaffe upon the scene. The air defences had been reinforced, as told in the story of the air battles, and at the end of 1942 Malta emerged triumphant from her ordeal.