British Infantry Regiments in Malta 1939-1945
World War II witnessed the strategic significance of Malta as a Mediterranean stronghold defended by four infantry brigades at the height of the siege. This article explores the historical context of the British infantry regiments stationed on the island, including those that arrived before the entry of Italy into the war, or during the siege itself. The infantry garrison of Malta consisted of 11 batallions from different British Army regiments, along with the soldiers of the King’s Own Malta Regiment.
Cheshire Regiment, 1st Battalion.
Devonshire Regiment, 2nd Battalion.
Dorsetshire Regiment, 1st Battalion.
The Dorsetshire Regiment was in Malta at the outset of war alongside the Hampshires and Devons. After Malta, the 1st Battalion would fight in Sicily, Normandy, and Mainland Europe until 1944.
The battalion played a crucial role in the defence of Malta taking care of anti-aircraft batteries, beach-posts, and runway repair. That being said, a darker but all too human side of the war has survived in the regiment’s record on Malta. On the 23rd July 1940 “Pte Churchill C Coy 1st/Dorsetshire Regiment fired two bursts of his Lewis gun on the men of his company without hitting anyone, and then attempted to kill himself. He was then evacuated to Mtarfa Hospital with a flesh wound to his right thigh” (Malta RAMC)
Although the motive is unknown, rather than a stain in the regiment’s history, it is a valuable example of the psychological stress the garrison suffered. It is to be expected (and is in fact documented) that similar tragedies have occurred in other regiments who otherwise so selflessly defended the besieged island.
Durham Light Infantry, 1st Battalion
Prior to their arrival on the islands and the war, the 1st Battalion was in Shang-Hai,Tientsin and Peking before joining the British army’s operations in North Africa and, eventually, Syria. From Halfaya pass to Tobruk, the Dhurams saw intense combat making them one of the most experienced battalions on Malta.
Docked at the Grand Harbour aboard the Breconshire and HMS Kingfish in January of 1942, the Dhurams settled into Verdala palace and the surrounding gardens, as well as Ta’ Qali, Rabat and Dingli. The 1st Battalion would work closely with regiments from other brigades, such as those stationed in the centre of Malta between Valletta and Zebbug. The Durhams occupied observation posts in San Gwann and several other defensive positions on rotation with other regiments, as well as shared in the usual duties: from manning ammo-dumps to crater filling at Ta’Qali. In particular, the Dhuram’s formed a mobile reserve post being issued a large quantity of bicycles. They would also garrison the Inquisitor’s palace at Girgenti as an anti-parachutist force.
They would return to Egypt with intensive training in June 1943 before departing for the island of Kos in the aegean. Outgunned and outmanned, many were captured and would spend the remainder of the war in POW camps and mass manual labour projects. The few remaining Durhams were evacuated and re-deployed to Egypt to reassemble before landing in Italy by May 1944. In Italy, the Dhurams fought to break through the Gustav and Gothic Lines until 1944.
In 1968, the Durhams would form part of ‘The Light Infantry’ regiment. Later on, it would be further amalgamated with others to form ‘The Rifles’ who succeed the Durhams to the present day, albeit, retaining the iconic bugle on their insignia.
Lancashire Fusiliers, 11th Battalion.
In 1940, the 11th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers was reformed. A year later, hitherto unknown to them, they would arrive at Gibraltar to embark on HMS Edinburgh. From the frigid cold of Scottish training grounds, they would find themselves in the intense heat of Malta’s July.
The Battalion would defend the areas surrounding Pembroke, Sliema, San Gwann, Santa Venera, and Zebbug, some of which would later be handed over to the West Kents. They would share duties on rotation with other regiments such as manning defence and observation posts, constructing aircraft pens, clearing and defending landing strips. Meanwhile, they would also be trained to use captured Italian small arms, medium machine guns, and anti-tank weaponry.
By 1944, the Battalion would join the fight in Italy with the American 5th Army, witnessing Vesuvius’ eruption in March. They saw intense combat at Cassino, Arezzo, the Apennines, and the assault on the Gothic line.
The Fusiliers would embark again for Palestine and Syria. In September 1945, they would arrive back home in England after more than 4 years abroad.
Manchester Regiment, 8th Battalion“Apart from discipline, what emerges when you delve into British military tradition is that there is no such entity as the British army. What you find is a confederation of regiments, hopefully fighting on the same side, all fiercely preserving their individuality by being as different from one another as possible”.
No statement could better capture the variety of British military insignia. During the war, Malta was defended by 11 different infantry regiments, not to mention artillery and army corps.
As the conflict raged on, ample soldiers would set foot on the island. In May 1940, the 8th Manchesters would arrive. They would be sent on duties as need be: from fixing Luqa’s ever-damaged runways to anti-aircraft defence. Later on, the battalion was temporarily stationed in Gozo as part of their ongoing field training. Namely, some of its ranks were designated and instructed as anti-tank platoons.
The Manchesters took over the defence of Wardija Ridge. The following year they would also be stationed at the Victoria Lines and Ghajn Tuffieha.
To this day, inside a pillbox just above Golden Bay lies hidden the regiment’s symbol, a Lilly; the Fleur-de-lys. Proudly worn on their cap badge, it is a traditional emblem dating back to the late 18th century when the 63rd Regiment of Foot, their predecessor, allegedly adopted it.
One can almost imagine a young soldier painting his regiment’s defining mark on the wall. Even if his uniform is no different from the Cheshire’s, nor his defence post much better than the rest, a small mark is all he needed to feel like it belongs to the regiment; by making it as different as possible.
The King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster), 8th Battalion.
The King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster) formed the 8th Battalion in February 1940. They would see action immediately as part of the British expeditionary force france. After the evacuation of Dunkirk, they were stationed for the defence of Britain even as far as the Scilly isles. They would depart from Edinburgh in July 1941, aboard HMS Manchester tand HMS Arethusa, the former was torpedoed en route.
The King’s Own would reach Malta on the 2nd of August setting up their battalion headquarters at Ta’ Salvatur, with posts set up at Gebel Ciantar and Ta’ Karceppu and occupied buildings in Siggiewi and Zebbug. They would, effectively, man and defend the South-Eastern approach of Malta’s Rabat-Dingli plateau.
In November of 1943 they left the island for Palestine, where they merged with the 1st battalion, almost lost in Leros, to reform it.
Royal East Kent Regiment, (Buffs), 4th Battalion.
On the 10th of November 1940, HMS Barham berthed in the grand harbor. The 4th Battalion of the Royal East Kent regiment would set foot on the besieged island. The ‘Buffs’, as they were better known, would take on ample duties; manning bofors guns and assisting work on convoys.
Just previously, the battalion was part of the British Expeditionary Force before being ordered to evacuate from Le Havre and Brest in France. Unfortunately, some would not see their home again losing their lives on RMS Lancastria, sunk by the Luftwaffe in June 1940.
4 months later, the 4th Buffs would leave Liverpool for Gibraltar and eventually Malta. By 1942, the Battalion HQ was located and defended the area and cliffs around Bahrija. However, they would also be posted in Cottonera, Attard, Hamrun, Ta’ Qali, and Tal-Handaq.
In 1943, the 4th Buffs departed for Alexandria to join the fight on the island of Leros. Some wouldn’t even make it, those that did gave their all towards the island’s defence, oftentimes fighting well-trained German parachutists. The Battalion, isolated and unaware of the British surrender and evacuation, was captured on Leros in November.
In 1961 the regiment was amalgamated to form the Queen’s Own Buffs, The Royal Kent Regiment. Today, they are succeeded by the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment.
Hampshire Regiment, 1st Battalion.
The Hampshires came to Malta from the scorching North African Desert. From sand-filled dugouts and pillboxes, they found themselves in one of Malta’s most lavish palaces: Palazzo Dorell. Situated at the limits of Gudja. It boasted an enormous garden where the men could set up camp.
The most iconic and useful feature of their new headquarters was an old tower known as ‘Ta’ Xlejli’. This would serve as a crucial observation post. From this tower, the Hampshires were witness to many gruesome sights; from Italian pilots landing without their parachutes and their own ranks getting electrocuted.
The Battalion served gallantly to defend the southern section of the island between Gudja, Kirkop, Mqabba, Safi, and Zurrieq. Most importantly, they were a critical part of RAF Luqa’s defence. They sent many working parties to fill in bomb craters and manned several anti-aircraft positions armed with lewis guns to deter and shoot down low-flying aircraft.
Besides being experienced in Combat, the Battalion was also relatively well armed in Malta with 4 Vickers medium-machine guns, two 3-pounder guns, and one mobile Breda anti-tank gun (Cannone da 47/32). All of which had dedicated positions in case of invasion within the battalion’s area. In addition, they would practice their defence plan regularly with the standard system of signalling.
The 1st Battalion would return to Egypt in March 1943, before joining the allies in Sicily. On the 10th of July, they boarded their landing craft and headed for the beach in Marzamemi, landing alongside the 1st Dorsets. 3 days later, they would set up their headquarters 75 km away in Vizzini. After boarding and landing in Italy, they would also, a year later, fight on the beaches of Normandy and take the fight to mainland Europe.
Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment, 2nd Battalion.
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-Borg, L 1990, ‘ Salute to Maltese Infantrymen’. Valletta Publishing & Promotion Co. Ltd.
-Montanaro, E 1985, British Regiments That Served in Malta and Gozo – 1799 to 1965.
-Hampshire War Diaries, 1940-43, British National Archives, Kew.
-Jary, C 2017,Yells, Bells and Smells: The Story of the Devons, Hampshires
-Rogers, A (2019). Kos and Leros 1943: The German Conquest of the Dodecanese. Osprey Publishing, p. 17.
-Royal Irish Fusiliers War Diaries, 1939-43, British National Archives, Kew.
(additional and specific sources hyperlinked in respective section)