2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers in Malta
Amid the Second World War, Malta occupied a distinctive position due to its strategic significance and the resolute determination exhibited by its defenders. Among these defenders, the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers, known as the 2nd Faughs, emerged as a symbol of perseverance. In the years between the two wars, the regiment experienced a reduction in battalions. The British army’s Irish regiments, which were historically recruited from southern Ireland, were disbanded when the free Irish state was formed in 1922. However, the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the 1st Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers continued to exist. These two units survived because certain counties in each regiment remained in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
It wasn’t until the latter part of 1937 that the arrangements to raise the 2nd battalion of the Irish Fusiliers were finally established. After its formation, the battalion’s initial assignment was to be stationed in Malta.
The defence of Malta in the early war years
During the initial phases of World War II, Malta’s central location in the Mediterranean amplified its strategic importance. Holding sway over Malta essentially provided command over vital Mediterranean trade routes. Recognizing this, the 2nd Faughs, stationed in Malta since January 1938 (albeit with a short deployment to Palestine between November 1938 and February 1940), swiftly moved to bolster the island’s defences, foresighting the forthcoming adversities.
With Mussolini’s Italy entering the war alongside Nazi Germany in 1940, Malta found itself under siege. The capital city Valletta, along with key dockyards and airfields, became the primary targets for Italian bombings from bases in Sicily. Yet, through these trials, the 2nd Faughs stood resolute, bolstering Malta’s will to resist, also earning them the Malta 1940 distinction, an honour still retained on the King’s colours of the Royal Irish Regiment to this day.
As the siege wore on, the situation grew increasingly dire. German forces joined the assault, choking Malta’s supply lines and leaving the island’s inhabitants and defenders in desperate straits. Apart from food and supplies becoming scarce, the incessant bombings meant that the airfields needed maintenance and repairs around the clock. Thus the Royal Irish Fusiliers were manning beach posts and depth posts from dusk till dawn, whereas during the daytime, they had to help out with the crisis on aerodromes – building stone pens and acting as working parties, transport and petrol, repairing runways, belt-filling, refuelling and maintenance of aircraft and protection of the airfields against low-flying attacks. The occasional unloading of convoys was also an additional duty that they had to perform.
One notable achievement was the downing of a Ju-87 aircraft (5724/J9+BL of 9./Sturzkampfgeschwader 1), on 11th April 1941. This plane was also claimed by P/O Claud Hamilton of 261 Squadron. In this incident, Leutnant Werner Zühlke, and his wireless operator Hans Feldeisen were killed, when their Stuka crashed into a farmhouse next to Maghtab church. An 8-year-old was killed and another girl was seriously injured.
Traditions and Insignia of the Royal Irish Fusiliers
The traditions of the Royal Irish Fusiliers are tightly linked with the 2 amalgamated units that constitude the new regiment under the Cardwell Reforms of 1881 – the 87th and 89th Regiments of the Foot. The crest of the R.Ir.F is a testament to the success of the former regiment at the Battle of Barossa in 1811. It was at this battle that the Faughs managed to capture the first French Imperial Eagle in battle for the British Army, from the French 8e régiment d’infanterie de ligne. This distinction would serve as the insignia of the Royal Irish Fusiliers as well as the warcry from the battle “Faugh A Ballagh” (Clear the Way) was to become the regimental motto on their colours. The origins of the motto and the green hackle go back to the official acceptance by the war office in 1899.
The eagle was adopted for use in regimental insignia and on uniform buttons, together with the coronet of the 89th (Princess Victoria) Regiment. Thus the collar and cap insignia for the regiment was a white metal coronet and a brass flaming grenade. However in 1916, a change to the forage cap insignia saw the replacement of the eagle with a Prince of Wales’ Plumes above a Harp, both in white metal. A design that remained post-ww2. The metallic shoulder pieces feature an eagle-emblazoned flaming grenade, accompanied by the letters I and F and a downward curved tablet beneath it acknowledging the Royal status embossed. The slip-on titles for shirts and jackets, however, had machine embroidered R.I.F. in black on khaki wool backing.
The inverted triangle in Green that was originally worn on the left-hand side of the Foreign Service Helmets and the caubeen, made its way as unit flash on sleeves and steel helmets of the 2nd World War.
The Drums and Pipes of the Royal Irish Fusiliers
The regimental band was very popular in Malta. Their drums and pipe band performed all over the island, from official engagements at San Anton Palace to entertainment at football matches in Empire Stadium. This parade is epitomised in the painting by Edward Caruana Dingli of the Faughs beating the retreat in Valletta in their traditional dress (Tunic with cutaway for Scottish Regiments, saffron kilt and hosetop flashes, and Caubeen). We know of at least 2 versions of this painting, one at the Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum and another in a local private collection, with minor differences in the portrayal of civilians depicted.
This historical ceremony was performed at least 4 times in Valletta on a number of occasions in villages within the battalion’s boundary as documented throughout 1941 and 1942, especially on the day of the feast of the respective patron saint. These villages included Birkirkara, Mosta, Naxxar and Gharghur.
During the siege, various regimental occasions were celebrated with parades. Some of the most well-known traditions include Barrosa Day on March 5th and St. Patrick’s Day on the March 17th, when soldiers of all ranks are presented with a sprig of shamrock to wear in their headdress. This tradition began in 1900 when Queen Victoria ordered it to commemorate the bravery of Irish soldiers during the 2nd Boer War. In Malta, high-ranking officials like the G.O.C and the Governor have been known to present the shamrock to parade participants.
Tactical Realignments and Command Dynamics of the Faughs
The Batallion HQ was initially set up at Ta’ Saliba, limits of Mgarr. Later, from the 29th May 1940 until March 1943, the Battalion HQ was established at Tat-Targa Gap in Naxxar, opposite the church. During this period, the 4 companies rotated their sub-sectors in Madliena, St Julians, and Salini. Their primary responsibility was the Pembroke infantry defence sector, an area that span roughly from Wardija to St. Julians.
Throughout the siege and its aftermath, the 2nd Faughs underwent tactical realignments that reflected the broader strategy of the war. They transitioned to the 234th Infantry Brigade by April 1943. These shifts positioned the Fusiliers at key strategic locations previously held by the 2nd (Malta) Infantry Brigade, specifically Handed over from the Hampshires at Ta Xlejli Palace, to ensure the defence and to tend to all responsibilities of Luqa airfield and Safi landing strips
The battalion underwent significant leadership transitions as well. Lieutenant-Colonel A. Low, M.C., led the Fusiliers during the war’s initial years. However, in 1941, Lieutenant Colonel A.A.J. Allen took over the reins. By the end of 1942, Allen departed from the island to Palestine, and command was subsequently handed to Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice French, a role he retained until his death during combat on the island of Leros on 14 November 1943 at the age of 40.
Reinforcements were essential, and in a testament to the war’s complex logistics, reinforcements meant for the RIF in September 1942 only reached Malta by February 1943.
But Malta never forgot its defenders. The bonds forged in wartime adversity were commemorated by the island’s villages where the Fusiliers were. Naxxar honoured the Faughs with a silver model of an ancient Maltese cannon, Mosta gifted a model of a Gozo boat, and Gharghur presented two silver cups, forever cementing the relationship between the Fusiliers and Malta. In the words of the parish priest of Gharghur on 24th August 1942:
Since the last time I had the honour to greet you in our midst we have gone through some troublesome times and things looked very gloomy, but with the grace of God, the courage of our airmen and the vast amount of work put in
by the soldiers, we have pulled through, and now with the most welcome addition of the convoy and valuable supplies, we look forward to the day when we shall strike with all our might and power at the common foe.
Many of the farmers around here are indebted to your soldiers for the valuable help they gave in assisting to collect the harvest. Hundreds of other little good deeds are done unostensively and without advertisement which all go to strengthen the good will between our peoples and your soldiers.
In commemorating the valorous tale of the Royal Irish Fusiliers in Malta, it is essential to reckon with the profound depth of human resilience, sacrificial devotion, and the profound camaraderie woven amidst the crucible of conflict. Thus, it must be remembered that within the span of 1940 to 1943, 21 soldiers of the 2nd batallion R.Ir.F lost their lives. Their legacy in the defence of Malta remains a testament to their indomitable spirit and commitment.
2 Bn Royal Irish Fusiliers war diaries (1940-1943). National Archives UK.
Cunliffe, M. (1970). The Royal Irish Fusiliers.
Faugh-a-Ballagh – The Regimental Gazette of The Royal Irish Fusiliers 1943. LENNON WYLIE. https://www.lennonwylie.co.uk/FAB1943.htm
Mizzi, J. A., & Vella, M. A. (2001). Malta At War – Vol 1. Wise Owl Publications.
Rogers, A. (2017). Air Battle of Malta – Aircraft Losses and Crash Sites 1940-1942. Greenhill Books.
The Royal Irish. http://www.royal-irish.com/