The 8th (Ardwick) Manchesters in Malta
We often read about the heroics of war: the selfless sacrifices of the few for the many, the courage, bravery, and determination of young men against all odds. The reality is that such men were average and ordinary individuals placed in near-impossible situations. This was certainly the case for the 8th Ardwick Battalion of the Manchester Regiment.
The 8th Battalion gets its namesake from Ardwick in the city of Manchester. It is a small area to the south east of its centre, a community brimming with local pride. By 1939, these people had already shed their youth in Somme and Ypres. In August, mothers, fathers, aunts and siblings witnessed men don their serge service dress, unchanged since the Great War, as the regiment mobilised, coming back to life to fight yet another war.
The ‘Ardwicks’ spent the rest of that year and the beginning of 1940 training in Ardwick green and Heaton park. They dug slit trenches, familiarized themselves with their rifles and fellow soldiers, both of which they would come to know so intimately in distant, foreign lands. A few months later they would proudly parade down market street in their own hometown of Manchester, to the tunes of brass bands, and their loving friends, families, and neighbours cheering their departure from Victoria station to Northumberland and into the unknown.
Eventually, the Manchesters were strengthened by 150 trained Welsh Fusiliers. It was a long standing tradition to recruit entire regiments from separate counties as a source of pride. Some certainly started off that way, but eventually their men had to be transferred to other units, or recruited from other locations. Eventually, regimental titles dwindled down into formalities rather than entire identities.
The 8th Battalion would go on to Matfen and back down south to Marlborough for training, Here they were issued the new ‘battledress’, which for many seemed a retrogressive step from the respected serge service dress their fathers wore in the trenches of France and Belgium. It was, perhaps, a foreboding sign that they were heading into a new kind of war, fought in very different places. This was certainly the Manchester’s preoccupation in April of 1940 while waiting to be shipped somewhere other than England.
They would depart from Southampton to Cherbourg in France aboard the Ulster Prince. After they disembarked they found their transport: trucks from 1918 which took them to Fye near Le mans, passing through cemeteries from the Great War. After a train ride to Halluin, right on the border with Belgium, they settled down as best they could. They played tourists with the Maginot line, which, although formidable, was described as inadequately manned and disorganised; some pillboxes even had missing keys. The possibility of war, although officially declared, had not yet materialised.
The 8th battalion’s stay in France was cut short, After one week they were taken aboard the luxurious SS Oronsay to Gibraltar 4 days later. On the 17th of May, 1940 they left towards a more definitive destination: Malta.
Parlatoria Wharf welcomed the Manchesters on the 20th as buses packed with men and kit darted off to Ghajn Tuffieha. There, the battalion set up barracks before establishing itself in several other locations. Near Zebbigh at Ta’ Saliba Crossroads they set up a secondary HQ, A Coy settled down in barracks at Hal Far, Luqa was host to B company, C Company at St Paul’s Bay, and D Company manned pillboxes in Fawwara. These were not the first and last dispositions. Unlike other regiments, the Manchesters moved around quite a lot. They would eventually build air raid shelters and Lewis gun pits in Ta’ Qali, slit-trenches in Villa Alfano in Lija, stand guard in Wied Bassasa, construct and occupy pillboxes in Wardija.
Later on, in September 1940, 120 ordinary ranks and 5 officers from the Loyal Regiment brought up the Manchester’s numbers to form E company. They would become part of the 8th Battalion fighting through the siege. However, the man would have their break from shrapnel and toil in 1941 on their 6-week Gozo exercises, organised throughout the year for each company. The sister island was left untouched on most raids which offered a safe haven for the battalion’s respite;
“Training intensified and everyone put a great deal of effort into their work. At the end of each day the battalion turned in, dog-tired but happy for eight hours of glorious sleep at a stretch. The knowledge that there would be no hand shaking a shoulder within an hour or so of dropping off was in itself a tonic. Whilst bodies toughened and freshened, so the spirit felt the relief from the strain of non-stop nuisance raids; a strain which people had not been conscious of whilst it lasted but obvious now from the freedom felt by its absence. It was a strange feeling at night to be able to sit in the scented open air, glass in hand, and watch the air raids still going on across the channel in Malta. To see the slim searchlight pencils groping and wavering, the sudden convergence of the beams revealing the brilliant white enemy planes and now and again an orange glow followed long afterwards by the distant rumble of the bombs. Just to hear and see this and realise that it was nothing to do with the Ardwicks was for the time sufficient.”- The Ardwick Boys Went to Malta, p. 69.
On their return, A & E Coy. Would find their way back to ta’ Ta Kali, B company to ‘Dueira’ lines as a mobile coy with six vickers, two 3 inch mortars, 18 lewis machine guns. C coy manned posts St Paul’s bay, D company would form the ‘Strickland house mobile coy’, while Headquarters was set up between Ghajn Tuffieha/Ta Saliba.
The Manchesters, like other regiments, were trained to use all types of weapons, from 2, 6 to 18 pounders, and even defusing 2 inch mortars. They had frequent battalion-level exercises and prepared diligently for the invasion of Malta. However, they also learned to fix spitfires as much as fire lee-enfields, and acted as RAF ground crew when necessary, such as on the crucial 10th of May in 1942. The Manchesters were also dispatch riders, belt fillers, crater-fillers, artillerists, and all that was needed.
Little is known of the Manchesters after Malta. In March of 1943 they left for Tripoli, with some evidence they went to the Middle East before joining the fight in mainland Italy, to Ireland and back to Manchester.
Illustrations by Jack Whitehouse, Company Quarter Master Sergeant to the Manchester’s ‘A’ company during the siege of Malta, from ‘the Ardwick Boys Went to Malta: A British Territorial Army Battalion During the Siege 1940-1943′ by Robert A. Bonner.
All information from 8th Battalion Manchester Regiment War Diaries, 1940-1943, National Archives, Kew.