Defending Lord Gort: the San Anton Palace Defence Plan of 1943
As early as the 17th century, San Anton Palace stood stoutly in the centre of Malta. The lavish rooms and spacious gardens were home to several knights, and eventually British governors. During the second world war both Sir William Dobbie and Lord Gort, appointed governors to Malta in 1940 and 1942 respectively, resided at San Anton. For the men tasked with their protection, this meant turning what was hitherto a luxurious residence into a fortified position.
In 1943, the 11th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers was ordered to mount guard and defend the palace. The governor’s residence fell within their battalion area, which stretched from San Gwann to Haz-Zebbug. Apart from the Malta defence scheme and its various appendices received every so often, sensitive locations had to be carefully studied for strategic weaknesses in a variety of scenarios. The method through which a selected area was to be defended was very different in the event of an amphibious landing, urban fighting, or an airborne attack. Hence, for such locations, a carefully studied and practised plan was studied, written, distributed, and practiced.
The relevance of the ‘San Anton’ plan for us in the present is that it offers a window not only into British infantry strategy and planning during the second world war, but also their symbolic topology. Every defence plan is, in effect, a documented account of the regiments’ understanding of its area, how it perceived and created it in terms of weaknesses and strengths, the names and nicknames through which it addressed several points and sites, as well as the way they thought the enemy would come to utilise the space. We can use the following defence plan as an ethnographic text, peering into San Anton as the regiments defending it saw it.
We must therefore begin by describing the area as it was in 1943, with far less buildings and much more greenery. Firstly, the fields behind the palace (nowadays occupied by the kitchen garden and residential areas) were barren. The Fusiliers at San Anton could easily see their ranks stationed at the observation post (O.P.) atop the flour mill and Tal-Mirakli Chapel just across. Perhaps from the top of the Palace they could spot the ‘Tal-Minsia’ O.P. in San Gwann. In Hal-Balzan itself, the locality was bustling with activity, especially since several headquarters were set up nearby. For example, not far from the palace in ‘Dar Borg’ one could find the KOMR pioneer group and home guard units HQ (headquarters) (Wismayer p. 194). It is also worth mentioning the Basutos, entirely absent in accounts of the siege of Malta, who were stationed nearby in a field near Hal-Lija less than a kilometre away.
Lord Gort spent much of his time at the old palace in war-torn Malta. Multiple accounts state that In the morning, he would often go to Birkirkara and Valletta with his bicycle, before returning to Balzan. This act was highly commended by the Maltese, then deprived of all forms of fuel due to the war. His ‘push bike’ would dart off from the south facing gates into the fields around the palace. Just in front of San Anton he would see Villa Refalo, nowadays part of the Corinthia Palace Hotel. It is still extant as a reception hall, also its purpose in its heyday. For some time, it was also used as an office and a place to host high ranking staff aswell as war refugees from the heavily bombed harbour areas.
Not far from the villa was Melita hotel, now known as ‘Melita Gardens’, a popular restaurant and venue. This building would serve as a headquarters for the Fusiliers. Adjacent to the palace, it was perfect for the battalion’s duties at San Anton and the areas nearby. The platoon (Pl.) at Melita hotel would be responsible for mounting guard ‘for the personal protection of H.E The Governor’. The defence plan dictates that a guard consists of 1 Sergeant, 1 Corporal, 6 Fusiliers, 1 Orderly and 1 Spare man. By day, one sentry would guard the courtyard at all times. At night, two sentries would be stationed in the corridor just outside Lord Gort’s room.
Various clerks and members of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps were within the battalions responsibility at the time of the 1943 defence plan. Thus they were incorporated as assets in the event of an attack. On the command ‘Action stations’ they would be armed with rifles and form part of the defence platoon. Simultaneously, they would start moving with ‘No.1 section’ to Melita Hotel. This included the Governor himself. While the palace is evacuated, men would be sent to secure the ‘Tunnel entrance’ (the corridor from the palace inner courtyard to the western entrance) and two Fusiliers would secure the south-eastern entrance to the palace. The sentries in the inner courtyard are also doubled.
Meanwhile, ‘No. 3 section’ will open a ‘small gate’ that leads from the gardens of the Melita Hotel onto the ‘orange orchard’. They would stand by at a point along the garden wall with an iron ladder for any personnel from the palace guard to scale outwards (possibly the same point occupied by the second with a ladder in Phase 2). If this task is fulfilled, the same men would move to ‘Valestone’ house in what is nowadays called ‘St Valentine Street’. The same section would set up a light-machine gun (L.M.G) on the roof of Melita Hotel right at the corner of the balustrades on the first floor, just behind ‘Valestone’ house. The narrow street would provide highly effective defence from any encroaching units. This is also where the section commander could be found. The remaining men would set up a position along the rear of ‘public melita hotel’ and cover the area. Put simply, this section would secure the eastern approach to San Anton.
Other areas of Attard were secured by ‘No. 2 section’. At the old train station south of the palace, a L.M.G position would be set up while others occupied a sangar on the roof of a building at the corner of Triq Birbal, the road junction in front of the palace. Two men would move ‘parallel with No.1 section’ , escorting Gort to Melita Hotel, and set up a Boys anti-tank rifle position at the same road junction or ‘triangle’, facing all possible approaches. Two more men would set up a position behind the garden wall and communicate with the Section Commander. These three positions would secure all possible routes from the south and some from the east towards the palace.
After the governor arrives at Melita Hotel, the escorting ‘No. 1 section’ would stay with him. No.2 Section would stay in position at the old train station and road junction with the Anti-tank rifle. NO.3 section had the daring task of sending two men on top of the ‘high ornamental structure’ above the lily pads, nowadays known as the eagle fountain. Upon climbing it, they would set up a defensive position and ‘throw the ladder down’.
The plan also details the precise manoeuvres for the eventuality of a night attack. The plan would remain virtually the same, with the evacuation of Lord Gort to Melita hotel and men sent to secure the tunnel on the road leading from Lija to Attard. However, men from the R.A.O.C at Villa Refalo would man positions within their garden covering the road leading from Hamrun to Rabat.
Defence Plans as ethnography
What does this document tell us? Besides being a detailed description of British tactics against what was thought to be an airborne invasion the likes of Crete in 1941, it also shows that the defence included several buildings, or even parts of it. The defence of Malta was not reserved to just pillboxes and military structures. Plans were incredibly detailed down to firing arcs for machine guns, who was to be in possession of which keys, and at which exact locations everyone should be at any given scenario with coordinates of the areas.
The palace, and anywhere else a defence plan was created for, was studied exceptionally well and referred to using, or rather adopting local place names. This is just one defence plan, making use of gardens, road junctions, and building roofs. One can only imagine the amount of such plans devised by the British for every inch of Malta during the war. Inevitably, this transformed an otherwise simple landscape of villages and limestone country lanes into a topography of military positions, strategic nodes, and future dead-zones. Today, albeit fractionally, they allow us to peer into a symbolic universe; specifically the constitution of spaces and places of the British soldier in Malta.
Ellul-Attard, ‘Churchill and Malta in WW2’, Times of Malta, 2016.
Insider Plus, ‘Corinthia BC (before Corinthia), 2021.
Wismayer, J.M, 1989, ‘The History of the King’s Own Malta Regiment and the Armed Forces of the Order of St. John’.
Zarb-Dimech, A, ‘Lord Gort and Malta’, 2021.
11th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers War Diary for 1943.