LAA: Light Anti-Aircraft
Whereas heavy anti-aircraft could reach the enemy several kilometres in the air and create deadly barrages of shrapnel, it was not as effective against low-flying aircraft. It was virtually impossible for a 3.7 inch gun to hit a BF 109 flying a few metres above the island. For the latter, one needed smaller, fast-firing equipment.
First and foremost, automatic small-arms were used. Lewis guns (often mounted as a pair or more on a locally made ‘pintle’ mount made by the engineers of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps), Bren guns, Browning machine guns re-fashioned on improvised AA mounts, Vickers K guns, and even Lee-enfields were used to shoot at and even down enemy aircraft. These weapons did not rely on the shrapnel damage of their ammunition but rather on the spray of .303 bullets (among other calibres) hitting the aircraft directly and causing damage.
Taking a step up in complexity and calibre, one would find the QF 40mm Bofors gun. The Bofors was used by the Royal Artillery (RA), the Royal Malta Artillery (RMA), and the Dockyard Defence Battery. Local infantry regiments were also trained on its use for the eventuality that more men were needed to operate the guns. The mechanism was hard to master but easy to learn. On each side a rotating handle could be found. One controlled elevation and another for the gun’s bearing. Together with a commander and several loaders feeding the guns clips of 40mm rounds, a Bofors team would become a formidable weapon. In unison with other crews, it could provide effective low-altitude anti-aircraft cover: a crucial element of the defence of the Grand Harbour and other sites, such as airfields, prone to dive-bombing Stukas and daring fighter pilots.
This gun was used on both static and mobile platforms, the latter relocating constantly to dissuade the enemy from targeting established sites. To further camouflage the guns, apart from the use of hessian nets and covers, they were also painted in the ‘Malta camouflage’ scheme. The aim was to replicate local limestone rubble walls. Ample period photographs show a unique, almost ‘striped’ or dotted camouflage on Bofors guns. This would have been particularly effective in the eventuality of a land-based engagement. One should keep in mind that by June of 1940 Bofors guns in England had already received anti-tank ammunition. At the same time, dummy gun sites were erected around the countryside and near airfields. Some evidence exists that these practices were extended to Malta.
There are documented records of Bofors guns engaging enemy bombers at 7,500 feet (2286 metres), with the more common engagement heights being between 1000 and 6000 feet. For high altitude engagements the guns would expend very few rounds, indicating single, calculated shots rather than automatic-fire. It was a different situation for low-flying fighters at 500 feet (152 metres) or even as low as 50 feet (15 metres), unless an ammunition ration was in place (which was in effect for most of 1942). Ammunition rationing was terminated by November of 1942. The predictor was also in use by LAA regiments, although rarely used or seen in period photos. However, Rollo argues that only 5% of LAA engagements made use of predictors, much like other theatres of war.
Rounds of ammunition expended (LAA)
Credit: Denis Rollo, ‘The Guns and Gunners of Mata’, Mondial Publishers, 1999.
For the RA and RMA, their Bofors guns were still organised into batteries and troops and each site had its own designation, although often temporary. The guns also needed several pieces of equipment to operate and, more so, to move around. Vehicles would be attached to LAA regiments to transport the entire batteries: generators, searchlights, bivouacs, and deliver much-needed spare barrels.
One should also mention the short service of American Bofors crews as part of operation Husky. Unfortunately, LAA sites being often temporary positions, no concrete structures exist (ar at least, very little and only remnants of which) that could ‘monumentalize’ their memory, unlike the large concrete batteries HAA regiments made use of. Despite this, LAA was a tremendously crucial part of Malta’s anti-aircraft system, itself one of the primary defences Malta had at the time.