Malta, Leros, Lag: the 4th Buffs Part I

Following the publication of Charles J.H. Morgan’s account, some of the key moments in the Battle of Leros became less obscure. Morgan’s account of the fighting on Quirico, as Anthony Rogers rightly points out, is elucidating on the initial victories of the 4th Battalion of the Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment) during the early days of the Battle. Morgan’s account also allows the reader deeper access into the lack of communication during the battle, as well as the meagre rations and billeting areas the men endured and came to terms with during the Battle. At times, it is particularly confusing, but one must keep in mind that the entire Battle was so. From Bren gun stoppages to misinterpreted orders, Morgan writes of Leros as it truly was.  

To the student of the British army and warfare in general, this account is poignant in the author’s attempt to decipher what John Keegan calls ‘the Face of Battle’. Morgan tries his best to describe his experience under fire, going so far as to narrate his thought process, not only the final result. A poignant episode is his audience with Major Bourne, on being asked to move to new positions in a few hours time. The rituals that govern the British army dissolve as Morgan stated: “How the B… am I supposed to do that?”. It is common across war memoirs, and especially pertinent to the British army, that in the ‘field’ (on the battlefront) military organisation becomes more democratic. As bullets start flying in the air and death becomes a possibility if not certainty, behaviours which would be punishable in normal conditions are deemed tolerable, if not perfectly acceptable. 

I will not extrapolate the Battle of Leros from Lt. Morgan’s account as it is outside the scope of this text, and it has been exhaustively documented and researched by authors such as Peter Schenk and Anthony Rogers. That being said, what is particularly fascinating in Morgan’s account is the fact that he uses the Maltese term ‘Wied’ to describe the valleys in which his company sheltered and moved through. It is, arguably, a piece of Malta carried all the way to the Aegean. By focusing on the British army at the Regimental, or even Battalion level, diverging histories begin to emerge. One must remember that after Dunkirque the 4th Buffs were sent to the island of Malta. On this island just below Sicily and above Libya the 4th Buffs would spend almost three years in service. Here, they would endure the ‘Siege of Malta’, where more than 15,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on an island slightly larger than Leros, making it the most bombed place on earth. 

Malta to Leros

Lt. Morgan largely agrees with the Battalion war diaries. The memoir begins after the Battalion’s experience as part of the territorial army, training in the U.K. before joining the  British Expeditionary Force in France. Lt. Morgan embarked with the 4th Buffs when, following the evacuation of Dunkirk, they received orders to leave the U.K. for Gibraltar before Malta in late 1940. On the island, The Buffs’ regimental topography largely spanned the central regions of Malta. During 1941, the Buffs were billeted in Attard and guarded the Governor’s palace (‘San Anton’), a duty carried throughout their service in Malta. They would also form the honour guard for numerous dignitaries which Alex Randon lists as: General Eisenhower, General Alexander, General Giroud and Montgomery. However it was not all spit and polish for the 4th Buffs. They were also billeted in ‘cowsheds’; a building which would later be used to accommodate enemy P.O.W.s. By 1942 they also made use of Palazzo Gomerino, a palace hidden behind the Victoria Lines; Malta’s late 19th century defensive wall from the North East to the South West of the island. An advert for Palazzo Gomerino can be found in the Battalion’s war diaries which prompts the estates’ wine production. One can only imagine the Buffs stationed there making use of such a treat.

Drummers of 4th Buffs’ band leading the march in Rabat, Malta, 1942. (National Army Museum, 2001-01-74)

When they formed part of the Western Infantry Brigade in 1942 they were responsible for the defence of a sector surrounding ‘Baħrija’ and the immediate coast.  If one speaks of Military topography. Throughout the siege several platoons occupied static defensive positions made out of reinforced concrete such as in Pembroke and ‘Msida’. Much like other regiments on Malta, they were also given the important task of organising a mobile Coy. (Company). A percentage of the buffs were responsible to counter-attack any enemy parachutists landing in specific sectors. The Buffs’ mobile Coy. were billeted in some strange places. Namely, right next to Malta’s biggest cemetery: ‘Addolorata’, and other remote locations. They were issued hundreds of bicycles to fulfil this mobile role; fuel being ever scarcer in war-time Malta. Much like other regiments, they also attended lectures on the latest battles, on land, sea, and air,  including one given by the 1st battalion of the Durham Light Infantry on the siege of Tobruk which they themselves had taken part in. More so, they were kept up to date on the latest enemy development, especially those concerning parachutist equipment and tactics.

Contrary to popular belief the Buffs, and all the other regiments in Malta did in fact carry out training. Albeit not always at a battalion level or involving multiple battalions and corps, the men tried their best to keep a somewhat regular exercise calendar. Some even pursued training during air-raids, and all had their chance to train in Gozo, which Lt. Morgan got in 1943 and describes as “Quite the most enjoyable week the Coy’s had since leaving England.” On their return to Malta the Battalion would be busy guarding supply pens and airfields as thousands of troops left the island for Sicily. During this period the Buffs occupied Malta’s heights in the South East and North such as ‘Annunziata’ and ‘Dueira’. They were very familiar with Malta’s valleys and scarce open plains. Returning to Lt. Morgan’s adoption of the Maltese term ‘wied’, it is perhaps indicative of the topographical picture they built in Malta. For two and a half years, every single defence plan involves Malta’s landscape; its Mediterranean shrubbery, rocky coasts and sandy inlets. They marked possible parachutist landing sites, and exercised every possible scenario for what was a wholly expected invasion of Malta. One can perhaps venture to imagine if this clue can lead us to understand how this mental cartography of the island was or was not used in Leros. 

‘The Buff's Company Billet at Ta Kali, Malta’, by Leslie Cole. © IWM Art.IWM ART LD 3517

Lasty, one can also speak of the 4th Buff’s social topography on the island. Like all regiments they were active in sports such as boxing, football, rugby, and even hockey, often playing against battalions from other regiments or even local Maltese teams. Nevertheless, much like other battalions on Malta, they had their own scruffs with the locals. The War occurrences for the ‘Birkirkara’ and ‘Attard’ Police stations record several instances where the Buffs damaged property during training. Collapsed rubble walls, trespassed fields and crops, or broken fig trees, snapped prickly pear cacti, and erected barbed wire posts are just some of the many reports attributed to the 4th Buffs. Having said this, there is also solid evidence that the 4th Buffs integrated well with the local population. According to Alex Randon, the Buff’s corps of drums was very popular among Maltese Villages. The Official History of the 4th Buffs further states that the battalion would beat retreat in various villages to sustain morale. The Battalion war diary also writes in March of 1941 that “the 4th Buffs was a popular unit amongst [local] recruits”. During the same year, Cpl. F.C. Whitaker was employed as a Physical Instructor at the “Reformatory” in Hamrun with a per diem wage. Just before leaving for Egypt, in August of 1943, the British Institute specifically requested that Lance Corporal Hallwood of the Buffs remain in Malta instead of joining his Battalion overseas owing to his invaluable skills at the time, adding that “it is impossible to find a competent unemployed projector operator”.

One can only imagine what it was like for these men to leave Malta after three years, arrive in Egypt for extensive training, and later Leros, finding another Malta, far more hilly and daunting to protect. In Malta they had more than two years to perfect their defence plans. On Leros they would have just a bit more than two weeks, not to mention recuperating the losses incurred from H.M.S. Eclipse en route. More so, to be even farther away from home, detached from their then familiar Malta, with Greeks and their Italian enemies, which had caused them such havoc on George Cross Island, fighting alongside them. 

Written by Nikolai Debono on behalf of Battlefront Malta