The Malta Police Force during the Second World War
In broad parlance, the police forces of the world are given the task of maintaining public order and safety, as well as enforcing the law. This has always been the case since the inception of the earliest forms of policing until modern times.
With a mission statement of serving the populace, as broad and challenging a remit as it may already be, the scope of a police force extends even further in wartime than in peacetime.
The Malta Police Force, founded in 1814, was not immune to the challenges brought by the second world war and had to re-invent itself in scale, duties, and purview.
Wartime day-to-day duties of Police in Malta
One of the early regulations enforced and a crucial part of wartime duties was the enforcement of nighttime curfews and blackout regulations. From the 27th of September 1939, everyone in the Maltese Islands had to remain indoors between 10:00 PM and 04:30 AM. Although the timings were amended multiple times during the war, the police had to ensure that curfews were being respected. Adherence was considered so critical that even smoking a cigarette outdoors was grounds for prosecution.
Traffic was also suspended between those times, and only vehicles and persons holding a written permit issued by the competent civil or military authorities or the Commissioner of Police were allowed to circulate. Police officers were to ensure that no vehicles were to use headlamps except by special dispensation from the Commissioner of Police or those used for official purposes.
Air raid shelters were opened and maintained by police officers, who upon air raid warning, were to open and turn on the lights or lamps inside. The names of those who did not go down into the shelters during air raids were also recorded. In the early years, officers also ensured that air-raid shelters were completely vacant after the all-clear and did not allow occupants to linger there. However, by 1942, the responsibilities of the management of the shelters fell strictly upon the District Commissioner, relinquishing the police from being directly responsible for their control; however, they lent assistance upon instructions from the Protection officer of the District Commissioner.
Another responsibility initially taken by the police was the distribution of General Civilian Respirators (gas masks) to the general public. This was soon handed over to the district commissioners, but in some cases, distribution still took place at the local police stations.
Meanwhile, at the ports, police had to oversee the unloading of provisions and escorting supplies to their respective stores. At the same time, they had to keep the peace during the distribution of provisions (such as water and kerosene) to the general public or at Victory Kitchens.
Photography was also strictly controlled for security reasons. No one without a permit was to take photos, sketches, or much less publish material related to military buildings or installations used for the defence of the island. Once again, the enforcement of this order was also delegated to the police.
There were instances when police officers had to bring to justice not just civilians but military personnel as well. As the war intensified, some posts became for some servicemen, who fled at the first opportunity. The police had to investigate and go after deserters from various military units – not just Maltese but also British and British subjects stationed in Malta or serving aboard.
The role of the police during and after air attacks
With Malta being infamous for having suffered immensely from enemy bombardment, it is no wonder that all available manpower had to be diverted to deal with this scourge. Once again, the police force was there to answer the call.
Although not a responsibility exclusive to them, the police would sound the air raid warning sirens upon receiving the early notification on their telephone system. At the smaller stations, hand-operated sirens were used to relay air raid signals, but in main areas, electrical sirens were available too. In remote areas, the police fired petards as an auxiliary air raid warning.
In the case of unexploded ordnance, the Commissioner of Police ordered that no one was to approach such explosives. The police were to be informed immediately of the location of the unexploded bomb. The police were thence to proceed and secure the vicinity of the explosive until removed by the Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal squad. Though reliant somewhat on tip-offs by the general public or ARP wardens, police were still expected to remain on the lookout for unexploded bombs during their routine patrols in rural areas. In such instances, the standard procedure was to surround the area with sacks of sand and guard these bombs while keeping civilians away from danger.
Although police officers were dissuaded from handling the unexploded ordnance, they remained the first point of contact for the public in case of such a find. This was also true after the war, where the safety protocols mentioned also extended into the immediate postwar years.
On the other hand, wherever the bombs struck successfully, the police were to step in and aid in removing any resulting debris from demolished buildings. Then they proceeded to collect valuables from damaged buildings and deposit them at the Police GHQ, before cordoning them off to prevent looting.
The Commissioner of Police or any officer above the rank of superintendent could delegate these duties to their subordinates as they saw fit.
Special Constabulary in Malta
Due to the intense workload, the police also had to cooperate with other departments and participate in performing search and rescue of victims. Other work included assisting in running flour mills and working in aerodrome-related clearance and construction.
To cope with the increase in demand for police officers, the Special Constabulary was formed on 10th May 1940. The Lieutenant-Governer directed that this new auxiliary police force were to have the same powers and duties as Policemen and fell under the complete responsibility of the Commissioner of Police. Thus, they were thus subject to the same disciplinary code. The Specials, as they were called, were provided with the same training, uniform, and equipment as the regular police officers and were distinguishable by an armband sporting the initials “S.C.” The highest rank allowed within the Special Constabulary was that of a Superintendent. The appointment to the Specials was honorary. Some expenses were refunded and allowances were given upon approval by the Commissioner of Police.
Ex-police force members were especially encouraged to join the specials, yet, most of the SC inspectors were the headmasters of the village’s school, each leading a group of specials.
The Special Constabulary stood down on the 4th of February, 1945, as the demand for their service decreased with the war’s end in sight.
Police Uniforms and Equipment in time of war
Whilst in pre-war years the police had their distinctive midnight blue serge uniforms in winter and frocks and trousers in khaki-drill cloth during summer, the war brought in the use of more military-issue uniforms and equipment.
The winter uniform now comprised a battle dress jacket and trousers, in the army pattern, albeit with police buttons and accoutrements. In summer, the formal closed-collar frock gave way to the khaki shirt and shorts as a working uniform, which was much more practical to the new exigencies presented upon the police. The visor cap from pre-war years was retained throughout the war, albeit without the khaki cover in most cases due to shortages.
However, it takes more than a smart and practical uniform to perform the vast array of tasks discussed. Consequently, a variety of equipment was issued to the officers to aid in the administration of their duties.
Police officers had a tough schedule – They worked twelve-hour shifts, with a rest day every sixth day. Even so, they were ordered to carry their helmets and respirators even when off-duty. In the intervening period between the ‘Action Warning’ signal and the ‘Raiders Passed’ signal, steel helmets had to be worn by all members of the Force.
While police officers were expected to patrol the streets on foot, many stations had bicycles to increase their coverage. The bicycle was an essential tool that allowed constables to carry out more frequent patrols and cover a wider area. At night, the officers were allowed to light lamps on their bicycles and carry revolvers. By this time, the Malta Police had scores of 5″ and 10″ Belgian-made Gasser-Montenegrin double-action revolvers (in 0.44 calibre). Of interest, in 1941, the commissioner announced that Traffic Police were exempted from carrying their respirators and revolvers while on duty. Also, the police in Gozo were exempt from carrying respirators or steel helmets as this was deemed unnecessary.
Wartime Malta meant that the hardships exerted a heavy toll on man and resources, and the Malta Police Force, similarly to that of Britain, had to evolve and find ways of relinquishing some of the responsibilities onto others so that they ensure that the laws were observed. Incessant bombings, coupled with the heightened criminal activity that comes with the crisis of being under siege for 3 years, meant that police had to find new vigour and fortitude to protect the public interest. On the other hand, they had the honour of guarding the highest civil award bestowed to the Maltese, carrying the George cross during the award ceremony and exhibiting it around villages. The police officers serving during the war received the Defence Medal, the Africa Star and the 1939-45 War Medal for their exertions.
Clive Victor Borg. (2012). The Malta Police Force – Duties assigned to the Force during the Second World War [Bachelors thesis, University of Malta]
George Cassar. (2005). A village at War: Mosta during the Second World War. Ex annalibus Mustae
Philo Pullicino. (2013). Road to Rome
Christian DeBono and Gabriel Abela, on Behalf of Battlefront Malta.