Prelude to Husky: the Malta Brigade Trains in Egypt

All the greatest battles in history required weeks, months, if not years of preparation. They were supported by all sorts of camp-followers, skilled workers, and logistical efforts. This was certainly the case for the Second World War as operations of unprecedented scale and sophistication took shape. However, despite the use of then cutting edge technology and advanced tactics, infantry still played a vital role. Naval and Air Forces could soften bunkers and safeguard passages, but the decisive act of capturing ground and pushing out the enemy always fell on regiments, companies, and individual men with helmets and rifles. 


Operation Husky is one such example. A military operation which utilised all branches of the Allied forces, but still relied on its individual infantrymen to weed out resistance and secure captured territory. They were of course prepared to face tough resistance, clearing out enemy emplacements and engaging in urban warfare. Much like the Americans, most of the British 8th army had combat experience from North Africa. Namely, the 51st Highland division, fresh from fighting in Tunisia, but still needed time to rebuild their numbers due combat losses. On the other hand, some had no combat experience at all, such as the infantry battalions of the 231st Brigade. 


Men of the 51st Highland Division embark for Sicily in Malta

By 1943, the 1st Hampshires, 1st Dorsets, and 2nd Devons from the 231st had spent the past three to five years in Malta filling bomb craters, unloading convoys, manning anti-aircraft guns, patrolling, training, and much more. They were instructed in musketry, and extensively prepared for the expected invasion of Malta the previous year. However, they had no actual combat experience against enemy infantry. Now, in 1943, they were earmarked to participate in the invasion of Sicily. Other regiments from Malta would be sent to Leros, or keep guard over the island who’s worth was now well recognized. However, the Hampshires, Dorsets, and Devons embarked for Egypt to become fighting fit for the coming battle. Jim Bellows of the Hampshires writes of this day, the 30th of March:

we looked up and saw the crowd of Maltese assembled on the massive walls. It was a sad time for some of the lads who had wives and sweethearts to leave behind. […] The band of the Royal West Kents played us out. As we cast off everyone on the walls was waving and some crying. As we drifted away the sounds of the bands playing, ‘Won’t you no come back again’ gradually grew fainter and fainter. I think many of us had a tear at that moment but tried not to let our mates see.

Aboard S.S. Karoa, S.S. Egra, and  H.M.T Neuralia the battalions left Malta in their wake. On the 3rd of April they disembarked in Alexandria. They would join the rest of the troops at Sidi Beshr camp located within a suburb of the city of the same name. A few days later it was officially announced that they would fall under the title ‘231st Infantry Brigade’, instead of the ‘1st Malta Brigade’. The battalions were not happy about this change of title, owing to their proud association with Malta and the notion of having won the ‘Second Great Siege’. In ‘Malta Strikes Back’, Major R.T. Gilchrist recounts of the name change:


This was not done without protest being made by Brigadier Smith, O.B.E., who felt that without the Malta association in the title the Brigade would lose something of its individuality and personality. To counteract this, a Brigade sign was designed. It consisted of a white Maltese Cross on the background of a red shield. It was fitting that in this way we should be linked with the hospitallers and templars of old at a time when our defensive role had ended.

On their arrival the Dorsets report that they were “awarded” 12 days of recreation with just 2 hours of daily training. This was a time of intense leisure for the majority of the brigade as the men tried their best to recuperate what they had been lacking in Malta; booze, ample food, and free time (Jary, 2021). However, they would still have to iron their Khakis and polish their boots as on the 8th of April, the battalion was inspected by the Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean, Sir Henry Maitland. 

On the 15th of April the battalions moved to “MENA Camp” on cattle trucks by train. Due to mistrust of the locals, and perhaps the infantrymen’s sensibilities, explicit instructions were distributed not to purchase any “fruit, drinks, etc.” from local hawkers. They were also warned not to lean out of the windows, nor throw “anything, especially bottles or tins” out of them. At the time, ordinary ranks were still arriving from Malta, possibly fully recovered injured servicemen. Serious training commenced with new equipment consisting of anti-tank guns, “Mortar Carriers and Jeeps” (10222). However, some of the men also trained with improvised landing craft made out of scavenged material! (Jary, 2021) All the while, the 231st were camped right next to the wonders of the world that are the pyramids of Giza, and even trained on and around them. 


It was part of the training that all ranks should repeat aloud the role that they were going to play in the landing on foreign soil. ‘I am the platoon commander. I am the first man to leave the boat’, said the officer. ‘I am the first man to be killed’, the cynics would add.” (Gilchrist, 1945). 

Major R.T. Gilchrist recounts exercise “Nomad” between the 1st and the 5th of May. This was a particularly absurd time as the invasion became more and more real. In his own words: “it was a completely crazy existence, the Brigade major would give out orders in the desert for an “exercise” attack and then turn immediately to some problem connected with the landing tables for the real assault”. 

Just after this episode, the 231st Brigade moved from MENA camp to Kabrit. There, some men were sent to attend specialised courses including but not limited to firefighting, anti-tank gun fitters course, ‘waterproofing’, ‘water duties’, ‘Mortar Course’, ‘Mine Lifting’, and ‘Intelligence course’, the latter assigned to officers and non-commissioned officers alone. At Kabrit, the men would participate in combined operations training exercises ‘Walrus’ and ‘Duchess’. Both were opportunities to practise beach landings and obstacle clearance, such as land-mines and enemy defence positions. On ‘Duchess’, Gilchrist recounts:


Apart from getting the feel of the thing, this exercise was of great value because as far as possible the conditions which we would meet in Sicily were reproduced on the ground, and many lesson were learned and faults in the planning corrected. 

On the 24th they would march to Fayid Camp a few miles away. The next big exercise occurred on the 1st of June when the men marched 14 miles into the wild, setting up camp, testing their “administrative and stamina of men” (10222). Even in the desert, each man was allowed one bottle per day and a cup of tea. By the 3rd of June, they had moved a further 2 miles, setting up trenches and other positions. Unfortunately, this was where the Dorset’s first (recorded) death abroad happened when Pte. Saywell was run over by a truck at night. The following day, they would train extensively on mortar and artillery fire before heading back to camp. On the 7th, preparations were underway for a major exercise, “a replica of the real thing” (10222)


Unfortunately weather was not in their favour. The exercise kept being postponed and the proposed location at Safaga was discarded. However, the battalions eventually embarked at Suez for exercise ‘Brightling’ between the 15th and the 16th June at the Gulf of Aqaba. This was as much as possible a hyper-real simulation of their upcoming invasion of Sicily, with troopships, landing crafts, full combat equipment, and men coordinating a real beach assault. It is worth noting that for most of the men this was their first time experiencing combat training at such a large scale, perhaps also sending shivers down their spine as to what to expect from their upcoming mission. The Dorset war diarist was quite the writer, going to great lengths to adequately record the exercise: 


Just after midday on 15 Jun 43 we dropped anchor out two miles from the shore of the Gulf of “AKOBA”. At 1300 hrs the men being ordered to stand by for the exercise found a further postponement of same until dusk. The Gulf of “Akoba” has an interesting topography. High hills run on either side with a sandy shore, These hills continue far inland forming a rather narrow valley, vegetation being mainly a few palm trees and scrubs on the sand in the valley. A camp belonging to a Garrison Force, occupied a site at the base of the hills. At midnight orders were given to stand by, and at 0200 hrs the unit disembarked from the Sally Ports into the L.C.A.’s. The sea was calm, the night clear and nearly a full moon. It was quite a sight to see about 20 L.C.As cruising around the mother ship not making much noise, the land and the larger ships standing out as silhouettes, not a sound save the engines of the L.C.As at half throttle.. Quite suddenly the show on the beach began, flares, verey lights, flashes of mortars bombs exploding, light automatic fire, tracer and all the fun of a Crystal Palace night. 

After rather a long wait we went ashore, landed dry, and moved up the beach to allotted areas. By this time first light was breaking and orders were given to dig in fast. The forward Coys advanced a little and successfully overcame the opposition. The continuation of the exercise then mainly concerned the Brick, our unit re-embarking at 1030 hrs. At midday the ships left the Gulf of Akoba for SUEZ.”

The Dorset diarist compares the exercise to a spectacle and even a “show”. The men could enjoy the aesthetics of war without death and attrition for one memorable night. After all, Memory is all the men could take from this exercise: all paperwork related to ‘Brightling’ was to be burned by fire for utmost secrecy. Respite also arrived a few days later; in the afternoon and evenings of the 21st of June the men were allowed to go swimming and visit Ismaelia. It was a chance to become a tourist and herald the post-war leisure-travel boom. 


General Montgomery inspected the troops on the 24th; one last effort to bolster morale before the big push. The Dorsets carried on training until they travelled to Suez to embark. On the 4th of July, the Dorsets and Hampshires would disembark at Port Said to have one last swim on sandy beaches. In the following days the 231st brigade would be briefed on Operation Husky, a codename they were familiar with as early as the 28th of June, explained its aim to take Italy out of the war by the following year, and were issued detailed plans on their imminent landing. On the 10th of July, in choppy seas, “violently” sea-sick men headed for their objective. 

The Devons, Dorsets, and Hampshires, would land with their Malta-Camo helmets on the rocks and beaches of Marzamemi in the early morning of the 10th July and later, fighting their way through Noto, Vizzini, and Caltagirone, onto Radusa, Agira, and Regalbuto.

Nikolai Debono, on behalf of Battlefront Malta


Christopher Jary, ‘Roy’s Boys: the Devons, Hampshire & Dorsets in Sicily & Italy July-September 1943’, Semper Fidelis Publications, 2021. 

Jim Bellows, ‘When in Doubt, Brew Up, ELSP, 2002, p. 110.

Major R. T. Gilchrist, ‘Malta Strikes Back: the story of the 231 Infantry Brigade’, Gale & Poldaen Limited, Aldershot. 

The National Archives, Kew, War Office: 1st Hampshires, 1943, WO 169/10222,  London, U.K.

The National Archives, Kew, War Office: 1st Dorsets, 1943, WO 169/10197,  London, U.K. 

The National Archives, Kew, War Office: 2nd Devons, 1943, WO 169/14584, London, U.K.