The Hampshires’ Defence of Malta
In February 1941, the 1st Battalion of the Royal Hampshire Regiment in Marsa Matruh was busy signboarding mine-fields and barricading pillboxes as they prepared to leave. The battalion had been part of the Allied North African campaign, in Operation Compass, particularly the battle for Sidi El Barrani in December of 1940. At 7:00 am, on the 21st of the same month, they disembarked in Malta. Even before they left the deserts and dunes they received orders to occupy one of the most beautiful residences in Malta: Palazzo Dorell.
Built in 1670 as a country residence, the palace boasted an exceptionally large garden with very high perimeter walls. It was later bequeathed by Marchesa Lady Elizabetta D’Aurel, from where the more colloquial names palazzo D’Aurel and Bettina originate. The British used it ever since setting foot on the island in 1798 during the French Blockade. It served as a headquarters for Thomas Graham, 1st Baron Lynedoch who commanded the 30th and 89th regiments of foot from within the palace walls. 143 years later, the Hampshires would use the very same building for yet another war.
The Hampshires, apart from camping in nearby fields and spurs, made extensive use of a very tall tower inside the property. There is some evidence to suggest that this stone-built tower goes back to the Roman era. More concrete documentation suggests the oldest record dates back to the 12th or 13th century during the Aragonese rule. Known as ‘Ta Xlejli’, the Hampshires immediately saw the tower dominating the landscape fit for observation. To this day, it offers commanding views of Malta’s entire southern region with visibility stretching to Mdina and more. An observation post was set up right on top of the old tower, then to be referred to as ‘Schleili’ or ‘Xulliela’ and is sometimes even referred to as battalion H.Q.
It was not all nice views from the top of Xlejli. On the 27th of May, 1941, the Hampshires witnessed two airmen plummet to their death when their parachutes failed to open. Jim Bellows, a Lance-Corporal stationed on the tower as a signaller writes about his experience on Xlejli as bombs fell on Malta:
The job was to plot where bombs dropped and report unexploded ones. Also we reported where planes crashed or parachutes landed. One of the worst sights was to see a ‘roman candle’, an airman plummeting down with his chute on fire. I saw this several times. I saw quite a few sights from the top of that tower. A Bofors Gun site just on the outskirts of Gudja, got a direct hit- all the crew were killed. (Jary, p. 53)
A few days earlier, a piece of shrapnel struck and cut an electrical cable (‘high tension wire’) which ignited a fire. Trying to shovel sand onto the flames, Company Quartermaster Sergeant ‘Flatman’ from A. Coy accidentally hit the electric wire and died on the spot.
The Hampshires were not alone in the defence of Gudja and the airfield nearby. They would work closely with the Devons stationed in Ghaxaq just across from their position and formed part of an interwoven defence of Luqa and Safi strips. They also provided a substantial amount of men to build the latter in 1941. More so, the Hampshires would operate searchlights and Lewis gun anti-aircraft emplacements.
The Palace itself was part of a series of defensive positions covering the South-Eastern approach towards Hal Safi and Luqa. In 1942, one 18-pounder was placed just south of the palace in front of ‘Saint House’. Another could be found emplaced below it just off Safi Strip. North of the palace, between Gudja and Santa Lucija near Tas-Salib hill were also four, 6-inch howitzers with two Lewis guns. To add to this chain of artillery defence were two, 3 pounder guns, 4 Vickers medium machine guns, and a captured Italian mobile Breda anti-tank gun (Cannone da 47/32), all of which could be positioned in their assigned areas in the event of an invasion.
The Hampshires would also use several buildings in Zurrieq as billets such as St Agatha’s Chapel, the government school, and the Tower/Palace in Bubaqra. Like other regiments, they were assigned duties as needed; when looting from airfields became a considerable problem, the Hampshires sent companies of men to guard aircraft pens, setting up headquarters in whichever building they could find.
Just East of the Schleili H.Q. was a storeroom (still partly extant) that lay halfway between the Hampshires and the Devons stationed in the Semaphore tower across from them. In addition, attached to the Hampshire defence instructions were several parts of Ghaxaq. Namely, ‘Santu Kristu’, a hill on the outskirts of the village on which a small chapel sits and was used by the quartermaster as a store. The hill itself was a formidable strongpoint in Malta’s southern defence. In 1942, 6 Bty. 12TH Fld. Regt R.A. fielded four 25-pounder guns, 1 light machine gun and 2 anti-tank rifles. To this day, a Nissen hut is still extant on this site. An account of a daring firing demonstration was documented by C.L Borg:
“Wishing to show Infantry Regiments that they had Tank and Field Artillery support in support and, presumably, that they were not alone, Southern infantry Brigade arranged for a Field Artillery Shoot by the 12th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, also stationed at Paola; this shoot was to be carried out from a location near Bir-id Deheb known as ‘Santu Kristu Church’ to a very small strip of coast, sandy beach, measuring not more than some fifteen yards, right below Torri Hamrija, a distance of some eight miles as the crow flies. […] the gunners were taking a tremendous risk in shooting over several villages and had shells, for any reason, fallen short of their target, they could have caused a great deal of damage” (Borg, pg. 63-4)
In the event of invasion, these defences and other positions would work together to counter any attack on the airfield, be it from a sea-borne landing in the south or a parachutist attack. All companies were instructed to expect an attack three hours before or after sunrise. They had to move quickly as it was estimated that parachutists could be dropped and armed in 15 minutes. Each company from the Hampshires had its task ready to execute during such an attack. Zurrieq Coy. would move out from the school and defend both Bubaqra and Misrah Blandun. Mqabba Coy. was instructed to deny the enemy the low grounds to the west of Kirkop. Safi Coy. would bear the brunt of the enemy landing by ‘infliction of maximum casualties on enemy troop-carrying aircraft and airborne personnel’ in their area. Put simply, they had to kill as many parachutists as possible before they reached the ground. They were also responsible for sending snipers to an observation post just south of Safi strip. Many were equipped with bicycles for additional mobility in countering a full-scale air-borne assault.
Wherever parachutists were found a red “rocket” or verey light would have been used to expose their location. Other signals, such as a red and yellow flag, were used by tanks to communicate their status and intentions to nearby infantry. Besides communication, co-ordination was of utmost importance when dealing with an airborne invasion the likes of Crete. All Coys. were instructed to shoot at descending parachutists and attack upon landing. They had to be located and pinned down before they could move to secure their drop canisters which would contain rifles, machine guns, and other armaments along with ammunition. Soldiers manning defence posts could leave a skeleton garrison to attack nearby parachutists. They could also communicate with Bren carrier teams to establish strong points in weakened defensive positions as need be. At the same time, anti-tank/personnel mines and other obstacles/traps could be put in place and armed the moment an invasion of the island is officially declared.
Meanwhile, the Hampshires in the old palace would, under order, secure Loreto or Ta’ Liebru, Ta’ Klantun, and other areas. In any state of readiness (Europe, Asia Minor or Asia), anti-aircraft defence was put up from within the palace walls. There was also a slit trench in front of the main entrance where a policeman was stationed to help secure the H.Q. It was expected that air-borne troops might disguise themselves as members of the clergy, nuns, civilians, or even British troops. In light of such means of sabotage, after any air-raid alert, strictly no civilians were allowed to enter the palace. To maintain this state of readiness for an invasion, the battalion would be sent for a three-week exercise in Gozo. They would practise field manoeuvres and set up or occupy several observation posts whilst on the sister island.
Although the Hampshires would not see the enemy’s face in Malta they certainly did in Italy and Mainland Europe. Departing to Egypt in 1943, they used their training in amphibious landings to break through Operation Husky, the allied invasion of Sicily. After fierce fighting, they would land again in Italy. A year later, after a brief visit back home, they would land yet again, far from Malta, on the beaches of Normandy.
Borg, L 1990, ‘ Salute to Maltese Infantrymen’. Valletta Publishing & Promotion Co. Ltd.
Hampshire War Diaries, 1940-43, British National Archives, Kew.
Jary, C 2017, ‘Yells, Bells & Smells – The Story of the Devons, Hampshires & Dorsets in the Siege of Malta 1940-43’. Bluemoon Print.
Special thanks to Stephen Petroni and Micheal Trapani Galea Feriol for their assistance to recreate the photo at Xlejli.