Turning the Tide: A Sicilian Gun For Valletta
In 1943, an Italian gun was captured by the 51st Highland division in Sicily, a Cannone da 75/27 modello 11, of French design dating back to 1912. Although still in service with the Italian army, it had no notable significance in terms of military technology or history. However, it was the first loot from Operation Husky: the Allies had regained a foothold in Europe and turned the tide of war. For Malta, it was also its very first trophy which was not shot down from the sky or washed up on its beaches. It came from the front lines, which by then were, fortunately, far away from its shores.
It was presented with official pomp and circumstance to “the people of Valletta” on the 22nd of October of 1943. The Royal Malta Artillery formed the honour guard, with four representatives of the 51st Highland Division “if available”, otherwise four Sergeants of the Cheshire regiment would have taken their role.
The 51st was made up of three infantry brigades. The 152nd was composed of three battalions, one of which being the 5th Bn. of The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. Although the gun was given to Valletta as a gift in appreciation for the hospitality it had shown to the brigade before Operation Husky, we only know of three of their camps occupied for their short stay between the 6th and the 9th of July. Stan Fraser documents his impression of the Cameron Highlander’s camp in Zabbar:
saw the rather tired tired-looking stalwarts, in their khaki bonnets, living like Spartans, under bivvies hastily erected in ploughed fields. […] their only kit was the dress they wore, plus one blanket, and a haversack, containing utensils, toilet requisites and perhaps a change of socks. […] In spite of their dusty appearance they all seemed cheerful enough , and according to Don, were in fine fettle for the coming battle.
The division had already sent their thanks to Major General Oxley before leaving Malta; stating that:
On leaving the Island I want to write to thank you, on behalf of the officers and men of the Highland Division, for making our short stay with you such a happy one.
I should like particularly to thank the Camp Staffs, through you, for all the trouble they took to make us thoroughly comfortable.
Their work was appreciated by us all and was excellently done.
We shall carry away with us a very pleasant memory when we leave MALTA and we would like to wish you good luck in the future. (WO 169/14552)
It was these men, and thousands of others, which waded to shore on the 10th of July in 1943, and captured the gun presented to Valletta.
A few Months later an official ceremony was in the works. The original plan was to have Valletta’s priests receive the gun. However, an internal communication advises that it would be “slightly incongruous to hand over a lethal weapon to our two Valletta Parish Preists”. It was then decided to have the secretary and two members from each of Valletta’s two band clubs to receive the gun on behalf of the city, as well as the two priests and the regional protection officer.
The gun was “painted” in the R.E.M.E workshops. A brass plaque was also made for the occasion, bearing the inscription: “To the people of VALLETTA from the 51st Highland Division. The first Italian Gun captured in the SICILIAN campaign July 1943”.
It is not clear why Lord Gort did not wish to attend the ceremony. The official speech was read by the General Officer in Command W.H. Oxley instead:
I have the very pleasant duty today of handing over to the Citizens of VALETTA, the gun which you see before you. This weapon was the first one captured by the 51st Highland Division when it landed on the beaches of SICILY. The GOC this famous Division sent it to MALTA with the request that it should be presented to the people of VALETTA, to commemorate the stay of the Division on this Island preparatory to the invasion of SICILY. Although these troops were only here a few days, they received from everyone such a friendly and kindly welcome that the GOC wished to make this presentation as a mark of the esteem in which the Units of his division held the Maltese people. But, I feel that we can take the presentation of this gun as having perhaps a deeper significance. A few weeks ago the aeroplane “Faith” was handed over to the safe keeping of the people of MALTA.
Looking back to the time when this aeroplane was a fighting machine, we are reminded of a period of unpreparedness when we had to grin and bear it with only faith and hope to support us in the grim struggle then lying ahead. The gun which you see before you today marks the beginning of a brighter period. We still need faith, hope, and also charity, but, to back these up we now have a strong right arm. We have invaded the Citadel of EUROPE. We can look forward to giving back in full measure what we have had to take in the past, and in this, MALTA still has a part to play. It is in this spirit, therefore, and to mark the better times we all hope lie ahead, that I now, on behalf of the 51st HIGHLAND DIVISION, hand this gun over to the safe keeping of the Citizens of VALETTA.
The committee representing Valletta replied:
We are very glad to accept the gun kindly presented by the gallant 51st Highland Division. This Committee accepts with pride this gun in the name of the people of Valletta.
This trophy is taken as a tribute from a gallant and victorious army to the capital of Malta in recognition of the part played by this Island in the successful invasion of Sicily.
It is the wish of this Committee that the thanks of the City of Valletta be conveyed to the donors together with an assurance that the inhabitants of this historical city which now lies in ruins around us will continue, as in the past, to give its unstinted contribution to the war effort. Malta has placed herself on the map by her endurance, and the Maltese are determined to remain an inspiration to the fighting men of all the United Nations.
The scars of war, so much evident now, will disappear when Valetta is rebuilt. The trophy which has been presented to us today will, however, remain for future generations to see and to value. It will continue to inspire that love of friendship and unity which has kept together the peoples of the British Empire through times of hardship and ordeals. Malta is proud to have played a decisive part in this war against the powers of evil and destruction, and to have maintained its faith in freedom and justice.
After the ceremony, the gun sat for years in the palace courtyard under canvas. The intention to place it in the then still to be created Malta War Museum appears as early as 1945. However, it was also suggested and approved that the gun be presented in front of the main guard and cared for by the military until then. Nowadays, it is the very last exhibit at the war museum in St. Elmo Valletta. It is much more than an outdated Italian artillery piece, or a mere war trophy, but the very first tangible evidence that Malta’s worst days were truly over.
Charles Debono, ‘The Capture and Presentation of an Italian Field Gun’, Treasures of Malta, No. 72, Summer 2018, Volume 24, Issue 3.
National Archives of Malta, ‘Presentation to the people of Valletta of the first gun captured in Sicily’, OPM-6549-1943.
Stan Fraser, The Guns of Hagar Qim, Wise Owl, p. 221.
The Museum of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, 51st Highland division.co.uk, ‘Preparation for Operation Husky’, Available Online.
The National Archives, Kew, ‘Malta Command, War Diary of the 233rd Infantry Brigade’, WO 169/14552.