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Remembering the Royal Malta Artillery’s forgotten thousands

Who were these Maltese gunners who were so highly praised during the Battle of Malta? Most of them, mainly in their 20s, had joined the Royal Malta Artillery (RMA) in 1938-1939 to get a regular income. They came from all over Malta and Gozo and some of them could not even sign their name on pay day.

One wonders how much Malta appreciates the importance of the contribution given by these brave young men to the outcome of the Battle for Malta in World War II

After their recruit training, they were all posted to the RMA anti-aircraft (AA) units being formed at the time, except for some who were posted to 1st Coast Regiment to replace those promoted to non-commissioned officers (NCOs) for the new AA units.

The Governor – General Sir Charles Bonham Carter – after inspecting the recruits during their training, wrote in his personal diary that they were all of an exceptional good standard and they proved him right even under fire. In mid-1941 and later, they were joined by conscripts, who integrated very quickly, so that, within a short time, it was difficult to say who was the volunteer and who was a conscript.

I had the honour of serving with about 130 of them, in 7th Heavy Anti-Aircraft (HAA) Battery, in both of its troops, for nearly three years of the battle. I could not have wished for a better lot. Naturally, living so closely for such a long time created a tight bond between us. Any disciplinary action was of a corrective nature; they formed a compact, determined team.

They had found no problem in learning the orders shouted in English: “Plaaane”; “Take post”; “On target – bearing O five O”; “First 17 thousand”; “Set 17 thousand”; “In Range”; “Fire”; “Stoppp – Fresh Target bearing 360”, and so on. Many of these orders were shouted at the top of one’s voice, especially during action, to ensure that everyone heard them and to overcome the very loud bangs when the four guns were being fired, often within a fraction of a second of each other.

I managed to get a tear in my ear drum during a practice shoot, when I was acting as a gun layer; 30 cartridges exploded six inches away from my ear.

Day after day, month after month, year after year, these men put on their steel helmet and stood at their post inside a gun emplacement with a five-foot concrete wall all around and scores of live rounds of ammunition stacked for easy reach; they never faltered or grumbled even when they fired the guns on a nearly empty stomach. Their anxiety was for their families, especially when they could see their own town or village being bombed.

Very rarely, they were rewarded after manning their guns all day and all night by a shout coming from the darkness at about 3am: “Ejjew għat-te”, which meant that the cook had managed to scrape enough tea leaves to brew some weak tea with reconstituted milk powder but no sugar. It was hot and wet and it went down like nectar.

When things got even worse than usual and I could see that their smile on their faces was fading, I used to make it a point of spending more time with them during lulls in firing. We talked a little about the solar system, science, geography, history, all in very basic terms from memory as we had no books. Everything was new to them and they enjoyed the distraction.

The job we were doing always crept in at some stage. We were fighting for a just cause against the evil of the Nazis and Fascists.

They wanted to conquer the world and make people work for them like slaves or be shot. Once the war was won, Malta would be very proud of us for having taken such an important part in the defence of our country and families, at a time when their need was so urgent. Our young men came through the ordeal with flying colours – a great credit to the RMA and to Malta.

One wonders, however, how much Malta really appreciates the importance of the contribution given by these brave young men to the outcome of the Battle for Malta in World War II and, of the terrible short- and long-term consequences, especially to Malta and the Maltese, had the battle been lost.

Winning it may have shortened the war by some months. Malta made a quick recovery. By July 1943, it was the spearhead for the British and US force invading Sicily; the Advance headquarters was located in Floriana. The building was later named Montgomery House.

The RMA gunners were not the only Maltese soldiers involved in the Battle for Malta. The King’s Own Malta Regiment had expanded to three smart and efficient infantry battalions from a territorial unit of civilians training on weekends and at a fortnight’s camp in summer.

In addition to guarding our shores and open spaces, they were trained to defend their area in case of invasion and were continuously putting their lives at risk, helping the RAF to keep the airstrips safe by filling up bomb craters and removing large amounts of bomb and shell shrapnel.

There were, of course, many thousands of other Maltese officers, men and women serving in the Royal Navy, the British Army and the Royal Air Force, both in Malta and overseas – too numerous to even begin to give details here – who gave their contribution to the peaceful end of World War II.

I have really been blowing my own trumpet as I was also one of the young men on the guns; I do so without any sense of shame, as I owe it to my former comrades in arms who, often in dangerous situations, spent the best years of their life defending their country against a barbarous enemy. And I owe it to all other Maltese in the services, who, in one way or another, took part in the Battle for Malta.

I owe it, above all, to my second-in-command who, on May 23, 1942, was walking back to our gun position from Rabat so that I could go home to celebrate my 21st birthday. Three or four Italian bombers approaching Ta’ Qali from Dingli dropped their bombs prematurely when our shells started exploding too close for comfort. Warrant Officer II C Zahra was just over half a mile from our gun position.

He died of his wounds. He was only a few years older than me. I did not even go to his funeral as I was on duty.

Even now, mentioning the RMA draws a blank on the majority of local young faces and many of those not so young. Ask anyone what happened in Malta during the war and they might, maybe, tell you there was a lot of bombing, ruined buildings, people slept in shelters, were fed from Victory Kitchens and the convoy of Santa Marija saved us. Hardly ever a word about our gallant defenders.

That is what is shown on television when, rarely, the Battle for Malta is news. Our children, however, do want to know more, as I found out when I was asked to address classes in primary schools; they kept on asking questions up to the last available minute.

Lack of information is not only among the young; amazingly, a few years ago, in a reception given by a government department, attended by members of the local Russian embassy, the only information made available regarding the role played by Maltese servicemen during World War II was that our soldiers filled craters on the airfields.

After the war, the RMA gained a lot of experience, especially by serving for a number of years with the British Army of the Rhine in Germany, in Cyprus and elsewhere. Some officers served as staff officers, very successfully, in various British Army headquarters and at the War Office.

When Malta gained its Independence, the regiment gave birth to the Armed Forces of Malta, passing on its traditions, military bearing, its experience gained over the years and even most of its cap badge. The AFM did not have to start from scratch and is now an efficient, disciplined organisation. Its results are admired at home and abroad.

The Battle for Malta is, in my opinion, the most glorious period of our history. It is a pity we are neglecting some of the more important participants of this tragic occasion. We are a peaceful nation, and glorifying war is not in our nature.

However, as in 1565, Malta was fighting for its life; it was defending itself against a brutal and unscrupulous enemy. The monument of the Great Siege of 1565 was erected, quite rightly, in the main street of our capital city in a very prominent site. The RMA was in the forefront during the Battle for Malta and deserves better than to be discarded into mere oblivion.

During World War II, Ta’ Qali served mainly as a fighter airfield. Many hundreds of Hurricanes and Spitfires operated from the airfield. The airfield was bombed many hundreds of times, sometimes by waves of 40 bombers at a time, but eventually the RAF gained air superiority and the enemy was kept away. During those dark days many guns fired thousands of shells in the airfield’s defence and many of the shells were fired from guns manned by gunners of 2nd HAA Regiment RMA, deployed specifically with the defence of Ta’ Qali as its main objective.

A monument featuring RMA gunners in action, sited at Ta’ Qali, would definitely not be out of place. It would be a reminder to many who visit the open spaces at Ta’ Qali that Maltese soldiers also fought the Nazis and Fascists.

And I even venture to suggest what the monument should look like. Two RMA gunners wearing steel helmet, denim suit and boots, in line to the left rear of that monstrosity of the counterbalance of a 3.7-inch AA static gun, with two or three spent cartridges on the ground; the gun itself cocked up to about 50 degrees, showing only the rear part – only very little of the barrel.

The inscription could read:

“The Battle for Malta 1940-1943 – Royal Malta Artillery gunners defending their country.”

We remember our dead each year. We should also be grateful to those who defended our country and survived.

Concluded.

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