Malta and World War I – snippets from April-November 1918

Malta and World War I – snippets from April-November 1918

Maltese recruited to join RAF

In March 1918, 778 Maltese ratings were enlisted into the Royal Naval Air Service based at HMS St Angelo.

This scheme was received with great acclaim, and a training camp for Maltese recruits was established at Spinola. A month later, in April 1918, they were then transferred and enlisted with the RAF for foreign service. Captain Attilio Gauci, Lieutenant Count Francis Sant Cassia and Lieutenant Philip Manduca of the Kings Own Malta Regiment of Militia were responsible for disciplinary and training purposes. By July 1918, some 700 Maltese from the training camp at Spinola were certified ready for active service, and 250 were immediately drafted for overseas service.

According to Lieutenant Manduca, who was then Officer Commanding of Maltese RAF troops overseas, at the time of the Armistice, Maltese airmen were serving at British bases in Otranto, Taranto, Brindisi, Stavros, Imbross, Corfu, Constantinople, Mudros and Alexandria.

Short Type 184 seaplane.Short Type 184 seaplane.

Warplanes operate from Kalafrana and Marsa

As air power was making a significant impact in the war, on April 1, 1918, a decision was taken by the British to merge the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service to create an independent air force. The Royal Flying Corps had been born out of the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers and was under the control of the British Army. The Royal Naval Air Service was its naval equivalent and was controlled by the Admiralty.

In April 1918, the aircraft in Malta were distributed into various flights. Flights Nos. 433 and 434 squadrons had between them six Short Type 184 aircraft, while a total of 12 Felixstowe F3s were distributed in Flights Nos. 360, 361, 362 and 363. These, together with the Kalafrana Seaplane Base, formed part of Malta Group, which included also the Kite Balloon (Squadron) Base No. 1 and the Dockyard Construction Unit.

Another type of aircraft, this time a land-based machine, was the Sopwith Camel fighter. This aircraft had to operate from Marsa, which at the time was the only readily available flat piece of land in Malta. It also housed sports facilities for the British Forces and was used to hold parades. The Sopwiths 2F1 Ship’s Camels N6830, N6804 and N6805 were shipped to Malta on May 30, 1918, while N6806, N6807 and N6808 were shipped to Malta on board HMS Manxman on June 12, 1918.

In late June 1918, two DH-9 biplanes were brought to Malta to carry out anti-submarine patrols when the sea was too rough for the Malta-constructed flying-boats to operate from Kalafrana. These two aircraft used the Marsa Sports Ground as an aerodrome. Effectively, the Marsa Sports Ground became the first airfield at Malta.

DH-9 biplane.DH-9 biplane.

Sopwith Camel.Sopwith Camel.

Naval Dockyard’s contribution to the Allied victory

During World War I, Maltese industry had become synonymous with the Naval Dockyard, which employed thousands of skilled and unskilled Maltese workers. The presence of the four navies in the Mediterranean – British, French, Japanese and Italian – made great demands on the HM Dockyard where work went on night and day. Unemployment was inexistent.

The HM Dockyard worked ceaselessly to maintain Allied shipping in fighting condition. It was said that the yard worked under higher pressure during the war than any other dockyard outside the UK. It played an important contribution in the Allied victory during World War I. The Admiralty had great trust not only in the workers’ skills and hard work, but above all in their loyalty. Ship repair on warships was much in demand.

Maltese employed in the war effort

At the time, over 15,900 Maltese were serving with the Royal Navy and naval establishments. Of the total, two-thirds were labourers at the Dockyard Naval Ordnance Depot and the Victualling Yard.

Nearly 2,400 were employed in coaling; there were nearly 1,300 seagoing services, 200 engaged in minesweeping and 500 in labour parties at bases away from Malta.

The Royal Air Force employed 778 Maltese, and in all, 31,739 men voluntarily served the government in Malta and overseas. Submarine perils did not prevent 630 Maltese from taking engagements in the Merchant Navy during the war, against an average of 200 in normal times.

The French auxiliary-cruiser Polynesien.The French auxiliary-cruiser Polynesien.

Polynesien sinks off Munxar Reef, 10 seamen die

Submarines of the Central Powers continued to hunt for Allied shipping en-route to Grand Harbour.

A French auxiliary-cruiser, the Polynesien, was part of a convoy to Malta, which it had joined southwest of Sardinia. When it was sailing west of Gozo the Polynesien suffered an engineering problem and was forced to proceed at a slow speed. Thus, the ship was abandoned by the convoy.

On August 10, at about 8pm, while steering towards the Grand Harbour around the east coast of Malta, the Polynesien was torpedoed by the German submarine UC-22 west of Hurd Bank. The French ship steered westwards, hoping to beach at St Thomas Bay, but it foundered east of Munxar Reef half an hour after it was torpedoed. At the time of its loss the Polynesien was being used as a troopship but had no troops on board, being loaded only with a military cargo for the Aegean.

Ten seamen lost their lives.

War bonus increase

Towards the end of 1918, the cost of living increased again due to the war. The wages of the dockyard workers had last increased in mid-1917, and on September 2, 1918, a four-man delegation discussed another increase in wages with Admiral Superintendent Ballard.

The latter sympathised with the claim and appealed directly to the Admiralty for an increase in the wages of the Maltese workers. Ballard later went himself to London to discuss the matter.

After Admiral Ballard’s appeal to London, the Admiralty sanctioned a further increase in the war bonus to the Maltese employees of the dockyard and other naval establishments in Malta. The new war bonus was to be 10 shillings weekly, up to a maximum of 15 shillings weekly. This rise was effective from September 29, 1918, and was also given to Maltese civilians employed by the Army and the Air Force establishments.

Karl Doenitz held as prisoner-of-war in Malta

Karl Doenitz was to become commander of the German U-Boat forces during World War II.Karl Doenitz was to become commander of the German U-Boat forces during World War II.

Probably, one of the most prominent prisoners-of-war (POW) in Malta was Karl Doenitz who, at the end of World War II briefly succeeded Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of the Third Reich after the dictator’s suicide.

In 1910, Doenitz had enlisted in the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial German Navy). After the outbreak of World War I, he was serving on the light cruiser SMS Breslau in the Mediterranean Sea.

In August 1914, SMS Breslau and the battle-cruiser SMS Goeben arrived in Constantinople, which formed part of the Ottoman Empire; the ships were renamed the Midilli and the Yavuz Sultan Selim, respectively. They began operating under Rear Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, engaging Russian forces in the Black Sea.

On March 22, 1916, Doenitz was promoted to Navy First Lieutenant. When the Midilli put into dock for repairs, he was temporarily assigned as airfield commander at the Dardanelles. From there, he requested a transfer to the submarine forces, which became effective in October 1916. He served as watch officer on U-39, and from February 1918 onward as commander of UC-25.

On September 5, 1918, he became commander of UB-68. On October 4, his U-boat was sunk by the sloop HMS Snapdragon off Gozo. One of the submarine crew members died but 33 were rescued by the boats of the Snapdragon. Doenitz was among the survivors who were taken as a POWs who were captured and interned in Malta.

On November 4, 1918, exactly one week before the armistice that ended the conflict in Europe, Doenitz was taken to the waterfront in Grand Harbour and transferred to Britain aboard a British cruiser.

Central Powers surrender

By late 1918, everything was going wrong for the Central Powers.

Bulgaria was the first of the Central Powers to surrender, signing an armistice in Salonica on September 29, 1918. The Ottoman Empire signed the armistice of Mudros on October 30, 1918, which ended the hostilities, at noon the next day.

On November 3, Austria-Hungary signed the armistice treaty in Padua, Italy.

Germany signs armistice, the Great War ends

The armistice was signed between the Allies and Germany in the railway carriage of Marshal Foch’s private train.The armistice was signed between the Allies and Germany in the railway carriage of Marshal Foch’s private train.

German citizens started striking and demonstrating against the war. The British navy was blockading German ports, which meant that thousands of Germans were starving and the economy was collapsing. Then the German navy suffered a major mutiny.

Seeing all this, German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated on November 9, 1918, and the leaders of both sides met at Compiégne, France.

At 5am that day, Germany, bereft of manpower and supplies, and faced with imminent invasion, signed an armistice agreement with the Allies in a railroad wagon outside Compiégne.

The Great War, as World War I was called at that time, came to an end at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Four empires – the Russian, the Ottoman, the German, and the Austro-Hungarian – collapsed because of the war.

World War I left nine million soldiers dead and 21 million wounded, with Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, France and Great Britain each losing nearly a million or more lives. In addition, at least five million civilians died from disease, starvation, or exposure.

According to John Mizzi in Malta at War, Vol. 1, 11 Maltese officers and 592 in other ranks had died, including 338 who served in the Royal Navy and mercantile marine.

I wish to thank the staff of the National Library for their continuous help, the staff of the Reading Room at the National Archives of Malta, Joseph Caruana and Tony Camilleri for their help.

Charles Debono is curator, National War Museum.

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