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ARTICLES > LIFESTYLE


METAL WAR BEASTS OF MALTA

Tags:   History,   Battles,   Tanks

By Gordon Fitz   -  October 28, 2014



Military historians in different countries are aware of Malta's importance as a military base for famous warships and squadrons of fighter and bomber aircraft during the period the island spent as a military outpost of the British Empire (1800 - 1979). However, their land-based equivalents that stood ready to defend the island from Axis invasion in World War Two, are hardly documented. With Brad Pitt's new film, the World-War Two tank-based action drama 'Fury' currently showing in Malta, Gordon Fitz has taken the opportunity to write about how the presence of tanks in Malta was massively significant, particularly as a last line of defence during desperate times.

Everyone with some interest in Malta’s Second World War history is familiar with Faith, Hope and Charity – the three Gloster Gladiator biplanes that (allegedly - there were more than three and they were quickly supplemented by more modern Hurricane fighters) in 1940 defended Malta’s skies. Also well known are the Santa Marija Convoy, and, to a lesser extent, the daring Italian E-boat attack on Grand Harbour in 1941 that resulted in the destruction of the breakwater bridge, restored only recently.

 

However, much less is generally known about the ground defences, army regiments and weapons deployed on the island in preparation for the expected Italo-German invasion of the island in 1942. The reason for this lack of knowledge is probably because, unlike Crete, the invasion never actually took place.

 

But at the time, no one on the Allies’ side could be sure that the Italo-German invasion would be postponed and eventually shelved. The Axis forces had already given a codename to the operation – ‘Herkules’. The plan was to land elite, German and Italian airborne troops by parachute and glider to secure the high ground behind the beaches, where a massive amphibious force comprising of 70,000 Italian troops, artillery and tanks would land and fight their way inland.

 

The invasion was planned to take place in July 1942. The Allies suspected it was near, so early in the year the British and Maltese defence force was bolstered by shipping another 15 infantry battalions totaling 26,000 men, 149 coastal guns, two dozen field guns and 257 anti-aircraft guns to the island. To add punch to this defence force, a small force of tanks was also shipped over.

 

According to different sources, the armoured force on the island between 1941 and 1943 was made up of 18 or 19 British-built tanks. This number included Matilda mark II tanks armed with a 40mm gun, a type which had already proved its worth fighting in the North African desert. Other Malta-based tanks included Vickers Mk VI C light tanks armed with a small calibre cannon or just machine guns, and Valentine and Cruiser tanks of different marks but all armed with a 40mm gun.

 

The capability of a tank is measured mainly by the size of its gun, the thickness of its protective armour, its speed, its mobility and its reliability. The Vickers and Cruiser tanks were certainly liked by their crews for their mobility and speed, but by 1942, the size of their guns and their thin protective armour made them obsolete in comparison with the newer German tanks. By 1942 the most common German panzers could boast of a 75mm gun.

 

The only British tank with significantly thick armour protection was the Matilda, but the Germans had had much experience dealing with this tank during the African campaign using their dreaded 88mm anti-aircraft guns pressed into service as anti-tank guns.

 

Had only Italian tanks been used during the theorized invasion, the British would have had to deal with machines of equal or inferior quality. The Italian machines were all based on 1930s designs that had made them obsolete by the early 1940s.  However, there is evidence that the Germans intended to use a number of captured Russian tanks for the invasion of Malta.

 

Russian-designed tanks were the best in the world at that time and came as a nasty surprise to the hitherto invincible German Army when it invaded Russia in 1941. The Germans were hard-pressed using all their own designs on the Eastern front and, to a lesser extent, in North Africa in 1942, so using captured Russian examples for the invasion of Malta would not only have put these formidable machines to good use, but also prevented the German’s tank regiments having their precious machines diverted for use in a theatre that was considered by Hitler to be secondary.

 

One of the tanks the Germans planned to use in Malta was the KV-2, which was slow but armed with a massive 152mm gun and had armour protection that made it impregnable to rounds from the guns of most other tanks around at the time. On 23 June 1941, during the invasion of Russia, a single KV-2 delayed the German advance on Leningrad for a full day at the bridgeheads of the Dubysa river in Lithuania, and on its own destroyed around two dozen German tanks. It is hard to imagine how Malta’s small tank force would have fared if such a monster had lumbered up onto our shores.

 

It might sound strange that tanks should be considered for use in Malta by an invading or defending force considering the maze of rubble walls in the countryside and the narrow streets in its towns and villages. But, as in the example of the defence of Leningrad mentioned above, and can be seen in the current film (starring Brad Pitt) 'Fury', tanks have proven themselves to be a valuable psychological (as well as military) asset in various theatres of war. The same would have applied to Malta: defending troops would have had their morale bolstered knowing that their advance (or retreat) was being covered by a tank – and the same goes for any invading troops.

 

Thankfully, the invasion never materialized and Malta’s tanks were used only for training, or towing and bulldozing purposes around airfields.

 

An interesting point for students of mechanized military history is that, as can be seen from the pictures, Malta tanks were painted in a unique camouflage known as the ‘rubble wall scheme’ to blend in with the rubble walls so prevalent in the Maltese countryside. Many other vehicles were also painted in this scheme - and restored examples nowadays turn up at classic vehicle shows and military re-enactments.

 

It is a pity that our national war museum is not in possession of at least one tank, but after 1943, Malta’s tank force seems to have vanished without a trace. The War Diaries held at the National Archives in Kew, London, which are probably the best source of information about the tanks deployed in Malta, give a detailed history of their use up to August 1943 but the record ends there without giving any details on their fate. 

 

There is a brief reference to tanks in Malta from a soldier's diary available here.

 

I would be most interested to hear from anyone who can remember, or provide photographic evidence of, tanks in Malta after the trail dries up in 1943.  

 

Gordon Fitz can be contacted via the e-mail address: gordon009@yahoo.com.

 








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