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YELLS, BELLS & SMELLS: THE STORY OF THE DEVONS, HAMPSHIRE AND DORSETS
IN THE SIEGE OF MALTA 1940-43 by Christopher Jary
228 pages; Paperback; Price from The Keep Military Museum £12 or the book can be purchased from the Keep's online shop, for £14.00 (includes postage) by following this link.
Seventy-five years ago – in the mid-summer of 1942 – the people and garrison of Malta were under siege. They had been at war since 10th June 1940. Their tiny island, seventeen miles by nine, had become the most heavily bombed place on earth. Their homes, towns, villages, roads and boats had been destroyed; people were living in caves and underground shelters and being fed by communal kitchens. They were heavily rationed and starving. The island’s supplies of food were running out. Their sole defence – their anti-aircraft guns and precious Spitfires – were short of shells and fuel. Very soon, it seemed, they would have to surrender.
The 1st Malta Infantry Brigade, guarding the south-east of the island, was formed of three battalions from Wessex: the 2nd Devons, the 1st Hampshires and the 1st Dorsets. Under their protection fell a long coastline, three vulnerable ports, two airfields and countless towns and villages below the capital, Valletta. During the long siege these infantrymen had become jacks of all trades, mending roads and constructing and repairing runways, building stone pens to protect aircraft, rescuing people and valuable food and supplies from bombed buildings, guarding the coast and ports against attack, servicing and rearming the RAF’s aircraft, providing anti-aircraft defence with their machine guns on airfields, in towns and afloat on coastal craft, repairing bomb damage and preparing to meet the imminent invasion. Their rations had been halved and each had lost two stone in weight.
Churchill knew that losing Malta might well bring defeat in Libya and Egypt. But, if Malta could be saved, the bombers, ships and submarines based there could continue to sink a massive proportion of the supplies and reinforcements being sent across the Mediterranean to Rommel’s Afrika Korps and the Italian army in North Africa. A convoy – codenamed Pedestal – was assembled to resupply Malta with food and fuel. Its orders were to reach Malta, regardless of the cost in lives or ships.
The largest armada ever seen in the Mediterranean passed Gibraltar on 10th August 1942: fourteen merchant ships (including the tanker Ohio) were escorted by two battleships, three aircraft carriers, seven cruisers and twenty-five destroyers. From midday on 11th August, when the carrier Eagle was sunk, it was a battle all the way, day and night, against German and Italian bombers, torpedo bombers, submarines and e-boats. On the evening of 13th August three surviving merchant ships, two of them badly damaged, reached Grand Harbour in Malta. The next day a fourth, also badly damaged, sneaked into port. On the 15th the Ohio, bombed, blackened and buckled, with two crashed German aircraft on her decks, limped in. Lashed between two destroyers and steered by a third, she made painfully slow progress to the dockside, sinking all the time. The fuel in her tanks and the food in the other merchantmen were Malta’s salvation, bought at the cost of 350 men’s lives, thirteen ships sunk and many more damaged, and thirty-seven aircraft destroyed.
The people and garrison of Malta turned to the offensive and the Devons, Hampshires and Dorsets began to train for operations to liberate Europe. In July 1943 they landed in Sicily, in September they landed in Italy and, at 0730 hours on 6th June 1944, they landed on the Normandy beaches. In the next six months, they fought all the way to Germany. Throughout these campaigns, so strong were the bonds they had formed with the island they had defended, they were known as 231 Malta Brigade. On their sleeves they bore their badge – the scarlet and white cross of Malta.
This book, published to mark the 75th anniversary of the Pedestal Convoy, tells the story of the three battalions during the siege of Malta. Played out against the backdrop of the dramatic events of the long siege, this is the first time their story has been told. It is an inspiring story, much of it told by the survivors themselves. It deserves to be remembered – especially in Devon, Hampshire and Dorset.
: 3rd Aug 2017