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Malta's Own Knights
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
September 2007

Thanks to its strategic position astride sea lanes running the length of the Mediterranean Sea, the island of Malta has a long military history. Located southeast of Sicily, the people are ethnically related to the Phoenicians and Carthaginians who once settled and ruled Malta and the neighboring islands of Gozo and Comiso. The Maltese language is a relative of Maghrebi Arabic, with many words and grammar patterns borrowed from Sicilian, and is the only Semitic language written with Latin characters

Granted rule over Malta and its neighboring islands by the King of Spain in 1530, the Knights of Malta — an order of warrior-physicians recently ejected from Rhodes — fought off a massive Turkish assault in 1565. The Knights saw no more action until 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte landed on his way to Egypt and overthrew the Order's rule. Though they had established relatively modern armed forces with European-style infantry, cavalry and artillery as well as several modern warships, the Knights offered little resistance and a number of them joined Bonaparte's army.

French rule proved popular at first, as in their last decades the Knights had built a reputation for financial, legal and sexual abuse of their island subjects. Napoleon initially won Maltese good will by abolishing torture, the Inquisition and class privileges. However, he more than balanced that by looting the island's churches of relics and cash, raising taxes, and refusing the pay the Knights' substantial debts. Three months after his departure the Maltese rose in revolt, overrunning the small French garrisons outside the fortified capital of Valetta and driving the survivors back behind its thick walls.

British warships joined the siege, and British and Neapolitan troops landed to assist and to form the Maltese into regular units. The French surrendered in the spring of 1800, and British officers formed 800 volunteers from the irregulars who'd fought in the siege into the Maltese Light Infantry. Two years later the British re-organized them into a Maltese Provincial infantry battalion and several Malta Coast Artillery batteries.


Gunner, Malta Coast Artillery, 1802 (Armed Forces of Malta).

 
Britain retained the islands after the Congress of Vienna ended the Napoleonic Wars, and kept its Maltese forces. All troops were volunteers, with many officers coming from Britain. The wartime units were combined into the Royal Malta Fencible Regiment with four companies of infantry and three of artillery. In 1861 it was converted into an artillery regiment, and one company joined the expedition to Egypt in 1882, seeing action at Damietta. In 1889 they became the Royal Malta Artillery, manning the island's coast defense guns in both world wars and spending most of the 1960s as part of the British Army of the Rhine in Germany.

When the Fencibles became the Royal Malta Artillery, their infantry companies — which had remained on the establishment — became the cadre for a new Royal Malta Regiment of Militia of two battalions. Militiamen joined for five year terms but, like their counterparts in Britain, only reported for a 12-day summer camp once each year. But despite their scanty training, they made a good impression on King Edward VII during his 1903 visit to the island and he asked to become the regiment's honorary colonel, bestowing the name "King's Own Malta Regiment of Militia."


Maltese artillerymen and a coast defense gun emplaced at Fort Rinella.

 
During the First World War, Malta became known as the "Nurse of the Mediterranean," with more than 30 Allied military hospitals in operation. British, French and Japanese warships were based there, and the island's dockyard worked around the clock servicing and repairing them. The militia and coast artillery were mobilized in 1914 ands remained with the colors throughout the conflict, but did not see overseas service. A large number of individual Maltese volunteered for both the British Army and the Royal Navy. Seventy Maltese sailors were killed in action in the Battle of Jutland alone.

Post-war financial strictures doomed the militia regiment — in a special arrangement, the Crown paid for Malta's troops (volunteer and militia units in other British territories were financed by local revenues). In 1921 they were disbanded, but re-formed two years later as the King's Own Malta Regiment. The regiment had only one battalion; a Second and Third Battalion were added in 1940 as the threat of Italian invasion loomed. Two more territorial battalions (numbered the 8th and 10th) were formed in 1942. Once again the regiment was on the British establishment — the rank and file and some officers came from the islands, with the remainder of the officer corps and the financing coming from Britain. In 1951 it became a territorial unit, and was disbanded in 1972. The current Armed Forces of Malta trace their history through the Royal Malta Artillery; structured as a combined-arms regiment, the Maltese forces contribute a motorized infantry platoon to the European Union's intervention forces (if actually called to action, it would serve under Italian command).


Gunners of the Royal Malta Artillery and their 3.7-inch anti-aircraft gun

 
As a regular army unit, the King's Own Malta Regiment had a cadre of experienced, well-trained officers. Its regular battalions had the same allotment of weapons and equipment as units from the home islands, and wartime efficiency reports spoke well of the regiment. Motor transport was in short supply, but this was true of many British units as well. The Maltese saw no action during the war, so their possible performance against German and Italian invaders can only be speculative. The Maltese coast artillery and anti-aircraft batteries performed well, and the Maltese — all volunteers — would have been defending their homes.

In Island of Death the Maltese battalions are key to the island's defenses; the 1st and 2nd battalions have morale and combat strengths that are the equal of the best British battalions of the garrison. The other battalions have solid morale but their combat strengths are lower (weaponry was harder to come by for the units formed during wartime). The bulk of the vital coast defense guns are Maltese — these are the Allied player's best chance to disrupt the Axis landings. Though the Axis has elite paratroopers, these will be hard-pressed to take the island without the assistance of Italian troops landed over the beaches.

See the Maltese volunteers in action — order Island of Death now!