On 2nd September 1798, less than three months after the French had seized Malta from the Knights of St. John, the Maltese population rebelled against their new rulers, and within days had driven the French garrison into Valletta and the Three Cities. Although the outnumbered French forces were surrounded by thousands of irregular Maltese soldiers, the fortifications were too strong for the Maltese to assault, and thus the two sides settled down for a siege.
The Maltese leaders requested King Ferdinand IV of the Kingdom of Naples to take Malta under his protection. They also wrote to Rear-Admiral Lord Nelson on 12th September, asking him for his assistance. On the 23rd, a British convoy consisting of thirteen battered ships under Captain Sir James Saumarez appeared off the island: Survivors of the Battle of the Nile, they were in urgent need of repair and unable to directly assist in the siege. Nevertheless, Saumarez met with representatives of the Maltese and sent an offer of truce to the French garrison asking them to surrender. When the French commander, General Vaubois, refused, Saumarez ordered Captain James Weir, the commanding officer of the Marines detachment on board HMS Audacious, to land his men in the north of the island in order to supply the Maltese with 1,062 muskets, as well as musket balls and barrels of gunpowder with which to continue the siege. Thus, His Majesty's Marine Forces became the first British troops to come ashore in Malta.
In the meantime, Nelson sent a Portuguese squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Domingos Xavier de Lima, Marquess of Niza, with instructions to blockade Valletta. The squadron was further reinforced by three British ships under the command of Captain Alexander Ball on 12th October, marking the formal start of the blockade. On 27th October, Ball ordered Marines to be landed on Gozo to request the surrender of the French garrison blockaded in the Citadel. On the following day, the negotiations were successfully completed, with the French surrendering without a shot having been fired. The Maltese and British forces now turned their attention to the French troops still blockaded around Valletta. Further detachments of Marines were landed in Malta, taking the total to around 400 men, and Captain Weir, being the senior Marine officer, was appointed by Nelson as a brevet major of the Marine Corps ashore in Malta on 6th December 1799. The Marines were tasked with strengthening the Maltese advanced posts, and also manned a number of gun batteries, including Tas-Samra Battery in Ħamrun, close to where Major Weir established his HQ.
Weir remained in Malta for another two years, during which time he was asked by Brigadier General Thomas Graham, now in command of all British troops in Malta, to raise and command the first Maltese corps under British pay. The first two companies of the Maltese Light Infantry were set up on 2nd April 1800, and by May, the unit had eight companies of 100 men each. The battalion fought in the blockade alongside both Maltese irregular forces and British regular troops, until the French finally surrendered in September 1800. Although the battalion was intended for local service, 300 men, under Major Weir, volunteered for service overseas, and on 22nd September 1801, they were sent to Elba. Arriving on 11th October, they succeeded in relieving a small British garrison being besieged by the French at Porto Ferrajo. The unit was disbanded in 1802, upon the expiration of the period for which the men had enlisted.
Having started their involvement with Malta in 1798, the Royal Marines, as they became known in 1802, would be ever-present in Malta until the closure of the British military base in 1979. For many years, there was always a detachment stationed on the island, with its headquarters at HMS Egmont, later re-named HMS St. Angelo. Royal Marines served in a variety of roles, such as guarding naval establishments, serving as orderlies, signallers, and wardens at the detention barracks, as well as providing staff for the rifle ranges.
During World War Two, Royal Marines pilots in the Swordfish and Albacore squadrons based at HMS Falcon in Ħal Far played a notable part in attacking Axis shipping in the Mediterranean. Additionally, in 1940, a detachment of Royal Marines, under the command of Major Franklin Clark, was stationed at HMS St. Angelo. They initially manned Lewis gun positions at the fort, as well as at the Dockyard power station and at Corradino Heights. The first bombing raid against Malta took place at 6.55 am on 11th June 1940, the day after Italy declared war, and many more would follow in the next months. During this time, the height at which the Italian aircraft flew prevented the Marines from being able to engage them with their close-range weapons. In January 1941, however, the damaged aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious entered Grand Harbour, and in the days that followed, Malta was to go through its first experience of intensive dive-bombing from the Luftwaffe.
That same month, the Royal Marines were given two Bofors 40 mm anti-aircraft guns. Although they had never fired the weapon before, they were given a one-week crash course and started operating as an independent battery. The guns fired for the first time on 4th February 1941. Usually, it was not possible to estimate the success of an individual gun, owing to the numbers firing from the concentrated harbour defences, but in the early hours of 28th February, the battery claimed its first definite victim, when a Junkers Ju 88, was hit and was last seen diving steeply and clearing the breakwater by only a few feet. The last engagement by these guns was on 10th May 1942. Soon afterwards, the layout of the anti-aircraft defences around Grand Harbour was modified, and the Marines handed over their guns to the Royal Malta Artillery. During this time, the Royal Marines battery had shot down three enemy aircraft and scored hits on 47 others. In recognition, four Marines were awarded Distinguished Service Medals, and another five were mentioned in dispatches.
In the early 1950s, the NATO countries agreed that Britain should assume responsibility for protecting Europe’s Southern Flank. As a result, 3 Commando Brigade, comprising 40, 42 and 45 Commando Royal Marines, was moved from Singapore and Hong Kong to Malta in 1952, to form part of Britain's Strategic Reserve in the Near and Middle East, being accommodated at St. Andrew’s, St. George’s, and St. Patrick’s Barracks. On 29th November 1952, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, presented 40, 42 and 45 Commando with their own Colours at Floriana, in recognition of their service during the war. There were 1,168 men and 67 officers on parade. The following May, the Brigade was ordered to the Suez Canal Zone but returned to Malta when the Anglo-Egyptian Suez agreement was signed in August 1954. Over the next few years, the Royal Marines were also deployed to Cyprus. In July 1958, a memorial chapel to those killed on deployment was erected at St. Paul's Pro-Cathedral in Valletta.
As the Cold War situation eased, the necessity for maintaining such a large concentration of forces on Malta was reduced, and by 1971, only 41 Commando was still stationed in Malta. Since all British forces were due to leave the island by 1979, it was decided that the main body of 41 Commando Group would leave on 18th April 1977, with only Salerno Company left behind to continue its role of providing security from its new base at RAF Luqa. With the date for the final withdrawal of all British forces having been set for 31st March 1979, Salerno Company boarded the Landing Ship Logistics (LSL) SirLancelot, which was berthed alongside HMS St. Angelo, the day before. Thus, the last of the Royal Marines left Malta on 30th March 1979, ending more than 180 years of continuous presence on the island.
Some Royal Marines connections in Malta
There are numerous graves of Royal Marines buried in Malta, the biggest concentration of which is found at the Capuccini Naval Cemetery in Kalkara.
An oak display case in St. Paul’s Pro-Cathedral, Valletta, houses a Book of Remembrance, which records details of every marine who died in Malta since 1800.
In 2002, a memorial plaque to the Royal Marines who served with 3 Commando Brigade in Malta was unveiled at Ta’ Braxia Cemetery, Pietà.
On 10th January 2004, a stone bench was placed in the same cemetery as a permanent memorial to those Royal Marines who died at sea.
The Chapel of Ta' Braxia Cemetery also contains two large brass memorial tablets that were unveiled in 2007. The first one commemorates 68 Royal Marines who lost their lives on 22nd June 1893, whilst on board HMS Victoria, when she was accidentally rammed by HMS Camperdown. The second tablet is dedicated to eleven Royal Marines who died when HMS Russell sank after hitting a German mine laid at the entrance to Grand Harbour on 27th April 1916.
This blog was first featured on Combat Archives.