Victory of Adwa: Italy considers capturing Malta as a prelude to invading Abyssinia

March 06, 2016 (GMN) - On December 31, 1935, Italian aircraft operating over southern Abyssinia bombed the Swedish Red Cross unit near Dolo and another unit at Daggah Bur on January 4, 1936. In the first raid, 50 people were killed. The wounded were flown to Addis Ababa.

Sir Sydney Barton, the British Minister in Addis Ababa, confirmed reports that the Ethiopian Red Cross and Egyptian Red Crescent Ambulance No. 1 at Daggah Bur, which was staffed by Egyptian and British personnel, had been attacked.

The Egyptian Red Crescent unit ambulance also had Maltese personnel. A newspaper reported that “Prince Ismail Daoud, head of the Egyptian Medical Mission in Abys­sinia, tele­graphed stating that seven Italian planes bombed and machine-gunned the Egyptian ambulance, consisting of seven doctors, eight male nurses and two Maltese assistants”. The Ethiopians also confirmed that an Egyptian-Ethiopian ambulance unit was attacked outside Daggah Bur but there were no reported casualties.

The Italians also dropped chemical gas on Sokota, Abyssinia, on January 10. It seemed that in many parts of the world, fighting forces were carrying out mock air raids to test the reaction of the civilian population. The Italian bombing of the Red Cross clearly showed that steps taken to safeguard civilians there had not been merely alarmist measures.

Meanwhile, during 1936, the Italian Navy, the Regia Marina, studied the possibility of a conflict between Italy, Germany and Albania against a coalition made up of Britain, France, Greece and Turkey. Its report recommended the blocking of the Sicilian Channel and the immediate occupation of Malta.

The Italian Navy argued that with the occupation of Malta, the British could not use the islands to prevent the passage of Italian ships through the Sicilian Channel. Malta in British hands could be used by aircraft and submarines against the naval base of Augusta. The Italian capture of Malta was to be conducted as the first act of the outbreak of the conflict.

The Italians considered the most effective aerial bombardment to be a combination of marsh gas bombs, incendiary bombs and high explosive bombs. However, as nearly all buildings in Malta were built exclusively of globigerina stone, incendiary bombs would cause little damage. Tests had also shown that high explosive bombs would only wreak destruction within a limited radius of direct hits.

The real danger was that which might have been inflicted by gas. Marsh gas was found to be really effective but gas masks could also be used to protect the intended victims against it. The Maltese population knew how to use gas masks and would therefore not suffer any ill effects of a gas attack. According to the experts, the abundant and nearby supply of sea water also made it possible for gas to be washed away quickly so Malta was in a singularly fortunate position.

The problem with gas attacks was that it obliged the people attacked to wear gas masks, which slowed their actions by about 75 per cent. The experts concluded that such bombing would be most effective in cities such as Paris, Rome or London where they would cause several fires at the same time and firefighters would be obliged to wear gas masks and at the same time be vulnerable to high explosives.

Meanwhile in Malta, action was taken against people suspected of operating in support of Italy. As a result of Police raids of several houses carried out on January 8, 14 people, mostly Italians, but also including two British women, were taken to Police headquarters for interrogation.

Eight were subsequently released, but six were detained and later deported. These were Prof. Rodolfo Rogura, a teacher at the Istituto di Alta Cultura and Istituto Umberto Primo; Matteo Mari, an agent for Ala Littoria, who had succeeded Mr Naselli, who had been deported on October 8, 1935, along with other Italians; Paolo Tiralongo, a messenger at the Italian consulate; Manlio Liberto, an officer of the Fascist Militia, in charge of the local Balilla companies; Marcantonio Miceli, a local businessman, and Luigi di Silvio, who had no occupation.

Fearing the possibility of an Italian gas attack on Malta, anti-gas training was held at the Civil Anti-Gas School, Corradino, between January 6 and 18, 1936. It was attended by several officers and non-commissioned officers from the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, Infantry Regiments, Royal Malta Artillery, Royal Army Service Corps, Royal Army Medical Corps, Royal Army Ordnance Corps and the King’s Own Malta Regiment.

The course was based on the report Malta Command General Notes on Defence Against Gas, September 1935. The report had said that Malta needed to be prepared for two main types of gas attacks – gas bombing and high-altitude spray. It said gas bombing would produce a high concentration of gas in a very localised area, and in such an area gas masks had to be worn until the area was decontaminated. The effect of gas bombing was therefore localised and the chances of it actually affecting a large number of people was therefore not very great.

The Italian Navy argued that with the occupation of Malta, the British could not use the islands to prevent the passage of Italian ships through the Sicilian Channel

The experts of the time said gas sprayed by aircraft would not cause any serious contamination, and unless delivered at very low altitude would not necessitate the wearing of gas masks. If gas was sprayed at high altitude it may cover a very large area, but the drops would only damage the skin. The drops would take 10 minutes to penetrate clothes.

The report estimated that in the case of gas bombing the effects of the gas would probably last about two hours while in the case of aircraft spray in summer, all trace of the gas would probably disappear in an hour.

The fact that the Royal Navy’s Medi­terranean Fleet did not feel safe to remain in Malta and left the island during the Abyssinian crises was debated in British and local newspapers.

On January 28, 1936, the Malta Daily Chronicle published a letter signed by W.P. Koe, a retired Royal Navy captain from Corhampton, Hampshire, which had previously been published in the Morning Post on January 22. In the letter, entitled ‘Malta no longer ‘safe’’, Koe wrote:

“What the general public has not as yet grasped is that to all intents and purposes we have already been compelled to evacuate Malta as a naval base. It is common talk in the service clubs that it is considered to be ‘unsafe’ [due to] its geographical situation, and in view of modern developments in aerial and submarine warfare.

“And this, without a shot being fired. But if Malta is ‘unsafe’, what ‘command’ have we of our principal trade route to the east via the Suez Canal?

“The real point would seem to be: Have modern developments in warfare produced such conditions that even a powerful fleet is practically ‘inoperative’ in a certain section of the Mediterranean?

“Has the Mediterranean – or a certain section of it – become another ‘Baltic’ for us, from both the strategical and practical points of view?

“If it has, then some complete reorientation, not only of strategical, but also of foreign policy, upon our part, appears to be a dire necessity.”

According to an article appearing in The Nottingham Evening News under the heading ‘Spy scare sequel’ and republished in the Daily Malta Chronicle on February 4, 1936, at that time, there were some 300 Italians living in Malta, yet many Italian political institutions were permitted to indulge in various activities. One of them was the Istituto Umberto I, which charged very low fees for admittance.

The article said that the Italians used every inducement to encourage Maltese children to attend this school. Some years earlier, a large and modern elementary school had been established by the Italian consulate, with money from the Italian government, in the HM Dockyard district of Paola. Hardly any Italians lived in this area, and one classroom would have been enough to hold all purely Italian children in Malta.

The article said that the school had presumably been opened to instil Italian ideals in the minds of British children and that this was the only Italian institution that had been ordered to close. There was still the Fascist Club and the Instituto di Alta Cultura Italiana, in which leading Italian professors were sent to Malta to give lectures. Maltese students had been attracted to this centre by frequent concerts and dances. A professor from the institute had been deported as an ‘undesirable alien’ on September 30, 1935, and another was deported shortly after.

The article concluded that many Maltese regarded the Italian seaplane company Ala Littoria, which ran a service between Rome and Tripoli by way of Naples, Syracuse and Malta, as a training school for Italian military pilots. The company’s first director, Mr Naselli, had been deported in October 1935, and his successor, Mr Mari, was deported in January.

Other newspaper snippets provide interesting snapshots of the situation on the island at the time:

  • An exercise was carried out bet­ween midnight of February 3, 1936, and 3am of February 4, at a considerable distance out to sea from Malta. In order to reduce the glare that might detract from the value of the exercise, street lighting which faced the sea was extinguished during the period of the exercise, but no restriction was placed on house lighting or on the normal movements of traffic. No further information was given to the public.
  • On February 11, in the UK House of Commons, Colonel Wedgwood asked whether Secretary of State for War, Duff Cooper, was aware that two barbed wire barriers had been constructed around Malta by the military authorities. This was a precautionary measure for the defence of the island and the expenditure involved was a proper charge against Army funds.
  • It was announced that on February 17 or 19, from 6.30 to 10pm the Royal Artillery would practise firing the coastal guns of Fort St Elmo and Fort Ricasoli over a distance range of 10,000 yards. Furthermore, on February 28, between 9.30pm and 11am, the guns of Fort Wardija and Fort Bin?emma were to fire in practice at a maximum range of 18,000 yards. Fishing boats and other craft were warned to keep clear of the danger areas.

(To be concluded)

Charles Debono is curator of the National War Museum.