Thursday, June 25, 2015


L to R: (standing) Lt E E Talbot, L/Sgt R C Parker, L/Cpl R Hilliar, Sprs Miller, McCarthy, Leonard and Reeves, Cpl Brewer; (seated) Sgt Piggott, Sprs H Turner and Lockyer

Throughout the years 1940 to 1943, some 17,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Malta. Its people had to endure 154 days of air raids without a single day’s respite and at the height of the attacks the enemy flew more than 9,500 sorties against this island in one month alone. As more than fifteen per cent of the bombs failed to explode, it was a busy time for the men of Bomb Disposal.

It was on 11 June 1940, that the enemy aircraft were first heard droning over Malta’s Valletta harbour. The day before Mussolini had declared war on Britain and one of the Italian dictator’s very first actions was to sanction an attack upon the little group of islands off the Sicilian coast. This was the first part of what was to have been Operation Herkules, the code-name of the Axis invasion of Malta.

For centuries the Royal Navy had maintained a powerful presence in the Mediterranean Sea. Its bases at Gibraltar, Malta and Alexandria spanned the Mediterranean but the rapid development of air power meant that Malta, situated so close to Italy, was seen to be increasingly vulnerable to air attack. In the mid-1930s, the Royal Navy took the decision to move its Mediterranean headquarters from Malta to the safer waters of the Egyptian port of Alexandria. In the event of a sustained attack, it was not thought that Malta would survive.

Mussolini had long seen Malta as a target for invasion. His dream was of a vast empire in North Africa and Malta’s position astride the shipping routes through and across the Mediterranean gave it great strategic importance. It was also only sixty miles from Sicily.

That first attack of 11 June 1940, was small compared with what was to come. It consisted of just ten Italian Cant Z.1007 Alcione bombers, with a few Macci C.200 Saetta fighters as escort, which dropped bombs on three locations on the island. Yet even against this tiny force the RAF was outnumbered, being able to muster no more than half-a-dozen Gloster Gladiators. Incredibly, at this stage of the war the island possessed only forty-two anti-aircraft guns and two dozen searchlights.

Though the RAF later received a number of Hurricanes and eventually Spitfires, it was usually vastly over-matched and when, in January 1941, the Luftwaffe’s X Fliegerkorps arrived in Sicily to support Rommel’s Afrika Korps, Malta became the target of one of the most intense bombing campaigns ever witnessed.

With day after day of attacks, the Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal Section(s) on Malta was in almost continual action. Every bomb which fell on Malta or its sister island of Gozo and did not explode was the responsibility of this unit unless it lay on an airfield or within the confines of the Royal Navy dockyard. In just two years between December 1940 and December 1942 the Bomb Disposal units dealt with more than 7,300 unexploded bombs. The workload was ten times that of the average for a bomb disposal section across all theatres of war.

Lieutenant George Daniel Carroll RE arrived in Malta on 21 April 1941, having learnt his trade in the London Blitz. He assumed responsibility for bomb disposal across Malta and Gozo, relieving Lieutenant Edward Talbot who had worked as the first, and only, Bomb Disposal officer for the previous five months. The Bomb Disposal squad comprised just twenty men.

Carroll was soon facing his first Italian bombs, including several new types. As dawn broke one morning in November after a heavy raid the previous night, the streets of Valletta were covered with hundreds of small metal cylinders. Carroll was called.

“They were small, pale coffee colour, and they had a cap on top which was split into a propeller,” Carroll recalled. “It was designed to hit the ground but not to go off until it was disturbed. An aircraft starting up, or passing vehicles, would produce a vibration, causing it to explode suddenly and cause panic. The bombs were designed to drop in the dust of North Africa, where they could lie undetected but, affected by vibration, to go off unexpectedly at a later time.” But instead of being dropped in the desert, they had been dropped on Valletta.

They looked very much like Thermos flasks and could easily attract the curiosity of innocent passers-by, especially children. They were released from the aircraft in canisters containing dozens of bombs which scattered as they landed, covering an area of up to 300 square metres.

The only way to deal with the AR-4 antipersonnel “Thermos Bombs” was to blow them up where they lay. It was soon discovered that one of these devices lay in the window of a jeweller’s shop in the centre of Valletta. The jeweller begged the Bomb Disposal squad not to explode the bomb in situ as it would destroy all his stock. They invited him to remove the items himself but the man would not go anywhere near the bomb. So the Bomb Disposal men calmly removed all his goods and then blew his shop to bits.

Meanwhile, the Valletta police, not knowing exactly what they were dealing with, had collected nineteen Thermos bombs and placed them in a lower basement room of the Royal Opera House. Once again Carroll was called in. These ones could not be exploded without causing major damage to the building, so a method of removing them without setting them off had to be devised. The engineers built a grab which they could slide round the bombs. Attached to the grab was a cord which lifted and carried the device along a string railway out of the building. All nineteen bombs were safely removed but the operation took two full days.

The Thermos bombs were not the only unusual weapons which Carroll and his team had to deal with. There was a notice issued to the effect that the Germans were dropping “shaving stick” bombs and “fountain pen” bombs, though none had yet been seen by the Bomb Disposal men. But when Carroll received a message from an anti-aircraft unit at Vittoriosa that they had found a fountain pen bomb, off he went with sandbags and steel helmets.

When Carroll arrived at the anti-aircraft unit’s hut he was told that the fountain pen bomb was on top of a cupboard safely out of reach. “I climbed up to get it ... I put it on my [open] hand and carried it [to the car] put it carefully on the sandbags, covered it with more sandbags, put up a red flag on the car, and we drove back”.

As it was only a small bomb, Carroll first dealt with other UXBs that required his attention and it was only later that he found the time to deal with the novelty device: “We had a bench with a vice and there were some sleepers nearby left from the old railway. I asked my Sergeant to get the sleepers and lean them against the vice, to get some boxing gloves (they would at least reduce any injury), goggles and steel helmets [and] we went down” to the workshop.

Carroll went on to describe the process for disarming this dangerous device. He had no knowledge of how it was armed or how to disable it. All he could do was to open it up with the probability that it would explode as he did so.

“In dealing with a new bomb like this, you had to have a witness and recorder. My sergeant was there [outside the door] with a pencil and note-book and I called out to him ‘I’m putting the barrel of the fountain pen in the vice so that the cap can be freed’ ‘Yes, sir’, and he wrote it down. Now I had to wait two minutes. ‘I’m attaching a piece of surgical tape to the cap, wrapping it round so that, if I pull, it will unscrew.’ ‘Yes, sir,’ he wrote it down and I waited. ‘Now I’m going to pull the tape to loosen the cap.’ ‘Yes, sir,’ and he wrote it down.”

“I pulled it and it unscrewed, and I waited. ‘I am now going to pull it off.’ ‘Yes, sir.’ I pulled it off and it was a fountain pen!”


UXB Malta: Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal 1940-44

Another strange device was the “Butterfly Bomb” which first made its appearance in 1942. It was so named because as it fell an outer shell hinged open to form “wings”. The tiny 2kg bombs were packed into containers holding up to 100 each. The container opened as it left the aircraft, releasing the winged bombs to float down like sycamore seeds. The rotational action of the wings armed the fuze as it descended. After it landed, the slightest disturbance would set the bomb off.

A bulletin was hastily prepared to warn people of these weapons: “Many people in Malta last Monday found in their fields, their gardens, courtyards and on their roofs, a queer yellow contrivance consisting of a small round box with metal wings attached. It was a ‘present from Jerry’. A ‘Yellow butterfly bomb’, as this type of German anti-personnel bomb is called. To move it means death.”  

On Thursday, 12 February 1942, Carroll was called again to the city’s Royal Opera House. To the right of the Opera House was a building that ran across the present square with a balustrade on top from which a bomb was hanging suspended over the street.

When Carroll reached the square he saw that the balustrade had a tiny ledge jutting out towards the street. The only way that Carroll could get to the bomb was to crawl along this ledge. He went up to the top of the building and inched along the ledge on his knees. When he finally reached the bomb, he found that it was another type that he had never seen before. It was small, made of metal and it was attached to a wire. Carroll could not attempt to defuze an unfamiliar bomb on a narrow ledge overlooking the street. So he cut the wire and carried the bomb in his hands back down to the street.

Malta’s 2,000th raid occurred on Tuesday, 7 April 1942. The centre of Valletta took a terrible pounding, suffering the impact of 280 tons of bombs. In that spring month the enemy mounted 9,600 sorties, day and night, having flown 4,900 sorties in March. By 20 April, 333 people had been killed. Malta’s RE Bomb Disposal dealt with more than 267 HE bombs of 50kg or over. For the attacks against Malta the Luftwaffe could count on 520 aircraft and the Regia Aeronautica had some 300 at its disposal.

Odd though it may seem, it was an unexploded bomb that came to symbolise Malta’s stubborn resistance. At around 16.30 hours on 9 April 1942, the Luftwaffe undertook its second raid of the day. The parishioners of Mosta, a town to the northwest of Valletta, were attending mass in the Catholic Church. This beautiful building is famous for its dome, which is the third largest unsupported dome in the world.

The Reverend Salvatore Magro was a young priest at Mosta. He later described what happened after two German aircraft flew over the church and released their bombs: “At about 16.40 hours one of the bombs pierced the dome, bounced twice off the wall, skidded the whole length of the church and finally came to rest without exploding. At the time there were about 300 people attending the service and, while the majority [had] sought refuge in the side chapels, some remained kneeling. The dome was damaged but inexplicably no one was injured.”

The priest taking the mass took command of the situation and ushered his congregation out into the street. As usual, Carroll was called. It turned out to be a German SC500 (the SC standing for Spreng Cylindrisch). This high-explosive generalpurpose bomb had penetrated the dome nose-first making an almost perfectly round hole in the famous roof.

The continual bombardment of Malta, at a level never before experienced by man, and rarely if ever since, had a damaging effect upon the population’s and the garrison’s morale. This was described by the British Army Medical Service: “The conditions in Malta in 1941 and 1942 were such as to expose even the most stout-hearted among its garrison to the risk of breakdown. Violence continually descended from the skies and, save for the gunners and the fighter pilots, there was no means of retaliation. It had to be endured. To the endurance and to the resilience of everyone there is a limit.”

The result, in medical terms was “anxiety neurosis” which the military authorities tried to play down with the following points in one of its bulletins:

“Fear is the weapon which the enemy employs to sabotage morale; Anxiety neurosis is the term used by the medical profession to commercialise fear; Anxiety neurosis is a misnomer which makes ‘cold feet’ appear respectable; To give way to fear is to surrender to the enemy attack on your morale; If you are a man, you will not permit your self-respect to admit anxiety neurosis or show fear; Safety first is the worst of principles.”

The bulletin ended with these words: “In civil life, anxiety neurosis will put you ‘in the club’. In battle it brings you a bayonet in the bottom.” The population and the fighting people of Malta proved tough enough and, as it is well known, the island was awarded the George Cross. This was granted by King George on 15 April 1942, with the words “to honour her brave people, I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history”.

The last raid on Malta occurred on 20 July 1943. It was the 3,340th alert since 11 June 1940. In total tens of thousands of bombs, amounting to 17,000 tons, were dropped on Malta, destroying some 30,000 to 35,000 buildings (11,000 in April 1942 alone). Some 1,493 civilians were killed and 3,674 wounded out of a population of just 270,000.

As for George Carroll, he left Malta in June 1942 and survived the war. He had served continuously through some of the toughest months of the bombing, working through over 2,000 alerts.

Constantinople: Evolution of an Imperial Capital

Constantinople: evolution of an imperial capital.

Constantinople imperial district.

The establishment by the Emperor Constantine I on the site of the ancient city of Byzantion of a new imperial capital in the year 324, and its formal consecration in 330, had far-reaching consequences for the pattern of exchange and movement of goods in the Aegean and east Mediterranean basin, as well as for the politics of the late Roman world. With the imperial court, a senate, and all the social, economic and administrative consequences of a major city, Constantinople soon grew to be the dominant city of the eastern Mediterranean region, rivalling Alexandria and Antioch in wealth, prestige, population and cultural influence. But the foundation of the new capital was not the radical break with tradition it is sometimes suggested: Diocletian had some years previously established his own residence and court at Nicomedia, not far to the south; while the establishment of regional locations for the emperors was a reflection of the needs of the tetrarchy. Constantine’s choice was probably based on strategic considerations, since his new capital was located where two major land routes met, both of strategic value: the via Egnatia, which crossed via Thessalonica to the Adriatic coast, and the military road from Chalcedon, opposite Constantinople, via Nicomedia to the east.

That the founder of the new imperial city envisaged a substantial population is evident from the fact of his arranging an annual grain supply from Egypt amounting to some 80,000 rations. Rapid growth certainly followed, with greatly expanded water-supply and accompanying structures (aqueducts, cisterns and so forth), grain-storage facilities, and residential areas. The pipes, channels and aqueducts bringing the city’s water reached over 80 miles out into the Thracian hinterland, and have still not been fully traced. The imperial headquarters was established with the construction of a palace complex, placed in the south-eastern corner of the original city, accompanied by a substantial hippodrome and a new city wall encompassing an expanded urban area. The major thoroughfare began at the palace in a colonnaded route constructed under the Emperor Septimius Severus (who rebuilt parts of the city after the destruction which occurred in the civil war of 195–196) and led through the circular Forum of Constantine across the city to the Golden Gate, a triumphal entry to the city in the southern section of Constantine’s new land wall. Successive emperors then embellished the city with their own monuments, including, for example, stoas, colonnaded streets, baths and other public amenities. In the period from the fourth to the seventh centuries some 40 public bath-houses were built, supplied by a series of vast cisterns, mostly open air constructions. The cistern of Aetius was among the largest and could hold some 160,000 m3 of water. By the same token the number of imperial and private mansions increased, so that by the early fifth century there were at least five imperial palaces of varying size and function, while the great palace itself continued to be added to and grew into an immensely complex labyrinth of buildings.

In later years the city was famed for its churches, although it seems that Constantine built only three (St Irene, which functioned as the city’s cathedral church, and the two churches dedicated to local saints, of St Acacius and St Mocius). But by the 420s there were some 14 churches, and the numbers increased in the following century. Just as they added to the secular ornamentation of the city, later emperors added to this number, and the most famous was built by Justinian in the mid-sixth century, the church of the Holy Wisdom, or Hagia Sophia (on the site of an earlier church of the same name destroyed in rioting).

The defensive walls destroyed by Septimius Severus were rebuilt during the later third century. Constantine began a new circuit further to the west enclosing an area twice as big again as the original city. Completed under his successor Constantius II, the absence of any substantial threat from the sea meant that no sea defences were constructed. The Gothic threat in the 370s and afterwards, the increasing exposure of the city to raids from beyond Thrace, and the rapid expansion of the city population and the needs of the imperial government changed this situation, and during the reign of Theodosius II the prefect Anthemius enclosed more land within the city and built the land walls which can be seen today, a massive three-level system with a moat, stretching for some 6 km from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn. While the land-walls were begun in 412– 413, the seaward defences were not begun until the late 430s, but proved their worth in subsequent centuries.

The rapid expansion of Constantinople ground to a halt in the period from the mid-seventh to late eighth century as the empire lived through its centuries of crisis. But from the early ninth century on it began once more to expand both in terms of population and in respect of building activity. In the 530s the total population may have been as many as 500,000 (some estimates are even higher); by the middle of the eighth century, following a major plague in the 540s and endemic pestilence throughout the period up to the 750s, culminating in another major plague in the later 740s, the population may have been reduced to a low of as few as 30,000–40,000 (although all these figures are contentious). Thereafter it gradually rose again, until in the later eleventh and twelfth centuries it may have reached the levels of the early sixth century. The city saw several sieges – successful resistance to the Avaro-Slav siege of 626, the Arab sieges of 674–678 and 717–718, the Bulgar attacks of the early tenth century and attacks from Russian sea-raiders in the tenth and eleventh centuries proved the effectiveness of its defences. In 1204 the city fell by treachery to the forces of the Fourth Crusade, ostensibly en route to attack Islamic Egypt; and the sack that followed witnessed the removal or destruction of great numbers of monuments, as well as the burning of buildings and other forms of destruction which accompany such events. Recovered by the Byzantines in 1261, it remained in imperial hands as the empire shrank to the city and its immediate hinterland in the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, to fall in May 1453 to the Ottoman army under Mehmet II after a siege of over two months.

Styles and fashion in building affected Constantinople as they affected any other built environment, and given the length of the city’s imperial history it is not surprising that a number of shifts can be seen in this respect. Most obviously, the secular aspect of imperial building diminished as emperors and members of the imperial family and court invested their wealth in churches, palaces and philanthropic establishments, many supported by generous endowments in land and property. Basil I is supposed to have rebuilt or restored over 30 churches in the period 867–886. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries many members of the imperial élite donated funds for the construction of monasteries or philanthropic establishments in the city, some of them vast, such as the great Orphanage of St Paul built and endowed by the emperors and reportedly requiring a whole day to inspect. But as well as such buildings the city also contained residential quarters, mansions for the wealthy, a vast range of trades and crafts and the accommodation required to produce and sell their wares, covered and open-air marketplaces, as well as imperial armaments workshops, docks and harbours for both military and civil purposes. From its nadir in the eighth century, when only one commercial harbour seems to have functioned, in the twelfth century the city could boast some four harbours and a larger number of quays along the shores of the Golden Horn for the various merchant communities who had commercial rights in the city, and in its later years was credited with 365 churches, an exaggeration, certainly, but indicative of its image and reputation.

The city was the site of imperial ceremonial events throughout the year, and many were staged as city-wide events. The prefect of the city had the authority to order individual households along any ceremonial route to contribute by hanging out precious fabrics and tapestries, for example, and the streets would be perfumed and decorated to honour the emperors. Ceremonial processions were generally of a religious character and marked key festivals of the church; but military parades, triumphs and the processing of captives and booty were also common. There were several favoured routes, but the most important was that which led to or from the imperial palace and the church of the Holy Wisdom, along the Mese or a parallel major street, to the Golden Gate.

French Conquest of Corsica

The French Conquest of Corsica took place during 1768 and 1769 when the Corsican Republic was occupied by French forces under the command of the Comte de Vaux.

France acquired the island of Corsica from the Genoese Republic with the Treaty of Versailles in 1768. Genoa still claimed ownership of the island, although since 1755 Corsicans had achieved virtual independence. After abandoning any hope of recovering Corsica by force, the Genoese chose to sell their rights over the island to France who were keen to gain new territory to replace territory lost during the Seven Years' War.

France's initial offensive failed after a significant defeat was suffered at the Battle of Borgo in October 1768. France despatched large numbers of reinforcements, swelling the size of their army there to 24,000. The Corsican army suffered a major setback at the Battle of Ponte Novu and the French forces soon overran the island although Corsican forces were not completely subdued until the following year and sporadic outbreaks of rebellion continued.

The French invasion triggered the Corsican Crisis in British politics. Although they sent secret aid to the Corsicans the British government chose not to act to prevent the island's occupation. The leader of the Corsican Republic, Pasquale Paoli, went into exile in Britain where he remained until the French Revolution allowed him to return to Corsica. British troops subsequently intervened in Corsica between 1794-1796, where they created the Anglo-Corsican Kingdom, and in 1814 when they agreed the Treaty of Bastia. Following the Congress of Vienna control of the islands were returned to the restored French monarchs.

Battle of Borgo
The Battle of Borgo was a battle between Corsican and French forces over control of the town of Borgo on 8 October 1768.

In October 1768, Pascal Paoli tried to recapture U Borgu (Borgo), where a French force of 700 men under De Ludre was entrenched awaiting reinforcements. During this time. Pascal Paoli ordered his entire force to march on Borgo, whilst Clément Paoli kept a watch on Pascal's rear to prevent Grand-maison from descending from Oletta, where he had taken refuge. The main roads between Bastia and Borgo were also kept under surveillance by the Corsicans. The Marquis De Chauvelin learned of the fate awaiting his countrymen and sent Grand-maison towards Borgo. De Marbeuf and Chauvelin left Bastia with 3,000 men to join the force in Borgo. De Ludre and his 700 men entrenched themselves in Borgo awaiting the assault. Paoli inspired his troops by telling them "Patriots, recall the Corsican Vespers, when on this very spot you destroyed the French. The honour of the fatherland and public liberty today need all your valour. Europe is watching you.".

Battle commenced on the morning of 8 October 1768 and lasted ten hours. Grand-maison tried in vain to defeat Clément Paoli and his men. Marbeuf and Chauvelin thought it best to retreat and De Ludre surrendered. 600 were dead, 1000 wounded and 600 taken prisoner, whilst 3 bronze cannon, 6 other cannon, a mortar, 1,700 fusils and other munitions were captured by the Corsicans. Louis XV of France was surprised by the defeat and even thought of making no further armed attempts to incorporate Corsica into France, but the Duc De Choiseul made every effort to continue the war and repair the damage the defeat had done to his reputation.