Royal Marines

After the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and whilst off southern Italy intelligence was received on 16th September that the Maltese had risen in revolt against the French. Admiral Saumarez’s convoy continued its journey but was detained off Malta by light winds. The convoy remained becalmed and on the 25th September a deputation of Maltese went on board the flagship Orion, to ask Sir James Saumarez for arms and ammunition. At the same time the Maltese leaders also said that they had good grounds to believe that the appearance of an English squadron would induce the French garrison in Valletta to surrender.

 

That day under a flag of truce a summons was sent to the French garrison but after a three hour deliberation General Vaubois, the French Governor returned a brief reply:

 

"You have without doubt forgotten that Frenchmen are now at Malta. The future of its inhabitants is a matter which does not concern you. With regard to your summons to surrender; Frenchmen do not understand such style."

 

Upon receipt of this refusal Sir James Saumarez issued orders for arms and ammunition to be supplied to the Maltese. So it was that Captain James Weir of the Marines on HMS Audacious landed his men next to St. Paul's Bay. Once the Marines had had taken up their positions on the headlands, and posted guards to the approaches leading to the bay, the seamen began to land the armament, and this this task was accomplished by late afternoon.

 

The Audacious sailed expecting that the first port of call would be Gibraltar, and then to England, where she would be paid off. Instead, when off Pantelleria, new orders were given for her to join Admiral Nelson at Naples. The Maltese leaders requested King Ferdinand IV of the Two Sicilies to take Malta under his protection, and to supply the Maltese besiegers with arms and ammunition. They also wrote to Admiral Nelson on 12th September. He responded immediately by sending the Portuguese squadron under Rear Admiral Marquis de Niza, with instructions to blockade Valletta. He was therefore astonished when he arrived at Naples on Saturday 22nd September to find that King Ferdinand had taken no action to help Malta, although the Neapolitan Government claimed Malta as its own. Without delay, Nelson ordered Captain Alexander John Ball, R.N. in his ship Alexander, with the 32-gun frigate Terpsichore, and the 20-gun sloop Bonne Citoyenne, to proceed on 4th October from Naples to co-operate in the blockade of Malta.

 

At this time the Maltese had about 3,500 men investing the fortifications of Valletta, and the Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua. The investing lines stretched from Fort Rocque to St. Julians, with field batteries and entrenched posts near Fort Ricasoli, at Corradino, Samra, Zejtun, Zabbar and opposite Fort Manoel.

 

Subsequently Nelson ordered detachments to be landed and a force of Marines and seamen was landed on the neighbouring island of Gozo, where first Fort Chambray was captured, and then the Citadel, where the French officer in command capitulated. Captain Cresswell of the HMS Alexander's Marines immediately took possession of the Citadel and hoisted the British colours - thus the first time a British flag was flown on the Maltese islands. The following day, however, the Citadel was delivered to the deputies of Gozo, and on the orders of Nelson, the colours of the King of Naples were substituted for the British colours showing acknowledgement of King Ferdinand as lawful sovereign of the Maltese islands.

 

When further detachments of Marines were landed from the blockading ships to support the investing lines, Nelson considered that they needed a Field Officer in command. Captain James Weir was the senior Marine officer ashore and the Admiral therefore sent him a letter dated 6th December 1799 from Palermo:

you are hereby required and directed to act as Major of the said Marine Corps during the time they may be employed at Malta. Willing and requiring all the officers and men subordinate to you to obey you as Major of the said Marine Corps accordingly”

 

The Marines prime task was to besiege the French in front of Portes des Bombes, which guarded the main entrance to the Valletta fortifications. It also defended the main road leading to the San Anton Palace, and St.Pauls Bay where the blockading ships often anchored to carry out repairs and take on fresh provisions from British storeships. A detachment of Marines also occupied the Samra battery, Hamrun, near to where Captain Weir had established his headquarters at St.Giuseppe.

 

The New Year brought no change. The situation of the Maltese at this time was desperate. Food was scarce, and hundreds of the inhabitants were on the brink of starvation. This was followed in March by an outbreak of malignant fever, which claimed the lives of a number of Maltese troops and local inhabitants.

 

Captain Ball R.N., who had assumed command of the island at the special request of the Maltese, was now in residence at the San Anton Palace. It had been the intention of General Graham to raise a Maltese Regiment of 1,000 men in February 1800. However, Admiral Keith, the new Naval Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, said that Russian troops would be arriving to assist in the siege, but these troops were not forthcoming. In March therefore the decision was made to raise the first Maltese Corps under English pay, and the man selected to head this new Corps was Major James Weir of the Marines.

 

So from the very beginning of British military involvement in Malta the Royal Marines were an ever present force on the island. 

 

During the 1950’s the 3rd Commando Brigade Royal Marines was quartered in St.Andrew’s Barracks at Pembroke Camp, on the outskirts of St.Julians. It was composed of 40, 42 and 45 Commando. In 1957 Brigadier R.W. Madoc contacted the Chancellor of St. Pauls Anglican Cathedral in Valletta, with a proposal:

 

“My dear Canon

Malta has been virtually the permanent home of 3rd Commando Brigade, Royal Marines since 1947 and during all our operations in the Mediterranean away from Malta our families and rear parties have remained here. During recent operations in Cyprus and Port Said a number of Officers and Other Ranks from this Formation were killed.

 

It is the wish of all ranks of 3rd Commando Brigade, Royal Marines that a memorial to these Officers and Other Ranks be erected in St.Paul’s Anglican Cathedral. On behalf of all ranks of 3rd Commando Brigade, Royal Marines I would like to offer to the Cathedral a screen for this Chapel, which could be dedicated as a permanent memorial to our dead.”

 

The proposal was accepted and the project was put in hand. A dwarf wall with a dagger design carved on it was built to support the wrought iron screen. In the centre above the gates were metal figures of the crucifixion, and later the Royal Marines badge was added. At a special service on Friday 4th July 1958 the Chapel of Our Lady and St. George was dedicated by the Chaplain of the Fleet as the Royal Marines Memorial Chapel.

 

The 31st March 1979 was the date set for British withdrawal from Malta. On the 22nd, the last of the Royal Marine Commandos, a company of 130 men led by ten Marine drummers marched from the Royal Air Force Station at Luqa to Vittoriosa where they boarded the ship Sir Lancelot for home.

During the 180 year period Malta was the last resting place for many Royal Marines, as the following list will show.

 

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