The Malta Independent 22 January 2021, Friday

Field hygiene and sanitation during Second World War Malta (Part 1)

Anthony Zarb Dimech Tuesday, 7 July 2020, 09:17 Last update: about 8 months ago

A recent discovery of four sanitary diaries kept by medical orderlies during Second World War Malta reveals the acute and miserable state of field hygiene and sanitation for the gunners manning Malta's Anti-Aircraft (AA) guns. This is yet another unexplored chapter in wartime history.

This two-part series provides ample evidence of the state of hygiene on four different AA gun sites positioned at four different regions of Malta. The common factor of all sites is the stark gravity of lack of sanitisation and worse still, the slow pace by which remedial action was taken. This survey reveals the desperate situation Malta faced in those war years.


Malta's guns and gunners defended Malta against German and Italian aircraft bombing the islands. Anti-aircraft positions had to be supplied with adequate living accommodation space with all the health and safety conditions in place. Medical orderlies assigned with the responsibility to inspect sites kept sanitary diaries where entries were made for every unit under inspection with details of sanitary inspections; these included remarks, suggestions and action taken.

Writing in 1919, John W. S. McCullough, chief officer for Health, Ontario states: "In every war the soldier faces two enemies; the one is the armed forces of the foe, with their terrible engines of destruction, the other, the silent and in the past the far greater foe, the grim purveyor of death - disease."

Second World War Malta was no walk in the park for the personnel who manned Malta's guns. Apart from the rain of bombs they faced over their heads, these men had to deal with the daily unsanitary living conditions where their positions were invaded by rodents and insects of all sort- hordes of bugs, cockroaches, flies, mice, rats and mosquitoes. Other unpleasant threats to health were lack of ventilation, typhus, lice and scabies. These inspections sought to ensure the reduction of casualties from non-combat-related health issues.

Inspections were also aimed to alleviate unhealthy and sub-standard conditions and this covered different parts of the anti-aircraft position such as the men's sleeping quarters at gun position, shelters, barrack rooms, dining rooms, billets, cook-house, wash-house, drainage, latrines, officers' mess, kitchen and Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI). The diaries also included columns not only for the medical orderly's remarks but also the Commanding Officer's and the senior medical officer.

These four manuscripts which have recently seen the light of the day hold interesting data on the following sites:


Notebook no. 129

  • San Nicola AA position
  • Delimara AA position


Notebook no. 285

  • Regimental Headquarters, 11th Heavy AA Regiment Royal Malta Artillery, Zejtun


Notebook no. 259

  • Sliema Point Battery


Notebook no. (?)

  • Il-Mizieb - Searchlight Battery, Royal Artillery (R.A)

The above sites give a good sample representation of the different AA positions in four regions and reveal clearly that the sanitisation problem was widespread and not localised to any one partricular area. It would take much writing space to describe all the contents of these reports in detail but the following sample of inspections brings out the conditions of the gun sites under review.


San Nicola and Delimara AA positions

A sanitary inspection by the medical officer (MO) of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) was carried out at San Nicola A.A Position on 6 December 1941. Among other matters of concern, it was found that the accommodation of the gun positions was inadequate with regards to ventilation as the windows were kept closed.

Another matter of concern was the cook-house which was found to be dirty with flies and no tanglefoot. The food was also found to be left uncovered. The latrines were most unsatisfactory with dirty lids and no latrine paper. The latrine at the gun site was too far away and it was recommended that either buckets or funnel urinals should be placed near the positions. The bins were also found to be without lids. The NAAFI was also dirty. It was recommended that kitchen utensils be sterilsied in boiling water or Izal disinfectant. The report was completed on 23 December 1941 and the senior medical officer (SNO) of the 161 Field Ambulance RAMC, Malta, South reviewed it on 6 January 1942. On 2 January 1943 one fresh case of scabies was discovered and four old cases were sent for follow-up treatment, 16 men were also vaccinated.

An inspection of Delimara position on 17 May 1943 revealed one fresh case of scabies during a skin inspection. At the same site on 2 June of the same year, it was found that some overcrowding, though not excessive, was found in some shelters where personnel were billetted. The shelters accommodated personnel from the 3rd (Light Anti-Aircraft) LAA which were found fairly clean but some men had no beds to sleep on and a few beds contained bugs.


Sliema Point Battery

Each gun position reported to the Military Intelligence Room (MIR). In the case of the Sliema Point Battery under the command of the 1st Coast Regiment of the Royal Malta Artillery, the MIR was situated at St Elmo. The MO entered his report in the Sanitary Inspection diary which was then sent to the Officer in Command of the unit concerned for his perusal and remarks. He would then pass it on the the SNO situated in Hamrun who in turn would return it back to the MO for retention.

In July and September 1943 skin inspections were carried out at the Fort and remarks were marked as satisfactory. Another inspection in May 1944 included recommendations for the erection of a partition in front of the bath in the bath-house. WCs were found clean but the seats which were lost during the Blitz had not yet been replaced. Also the Royal Engineers' personnel blankets had not been changed for a very long time. A June 1944 inspection revealed six cases of Pediculosis. This is a lice infestation of the skin by tiny wingless insects. Lice spread most frequently through close person-to-person contact. People with lice usually have severe itching. Lice and their eggs can be found by looking through hair on the head or other parts of the body.

On 9 November 1944 the MO called at Fort Tigne' to check on the rebuilding of the ablution room and the unblocking of the WC drains. Notwithstanding the reminders no action had been taken yet. He also suggested that the personnel from Fort Tigne' be sent to Sliema Point Battery for their weekly shower!

As 1944 progressed, conditions improved with a ventilator shaft being fitted in the bath-house. WCs were found well looked after and skin inspections sanitation remained good. Hygiene and sanitation were being found to be excellent and the MO had no adverse comments or suggestions to make.

The last entry is dated 16 January 1945 where a skin inspection resulted in all men fit and free from skin infections and the inoculation state reviewed and brought up to date.


Part 2 will be published next week

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