Soldiers of the sea | Wallace Camilleri

Maritime Squadron Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Wallace Camilleri briefs us on his career, the squadron and its challenging and high-risk operations at sea.

Lt Col Wallace Camilleri
Lt Col Wallace Camilleri

"Each day at the squadron still feels like the first day I joined. If the flame were to blow out, I would call it a day."
"My job is a highly rewarding one. Saving lives is like a religion," a humble Wallace Camilleri says, after being asked what it meant to be a commanding officer of a specially-trained squadron, when we met at the Officers' Mess situated within the confines of the Maritime Squadron's base in Haywharf, Floriana.
Joining the Armed Forces of Malta way back in 1992, the Maritime Squadron's Commanding Officer can today boast of being given the highly challenging and adrenaline-fuelled task of overseeing a dedicated squadron comprising 333 men, 24 of which form part of the Rapid Deployment Platoon- a group of specialised and highly trained individuals "who practically grew up in the compounds of the Maritime Squadron division".
But reaching this priviledged rank wasn't a walk in the park for Camilleri. He has had to undergo various fitness, theoretical and practical tests, apart from the vast hands-on vessel experience he gained while out at sea with the German Navy, over a three-year period.
After having undergone three months of training as a recruit in 1992, Camilleri was posted to 1st Regiment 'C' Company - "a fulfillment I still hold dear to this day".
First Regiment is Malta's infantry unit, and has primary responsibility for the territorial defence of the country. It is divided into three rifle companies, an Air Defence and Support Company and a headquarters company. It is a unit that practically every recruit aspires to join.
After a one-year stint with C Company, the opportunity arose for the lieutenant colonel to join the cadetship scheme, opting for a naval career, rather than an infantry one.
"I opted for the naval career because I wanted to do something different. I attended a three-year course at the German naval academy base close to the German-Danish border, a two-hour drive away from Hamburg. My time there was divided between theory and academic training."
Lt Col Camilleri, alongside Lt Col Andrew Mallia, spent a good period battling high seas sailing through countries like Estonia and Senegal with the German Navy.
Lt Col Camilleri recalls that he went through quite a few harrowing experiences while sailing the Baltic Sea on a German mine-hunting naval vessel, encountering very rough seas. "One time, we were so very near to losing our mine hunting gear. It took some real courage for the crew who were put to test. The crew had to rig the gear and tie it back to the vessel in horrifying and extreme weather conditions."
Mine-hunting gear is used to detect and locate explosive mines placed in the ocean's depths.
Mines can be laid at any depth and have been many a time used strategically to close harbours.
"At times utilised as another means to asymmetric warfare, it is very cheap and very useful because it acts as a deterrent. It's a very effective weapon that patiently and invisibly awaits its target, inflicting the greatest damage to its victim.
"In today's day and age, a mine could be fine-tuned to the extent that it can be programmed to select its target," he says.
Following his training regime with the German Navy, Camilleri came back to Malta in 1996 to kick-start his career with the Armed Forces of Malta Maritime Squadron on board a Kondor Class patrol boat.
"At the time, I was second in command, and a year later took over the command of one of the Kondor Class vessels, P-31. Today P-31 lies on Comino's seabed, serving as a diving attraction.
"After four to five years performing the role of captain of the P31-ship, I went over to the US to undergo college training."
However, the commander didn't stop there. His determination to enhance his naval expertise led him to attend another course at the Italian Navy, Naval Command School in Augusta, Sicily.
"When I ended the course in Sicily, alongside a group of Maritime Squadron soldiers, I sailed the Diciotti Class P61 Offshore Patrol Vessel - today the squadron's flagship - over to Malta from La Spezia."
P61 was built by Fincantieri S.p.a. at Muggiano Shipyard, La Spezia.
In September 2005, the Maltese crew left La Spezia for Malta and arrived the following month. The P-61's  baptism of fire followed in November, coinciding with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
"My appointment as Executive Officer at the squadron's base in Haywharf came next, under the command of Col Martin Cauchi Inglott, and in 2008 I was assigned as Commanding Officer, replacing Cauchi Inglott who took over the post of military attaché in Brussels."

Squadron's elite soldiers
Commanding Officer Camilleri oversees a team of 333 men but the squadron can also boast of a group of 24 elite soldiers - the Rapid Deployment Platoon, who conduct special boarding techniques both by air and sea and who have also been deployed to counter piracy threats and execute other duties overseas such as off the Horn of Africa.
Camilleri says that the deployments are voluntary and there's a training regime Armed Forces of Malta personnel in general need to abide by before being chosen to be deployed. One of the criteria is for the squadron's soldiers to team up with 1st Regiment 'C' Company soldiers to conduct special vessel boarding techniquesboth by air and sea, before being eligible to deploy abroad.
"It's all about boarding, searching and securing the vessel."
Camilleri adds that "after AFM personnel undergo a few months of rigorous training, a group of 10 men are then chosen for deployment. The chosen team is referred to as the Vessel Protection Detachment. Members of the VPD generally work onboard ships. So far, the Maltese Armed Forces have operated in conjunction with the Dutch Navy on board Dutch vessels.
"The VPD is accompanied by two officers at all times - one serves as the liaison officer (officer in charge) and the other as operational and tactical commander," Camilleri says.
But back to Malta's territorial waters, RDP personnel perform high-risk boarding searches for narcotics, contraband, piracy, and illegal immigrants, with one aim: that of safeguarding our country. The team is highly trained in boarding and arresting techniques. Fast rope - a technique for descending a thick rope from an air wing platform, or infiltrating a vessel using a squadron patrol boat or PO1 fast interceptor are a few of the many platoon's capabilities.
The interceptor was acquired through the 2003 pre-accession EU funding and was officially handed over to the AFM in a short ceremony on February 22, 2006 at the squadron's base.

Squadron's sub-units
The Maritime Squadron's command is decentralised through five sub-units or commands:
The Headquarters Command; Offshore Command; Inshore Command; G Command; and Support Command.
The offshore command hosts three offshore vessels: P61, P51 and P52. The P-51 was commissioned in 2002 while P-52 in 2004 and were both acquired from the US Coast Guard.
Meanwhile, the inshore command comprises four medium-ranged patrol vessels which the AFM commissioned in 2010, co-financed partly by the European Union External Borders Fund - P21, P22, P23, P24, and two search and rescue launches - Melita I and Melita II - which the squadron acquired back in August 1998. The two SAR launches, which could withstand heavy weather conditions, were originally donated by the Italian Civil Protection to Malta's Civil Protection but since the "CPD has a limited sea faring capability and the Maltese army is the national entity to conduct SAR at sea, the SAR vessels were in turn donated to our unit to be manned by Maritime Squadron personnel.
"Last year saw the SAR boats undergo a total overhaul, in line with today's standards - another project which was partly funded by the EU. The contract was awarded to Cantiere Navali Vittoria in Adria, Italy, according to Camilleri.
"Today we can pride ourselves of a relatively young mixed fleet of vessels, catering for today's needs and challenges."
The squadron will soon have a number of RHIBS joining its fleet, purchased from Finland through a tendering process.
Complementing the sea-going commands is a robust land command set-up, the headquarters base section, encompassing various logistical offices as well as the administrative offices. Maritime Squadron personnel commence their career serving a compulsory period as seamen so as to obtain the much-needed sea-going experience and be able to decide what future maritime-related trade they intend to pursue.
The base support command hosts "every imaginable workshop, operated by our qualified soldiers. From electrical and electronics technicians to carpenters, lathe turners, welders to engine fitters, the squadron maintains the fleet of vessels, which are repaired and supplied throughout the year.
 "The aim of this set-up is to try to perform as much in-house work as possible on our vessels: our men pride themselves in undertaking such tasks.
 "There was a time when we had two Swift patrol boats and we conducted all the necessary work here at base. We only outsource work when the need arises and is beyond our expertise," Camilleri says.
Camilleri confides: "We are experiencing a lack of tradesmen these days because you don't get as many youngsters joining the army after leaving MCAST, for instance, especially in view of the competitive working packages that these young people experience in the civilian world.
"Our qualified personnel are still with the squadron because they simply are passionate about the job and aren't in it for the money, because had they been, they wouldn't be here but seeking high-paying careers."
AFM officers selected to perform Maritime Squadron duties are selected to follow one of two career paths. They may either follow a bridge officer's career, with the eventual goal of commanding a patrol boat, or they may be selected to follow an engineering path with alternating duties changing between duties aboard and onshore.
Other ranks are assigned to shore or sea duties according to vacancies in the Squadron's establishment, personal aptitude, and service exigencies. Ideally all personnel posted to the Maritime Squadron AFM should commence their careers as seamen after which they should either pursue a career in navigation or engineering. Personnel that do not opt for an engineering or navigation career may then follow a general duties career in the shored-based establishment in either the clerical, logistics or motor fields.
The squadron performs two key roles, namely contributing to the AFM's primary defence role, maintaining Malta's territorial integrity; and providing military support to other government departments and the Malta Police Force.

Gozo-Comino patrol
To complement the four commands, a Maritime Squadron vessel has been stationed in Gozo.
"Back in 1992, when I joined the squadron, we had two vessels conducting patrols at any given time up north and down south, and in view of the influx of migrants in 2008 the patrols were more focused on the issue of migration. It was only last year that a decision was taken to deploy a patrol boat in Gozo - the Bremse Class P32 - the squadron's oldest boat, acquired in 1992 from East Germany."
The Maritime's component lies at Gozo's Mgarr harbour and falls under the Qortin Base G Command.
"The timely intervention of the Maritime crew has many a time saved the day. They are trained to board the vessel, untie, and scramble to a scene within minutes.
"This deployment has helped manage the massive increase in sea traffic entering and leaving Gozo and Comino. This has also helped reduce the number of accidents and has helped assist private boats that break down while out at sea, which in turn are towed to shore."

The squadron has achieved various milestones over the years, however a memorable one, Camilleri says, "was when the squadron was awarded the Midalja ghall-Qlubija and the Midalja ghall-Qadi tar-Repubblika (a medal for bravery) for its sterling work back in 2008 when it dealt with the influx of immigrants", proudly adding: "generally, the award is presented to an individual but in this case it was awarded to a group - the Maritime Squadron".
According to the squadron's leader, 2008 had seen an incredible amount of immigrants entering Malta by sea. Malta not only hadn't seen such an influx of migrants enter our waters, but the squadron had to conduct various rescue operations in light of the influx. And this led the squadron to be honoured with this prestigious award.
Although the Maritime Squadron does not have the resources to defend the Maltese territorial waters against any large-scale enemy invasion, the patrol boats' presence on the outer limits of our territorial jurisdiction does in fact reflect Malta's sovereign state.
"The Maritime Squadron provides round the clock patrols in Malta's territorial waters and keeps a sharp lookout for any suspicious activity within the 12-mile territorial waters zone. "This zone extends by another 12 nautical miles. Our soldiers also have jurisdiction for another two miles above the 24 nautical miles to ensure immigration, fiscal, sanitary and customs laws are being adhered to. As a matter of fact, Legal Notice 66 of 1980, empowers Armed Forces personnel the equivalent functions, powers and duties which are invested by law to an officer of the Customs or to a member of the Malta Police Force."
"The squadron also has the task of overseeing and controlling the Maltese fishing and conservation zone. More specifically, by preventing unlicensed foreign fishing vessels fishing within the Maltese fisheries confines zone that extends up to 25 nautical miles from the baseline."
Camilleri recalls a clash that occurred back in 2010 between Maltese fishermen and Greenpeace activists over a tuna pen 22 nautical miles south. Tensions ran high when activists tried to free endangered bluefin tuna from a large cage. The tuna had been intended for Maltese fish farms.
"To protect the Maltese fishermen from being rammed by the Greenpeace vessel, we intervened and stationed our patrol boat right in the middle of it all."
The enforcement of local laws to protect the marine environment include the laying of trammel nets illegally placed in harbours and bays; fishing using explosives; and trawling within three nautical miles from the coast.

Environment protection
Camilleri says that among the above-mentioned tasks, the squadron also serves as a marine environment protection unit that supports local organisations. Any case of oil pollution, mostly bilge-water, is dealt with by the national marine oil Pollution Co-ordination Unit, but the squadron may be tasked with providing assistance in cases of larger oil spills.
"Unfortunately, hunting at sea has also become quite prevalent and the Squadron is also tasked to enforce environmental legislation preventing hunting at sea in closed seasons and against protected species."
The squadron is also responsible for burials at sea, and harbour tours for VIP delegations.
I parted Hay Wharf Base with still many stories untold from the Unit Commanding Officer especially in view of the fact that to recount the Squadron's history, traditions and other accounts require somehow more time. The impression left is that the men of the Maritime Squadron render sterling service in silence to the Armed Forces and to the nation. An assurance that throughout the day and night, the men of the Maritime Squadron safeguard our shores and vigilantly patrol our waters.

Tistghu tgfhidulna ghalfen il-pagna tal-internat tal-AFM hija biss bl-Ingliz? Ma jmisskomx tisthu? Jew ghax l-ufficjali imniehirhom imxammar u jhobbu juzaw l-Ingliz? TAL-MISTHIJA.