The attack on Malta in the early months of 1942 put a huge strain on the few RAF bases that were on the island. In March, the Germans started an out-all bombing campaign against Malta and all the RAF had initially to defend the island was a few Hurricanes – though Spitfires and Beaufighters did join the fight.
The Luftwaffe had two primary targets when they attacked Malta. The Grand Harbour and the RAF airfields, the main one being at Takali. Field Marshal Kesselring had amassed an attack force of aircraft that included over 500 Stuka dive- bombers. Supported by Me-109’s, they caused much damage. At night Ju-88’s continued the campaign.
While the Royal Navy ensured that there could be no sea-based attack on Malta, the RAF were tasked with ensuring that the island was not bombed into surrender nor that the skies would be safe enough for another German paratrooper attack as had been seen at Crete. The RAF faced a major challenge.
This was made all the more difficult because they were short of serviceable aircraft. Hurricanes were sent to Malta from Gibraltar but all were lost at sea due to a communications failure. In April 1942, 45 Spitfires took off from ‘USS Wasp’ bound for Malta. After a flight of 600 miles, they needed to re-fuel at Malta before they commenced patrols over the island. However, their arrival had been watched by Me-109’s and by the end of the day, over half the Spitfires had been destroyed on the ground. By the end of their first week in Malta, only four were serviceable for flying while six were in hangars for maintenance. An oil depot at Liminis was bombed and destroyed resulting in the RAF losing much fuel. Aviation fuel became so scarce that patched-up Spitfires were not allowed a trial flight to see if repairs had been successful.
The Luftwaffe dropped many sea mines and delayed-action bombs; the latter were primarily targeted at airfields. Anti-personnel bombs were also dropped with one of the more effective being the ‘cracker-bombs’. These exploded at 500 feet and showered a target with thousands of pieces of shrapnel. They proved especially effective when used against airfields as the shrapnel damaged fuselages and wings.
The Germans flew many nighttime raids. However, the island’s Spitfires were not fitted with radar. An attempt to fly them at night lasted just three days before the idea was shelved. Radar-equipped Beaufighters did arrive from Egypt and on their first night time patrol they shot down nine Ju-88’s.
The Luftwaffe heavily outnumbered the RAF. At one stage the maximum number of Spitfires that were serviceable at RAF Takali stood at six, though there was usually less than this available. However, while there were few fighter aircraft, they were numerous pilots so they could be rotated with frequency thus reducing fatigue. The same was not true for the ground crews who had to keep as many Spitfires in the air as was possible – the delayed-timing bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe on airfields were as much to keep the ground crews awake as anything else as no-one could predict when they would go off.
On May 9th 1942, the first batch of new Spitfires flew into Malta – 64 in total. They had been carried as near as was feasible by ‘HMS Eagle’ and ‘USS Wasp’ before flying onto the island. Rather than risk what had happened before when many Spitfires were attacked on the ground, the RAF ensured that no low flying German fighter would be safe. A heavily armed protective cordon was prepared around the perimeter fence at Takali and once the new Spitfires had landed, they were quickly moved into hangars before being refuelled. The ground crews could turn around twelve fighters in just seven minutes. On May 9th, 36 new Spitfires patrolled the skies over Malta and their first contact with the Luftwaffe – that may well have been lulled into complacency regarding the island’s air defences – was decisive with a reported 33 kills. On the following day, the Germans lost 64 aircraft. By May 14th the rumour went around the island that 172 Luftwaffe aircraft had been destroyed in just six days with the RAF losing just three Spitfires. While accurate figures would have been difficult to acquire, such rumours did do a great deal to boost morale.
The RAF at Takali were also resolutely commanded by Wing Commander ‘Jumbo’ Gracie. His daily orders always stated: ‘It is the duty of every airman to kill the Hun.’ Gracie managed to get 200 men from the Army to build better defences around RAF Takali, including L-shaped slit trenches to give greater protection for those who were in them. He ordered that every man on the base was to carry a weapon at all times with 50 rounds of ammunition so that any low flying German fighter would be hit by a barrage of small arms fire. Ground crew were issued with a total of 200 rifles and boxes of ammunition were placed around the perimeter so that when they ran for cover with their rifles, they would never be far from it. When pilots were not airborne, they were also expected to do ‘their bit’ with regards to defending the island’s major RAF base.
The Luftwaffe sustained such losses that the campaign could not be continued. Unlike Crete, Malta did not fall to the Germans with all the strategic implications this would have had for the Mediterranean campaign. Once the German threat had been removed, the Allies could concentrate their efforts on destroying as many Axis convoys to North Africa as was possible. In September 1942 alone, 100,000 tons of Axis shipping was destroyed along with 24,000 tons of fuel that Rommel desperately needed.