Malta played a key part in the Mediterranean campaign in World War Two. The valour shown by the people of Malta was rewarded when George VI awarded the island the George Cross. Malta’s strategic position in the Mediterranean Sea was key to the island’s importance. Royal Navy ships and RAF aircraft used the island as a base to attack Axis convoys trying to supply their forces in North Africa. The Navy’s ‘Force K’ was based at Malta.
In June 1941, Crete fell after succumbing to a major attack by Kurt Student’s paratroopers. Up to this time, the people of Malta had felt relatively safe from the war. Italy still controlled Sicily and Italian air raids on the island were sporadic. Malta was also well defended by anti-aircraft guns and to avoid these Italian bombers flew high. The end result of this was that bombing raids were rarely accurate. Malta was also protected by the Royal Navy based in the Grand Harbour and by Hurricane fighters. Such a combined force was sufficient to ensure that the Italians paid a healthy respect to Malta.
“That summer (1941) when Mussolini sent a squadron of MTB’s to try and block the Grand Harbour, and all of them got blown to hell for their pains, there were those (on the island) who laughed – the ice cream boys were a bit of a joke.” (Charles MacLean – fighter pilot based at Malta).
In September 1941, German bombers flew into Sicily and a gradual build-up continued. The Luftwaffe made no major raids on Malta up to the end of the year. The raids that they made were merely to test out the island’s defences. By the end of the year, Field Marshal Kesselring took over command of the Luftwaffe in Italy and he made his plans for Malta very clear and public – that he wanted the island to be taken and that his ‘Fliegerkorps II was more than capable of achieving this. His rationale was very simple. While the Royal Navy had a major base on the island, the German and Italian supply routes to North Africa were always under threat. The mere presence of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean Sea also gave the impression that Axis power in that area was not complete – which, indeed, it was not. If Malta was taken out of the equation, then the Royal Navy only had Gibraltar as a major base right at the western tip of the Mediterranean Sea and the Axis powers could transport supplies to North Africa with much greater ease.
By the beginning of March 1942, Kesselring had a formidable force at his disposal – 500 Stukas, between 200 and 300 Me-109’s and numerous Ju-88’s. He could also call on Luftwaffe bombers based at Sardinia.
The attack on Malta started in the first week of March. More Hurricanes could only come from Gibraltar, as those based in North Africa could not be spared. One of the first batches of Hurricanes was lost at sea. Subsequent ones made it but found that their airfields were under constant German bombing. Supply ships trying to make it to the island were also targets. For a time, supply runs were stopped as they were simply too risky. However, one of the fastest ships in the Royal Navy, ‘HMS Welshman’, made numerous nighttime runs to Gibraltar to bring in ammunition. Submarines brought in medical supplies.
In April 1942, 45 Spitfires took off from ‘USS Wasp’ bound for Malta. After a flight of 600 miles, they needed to re-fuel on the island before they commenced patrols. 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.
The Luftwaffe concentrated their major attacks on airfields and the Grand Harbour. Smaller attacks had their successes: the army barracks at Birkikari was hit with many casualties while an oil depot at Liminis destroyed 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 nighttime patrol they shot down nine Ju-88’s.
To protect themselves from the raids, the people of Malta built whatever shelters they could. Natural shelters were used such as caves. The sandstone cliffs were dug into.
The bombing peaked in April 1942. The docks at Valetta were heavily damaged and such was the constancy of the raids that time was barely available to make good repairs. While many were injured in the bombing raids, there were remarkably few fatalities. However, medical supplies were scarce.
The Luftwaffe heavily outnumbered the RAF crews. The maximum number of Spitfires that were serviceable at RAF Takali stood at six, though there was usually less than this. However, while there were few fighters, they were numerous pilots so they could be rotated with frequency. 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 might explode.
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 V’s 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. As with any campaign, accurate figures were hard to come by but many believed the rumour and it did a great deal to boost the morale of a civilian population that had been bombed almost daily from the start of March.
Why didn’t Germany launch a paratrooper raid as had succeeded in Crete? One was scheduled for late May 1942 when three Italian parachute battalions and one German parachute division were to attack. However, events elsewhere – especially in North Africa – meant that the attack (codenamed ‘Operation Hercules’) never took place. Rommel believed that all possible force was required in his North African campaign and that Malta was to him a distraction he could ill-afford with regards to manpower. He managed to suitably persuade Hitler and ‘Hercules’ was postponed until July 20th 1942. Rather like ‘Operation Sealion’, it never went ahead.
While submarines could bring in supplies of ammunition and medicine using night as a cover, they could not bring in fuel that was in very short supply on the island. ‘Operation Pedestal’ was carried out in August 1942 to rectify this. Fourteen merchant ships were involved with ‘Pedestal’ though only five got to the Grand Harbour in Valetta. One of these survivors was the tanker ‘Ohio’ that brought with it much needed fuel – enough to last for ten weeks. While ‘Pedestal’ succeeded in getting fuel and 32,000 tons of supplies to Malta, it was at a cost. 400 men lost their lives and the aircraft carrier ‘HMS Eagle’ was sunk along with two cruisers and a destroyer.
The bravery and determination of Malta’s civilian population not to be defeated was recognised when the island was awarded the George Cross by George VI in April 1942.