DEFENCE OF MALTA

Defence of Malta

Our next campaign focussed on the Seige of Malta and the Royal Air Force defence of the island throughout the entire battle.

Royal Air Force

German Wartime Recon Photo of Malta

INTRODUCTION

This campaign was challenging as we strove to stick to being as historically accurate as possible. We found ourselves largely outnumbered by the enemy and most often at a disadvantage.

We started flying Gladiators to represent the famous 3 Gladiators named Faith, Hope and Charity that did so much to protect the island in the early days. We then moved on to the Hawker Hurricane and from there to Spitfires. Taking Spitfires (not Seafires) off the carrier H.M.S. Argus was also simulated - so that meant practicing Spitfire carrier take offs.

We faced both Italian and German aircraft throughout the campaign and although no in game map for Malta existed we modified an existing map to look as close to Malta and the neighbouring islands of Pantelleria as possible.

crown Aerial View of Valetta Harbour

THE SIEGE OF MALTA

The Siege of Malta was a significant military event in the Mediterranean Theatre of World War II that occurred between 1940 and 1943 on the island of Malta.

Malta was one of the most intensively- bombed areas during the war – a total of 3,000 raids occurred during the two years of the siege, during which 1,493 civilians died and 3,674 were wounded. Between June 1940 and December 1942 the fighters of the Royal Air Force claimed it shot down some 863 aircraft of the Regia Aeronautica and the Luftwaffe. According to the RAF, this was accomplished for the loss of 289 Spitfires and Hurricanes in action, and some 844 aircraft of all types lost to all causes in the air and on the ground (true losses were around 570 aircraft in action.) The Luftwaffe alone claimed some 446 Allied aircraft (of all types) shot down.

Map and location of Malta

Background:  Due to the strategic position of Malta, it was a key fortress for either the Axis or allied powers. The island is in the middle of the Mediterranean near Africa , Italy and Turkey . It had been, since 1814, after two years of Napoleonic occupation, a part of the British Empire and its geographical importance had been noted by Britain for the entirety of the occupation. It was hence used as a significant military and naval fortress during this time and happened to be the only military base between Gibraltar and Alexandria, Egypt.

Despite its position, the British had moved the headquarters of the Royal Navy Mediterranean Fleet from Valletta , Malta in the mid 1930s to Alexandria, Egypt and as such, it was under-resourced when Italy declared war on Britain on 10 June 1940. This was due to the strategic decision that the island, far from Britain and near Italy, could not be defended, and resources should not be wasted in the attempt. Only 4,000 soldiers and a few obsolete biplanes were stationed on the island, with 5 weeks' worth of food. Nevertheless, the island was a strategic threat to Italy and the Axis powers, its anti-shipping squadrons and Royal Navy submarines a potential threat to supply and communications between Europe, Italy and North Africa. Most notable to the supply lines essential for Rommels campaign in North Africa as can be seen by the map above.  

crown Italian Cant Bombers

THE FIRST PHASE

On 11 June 1940, the day after Italy declared war on Britain and France, aircraft of the Regia Aeronautica attacked Malta. Most of Italys land forces had been committed for the upcoming invasion of Greece, as a result Italy resorted to aerial bombardment to prevent Malta from being a threat. On the first day, ten Italian Cant bombers dropped bombs on Grand Harbour, Hal Far, and Kalafrana. In seven attacks, 11 civilians and 6 soldiers were killed. In addition, roughly 130 civilians and some soldiers were injured.

Gloster Gladiator on Malta 1940

At the time, the fighter aircraft on Malta consisted of a few obsolete Gloster Sea Gladiator biplanes . A common legend has it that the air defence consisted of just three such planes, nicknamed 'Faith', 'Hope' and 'Charity', but at least six Gladiators were deployed. These were initially unable to fly from Luqa Airfield as it was not finished, and operated out of Hal Far. Initially, the Italians flew at around 5,500m but later dropped to 3,000 m to improve bombing accuracy. British Major R. I. K. Paine later stated that 'after they dropped down, we bagged one or two every other day, so they started coming in at 6,000m. Their bombing was never very accurate. As they flew higher it became quite indiscriminate.'

Building Defenses on the Island

When the British government saw the effectiveness of the defence of the island with virtually no resources they reversed their previous policy and decided that Malta should be defended and reinforced. This policy was steadfastly maintained throughout the war. From then until the end of the siege Allied convoys with naval escorts resupplied the island. Both sides were aware of the strategic importance of Malta, and large forces were committed with desperate fighting and considerable losses.

By the start of July, the Gladiators had been reinforced by Hawker Hurricanes and the defences organised into Number 261 squadron, RAF. Twelve were delivered by HMS Argus in August, the first of several batches ferried to the island by the carrier. During the first five months of combat, the island's aircraft claimed around 37 Italian aircraft destroyed or damaged and resulted in Italian fighter plane pilot Francisco Cavalera saying, "Malta was really a big problem for us, very well defended". 330 people had been killed and 297 seriously wounded.

Joachim Müncheberg

In January 1941, the German Fliegerkorps X arrived in Sicily as the Afrika Korps arrived in Libya . The presence of the German Luftwaffe led to a notable increase in the bombing of Malta. The appearance in February of a staffel of Bf-109E fighters (7 Staffel Jagdgeschwader 26 ) led by 23-kill ace Oberleutnant Joachim Müncheberg quickly led to a sudden and marked increase in Hurricane losses as the experienced Luftwaffe fighter pilots made their presence felt. Over the next four months 7. JG 26 would claim some 42 air victories (half by Müncheberg) without a single operational loss.

H.M.S. Illustrious

In January 1941 the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious arrived in the Grand Harbour and was attacked by Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers, resulting in severe damage with 126 crew dead and 91 wounded. In mid 1941 new squadrons, No.185 and No.126 were formed and the defenders received the first cannon-armed Hurricane Mk II fighters. Naval carriers flew in a total of 81 more fighters during April and May. These months also saw the arrival of the first Bristol Blenheim and Bristol Beaufighter units. On 1 June Air Vice Marshal Forster Maynard, Malta's Air Officer Commanding, was replaced by Air Commodore Hugh Pughe Lloyd.

S.S. Dorset Under Attack

Axis forces attacking Malta decreased later that year as the limited German resources were diverted to fighting the Red Army on the Eastern Front and bombing operations reverted back to the Regia Aeronautica. But in December 1941 German forces turned their attention back to Malta and renewed their bombing intensively. Fuel, food, and munitions all had to be imported, and resupply became very difficult, the island was almost cut off.The island relied heavily on the supply convoys getting through with fresh supplies. These were of course prime targets for the German and Italian bombers, 31 Allied ships were lost to bombing raids. The defenders had claimed some 191 aircraft shot down from June 1940 to December 1941, while losses were some 94 fighters.

Stan Turner

In February 1942 Squadron Leader Stan Turner arrived to take over 249 Squadron. His experience flying with Douglas Bader over Europe soon meant the adoption of the loose 'finger-four' formation in an attempt to cut RAF losses. However, with the out-moded Hurricanes struggling against the very latest BF 109Fs of Jagdgeschwader 53 and Italian Macchi C202s this was difficult. In March 1942 the first contingent of 15 Spitfires Mk Vs flew into Malta from aircraft carrier HMS Eagle; the first to serve overseas. The reinforcement of Malta by carrier became more frequent through 1942. Spitfires were flown into Malta from the carrier HMS Eagle on the 7 March 1942. No. 601 and 603 Squadron Spitfires arrived on 20 of April, then the US carrier Wasp and HMS Eagle despatched 59 more Spitfires.

By mid 1942 the Axis Air Forces ranged against the island were at their maximum strength, some 520 Luftwaffe and 300 Regia Aeronautica aircraft. Main adversaries for the Malta defenders were the 140 or so Me 109F fighters of Jagdgeschwader 53 'Pik As' and II/ JG 3 'Udet' and the 80 Macchi C202s of the 4th and 51st Stormo. Bomber units included the Junkers Ju 88s of II./LG 1, II & III./KG 77, I./KG 54, Kgr.606 & Kgr.806.

Luqa Airfield Under Bombing Attack

On the occasions where the RAF could not put up a fighter cover, Malta's Fighter Control would transmit a dummy radio communication, aping the scrambling and interception of incoming raids as if fighters were already in the air, knowing the Luftwaffe would be monitoring the conversations. Throughout this period of the war Royal Navy submarines, RAF bombers and Fleet Air Arm torpedo planes operating from Malta continued to wreak havoc on Axis shipping, severely curtailing vital supplies and reinforcements to the German and Italian forces in North Africa, thereby limiting Rommel's ability to advance across the western desert towards Alexandria and Cairo. By this time the island appeared to the Axis forces to be neutralised, and they decided that there was no need for such intensive bombing raids and diverted their resources to other areas.

On 15 April 1942, King George VI awarded Malta the George Cross, the highest civilian award for gallantry in the Commonwealth. The citation read 'to honour her brave people, I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history'. President Franklin Roosevelt, describing the wartime period, called Malta 'one tiny bright flame in the darkness.'

In the first six months of 1942, there was only one 24-hour period without air raids. Luftwaffe records indicate that between 20 March and 28 April 1942, Malta was subjected to 11,819 sorties and subjected to 6,557 tonnes of bombs.  

crown The Ohio arrives at Valetta Harbour

THE SECOND PHASE

Britain took advantage of the lull in Axis attacks to fly in 61 Spitfire Mk V aircraft from HMS Furious, which immediately improved the aerial defensive situation. Food, ammunition, and aviation fuel still remained critically short. Operation Pedestal was a major attempt to resupply Malta with a convoy of 14 merchant ships supported by 44 major warships, including battleships and aircraft carriers, and diversionary naval attacks by the Mediterranean Fleet at the other end of the Mediterranean. The convoy was attacked relentlessly in the early days of August. On 13 August the surviving merchant ships started arriving at Malta, ending on 15 August 1942, the feast of Santa Marija (St Mary), a public holiday on Malta, with the British-crewed U.S. tanker SS Ohio who had been hit by torpedoes, bombs, and a crashed dive bomber, but survived with her vital aviation fuel. The cost: 5 transports survived out of 14; 1 aircraft carrier, 2 cruisers and a destroyer were sunk, and a carrier and 2 cruisers badly damaged.

The Luftwaffe responded with a renewed wave of attacks in October, but the Allied efforts in the Middle East were beginning to have their effect, and supplies were now reaching Malta in more sufficient numbers. As the Axis forces were progressively defeated in North Africa, the siege of Malta was lifted.

The Air Force infrastructure built up on the island in 1942 was later turned to offensive use, as over a dozen Spitfire squadrons based there commenced operations covering the amphibious invasion of Sicily.  

Our Tribute to the Few