World War II: Malta--The Right Island

Malta World War II
Figure 1.--This boy lost his legs during the Axis bombing of Malta and was evacuated home to England. The September 20, 1943 AP wirephoto caption read, "All the brave are not soldiers. Ronnie Doublet, 14, who lost both legs as a result of one of the bombing raids on the island of Malta, looks over one of the artificial limbs with which he is beging fitted at the Queen Mary's Hospital at Roehampton, England. A nursing sister of the Hospital shows him the limb."

Malta was the cornerstone of the British campaign in the Western Desert. British possession of Malta and the invaluable naval and air bases there played a major role in interdicting Italian and Germany supply convoys to Libya. And it was supply shortages that played a key role in defeating Rommel and the Afrika Korps. Malta became the most bombed place on earth. German and Italian air forced relentlessly pounded the island. The island somehow managed to with tand the fiercest air assault of the War. The Italians began bombing Malta in 1940. The Luftwaffe joined in the campaign (January 1941) even before Rommel arrived in North Africa. Malta by March 1942 was enduring an average of 10 air raid alerts daily and there had been 117 straight days of bombing. The bombing was devestating. It also prevented supplies, food, and fuel from reaching the island. At one point Malta was near to capitulation, left virtual no fuel, food, or fighters. It was a convoy with an American carrier that finally succeeded in getting needed supplies through. Civilians suffered terribly. They had to move underground to survive. Newsreels in Britain and America showed school children moving rapidly into undergrond bunkers when the air raids sireens sounded. The population was near starvation at one point. The Axis did not, however, launch a parachute assault on the island. They had the capability as shown in Crete. Senior Axis commanders advised just sych an action. After the German terrible losses suffed by the German parachute units on Crete, however, Hitler demured, After the War, historians have taken to summrizing the assul on Cretr as "the wrong island". The Axis seige was not fully lifted until July 1943 after the Axis surrender in Tunis and the invasion of Sicily. [Holland] Operaions from Malta also played an important role in interducting Axis supply lines to Tunis, fforcing the surrender there. Some orphaned children were sent to Australia.

Malta and the Mediterranean

Malta had been seized by the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars and since that time had been the centrerpiece of British naval strength in the Mediterranean. Malta was located between the British bases in the eastern Mediterranean (Alexandria near Suez and Cuprus) and Gribraltar in the western Mediterranean. Gibrltar itself was vulnerable because it seemed likely that Franco would join Hitler in the War. The Allied position in the Mediterrean was, however, butressed by French naval bases in souther France, Corsica, and North Africa. Malta located south of Sicily was the main base of the British Mediterranean fleet and in many ways the key to the Mediterranean and the British position in Egypt.

Outbreak of War

German Führer Adolf Hitler launched World War II by invading Poland (September 1939). Britain and France as promised declared war on Germany. The war at the time seemed very far away. Germany did not have a Mediterranean coast. And the powerful British Royal Navy and French fleet dominted the Mediterranean. Malta was vulnerable to air attack from Italian bases in Sicily. Italy was not yet in the War, but was a German ally and it was widely believed that it would evebtually join the Germans. Malta's well-equipped naval base thus had to be abandoned by the Royal Navy Mediterranean Fleet just prior to the outbreak of the War for the poorer facilities at Alexandria near Suez in Egypt

Civilian Evacuations

While Churchill decided to hold the island, this did not preclude civilians from evacuating. Some Maltese childrenwere evacuated to England. I think these were mostly British children living with their families on Malta. We are not sure just when these evacuations took place. Before the fall of France, it was a fairly easy matter to evacuate children from Malta. We do not know how many children were evacuated. We know that many British children stayed on the island. After the fall of France, evacuations became more difficult (June 1940). And after the Luftwaffe was deployed on Sicily and Sardinia (September 1941), they became virtually impossible.

German Western Offensive (May-June 1940)

Germany launched its long-awaited western offensive (May 1940). Within days, the Germans broke through the French lines and France was reeling. Before France surrendered to the Germans, Italy declared war and invaded France. Thus in a matter of a few days, Malta went from a backwater, far away from the war to the front lines. Its vuilnerable position south of Sicily made it vulnerable to Italian air attack and the Royal Navt Mediterranean Fleet was moved to Alexandria near Suez. The important French Navy was assigned the responsibility for the western Mediteranean. This plan was undone, however, with the Germany invasion of France and the armistace which forced France out of the War (June 1940). This left the badly streached Royal Navy to confront the Italian fleet alone.

Decesion to Stay

One of Churchill's early decesions of the War was to stay in Malta and fight it out wih the Axis. Some of his military advisers argued that that Malta could not be defended. Aschard pressed as Britain was at the time (June 1940), Churchill decided to hold Malta even without the French fleet. It would have to be done without the fleet, antiquated anti-aircraft guns with limited amunition, and a small Royal Air Force (RAF) contingent.

Force H

The western Mediterranean at the onset of thhe War was primarily the responsibility of the French fleet. The Royal Navy maintained a small destroyer force at Gibraltar which was primarily used for Atlantic convoys. After the fall of France and and the loss of the French fleet as an ally, the British had to create a more powerful force at Gibraltar. With the departure of the Royal Navy Mediterranean Fleet to Alexandria, Churchill had to make a major decesion. At this point of maximum danger to Britain, Churchill decided to strengthen naval forces in the Mediterranean. He decided to assemble a new naval force at Gibraltar. Malta had to assume responsibity for its own defense. It was vulnerable to both naval and air attack by Axis forces and was not equipped to defend itself. The Admiralty by the end of June 1940 assembled Force H at Gibraltar. Vice-Adm Sir James Somerville was placed in command. His flaship was the ilustrious battlecruiser HMS Hood and his command included the battkleships HMS Resolution and HMS Valiant and the carrier HMS Ark Royal. Force H also included a small number of cruisers and destroyers. The units came from the Home Fleet which was bracing for a German invasion. It was a flexible force with a range of assignments. Force H was active in both the western Mediterranean and the easten Atlantic. Force H units were prepared to move back toward the Channel if the Germans launched their threatened invasion. It was involved in Operation Catapult, the tragic action at Mers-el-Kebir near Oranv(July 1940). Force H units were prepared to move back toward the Channel if the Germans launched their threatened invasion. The naval battles with the Italians was primarily carried by the Mediterrean Fleet from Alexandria. Force H participated in the famed hunt for Bismarck in which Hood was lost (May 1941). Force H continuedcto support Atlantic convoys and to prevent German U boats from entering the Mediterranean. It could not defend Malta, but it played a major role in getting supplies through to the Island. This became very difficult after the Luftwaffe set up bases in Sardinia and Sicily (September 1941). This was significant not only for Malta, but because of the diversion of resources from the Soviet Union where in many ways the outcome of the war was decided (August-December 1941). Force H's major role would ultimately be in supporting the Torch landings (November 1942).

Importance

Malta which lay in the heart of the Mediterranean was the cornerstone of the British campaign in the Western Desert. Malta was sandwiched betweem Italy to the north and North Africa to the west and south. Malta was the only Allied controlled area of the Mediterranean between Gibraltar and Athens. British possession of Malta and the invaluable naval and air bases there played a major role in interdicting Italian and Germany supply convoys to Libya. Other than Malta, the nearest British air bases were in Egypt. This was much further from the Italian sea lanes. Supplies was the Afrika Korps weak point. Not only were they far down in the order of priority from the crucial campaign in the Soviet Union, but having to cross the Mediterranean exposed them to British interdiction. Malta was used by Britain as a base from which to assault the Italian supply and troop vessels making for Africa to supply the Afrika Korps. In the end this helped starve the Afrika korps for munitions, food and reinforcements thus playing an important role in the Allied victory in Africa. And it was supply shortages that played a key role in defeating Rommel and the Afrika Korps. Malta became the most bombed place on earth. German and Italian air forced relentlessly pounded the island. It was vital in the ongoing Allied effort to interdict supply delivers for Rommel's Afrika Korps.

Complicated Action

The Malta World War II story is a complicated one. Britain came close to evacuating Malta an indefenable after rge fall of Franbce and the withdrawl of the French Navy from the War. The Axis seige of Malta had many aspects , including the aeriaal bombardment, surface naval actions, and U-boats. The effort to fight convoys through making for thrilling readings. The importance of Malta in curring supplies to the Afrika Korps is an often unreported story. And then Malta playrd an important role in cutting off supplies to the Axis forces in Tunisia. The entire island would be awarded the George Cross, the highest British civilian award for valor. This was the first time that the medal was not conferred to an individual.

Mediterranean Naval Campaign (1940-42)

The Mediterranean became an active theater of war when Italy entered the war (June 1940). Italy had a modern fleet and with France out of the War, immediately challenged the beleagered Royal Navy for control of the Mediterranean . The Italian fleet supported by air bases in Libya, Sardinia, Sicily, and mainland Italy posed a formidable challenge. The British controlled the two entances to the Mediterrean (Suez and Gibraltar). In between and in many ways the key to the Mediterranean was the small British bastion at Malta. When the Italians faltered, they were bolstered by German first by the Luftwaffe and then by Rommel's Aftrika Korps. Italy's entrance into the War brought important asetts into the NAZI war effort which could be arrayed against Britain. It also meant, however, that Britain was able to bring its greatest assett, the Royal Navy, to bare against the Axis. The Mediterranean can not be viewed as entirely a naval war. The relatively small size of the Mediterranean meant that air power in particular could be borought to bear against naval forces and ground fotces seized naval bases as well as knocking two major powers (France and Italy) out of the War.

Axis Air Assault

Malta somehow managed to withstand the fiercest air assault of the War. The British had only a few only a few fighters on the Island when Italy declared War. The Italians began bombing Malta in 1940. For much of the following 2 yearts, the island was under almost constant air attack. The initial Italian air attacks were scattered and indeffective, primarily because the air defenses of the Island discouraged the low-level attacks needed for accuracy. German involvement meant a significant internsification of the bombing. The Luftwaffe dropped more explosives on Malta at the height of the campaign (March-April 1942) than on all of Britain during the first year of the Blitz. The primary targets were port facilities (especially the Grand Harbor at Valetta), air fields, and other military instalations. A comnination of factors, including the inaccuracy of World War II bombing, high level attacks, British air defenses, and the location of the targets meant that civilian areas were heavily bombed. Much of Valetta was left piles of rubble. Malta by March 1942 was enduring an average of 10 air raid alerts daily and there had been 117 straight days of bombing. The bombing was devestating. As a result of the boming and seige, there were housing and food shortages. People lived in underground "cubicles." Well-drilled school children moved smartly in good order to bomb shelters when the air-raid sireens went. Food shortahes led to sickness and disease. The British air defenses were inadequate. Commonly only about 3-4 Hurricanes or Spitfires would go up to do battle with 50 attacking Axis raiders. [Holland] A often neglected aspect of the air war was that at a ime that the War was being decided on the Eastern Front, the British were drawing off important elements of the Luftwaffe for both the defense of the Reich and Axis air operations in the Mediterranean.

Interdicting Axis Supplies to Libya

The Axis North African campsaign in the Western Desert (1940-42) was a side show of World War II. The War was decided on the Eastern Front in the desperate struggle between the Whermascht and Red Army. As a result, the men and material allocated by the Germans was limited. At the same time huge quantities of American material flowed to the British 8th Army in Egypt. As a result, the limited supplies flowing to Rommel's Afrika Korps were desperately needed to over come the British who after the American passage of Lend Lease (March 1941) were well supplied. Not only were German allocations limited, but they had to be transported part of the way by the Italians by sea. This exposed the Italian transports to interdiction by the Royal Navy (both surface and submarine units) and to lesser extent the Royal Air Force. Nritish ships and aircraft used Malta as a base to attack Axis convoys headed for Libyan ports to supply Italian and German forces in the Western Desert. And Malta's position between Sicily and Libya perfectly positioned it for this purpose. The Royal Navy's Force K was based at Malta. Many military historians agree that Rommel's failure to reach Alexandria and Suez was due to inadequate supplies. Unnlike the Wehrmacht in the Soviet Union, the Afrika Korps was almost entirely dependent on supplies from Germany and Italy. They could not rely on the local economy for food and other supplies. A major source of supply was the supplies captured from the British. The dramatic naval battles between the British and Italian navies (1941) substantially reduced the ability of the Italian Navy to protect the supply convoys. Force K operating from Malta utilizing Ultra decrypts ravaged the Axis upply convoys. Rommel was able to launch his counter offensive at Gazala (May-June 1942), because he had received important tank shipments from supply convoys that managed to reach Libyan ports because Force K at Malta had been neutralised by the Luftwaffe and the mining of the waters around Malta. It was the lack of supplies along with the better performance of the British that forced Rommel to go over to the defensive at Alam halfa (August 1942).

Supplying Malta

The Axis air and sea campaign prevented supplies, including planes, fuel, spare parts, and food from reaching the island. Axis air and naval bases were located both to the north in Sicily (and Sardinia and Italky) and to the south in Libya. This mean that supply convoys faced a gauntlet of Axis air and naval surface forces. The Axis blockade was further strengthened by German U-boats and minefieds. An American carrier (Wasp) helped deliver Spitfires (April-May 1942). Malta by August 1942 was near to capitulation, left with virtually no fuel, food, or fighters. It was a convoy with an American tanker that finally succeeded in getting needed fuel and supplies through.

Operation Pedestal (August 1942)

Operation Pedestal was the last-fitch Allied effort to save Malta wehich was close to surrendering to the beseiging Axis forces (August 1942). The plan was to run some 80 ships past Axis bombers, minefields and u-boats. They faced dauting odds. The Axis forced had destroyed large numbers of war ships and cargo vessels trying to relieve Malta. As a result of the Axis seige, Malta was down to its final supplies of fuel, grain and ammunition. Without supplies the Malta garrison was preparing to surrender at the end of August. Only 14 merchant vessels were involved, escorted by 64 warships. It was the most heavily guarded convoy during the entire War. Britain had managed to get some aircraft to Malta by running aircaft carriers into the Mediterraneam. Supplies had to be delivered in quantity and this mean getting relatively slow merchant vessels through. The Axis had airbases, both in Sardinia and Sicily, which could attack relief convoys in force. German u-boats had also been deployed in the Meditwrranean. Pededtal included convoys entering the Mediterranean through Gibraltar headed east and another force grom Alexandria headed west. Particularly important was fuel. The British had no fast tankers. Presiudent Poosevelt thus supplied the SS Ohio. Unless Pedestal got some of the merchant ships through, esspecially Ohio, Malta would fall.

Civilians

Civilians suffered terribly. They had to move underground. Newsreels in Britain and America showed school children moving rapidly into undergrond bunkers when the air raids sireens sounded. The Axis air and naval blockade prevented food from reaching Malta. And the Island was not self sufficent in food, especialy after the military garrison was substantially enlarged to fight off am expected invasion. Victory Kitchens were set up to feed the population. The population was near starvation by August 1942.

Axis Invasion Plan: Operation Herkules

When Mussolini declared war (June 10, 1940), Malta had a garrison of less than four thousand soldiers and only about five weeks of food supplies. The British increased the garrison, but the problem of supplying the island after France withdrew fron the War limited the size of the garrison. By 1942 when the Axis was preparing to invade, the Malta garrison force consisted of 15 infantry battalions (11 Commonwealth, 4 Maltese) organized into four brigades, a force totaling 26,000 men. They were suported by about 10 tanks. [Greene and Massignani, p. 68.] The British has a heavy concentration of anti-aircraft guns as well as a small fighter force which had to be dealt with. The Axis had the capability as shown in the Crete invasion led by parachute troopers. Senior Axis military commanders advocated advised just such an action. After the German terrible losses suffed by the German parachute units on Crete, however, Hitler dtemprerized. After the War, historians have taken to summrizing the assult on Cretr as "the wrong island". Finally Hitler and Mussolini approved an invasion plan-- Operation Herkules (April 29–30, 1942). The plan called for a joint airborne assault with one German and one Italian paratroop division which would have been commanded by German General Kurt Student. This would have been supported by a seaborne landing of two or three divisions carried out by the Italian Royal Navy. Rommel strongly supported the invasion. Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring, however, opposed it, fearing a repeat of the Crete bloodletting his paratroopers suffered. Göring used delaying tactics. Hitler's support was lukewarm because he also fearted a another Crete and had no confidence in the Italian Navy. In the end, the invasion never came.

El Alemaine (July-October 1942)

Rommel gaint an unoirtant victory at El Gazala. Against orders fromn OKW, he drove into Egypt. The British 8th Army stopped Rommel's Afrika Korps at El Alemaine only a few miles short of Suez. Rommel's advance put the Afrika Korps in an extremely difficult situation. The Gerans and Itlaians, in part thanks to Malta, were having great difficuklty getting supplies across the Mediterranean to Tripoli. But once there, a substantial part of the fyel landed had to be used to truck the supplies all the way east to the friont lines in Egypt. Getting supplies to the island continued to be difficult, but Pedestal and brought time for Malta while Allied armies prepared two major offensives. Great air batlles were fought over Malta. The Allies managed ton fly in Spitfires from carriers to bolster Malta's air defenses. The lngendary Air Marshal Keoth Parks who had mastermined the Battle of Brotain, took over command of Malta air operations. At the same time, Kesserling made a final attempt to bomb Malta into submission. This meant, however, that badly needed air support needed by Rommel in Egypt was concentrated on Malta (October 1942). Both sides lost aircraft, but Kesseling which his fiorces weakehned by British resistance finally concluded that Malta's air defenses were to stroing to break. It is at this time that the scene shifts east to Egypt

El Alemaine and Torch (October-November 1942)

Thestrategic situationn in the Mediterranean changed fundamnenatlly inn October. Montgromery and the 8th Army after months of preapartions and hugge deliveries if supplies from the United States, finally struck the Afrika Korps (October 1942). Rommel was in Germany, but rushed back to direct the battle. The situation from the beginning was hopeless. The British had overwealming supperiorirt in maen and material. The 8th Army was battering the German and Italian lines, taking heavy casualties but gaining key ground. The Germans were down to only a handful of tanks. Rommel asked for permission to withdraw. Hitler ordered him go stand and fight. Rommel had no real choice and executed a fighting withdraw. Montgomrruu failed to pursur him closdrly, but the Desert Air Force hannered the German columns. Rommel's success provided troops that played an important role in enabling Hitler to hold Tunisia for several months after the Allies landed in Morocco and Algeria--Operation Torch (November 1942). They made a run for Tunis, butv were stopped short by troops Hitler ordered in through an emergency airlift. As a result, a substantialm portion of the Luftwaffe air cargo force was in the Mediterranean when the Soviets surronded the German 6th Army in Stalingrtad (November 19-23).

Seige Lifted (November 1942)

As the Afrika Korps fell back from El Alemaine along the Libyan coast, one port after another as well as Axis airfields fell to the advancing British. This substantially reduced the pressure on Malta. Not only were there feer airfiekds to attack Malta, but also the convoys brining in supplies. There were still occasional air raids and attacks on convoys, but at a sharplly reduced number and intensity. The shift was almost immediate. The Operation Stoneage convoy reached Malta from Alexandria virtually untouched (November 20). Stoneage is often noted seen as the end of the 2-year Axis siege. The Operation Portcullis convoy reached Malta without any losses (December 6). From that point, ships began sailing to Malta without even joining convoys. The capture of Libyan airfields not only prevented Azis air raids ion the cinvoys, but gave the RAF Desert Air Fand fields from whicvhb theyb could cober the convoys. Massive supplioes flowed on tyo the island. Shios delivered 35,000 t (November) and 55,000 t (December). There wre still occasionalm,air attacks, but largely inefectual. The last German air raid occurred as Sicily was falling tgo the Allies (July 20, 1943) It was the 3,340th alert since Italian air raids had begun June 11, 1940. [Spooner, pp. 229-30.] The battered Afrika Korps and the troops Hitler rushed to Tunisia, had limited air cover to counter growing Allied air power. Kesserling had badly depleted Luftwaffe forces in costly attacks on Malta. And little of what they had could now be spared for attacking Malta--especially after the 8th Army broke through the Marreth Line (March 1943). Axis attacks did not entirely stop until the Axis surrender in Tunisia (May 1943) and the invasion of Sicily (July 1943). [Holland]

Tunisian Campaign (November 1942-May 1943)

Malta continued to play a critical role inn thestruggle for North Africa. Operaions from Malta also played an important role in interducting Axis supply lines to Tunis, helping to bring about the Axis surrender there. With the Mareth Line broken the Afrika Korps was forced to fall back to central Tunisia. This allowed the 1st and 8th Armies to link up (April 8). The Germans fell back on Tunis and Bizerte through which a trickle of supplies were still arriving. They establish a defensive perimter around the two ports. Here Von Arnim still had a powerful force and Von Armim and most German units were still determined to resist. The Italians were less willing. The Allied blockade becomes increasingly effective, essentially cutting off the Axis forces. The strong point defending the pocket in the north is Hil 609 which had stopped the initial Allied drive. It is surrounded abnd taken by the 34th American Division (May 1). This was a National Guard Division that had been hammered by the Germans earlier in its baptism of fore. And like a lot of American units had learned a great deal about fighting the Germans. Effective Axis resistance collapses (May 6) and the Americans and British take Tunis. Isolated German resistance continues, but they are surrounded and running out of amunition. Von Armim surrenders (May 12). Some 250,000 Axis soldiers surrender. This was the largest surrender of Axis soldiers until the end of the War.

Last Years

After the Allies victory in Tunisia (May 1943) and subsequent invasion of Sicily (July 1943) and Italy *September 1943), Malta which had been at the center of the Morth African campaign became a quiet remote area. We note Yugoslavs wounded in the bitter guerilla war with the Germans receiving medical treatment on Malta. We are not sure how they were transported there. We also note the British training guerillas there. We do not yet have amy detailed information. By this time, however, Allied support had shifted from the largely Serbian Chetniks led by Draža Mihajlović to the more the pan-Yugoslav Partisans were led by Josip Broz Tito. The Allies concluded that the Particans were more actively attacking the Germans. Some orphaned children were sent to Australia.

Individual Experiences

We note one account frim a British girl on Malta. "My most vivid recollection of World War II is of living and sleeping in an air-raid shelter (which was actually carved out of rock). My father was in the British Army and he, my mother, sister and I were living near the town of Sliema in Malta, when World War II started in 1939. A number of British Army families did leave to return to England but my mother did not want to leave my father, so we stayed. Malta is a very tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea about 60 miles from Sicily, which meant that when Italy came into the war and the air-raid sirens sounded, we had to go to the shelters immediately. Eventually, the bombing became so frequent that we lived and slept in the shelters. The children had school lessons down there as well but these were discontinued, as it was difficult for teachers and students alike to concentrate on the lessons. One morning when we came up from the shelter we found that our quarter had been bombed and that we had lost almost everything. When the raids became more infrequent the Army decided to evacuate the rest of the families and we were flown out to Egypt. We stayed in Cairo for about two weeks and then were transferred to a Dutch liner called the Nieuw Amsterdam and sailed to South Africa. We stayed in East London and Durban for about two years and eventually returned to England in a convoy. The Island of Malta was awarded the George Cross medal for bravery by King George VI and was well deserved." [Sheehan]

Sources

Greene, Jack and Alessandro Massignani. "The Summer of '42: The Proposed Axis Invasion of Malta" Command Magazine No. 20 (January/February 1993).

Holland, James. Fortress Malta: An Island Under Seige 1940-43 (Miramax, 2003).

Sheehan, Sheila E. "Living a sheltered life," The Washington Post (May 28, 2004), p. W11.

Spooner, Tony. Supreme Gallantry: Malta's Role in the Allied Victory, 1939–1945 (London: 1996).







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Created: 3:51 PM 2/2/2008
Last updated: 2:34 AM 10/16/2013