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 time 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.
The British on tiny Malta somehow managed to withstand the fiercest air assault of the War. It was not because they were prepared. When the Germana invaded Poland, Italy remained neutral and thus the Mediterranean was not involved in the early fighting. The German Luftwaffe was the most powerful airforce and the British and French husbanded their air power for the German Western Offensive that was sure to come. Few planes were available dor deployment to Malta and Egypt. Mussolini decided to enter the War once France was clearly defeated (June 1940). This meant that Malta, only a few miles south of Sicily was on the front line of the War. The British had only a few obsolete fighters on the Island at the time.
Initially there was just one squadron of Gloster Galdiator biplanes stationed on Malta. These were first built in 1934 and were beginning to be replaced by Hurricanes and Spitfires. These more advanced planes fighterd, however, came later, when they could be spared from th Battle of Britain and the North Africa campaigns.
There was a story that just three of these bi-planes, names by the press as 'Faith', 'Hope' and 'Charity' held off the might of the German and Italian Air Forces. The actual story was that to minimise losses, only
three planes were ever scrambled at a time. The population never saw more than three planes ho up, and they were always flying. They didn't know they were different planes. The rumour spread on Malta that these planes were
invincible. Although the Gloster Gladiator was very manouverable, it was slow, and only pilot skill made it a match for the faster and better equipped Italian bi-plane the Fiat CR42, its early adversary.
The Italians began bombing Malta in 1940. For much of the following 2 yearts, the island was under air attack. The initial Italian air attacks were sporadic, scattered and ineffective. This was primarily because the air defenses of the Island discouraged the low-level attacks needed for accuracy. And the air defenses proved sufficent to ensure that Italian attackers pasid a heavy price. Some Italian crews would frop their bombs at sea before reaching Malta ad then return to their bases. One squadron of MTBs attacking the Grand Harbour was destroyed. The British pilots came to call the Italians the "ice cream boys" because of their white uniforms.
Mussolini believed that the massive Italian Army in Libya could easily defeat the British Army in Egypt and seize the Suez Canal, His military commanders were not so sure, bur he dismissed their reservations. Thus the Italiahs invaded Egypt (September 1940). In what was one of the most lopsided victories in history, the British not only stopped the Italians, but drove them back into Libya. Mussolini who at first dismissed German offers of assistance was forced to ask Hitler to send forceds to prevent Libya from falling to the British. This was the genesis of the Afrika Korps. Rommel and a small German force was deployed to Libya (March 1941). And as Fore K operations from Malta began to have an impact on supply convoys, the Germans began to focus om Malta. The Luftwaffe began flying bombers into Sicily (September 1941). This was done just as the fighting in the Soviet Umnion was reaching a critical stage. The first bombers were the beginning of a German buildup of air forces in Sicily and southern Italy. The Luftwaffe forces in Italy did not conduct any major raids during the rest of 1941. There were a number of small raids designed to test the British air defenses. The pattern executed time and again was to mass forces for a devestating strike.
Hitler chose experienced Luftwaffe commander Field Marshal Kesselring to command the Luftwaffe formations in Egypt. He quickly assessed the situation and decided that Malta would have to be taken. He thought that Fliegerkorps II was quite capable of reducing the Island. It did not take a military genius to see the importance of Malta. The Royal Navy with its base on Malta was interdicting the Italian supply convoys supplying Rommem's Afrika Korps. Force K based in Malta was an important part of that operation. The Royal Navy's naval victories agains the Italian Navy during 1941 only worsened the situation. Without Malta, the Royal Navy would find interdicting the supply convoys much more difficult.
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 levelattacks, British air defenses, and the location of the targets meant that civilian areas were heavily bombed. Much of Valetta was left piles of rubble. The Luftwaffe attacked from nearby bases in Sicily. They began using Stukas (November 1941). 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.
Field Marshal Kesselring was ready for the asault on Malta (March 1942). He had assembled a formidable air amada. The bombers included 500 Stuka dive nombers and numerous Ju-88 medium bonbers. There were also
200-300 Me-109 fighters. He also could call on Luftwaffe bombers based on Sardinia. These numbers may not seem huge compared to the Allied strategic bombing campaign in norther Europe. They were, however, a substantial escalstion of the air forces so far deployed in Western Desert campsaign. And they were primarily focused on the tiny island of Malta. Larger forces were employed in the Batte of Britain and the invasion of the Soviet Union, but they had much larger targets and , as a result, the bombing dispersed. The attacks on Malta all concentartated on a tiny island and continued in strength for a year and a half. Thus as a result, Malta became the most intensely bombed targert of the Axis during the entire War.
Field Marshal Kesselring launched the air assault on Malta (beginning of March). 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. [Holland] The hard-pressed Desert Army could not spare any fighters to defend Malta. This meant that they had to come from Britain, but getting them to Malta through the German air forces in the Mediterranean proved difficult. The German bombing peaked in April 1942. They suceeded in heavily damaging the docks in Valetta and the raids came so regulsarly that repairs were difficult to make before more damage was done. The Germans scored some major hits. The Army barracks at Birkikari was largely destroyed with major casualties. They also hit an oil depot at Liminis which caused the loss of precious fuel reserves. The Luftwaffe not only dropped bombs. They also deployed sea mines and delayed-action bombs. The delayed action bombs were mostly used on airfields to complicate repairs.
The Luftwaffe also used anti-personnel bombs. The ‘cracker-bombs’ were especially effective. They exploded 500 feet above the ground and showered thousands of pieces of shrapnel on aget. They were effective not only on personeel, but in damaging aircraft fuselages and wings.
Malta had a civilian population of some 175,000 people, both Maltese and British. As a result of the boming and seige, housing and food shortages developed. Malta was dependent on the British convoys delivering supplies. With the substantial British garrison, there was no way that the island could feed itself. Food rations were cut for the garisob. The civilians fared even worse. Civilians built whatever shelters they could piece together. Natural shelters were heavily used such as caves. People dug into the sandstone cliffs. Many lived lived in underground 'cubicles'. Schools along with other buildings were destroyed. Classes continued in the open air, but at carefully selected sites. The girls wore protctive sun hats. News reel footage show well-drilled school children with their teachers acustomed to Axis bombing raids moving smartly in good order to nearby bomb shelters when the air-raid sireens went. It is difficult to imagine school children, especially the younger children, taking Axis air raids in their stride as part of the daily routine, but this is exactly what they did. Food shortages were much more difficult to address. One survivir recalls, "
I remember my father telling me that there were only 10 days’ supplies left. As our ration at the time was very limited — only one slice of bread each per day — leaving the table hungry wasn’t unusual. My poor mother struggled to feed us — I remember she became painfully thin, and began to look old. My father recorded he lost 8” off his waist and felt quite fit except when walking quickly his heart beat sounded like a going in his ears.
How our poor dog Handak survived I don’t know as he was ordered out of the dining room when my mother realized we were slipping titbits under the table. The poor dog was hungry too. First our canaries died and then the chickens (no doubt a meal was made of each hen). They stopped laying for lack of food although the gate to the chicken run was left open so they could find what they could in the garden.
I used to queue at the Victory kitchen in Floriana for our one meal a day. Divided between seven of us, it was pathetic; maybe enough for one and a half people — but I must say, it was always very tasty. My mother learnt to serve it on small plates. One day my father acquired a sack of oatmeal riddled with weevils. My mother asked me to try and clean it — an impossible task — so it was cooked with the weevils! My sisters and I played 'loves me, loves me not' with weevils rather than fruit stones." [Hutchinson]
The food shortages got so severe that they led to sickness and disease among both the British military garison and civilians. The Axis planes dropped more than 14,000 bombs and destroyed some 30,000 buildings. There were many civilan injuries as a result of the bombings. There were, however, relatively few fatalities. Medical supplies ran low. Until Pedistal and the arrival of the tanker SS Ohio and a few supply ships, it looke liked statvation would force Malta to surrender to the Axis forces. Incredibly given the intensity of the bombing, only 1,500 civilians were killed. People in Valletta and “the three cities” were evacuated.
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] An important part of the British defense was an intense system of anti-aircraft gun implacements. This included mobile Bofors gun batteries. One shipments of Hurricanes was lost at sea. Subsequent groups made it thrrough, but many were lost as the airfields on the Island were under constant German attack. Cargo ships trying to make it to the island were became prime German targets. Even heavioly escorted convoys had trouble. The British had to suspend supply cargos for some time. The fast HMS Welshman made nighttime runs to and from Gibraltar, primarily to bring in ammunition. Submarines were used for medical supplies. Malta needed Spitfires. British carriers could not handle Spitfires at the time. Despite the pressing need in the Pacific, the United States risked the USS Wasp to deliever 45 Spitfires (April 1942). This required a 600-mile flight. The Germans following this on radar attacked. The Spitfires needed to be refuled when they landed and thus were vulerable . German attackers mamaged to attack as the planes were landing. The Germans suceeded in destroying over half of the Spitfires on the ground during the first day. After the first week, only four were serviceable and six were in protected hangars for maintenance.
Another delivery by carrier was more successful (May 9). HMS Eagle and USS Wasp flew in 64 Spitfires. This time, the British established a heavily armed protective cordon around the perimeter fence at Takali. And ground crews were ready to quickly haul the new Spitfires into prepared into sandbagged hangars.
The ground crews had been trained to turn around twelve fighters in just 7 minutes.
The results shocked the Luftwaffe, rather than a eprat of their April triumph, the new Spitfires were soon back up in the air.
The British put up 36 of the new Spitfires V’s and reported 33 kill. One of the most furious battles occurred the following day and became known as the “glorious 10th of May”. The British shot down or damaged 63 attacking Axis aircraft.
The British claimed that over the week that they had shot down 172 Luftwaffe at the cost of only 3 Spitfires. This was an exageration and accurate figures are hard to coner by, but the British clealy scored a major success at a time the Germans were contemplating an invasion.
Despite the limited air defense, the British shot down substantial numbers of Axis aircraft. The Germans flew both day and night raids. The Spitfires on Malta were not equipped with radar. The British attempted to fly some at night, but accidents forced them to suspend night flights. Radar-equipped Beaufighters were flown in from Egypt and on therir first night patrol they shot down nine unsuspecting Ju-88 raiders. Not only were fighters in short supply, but fuel to fly the small defending fighters alost ran out. Fuel became so scarse that repaired Spitfires were not allowed a trial flight to see if they were airworthy before flying missions.
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. The United States had the indistrial capacity and manpower to deploy and support air units all over the world. The Germans did not. The early German success were in part due to the fact that the Luftwaffe could be concentrated on relatively small battlefield. The French for example dispersed their force which is one reason the Germans broke through to the Channel. This was not the case when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. The battledield was so huge that the Germans could not concentrate the Luftwaffe and provided needed support over the entire battlefield. And combined with the basic inadequacy of the Luftwaffe in the east was the fact that available forces were dispersed. In addition to the Malta campaign, Luftwaffe forces were deployed to defend the Reich from the Allied stratehic bombing campaign, in the Balkans (primarily to defend Ploesti), and Norway (to interdict the Artic convoys to the Soviet Union), and several smaller operations. The Luftwaffe simply was not a large enough force to meet all these demands. An then came the confrontation with American P-051 Mustangs (Secember 1943-April 1944), The American escorts knowing that the Luftwaffe woukld have to come up to defend their cities, shot what was left of this once formidable dforce out of the sky,. The result was that when the decisive D-Day landings finally came (June 1944), the Luftwaffe was unable to offer any serious resistance.
The German air assault on Malt was notable for hat did not come from the air. he Lftwaffe mafe it maximum effort, with one exception--Ser Fallschirmjäger. The Germans had avery effective pratroop fiorce. They had been the key reasons that that the Germans took Crete (1941). While sucssful, they suffered very heavy losses. Hitler was shocked. At this stage of the War, German losses had veen very limited. There had ayear to replace the losses and a similar effort on Malta almost certainly woulfhve suceeded. As far as we can tell, the sole reason that the air assault ws not followed by aparatroop drop ws Hitler's shiock at tghe loses on Crete. Thus some historias have taken to calling Crete the wrong island an Malta the right island.
Holland, James. Fortress Malta: An Island Under Seige 1940-43 (Miramax, 2003).
Hutchinson, Margaret (nee Staples). "My memories of Malta during the Second World War," WW2 People's War website. (2005) Article ID: A7075578.
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