This was an Italian unrealised plan, otherwise known as ‘Operazione C3’ and including the German ‘Herkules’, for a combined operation to capture Malta together with its smaller partner Gozo (29 April/November 1942).
At this time the British air and naval forces based on Malta were decimating the Axis convoys plying between Italy and North Africa with reinforcements and supplies for the German and Italian formations fighting the British in the Western Desert, and the removal of this thorn from the side of the Axis military effort in the Mediterranean and North Africa was a latter of the highest strategic and operational importance.
‘Esigenza C3’ had its origins in a series of Italian military studies conducted in the mid-1930s during Italy’s conquest of Abyssinia, and by 1938 the Italian army command had estimated the amount of sea transport it would require to move significant military forces into North Africa, in the process identifying the seizure of Malta as a prerequisite initial step. An outline plan for a seaborne assault was then drawn up and was periodically updated, but the Italian navy initially showed little interest in the concept.
Early in 1942 Axis intelligence rightly estimated that the British had between 30,000 and 35,000 men on the islands of Malta and Gozo under the command of Lieutenant General Sir William Dobbie, and the Comando Supremo decided to deploy a total of eight divisions against them. After initial agreement between Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, and his Italian opposite number, Maresciallo d’Italia Ugo Cavallero, the Comando Supremo on 12 April 1942 created a planning headquarters under Generale di Brigata Carlo Fassi. Further encouragement for the operation was derived from agreement between Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini on 29/30 April, resulting in the promise of substantial German support including heavy armour and some 300 transport aircraft, and the operation then began to take shape in a more precise form.
The definitive plan called for the simultaneous invasion of Malta and Gozo by airborne and amphibious forces under the command of Generale di Corpo d’Armata Carlo Vecchiarelli supported by Ammiraglio d’Armata Angelo Iachino’s naval forces (including the amphibious capability of Ammiraglio di Squadra Vittorio Tur’s 12a Divisione Navale and the submarines of 14 special groups) and 1,506 warplanes including 666 provided by the Luftwaffe.
Axis assessment of the British defences was both extensive and generally accurate as a result of careful aerial reconnaissance and mapping, and the Axis military leaders therefore knew the location and strength of every fortification, artillery emplacement and anti-aircraft battery.
The German airborne element of the planned undertaking was ‘Herkules’, under the command of General Kurt Student’s XI Fliegerkorps. Responsible for the hastily created and executed ‘Merkur’ airborne operation on Crete in May 1941, Student was now able to draw on that experience to create a more carefully considered operational plan avoiding the many poor features of ‘Merkur’, which had very nearly been a disastrous failure.
Student could call on the services of 500 Junkers Ju 52/3m transport aircraft (10 Gruppen), 300 DFS 230 assault gliders each carrying 10 men, and 200 larger Gotha Go 242 gliders each carrying 23 men or a light vehicle or piece of artillery. Also available were 24 Messerschmitt Me 321 Gigant heavy gliders each towed by a five-engined Heinkel He 111Z and able to carry up to 200 fully equipped paratroopers or a 25-ton tank.
The Italian air force would contribute between 180 and 220 transport aircraft, most of them three-engined Savoia-Marchetti SM.75 machines each carrying 24 to 28 men, Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 machines each carrying 12 to 14 men, and Savoia-Marchetti SM.82 machines each carrying 30 to 34 men. Given the fact that it was only 90 miles (145 km) from the southernmost Axis airfields on the island of Sicily and the planned drop zones over Malta, it was possible for the powered transport aircraft to fly four sorties per day.
The additional preparations for the airborne assault included the construction of three dedicated glider strips some 25 miles (40 km) to the south of Mt Etna in eastern Sicily.
This air transport capability was to deliver single Italian and German airborne divisions onto the southern side of the island of Malta with the primary objectives of taking and holding the high ground behind the invasion beaches, and of seizing a nearby airfield so that Axis transport aircraft could quickly land another division and supplies.
The airborne formations earmarked for use in ‘Herkules’ totalled 29,000 men in the form of Generalmajor Richard Heidrich’s 7th Fliegerdivision (11,000 men), Generale di Divisione Enrico Frattini’s 185th Divisione paracadutista ‘Folgore’ (7,500 men) and Generale di Divisione Fernando Conte Gelich’s 80th Divisione aviotrasportabile ‘La Spezia’ (10,500 men).
The seaborne element of ‘Esigenza C3’ comprised the 70,000 Italian ground troops of Generale di Corpo d’Armata Carlo Rossi’s XVI Corps 1 and Generale di Corpo d’Armata Vittorio Sogno’s XXX Corps 2. These were to make amphibious landings at two points on the southern side of the island of Malta, with the main effort falling upon a site designated Famagosta and a smaller secondary landing at a place designated Larnaca. Also to be seized were the lesser islands of Gozo and Comino.
In order to distract the attention of the British from the real landing sites, amphibious feints were also to be made against St Paul’s Bay, Mellieha Bay and a point to the north-west of Valletta near the old Victoria Lines.
The main assault convoy was scheduled to begin landing on Malta just before 24.00 on the day of the invasion after the airborne forces had landed during the afternoon and secured the heights above the selected beaches.
Most of the first-wave assault troops would come from the XXX Corps’ 20th Divisione d’assalto (10,000 men) and 4th Divisione d’assalto (9,850 men), but would also include 1,200 men of the air force’s 1st Battaglione d’assalto and Battaglione ‘Loreto’, 2,000 marines of two Battaglioni ‘San Marco’, 1,900 men of three ‘Camicie Nere’ battalions, and 300 Nuotatori (a commando unit of ‘San Marco’ marines specially trained in ocean swimming and beach assault). Armour support comprised 19 Semovente 47/32 and eight Semovente 75/18 self-propelled guns plus 30 L3 tankettes.
The follow-up convoy would deliver for the most part men of the XVI Corps: the 26th Divisione montagna (9,000 men) and 54th Divisione (8,900 men) and attached artillery (3,200 men), but would also include the remainder of the 10th Reggimento carazzato (3,800 men). The 1st Divisione d’assalto (9,200 men), a ‘Camicie Nere’ battalion and a small detachment of ‘San Marco’ marines (1,000 men) were to be ready to land on the smaller island of Gozo in the early morning hours of the second day.
The German armoured contribution to this Axis operation was to include the 2nd Kompanie of the 66th Panzerabteilung zbV, a unit equipped partially with captured Soviet tanks. Ten KV-1 and KV-2 heavy tanks, each armed with a 76-mm (3-in) gun and a 152-mm (6-in) howitzer respectively, were made available, and at least 10 Italian motozattere (landing craft) were modified with reinforced flooring and internal ramps to carry and off-load these vehicles. Other tanks in the unit included captured T-34/76 medium tanks each armed with a 76-mm (3-in) gun, uparmoured German light tanks (five PzKpfw IIJ and five PzKpfw IF vehicles with respectively a 20-mm cannon and two 7.92-mm [0.312-in] machine guns as their main armament) and 12 PzKpfw IVG battle tanks each armed with a 75-mm (2.95-in) main gun. An additional 20 PzKpfw III medium tanks, each armed with a 37-mm gun, were offered, but it is not known from which unit these were to be drawn.
Two days were allowed for the main amphibious assault and for the landing of the follow-up convoy, though this was heavily dependent on the speedy capture of Marsaxlokk Bay to allow heavier artillery pieces and a much higher tonnage of supplies to be brought in.
As it lacked sufficient numbers of landing craft for a major amphibious assault, the Italian navy secured design plans from the German navy for the construction of the Marinefährprahm Typ A in Italian shipyards. These 220-ton shallow-draught vessels were each capable of transporting up to 200 fully equipped infantrymen, two or three medium tanks or an equivalent weight in cargo, and could unload directly onto an open beach via a drop-down bow ramp. Some 65 of these motozattere had been completed by July 1942, and of these about 50 were available for ‘Esigenza C3’. Another 20 German MFPs were transferred to the Mediterranean via the Rhône river to make up for an expected shortfall of Italian-built landing craft. Other German-operated landing craft sent to Italy by railway included 12 Siebel catamaran ferries powered by vehicle engines driving water propellers and armed with a mix of 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-purpose guns and 20-mm Flak cannon, six Pionierlandungsboote Typ 39 each carrying 20 tons of cargo, two light vehicles or 45 infantrymen and unloaded via clamshell doors at the bow, six Pionierlandungsboote Typ 40 enlarged Type 39s each carrying 40 tons of cargo, three or four light vehicles or 80/90 infantrymen), 81 Sturmboote Typ 39 small plywood assault boats each carrying up to six infantrymen and powered by a 30-hp (22.4-kW) outboard engine, and an assortment of large inflatable rafts each carrying 25 infantrymen. Some of these last were powered by outboard engines, and others were propelled by oars.
The Italians assembled a varied collection of other naval craft to assist in the delivery of the amphibious forces. These included two former Strait of Messina railway ferries each adapted to carry between four and eight tanks, 10 passenger ships each carrying between 800 and 1,400 men, six former passenger ferries each carrying 400 men, six cargo ships each carrying 3,000 tons of supplies, 30 ex-trawlers each carrying 300 men, five converted minelayers each carrying 500 men, and 74 assorted motor boats each carrying between 30 and men.
The Italians also requested from the Germans another 200 Sturmboote to assist in the rapid transfer of men from ship to shore.
More specialised landing equipment included the Seeschlange floating ship-to-shore bridge originally developed by the Germans for ‘Seelöwe’. The Seeschlange comprised a series of joined modules that could be towed into place and act as a temporary jetty, and moored ships could then unload their cargoes either directly onto the ‘roadway’ or lower it down onto it via their own booms.
The Italian navy had the twin tasks of protecting the invasion convoys from attacks by British warships and submarines, and providing gun fire support during the landings. The force assigned to accomplish this included the battleships Littorio, Vittorio Veneto, Caio Duilio and Andrea Doria, four heavy cruisers, eight light cruisers and 21 destroyers, which were to sortie from Messina, Reggio di Calabria, Augusta and Cagliari. The two older battleships of the ‘Duilio’ class would each carry some 200 320-mm (12.6-in) main armament rounds for shore bombardment.
Italian and German submarines were also to be deployed for scouting and to intercept any British ships attempting to close on the seaborne landings. One submarine was to be stationed half-way between Sicily and Malta and act as a guide beacon for the transport aircraft on their way to and from the drop zones.
The Italians were confident they could fend off any daylight attacks by British warships, especially with the support of German air units which would provide air superiority, but there were serious concerns with regard to the Italian fleet’s capacity to defeat any British naval intervention by night. Lacking shipborne radar and poorly trained for night combat, the Italian navy had come off decidedly the worse in the night fighting of ‘Gaudo’ off Cape Matapan in March 1941. A similar encounter off Malta might wreak havoc on the slow-moving Axis invasion convoys, thereby leaving the airborne forces isolated and unable to take Malta on their own. The Italian navy had made some efforts to rectify its night fighting inferiority by equipping the battleship Littorio with an experimental E.C.-3/bis Gufo radar in August 1941, but this equipment was considered unreliable: not until September 1942 did Littorio receive a production version of the Gufo with better performance including the ability to detect surface ships at a range of 20 miles (32 km) and aircraft at a range of 52 miles (83 km). In September 1941, while awaiting production of Italian-made radar units in quantity, the Italian navy requested from the German navy the installation of a FuMO 24/40 G DeTe radar on Italy’s most recent destroyer, Legionario, which was then still under construction. By March 1942 the requested set had been delivered and installed, and a small group of Italian ratings had undergone training in Germany on its use to allow operational testing in the spring of 1942.
In 1942 the main strength of the British garrison of Malta lay in 15 infantry battalions (11 commonwealth and four Maltese) organised into four brigades totalling 26,000 men. Armour support was provided by the 1st Independent Troop of the Royal Tank Regiment with Matilda II infantry tanks each armed with a 2-pdr (40-mm) gun, and Vickers Mk VIC light tanks each armed with two machine guns. Exactly how many tanks this troop possessed at the time remains unclear, but likely no more than 10 were present on the island. Also on hand was the 12th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, with 24 25-pdr gun/howitzers.
Malta’s fixed defences included 19 coastal guns varying in calibre from 12 to 16 in (305 to 406 mm), 130 smaller coastal guns varying in calibre from 4.5 to 9.2 in (114 to 234 mm), and 112 heavy and 144 light anti-aircraft guns.
It was initially planned that the capture of Malta and Gozo should precede the ‘Venezia’ offensive of Generaloberst Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ in May 1942, but the need to train the 185th Divisione paracadutista in airborne operations led to a delay in which Carboni, commanding the 20th Divisione, began to express reservations about the operation’s viability. The Axis powers then proposed a date in the middle of July 1942 for their invasion, partly to provide the time required to move troops from other front-line areas, and partly because Hitler believed the Italian navy was no match for the British naval forces in the Mediterranean.
Promoted to Generalfeldmarschall on 21 June, Rommel still supported the idea of seizing Malta, and indeed asked Hitler to allow him to command the invasion forces. His reasons for supporting an invasion were to hinder the Allied troops fighting in Africa, as well as to remove the threat to the convoys delivering vital but very scarce supplies, oil, equipment and and men from Italy to North Africa. Rommel put such emphasis on the attack that he was willing to divert units from his Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ for the attack. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring opposed the invasion as he feared that it would be another near-disaster for his paratroops, as had happened on Crete. Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’, was initially a proponent of the undertaking, but was eventually dissuaded when it became apparent that too many air and ground units had been siphoned off to support the Axis forces in North Africa, thereby significantly decreasing any chance of success, and after he had become convinced by subordinate air force commanders that Malta’s offensive capabilities were on the verge of neutralisation by Axis air power.
Together with Hitler’s concerns about the vulnerability of of the airborne forces, this finally led to the postponement of the plan’s implementation and then its cancellation in November 1942.