The 'Siege of Malta' was the struggle between Axis and British-led forces for control of the strategically important island of Malta (11 June 1940/20 November 1942).
With the entry of Italy into World War II in June 1940 and the resultant opening of a new military front in North Africa, Malta’s already considerable value was further increased. British naval and air forces based on the island could attack Axis ships transporting reinforcement and vital supplies from Europe to the Italian colony of Libya in North Africa, and the British prime minister, Winston Churchill. aptly called the island an 'unsinkable aircraft carrier'. General Erwin Rommel, the de facto field commander of the Axis forces in North Africa, quickly recognised the island’s importance, and in May 1941 warned that 'Without Malta the Axis will end by losing control of North Africa.'
The Axis resolved to bomb or starve Malta into submission, or to soften its resolve to fight off an invasion, by attacking its ports, towns and infrastructure, and by savaging the shipping which supplied the island. As a result, Malta became one of the most intensively bombed areas of World War II. The Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica flew a total of 3,000 bombing raids, dropping 6,700 tons of bombs on the Grand Harbour area alone, over a period of two years. Success in this effort would have made possible the planned 'Herkules' combined German and Italian amphibious landing, supported by airborne landings, but this did not happen.
Allied convoys were able to supply and reinforce Malta, while the Royal Air Force defended its airspace, though at great cost in matériel and lives. In November 1942 the Axis forces lost the 2nd Battle of El Alamein, and the Allies landed forces in Vichy French Morocco and Algeria within 'Torch'. Germany and Italy had little option but to divert their forces to the 'Battle of Tunisia', and their attacks on Malta were rapidly reduced, effectively ending the siege.
In December 1942, Allied naval and air forces operating from Malta went over to the offensive, and by May 1943 and the end of the 'Battle of Tunisia' had sunk 230 Axis ships in 164 days, the highest Allied sinking rate of the war. The Allied victory in Malta thus played a major role in the eventual Allied success in North Africa.
In June 1940 Malta was a military and naval fortress that was the only Allied base between Gibraltar and Alexandria, Egypt. In peacetime it was a way station along the British trade route to Egypt and the Suez Canal, and thence to India, the Far East and Australasia. When this route was closed by Italy’s entry to the war, Malta remained a forward base for offensive action against Axis shipping and land targets in the central part of the Mediterranean Sea. As a result of its exposed position close to Italy, the British had moved the headquarters of their Mediterranean Fleet from Valletta on Malta to Alexandria in October 1939.
Excluding its smaller island appendages of Comino and Gozo, Malta measures 17 by 9 miles (27 by 14 km) with an area of just less than 97 sq miles (251 km²), and had a population of around 250,000 in June 1940, all but 3% or 4% of them native Maltese. According to the 1937 census, most of the inhabitants lived within 4 miles (6.4 km) of Grand Harbour, where the population density was more than six times that of the island average. Among the most congested spots was Valletta, the capital and political, military and commercial centre, where 23,000 people lived in an area of about 0.25 sq mile (0.65 km²). Across Grand Harbour, in the Three Cities, where the Malta Dockyard and the Admiralty headquarters were located, 28,000 people were packed into 0.5 sq mile (1.3 km²). It was these small areas that suffered the heaviest, most sustained and concentrated aerial bombing in history.
There were hardly any defences on Malta because the British had come to the pre-war conclusion that the island was indefensible. The Italian and British surface fleets were evenly matched in the region but the Italians had far more submarines and aircraft. The Admiralty had to protect the Suez Canal with Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet and Gibraltar with Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Force 'H'. In October 1939, the Mediterranean Fleet was transferred eastward to the northern coast of Egypt, in the process stripping the island of its naval protection. Only the monitor Terror and a few submarines were still based at the island. When the Maltese government questioned British reasoning, they were told that the island could be defended just as adequately from Alexandria as from Grand Harbour, which was untrue and led the Maltese to doubt the British commitment to defend the island.
Despite concerns that the island, far from the UK and close to Italy, could not be defended, the British decided in July 1939 to increase the number of anti-aircraft guns and fighter aircraft on Malta. The British leadership had further doubts about whether to hold the island in May 1940 when, in the course of the 'Battle of France', the French prime minister, Paul Reynaud, suggested that the Italian prime minister and dictator Benito Mussolini might be appeased by concessions, including Malta. After some discussion, the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, convinced the British war cabinet that no concessions should be made. With the British home islands in danger, the defence of Malta was not the priority and it continued to be only lightly protected. A mere six obsolete Gloster Sea Gladiator single-engined biplane fighters were stationed on the island, with another six still in crates, when on 10 June 1940 Italy declared war on the UK and France. In the 1930s, Italy had sought to expand in the Mediterranean and Africa, regions dominated by the British and French. The Allied defeat in France in May and June 1940 removed the French navy from the Allied order of battle and tilted the balance of naval and air power in Italy’s favour.
Upon declaring war, Mussolini called for an offensive throughout the Mediterranean Sea and, within hours, the first bombs were dropped on Malta. After the French surrender on 25 June, Mussolini tried to exploit the situation, ordering the 'Operazione ''E''' invasion of Egypt that began only in September. The Italian 10a Armata was crushed in 'Compass', a British counter-offensive, and Adolf Hitler decided to come to the aid of his ally. In February 1941, the Deutsches Afrika Korps, commanded by Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel, was despatched to North Africa as a Sperrverband (blocking detachment0. RAF and Royal Navy anti-shipping squadrons and submarines on Malta threatened the Axis supply line to North Africa and both sides increasingly recognised the importance of Malta in controlling the central part of the Mediterranean.
In 1940, an Italian assault on Malta stood a reasonable chance of gaining control of the island, an action giving the Italians naval and air supremacy in the central Mediterranean. Such a success would have divided the Mediterranean in two, separating the British bases at Gibraltar and Alexandria into the sea’s western and eastern basins. The reluctance of the Italians to act directly against Malta throughout 1940 was strengthened by the 'Judgement' carrierborne air attack on the part of the Italian navy based at Taranto, in which much of the Italian surface fleet was put out of action by Fleet Air Arm Fairey Swordfish single-engined biplane torpedo bombers. The Italians thus came to adopt an indirect approach to the defeat of Malta by isolating it from resupply. To the Italians, and later to the Germans, air power was seen as the key weapon against Malta.
Therefore air power was the method chosen to attack Malta, and the Regia Aeronautica began the aerial bombardment of the island from air bases in Sicily just to the north of Malta. On the first day, 55 Italian bombers and 21 fighters flew over Malta and dropped 142 bombs on the three airfields at Luqa, Hal Far and Ta Qali. Later, 10 Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 three-engined medium bombers and 20 Macchi C.200 single-engined fighters flew over the island, meeting no air opposition. At the time of these first air raids, the fighters defending Malta comprised obsolete Sea Gladiator fighters of the Hal Far Fighter Flight. The major components of 10 Sea Gladiator fighters were removed from their transit crates and assembled, and as no more than three aircraft flew at once, these were called 'Faith', 'Hope' and 'Charity'. The pilots were flying boat and other pilots with no experience of fighter operations. One Gladiator was shot down but the rest managed to shoot down several Italian aircraft.
The Italians flew at an altitude of some 19,685 ft (6000 m) and the monitor Terror and gunboats Aphis and Ladybird opened fire. In the afternoon, another 38 bombers escorted by 12 fighters raided the capital. The raids were designed to affect the morale of the population rather than inflict damage to dockyards and installations. A total of eight raids were flown on that first day. The bombing did not cause much damage and most of the casualties suffered were civilian. No interception of the raiders was made because there was no RAF force ready to meet them. No RAF airfield on Malta was operational at that time, although that at Luqa was nearing completion.
Despite the absence of any operational airfields, at least one RAF Gladiator flew against a raid of 55 SM.79 bombers and their 20 escorting fighters on 11 June. This surprised the Italians, but the defences, almost non-existent on the ground and in the air, failed to impede the Italian force. On 12 June an Italian aircraft on a reconnaissance flight over Malta was shot down.
An odd development took place on 19 June when 12 Swordfish torpedo bombers of No. 767 (Training) Squadron flew into the Fleet Air Arm’s base at Hal Far. The aircraft had escaped from southern France following the French capitulation sand flown to the French colony of Tunisia, but insecurity compelled them to seek friendlier surroundings. The FAA aircraft came to form the nucleus of what was to become No. 830 Squadron, providing Malta with its first offensive attack aircraft, and before the end of June the Swordfish force had raided Sicily and sunk one Italian destroyer, damaged one cruiser and destroyed oil storage tanks in the port of Augusta.
By the start of July, the Gladiator fighters had been reinforced by Hawker Hurricane single-engined monoplane fighters, and the defences were organised into the RAF’s No. 261 Squadron in August. Another 12 Hurricane fighters were delivered by the old carrier Argus in August as the first of several batches ferried to the island by the carrier. A further attempt to fly 12 Hurricane fighters into Malta on 17 November, led by a Blackburn Skua single-engined dive-bomber in 'White', ended in disaster with the loss of eight Hurricanes: the fighters were launched too far to the west of the island as a result of presence of Italian warships, and ran out of fuel: several pilots were lost, another two Hurricane fighters crashed, with one of the pilots rescued by a Short Sunderland four-engined flying boat. The arrival of more fighters was welcome. After eight weeks, the original Hurricane force had become grounded for lack of spare parts.
By the end of the year, the RAF claimed 45 Italian aircraft had been shot down. The Italians admitted the loss of 23 bombers and 12 fighters, with a further 187 bombers and seven fighters sustaining damage, mainly to anti-aircraft artillery.
In 1938 Mussolini had considered an invasion of Malta under Plan DG10/42, in which a force of 40,000 men would capture the island. Nearly all 80 purpose-built sea craft that would land the Italian army were expected to be lost, but landings would be made in the north, with an attack upon the Victoria Lines, across the centre of the island. A secondary landing would be made on the smaller island of Gozo, to the north-west of Malta, and the islet of Comino between Malta and Gozo. The entire Italian navy and 500 aircraft would be involved, but the lack of supplies led the planners to believe that the operation could not be carried out. With the German victory in the 'Battle of France' in May and June 1940, the plan was reduced to 20,000 men with the addition of tanks. The Allied defeat in France gave the Italians an opportunity to seize Malta but Italian intelligence overestimated the Maltese defences and Mussolini thought that an invasion would be unnecessary once the UK sued for peace. Mussolini also expected Falangist Spain, under General Francisco Franco y Bahamonde, to join the Axis alliance and capture Gibraltar, which would close the Mediterranean to the British from the west.
The reluctance of the Italian admiralty to act was also the result of other considerations. The Italians believed they could keep the Royal Navy’s fleet of ageing battleships bottled up in Alexandria, and another factor was Italy’s lack of crude oil (the Italians did not discover the large reserves in Libya during their occupation of the country). The Germans took most of the oil from Romania and left few resources for Italy to pursue large-scale operations in the Mediterranean. Not only did this preclude large-scale naval operations, it also left the Italians without adequate fuel for combat training at sea. By the start of 1941, a limited petroleum stockpile meant only seven months of fuel could be guaranteed. On the other hand, British confidence was eroded when aircraft began to dominate the actions at sea later on in 1941 and 1942, as the Royal Navy had long been expected to be the principal defender of the island.
Cunningham brought to light the reluctance of the Italian navy to engage by probing its defences. On 9 July 1940, the 'Battle off Calabria' was the only time the Italian and British main fleets engaged each other. Each side claimed victory, but in fact the battle was inconclusive, and both sides returned to their bases as soon as possible. It confirmed to the Maltese people that the British still controlled the seas, if not from the Grand Harbour. This was confirmed again in March 1941, when the Royal Navy decisively defeated the Italian navy in the 'Battle of Cape Matapan' as the Italian force had been heading to intercept the British convoys transporting reinforcements to aid Greece in the 'Greco-Italian War'.
When it became clear to the British that the Italian air forces were limited and having little impact on the population, which could endure even a heavy bombardment, a steady stream of reinforcements began to arrive. The potential of Malta as a base was realised and the UK ordered more aircraft into the island; these machines included Hurricane fighters, Martin Maryland twin-engined light bombers and reconnaissance aircraft, Sunderland maritime reconnaissance flying boats, Vickers Wellington twin-engined medium bombers and Swordfish torpedo bombers. The British also sent additional submarines to the island, and these provided an increasingly potent offensive arm.
Meanwhile, the Italian invasion of Egypt had failed to achieve its goals and the British 'Compass' counter-offensive destroyed several divisions of the Italian army at Cyrenaica. The diversion of the North African campaign drew away significant Italian air units, which were rushed from Italy and Sicily to deal with the disasters and support the Italian ground forces embattled in Egypt and Libya. The relief on Malta was significant as the British could now concentrate their forces on offensive rather than defensive operations. In November 1940, after months of poorly co-ordinated Italian air strikes, the Fleet Air Arm and Royal Navy struck at Italian naval forces in 'Judgement', which was a victory for sea/air power and definite proof that aircraft could wreak havoc on naval vessels lacking air cover. Swordfish torpedo bombers sank or disabled a number of Italian heavy warships during this 'Battle of Taranto', and the immediate withdrawal of the Italian fleet to Naples, out of reach of British aircraft, was a strategic victory which handed naval supremacy to the British on at least a temporary basis.
The Royal Navy’s submarines also began a period of offensive operations. 'U' class boats began operations as early as June. Larger submarines also began operations, but after 50% losses per mission these were withdrawn. The 'U' class submarines operated from the Manoel Island Base where, unfortunately, no bomb-proof pens were available as the project to build such defences had been scrapped before the war as a result of cost-cutting policies. The new force was named the 10th Submarine Flotilla and was placed under the Flag Officer Submarines, Admiral Sir Max Horton, who appointed Commander G. W. G. Simpson to command the unit. Administratively, the 10th Flotilla operated under the 1st Submarine Flotilla at Alexandria, where Cunningham commanded, but in reality, Cunningham gave Simpson and his unit a free hand. Until 'U' class boats could be made available in larger numbers, 'T' class submarines were used. These had some successes, but suffered heavy losses after they began operations on 20 September 1940. As a result of a shortage of torpedoes, ships could not be attacked unless the target in question was a warship, tanker or other 'significant vessel'.
The performance of the submarine fleet was mixed at first. It sank 37,000 tons of Italian shipping, half of which was claimed by one vessel, Truant, which accounted for one Italian submarine, nine merchant vessels and one motor torpedo boat. However, the loss of nine submarines and their trained crews was serious. Most of the losses were attributable to mines. On 14 January 1941, 'U' class submarines arrived, and the submarine offensive began in earnest.
German intervention over Malta was more a result of the Italian defeats in North Africa than Italian failures to deal with the island. Hitler had little choice other than to rescue his Italian ally or lose the chance of taking the Middle Eastern oilfields in Arabia. Rommel’s Deutsches Afrika Korps was despatched to secure the Axis front in North Africa during February 1941. The 'Colossus' airborne attack on an aqueduct in Italy signalled a dramatic turn-around. The Germans launched 'Sonnenblume', which reinforced the Italians in North Africa. They then began a counter-offensive and drove the British back into Egypt. But operating overseas in Africa meant that most of the supplies needed by the Axis forces had to be delivered by sea. This made Malta a dangerous threat to Axis logistical concerns. In response, the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe sent General Hans Geisler’s X Fliegerkorps to Sicily, arriving in January 1941, to strike at the British naval forces in and around Malta, and RAF positions on the island, in order to facilitate the passage of supply vessels.
The British submarines failed to interdict the German ships transporting the German forces to Libya, and the damaging of the 7,889-ton German ship Duisburg was the only noteworthy attack. On 9 February 1941, three submarines missed the same convoy bringing supplies to Tripoli, the principal Italian port in Libya. The port facilities could unload six ships at a time, making the port the best facility to the west of Alexandria, some 995 miles (1600 km) to the east. A large part of the Axis defensive success resulted from the use of naval mines. The Italians deployed 54,000 mines around Malta to prevent it being supplied, and these mines were the bane of the Royal Navy’s submarines. Around 3,000 mines were also laid off Tunisia’s coast by Italian naval forces.
The failure to intercept Axis shipping was evident in the figures which extended far beyond February 1941. From January to April, the Axis sent 321,259 tons to Libya and all but 18,777 tons reached port. This amounted to a 94% success rate for convoy safety running the British interdiction. Of the 73,991 men sent by sea, 71,881 (97%), arrived in Africa. On 10 December 1940, the X Fliegerkorps, under the command of Generalleutnant Hans Ferdinand Geisler, and with support of his chief-of- staff Major Martin Harlinghausen, was ordered to Sicily to attack Allied shipping in the Mediterranean. By the start of the first German operation, Geisler had 95 aircraft and 14,389 men in Sicily. Geisler persuaded the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe to give him four more dive-bomber Gruppen (groups). On 10 January, he could muster 255 (179 serviceable) aircraft including 209 dive and medium bombers.
By 2 January 1941, the first German units had arrived at Trapani on Sicily’s southern coast. The Luftwaffe’s two units were both Junkers Ju 87 single-engined dive-bomber Gruppen: these were the I/Sturzkampfgeschwader 1 and II/StG 2 with some 80 aircraft, and their arrival paved the way for a notable increase in the bombing of Malta. A Stabsstaffel (staff squadron) of the StG 3 then, and Oberstleutnant Karl Christ, the Geschwaderkommodore of the StG 3 ordered a concentration of German efforts on British heavier naval vessels, especially aircraft carriers. Only a few days later, he ordered the Ju 87 Gruppen to sink the new carrier Illustrious, which played the key role in the 'Judgement' attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto that had handed naval superiority to he Mediterranean Fleet, and the carrier now topped the Axis forces' target list.
The Luftwaffe crews believed that four direct hits would sink the ship, and began practice operations on floating mock-ups off the Sicilian coast. The first opportunity to attack the vessel came on 6 January in the course of the British 'Excess' undertaking, which included a series of British convoy operations. On 10 January the convoys were within range of the Ju 87 bases, and with the support of the I/StG 1, the II/StG 2 despatched 43 Ju 87 dive-bombers. An attack by 10 Italian SM.79 bombers had drawn off the carrier’s Fairey Fulmar single-engined two-seat fighters, while Bonaventure, an escorting light cruiser, sank the Italian torpedo boat Vega. Some 10 Ju 87 aircraft were therefore able to attack the carrier without air opposition. Witnessed by Cunningham, the Mediterranean Fleet’s commander-in-chief, from the battleship Warspite, the German attackers scored six hits: two destroyed single guns, another hit near the carrier’s bow, and two hit the lift, wrecking the aircraft below deck, and causing explosions of fuel and ammunition. Another bomb passed through the armoured deck and exploded deep inside the ship. Two further attacks were made without result. Badly damaged, but with her main engines still intact, the carrier made for the now dubious haven of Malta. The attack had lasted six minutes and left 126 members of her crew dead and another 91 wounded. When the carrier was within sight of Malta, Italian torpedo bombers also attacked her, but were driven off by intense anti-aircraft fire.
The British operation should not have been launched, for 'Ultra' intelligence had informed the Air Ministry of the X Fliegerkorps' presence on Sicily as early as 4 January. The Air Ministry did not pass the intelligence to the Admiralty, who probably would not have sailed within range of the Ju 87 dive-bombers had it known. The RAF was in no condition to prevent a major German air attack, for on Malta it had only 16 Hurricane and two Gladiator fighters serviceable. On 11 January 1941, 10 more Ju 87 aircraft were sent to sink Illustrious, but instead chanced on the light cruisers Southampton and Gloucester, which were each hit by bombs: Southampton was so badly damaged that her escorting warships scuttled her. Over the next 12 days, the workers at the shipyard in the Grand Harbour repaired the carrier under determined air attack so that she might make Alexandria. On 13 January, the Ju 87 dive-bombers, now equipped to carry the 2,205-lb (1000-kg) SC-1000 bomb, failed to achieve a hit. On 14 January, 44 Ju 87 warplanes scored a hit on the carriers ill-fated after lift. On 18 January, the Germans switched to attacking the airfields at Hal Far and Luqa in an attempt to win air superiority before returning to Illustrious. On 20 January, two near misses breached the hull below the water line and hurled carrier’s hull against the wharf. Nevertheless, the engineers won the battle. On 23 January, Illustrious slipped out of Grand Harbour and reached Alexandria two days later. The carrier later sailed to the USA for repairs that kept her out of action for a year.
The Luftwaffe had failed to sink the carrier, but its own loss had been negligible: three aircraft on 10 January and four Ju 87 dive-bombers over several weeks. The Germans had impressed the British with the effectiveness of German land-based air power, and Cunningham pulled his fleet’s heavy units from the central Mediterranean and risked no more than trying to send cruisers through the Sicilian Narrows. Both the British and Italian navies digested their experiences over Taranto and Malta.
The appearance in February of the Messerschmitt Bf 109E-7 fighters of the 7./Jagdgeschwader 26, under the command of Oberleutnant Joachim Müncheberg, led rapidly to a rise in RAF losses: the German fighter pilots were well-trained, experienced, confident, tactically astute and better-equipped, while the British pilots on Malta had little combat experience and their Hurricane fighters were worn-out. Over a period of four months, therefore, JG 26 suffered few losses: the Luftwaffe claimed 42 air victories, 20 of them (including one over Yugoslavia) credited to Müncheberg. The RAF’s Hurricane fighters were kept operational by being patched up and using parts cannibalised from other aircraft, while their performance, already inferior to that of the Bf 109E-7, became worse. Five Hurricane fighters reached Malta early in March, and another six on 18 March, but five Hurricane fighters and five pilots were lost.
On 1 March, the Luftwaffe attacks on airfields destroyed all the Wellington bombers which had arrived in October. Royal Navy warships and Sunderland flying boats could now no longer use the island as the base for offensive operations, and the primary fighter units, Nos 261 and 274 Squadrons, were put under severe pressure. There were several raids every day, and more than 107 Axis attacks took place in February and 105 in March, with Bf 109 fighters strafing any signs of movement on the ground. By February around 14,600 men, one-sixth of the island’s work force, had volunteered, but morale was seriously affected by rationing. All males aged between 16 and 56 years were conscripted to join the volunteers, the Royal Malta Artillery guarding the Grand Harbour.
The Allies had a success in April with victory in the 'Battle of the Tarigo Convoy'. Allied surface forces managed to sink only one small Axis convoy in daylight hours during the whole North African campaign, but on the night of 15/16 April, Axis ships were intercepted by Commander P. J. Mack’s 14th Destroyer Flotilla, comprising Janus, Jervis, Mohawk, Juno and Nubian. The destroyers sank the 1,500-ton Sabaudia, 2,447-ton Aegina, 4,205-ton Adana, 3,704-ton Iserlohn and Arta. Three Italian destroyers, Tarigo, Lampo and Baleno were sunk for the British loss of Mohawk.
The 14th Destroyer Flotilla had been formed on 8 April 1941 as part of the Royal Navy’s response to the need for a Malta Strike Force to interdict Axis convoys. Captain the Lord Louis Mountbatten’s 5th Destroyer Flotilla (Jackal, Kashmir, Kipling, Kelly, Kelvin and Jersey) was later ordered to combine with the 14th Destroyer Flotilla and thereby increase the striking power of the Malta Strike Force, and the light cruisers Dido and Gloucester were detailed to provide the destroyers with heavier support. The strike force had considerable success, which justified basing it at Malta despite the danger from air attack, but on 21 May it was sent to join the 'Battle of Crete' and it was several months before the strike force, now considerably depleted, returned to Malta.
Further success was enjoyed by the Malta convoys. The 'Tiger' urgent supply convoy from Gibraltar to Alexandria coincided with reinforcements for the Mediterranean Fleet, two small convoys made the passage from Egypt to Malta, and 48 more Hurricane fighters flew off the carriers Ark Royal and Furious in 'Splice', for the loss of only the freighter Empire Song, which hit a mine and sank with 10 Hurricane fighters and 57 tanks on board. The 'Tiger' convoy delivered 295 Matilda II tanks, new Crusader tanks and 24,000 tons of oil for operations in North Africa. These movements were all complete by 12 May. The I, II and III StG 1 made a determined but fruitless effort against the 'Tiger' convoy and Malta.
Throughout this period, however, the Axis air forces maintained their air superiority with orders from Adolf Hitler for the X Fliegerkorps to shield Axis shipping, to prevent Allied shipping passing through the central Mediterranean, and to neutralise Malta as an Allied base. For these tasks there were about 180 German and 300 Italian aircraft, and the RAF struggled to fly more than six or eight fighter sorties against raids. Occasionally, 12 Hurricane fighters were flown from British carriers, but the replacements were soon consumed in the heat of the action. By the middle of May, the central Mediterranean had again been closed to Allied shipping and in North Africa the Deutsches Afrika Korps was able to receive reinforcements, only 3% of its supplies, personnel and equipment being lost en route. Between 11 April and 10 May, 111 Axis raids were flown against military installations on Malta: most of the heavy equipment in the Grand Harbour was destroyed, the dry docks could be operated only by hand, and the efficiency of most workshops was reduced to something between 25 to 50%.
During the first four months of German operations, the Luftwaffe had dropped 2,500 tons of high explosives on Malta. It was many more times the tonnage dropped by the Italians, but far short of the amount dropped in the following year. More than 2,000 civilian buildings had been destroyed as opposed to only 300 during the Italian phase of the siege. Civilian casualties were low, and after the bombing of Illustrious most civilians moved to safer surroundings in the countryside: by May 1941, nearly 60,000 people had left the various urban area, and some 11,000 people (two-thirds of its population) had departed from Valletta. The British had concentrated on the protection of military targets and thus few shelters were available for civilians. Eventually, 2,000 miners and stonemasons were recruited to build public shelters, but their pay was poor and the miners threatened to strike. Apprised of the probability of conscription into the army, the workers capitulated but instituted a go-slow, trebling the cost of the work.
In April, Hitler decided to intervene in the Balkans with the 'Unternehmen 25' and 'Marita' invasions of Yugoslavia and Greece respectively. The subsequent campaigns and the heavy German losses in the 'Battle of Crete' convinced Hitler that airborne operations were no longer feasible unless total surprise was achieved, and the German airborne arm undertook no such operation after the 'Merkur' assault on Crete. This had important consequences for Malta, as it indicated that the island was at risk only from an Axis siege. When, in June, Hitler attacked the USSR in 'Barbarossa', the bulk of the X Fliegerkorps was redeployed to the Eastern Front, and the Regia Aeronautica was left to continue the air campaign against Malta in the coming months. Commanding just the remnants of the X Fliegerkorps, Geisler could call only on the minelaying aircraft of the Kampfgeschwader 4 and the Ju 87 dive-bombers in night operations. Supply issues were bad, however, and the small German force was forced to abandon operations on 22 April 1941. By a time early in May 1941, the Luftwaffe had flown 1,465 bomber, 1,144 fighter and 132 reconnaissance missions for just 44 losses, and the III/KG 30 and III/Lehrgeschwader 1 flew only sporadic night attacks during April.
On 1 June, Air Vice Marshal F. H. M. Maynard, Malta’s air commander, was succeeded by Air Commodore H. L. Lloyd who, on arrival, found little with which to work. Even so, Lloyd had every intention of taking the offensive, and outside his office, in the underground headquarters at Lascaris, was a sign reading 'Less depends on the size of the dog in the fight than on the size of the fight in the dog.' Within a few hours Lloyd had made an inspection tour of the airfields and the main workshops at Kalafrana, and found that the state of the island’s air component was worse than he expected. The slackening of German air activity had allowed the number of aircraft to increase, but the RAF still had fewer than 60 machines of all types. Maintenance was difficult, for scarcely any spare or replacement parts were available, and spares had to be obtained by sifting through the debris of wrecks or by cannibalising undamaged aircraft. Furthermore, the airfields were too small, there was no heavy equipment with which to work, and even the commonest sorts of tools, such as hammers and wrenches, were all but impossible to find. All refuelling had to be done by hand from individual drums. Shelter was also inadequate, so there was little protection for what equipment Malta’s air units did possess: most aircraft were grouped together on open runways, presenting tempting targets. At Kalafrana, all the buildings were close together and above ground. The single engine repair facility on Malta was located right next to the only test benches. Lloyd himself said that 'a few bombs on Kalafrana in the summer of 1941 would have ruined any hope of Malta ever operating an air force'.
Usually, the protection of air defences and naval assets on the island would have enjoyed priority. Certainly the arrival of more supplies would have made greater strategic sense, before risking offensive operations and in the process possibly triggering an Axis response. But the period was an eventful one. In North Africa, the Deutsches Afrika Korps was advancing and Rommel was pressing his forces toward Alexandria and the Suez Canal in Egypt. This the RAF forces on Malta could not be allowed to sit idle, for they could prevent Rommel’s advance, or at least slow it, by striking at his supply lines. Malta was the only place from which British attack aircraft could launch their offensive, and Lloyd’s bombers and a small flotilla of submarines were the only forces available to harass Rommel’s supply lines into the autumn. Only then did British surface warships return to Malta to support the offensive.
With the exception of coal, animal fodder, kerosene and some essential civilian supplies, a reserve of eight to 15 months was created. 'Substance' was particularly successful in July 1941. The supplies and equipment landed included spares and aircraft, and some 60 bombers and 120 Hurricane fighters were now available. About 65,000 tons eventually reached Malta in July despite heavy damage inflicted by the Italian naval and air forces. No supplies were sent in August, but 'Halberd' in September saw the delivery of 85,000 tons of supplies in nine merchant vessels escorted by one aircraft carrier, five cruisers and 17 destroyers. One cargo ship, Imperial Star, was sunk and the battleship Nelson sustained torpedo damage. This convoy proved critical to the salvation of Malta, as its supplies were deemed to be essential when the Germans returned in December.
In the middle of 1941, the new Nos 185 and 126 Squadrons were formed and the defenders received their first cannon-armed Hurricane Mk IIC fighters. Aircraft carriers flew in a total of 81 more fighters during April and May. By 12 May, there were 50 Hurricane fighters on the island. On 21 May, No. 249 Squadron arrived to replace No. 261 Squadron. No. 46 Squadron arrived in June and was redesignated as No. 126 Squadron. In May 1941, 47 Hurricane fighters were flown onto the island. Between May and December, the first Bristol Blenheim twin-engined light bomber units (Nos 113 and 115 Squadrons) began to arrive, soon going over to he offensive, and Bristol Beaufighter twin-engined heavy units (Nos 252 and 272 Squadrons) also arrived at much the same time. Malta was now being used as a base in the delivery of equipment to Egypt: between July and December 1941, 717 RAF fighters passed through Malta and 514 left for North Africa. By early August, Malta had 75 fighters and 230 anti-aircraft guns.
As well as preparing for offensive operations and reinforcing the RAF on the island, Lloyd also rectified many of the deficiencies he had found. Thousands of Maltese and 3,000 British soldiers were used to provide the airfields with better protection. Even technical staff, clerks and flight crews helped when required. Dispersal strips were built, repair shops were moved underground from dockyards and airfields. Underground shelters were also created in the belief that the Luftwaffe would soon return.
On 26 July, a night attack was carried out by fast attack craft of the elite 10a Flottiglia MAS naval unit. The force was detected at an early stage by a British radar facility, and the coastal artillery at Fort Saint Elmo opened fire on the Italians, who lost 15 men killed and 18 taken prisoner, as well as most of the boats lost. One boat hit St Elmo Bridge, which collapsed.
The Allies were now able to launch offensive operations from Malta, and some three-fifths of Axis shipping was sunk in the second half of 1941. The German and Italian land forces in North Africa were not receiving the 45,000 tons of supplies they needed every month, and therefore could not hold back the strong 'Crusader' counter-offensive.
In July, Axis ships landed 62,276 tons of supplies, but this was only half of the figure in June. In September, the Fleet Air Arm’s No. 830 Squadron sank or damaged the ships Andrea Gritti of 6,338 tons and Pietro Barbaro of 6,330 tons. 'Ultra' intercepts found that 3,500 tons of aerial bombs, 4,000 tons of ammunition, 5,000 tons of food, one entire tank workshop, 25 Bf 109 engines and 25 cases of glycol coolant for their engines had been lost. Further success was obtained later in the month, although the British losses to the anti-aircraft fire from Italian ships were often heavy. One reason for accepting heavy losses was the difficulty in bombing accurately. Lloyd asked his bombers to attack at mast-top height, increasing accuracy but making them easier targets for Italian anti-aircraft defences. Losses averaged 12% during this time. Nos 38, 40 and 104 Squadrons, equipped with Wellington bombers, hit Axis convoys in Tripoli. In concert with British submarines, the RAF and FAA sank 108 Axis ships of 300,000 tons between June and September, and in this latter month one-third of the 96,000 tons of supplies despatched was lost to British submarine and air attack.
Part of the reason for this favourable outcome in November 1941 was the arrival of the Royal Navy’s Force 'K' which, in the 'Battle of the Duisburg Convoy' sank all the ships and, in effect, achieved what was a blockade of Libya’s ports. Soon after this, Force 'K' was reinforced by the arrival of Force 'B' with the light cruisers Ajax and Neptune, and the 'K' class destroyers Kimberley and Kingston on 27 November. Joint operations with the RAF were so effective that during November 1941, Axis fuel losses amounted to 49,365 out of 79,208 tons. Among the units which contributed to the sinking of Axis shipping were the FAA’s Nos 828 and 830 Squadrons, the Royal Navy’s 10th Flotilla and the RAF’s No. 69 Squadron, of which the last shadowed convoys with its Maryland aircraft. Special flights of RAF Wellington machines fitted with air-to-surface vessel radar, were important to the operations of Force 'K', and 'Ultra' intelligence about Axis convoy movements also reached Malta: this last allowed RAF Malta Command to despatch ASV-fitted Wellington aircraft to sweep the seas and direct British naval forces to the convoy.
On 13 November, while returning to Gibraltar after transporting aircraft to Malta, the carrier Ark Royal was sunk by a U-boat. Just 12 days later, the battleship Barham was sunk by a U-boat, followed by the light cruiser Galatea on 15 December. On 19 December, ships from both forces ran into a minefield while pursuing an Italian convoy: mine damage sank the light cruiser Neptune and damaged the light cruiser Aurora, and the destroyer Kandahar was also mined while attempting to assist Neptune. The crippled destroyer was sent to the bottom on the following day by the destroyer Jaguar. After this series of disasters and in light of a resurgence of the Axis aerial bombardment of Malta, surface ships were withdrawn from the central Mediterranean in January 1942.
While Italian bombing was again proving successful against the British, the Luftwaffe returned in force in December 1941 to renew intensive bombing. The Kriegsmarine sent nearly half of all U-boats on operations in the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea to support the effort against Malta, and by 15 December half of these vessels were either in the Mediterranean, or on this way and facing the gauntlet past the British naval and air patrols operating from Gibraltar. Until the return of the Luftwaffe over Malta, the RAF defenders had claimed 199 aircraft shot down between June 1940 and December 1941, while losses were at least 90 Hurricane, three Fulmar and one Gladiator aircraft in air combat; 10 more Hurricane and one Gladiator aircraft had been destroyed in accidents, and many more had been destroyed on the ground. Eight Maryland, three Beaufighter, one Blenheim fighter, many bomber and two other aircraft were also lost. No. 185 Squadron claimed 18 aircraft destroyed, seven probable victories and 21 damaged for 11 killed or missing, and the actual Axis losses amounted to 135 bombers (80 of them German), 56 fighters and a number of other aircraft.
By June 1941, Geisler had been moved to Libya to support the Axis forces in the North African campaign. In the Mediterranean and on Malta, the Allies recovered and began offensive operations against Axis shipping bringing supplies to the Axis forces in North Africa. The mounting shipping supply losses affected Geisler’s ability to support Rommel’s forces, which caused tension between the army and the Luftwaffe. Geisler was to be returned to Sicily with his remaining air strength to solve the issue, but the Germans backed down over Italian protests. On 6 October Geisler did extend his air sector responsibilities to cover the sea route linking Tripoli and Naples in an effort to reduce losses. On 2 October, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, met with his Regia Aeronautica counterpart, Generale di Divisione Aerea Francesco Pricolo, to discuss the matter of reinforcement. Generaloberst Hans Jeschonnek, the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe's chief-of-staff, suggested sending Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Luftflotte II to Sicily from the Eastern Front. Göring agreed and, anticipating a Soviet collapse, was willing to send 16 Gruppen to Sicily: General Bruno Loerzer’s II Fliegerkorps arrived in January 1942, with Kesselring as the Oberbefehlshaber 'Süd' from 1 December 1941.
Bf 110 twin-engined heavy fighters and Ju 88 twin-engined night-fighters of Oberst Johann Schalk’s Zerstörergeschwader 26 'Horst Wessel' and Oberst Wolfganf Falck’s Nachtjagdgeschwader 1 were flown into Sicily to support the II Fliegerkorps. They quickly eliminated Malta’s striking force, which operated beyond the range of fighter escort while over the Mediterranean: in the two months following the arrival of the II Fliegerkorps in Sicily, sone 20 British bombers and reconnaissance aircraft were shot down. The rate of British success against Axis shipping soon declined in parallel. The only notable triumph was the sinking of the 13,089-ton Victoria, one of the fastest merchant vessels afloat, by a Fairey Albacore single-engined biplane of the FAA’s No. 826 Squadron on 23 January.
Over Malta, the RAF’s defensive capability was also placed under severe pressure. Kesselring began 1942 with a raid on 1 January, as the 1,175th raid of the war. During January the RAF lost 50 Hurricane fighters on the ground and another eight shot down in combat. Of the 340 fighters that had passed through or remained on the island since the war began, only 28 remained. The Axis forces flew 263 raids in that month, compared with 169 in December 1941. The II Fliegerkorps was still recovering from its losses over the Eastern Front, however, and could only contribute 118 aircraft in January, but this grew to 390 in March before attaining a peak strength of 425 aircraft. One-third of the raids were directed against airfields. At Ta' Qali, 841 tons of bombs were dropped, because the Germans believed the British were operating an underground hangar; the Germans used PC-18000RS Panther rocket-boosted bombs. The usual tactic involved a sweep ahead of the bombers by German fighters to clear the skies: this tactic proved very successful, German air superiority was maintained, and only light losses were suffered by the bombers. About 94% of the attacks were delivered by day, and the Italians supported the Luftwaffe by flying 2,455 sorties in February and March.
Supported by his naval and air commanders, Dobbie made a forceful argument for the delivery of modern aircraft, particularly the Supermarine Spitfire singled-engined fighter. The air officer commanding-in-chief Middle East, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, sent Group Captain Basil Embry to assess the situation on Malta, where the pilots told him that the Hurricane was ineffective and that the Spitfire was their only hope. They claimed that the Germans purposely flew in front of Hurricane fighters in their Bf 109F fighters to show off the performance superiority of their fighters. The squadron leaders therefore argued that the inferiority of their aircraft was affecting morale, and Embry agreed and recommended that Spitfire fighters be sent to the island, on which the type began to arrive in March 1942.
On 29/30 April 1942, a plan for the invasion of the island was approved by Hitler and Mussolini during a meeting at Berchtesgaden. This 'Herkules' plan envisaged an airborne assault using single German and Italian airborne divisions, under the command of General Kurt Student, to be followed by the seaborne landing of two or three divisions protected by warships of the Regia Marina. In agreement with Kesselring, the Italians made the invasion of Malta their priority in the region. However, two major factors stopped Hitler from giving the operation the green light. The first factor was Rommel: as a result of Kesselring’s pounding of the island the Axis supply lines to North Africa had been secured, and Rommel was able to gain the ascendancy in North Africa once again. Although Rommel believed Malta should be invaded, he insisted the conquest of Egypt and the Suez Canal, not Malta, must be the priority. The second factor was Hitler himself. After the 'Merkur' operation against Crete in May and June 1941, Hitler was nervous about using airborne forces to invade the island as the Cretan campaign had cost this arm heavy losses, and Hitler therefore started to procrastinate in making a decision. Kesselring complained and Hitler proposed a compromise. He suggested that if the Egyptian border was reached once again in the coming months (the fighting at the time was taking place in Libya), the Axis could invade in July or August 1942 when a full moon would provide ideal conditions for a landing. Although frustrated, Kesselring was relieved the operation had seemingly been postponed rather than shelved.
Before the first Spitfire fighters reached Malta, other attempts were made to reduce British air losses. In February 1942, Squadron Leader Stan Turner arrived to take over command of No. 249 Squadron. Lloyd had requested a highly experienced combat leader, and Turner’s experience over north-western Europe meant that he was well qualified to lead the unit. Turner began the adoption of the loose finger-four formation in an attempt to cut RAF losses by introducing more flexible tactics to offset technical inferiority. The outmoded Hurricane still struggled against the very latest Bf 109F of Oberstleutnant Günther Freiherr von Maltzahn’s JG 53 'Pik As' and Italian Macchi C.202 single-engined fighters; the Ju 88 bomber also proved a difficult foe. However, the Hurricane did record occasional victories against the Bf 109F: during one attack in February 1942, a mere three Hurricane fighters managed to break up a raid by some 50 Bf 109 fighters.
On 7 March 1942, a group of 16 Spitfire Mk V fighters flew to Malta from the aircraft carrier Eagle as part of 'Spotter'. Another run by Eagle delivered nine Spitfire fighters. The so-called 'Club Run' (delivery of aircraft to Malta by carrier) became more frequent through 1942. The US carrier Wasp despatched 47 more aircraft in 'Calendar' on 13 April, and all but one of these aircraft reached the island. While the Spitfire was a match for the Axis aircraft, many of those delivered in March and April were destroyed on the ground and in the air, where they were outnumbered: for five days in April there was just one Spitfire available to defend the island, and for two days there were none. The Germans had watched their delivery and pressed home heavy attacks, so that by 21 April just 27 Spitfire fighters were still airworthy, and by the evening in the same day the total had fallen to 17.
The overwhelming Axis bombardments had also substantially eroded Malta’s offensive naval and air capabilities. By March and April 1942, it was clear the Luftwaffe had achieved a measure of air superiority, and the Regia Aeronautica also pressed home attacks with determination. Often, three to five Italian bombers would fly very low over their targets and drop their bombs with precision, regardless of the RAF attacks and ground fire.
The Germans soon discovered that British submarines were operating from Manoel Island, not Grand Harbour, and exploited their air superiority to eliminate the threat. The base came under attack, the boats had to spend most of their time submerged, and the surrounding residences in which crews had enjoyed brief rest periods were abandoned. Minelaying by Axis aircraft also caused a steady rise in submarine losses: by the end of March 1942, 19 submarines had been lost. The effectiveness of the air attacks against Allied naval assets was apparent in the Italian naval records. In April, 150,389 tons of supplies despatched to North Africa from Italy reached their destination out of a total of 150,578. Hitler’s strategy of neutralising Malta by siege seemed to be working, and Kesselring reported to the German high command that 'There is nothing left to bomb.' The determination of the Axis effort against Malta is indicated by the sorties flown: between 20 March and 28 April 1942, the Germans flew 11,819 sorties against the island and dropped 6,557 tons of bombs, 3,150 of them on Valletta, and lost 173 aircraft in these operations.
The Allies responded by increasing the number of Spitfire fighters on the island. On 9 May, Wasp and Eagle delivered 64 more Spitfire fighter in 'Bowery', and Malta now had five full Spitfire units in the form of Nos 126, 185, 249, 601 and 603 Squadrons. The impact of the Spitfire was instantly apparent: on 9 May, the Italians announced 37 Axis losses, and on the following day the Axis lost 65 aircraft destroyed or damaged in large air battles over the island. The Hurricane was now able to focus on the Axis bombers and dive-bombers at lower altitudes, while the Spitfire, with its superior rate of climb, engaged Axis aircraft at higher altitudes. From 18 May to 9 June, Eagle made three more runs carrying another 76 Spitfire warplanes to Malta. With such a force established, the RAF had the firepower to deal with any Axis attacks.
By the spring of 1942, the Axis air forces ranged against the island were at their maximum strength. The main adversaries for the defenders were the 137 Bf 109F fighters of the JG 53 and II/JG 3 'Udet' and the 80 C.202 fighters of the 4o Stormo and 51o Stormo. Bombers included the 199 Ju 88 machines of the II/LG 1, the II and III/KG 77 and the I/KG 54, and between 32 and 40 Ju 77 dive-bombers. However, in May the numerical and technical improvements in the RAF defences wrested air superiority from the Luftwaffe. By the end of May 1942, Kesselring’s forces had been reduced to just 13 serviceable reconnaissance aircraft, six Bf 110 heavy fighters, 30 Bf 109 fighters and 34 bombers, most of the last Ju 88 machines, for a total of 83 compared with several hundred just two months earlier.
After the battles of May and June, the air attacks were much reduced in August and September. While air superiority had been won back by the British, German pressure had allowed Axis convoys to resupply what was now the Panzerarmee 'Afrika'. The island appeared to the Axis forces to have been neutralised as a threat to their convoys, and Rommel now looked forward to offensive operations with the support of the Luftwaffe in North Africa. The 'Battle of Gazala' was a major Axis victory, while the 'Battle of Bir Hakeim' was less successful. Even so, the Axis forces were soon back in Egypt fighting at El Alamein.
Despite the reduction in direct air pressure over Malta itself, the island’s overall situation was serious as it was running short of all essential commodities, particularly food and water, as the bombing had crippled pumps and distribution pipes. Clothing was also hard to find. All the island’s livestock had been slaughtered, and the lack of leather meant people were forced to use curtains and used tyres to replace clothing and shoe soles. Although the civilian population was enduring, the threat of starvation was very real. Poor nutrition and sanitation led to the spread of disease. The soldiers' rations were also reduced, from 4,000 to 2,000 calories per day, and the British therefore prepared to supply the island with two convoy operations.
In June, the Royal Navy undertook two convoy operations to Malta, namely 'Harpoon' from Gibraltar and 'Vigorous' from Haifa and Port Said. The double movement was designed to split Axis naval forces attempting to intervene. Lloyd wished to give No. 601 Squadron to convoy escort duty. Although he could afford this diversion, he could maintain a standing patrol of only four Spitfire fighters over the convoy. If Axis aircraft attacked as they were withdrawing, they had to stay and fight, and pilots had to bail out, and hope to be rescued by a ship, if they ran low on fuel and could not regain Malta. The western convoy lost the destroyer Bedouin, three merchants vessels and one tanker after being engaged by the Italian cruisers Raimondo Montecuccoli and Eugenio di Savoia supported by a number of destroyers and Axis aircraft. The Free Polish destroyer Kujawiak was sunk and another merchant vessel damaged by mines near Malta. The eastern convoy was forced to turn back after a series of naval and air engagements, despite the British ships still having 20% of their ammunition left as this was considered insufficient to see them to Malta, especially with the Italian fleet still in the area and ready to intercept them. The losses of the convoy were heavy. Among the British losses was the light cruiser Hermione, three destroyers and 11 merchant vessels. Malta sent Bristol Beaufort twin-engined torpedo bombers to engage the Italian fleet and the U-boats attacking the convoy. The aircraft torpedoed and sank the Italian heavy cruiser Trento and damaged the battleship Littorio. Two freighters of the western convoy reached Malta, making them the only ships out of a total of 17 to deliver their loads, in this case 25,000 tons of supplies. A further 16 Malta-based pilots were lost in the operations.
In August, the 'Pedestal' convoy operation brought vital relief to the besieged island, but only at very heavy cost as the convoy’s ships came under attack from the air and from the sea. Some 146 Ju 88, 72 Bf 109 and 16 Ju 87 German aircraft, as well as 232 Italian fighters and 139 Italian bombers (a large number of the latter were the highly effective SM.79 torpedo bomber) took part in the action against the convoy. Out of the 14 merchant ships despatched, nine were sunk. Moreover, the aircraft carrier Eagle, one cruiser and three destroyers were sunk by a combined effort from the Regia Marina, Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe. Nevertheless, though costly in lives and ships, the operational was literally vital in delivering desperately needed supplies and matériel. British destroyers saved 950 of Eagle's crew.
It is worth noting that it was the Regia Aeronautica which had played the central role against the 'Pedestal' convoy. In fact, between 1940 and 1943 the Italians flew 35,724 sorties against the island and the Germans 37,432, 31,391 of the latter being completed in 1942. The Italians must thus get some share of the credit for the destruction of 575 British fighters on Malta, and the sinking of 23 of 82 merchant vessels dispatched to the island. The British preferred to credit their losses to the Germans, however, even though the Italians flew more fighter missions over the island, had almost as many fighters on Sicily (184 aircraft) as the Germans in the whole Mediterranean (252 aircraft) during November 1942, and may indeed have possessed better pilots as they lost one aeroplane per 63 sorties, compared with the German loss rate of one aeroplane per 42 sorties.
The surface convoys were not the only supply line to Malta, for British submarines also made a substantial effort. The submarine Clyde was converted into an underwater supply boat, and even though it could not dive as deep or as quickly as the 'T' and 'U' class boats, nonetheless completed nine supply runs to Malta, which was more than any other vessel of its type. Even though the submarine could not carry a load anything like as great as a merchant ship, its ability to carry smaller loads of high-value items made it of great value in the campaign to lift the siege.
In July, Lloyd was relieved of RAF command on Malta as it was felt that a man with past experience of fighter defence operations was needed. For some reason, the Air Staff had decided not to do this at earlier stage of the siege, when the initial phase of the bombing ceased in 1941, and the RAF forces on Malta became primarily fighter-armed while the principal aim changed to one of air defence. Air Vice Marshal K. R. Park replaced Lloyd, and arrived on 14 July 1942 by flying boat. He landed in the middle of a raid despite the fact that Lloyd had specifically requested he circle the harbour until it had passed. Lloyd met Park and admonished him for taking an unnecessary risk.
Park had faced Kesselring before during the 'Battle of Britain', and during that battle, had advocated sending small numbers of fighters into battle to meet the enemy. There were three fundamental reasons for this: firstly, there would always be fighters in the air covering those on the ground if one did not send their entire force to engage at once' secondly, small numbers were quicker to position and easier to move around; and thirdly, the preservation of his force was critical. The fewer fighters he had in the air (he advocated 16 at most), the smaller target the numerically superior opponent would have. Over Malta, Park reversed these tactics to reflect the changed tactical circumstances. With plenty of Spitfire fighters available to him, Park sought to intercept the oncoming Axis forces and break up their formations before the bombers reached the island. Until to time time, therefore, the Spitfire fighters had fought defensively: they scrambled and headed south to gain height, then swept round to engage the Axis forces over the island. Now, with improved radar, quicker take-off times of two to three minutes, and an improved air/sea rescue capability, operations of a more offensive nature had become possible. Using three squadrons, Park tasked the first to engage the escorting fighters by 'bouncing them' out of the sun, the second to fall on the close escort or, if unescorted, the bombers themselves, and the third to attack the bombers head-on. The impact of Park’s methods was instant. His 'Forward Interception Plan', issued on 25 July 1942, forced the Axis to abandon daylight raids within six days, and the Ju 87 dive-bombers were withdrawn from operations over Malta altogether. Kesselring responded by sending in fighter sweeps at even higher altitudes to gain the tactical advantage. Park retaliated by ordering his fighters to climb no higher than 6,100 ft (11860 m): while this did give away a considerable height advantage, it forced the Bf 109 fighters to descend to altitudes more suitable for the Spitfire than the German fighter. The methods would have great effect in October.
While defensive operations dominated the thinking of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force for the most part, offensive strikes were still being carried out, and 1942 was particularly impressive for offensive operations: some two-thirds of the Italian merchant fleet were sunk, 25% of them by British submarines and 37% by Allied aircraft. Thus the Axis forces in North Africa were denied around half of their supplies and two-thirds of their oil.
The boats of Simpson’s 10th Submarine Flotilla were on constant patrol except for the period between May and July 1942, when Kesselring made a considerable effort against their bases. The boats' success was not easy to achieve, given the fact that most of them were the slow 'U' class types. Supported by 'S' and 'T' class boats, the 'U' class boats laid mines. Several British submarine commanders became 'aces' while operating from Malta. Commanders Ian McGeoch of Splendid, George Phillips, Hugh Mackenzie and David Wanklyn had particular success. Lieutenant Commander Lennox Napier sank the 7,020-ton German tanker Wilhelmsburg, which was one of the few German tankers exporting oil from Romania. The loss of the ship led Hitler to complain directly to Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz in a diatribe comparing the Kriegsmarine unfavourably with the Royal Navy. Dönitz argued that he had lacked the resources to protect the relevant convoy, though the escort of the ship exceeded that which the Allies could have afforded to give a large convoy in the Atlantic at that point in the war. It was fortunate for Dönitz that Hitler did not probe the defence of the ship further.
The submarine proved to be one of the most potent weapons in the British armoury when combating Axis convoys. The estimated tonnage sunk by the 'U' class submarines alone was 650,000 tons, with another 400,000 tons damaged, and the Manoel Island Base supplied 1,790 torpedoes at that time. The number fired by the 10th Submarine Flotilla was 1,289, with a hit rate of 30%. One of the Deutsches Afrika Korps' chiefs-of-staff, Generalmajor Dr Fritz Bayerlein once claimed that 'We should have taken Alexandria and reached the Suez Canal had it not been for the work of your submarines.'
No. 39 Squadron flew its Beaufort torpedo bombers against shipping and increased the pressure on Rommel by attacking his supply lines in September. Rommel’s position was now critical. The army in North Africa was starved of supplies while the British reinforced their lines in Egypt before the '2nd Battle of El Alamein'. Rommel complained to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht that his forces were severely short of the ammunition and fuel they needed for offensive action, and the Axis organised a convoy to relieve the difficulties. 'Ultra' intercepted the Axis communications, and Wellington bombers of No. 69 Squadron confirmed that the Axis operation was real. No. 39 Squadron’s Beaufort warplanes sank two ships and one of Simpson’s submarines sank a third. Rommel still hoped that another tanker, San Andreas, would deliver the 3,198 tons of fuel needed for the 'Battle of Alam el Halfa', but did not wait for the tankers to dock and launched the offensive before its arrival. The ship was sunk by the attack of No. 39 Squadron. Thus, of the nine ships despatched, five were sunk by Malta’s forces. The Beaufort warplanes were having a devastating impact on Axis fuel supplies in North Africa, where there was now almost no fuel left, and on 1 September Rommel was forced to retreat. Kesselring provided Luftwaffe fuel, but this merely denied the German air units the means to protect the ground forces, thereby increasing the effectiveness of British air superiority over the front line.
In August, Malta’s strike forces had contributed to the Axis' difficulties in trying to force an advance into Egypt. In that month, 33% of supplies and 41% of fuel were lost. In September 1942, Rommel received only 24% of the 50,000 tons of supplies needed on a monthly basis to continue offensive operations. During September, the Allies sank 33,939 tons of shipping at sea, and nearly all of what did reach North Africa had to dock in Tripoli, whence their supplies had to be moved by road and railway the very considerable distance to the front. The lack of food and water caused a sickness rate of 10% among Axis soldiers. The British air and submarine offensive ensured no fuel reached North Africa in the first week of October 1942. Two fuel-carrying ships were sunk, and another lost its cargo despite the crew managing to salvage the ship. As the British offensive in the '2nd Battle of El Alamein' began on 23 October, 'Ultra' intelligence was gaining a clear picture of the Axis forces' truly desperate fuel situation. On 25 October, three tankers and one cargo ship carrying fuel and ammunition were sent under heavy air and sea escort, and were likely to be the last ships to reach Rommel while he was at El Alamein. 'Ultra' intelligence intercepted the planned convoy route, and alerted Malta’s air units, which attacked and sank all three fuel-carrying vessels by 28 October for the cost to the British of one Beaufighter, two Beaufort, three out of six Blenheim and one Wellington aircraft. Rommel lost 44% of his supplies in October, a jump from the 20% of September.
By August 1942, 163 Spitfire fighters, 120 of them serviceable, were available for the air defence of Malta. On 11 |August, 17 August and 24 October, the elderly carrier Furious delivered another 85 Spitfire fighters to Malta in the 'Bellows', 'Baritone' and 'Train' operations which, in some case, demanded that the fighters make the final 'hop' to Malta in 5.5-hour flights using a 170-Imp gal (773-litre) ferry tank to boost the overall fuel capacity to 284 Imp gal (1291 litres).
Despite the success of Allied convoys in getting through to Malta, the month was as bad as any other as a result of the continued Axis bombing and food shortages. In response to the threat which Malta was now posing to the Axis supply lines across the Mediterranean Sea, the Luftwaffe renewed its attacks on Malta in October 1942. Recognising the fact that the critical battle of the North Africa campaign was approaching in the form of the '2nd Battle of El Alamein', Kesselring organised the II Fliegerkorps in Sicily in an effort to neutralise the British threat once and for all. On 11 October, the defenders were amply equipped with Spitfire Mk VB/C fighters, and in the following 17 days, the Luftwaffe suffered 34 Ju 88 and 12 Bf 109 warplanes destroyed and another 18 damaged. RAF losses amounted to 23 Spitfire fighters shot down and 20 crash-landed; the British also lost 12 pilots killed. On 16 October, it had become clear to Kesselring that the defenders were too strong and he accordingly called off the offensive. The situation in North Africa required German air support, so the October offensive marked the last major effort by the Luftwaffe against Malta.
Its losses over Malta and North Africa had left the Axis air forces in a seriously depleted state, and they were in no position to provide the air support needed over the parlous ground campaign. The situation on the island was still stringent going into November, but Park’s victory in the air battle was soon followed by news of a major success at the front, for at El Alamein the British had broken through on land, and by 5 November were advancing rapidly to the west through Libya. News soon reached Malta of 'Torch', the Allied landings in Vichy French Morocco and Algeria on 8 November. Some 11 days later, news of the Soviet counter-offensive during the 'Battle of Stalingrad' increased morale still further. The extent to which the success in North Africa benefited Malta was apparent when the 'Stoneage' convoy reached Malta from Alexandria on 20 November virtually unscathed, and the arrival of this convoy is generally regarded as the end of the two-year siege of Malta. On 6 December, 'Portcullis' was another supply convoy which reached Malta without any losses, and from this time onward the Axis threat was so negligible that merchant vessels sailed to Malta without joining convoys. The capture of North African airfields and the bonus of having air protection all the way to the island enabled the ships to deliver 35,000 tons and, early in December, another 55,000 tons arrived. The last air raid over Malta took place on 20 July 1943: this was the 3,340th alert since 11 June 1940.
Allied warship losses associated with the 'Siege of Malta' were the battleship Barham, aircraft carriers Eagle and Ark Royal, light cruisers Cairo, Hermione, Manchester, Neptune and Southampton, destroyers Airedale, Bedouin, Fearless, Foresight, Gallant, Gurkha, Hasty, Hyperion, Jersey, Kandahar, Kingston, Free Polish Kujawiak, Lance, Legion, Maori, Mohawk, Australian Nestor, Pakenham and Southwold, and submarines Cachalot, Grampus, Odin, Olympus, Orpheus, Oswald, Undaunted, Union, P36, P38, P48, P222, P311, Pandora, Parthian, Perseus, Rainbow, Regent, Regulus, Saracen, Splendid, Talisman, Tempest, Tetrarch, Thunderbolt, Tigris, Traveller, Triad, Triton, Triumph, Trooper, Turbulent, Upholder, Urge, Usk, Utmost, Free French Narval and Free Greek Glaukos.
On the densely populated island of Malta, 5,524 private dwellings were destroyed, 9,925 were damaged but repairable, and 14,225 were damaged by bomb blast. In addition 111 churches, 50 hospitals, institutions or colleges, 36 theatres, clubs, government offices, banks, factories, flour mills and other commercial buildings suffered destruction or damage: the total was 30,000 buildings in all. The Royal Opera House, Auberge d’Auvergne, Auberge de France and Palazzo Correa in Valletta, the Birgu Clock Tower, Auberge d’Allemagne and Auberge d’Italie in Birgu, parts of the fortifications of Senglea, and the Governor’s House of Fort Ricasoli were destroyed. Other buildings such as Auberge de Castille, Auberge de Bavière, the Casa del Commun Tesoro and parts of Fort Manoel also suffered extensive damage but were rebuilt after the war.
The total Axis losses in the Mediterranean were moderate. Human casualties amounted to 17,240 personnel at sea. In supplies, the Axis lost 315,090 tons, which was a tonnage greater than that which reached Malta. The Allied navies sank 773 Axis ships, totalling 1,342,789 tons. Mines sank another 179 ships of 214,109 tons in total. The navies and air forces shared in the destruction of 25 ships of 106,050 tons, and aircraft sank 1,326 ships, for a total of 1,466,208 tons. Mines and naval craft shared the destruction of another ship, of 1,778 tons. In all, 2,304 Axis ships were sunk, with a combined tonnage of 3,130,969.