The Siege of Malta was a military campaign in the Mediterranean Theatre of World War II. From 1940 to 1942, the fight for the control of the strategically important island of Malta pitted the air forces and navies of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany against the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy.
Malta was pivotal to the North African Campaign. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the island the "unsinkable aircraft carrier". From Malta, British air and sea forces could attack Axis ships transporting vital supplies and reinforcements from Europe to the Axis forces in North Africa commanded by General Field Marshal (Generalfeldmarschall) Erwin Rommel. Rommel warned that "Without Malta the Axis will end by losing control of North Africa".
Malta was one of the most intensively-bombed areas during the war. The German Luftwaffe and the Italian Regia Aeronautica (Royal Air Force) flew a total of 3,000 bombing raids over a period of two years. Axis plans were made for Operation Herkules, an amphibious invasion of the island supported by airborne forces, but was never carried out. In the end, Allied convoys were able to supply and reinforce Malta, though at great cost. This played a major role in the eventual Allied victory in North Africa.
Malta was a significant military and naval fortress during this time, being the only Allied base between Gibraltar and Alexandria, Egypt. Despite its position, the British moved the headquarters of the Royal Navy Mediterranean Fleet from Valletta, Malta in the mid-1930s to Alexandria, Egypt.
While there were concerns that the island, far from Britain and near 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 the French prime minister, Paul Reynaud, reported that the situation in France was dire, but that Benito Mussolini might be appeased by concessions, including Malta. After some discussion, Winston Churchill convinced the British War Cabinet that no concessions should be made. With Britain itself at risk, Malta was not the highest priority, so it was lightly protected when Italy declared war on Britain on 10 June 1940. Only six Gloster Gladiator biplanes were stationed on the island, with another six in crates. Nevertheless, RAF and Royal Navy anti-shipping squadrons and submarines posed a significant threat to Axis supply and communications between Europe and North Africa and both sides soon recognised the importance of the island in controlling the Mediterranean.
On 11 June 1940, the day after Italy declared war on Britain and France, aircraft of the Italian Royal Air Force attacked Malta. Most of Italy's land forces had been committed for the upcoming invasion of Greece, so it resorted to aerial bombardment. On the first day, ten Italian Cant bombers dropped bombs on Grand Harbour, Hal Far, and Kalafrana. In seven attacks, eleven civilians and six soldiers were killed. In addition, roughly 130 civilians and some soldiers were injured.
At the time, the defending fighter aircraft on Malta consisted of obsolete Gloster Sea Gladiator biplanes, in the Hal Far Fighter Flight. Legend has it that there were just three aircraft, nicknamed 'Faith', 'Hope' and 'Charity' but, in reality, at least six Gladiators were deployed. These were initially unable to fly from Luqa Airfield, as it was not finished, and operated out of Hal Far. Initially, the Italians flew at around 5,500 m (18,000 ft); later, they dropped to 3,000 m (9,800 ft) for improved accuracy. British Major R. I. K. Paine later stated that "[after they dropped down], we bagged one or two every other day, so they started coming in at [6,000 m (20,000 ft)]. Their bombing was never very accurate. As they flew higher it became quite indiscriminate." Journalist Mabel Strickland said "The Italians [pilots] decided they didn't like [the Gladiators and AA guns], so they dropped their bombs [30 km (19 mi)] off Malta and went back."
Throughout the siege, resupplying the island proved to be a significant challenge, as the British had limited resources to spare. Both sides were aware of the strategic importance of Malta, and large naval and air forces were committed with desperate fighting and considerable losses. Allied convoys with naval escorts resupplied the island. The Royal Navy also sent some critical supplies to Malta by submarine.
By the start of July, the Gladiators had been reinforced by Hawker Hurricanes and the defences organised into No. 261 Squadron RAF in August. Twelve were delivered by HMS Argus in August, the first of several batches ferried to the island by the carrier. A further attempt to fly Hurricanes into Malta on 17 November, led by a Fleet Air Arm Blackburn Skua, ended in disaster with the loss of three Hurricanes missing probably by accident. A further two Hurricanes crashed, with one of the pilots rescued by a Sunderland flying boat
In January 1941, the Luftwaffe's X. Fliegerkorps arrived in Sicily as the German Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK) reached Libya. The presence of the Luftwaffe led to a notable increase in the bombing of Malta. The appearance in February of a staffel of Messerschmidt Bf 109Es fighters of Jagdgeschwader 26, led by 23-kill ace Oberleutnant Joachim Müncheberg, quickly led to a sudden and marked increase in Hurricane losses, as the experienced Luftwaffe fighter pilots made their presence felt. The Allied pilots had little combat experience and their Hurricanes were "well worn". Over the next four months, few of JG 26s Bf 109s were damaged, let alone shot down.
In January 1941, while escorting a convoy to Malta, the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious was seriously damaged by Junkers Ju-87 (Stuka) dive bombers. The attack killed 126 crew members and wounded 91. The carrier docked at Grand Harbour for urgent repairs. While the ship was being repaired, the harbour was subject to heavy aerial bombardment, but the ship survived. In mid 1941, new squadrons — No. 185 and No. 126 — were formed and the defenders received the first cannon-armed Hurricane Mk II fighters. Naval carriers flew in a total of 81 more fighters during April and May. These months also saw the arrival of the first Bristol Blenheim and Bristol Beaufighter units. On 1 June, Air Vice Marshal Forster Maynard, Malta's Air Officer Commanding, was replaced by Air Commodore Hugh Pughe Lloyd. The Allies were able to launch offensive operations from Malta. Some 60 percent of Axis shipping was sunk in the second half of 1941. The DAK and its allies needed 50,000 tons of supplies a day, but were not receiving that much, and as a result were unable to resist a strong counter-offensive by British forces in Operation Crusader.
Axis attacks decreased later that year, as the limited German resources were diverted to the Eastern Front and bombing operations reverted back to the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica). But in December 1941, naval and aerial offensive operations launched from Malta caused Germany to renew intensive bombing. Fuel, food, and munitions all had to be imported, and resupply became very difficult and costly. The island was almost cut off. 31 Allied ships were lost to bombing raids. The defenders had claimed some 191 aircraft shot down from June 1940 to December 1941, while losses were some 94 fighters.
In February 1942, Squadron Leader Stan Turner arrived to take over 249 Squadron. His experience flying with Douglas Bader over Europe soon meant the adoption of the loose 'finger-four' formation in an attempt to cut RAF losses. However, with the outmoded Hurricanes still struggling against the very latest Bf 109-Fs of Jagdgeschwader 53 and the Italian Macchi C.202s, in March 1942, a contingent of 15 Spitfire Mk Vs flew to Malta from the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle, the first Spitfires to serve overseas. The reinforcement of Malta by carrier became more frequent through 1942. Spitfires were flown to Malta from the carrier HMS Eagle on the 7 March 1942. No. 601 and 603 Squadron Spitfires arrived on 20 April. Then the US carrier Wasp and HMS Eagle despatched 59 more. While the Spitfires were a match for the Axis aircraft, many of the ones delivered in March and April were destroyed on the ground and in the air—where they were outnumbered. For instance, for five days in April there was just one Spitfire available to defend the island; for two days there were none. Also, the overwhelming Axis bombardments had substantially eliminated Malta’s naval and aerial offensive capabilities.
By mid 1942, the Axis air forces ranged against the island were at their maximum strength: some 520 Luftwaffe and 300 Regia Aeronautica aircraft. The main adversaries for the defenders were the 140 or so Messerschmitt Bf 109F fighters of Jagdgeschwader 53 (JG 53) and II/JG 3 'Udet' and the 80 Macchi C.202s of the 4th and 51st Stormo. Bombers units included the Junkers Ju 88s of II./Lehrgeschwader 1, II and III./Kampfgeschwader 77, I./Kampfgeschwader 54, Kgr.606, and Kgr. 806.
When the RAF could not put up a fighter cover, Malta's Fighter Control would transmit a dummy radio communication, aping the scrambling and interception of incoming raids as if fighters were already in the air, knowing the Luftwaffe would be monitoring the conversations.
During May, accelerated and more effective deployments of Spitfires allowed the British to gain air superiority over Malta for the first time since the start of the war. In June, the Royal Navy undertook Operation Harpoon and Operation Vigorous. The two convoys departed for Malta, the former from Gibraltar and the latter from Haifa and Port Said. The eastern convoy was forced to turn back in the face of air attacks. Two freighters of the western convoy made it to Malta and delivered 15,000 tons of supplies. Without them, Malta would undoubtedly have fallen. Yet the island appeared to the Axis forces to be neutralised, and they decided that there was no need for further intensive bombing raids. For instance, on 10 May, Albert Kesselring, Commander-in-Chief South of Axis forces, reported to the German High Command that "There is nothing left to bomb." By July, the Axis air offensive had reached its peak, and the attacks were reduced.[21 ]
On 15 April 1942, King George VI awarded Malta the George Cross, the highest civilian award for gallantry in the Commonwealth, normally awarded to individuals: "to honour her brave people, I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history". President Franklin Roosevelt, describing the wartime period, called Malta "one tiny bright flame in the darkness". Some historians argue that the award was in fact a propaganda gesture to justify the huge losses sustained by Britain to prevent Malta from capitulating as Singapore had done in the Battle of Singapore.
In the first six months of 1942, there was only one 24-hour period without air raids. Luftwaffe records indicate that between 20 March and 28 April 1942, Malta was subjected to 11,819 sorties and 6,557 tonnes of bombs. 1,493 civilians were killed and 3,674 wounded out of a population of 270,000.
The siege caused significant hardships for everyone on Malta. Bombs killed many and left even more homeless. Businesses and civil infrastructure were destroyed. The disruption of shipping caused food, fuel, and other commodities to be in very short supply. During the greatest times of starvation, it is said that foods were rationed to "three boiled sweets, half a sardine and a spoonful of jam a day". Poor nutrition and sanitation led to the spread of disease. Soldiers rations were also reduced, from four to two thousand calories a day. Malta was starting to starve.[21 ]
Britain took advantage of the lull in Axis attacks to fly in 61 Spitfire Mk V aircraft from HMS Furious, which immediately improved the aerial defensive situation, although food, ammunition, and aviation fuel remained critically short. Operation Pedestal was a major attempt to resupply Malta with a convoy of 14 merchant ships supported by 44 major warships, including battleships and aircraft carriers, and diversionary naval attacks by the Mediterranean Fleet at the other end of the Mediterranean. The convoy was attacked relentlessly in the early days of August. On 13 August, the surviving merchant ships started arriving at Malta, ending on 15 August 1942, the feast of Santa Marija (St Mary), a public holiday on Malta, with the British-crewed U.S. tanker SS Ohio; she had been hit by torpedoes, bombs, and a crashed dive bomber, but survived with her vital aviation fuel. The cost: nine of the 14 freighters, an aircraft carrier, two cruisers and a destroyer were sunk, and a carrier and two cruisers were badly damaged.
Throughout this period, Royal Navy submarines, RAF bombers and Fleet Air Arm torpedo bombers operating from Malta continued to wreak havoc on Axis shipping, severely curtailing vital supplies and reinforcements to the German and Italian forces in North Africa, thereby limiting Rommel's ability to advance across the western desert towards Alexandria and Cairo.
The Luftwaffe responded with a renewed wave of attacks on 11 October. However, this time the defenders were mass equipped with Spitfire Mk VB/Cs. Over 17 days, the Luftwaffe suffered 34 Ju 88s and 12 Bf 109s destroyed and 18 damaged. RAF losses amounted to 23 Spitfires shot down and 20 crash landed. 12 RAF pilots were killed.
The Allied efforts in the Middle East were beginning to have their effect, and supplies were reaching Malta. As the Axis forces were progressively defeated in North Africa, the siege of Malta was lifted. On 6 December 1942, a supply convoy reached Malta without suffering any losses. After that, ships sailed to Malta without joining convoys. The last air raid over Malta occurred on 20 July 1943. It was the 3,340th alert since 11 June 1940.
The Allied infrastructure built up on the island in 1942 was later turned to offensive use, as over a dozen Spitfire squadrons based there commenced operations covering the amphibious Allied invasion of Sicily.
On 29–30 April 1942, a plan for the invasion of the island was approved by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. It envisioned an airborne assault with one German and one Italian paratroop division, under the command of German General Kurt Student. This would have been followed by a seaborne landing of two or three divisions protected by the Italian Royal Navy. However, while the invasion was supported by Rommel wholeheartedly, Hermann Göring was against it. In the end, the operation was repeatedly delayed and eventually cancelled.
Thirty-five major operations were mounted between 1940 and 1942 to deliver supplies and reinforcements to the island.