Malta and World War II

The first attacks on the island of Malta were made following the Italian declaration of war in June 1940 and until 1940 fighters to defend the vital island were virtually non existent... all except for Faith, Hope and Charity that is.

“The tempo of life here is just indescribable. The morale is magnificent – pilots, groundcrews and army – but it is certainly tough. The bombing is continuous on and off all day. One lives here only to destroy the Hun and hold him at bay; everything else, living conditions, sleep, food, and all the ordinary standards of living have gone by the board. It all makes the Battle of Britain and fighter sweeps seem like child’s play in comparison.”

This was the verdict of Pilot Officer Herbert Mitchell of 603 Squadron, but his sentiment would have been wholeheartedly endorsed by most pilots who served on Malta during the Siege. Mitchell was one of 174 fighter pilots killed during the fighting above the island, but whether fighter pilot, torpedo, bomber or reconnaissance pilot, serving on the island was one of the most hazardous postings in the RAF.

Malta, like Britain, was ill-prepared for war and when the first Italian bombers arrived over the island on June 11, 1940, had just a handful of loaned and modified Royal Navy Gloster Gladiator biplanes with which to defend the island.

The first few Hurricanes arrived shortly after, although as soon as the Luftwaffe appeared over the island in January 1941, these fighter planes, who had done such sterling work during the Battle of Britain were shown to be massively inferior both in terms of numbers and performance to the German Messerschmitt 109Fs & Gs. Compounding the problems were the lack of spares and maintenance equipment, which meant that Malta’s aircraft rarely operated at maximum performance anyway. By the end of January the island had just 28 Hurricanes remaining from the 340 that had been delivered since the siege began. Many had been destroyed on the ground; the island’s three airfields were bombed and strafed repeatedly. In March 1942, Ta'Qali airfield became the most bombed Allied airfield in the history of warfare: 295 tons of bombs were dropped in a 24 hour period, more than had destroyed Coventry in November 1940.

It was only once the Spitfire Mk V started arriving in numbers, and with proper plans in place for their arrival, that Axis dominance began to diminish. On 10 May 1942, 65 Axis aircraft were shot down by the RAF, which marked a turning point in the air war of Malta. The RAF’s successes improved further with the arrival of Air Vice Marshal Keith Park in July. By establishing his ‘Forward Interception Plan’ he virtually eliminated further Axis daylight bombing over the island. In October 1942, the Axis tried one final concerted effort to blitz the island into submission: it failed. 350 enemy aircraft were shot down during the month, a loss from which the Axis never recovered.

As elsewhere, Malta’s fighter pilots were drawn from around the world: Britain, Canada, USA, Rhodesia, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Many men made their reputations in the frantic struggle over Malta’s skies, but perhaps none more than Canadian George ‘Screwball’ Beurling. Arguably, the most naturally gifted Allied fighter pilot of the war, Beurling shot down no less than 26 confirmed enemy aircraft between July and October 1942. No other Allied pilot could claim more victories in such a short time.

The bombing of the tiny fortress island was intense and this suffering can be brought into perspective by a series of comparisons:

In a 24 hour period on 20-21st March 1942 295 tons of bombs fell on Ta’Qali airfield making it the most bombed allied airfield ever.

6,728 tons of bombs to fell on Malta in April, 36 times the amount to fall on Coventry.

3,156 tons were dropped on the harbour at Valetta in April 1942

In March and April 1942 more bombs were dropped on Malta than fell on London during the entire Blitz.

There were 154 days of continuous raids in comparison to London’s 57.

On 15 April the George Cross was awarded by King George VI to the Maltese people for their bravery during the air raids "To bear witness to the heroism and devotion of its people during the great siege it underwent in the early parts of World War Two."

The anti-aircraft defences were vital and in April alone 102 enemy aircraft were shot down by anti-aircraft gunners. The would shoot down 454 aircraft before the siege ended.

The 601 and 603 Squadrons arrived on the 20th of April, then after a request from Winston Churchill to US President Roosevelt, the US carrier Wasp was made available, and together with HMS Eagle, delivering 46 and 13 more Spitfires respectively, helped turn the tide. Day after day outnumbered but dogged fighters climbed from their heavily bombed bases into the skies to defend "the most bombed patch of land in the world". By the end of the siege 30,037 buildings were destroyed or damaged.

The suffering of the islands was not just due to the air bombardment. The most notable memory of many on Malta during the siege was the hunger they endured. The re-supply by convoy was through "Bomb Alley" and this wreaked havoc and heavy losses on allied shipping trying to get through and few convoys were getting through. Many ships were sunk before getting to Valetta and if they did reach it they were often sunk in the harbour. The islands could not survive without supplies and at one stage were only two weeks away from having to capitulate. There was very little food for the 30,000 troops and 250,000 residents and almost no fuel left for the fighters defending the island.

Operation Pedestal was to became a turning point in the survival of Malta and the arrival of Port Chalmers, Melbourne Star, Rochester Castle, Brisbane Star and the crippled aviation fuel laden tanker Ohio, 5 merchant ships out of a convoy of 14, enabled the islands to go on. The Royal Navy escort had also suffered heavily in getting through to Malta.

In August and September, the German and Italian air forces suffered heavy losses over Malta and in October they conceded defeat. At one stage in just a few days, the Luftwaffe lost about 500 aircraft, either destroyed or damaged.

The defence of Malta was an All Arms maximum effort; Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, Army, Merchant Navy all contributing to their limits together with the people of Malta battling in a fight to the finish, a fight that triumphed.

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