Malta and the Second World War

The 2nd Great Siege

The role of Malta in the Second World War reflects the strategic position that it held in the Mediterranean. Lying in the middle of the Mediterranean it was, and still is, a gateway between the continents of Europe and Africa. From the point of the Allies it was an important garrison and staging point to Alexandria and from the point of view of the Axis Powers it threatened resupply convoys to Rommel's Afrika Korps.

The garrison of Malta was initially unprepared for the important role it would play after the centre of British Navel Operations was moved to Alexandria. The under resourced sea fortress found itself within range of the Italian Air Force and Navy after the Italian declaration of war on 10th June 1940.

Malta was bombed by the Italians the day after war was declared. The island held out however with a large part played by a small number of Sea Gladiators and later by a number of Hurricanes. The Gladiators were immortalized with the names of Faith, Hope and Charity. The fight was taken to the Axis convoys and due to the successes from 1941, Malta was subjected to regular bombing by the Luftwaffe, especially from the German Fliegerkorps X based in Sicily. Bombing continued through 1941 with a partial lapse as some of the Luftwaffe were transferred to the Eastern Front.

Faith, from the Malta photographic record site.

 

Faith, one of the Gloster Gladiator biplanes. For a thorough, detailed and in depth look at the planes and history of the Malta Siege visit this link

 

Churchill recognizing the important part that the interdiction of Axis convoys could make to the African Theatre dispatched 'Force K' to Malta to carry our more aggressive raids on Axis shipping. These were very successful and slowed down the resupply of the German troops in North Africa. Luftwaffe sorties were cut back and Rommel had to re-entrench.

On 15th April 1942, King George VI awarded the island the George Cross, the highest civilian medal, for its peoples bravery and heroism.

"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".

The German forces hit back and combined with the loss of the Kandahar and the Neptune in a minefield, Malta was again squeezed. Supply convoys to Malta were attacked and it was subjected to an intense air-siege in late 1941 and early 1942.

Supplies of Spitfires to mount a defense of the island were getting through and with the appointment of Air Vice Marshall Keith Park, who changed the aerial tactics, the Axis air losses increased. This was combined with a less intense aerial bombardment as Rommel diverted the Luftwaffe to support his ground campaigns. The aircraft could not operate without fuel however and less and less was reaching the island. A number of re-supply convoys failed to bring in the supplies as ships were sunk.

A major re-supply convoy took place called Operation Pedestal with 14 merchant ships and 44 major warships in July 1942. The convoy was subjected to aerial, torpedo and submarine attack and many ships were sunk, so damaged they had to turn back, or be scuttled. On 13th August the first merchant ships began arriving and on 15th August the tanker Ohio which had been bombed, torpedoed and survived a crashed dive bomber arrived with its precious fuel.

 

Tanker Ohio, flanked by Destroyers Ledbury and Penn

 

 

The darkest days were over and the tide was turning as in North Africa Rommel's forces were on the retreat. The defense of Malta had taken a tremendous cost on the lives of not only the armed forces but of the population of Malta. Although it can be questioned by some whether such a dogged defense was worth it in strategic terms the ultimate defeat of the Axis powers should always be borne in mind.