THE BATTLE FOR MALTA - FAITH, HOPE, CHARITY - AND HURRICANES

 The Battle for Malta is too often dismissed in post-war literature as an irrelevant "prestige" campaign of no real significance to the outcome of the war. Such a judgement is facile and presumptuous.  Allied control of Malta was vital to control of the Mediterranean and with it the Suez Canal and access to Near Eastern oil. Had the Axis Powers seized control of the Suez Canal and the oil fields of the Middle East, they would have dealt a crippling blow to Britain and the Allied cause. The decision to defend Malta was militarily astute and the nearly three year struggle that ensued was marked by courage and audacity that earned the island the only collective George Cross in history. 

(Below: King George VI salutes Malta on his arrival June 20, 1943)

 

The history of Malta stretches back beyond the age of the Pharaohs and is characterized by layers of conquest, settlement, and control -- from Egypt, the Middle East (Phoenicia), Greece (Ancient and Byzantine), and Italy (Rome and Norman Sicily). The most recent conquerors/administrators were the Knights Hospitallers, who arrived in 1530, followed by the British, who were invited to take control of the island in 1800 in a move to expel Napoleonic France. Although the natives to this day speak a unique Arab dialect, they were profoundly Catholic by the time Napoleon arrived and so offended by his revolutionary expropriations of Church property. The British wisely left the people their language and their faith, while transforming the island into an efficient and pleasant naval base for the Royal Navy.

Malta is located roughly 1,000 miles east of Gibraltar and 1,000 miles west of Alexandria, smack in the middle of the Mediterranean. It is also just 60 miles south of Sicily and 180 miles from the North African coast. During the First World War it had become the "hospital of the Mediterranean," a secure and well-embedded part of the British overseas dominions. Yet as tensions rose in the interwar years, the Royal Navy became increasingly nervous about whether the island could be held against an aggressive, fascist Italy which, after all, controlled both Sicily and Libya. If it were to be held, it needed effective air defences -- and that was exactly what Malta did not have. Indeed, the RAF argued that Malta, an island less than 100 square miles in size, was too small to host sufficient fighters for its defence, and too close to the prospective enemy for radar to provide adequate warning of impending attacks. In this context, it was agreed that the RAF's primary role in the Mediterranean was reconnaissance in support of naval operations, while the fate of Malta itself was left undecided.

At the outbreak of WWII, the Mediterranean initially appeared safe. Italy was officially neutral and France was a major Mediterranean power which, alongside Britain, was expected to help contain moves by Mussolini. As a precaution, the RAF developed an airfield on Malta a Luqa, complete with underground bomb and petrol storage and underground power stations and support facilities. These were to prove crucial to Malta's freedom. Yet the actual air assets remained pitifully small: 7 Fairy Swordfish (biplane torpedo bombers) until in May 1940, when the RAF in the Mediterranean requested "loan" of six Sea Gladiators from the Royal Navy. These were stored in crates on Malta. Four of these were assembled (the remaining two were used for spare parts) and six pilots with no previous fighter experience were assigned to fly them. 


On 10 June 1940, with France on the brink of surrender to Germany, Italy declared war on France and Great Britain. On the morning of the very next day, 11 June, the Italian air force bombed Malta -- as if the Italians had only been waiting for the opportunity. Although the attack itself was directed at legitimate military targets (the naval base and one of the air fields), the attack killed more than twenty Maltese civilians and shattered any lingering pro-Italian sentiment among the local population. The ensuing campaign solidified Maltese support for and loyalty to Britain. 

This first raid, like most subsequent raids, was accurately picked up by Malta's lone radar station and a section of three Gladiators led by Flight Lieutenant Burgess took to the air in opposition. In the ensuing weeks, the six pilots took to the air as often as possible, but at no time was there ever more than three Gladiators operational, and often it was only two or one due to repairs and maintenance being performed on the others. As a result, the people of Malta never saw more than three Gladiators at any one time, and at some point -- no one seems to know when -- they came to be referred to as "Hope," "Faith," and "Charity." 


One of the pilots stationed on Malta in this period reflected that:

"During this period none of us ever heard the aircraft referred to as Faith, Hope and Charity and I do not know who first used the description. Nevertheless, the sentiment was appropriate because the civil population certainly prayed for us and displayed such photographs as they could get hold of. There was no doubt that the Gladiators did not 'wreck death and destruction' to many of the enemy, but equally they had a very profound effect on the morale of everybody in the island, and most likely stopped the Italians just using the island as a practice bombing range whenever they felt like it." [Wg/Cdr G.V.A. Collins, quoted in Ken Delve, Malta Strikes Back: The Role of Malta in the Mediterranean Theatre 1940-1942, Pen & Sword, 2017, p. 10]

While the effect on morale was real it was not a military answer to the defense of a strategically important stronghold! The Gladiators, while maneuverable, were slower than the Italian bombers -- much less fighters, and lacked firepower. This meant that even when the Gladiators did get the bombers in their gun sites, they could rarely due sufficient damage to bring a bomber down. In consequence, Malta's civilian governor requested Hurricanes. Although the RAF command prioritized Hurricane deliveries to Egypt, by 28 June, Malta had its first Hurricanes -- temporarily at least. Henceforth the defense of Malta would be in the hands of a growing number of Hurricane and eventually Spitfire squadrons, as I will discuss in future posts.

My novels about the RAF in WWII are intended as tributes to the men in the air and on the ground that made a victory against fascism in Europe possible. 

Riding the icy, moonlit sky,

they took the war to Hitler. 

Their chances of survival were less than fifty percent. 

Their average age was 21.

This is the story of just one bomber pilot, his crew and the woman he loved. 

It is intended as a tribute to them all.  

Buy now on amazon or Barnes and Noble

MORAL FIBRE is the WINNER OF A HEMINGWAY AWARD 2022 and was a FINALIST for the BOOK EXCELLENCE AWARD IN HISTORICAL FICTION.

 

Disfiguring injuries, class prejudice and PTSD are the focus of three heart-wrenching tales set in WWII by award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/grounded-eagles


 

 

"Where Eagles Never Flew" was the the winner of a Hemingway Award for 20th Century Wartime Fiction and a Maincrest Media Award for Military Fiction. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew

For more information about all my aviation books visit: https://www.helenapschrader.com/aviation.html



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