THE BATTLE FOR MALTA - HURRICANES AND SPITFIRES

 While the British had questioned if Malta could be held in the pre-war period, by the time the Italians attacked on 11 June 1940, opinion had shifted. The value of the island both for the defense of Egypt and the vital Suez Canal and as a base for offensive operations had been recognized. The decision was made to not only to try to hold on to Malta but to increase its air assets to such an extent that it could perform all the tasks envisaged for it. Yet Malta would only be able to fulfill its role of defending Allied convoys and attacking Axis assets, if it was itself safe from air attack. That meant sufficient numbers of fighter aircraft, pilots, fuel and munition. Maintaining that defensive capability was to prove extremely challenging.

Although Hurricanes from Egypt operated temporarily from Malta starting 28 June, it was not until 2 July that a senior RAF staff officer argued that basing four modern fighter squadrons (instead of four obsolete Gladiators) on Malta could turn it into "a running sore" in Italy's side. Shortly afterwards, the first attempt was made to deliver UK-based Hurricanes to Malta by flying Hurricanes off the deck of an aircraft carrier. In what was code-named "Operation Hurry" twelve Hurricanes took  off from HMS Argus and all arrived safely in Malta on 2 August. The pilots believed they were merely ferrying to aircraft to Malta and would return to the UK. They were in for a surprise. The Malta command immediately commandeered them. The first Malta Squadron, No 261, was formed the same day.  This unit was to be reinforced piecemeal or the next year: four more Hurricanes in November 1940, another 12 in early April and 23 in late April, 1941, an additional four in May and (finally) by 60 in three batches in June 1941. Due to losses both in the air and on the ground, all these reinforcements until the 60 Hurricanes in June 1941 served only to keep one Hurricane squadron more or less up to strength.

Fortunately for the defense of Malta, the period from July to October 1940 proved to be the Maltese equivalent of the "Phoney War." In the first four months after hostilities had commenced, there had been a total of only 36 day-raids and 13 night-raids. Malta's few fighters had made 72 daytime interceptions and two night interceptions during which they claimed the destruction of 22 enemy aircraft for the loss of nine RAF aircraft and two pilots killed and one severely injured. Although there was an increase of activity in November, the results did not materially alter. By the end of 1940, the Italians had dropped 550 tons of explosives on Malta, targeting exclusively military targets particularly the naval dockyards, shipping and the airfields. It had cost them forty aircraft, and Malta's defences had become stronger not weaker. In short, the RAF's tiny defense force was definitely holding its own enabling Malta to become increasingly active in offensive operations.

Things changed dramatically on 16 January when the Luftwaffe joined the battle for Malta. The first German raid, which reached Malta at 2pm, was directed at the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, which had been severely damaged in air attacks while at sea and barely limped into Grand Harbor. The Luftwaffe was determined to finish her off and launched three air raids targeting the British aircraft carrier while she lay at Malta. These raids pressed home with much more ferocity than had been the case with the Italian raised caused significant destruction to the port and killed some 60 people in the dockyard. The attacks were rightly read as an indication of what was to come and prompted one RAF officer to lament that it had been a "gentleman's air war" until the arrival of the Luftwaffe. 

Even more ominously, with the arrival of the Luftwaffe came Me109Fs. These fighters that were more than a match for the Mark I and II Hurricanes deployed to Malta. The 109s were equipped with canon and flown by experienced pilots and made their first appearance in the skies over Malta on 12 February 1941. The RAF lost three Hurricanes in this raid alone and one pilot. Thereafter things only got worse. 

From their bases in Sicily, the Luftwaffe began launching multiple raids per day -- each with sizable bomber forces of over sixty bombers escorted by half as many fighters. RAF losses were heavy -- often four or five aircraft in a single day and damage to the airfields became increasingly difficult repair. On 22 March, for example, the RAF lost five aircraft and their pilots in just seven minutes of combat. Yet, if scrambled in time, the RAF still had teeth, as it demonstrated when it destroyed four Ju87s in a single raid several days later.

Furthermore, reinforcements kept arriving, enabling the RAF to establish a second Malta squadron, No 185 Squadron, was established on Malta on 1 May 1941. The first Beaufighters also arrived at this time -- although their task was not the defense of the Malta but rather to provide long-range protection for Allied convoys. However, very significantly, they also helped to ensure that supplies reached Malta on a regular basis. (Below Bristol Beaufighters in flight)

  

The situation further improved when in June Hitler launched the invasion of the Soviet Union. For this campaign, Hitler wanted his best Luftwaffe units and so those that had been operating from Sicily since January were pulled out and sent to the Eastern Front. (One can image how happy the Luftwaffe crews felt about that!) Meanwhile, the RAF was able to relieve the exhausted 261 Squadron with 249 Squadron and deploy a third fighter squadron, No 126 -- both equipped with Hurricanes. In addition, the first night fighter unit was formed. 

Although these new units faced renewed activity by the Italian air force, after 69 raids in July, Italian appetite for action appeared to decline dramatically. Only 24 raids were recorded in August and 29 in September. Furthermore, convoys were consistently getting through with their precious cargoes, albeit at a cost to the Royal Navy, whose escorts frequently took torpedoes fired by submarines or dropped by torpedo bombers. In August and September twelve of thirteen merchantmen arrived safely, all loaded to the gills with food, military ordinance and reinforcements.

Under the circumstances, the Royal Navy judged it safe to base capital ships in Malta's Grand Harbor and Force K with two cruisers, Aurora and Penelope, was formed. The mission of the latter along with the reinforcements to Malta's torpedo bomber forces was to interdict supplies crossing the Mediterranean to the Axis armies in North Africa. Although the Royal Navy was soon to suffer significant losses due primarily to German U-boats now active in the Mediterranean, in November the Allies sunk significantly more Axis merchantmen than vice versa, and much of the damage was coming from Malta-based ships. Malta was about to become a victim of its own success. 

In late 1941, Hitler was forced to recognize the need to neutralize Malta.  Despite his personal obsession with the Eastern Front, he ordered Luftflotte 2 under Generalfeldmarshall Albert Kesselring to deploy to Sicily. Malta felt the difference at once. In December alone, the Luftwaffe launched 159 raids. Daylight raids were large and escorted by fighters; night raids were generally nuisance raids by single bombers, but all were pressed home with determination. Furthermore, the Luftwaffe build-up had only just begun. Throughout January, more units pulled out of the Easter Front and re-deployed to Sicily. The assault on Malta intensified with a focus on Malta's three main military airfields. In February, despite winter weather that reduced visibility, the Luftwaffe ramped up operations further still with the declared intention of destroying Malta's offensive capability. 

The Luftwaffe's efforts were rewarded with mounting Allied casualties, including civilian casualties, but most significantly by a more successful interdiction of the vital supply lines to the island. In February, all three ships of one supply convoy were lost to enemy action. Furthermore, Malta's historical and cultural monuments started to suffer. As the Luftwaffe hammered the island by day and night, the Grand Master's palace, the Grand Hospital and other baroque masterpieces from the age of the Knights Hospitallers were damaged or completely destroyed. 


Rather shockingly, it was not until the arrival of S/L Turner of 249 Squadron in February 1942 that the Malta-based fighter squadrons finally abandoned old-fashioned and long-since discredited pre-war RAF fighter formations in favor of the looser formations adopted by most squadrons in the UK during the Battle of Britain. Turner also instituted the tactic of first flying away from approaching raiders to gain altitude before turning back for the fight. Yet no matter how good the tactics were the ageing Hurricanes were simply no match for the Luftwaffe's 109s.

 


The cry for Spitfires was loud and did not go unheeded. The first fifteen were launched from the carrier Eagle on 7 March 1942. However, their arrival did not escape the attention of the foe, and immediately triggered even more determined attacks by the Luftwaffe. Concentrating their attacks on the airfield of Ta'Qali where the Spitfires were based, the Luftwaffe launched a new offensive. In two days, March 20-21, the Luftwaffe delivered seven raids involving large numbers of Ju88s escorted by 109s and 110s with the effect that Ta'Qali was rendered temporarily unusable. 

Encouraged, the Luftwaffe stepped up its attacks further. On April 7, in a series of attacks on the Grand Harbor and the three airfields, almost 300 German aircraft delivered 400 tons of explosives or roughly four-fifths as much as the Italians had delivered in all of 1940. In the period from 20 March to 28 April 1942, the Luftwaffe flew nearly 12,000 sorties by almost equal numbers of fighters and bombers to deliver an astonishing 6,557 tons of bombs. For comparison, 12,000 tons of bombs were dropped on London during the entire Blitz from September 1940 to May 1941. That is roughly three times the explosives on a weekly average basis.

With raids taking place up to five times a day, normal life on Malta ceased. The civilian population was living in air raid shelters, while military installations were hardly able to maintain operations. The effect was immediately evident in the number of Axis ships and convoys successfully reaching North Africa to supply the Afrika Corps. In March 1942, less than of 50,000 tons of supplies were landed. In April it was over 100,000 tons. In addition, more and more minefields had been laid in the approaches to Malta's harbor and these also took their toll on fighting and merchant ships. The Royal Navy concluded that Malta was no longer a "safe haven" for its surface vessels and decided to withdraw Force K.


Due to an intelligence coup, the Axis learned of this decision. Now smelling blood, the Italians agitated for and convinced the Germans to make plans for a full-scale invasion and occupation of Malta from Sicily. Allied aerial reconnaissance revealed the construction of new airstrips on Sicily, and rightly interpreted these as launching bases for such an attack. At once a race commenced to reinforce Malta's air defenses before the attack could be launched. Although nine Spitfires had reached Malta in the midst of the raids on March 20, and another seven came in eight days later, Spitfires were also being lost in combat, accidents and the bombing, largely negating these meager reinforcements. Clearly more had to be done. 
 
Finally, on 20 April two entire squadrons (601 and 603) arrived with 46 Spitfires, but the Luftwaffe responded with renewed attacks on the airfields, again temporarily closing Ta'Qali and rendering all but 18 of the newly delivered Spitfires at least temporarily unserviceable. In the following days, eight Spitfires were lost in combat, nine destroyed on the ground, and 29 badly damaged. Effectively, the RAF could scramble only six to eight Spitfires at a time. By the end of April, the RAF had lost eight Hurricanes and thirteen Spitfires in combat and a further 42 fighters and 22 bombers on the ground.  Altogether 6,700 tons of bombs had been dropped on Malta, killing 300 civilians and injuring an additional 630.
 
In addition, the Axis powers intensified their attacks on Malta's lines of supply, having finally recognized the importance of this vulnerability. In late March, Axis attacks on a supply convoy resulted in one vessel being sunk before it reached Malta and three others sunk after arrival but before they could be off-loaded. Although the forces on Malta learned from this disaster and ensured that future ships would be off-loaded expeditiously by military and civilian personnel, the Axis Powers had found Malta's jugular.

In early June, Axis ships and aircraft achieved an even more spectacular success when they forced an entire convoy composed of eleven merchantmen from Alexandria to turn back after the loss of a cruiser and damage to two others along with two destroyers. A simultaneous eastbound convoy consisting of five merchantmen and a tanker was so badly savaged that only two ships made Malta's harbour. In short, rather than receiving the cargo of 18 ships, Malta had received the contents of only two. The price had been the complete loss of six allied warships sunk, damage to twelve more and five merchantmen sunk. 

The most serious consequence, however, was that Malta was increasingly at risk of being starved into submission -- starved of ammunition and other war materiel, starved of aviation and bunker fuel for aircraft and ships respectively, and starved of food for the civilian population and the garrison. The entire population, civilian and military, was on increasingly short rations, and the situation was unsustainable. The military governor, Lord Gort, warned that Malta -- so recently the first and only collective recipient of the George Cross -- would be forced to surrender if supplies did not reach it in sufficient quantities by September.

Fortunately, Malta's air defenses had been bolstered by the arrival of 60 more Spitfires on 7 May, 26 on 3 June and another 32 Spitfires on 9 June.  All of these deliveries were met in Malta by ground crews that refueled and rearmed them while the arriving pilots were replaced by pilots familiar with conditions in Malta. This ensured that they were combat ready within minutes --  rather than days as had been the case when the first Spitfires arrived. Altogether, the Spitfire strength had been increased to 98 aircraft including those used for photo reconnaissance. Yet in the first two weeks of July, 25 Spitfires and 19 pilots were lost.


Fortunately, on 14 July Air Vice Marshal Park arrived in Malta to relieve AVM Lloyd as Air Officer Commanding. He was distressed to learn that in the weeks before his arrival only 8% of incoming raids had been met by British fighters before the bombers reached their targets. He immediately instituted procedures to scramble fighters earlier, enabling them to gain height and attack the incoming bombers before they could deliver their explosives. These new procedures immediately showed results. Meanwhile, on 15 and 22 July, additional Spitfires arrived, 31 and 28 on these dates respectively. These last deliveries enabled the remaining Hurricane flight to convert to Spitfires. 
 
Yet even Spitfires need aviation fuel and pilots have to eat. Everything now depended on successful resupply by sea, a task only the navy could fulfill. The Royal Navy dedicated five aircraft carriers, two battleships, seven cruisers, and thirty destroyers to escort a convoy of thirteen merchantmen including one large, modern tanker, the American-flagged but British-manned Ohio. This convoy, now famous under its code name "Pedestal," set sail from Scotland on the night of August 2/3. The importance of the convoy was fully appreciated by the Axis powers, and determined and tenacious attempts were made to ensure it did not get through. Attacks were made by submarines, torpedo boats, torpedo and conventional bombers. Of the thirteen merchantmen, eight were sunk. Only two ships arrived undamaged, and just three arrived damaged, including the all-important oil tanker that had to be towed into the Grand Harbor only partially afloat. 

Both sides claimed victory. The Axis for sinking the bulk of the convoy along with a British aircraft carrier and damaging a second aircraft carrier and four cruisers. The Allies claimed victory because Malta received just enough food, fuel and materiel to keep fighting. Despite its desperate situation, Malta had managed to reduce the tonnage of supplies reaching North Africa from the high reached in April and this trend continued, although the situation was extremely volatile and victory could still go either way. 

The Luftwaffe, however, turned its attention to supporting Rommel, and Malta had a "breather," with almost no attacks directed against it in September. Park immediately went on the offensive and sent his now numerous Spitfire forces on offensive strafing sorties. By October, he was confident enough to convert some of his Spitfires into fighter-bombers. 

The Axis retaliated with a major bombing raid on 11 October directed at Malta's airfields. They kept up the pressure for an entire week, but for the first time in the more than two-year Battle of Malta, the RAF had air superiority. In consequence, most of the raids were met before they reached Malta. After five days, the Luftwaffe abandoned massive raids altogether and attempted pin-prick raids from different directions simultaneously. When these were also effectively intercepted by fighters, the Luftwaffe withdrew their bombers altogether and replaced them with fighter sweeps and fighter-bomber strikes. These were patently incapable of destroying Malta's offensive capabilities. The RAF had won.

On the night of 23 October the Allies counter-attacked at El Alamein and on 8 November Anglo-American forces landed in French North Africa. 

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



Comments

  1. When the going gets tough . . . the tough gain glory! Woo-hoo!

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