The governor of the island—Lieutenant General William Dobbie and then, from May 1942, General Lord John Gort—also acted as its military commander. The British used Malta as an air and naval base to interdict Axis supply lines between Italy and Libya. In October 1941, British ships and planes operating from Malta sank two-thirds of the Axis supplies sent to Libya.
Both sides recognized the importance of Malta to operations in the Mediterranean Theater. When Italy declared war on the Allies in June 1940, it immediately began air attacks on Malta, and initially, the British had only a handful of Sea Gladiator biplanes to meet these attacks. The Germans increased the pressure on the island by sending Fliegerkorps X to Sicily to neutralize Malta so that Axis supplies and men might reach North Africa. Beginning in January 1941, Fliegerkorps X struck both the island and the British supply convoys in what became a furious, two-year aerial campaign.
Sustaining Malta became a top priority for the Allies in the Mediterranean Theater. From August 1940 until January 1943, the British pushed 13 convoys through to Malta, all of which sustained losses to Axis naval and air attacks. Critical to Malta's survival was the resupply of fighter aircraft, sent to the island via aircraft carrier. The situation became so desperate and British naval forces were stretched so thin that the United States employed the fleet carrier Wasp to fly in Spitfire aircraft during April and May 1942. This was at a time when the U.S. Pacific Fleet desperately needed every available carrier in the Pacific to stem the Japanese advance there.
Despite Allied efforts, the situation in Malta remained precarious for much of 1942. The largest effort to resupply the island came in Operation pedestal in August 1942, when the British sent 4 aircraft carriers, 2 battleships, 7 cruisers, and 24 destroyers to escort a convoy of 14 merchantmen to the island. After numerous air and U-boat attacks, the convoy limped into Malta's harbor on 12 August with just 5 merchant ships, 3 of them damaged. The Royal Navy lost 1 aircraft carrier, 2 cruisers, and 1 destroyer, with another carrier and 2 cruisers damaged. However, pedestal was sufficient to allow operations from Malta to continue. In the spring of 1942, Axis leaders discussed employing Italian and German paratroopers, supported by a sea invasion, to seize the island, but the Italians' lack of preparation, the desire to move German air units to the Eastern Front, General Erwin Rommel's recent success in Libya, and the memory of the costly Crete operation all led Adolf Hitler to cancel the operation.
By the time the siege of Malta had been lifted in December 1942, more than 1,500 Maltese had died from Axis air attacks. In recognition of their stoutness and to improve their morale during the bleakest of times, Britain's King George VI bestowed on the entire population of Malta the George Cross for valor.
C. J. Horn
Ansel, Walter. Hitler and the Middle Sea. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1972.; Bradford, Ernle. Siege: Malta, 1940–1943. New York: William Morrow, 1986.; Smith, Peter C., and Edwin Walker. The Battles of the Malta Striking Forces. Shepperton, UK: Ian Allan, 1974.; Vella, Philip. Malta: Blitzed but Not Beaten. Valletta, Malta: Progress Press, 1989.