Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Malta, Air Battles of (1940–1942)

The island of Malta in the central Mediterranean was ideally placed to interdict Axis lines of communication to Libya and was an important way station for Allied aircraft in transit to North Africa. The air attacks on Malta by the Axis powers were initially intended to reduce the disruption of Axis supplies to North Africa from Malta-based bombers and submarines, but they were also to be the precursor to a planned Axis invasion of the island, Operation herkules (the Italian name was c-3).

At the start of World War II, Air Commodore F. H. M. "Sammy" Maynard was the air officer commanding (AOC) Malta. He developed a reputation for hanging on to any useful aircraft that happened to land on the island. Initially, Malta's fighter defense consisted of four antiquated Gloster Sea Gladiator biplanes (three of them popularly known as "Faith," "Hope," and "Charity").

The first Italian bombing attack on Malta was made on 11 June 1940. Bombing continued throughout the summer and autumn, but reinforcements continued to arrive on the island, including a few Hurricane fighters. From mid-February 1941, the Luftwaffe deployed large numbers of fighters to the battle, and the Royal Air Force (RAF) began to take heavier losses among its Hurricane fighters. Bombing attacks eased off during May 1941 as the Luftwaffe concentrated on Crete. Then, on 22 June 1941, Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in Operation barbarossa, and many of the Luftwaffe units were diverted to the Soviet front. As a result, defense and interdiction forces on Malta could be strengthened; supply convoys arrived, and attacks on Axis shipping intensified. Also in June, Air Vice Marshal Hugh Lloyd replaced Maynard as AOC Malta.

Malta had become the most important British overseas base in the world, and from the Axis point of view, corrective action was required. In December 1941, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring's Luftflotte 2 of more than 600 aircraft was transferred to Sicily with orders to neutralize Malta. Between December 1941 and April 1942, Kesselring mounted sustained heavy attacks on the island, and the activities of its bomber force were drastically curtailed. In January 1942, no Axis ship supplying North Africa was sunk, and the February Allied supply convoy to Malta was forced to turn back. The total tonnage of bombs dropped on Malta in March and April 1942 was more than the total dropped on London during the whole of 1940.

After February 1942, the British adopted more effective fighter tactics, and 31 Spitfires were delivered from the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle during March 1942. Hurricanes were good dogfighters, but given the short distance from Italian airfields (60 miles), they lacked the climb performance to gain an altitude advantage before attacking. With the advent of Spitfires, the defending fighters were able to gain sufficient altitude to attack from above. Malta pilots became adept at high-speed dive and zoom attacks. Many aces were made at Malta, not least of whom was George "Screwball" Beurling (with 31 victories, or kills).

The March 1942 Allied supply convoy to Malta nonetheless suffered very heavy losses, and many ships were sunk; only 5,000 tons of supplies got through. By April, food, fuel, spare parts, and ammunition were all in short supply, and rationing was severe and disease rife; the situation was becoming critical. On 15 April 1942, King George VI took the highly unusual step of awarding the George Cross to the entire island. During April and May 1942, the aircraft carriers USS Wasp and HMS Eagle delivered a total of 132 Spitfires to Malta. On 10 May, Kesselring, following a particularly poor intelligence assessment, reported to the German High Command that the neutralization of Malta was complete.

Renewed Axis attacks against the island in June were timed to coincide with the advance of the Afrika Korps (Africa Corps) to Egypt. Italian warships forced back an Allied supply convoy from Alexandria, and another convoy from Gibraltar was heavily attacked. But two merchantmen reached Grand Harbor, preventing starvation on the island for another two or three months.

Air Vice Marshal Keith Park was appointed AOC Malta in July 1942, and he instituted an aggressive forward-interception policy to attack Axis raiders as they were forming up. Within a few weeks, this policy had dramatically reduced the effectiveness of the bombing and inflicted increasingly severe losses on the Luftwaffe. During July and August, bombers from Malta again inflicted heavy damage on Axis convoys, greatly assisting the British Eighth Army during the Battles of Alam Halfa and El Alamein. During August, Operation pedestal delivered 53,000 tons of supplies to Malta.

Axis forces made one last series of heavy attacks between 10 and 20 October and were then mostly transferred to North Africa. Raids on the island were gradually reduced thereafter. The siege was lifted altogether on 20 November when Operation stoneage delivered another 35,000 tons of supplies, and a further 55,000 tons were delivered in December. The battle officially ended on 31 December 1942.

Andy Blackburn


Further Reading
Cull, Brian, and Frederick Galea. Hurricanes over Malta, June 1940–April 1942. London: Grubb Street, 200l.; Douglas-Hamilton, James. The Air Battle for Malta. Shrewsbury, UK: Airlife, 2000.; Lucas, Laddie. Malta: The Thorn in Rommel's Side. London: Stanley Paul, 1992.; Price, Alfred. Spitfire Mk V Aces, 1941–45. London: Osprey, 1997.; Shares, Christopher F., Brian Cull, and Nicola Malizia. Malta: The Spitfire Year, 1942. London: Grubb Street, 1991.
 

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