During January 1942 a sirocco, with incessant rain, blew in from the sea on to the slopes of Mount Etna and down over the Sicilian plains. For the Luftwaffe’s bomber and fighter Gruppen which a few weeks before had returned to the Sicilian airfields at Catania and Gerbini, Trapani, Comiso and Gela, it was hardly a promising start to the new year.
Field-Marshal Kesselring, who, on November 28, 1941, had been withdrawn with his staff from the central sector of the Russian front and designated “Commander-in-Chief South”, had ordered large-scale air operations against Malta. But though squadrons were already raiding the island, the attack in force was delayed by the weather.
February came and the rain clouds suddenly gave way to spring sunshine; the bombers flew southwards over a deep blue sea flecked with white foam crests. As the weeks went by the raids grew more numerous, and the British Mediterranean fortress grew accustomed to a round-the-clock alert. But frequent though they now were, the raids were still being mounted only by smal7l formations.
Major Gilchrist, then Intelligence Officer of the British 231 Infantry Brigade, has given the following description: “At first the bombing was cautious. Three Ju 88s would come over three or four times a day, escorted by a large number of fighters. After a time … the raids increased to about eight a day, and often five Ju 88s were used. . . . The targets were airfields and dispersal units and occasionally the dockyards.”
[R. T. Gilchrist, Malta Strikes Back (Gale & Polden, 1946), pp. 4 & 5.]
That the Germans still came in sections of only three to five was no longer due to the weather, but to Kesselring’s deliberate tactics of giving the enemy no rest. Whatever advantage this might have had, however, was dissipated by the fact that the defence could concentrate its fire seriatim, especially against individual Ju 88 dive-bombers. Losses were severe, and the aircraft that returned without being hit were few.
“I was flying close to the left of our squadron commander,” reported Lieutenant Gerhard Stamp, pilot of a Ju 88. “Looking about, one could see our Me 109 escort. It seemed nothing much could really go wrong, especially on such a fine day.”
Stamp belonged to 2 squadron of Lehrgeschwader l, commanded by Captain Lüden and based at Catania. They had been briefed to dive-bomb the airfield of Luca and destroy the Blenheim and Wellington bombers based there. The Messerschmitt escort was provided by II/JG 53 under Captain “Earl” Wilcke.
From the south coast of Sicily to Malta is only fifty miles, scarcely more than a quarter of an hour’s flight. As the rocky island loomed out of the water, it was not long before Valetta, the capital, with its great harbour and naval base distributed over three deep inlets, came into view. As the bombers approached they were greeted by heavy flak. The shells exploded close below them, and Stamp’s machine was tossed in the air. “Let’s hope the next salvo isn’t a hundred feet higher!” commented Goerke, his flight mechanic.
By the spring of 1941 Malta’s flak had already won a “good reputation” amongst the German bomber crews. Then the aircraft concerned had been mostly Stukas, and it was apparent that the British guns were centrally controlled. As hundreds of them went off at once, the manoeuvrable little Ju 87s just had time to alter height and direction before, fifty seconds later, multitudinous explosion puffs appeared exactly along their previous course. Nor was the fire at one altitude only. As the bombers went down, salvos would go off at 9,000, 6,000 and 4,500 feet, and finally all the light flak on land and on the ships in harbour would join in.
“Their flak was certainly not to be trifled with,” was the verdict of Captain Helmut Mahlke, commander of III/StG 1. On February 26, 1941, a direct hit had torn an enormous hole in his starboard wing, and only a combination of luck and skill had got him back.
Since then the British flak had not rested on its laurels, and was now better still. As Stamp went down through the barrage, he thought only of getting below it. Following his C.O., he pulled out the diving brakes and, peeling off after him, aimed for Luca’s crossed runways. As he descended they were reduced in his bomb-sight to one, at the end of it six bombers clustered together. The observer called out the descending altitude, then struck Stamp on his knee to indicate the last moment to bomb. A pressure on the red button atop the control column, and the bombs fell away. The Ju 88 pulled out automatically.
The C.O.’s plane ahead flew as if in a drunken frenzy, popping to left and right, and up and down, as it carried out the motions of the “flak waltz”. Seconds later Stamp got ready to do the same. Right ahead was a black wall streaked with flashes and no choice but to fly through it. Thuds and bangs followed, like a multiple box on the ears.
“Undercarriage is down!” called Goerke. But it was only the flap, the legs remained up ; otherwise the loss of speed would have been fatal. If the engines survive, thought Stamp, we’ll be through. But at that moment Noschinski, the radio-operator, called: “Three Hurricanes attacking from starboard astern.”
The fighters had been waiting on the edge of the flak zone. At full boost Stamp went low down over the sea, and Noschinski behind him gave a breathless running commentary as he watched the Hurricanes in their turn attacked by Me 109s and two of them shot down. When Stamp came in to land at Catania, half an hour later, he found the pressure pipe had been shot away and the undercarriage could not be lowered, even with the hand pump. With a belly-landing imperative, he flew low over the hangars firing off Very lights. The airfield was promptly cleared, and ambulances and fire-engines got under way.
“After tightening our seat-belts I began the approach run,” said Stamp. “With the flaps also out of action my speed was too great and I had to open the throttle and make another circuit. At the second attempt there was a tearing jolt, and I shouted to release the roof, but bouncing up, the machine again became airborne. There was little runway left. Then there was another jolt, dirt sprayed over the cockpit, and we went skidding and ploughing straight at a great concrete wall. I applied the brakes—-as if that could help! Finally the plane lurched to the right and stopped ten feet away from it.”
It was a hair’s-breadth escape. Stamp reported to his Gruppenkommandeur, Captain Joschen Helbig. The latter screwed up his eyes, and said: “You don’t seem to have been very popular in Malta. Perhaps you’d better take over the ops officer’s job and at the end of the season get yourself a new toboggan.”
The Luftwaffe’s second assault on Malta—beginning in December 1941 and reaching its height in April 1942—was preceded by a bitter lesson in command of the sea. Whoever possessed Malta held the key strategic position in the central Mediterranean. For the British it represented an “unsinkable aircraft carrier”. As a naval and air force base it not only protected their own shipping route from Gibraltar to Alexandria and the Suez Canal at its most dangerous point; it also threatened the Axis supply route from Italy and Sicily to North Africa, obliging the Italians to make a wide detour.
In theory it might equally be supposed that a base so near to an enemy country, in the Italians’ “own” mare nostrum, was untenable. Italian bombers had attacked it in the summer of 1940, violently at first but soon with diminishing strength. As for the Luftwaffe’s first offensive against the island—by General Geisler’s X Air Corps in spring 1941—this had only the limited objective of holding down Malta while Rommel’s Afrika Korps was being ferried across to Tripoli. In this it was successful, but the proposal of Vice-Admiral Weichold, Germany’s naval chief in Italy, to occupy the battered island at once, fell on deaf ears. Malta could breathe again.
From April 6, 1941, the Luftwaffe was mainly engaged in the Balkan campaign, and two weeks later Hitler decided in favour of the risky airborne landing on Crete, despite the efforts of his general staff to persuade him that Malta, though only one twenty-sixth the size, was strategically the more important target. Then came the Russian campaign. X Air Corps had meanwhile left Sicily for operations in the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean.
Thus in the summer months of 1941 Malta had the chance to recuperate. Of three large supply convoys totalling thirty-nine transports that reached the island that year only one ship was lost. They brought weapons, ammunition, fuel and victuals. Air Vice-Marshal H. P. Lloyd, who took over command of the R.A.F. units in May, is said to have remarked: “You wouldn’t have known there was a war on.”
But the R.A.F. did not forget that there was: it harried the enemy with bombers and torpedo planes. Nor did the Navy. In addition to the 10th Submarine Flotilla, “Force K”, comprising cruisers and destroyers, took up station there in the autumn. Malta had resharpened her sword, as the German-Italian supply convoys discovered. The sword smote from the air, on the sea, and beneath it.
On September 18th the British submarine Upholder torpedoed the Italian troop transports Neptunia and Oceania, both high-speed steamers of 20,000 tons laden with troops and equipment for Africa, and 5,000 men were lost. Off Benghazi bombs from three Malta-based Blenheims also sank the Oriani. Shipping losses of nine per cent in August rose to thirty-seven per cent by September, thus seriously affecting both the capacity and morale of the Italian transport fleet.
In November catastrophe reached its zenith. On the 9th “Force K”, consisting of two British cruisers and two destroyers under Captain W. G. Agnew, detected an Italian convoy steaming by moonlight and sank the lot—five freighters and two tankers totalling 39,787 tons.
Rommel’s forces in Africa suffered accordingly. He received neither munitions nor fuel by sea, and air deliveries alone were inadequate to keep his Afrika Korps on the march. It remained stuck on the Egyptian frontier, and the British 8th Army was able to prepare its own autumn offensive in peace. On November 18th it strode out into the desert, and by the year’s end Rommel had been thrown back to Marsa el Brega, the place he had started from in the spring.
The total losses to the supply fleet in November were twelve fully-laden ships totalling 54,990 tons—or forty-four per cent of the transports that set sail. Admiral Weichold actually forwarded to Berlin the figure of seventy-seven per cent and Grand Admiral Raeder sounded the alarm at the Führer’s headquarters. The alternatives were seldom clearer: either Malta must again be subdued or the Afrika Korps was lost. So the Luftwaffe had to return to Sicily.
Hitler recalled Kesselring from his winter H.Q. in front of Moscow, and in December General Loerzer and the staff of II Air Corps followed him to Messina. With the original Geschwader decimated in Russia, the Corps had to be reorganised. Fitting it out for sub-tropical warfare consumed further time. Five bomber Gruppen, all equipped with the Ju 88 A-4, finally arrived one after the other in Sicily, plus one Ju 87 and one Me 110 Gruppe. Fighter protection fell to the lot of the top-scoring JG 53, with four Gruppen of Me 109Fs. Altogether they represented a force of 325 aircraft. But of these only 229 were serviceable.
The units had hardly arrived before they were thrown into the battle. Single aircraft or formations of up to squadron strength patrolled the sea lanes or escorted the transports as they ran the gauntlet to North Africa, and after the long months of quietness bombs fell again on Malta. But while things became tougher for the British the Germans, though their operations were so far small in scale, were also finding them disproportionately costly.
The experience of the night-fighter Gruppe, I/NJG 2, was typical. Two months previously it had been carrying out “intruder” operations against British bomber bases in England—till Hitler personally cancelled this form of warfare. Though now based at Catania under Captain Jung, it had frequently to detach squadrons to North Africa and Crete, so that in Sicily itself there were seldom more than ten aircraft available at any one time. None the less, they flew day and night, and one crew after another failed to return.
On December 3rd Lieutenant von Keudell sighted a rubber dinghy in the Tyrrhenian Sea, and promptly summoned a rescue craft. By doing so he saved the life of the German air attaché in Rome, Major General Ritter von Pohl, who had come to grief while flying to join Kesselring for an initial conference on operations. Eight weeks later Keudell himself was missing after a mission against Malta.
Shortly after Christmas Lieutenant Babineck, youngest pilot of the Gruppe, was claimed by light flak over Valetta, after he had said over the radio: “Am diving through 10/10 cloud at 1,500 feet.” Lieutenant Schleif, on a night intruder operation over Malta, shot down a Blenheim bomber in flames just as it was landing. Attempting to repeat his success on January 18th, his guns failed, and on the following night, over Luca, the flak got him at 600 feet, and his Ju 88 went down like a flaming torch. Lieutenant Haas never returned from his night pursuit of a British bomber. Lieutenant Laufs failed to find his airfield, obscured by darkness and clouds, and crashed into the slopes of Mount Etna. The adjutant, First-Lieutenant Schulz, was last seen diving into the sea just off the coast, and Corporal Teuber hurtled from 4,000 feet to destruction on Benghazi airfield after engine failure.
So it went on, day after day, week after week. To Colonel Deichmann, II Air Corps’ chief of staff, the losses—especially those of the bombers over Malta—seemed almost incomprehensible. Perhaps the targets were too dispersed, with each having to be dive-bombed separately. For pin-point bombing was still the gospel according to Jeschonnek, Luftwaffe chief of general staff. It was an obsession both with him and the other Luftwaffe leaders. And over Malta it was finally exposed as a false conception.
Under Kesselring’s direction Deichmann worked out a plan of his own. According to this, apart from identified anti-aircraft batteries and a few special targets, the whole tactic of dispersed dive-bombing was abandoned. In future the bombers would act as a united force, with the following programme:
1. Hit the British fighters on the ground by a surprise attack on their base, Ta Kali.
2. Attack the bomber and torpedo-plane bases of Luca, Hal Far and Calafrana.
3. Attack the docks and harbour installations of Valetta naval base.
After strong discussion this plan was approved at the beginning of March, 1942, and preparations were started. Then there was a hitch: matrixes used for multiplying copies of the orders, instead of being burnt, were found by a security officer in the act of being carted off by a dealer in a sack of waste paper. Who could be sure that the British had not already got wind of the coming operation? So the attack was delayed to see whether they changed their dispositions. But no; aerial photography showed the Spitfires and Hurricanes still concentrated at Ta Kali—that being the necessary precondition for surprise to succeed.
By March 20th the Germans were ready. As darkness fell the British fighters landed from the day’s concluding sorties. Suddenly German bombers were again reported approaching over the sea. The Englishmen listened: it was not the usual high-pitched whine of just a few Ju 88s. It was the deeper, throbbing tone of a large formation.
As the first wave arrived, closely followed by the second, bombs rained down—more and more of them, all on the same target, Ta Kali. Workshops and other buildings went up in flames. For this twilight assault II Air Corps had called upon every crew with night-flying experience, and the force amounted to about sixty bombers, with an escort of Me 110s and other night-fighters.
But there was another thing. Stereo photographs had revealed a ramp on the airfield’s boundary, leading downward. Beside it was a huge heap of earth and rock. It presumably meant that the British had blasted out an underground hangar!
To cope with such an inaccessible target a number of Ju 88s had been fitted with 2,000-lb. armour-piercing rocket bombs. In this case the planes had once more to dive, for with a high starting velocity the rockets could penetrate such rocky ground up to forty-five feet. Meanwhile other machines attacked the ramp itself with incendiary bombs, in the hope that the burning oil would set on fire the fighters supposedly parked inside.
To this day the Germans do not know whether this attack with special weapons was successful, or indeed whether the underground hangar ever existed. The British still remain remarkably reticent about the matter. It is only on record that when the bombers attacked again next morning, they encountered no fighter opposition. With Kampfgruppen 606 and 806 from Catania, I/KG 54 from Gerbini, two Gruppen of KG 77 from Comiso, plus the fighters of JG 53 and II/JG 3 (”Udet”) and the Me 110s of III/ZG 26, over 200 German aircraft were over Malta within a short period. Again Ta Kali was the target, as if no other existed on the island. It was the first example of “carpet bombing” in the whole war, and by the evening the British fighter base looked as if it had been subjected to a volcanic eruption.
On March 22nd it was the turn of the other airfields, in accordance with “phase two”. But on the fourth day the “Deichmann Plan” was interrupted by the British attempt to bring a new supply convoy through to the hard-pressed island. With the Germans again in control of the air, it was a desperate attempt, and the convoy—four transports carrying munitions, fuel and victuals—had been constantly shadowed since leaving Alexandria four days earlier.
On the 22nd the Italian fleet tried to attack it, but was driven off by the strong British escort of four cruisers and sixteen destroyers. The Italian intervention meant, however, that instead of the convoy reaching Malta that night, it would only do so the next morning.
It thus fell victim to the Luftwaffe. Twenty miles off the island the transport Clan Campbell was sunk by a direct hit. The naval supply ship Breconshire was towed in a crippled condition to Marsa Scirocco bay, where further attacks finished her off. The remaining two transports foundered three days later, in Valetta harbour. Before then, during the rare pauses between raids, the British managed to rescue 5,000 tons of their valuable cargo. It represented, however, a bare fifth of what the four transports were carrying, and hard times for Malta lay ahead.
The third phase of the bombardment began at the end of the month with Valetta’s harbour and docks as main target. In April the attack intensified, and Britain’s destroyers and submarines were forced to depart, as the last of her bombers had done already. The mortal danger confronting the sea lanes to North Africa had been successfully combated. As his supply transports steamed into Tripoli and Benghazi unmolested, Rommel could breathe again.
In mid-April his enemy played another card. The American aircraft-carrier Wasp left Gibraltar and penetrated the Mediterranean to longitude five degrees east. Forty-seven brand new Spitfires took off from her deck and reached Malta with the last of their fuel. But though the Wasp remained out of range of the German Sicilian-based bombers, II Air Corps was kept fully informed of the enemy project by Captain Kuhlmann’s radio monitoring service. Even the Spitfires’ landing times could be calculated.
Twenty minutes after they had done so, and before they could be serviced, the bombs hailed down once more on Hal Far and Ta Kali airfields, after which only twenty-seven Spitfires remained serviceable. In the next few days even these were reduced by combat with JG 53’s Messerschmitts.
By the end of the month the Germans hardly knew where to drop their bombs. So far as could be judged from the air, every military target had been either destroyed or badly damaged. In an order of the day II Air Corps summarised its successes: “During the period March 20th till April 28, 1942, the naval and air bases of Malta were put completely out of action…. In the course of 5,807 sorties by bombers, 5,667 by fighters, and 345 by reconnaissance aircraft, 6,557,231 kilograms of bombs were dropped. . . .”
It was, in fact, almost as much as had been dropped on the whole of Britain during the zenith of that battle in September, 1940.
Malta’s airfields had been reduced to deserts, the quays and dockyards to wreckage and the warships themselves had been driven out. Only the crowning achievement remained: the occupation of the island prepared under the code-name “Operation Hercules”.
Grand-Admiral Raeder had been pressing for this for a long time. Field-Marshal Kesselring also tried to get Hitler to sanction the plan. But the latter prevaricated, saying merely, “I shall do it one day!”
Meanwhile Mussolini and his chief of staff, Marshal Count Cavallero, declared that they would not advance another step in North Africa till Malta had fallen. Rommel even offered to lead the landing himself. But Hitler wanted to leave the conduct of the operation to the Italians.
However, on April 29th at the Führer’s Obersalzberg H.Q. near Berchtesgaden, Mussolini stated: “To concert the plans for such a landing we need another three months.”
In three months a lot could happen.
In the evening of May 10th four British destroyers left Alexandria, set course north-north-west, and steamed at high speed into the darkness. At their head was the Jervis, carrying the flotilla commander, Captain A. L. Poland, followed by the Jackal, Kipling and Lively.
Their course was designed to bring them by next morning midway between Crete and North Africa, in the hope that they could then proceed west, far enough away from the dozen or so German air bases to north and south to remain undetected by reconnaissance aircraft. It was a slim chance, but much depended on it.
The purpose of the mission was to intercept an Italian convoy of three transports and three destroyers currently on its way from Tarante to Benghazi. For with Malta no longer in action as a naval and air base, the German-Italian supply fleet had recovered from its catastrophic losses inflicted the previous autumn and once more sailed virtually unmolested.
Its safety was further ensured by the fact that the R.A.F.’s new base between Derna and Benghazi had promptly been lost again when Rommel’s bold counter-offensive against the British 8th Army at the end of January won back Cyrenaica as far as the Gazala Line. Since then the R.A.F.’s only hope of attacking the convoys was by means of long and dangerous flights past the German fighter bases in Cyrenaica. When Beaufort torpedo-planes and Blenheim bombers had attempted such an attack on a convoy eighty-five miles south-east of Malta, six of them had been shot down by its Me 110 escort supplied by Captain Christl’s III/ZG 26.
So now the British Navy was to have a go. But the chances of four destroyers, coming all the way from Alexandria, achieving anything like the naval successes of November 1941, were rated at ten to one against. Captain Poland’s orders were to attack only if he succeeded in intercepting the convoy off Benghazi at dawn on May 12th—and then only if he had remained undetected the whole of the previous day. For the heavy loss of British naval ships in recent weeks had shown that the Luftwaffe in the Mediterranean was making its presence felt.
On the 11th everything at first went well. Round noon the British destroyers stood between Crete and Tobruk. It was the critical moment, with the Mediterranean at this point only about 200 miles broad and under constant German reconnaissance—the British called it “Bomb Alley”.
Soon after noon the Jervis radar picked up a single aircraft, and the British officers held their breath. Had the flotilla been discovered and its position reported? Its fate hung by a thread, and a few minutes later the thread snapped. Circling well out of range the reconnaissance plane radioed : “Four destroyers, square xx, course 290, distance twenty-five miles.”
On the bridge of the Jervis Captain Poland gave the order to turn back and head for Alexandria. His own orders—to break off the operation as soon as he was sighted—left him no alternative. But the danger was not averted.
Alerted in Athens, X Air Corps sent out the élite Lehrgeschwader I/LG l from Herakleion in Crete, followed by II/LG 1 from Eleusis in Greece.
At Herakleion the Gruppenkommandeur, Captain Jochen Heibig, quickly briefed his pilots. Since the Cretan air-sea battle of a year ago they had become specialists in this type of work. All knew that destroyers, with their high speed and manoeuvrability, were their most difficult opponents—likely to recede from the bomb-sight at the moment of bomb release. “It’s like trying to catch a fish with your hands”, as one pilot said. “It needs practice, patience, and very swift reactions.”
He might have added “courage”: the courage needed to dive from 12,000 feet into a wall of fire that increased each second in intensity. Helbig now ordered his men to dive down to 2,500 feet and use their accumulated speed to pull out low over the sea and so evade the worst of the flak.
The Gruppe had fourteen Ju 88 A-4s serviceable. As they flew south from Crete Helbig led them in a wide curve to approach the enemy ships from the south-west—a piece of deception that nearly succeeded. For the Jervis had just been in radio contact with two Beaufighters on their way from Africa to act as escort, and next moment they seemed to appear in the heavens. But then the seamen started: there were too many of them . . . they could only be German!
The attack began a few minutes after 15.30, Helbig leading off against the command destroyer. The sea boiled as the 500-lb. bombs exploded amongst the frantically writhing vessels. But there seemed to be no hits. No one observed the direct hit on the Lively, or the near miss that tore her whole side open. Within three minutes she sank, but by then the bomber crews were headed back to Crete, dispirited at their apparent lack of success. On arrival Helbig ordered the machines to be refuelled and bombed up again, and said to the crews: “We attack again this evening out of the setting sun. This time we shall dive to 1,500 feet.”
At 17.00 II/LG 1 under Captain Kollewe attacked from Greece—in vain: all its bombs missed. And when Helbig made his second attack about two hours later, he this time had only seven aircraft. But they were flown by the best of his crews. There was no wind and the Mediterranean was smooth as a pond.
Taking advantage of the sinking sun he dived obliquely from astern, on the same course as the ships. This tactic enabled him to follow each evasive movement as it was made. Down came the bombs from 1,500 feet—and they struck home. Four hits were counted on one destroyer.
Following crews also hit the bull’s-eye—First Lieutenants Iro Ilk, Brenner, Backhaus and Leupert. Helbig reported: “The first destroyer broke apart and sank quickly. Another was on fire, with her afterdeck under water.”
That was the last the bombers saw as they flew off. In fact, the Kipling sank within a few minutes, followed by the burning Jackal next morning after a vain attempt to take her in tow. Of the four destroyers that had left Alexandria only Captain Poland’s flagship, the Jervis, returned, with 630 survivors from the others on board.
For his Gruppe’s success Captain Helbig was decorated with the Oak Leaves of the Knight’s Cross with Swords. Kesselring sent him a case of champagne, and the German Navy a British life-belt fished from the sea in the battle area. Even the British press wrote with respect of the “Helbig Flyers”.
None the less, the British had the last word. In June a convoy of eleven transports, with an unusually strong protective force, once more left Alexandria for Malta. Before it did so, however, Herakleion was visited at night by a British sabotage team, which stole up to the Gruppe’s Ju 88s and planted mines on the starboard wing roots. Awakened by the explosions, the “Helbig Flyers” suddenly found they had no more aircraft. A reserve Gruppe promptly gave up its own to them.
The British were clearly resolved to leave no stone unturned in the attempt to get a convoy through to Malta. For the exhausted and starving island it was a matter of life and death.