With the fall of Crete, many Luftwaffe units were redeployed to the east, ready for the invasion of the Soviet Union in June. Others remained in North Africa to support the desert campaign. The Regia Aeronautica was primarily responsible for operations against Malta, with the Luftwaffe playing a stiffening role.
Raiding Malta gave little scope for subtlety and virtually none for diversionary tactics. The only targets were the three airfields, plus the emergency strip at Safi, and Grand Harbour. The airfields were connected with taxiways, which meant that unless all three runways could be put out of action at once the RAF could still operate. A modern parallel was the Gulf War of 1991, when it proved impossible completely to close down the huge Iraqi airfields.
The Maltese airfields were easy to see from the air on a clear day. They were ringed with blast pens, many of which were constructed from empty petrol cans filled with sand and stones. The local weather sand-blasted the paint from them, with the result that, from the air, the shiny metal stood out, looking, as one Luftwaffe pilot commented, ‘like little strings of pearls’.
When the Blitz on Malta started in earnest, the Stukas were often allocated an individual pen as a targets. The only problem was what it contained. If it was empty when the attack came in, an alternative target had to be sought. But if there appeared to be an aircraft in it, was it a real aircraft, a decoy or something damaged beyond repair but used to attract bombs? There was no means of telling! In 1942 the emergency landing ground at Safi was used for decoys to the exclusion of all else.
Attacks on Malta began even before the Balkan campaign and, as we have seen, bombers based in Sicily were often diverted to targets in Greece. For some considerable time, Malta took a low priority. III/KG 30, having frequently mounted raids on Greece, now turned its attention to the island stronghold once more.
In the late spring of 1941 Arved Crüger had decamped to Capri to marry a glamorous film star, leaving Hajo Herrmann as Deputy Kommandeur. One of the first tasks for his Gruppe was to act as bait, to draw up the British fighters to be shot down by the Jagdflieger. He planned to approach the island from the north-west at between 5,000 and 6,000m, then level bomb Grand Harbour, where a cruiser and other warships were berthed. The altitude was on the high side for bombing accuracy, but as the bombers were primarily bait this hardly mattered. At least one of his aircraft was damaged by anti-aircraft fire, but all returned safely. Being bait was not to his taste, so he suggested that night raids on the fighter airfields would be more effective.
Approximately a dozen night raids were then flown, one of which, on 29 April, was of particular interest. The Gruppe was to attack from several directions by Staffeln, although not of course in close formation, throttled right back in a gentle glide (one of Herrmann’s favourite ploys) at between 800 and 1,000m. This was far lower than could reasonably have been attempted in daylight. The anti-aircraft gunners on Malta were good: after all, they had had plenty of practice! To enable the Junkers pilots to see their targets, a flaredropping Heinkel of III/KG 4 was to illuminate the target from about 6,000m. Detected almost at once, the Heinkel was surrounded by anti-aircraft fire, but dropped its flares perfectly. Stab and 7/KG 30, led by Herrmann, bombed by their light. The Heinkel turned away, then came back in for its second run. Its cockpit sparkling like a diamond in the glare of the searchlights, it was hit and a trail of fuel streamed back from one wing. Undaunted, the young pilot released the second string of flares, lighting up the target for 8/KG 30 to attack. By all the rules, he should then have turned for home, but no—losing height, he turned south into the darkness. By now down to below 3,000m and flying on one engine, the Heinkel pilot came in for his third and almost suicidal run, dropped his flares, then limped north, out to sea. 9/KG 30, led by future Ritterkreuz winner Helmut Weinreich, then bombed. The only aircraft to be lost in this raid was the Heinkel, which crashed on the edge of its airfield at Comiso.
The pilot survived the crash, critically injured. His name is unknown, but as Herrmann, who on their first and only meeting at the briefing had been doubtful about him, recorded: ‘He was my Unknown Warrior of the Second World War. It is very difficult to judge a man. Some men act big; some men are big.’
The record shows that the Kampfflieger were ineffective during the second half of 1941. RAF and Fleet Air Arm aircraft, and Royal Navy surface forces and submarines based on Malta, cut a deadly swathe through the Axis supply convoys to North Africa. In November 1940 Axis losses approached 60 per cent, and lack of supplies greatly hindered Rommel’s campaign in the desert.
This could not be allowed to continue, and a sharp reaction took place in January 1942. Four Stuka Gruppen were sent to Sicily—the training Gruppe of StG 1, and II and Ill/StG 3, with I/StG 3 staging through bound for North Africa. In addition, five Ju 88 Gruppen arrived—I/KG 54, II and III/KG 77, KGr 606 and KGr 806, the last two of which were anti-shipping specialists. Lavishly supported by fighters, they quickly made Malta untenable for bomber and naval units; indeed, the cruiser Penelope suffered so much damage from bomb splinters that she became known as ‘HMS Pepperpot’! Once more the Axis supply convoys could sail almost unmolested.
The reinforced Kampfflieger nearly, but not quite, achieved its aim of pounding Malta into surrender. It was not done without loss. Many distinguished German pilots and leaders went down over the island. Among them, recently appointed as Kommodore KG 77, was Arved Crüger, who fell over Malta in March 1942.
The RAF held off the attacks with large reinforcements of Spitfires. Kampfflieger losses mounted, then, in May, urgent needs elsewhere saw the striking forces scattered once more. II/StG 3 departed for the desert and IIand III/KG 77 headed for the Eastern Front, while I/KG 54 left for Greece.
Just one last success was achieved against the Royal Navy. On 11 May four destroyers were attacked by Joachim Helbig’s I/LG I, which was now based on Crete. Only fourteen Ju 88s were serviceable, but these managed to sink one ship. A further attack by Gerhard Kollewe’s II/LG I achieved nothing. Then Helbig returned, with only seven aircraft, although these had picked crews. Among them were future Ritterkreuz winners Gerhard Brenner, Iro Ilk and Otto Leupert, all of whom scored direct hits (although not one of whom survived the war). Only one destroyer survived this attack.
Malta could now be reinforced at will. Once again it became a base for offensive action and Axis supply losses soared. In all Luftflotte 2 could muster only eleven Gruppen of bombers, including the torpedo bombers of KG 26 and the Stukas of StG 3, to cover the eastern Mediterranean from Greece and Crete, the Maltese Narrows from Sicily, and the Western Desert. Given that serviceability was rarely more than 50 per cent, it was a vast area.
Once more the supply situation in the desert became critical, and in September reinforcements started to arrive. It was too late. The unsinkable aircraft carrier was now fully operational, and by December the Axis forces in the desert were in full retreat following the Battle of El Alamein.