Flown by Oberleutnant Joachim Müncheberg, 7./JG 26, Gela/Sicily, March, 1941.
Flown by Flying Officer Roger “Jock” Hilton-Barber, No 261 Squadron, Hal Far/Malta, August, 1940.
The war against Britain had not turned out quite the way Hitler had planned but, nonetheless, he turned his attention towards a conquest in the east and war against the Soviet Union. In order to plan for such a mighty undertaking he did not want, nor could he really afford, distractions elsewhere but Hitler was more than irritated at the way his ally, Italy, had failed to achieve success in North Africa and in the Balkans. Furthermore, the strategic importance of Malta, a small island just sixty miles from the southern coast of Sicily and home to British air and naval bases, was becoming increasingly evident.
Malta was ideally situated to disrupt the Axis air and sea supply routes to the Italian colony of Libya as well as for providing vital air support to British naval units transiting through the Mediterranean. The Italian Regia Aeronautica had so far failed to neutralize the island’s airfields and harbours and Hitler realized that a successful campaign in North Africa could only be possible by eliminating Malta as a British base.
Hitler was initially reluctant to assist his ally but the Italian invasion of Greece, which had commenced in October 1940, had started to struggle and British determination not to give any ground in Egypt, followed by the subsequent advance against the Italians in North Africa, now made it obvious to Hitler that the Italian position in the Balkans, Central Mediterranean and North Africa would not improve without German intervention.
The Luftwaffe committed to the Mediterranean theatre in January 1941 when Hans Geisler’s X. Fliegerkorps, with more than 300 aircraft, was transferred from Norway to Sicily and Libya to support the Italians. Initially no single-seat fighters were sent to the Mediterranean as the bomber and dive bomber units were to be supported by Bf 110s of ZG 26, sent to protect the supply routes between Italy and North Africa and to conduct anti-shipping operations, as well as countering RAF reconnaissance and convoy patrols in the Mediterranean.
The first fighter unit to arrive in North Africa were the Zerstörers of III./ZG 26 under the command of Major Karl Kaschka. Arriving at Tripoli at the end of January, they were soon joined by Ju 87s and Ju 88s tasked to carry out dive bomber and air interdiction sorties in support of Erwin Rommel’s new Afrika Korps, which had been dispatched to North Africa as a matter of urgency to reinforce Italian forces and prevent an Axis defeat.
While it would be some time before the Bf 109 was introduced to the desert, 7./JG 26 was sent to Sicily during early February 1941. The Staffel was led by 22-year-old Oberleutnant Joachim Müncheberg, already a combat veteran and holder of the Knight’s Cross. Now with twenty-three victories and leading the only Bf 109s in the Mediterranean theatre, he faced an enormous challenge. His small unit would never exceed nine aircraft and its arrival at Gela coincided with a reduction in Luftwaffe forces in Sicily as more units were being deployed to Libya to support the Afrika Korps.
Under Müncheberg’s leadership the Bf 109Es of 7./JG 26 would make a significant contribution to the air war over the Mediterranean during the next four months, flying numerous sorties against Malta and causing havoc amongst its defenders. When the 109s first appeared over the island during the late afternoon of 12 February it came as a complete shock to the defenders. One flight of Hurricanes was scrambled to intercept what the pilots believed to be a handful of Ju 88s approaching Malta at 20,000 feet but they suddenly found themselves being bounced by three 109s led by Müncheberg. In the space of just a few minutes two of the Hurricanes were shot down, one by Müncheberg, and a third returned to Malta badly damaged.
It was much the same during the days that followed. The appearance of the yellow-nosed Bf 109Es of Müncheberg’s Staffel had an immediate and damaging impact on the morale of those defending Malta. The combat experience of men like Müncheberg was completely at odds with that of some of the Hurricane pilots who were experiencing air combat for the first time. The 109s were able to climb to altitude at leisure and arrive in the vicinity of the island at heights of 20,000 feet or higher where they could engage the defenders from a position of great advantage and with superior performance.
While the Hurricane had been a match for most Italian aircraft in the Mediterranean, it was outclassed when it came to countering Bf 109s. Furthermore, Malta had too few Hurricanes to mount regular patrols, the Hurricanes were of a lesser standard than those retained back in England for home defence and Malta’s isolation meant it was necessary for the RAF to conserve fuel and reduce flying time as much as possible. The Hurricanes generally operated in formations of three and there were often occasions when just six aircraft were scrambled to meet an enemy raid. Radar limitations and local operating procedures exacerbated the problem, which all resulted in there being insufficient warning time for the defenders to climb to the required height to engage the raiders before they hit their target. The Hurricanes would first have to climb to 20,000 feet to the south of the island and then turn northwards to try and engage the raiders on their way home.
During the early afternoon of 26 February the Axis launched one of its biggest raids on Malta with a force of seventy aircraft – a mix of Ju 87s, Ju 88s, He 111s and Do 17s – attacking the airfield at Luqa.17 Escorting the attacking force were Müncheberg’s Staffel and Italian Macchi C.200s and while the main bomber force arrived over the airfield virtually unscathed, four of the defending Hurricanes were claimed by the Bf 109s, including two by Müncheberg. The attack proved devastating. A number of RAF Wellingtons were destroyed on the ground and there was extensive damage to hangars and other technical buildings on the airfield.