LUFTWAFFE ONSLAUGHT ON MALTA II

The island saw the return trip of Sir Anthony Eden and the other VIPs on 7 April. Instead of flying straight onto Gibraltar they had headed for Greece first then back to Malta before their onward flight to England via Gibraltar.

The new Hurricane arrivals had the chance to engage the Germans and Italians on 11 April when a dozen Macchi 200s, six CR42s and a number of Me109s covered a German reconnaissance mission over the island. Several Hurricanes were scrambled. A pair of them got on the tail of the Me110 reconnaissance aircraft and managed to shoot it down into the sea some 20 miles to the north of Gozo. Unfortunately both of the Hurricanes were then intercepted by Me109s and shot down. During the night Ju87s dropped bombs across the island, causing a number of civilian casualties.

It was Easter Sunday on 13 April 1941 and it marked Malta’s 500th air alert. There were four raids that day. Flight Officer Mason, of 261 Squadron and his wingman attacked four Me109s out of the sun. Mason managed to shoot one of the Me109s down, but in turn he was shot down by the remaining three. Mason was badly injured but he managed to coax his Hurricane down to sea level and prepared to ditch. He already had been hit in the wrist and palm, as well as his elbow and he had splinters in his left leg and his skull. When his Hurricane hit the water Mason was thrown forward and broke his nose on the windscreen. Mason was 4 miles out from the shore, so he began to swim until he was picked up by HSL107.

There were continuous raids from 14 to 22 April. The Italians tended to attack during the day, whilst the Germans concentrated on night attacks. On 22 April Ju88s and HE111s used flares to identify their targets and a number of bombs and mines were dropped, particularly around Valletta, causing substantial damage.

The following day Canadian pilot Henry Huger was shot down to the south-east of Hal Far by Me109s escorting a German reconnaissance aircraft. Huger managed to bale out and came down in the sea. Air Sea Rescue was ordered not to put to sea, as it was feared that the Germans would take advantage of the situation and shoot them up. It is believed that Huger drowned, as his body was never found.

On 27 April another twenty-three Hurricanes arrived via HMS Ark Royal. Originally they had planned to launch twenty-four in Operation Dunlop, but only twenty-three reached the island safely. The Hurricanes were led in, in three flights, by a Fulmar, with three Marylands and a Sunderland from Malta also assisting. Also on this day the remaining Wellington bombers operating from the island left Luqa airfield, bound for Egypt. They were to make room for the first half a dozen Blenheims from No. 21 Squadron of No. 2 Group, Bomber Command. The Blenheims were flown in from England via Gibraltar. The RAF believed that the Blenheims would give Malta a greater advantage, as the Wellingtons were only used at night. The Blenheims could now be used for coastal operations and anti-shipping attacks during the day.

The newly arrived Hurricanes were to give the half a dozen Ju88s a nasty surprise, when the German aircraft launched an evening raid on Valletta on 29 April. No less than seventeen Hurricanes were scrambled. One of them was shot down near Ghajntuffieha.

The Grand Harbour and Valletta suffered heavy raids the following day. The first wave of German aircraft that evening dropped mines and bombs. They were swiftly followed by a second wave of raiders. St John’s Co-Cathedral was heavily damaged, as was the museum. The Greek Orthodox Church was destroyed. The Exchange, two banks, St George’s Overseas League Club and numerous shops and other businesses were also heavily damaged and Kingsway main gate was blocked by rubble.

Throughout the month of April there had been ninety-one air raid alerts, of which fifty-eight had developed into proper raids and 651 tons of bombs had been dropped on the island. There had been a slight change in enemy tactics and night raids were becoming more commonplace. However time was running out for the Luftwaffe: after weeks of constant attack on Malta, the German squadrons would soon be transferred from Sicily to the Balkans. Here they would replace other squadrons that were moving east for Germany’s impending invasion of Russia.

Sergeant Ray Ottey was out on patrol on 2 May in his Hurricane. It is believed that he fell victim to oxygen starvation, passed out and then crashed into the sea: his body was not found. In Valletta on the same day service personnel undertook the hazardous task of trying to diffuse and remove unexploded bombs around the city. St Publius Church, the parish church of Floriana, was severely damaged on Sunday 4 May. The front door, all the windows and its organ were completely destroyed. The clock was stuck at twenty to ten, although bizarrely its bells continued chiming every quarter of an hour.

A major assault developed on 6 May. There were vicious dogfights over the island. Pilot officer Grey’s Hurricane was shot down and he was wounded in his thigh. A pair of Hurricanes that had scrambled to intercept a Ju88 on a reconnaissance patrol collided with one another. One of the pilots died, but the other, Sergeant Walker, managed to bale out. There were extensive raids on 7 May by Me109s and HE111s and it is believed that a Dornier was shot down over the island. German aircraft were attracted to the Grand Harbour on 9 May when Ju87s launched dive bombing attacks on the Amerika, Breconshire, Hoegh Hood, Settler, Svenor, Talabot and Thermopylae. Malta’s Hurricanes scattered the attacking force, pursuing them back towards their bases in Sicily and managing to shoot one down.

Bombs dropped in St Lucia Street and Kingsway in Valletta on 10 May and on the Sunday Me109s attacked Malta’s seaplane bases, setting one aircraft on fire. More raids followed on the Monday and on the Tuesday against both Valletta and on the British airfields. Six Hurricanes left Malta to reinforce the British air force in Egypt. The pilots themselves were to return to Malta on the night of 21 May, onboard a Sunderland, when they would then fly more Hurricanes to Alexandria.

Whilst Me109s fought Hurricanes over Malta on 13 May, killing Pilot Officer Peter Thompson, hundreds of miles away in England a pair of Spitfire VBs, named Malta and Ghawedx (another name for the island of Gozo) were subjected to their maiden flights. The population of Malta, despite having been under siege from the Italians and the Germans, had generously provided sufficient money to their own Spitfire Fund to allow the presentation of two new Spitfires. The two new aircraft were at first sent to 8 Maintenance Unit at Little Rissington, Gloucestershire, between 14 and 16 May. On 18 May they were sent to No. 74 (Trinidad) Squadron, based in Gravesend, Kent. Malta was first flown by the squadron at 11.45 on 23 May 1941. It was piloted by Sergeant Dykes for a short, five-minute test flight. Malta (W3210) went on its first convoy patrol on 7 June at 05.00. On a sweep over France two days later Pilot Officer W J Sandman claimed a probable Me109. Invariably Malta was flown either by Sandman or Pilot Officer Krol. Malta was to have a relatively short career, as on 27 June 1941 Sandman, of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, was reported missing. He had taken off at 20.50 and was flying a fighter sweep over North Eastern France. He encountered enemy aircraft in the vicinity of Amiens and Abbeville. Malta was one of three Spitfires of 74 Squadron to be shot down. Sandman baled out and became a prisoner of war. Malta, just forty-five days old, was destroyed when it hit the ground.

The second aircraft, the Ghawdex, had its first recorded flight on 24 May at 12.00 hours. On 16 June it was on a Blenheim escort operation, piloted by Sandman when he claimed a probable Me109. The aircraft’s last flight with 74 Squadron was on 6 July. It was then transferred to 92 (East India) Squadron, operating out of Biggin Hill. The squadron moved to Gravesend and then to Digby in Lincolnshire. The squadron left for the Middle East in February 1942 and the Ghawdex (W3212) was transferred to 417 (City of Windsor) Squadron on 6 February. Although it was not involved in any offensive operations, it nearly came to grief when it was being flown from Digby to Colerne in Wiltshire. Sergeant Hazel reported a faulty fuel gauge and the aircraft ran out of fuel and he had to make a forced landing on Charmy Down, Somerset. Until February 1943 the aircraft remained in storage, until it was transferred for conversion to a Seafire 1B. Now as NX883 it entered service with 897 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm. The aircraft was also to fly with 748 Squadron in Cornwall, 761 Squadron in Somerset and 759 Squadron, also in Somerset. In the spring of 1945 it was transferred to the escort carrier, HMS Ravager. Its movements after that are unknown.

In a letter to The Maltese Times, dated 15 January 1941, it was clear that many Maltese had hoped to see the aircraft in action over the islands:

Some Maltese people are very anxious to know what has become of the money collected in Malta for the fighter planes, namely Malta and Ghawdex. They were supposed to arrive in Malta by the end of the year. Nothing has been heard about them lately. Will the government please note this serious matter that concerns every Maltese citizen.

Meanwhile, back in Valletta, the determination of the Maltese people to continue to live as normally as possible was amply illustrated by the fact that the Coliseum Theatre was ready to reopen and the Manoel Theatre was nearing completion of full repairs. Elsewhere, flower shops, cafes and other businesses reopened, albeit in improvised premises.

There were further civilian casualties on 15 May and on 20 May. On 20 May Lieutenant General Sir William Dobbie was appointed Governor and Commander in Chief of the island. He had been fulfilling the role as Acting Governor since May 1940.

Malta received some cheer on 21 May when Operation Splice got underway. The two aircraft carriers, HMS Ark Royal and HMS Furious were due to launch forty-eight Hurricanes. In fact due to delays forty-one took off, accompanied by five Fulmars. One pilot did not make a satisfactory take-off and had to ditch into the sea and became a prisoner of war.

Both the Germans and the British, however, had their attention temporarily elsewhere. At the beginning of May the 5th Destroyer Flotilla, commanded by Captain Louis Mountbatten, on HMS Kelly, had been operating from Malta. They had lost HMS Jersey to a magnetic mine in the entrance of the Grand Harbour. The flotilla left on 21 May, bound for the Greek island of Crete.

Having overwhelmed mainland Greece, British Commonwealth and Greek troops had been forced to evacuate Crete. The Germans had taken the decision to launch an airborne and seaborne invasion of the island. Initially, the German parachute troops had been earmarked for an airborne invasion of Malta, but instead they had dropped on Crete from 20 May 1941. The German air force had complete air superiority over the island, something despite their boasts that they could not claim about Malta. Although the campaign to seize Crete was ultimately successful, the German paratroops suffered enormous casualties and the supporting air fleet lost considerable numbers during the operation. This was to be one of the last major German operations in the Mediterranean for some months, as the German invasion of Russia had been earmarked for 22 June 1941.

The newly appointed governor sent a situation report on Malta to the Secretary of State for the Colonies on 23 May:

The outstanding feature of the last month has been the frequent occurrences of night raids by about forty bombers dropping parachute flares and mines, as well as bombs. Damage both from mines and bombs has been widespread, but has been greatest in Valletta. St John’s Cathedral has been damaged and the Law Courts and Banks destroyed. A mine fell on the Civil Hospital and the hundred patients who had not already been removed were carried out in the night without one casualty. There has also been extensive damage to dwelling houses and shops. The main street and several others are blocked with great quantities of stone from destroyed buildings and it will take a long time to clear with our limited resources. The extensive damage to their principal city, which was founded immediately after the Great Siege of 1565 and has stood unchanged since the time of the Knights, has been a profound shock to Maltese sentiment and the damage of several large churches, including the Co-Cathedral of St John, has given deep offence. Added to that, but separate from it, is the material loss caused to a large number of individuals by the destruction of property and business which it has taken them many years to acquire. Nevertheless the reaction of the people is deserving of the highest praise. They have hardened in anger towards the enemy and are facing their own individual calamities with cheerfulness and fortitude. With the first light after the destruction of their homes and shops, they are busily engaged with hammers and boards, patching up damage where they can and rescuing their stock and possession from among the debris to make another start. As one of them recently said after the destruction of his home, ‘we will endure anything, except the rule of these barbarians and savages’. The homeless are received by others, especially among the poorer classes with the most remarkable hospitability and people in the undamaged areas have been living for nearly a year with comparative cheerfulness, in conditions of close overcrowding and consequent discomfort. The great majority are, I am sure, quite unshaken in their belief in final victory and the prime minister’s recent statement that ‘Malta, with Egypt and Gibraltar, will be defended with the full strength of the Empire’ meant very much to the people here.

In London, on 26 May, Air Vice Marshal Hugh Pughe Lloyd met with Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal (Chief of the Air Staff). Lloyd had just accepted the post of Air Officer Commanding Malta. Portal told Lloyd:

Your main task at Malta is to sink Axis shipping sailing from Europe to Africa. You will be on the island for six months as a minimum and nine months as a maximum, as by that time you will be worn out.

In a matter of days Lloyd would be onboard a flying boat heading for Malta. In his own memoirs he said:

The final course was then set for Malta, where we were fortunate to alight in Marsaxlokk Bay in one piece. The direction of alighting was towards the island and our pilot overshot three times and went round again, narrowly avoiding the high ground on each occasion. When we did alight the aircraft was swung so violently to miss a rock that all the passengers were thrown into a heap and battered in the process, all the crockery onboard was broken and a wing float torn off. Fortunately I was sitting next to the pilot and only bumped my nose. One hundred and forty five hours had elapsed between my conversation with Babington [Air Marshal Sir Philip] at the headquarters of Bomber Command.

This was to be a new and major departure for Malta in the Mediterranean air war. Henceforth the island would mount far more aggressive offensive actions against the Italians and Germans. By the end of May there had been seventy-five raids on the island. Only two days had been free of attacks and the Maltese people had had twenty-four nights of interrupted sleep. A total of 453 tons of bombs had been dropped on Malta, but British reconnaissance flights began to confirm that the Luftwaffe was leaving Sicily. The Germans had been partially successful: they had caused damage to the naval base and they had seriously damaged Malta’s ability to send up sufficient fighter cover. They had not, however, prevented the Swordfish of the Fleet Air Arm and the RAF Wellingtons from striking at targets of opportunity. For a short period of time Malta would now just face the attentions of the Italian air force.

 

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