Air Warfare Over Malta

The final air raids on Malta would come on 26 February 1943, when the Italians tried to sneak a bomber over the island at daybreak. It did not make it. That evening a handful of enemy fighters tried a hit-and-run attack, but failed.

For the Maltese this was a landmark day. Throughout the siege nearly 1,600 civilians had been killed, over 1,800 seriously injured and nearly 1,900 wounded. The rationing had caused casualties too: infant mortality rates were incredibly high in 1942 when one baby in three would die. In fact 2,336 babies under the age of one died that year.

Of all the centres of population the dockyard town of Senglea had suffered the worst with 80 per cent of its buildings destroyed. Even the remaining 20 per cent was so badly damaged that they could not be lived in. Repairs were impossible as the streets were clogged with rubble.

Throughout the siege around 547 British aircraft had been lost in air combat. A further 160 had been destroyed whilst they were on the ground. Various estimates have been made of the enemy losses. In all probability 1,252 German and Italian aircraft had been shot down over the island. In addition there were 1,052 probable kills. In 1942 alone the RAF fighters had destroyed 773 enemy aircraft and possibly an additional 300, which could not be confirmed. Anti-aircraft guns had claimed over 180. In the same year the RAF had lost 195 fighter aircraft and 106 pilots. In 1942 alone the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm had hit eighty-three enemy ships with bombs or torpedoes and had damaged at least another fifty vessels.

The Royal Navy had returned to Malta by the end of 1942. It was now far safer to moor in the Grand Harbour. On 21 December Royal Navy destroyers sunk an enemy supply ship and on 16 January 1943 an Italian merchant ship was sent to the bottom. Between 19 and 20 January the Royal Navy sank an Italian water tanker and then sank eleven out of twelve enemy supply ships.

Compared to the previous months of 1942, December saw an enormous number of cargo vessels arriving at Malta. Sailing from Port Said on 1 December the cargo ships Agwimonte, Suffolk, Glenartney, Alcoa Prospector and the Yorba Linda arrived on 4 December. The cargo ships and the escort of three cruisers and ten destroyers suffered no losses en route. Another convoy sailed in on 10 December, having left Alexandria on 6 December; the cargo ships American Packer and Ozarda once again arrived safely. Beaufighters had gone out from Malta to escort the convoy in and they ran into three BV222 six-engine flying boats. During the encounter one of the flying boats was shot down, as was one of the Beaufighters. Another convoy left Alexandria on 9 December, arriving in Malta on 14 December and yet again two merchant ships, Clan Macindoe and Erinna arrived unmolested.

Two Beaufighters belonging to 272 Squadron left Malta at 08.40 on 19 December. They were accompanied by four Spitfires of 249 Squadron. The mission was an offensive reconnaissance. Shortly after 11.00, during their return to Malta, they spotted a DO24 flying boat near Dlimara. One of the Spitfires shot it down, but unfortunately shortly after this one of the Beaufighters crashed into the sea and exploded, killing the crew.

Further supplies arrived on 21 December, having left Port Said on 17 December. Despite the fact that offensive sweeps by the Maltese-based fighters and bombers were commonplace, the month had seen thirty-five enemy air raid alerts and sixty tons of bombs had been dropped on the island.

During December 1942, 58,500 tons of general cargo and 18,200 of fuel oil were delivered to the island in a series of convoys.

As the New Year dawned, Malta was adopting a new role. It was no longer besieged, but it would now operate as a bridgehead between the Allied forces gathering in North Africa and the exposed underbelly of the enemy in Sicily and mainland Italy. Victory was still a long way off and privations would still continue on the island. The work was unabated: it was no longer a question of keeping a handful of Hurricanes and Spitfires aloft in an attempt to keep the enemy at bay. Malta had become an armed camp and was fast becoming an island aircraft-carrier, with an offensive capacity to cause enormous damage to the Italians and Germans. The appearance of many German and Italian transport aircraft in the region signalled not the threat of invasion, but desperation on behalf of the enemy. Their shipping losses had been crippling, none of their surface vessels were safe and the few that remained were unwilling to run the gauntlet of Allied aircraft, submarines and surface vessels that now dominated the Mediterranean. The transport aircraft represented the only hope to resupply the dwindling German and Italian effort in North Africa.

January 1943 saw the first month since the outbreak of hostilities when no bombs were dropped on the island of Malta, despite twenty-five air-raid alerts. In the last week of January Tripoli had been captured by the Allies and this was to mark the beginning of the end of enemy resistance in North Africa. Attacks were being launched not only on the Italian mainland, North Africa and Sicily, but also on airfields such as the one on the island of Pantelleria.

The new offensive role of the Spitfires that had so gallantly defended the island brought new challenges to the pilots and their ground crews. A new airfield had been set up on Malta, at Krendi. The new Wing Commander of the two squadrons based there was Sandy Johnstone. They had launched innumerable fighter sweeps over Sicily, hoping to lure German and Italian aircraft into the sky. More often than not the enemy had refused battle. In order to maintain pressure on the enemy, particularly in Sicily, experiments were put into motion to fit a 500lb bomb under each wing of each Spitfire, effectively transforming the fighter into a fighter bomber.

The first attack went in against a chemical factory at Pochino on Sicily on 16 January 1943. Twenty-four Spitfires were employed in the attack, twelve as conventional fighters and the others as fighter bombers. Johnstone later wrote about his experiences in the attack:

In each Spitfire, with his 500lb lethal weapon under each wing, the pilot kept his screaming dive under control while he zeroed the bombs on target by using the normal gun sight. One after the other the bombs ran down on the target area, dropping at regular intervals and exploding with frightening velocity. At least three made direct hits on the factory, sending tons of masonry hurtling through the air to join the twisted metal of the gutted machinery. As the last bomber began its dive I swooped down to ground level with my eleven escorting companions and raced in on the scene of destruction, raking the smoke and flames with cannon and machine-gun fire. The vibrations set up by the firing of the guns was like the tingling of newly awakened nerves. It was a strange overwhelming feeling of excitement that made your mouth dry with the taste of it; your heart beat faster and your body tensed itself in its firm and unrelaxed grip. I swept towards the wreckage of the factory. As I pulled back on the stick to lift the Spitfire above the smoke, there were clear indications that my fire power had struck home. There were signs of a large explosion and judging by the clouds of steam, followed by dense black smoke which billowed from the tall chimney and burst outwards from several of the factory windows, I was certain that I had hit a massive boiler. Reforming, the bomber aircraft, now shed of their loads, acted as an escort to the twelve straffers whose ammunition was spent. We set course for Malta and were back on the ground, ready to refuel without any retaliation from the Sicilian-based enemy aircraft.

Although Johnstone’s attack met with little in the way of reaction from the enemy, not all operations were so fortunate. Pilot Officer Nesbitt of 185 Squadron failed to return after a morning sweep over south-east Sicily on 4 February. He was seen to bale out at 09.00 some 15 miles north-east of the Grand Harbour. Nesbitt reported:

When returning from a sweep on Sicily, owing to engine failure, I was forced to abandon my aircraft about 15 miles from the island. The air screw revolutions increased to 3,300 and I tried to adjust this by pulling up the nose of my aircraft, closing the throttle and moving the air screw pitch-lever back. Nothing seemed to happen so I straightened out, whereupon the engine cut. Checking the ignition switches and petrol lever, I tried the throttle and also tried priming. As this had no effect I put the air screw into fully coarse and started to glide at 135 ASI from approximately 18,000 ft on a coarse of 220̊°. I was then between 5 to 10 miles from the coast of Sicily.

Nesbitt finally managed to ditch. He was covered by four Spitfires of 126 Squadron and was in the water for nearly 40 minutes before HSL166 picked him up.

Incidents such as these were an almost daily occurrence. Another Spitfire was lost on 8 February, a Baltimore on 18 February, a Mosquito on 21 February and another Spitfire that had been in a dogfight with Me109s on 26 February. Engine failure was more of a hazard than engagements with enemy aircraft. Ditching into the sea was still a hazardous affair, despite the successes of the Air Sea Rescue launches and seaplane tenders. On 1 March, for example, eight Spitfires of 185 Squadron made a sweep over Sicily at 25,000ft. They had barely arrived over Sicily when Flight Sergeant Miller’s engine stopped and he was forced to bale out some 32 miles to the north of the Grand Harbour. This had occurred shortly before 09.00 hours. Luckily for Miller HSL107 swiftly picked him up and he was back at his base at 11.40 that day. Miller reported:

I was flying on a sweep over south-east Sicily with seven other fighters of 185 Squadron. At 08.50 hours, while at 23,000 ft and 15 miles inland over Sicily I was about to participate in an attack on three Me109s when my engine cut without any warning. Having tried unsuccessfully to restart the engine, I released my harness and began to glide towards base. When down to 5,000 ft, I attempted to jettison the hood but was unable to do so, I therefore slid it back and turned the aircraft over. My parachute got wedged by the handle of the hood but managed to get free and, after a short drop, found the toggle and the parachute opened. On my way down I removed my gloves and boots and turned the quick release box. Immediately my feet touched the water I released my parachute. When in the water I first freed the dinghy from its cover and, when it was free of the parachute, pushed the lever on the Mae West to operate the CO2 bottle, which did not function properly. I then tried to inflate the dinghy manually but did not know that the valve locking-pin had to be removed. As the dinghy was a dead weight and tending to drag me down, I undid the quick release on my Mae West and let the dinghy go free. I then tried to inflate the Mae West by mouth but was only able to do so partially on account of the sea swell and the effort required.

In the first three months of 1943 Malta’s bombers and torpedo bombers sunk nine enemy vessels, had fourteen probables and damaged several others. Typical of this type of work was an attack made in mid-March. A Baltimore, on reconnaissance patrol, spotted a convoy that was southbound in the Gulf of Taranto, protected by a destroyer escort and an air escort of fifteen Me110s and Ju88s. Five hours later nine Beauforts, with Beaufighter cover, discovered the convoy. The Beaufighters made for the aircraft whilst the Beauforts honed in on the largest of the convoy ships, an 8,000 ton tanker. The tanker was hit three times and there was a huge cloud of smoke rising from the ship and smoke pouring across its decks.

Valuable contributions were also being made by Wellington torpedo bombers. They operated against targets at night that were illuminated by Wellingtons equipped with flares and radar. One such example of an attack took place in January 1943 when Flight Sergeant Hornung attacked an enemy cargo vessel, believed to be 4,000 tons, and escorted by a destroyer. Hornung’s aircraft weaved through a barrage of anti-aircraft fire from the ships and struck the merchant vessel with a pair of torpedoes. The target immediately burst into flames.

Sergeant W A Fraser had an amazing fortnight at the beginning of February 1943. On 2 February a pair of search aircraft had spotted a convoy off the south-east coast of Italy. When Fraser’s Wellington arrived there was only one flare illuminated, which made it difficult for him to make an attack on the tanker and avoid the pair of escorting destroyers. He managed to release the torpedo at 700 yards, hitting the 6,000 ton tanker, which then caught fire and had to be beached. On 7 February he made a successful attack on a 6,000 ton merchant ship, badly damaging it. On 15 February he made an attack on another tanker of 5,000 tons. Despite it being defended by a pair of destroyers and one his crew members being wounded, his torpedo struck the tanker amidships.

By April 1943 the 8th Army had linked up with the Anglo-American troops operating in Algeria and preparations were underway to invade Sicily. By the end of May 1943 the number of Malta’s frontline aircraft stood at around 600 compared to just 200 towards the end of 1942. The new arrivals on the island included four Spitfire wings and additional Mosquito and Beaufighter squadrons. The old airfields had been enlarged and new landing fields had been created. Malta could now dominate the central Mediterranean.

The wheel had definitely turned full circle and in September 1943 Faith, one of the three original Gladiators that had faced the Italians more than three years before, was retrieved from the bottom of a quarry where she had lain. She was then presented to the people of Malta by Air Marshal Sir Keith Park. Faith very much represented the courage and the fortitude of the servicemen and the civilians of the island.

In June 1943 Operation Corkscrew was launched against the Italian island of Pantelleria. In effect it would provide a practice for the forthcoming invasion of Sicily and Italy and it would also give the Allies a chance to gauge the impact of bombing on defensive positions. The tiny island, just eight and a half miles by five and a half miles, lay 140 miles to the north-west of Malta. Plans had been drawn up as early as 1940 to take the island, but these had been put off as it was believed that it would be difficult to continue to hold the island and support Malta at the same time. In June 1943 14,203 bombs, which amounted to 4,119 tons, were dropped on the sixteen gun batteries on the island. There were eighty guns defending the island and the bombing wrecked over half of them. Communications were destroyed, along with air raid shelters and ammunition stores. On D-Day (11 June 1943) surface vessels opened fire on the island an hour before the landing craft reached the beaches. By the time the first British commandos clambered ashore the white flag was already flying.

The Germans had already evacuated the airfield, leaving just a handful of technicians. The Italians, however, had left a garrison of 10,000 men. Within the next two days Lampedusa and Linosa, two other Italian-held islands, were also captured and the route to the invasion of Sicily was now open.

Back on Malta, the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, General Eisenhower and General Montgomery, Commander of the British 8th Army, established their new headquarters at Valletta, in preparation for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. Some 3,000 ships were being gathered and many of the 600 aircraft based on Malta would provide air cover for the invasion.

The island had received a visit from an American engineer on 25 May 1943. He had come at the invitation of Lord Gort and Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park. British and American engineers had surveyed Gozo, looking for a possible site of a new airstrip. Eisenhower was concerned that Malta’s airfields were not large enough to deal with the huge amount of aircraft that would be required for the opening of the Italian campaign. Eisenhower said:

British field engineers, who depended to a great extent upon hand tools and light mechanical equipment, had given up all hope of finishing an airfield there [Gozo] in time for use in the Sicilian campaign.

The arrival of the American engineer, Major Lee Baron Colt, brought new hope to the plan. He believed he could have an airstrip ready in two weeks. All he needed was men and equipment. Company E, 21st Engineer Aviation Regiment was moved to Gozo. They would have to clear cultivated fields and terraces in order to build a runway 4,000 ft in length and 150 ft in width.

There was continued action still, with numerous dogfights taking place over Sicily and the waters between the Italian island and Malta. Almost daily there were losses.

There was intense excitement on 20 June when the rumour that King George VI was about to visit Malta was confirmed at 05.00. He would be arriving in the Grand Harbour onboard the cruiser HMS Aurora that morning. All the dignitaries were out in force to greet the monarch, along with thousands of Maltese citizens. The King toured the island, visiting many of the sites of the conflict over the past years. Gort signalled to the King on his departure:

At the close of a day never to be forgotten in the history of these islands, the armed forces and the people of Malta and Gozo humbly wish Your Majesty God speed. We are deeply sensible of the honour our beloved sovereign has bestowed on his fortress by this personal visit whilst Malta still stands in the van of the forces of the United Nations in the central Mediterranean. As in the past, this colony has only one intention — never to falter in the service of Your Majesty.

The King replied:

It was with great eagerness that I seized the occasion of my visit to North Africa to come to Malta and bring to the armed forces and to the Maltese people a message of good cheer on behalf of all other peoples of the British Empire. The warmth with which I have been received today has touched me more than I can say. It has been for me one further proof of the loyalty which has inspired the island fortress to withstand the fiercest blows that a cruel enemy could inflict upon her. I thank the people of Malta from my heart and send them my best wishes for the happier times that surely lie ahead.

As for the development of the airfield on Gozo, success was confirmed when seventy-four Spitfires of the 31st Fighter Group, led by Lieutenant Colonel Fred M Dean USAAF were transferred from Tunisia on 30 June. The month had ended with just thirty air raid alerts and not a single bomb had been dropped on Malta.

Malta now braced itself to become part of the invasion effort. Operation Husky was due to be launched on 10 July 1943 and it would be from Malta that Eisenhower would first step foot on enemy-held Europe just two days later. Raids were still necessary prior to the invasion. Each enemy aircraft destroyed in the air or on the ground brought the prospects of the invasion success closer.

According to statistics compiled in England, the total number of enemy aircraft destroyed between 1939 and June 1943 in operations against the RAF and Fleet Air Arm amounted to 3,500 in the Middle East region, which included Malta. This was an incredible amount since the total number of enemy aircraft shot down over Great Britain in the same period was 4,201. RAF losses in the Middle East region amounted to 1,977 aircraft.

Malta’s Spitfires were still in action, even after Allied troops had begun their invasion of enemy-held Europe. Daily Maltese Spitfire sweeps led to dogfights over Sicily and beyond.

By 5 August, with British and Canadian troops almost at Mount Etna on Sicily, Eisenhower delivered his own tribute to Malta:

The epic of Malta is symbolic of the experience of the United Nations in the war. Malta has passed successively through the stage of woeful unpreparedness, tenacious endurance, intensive preparation and the initiation of a fierce offensive. It is resolutely determined to maintain a rising crescendo of attack until the whole task is completed. For this inspiring example the United Nations will be forever indebted to Field Marshal Lord Gort, the fighting services under his command and to every citizen of the heroic island.

The Times of Malta throughout the entire siege had never failed to be published. Mabel Strickland, the editor, writing on 17 August after Sicily had fallen, wrote:

The hideous German Junkers 88s no longer possess the sky, instead there is the continuous drone of British fighters and bombers, heading out for Italy, speeded on their mission by the Maltese with a fierce and furious delight. They are the first liberators of oppressed Europe.

A greater joy was to come to Malta on 8 September. The remnants of the Italian fleet, just twenty-eight vessels, steamed into the Grand Harbour to surrender. The Germans had tried to sink the surrendering Italian surface fleet and had managed to destroy the Italian battleship and flagship, Roma.

On 28 September Marshal Badaoglio signed the Italian surrender at Malta. Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham sent a telegram of confirmation to London:

Pleased to inform their lordships that the Italian battle fleet now lies at anchor under the guns of the fortress of Malta.

Malta’s staunchest ally and supporter arrived on the island in November 1943. Prime Minister Winston Churchill was later to write:

The interrelation between Malta and the desert operations was never so plain as in 1942, and the heroic defence of the island in that year formed the keystone of the prolonged struggle for the maintenance of our position in Egypt and the Middle East.

On Wednesday 8 December 1943 Malta played host to President Roosevelt. He commended the islanders for their contribution:

In the name of the people of the United States of America I salute the island of Malta, its people and defenders, who in the cause of freedom and justice and decency throughout the world have rendered valorious service far above and beyond the call of duty. Under repeated fire from the skies, Malta stood alone but unafraid in the centre of the sea, one tiny bright flame in the darkness, a beacon of hope for the clearer days which have come.

The civilians and servicemen of Malta had suffered enormous losses and privations and many of the vessels that had brought them hope had also been lost. HMS Eagle, USS Wasp and HMS Welshman had all been sunk by the time the war had ended. The USS Wasp had been sunk off Guadalcanal in the Pacific by a Japanese submarine on 15 September 1942. HMS Welshman had been sunk off Tobruk on 1 February 1943 and HMS Eagle had of course been sunk during Operation Pedestal. Four torpedoes, fired from the German submarine U-73 had sunk her in the early morning of 11 August 1942, 70 miles south of Cape Salinas.

Lieutenant General Sir William Dobbie wrote in 1944 of the victory that would have appeared to have been so impossible in 1940:

It was my privilege to witness these amazing happenings from the vantage point of Malta, which was destined to play a great part in the epic struggle. It is possible that the importance and the role of that island fortress have only been imperfectly understood until recently, but it is very evident now that its importance was so great and its role so vital to our wellbeing in the Mediterranean that its retention in our hands justified any effort and any sacrifice however great. It is no exaggeration to say that the security of Malta reacted very definitely on the safety of Egypt, and all that those words imply. If Malta had fallen, the safety of Egypt would have been very gravely endangered. It was from Malta that the attacks were launched by sea and air on the enemy’s lines of communication between Italy and North Africa. By means of these attacks we were able to exert some influence on the effectiveness of the enemy forces in North Africa, and in this way to reduce the threat on Egypt.

Dobbie went on to describe the perilous position that Malta found itself in at the beginning of hostilities:

Our resources were meagre enough. Especially in the early months of the Italian war, the garrison was unbelievably weak both in men and material, and the enemy undoubtedly knew exactly how weak we were. Our air resources in Malta were practically nil, although the fortress was only a few minutes flying away from the many air bases in Sicily and southern Italy at the disposal of the strong Regia Aeronautica. No wonder the Italians had been boasting that they would overrun the island within a few days of the declaration of war. Their resources were amply adequate to justify them making the attempt, especially in view of our own weakness. But this attempt was never made (just as the attempt to invade Britain was never made), and all other attempts during the two long years and more to reduce the fortress by other means failed. We acknowledge with admiration and gratitude the way the people of Malta, the three fighting services and the Merchant Navy faced the ordeal and willingly paid the price needed to keep Malta safe. But even so the fact that Malta is today still in British hands is a miracle. The miracle of Malta is a part, and a big part, of the Mediterranean miracle.

The war front was gradually leaving Malta in the rear. By December 1943 there had been no air raid alerts over the island, a situation that had existed for at least two months. January 1944 saw two air raid alerts and there were none in February.

By August 1944 the island and the servicemen had settled down to a new, more peaceful routine. On 5 August Gort visited Valletta for the last time. He had been appointed High Commissioner and Commander in Chief in Palestine and would be replaced by Lieutenant General Sir Edmond Acton Schreiber.

The last alert was sounded on 28 August 1944. It began at 20.43 and the all clear was sounded at 2.100 hours. In all, Malta had experienced 3,349 air raid alerts. The island had been under alert for 2,357 hours. Of these 1,206 had been actual bombing raids.

The year 1944 brought more food, security and an end to the terror. There were still huge mounds of broken buildings. Each village and town on the island was scarred and disfigured by the actions of the enemy over the period of the siege. Daily Allied aircraft, not Italian or German raiders, flew overhead. The island was subjected to successive invasions: not by the enemy but by servicemen bringing in supplies and material or in transit to or from the front in Italy. Still alert for any danger, the fighter squadrons and anti-aircraft batteries scoured the skies for the sign of an enemy attack. In the harbours cargo ships and other vessels sailed in and out freely, unmolested by the attentions of Ju87s and Ju88s. In the Grand Harbour there was the wreckage of many of the ships that had brought much needed supplies and reinforcements to the island.

For many years the scars left by the blitz on Malta remained. The countryside was strewn with burned out aircraft, the villages and towns with collapsed buildings. In time the army, the air force and the navy would all leave Malta. To this day the Opera House lies in ruins, the only landmark on the island that has not been rebuilt.

In 1992 the Siege Bell Memorial was built on the site of a Bofors gun emplacement, overlooking the Grand Harbour. At noon each day the bell is rung to remind the islanders and the tourists that the island remains the home of the many airmen that fought and died on Malta and that the island remains their resting place.

3 thoughts on “Air Warfare Over Malta

  1. The article claims that the first convoy in from Egypt after the end of the main blitz delivered only 55 tons. Are you sure of this?


  2. Pingback: Air Warfare Over Malta — Weapons and Warfare – Paddy Goes To Holyhead

  3. Pingback: Guerra aerea su Malta | Il Primo Raggio

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