Malta Digs In
Malta’s struggle for survival began when Italy dropped her first load of bombs on the island fortress only a few hours after entering the war. From then on, for the next three years, Britain’s key link in the Mediterranean was to face the combined wrath of the Italian and German air forces. Here is the first phase of the ordeal.
In retrospect the failure to provide Malta with adequate means of defence and attack must be regarded as one of the most costly omissions of British pre-war defence policy. Here was an island endowed with superb harbours and dockyard facilities, an unsinkable fortress strategically situated in the central Mediterranean, a vital link with the two nearest bases a thousand miles away at Gibraltar and Alexandria. Measuring no more than 17 miles by 9, the island possesses natural caves and grottos that could have accommodated food, equipment, fuel, and ammunition to withstand a long siege. At the time, Malta had a population of some 280,000.
Malta’s proximity to Sicily and the Italian mainland made it extremely susceptible to direct air attack and to naval blockade should Italy decide to enter the war on Germany’s side – a possibility that had existed ever since the creation of the Berlin-Rome Axis, and particularly after 1937. In those days, when the concept of radar-controlled fighter defences was still embryonic, there seemed little prospect of effectively countering the concentrated onslaught of Mussolini’s much vaunted and numerically impressive air squadrons. Consequently British rearmament plans, hurriedly intensified after the Munich crisis of September 1938, envisaged no serious defence of the island.
The decision not to defend Malta reflected the predominating views of the Army and Air Chiefs of Staff, views which were reluctantly accepted by the Admiralty and by Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham [Andrew Cunningham, 1st Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope (1897-1963) wikipedia], Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean fleet. When war threatened, the fleet was therefore moved to the Egyptian port of Alexandria, which was to remain its principal base for at least the first half of the war.
On September 3, 1939, the only naval forces in Malta were seven submarines, 12 motor torpedo boats with their depot ships, and their minesweepers. The ground defences of the island amounted to a few light anti-aircraft batteries and the defensive guns of Grand Harbour. There were four weak British infantry battalions and a newly formed Maltese battalion. No aircraft were stationed at the three unprotected airfields: the only available planes were four Gladiators [Gloster Gladiator wikipedia] in crates – spares for an aircraft-carrier then in home waters.
Since Italy remained ostensibly neutral during those opening weeks of the war, Admiral Cunningham agreed to the Admiralty’s suggestion that his battleships and cruisers should for the time being be employed in more rewarding areas, so when in November the admiral returned to his shore headquarters in Malta, it was to control a much reduced Mediterranean fleet.
But May 1940 saw the end of the ‘Phoney War’ that had spared both Malta and the British Isles from direct assault, and Cunningham, back in Alexandria, then hoisted his flag in the battleship Warspite [HMS Warspite wikipedia] – which with three other battleships, five cruisers, one aircraft-carrier, and a number of destroyers and submarines formed the reconstituted Mediterranean fleet. The Mediterranean was already closed to through shipping except ofr escorted troop and supply convoys bound for the Middle East.
The lightning German campaign in France and the evacuation of British and French forces from Dunkirk convinced Mussolini that now was the time to enter the war and to claim a share in the tempting spoils offered by the impending defeat of France and Great Britain. On the night of June 10 Italy declared war on these countries, and within a few hours planes from Sicily were dropping their first load of bombs on Malta. It was the beginning of an ordeal for the islanders and their defenders that was to last, with varying intensity, for nearly three years.
Major-General Sir William Dobbie [William Dobbie (1879-1964) wikipedia], Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Malta at this time, had anticipated the Italian move by ordering essential precautions – such as earthwork defences for the airfields – and by persuading the Maltese population to disperse during raids and take refuge in the honeycomb of caves and rock shelters. Of the four Gladiator fighters which had been un-crated and assembled, one crashed, and for a little while the remaining three constituted the island’s only fighter protection. Conscription was introduced for able-bodied Maltese, and two local regiments of artillery and infantry were formed.
On the first day of hostilities, June 11, eight high-level attacks in twelve hours struck at the airfield and the dockyard, but the dockyard and two warships responded with anti-aircraft fire and shot down three enemy planes. The raiders’ bombs – smaller than anticipated – killed 23 civilians and seven soldiers. Two days later there were eight raids, and in the first week 30 alerts were recorded. The Maltese soon adjusted to this pattern of high-level bombing, which was to last for many weeks. Just before the collapse of France on June 24, nine Fleet Air Arm Swordfish [Fairey Swordfish wikipedia] of Squadron 830 [830 Naval Air Squadron wikipedia] reached Malta from the south of France to provide desperately needed reinforcements.
On June 28, in order to fill the gap left by the defection of the French fleet – which had been responsible for the western basin of the Mediterranean – Force H was hurriedly formed at Gibraltar under Admiral Sir James Somerville [James Somerville (1882-1949) wikipedia] with the battle-cruiser Hood [HMS Hood wikipedia], the battleships Resolution [HMS Resolution wikipedia] and Valiant [HMS Valiant wikipedia], the aircraft-carrier Ark Royal [HMS Ark Royal wikipedia], two cruisers, and 11 destroyers. This was of vital concern to Malta, which now depended entirely on seaborne supplies that could come only from distant bases through waters likely to be dominated by the enemy.
Although Great Britain’s fighter defences were hard pressed in coping with the Luftwaffe attacks and the threat of invasion, the Chiefs-of-Staff realised that something must be done at once to strengthen the air defences of Malta, as had been persistently urged by Cunningham. But how small was the contribution! Early in August the old training carrier Argus [HMS Argus wikipedia] was sent from England into the Mediterranean with 12 Hurricanes [Hawker Hurricane wikipedia] which were flown off from a position south-west of Sardinia and landed safely in Malta. This was the only means of sending fighters to the island, and we shall see it repeated many times under far more dangerous conditions. A month later the opportunity was taken to send supplies and equipment to the island when the new aircraft-carrier Illustrious [HMS Illustrious wikipedia], with the battle-ship Valiant and two anti-aircraft cruisers, passed through the Mediterranean to reinforce the fleet at Alexandria in October and in November.
The efficient photo-reconnaissance of Taranto by Glenn Martin [Glenn L. Martin Company wikipedia] aircraft from Malta played a vital part in the highly successful attack of November 11 on that naval base, when the torpedo-bombers from Illustrious inflicted serious damage on the Italian fleet. There now seemed a better prospect of sending urgently needed troops, weapons, and tanks through to Alexandria without undue risk. In the last days of November one such convoy, which included two ships destined for Malta, was well into the Mediterranean when a Sunderland flying boat [Short Sunderland wikipedia] from Malta sighted an Italian squadron which had out to sea to attack it. An indecisive action between these ships and the British covering force off Cape Spartivento (Sardinia), ended in an Italian withdrawal, and the supply ships arrived safely in Malta and Alexandria.
One further convoy from Alexandria reached Malta before the end of the year, when Cunningham, who as usual had put to sea with his covering force, took the opportunity to visit the island. Although he noted the improvement in its defences since his previous visit eight months earlier, he was still far from satisfied.
The first six months of hostilities had shown that Malta was more essential than ever as a base for operations by light surface forces, submarines, and aircraft against the Italian supply route to Libya. Yet the island was still too vulnerable for cruisers and destroyers to make regular use of its harbour, while the older submarines that continued to use the base were too big to operate against the enemy’s convoy route along the shallow North African waters eastward from Tripoli. They were gradually replaced by the smaller submarines of the Unity [British U-Class Submarine wikipedia] and Triton [British T-Class Submarine wikipedia] classes, which soon proved their value.
Malta’s fighter defences and air striking power remained pitifully inadequate. At the end of 1940 they consisted of only 15 Hurricanes, 12 Swordfish (torpedo-bombers), 16 RAF Wellingtons [Vickers Wellington wikipedia], four Sunderland flying boats, and four Glenn Martin reconnaissance planes. Thus the fighter strength was far short of the planned four squadrons, while the reconnaissance planes were quite inadequate to keep the movements of Italian merchant ships under observation. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that of the 690,000 tons of shipping that the Italians sent to Libya between June and December 1940, only 2.3% was sunk while 47,000 troops were landed without loss.
On the other hand the general situation in the Mediterranean at the end of 1940 was not altogether discouraging. In the western desert General Wavell had recently struck at the Italian army, which was in full retreat. The capture of Crete and the use of Suda bay as an advanced base had enabled Admiral Cunningham to improve his control of the eastern Mediterranean, and, having established ascendancy over the Italian fleet, he could still take his forces to the central basin to provide cover for urgent convoys: during December, 55 ships were safely escorted through the Sicilian Narrows. Nor had the Italian bombers proved as effective as anticipated. Malta had withstood the bomber attacks and would doubtless be in better shape when reinforcements arrived.
Commander Malcolm G. Saunders
taken from History of the Second World War
[Phoebus Publishing Ltd in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum]