75 years ago Malta was subjected to a siege that lasted months. However, that siege is not confined to just the Island. Supplying Malta was up to the Royal Navy, and likewise was subjected to a siege which will severely test both its capabilities and resolution. The RAF pilots on the other hand will fight a battle that they never experienced before, at least at the level of intensity and savageness. But in order to understand why in 1942 that siege was something that goes beyond the term of siege it is necessary to have an understanding of how the situation came to be.
When hostilities between Germany and Britain erupted, the Royal Navy realised the strategic importance of Malta but for the RAF it was a burden as it was difficult and dangerous to supply Malta and practically cannot be defended, moreover when you consider that the enemy lines where a few miles away. And high command was of the same idea. Consequently Malta was never adequately equipped for aerial defence. And in any way hostilities where quite afar. But that was the WW 1 mentality which will burden the British forces for more than a year. The mentality was still rooted in the concept of trench warfare and both the French and the British were making preparations based on that mentality. The Germans on the other hand were utilising modern techniques and equipment designed in that sense: the blitzkrieg: a swift offensive based on mobility rather than trench warfare.
These 2 concepts will ultimately clash in France but here the first step in Malta being engulfed in a broadening conflict was evolving. Italy, like the other nations involved in WW1, was reluctant to go to war, and Mussolini knew this very well. However he also knew that the outcome of the battle of France will define Italy’s destiny in the conflict, for, if the French and British forces defeated the German forces, Italy would be spared and politically side with the British. On the other hand if the Germans won the battle, Italy would be faced with 2 options: 1) be an ally of Germany or 2) confront the Germans with an obsolete military machine. In both scenarios Mussolini knew that Italy would be at the mercy of Germany. He only had to decide if as an ally or as a German occupied country.
With the fall of France, fuelled by the lightning speed at which the defences fell, and despite desperate attempts by Churchill to convince Mussolini to side with the British, Mussolini declared war on Britain. Overnight and with a stroke of a pen Malta found itself at the door step of a raging world war.
In the opening stages it was the Italians that undertook the offensive against Malta. But in realty the Italians did not want to create devastations as they regarded Malta as part of the Italian archipelago, or the so called “Mare Nostrum”. This, in part, allowed the British Navy and the RAF to resupply Malta and to bolster the defences. Now the RAF was able to attack AXIS supplies to North Africa, but the real damage was done by HMS Illustrious. In the Mediterranean Illustrious was dominating the seas, inflicting heavy losses to the Italian shipping with the most notable achievement being the sinking one Italian battleship and badly damaging two others during the Battle of Taranto in late 1940. The increased presence of the RAF in Malta and the Royal Navy severely frustrated Italian supply routes to North Africa and led Mussolini to request the help of the Germans.
This marked the first act of the Afrika Korps. Hitler will send none other than Field Marshal Erwin Rommel to head the operations in North Afrika, however the Germans immediately made a list of priorities targeted to neutralise Malta. Top of the list was Illustrious, then it was the turn of the RAF in Malta, Royal Navy and convoys as and when they try to do the run.
Eventually the Illustrious was crippled by German attacks, but after arriving in Malta for quick repairs, managed to slip away following miraculous repairs by the Malta docks even during sustained air raids – but the Germans succeeded in eliminating the Illustrious threat. Now the Germans turned their attention on the defending Hurricanes. Luftwaffe operations started to have a toll on the Hurricanes, which in turn were doing what they could. But when the RAF seemed to be at the ropes, the unexpected happened: the Luftwaffe left Sicily and operations against Malta were left again to the Italians; reason being operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia. But with the offensive power of Malta depleted, Axis shipping was constantly supplying Rommel, who in turn made significant advances in North Africa.
The rest of 1941 saw the British reinforcing Malta again with Hurricanes and strike aircraft and by the end of December Rommel found himself bogged down and could not advance any further. He managed to get Hitler’s attention and by the end of 1941 the Luftwaffe returned to Sicily, and this time Luftwaffe operations were to be taken care of by Generalfeldmarschall Kesselring. The mandate this time was to eradicate the RAF in Malta and eliminate the thorn in Rommel’s side. But the end of 1941 saw the entry into the war of the United States as well, and this will have a determining effect on the course of the war.
1942, in many ways, will be a crucial year for the course of the war in Europe. With Russia now in the war Germany was now fighting on 3 fronts, England to the west, Russia to the East, and the third front being the Mediterranean. But the war in Russia was proceeding at a good pace and England was being kept in check. Intrinsically the attention of Hitler will be drawn to North Africa and eventually onto the small island of Malta.
Immediately 1942 opened up with a bang. On 7 January 1941, Illustrious set sail to provide air cover for convoys to Piraeus, Greece and Malta as part of Operation Excess. Here Illustrious was repeatedly attacked and damaged. Eventually it will make it to the Malta where it will endure concentrated aerial attacks. It was hit again but managed to slip away and it will see action again only in 1943 following extensive repairs.
With the Illustrious out of the way, the Luftwaffe turned their attention to the RAF. The RAF in Malta were still equipped with Hurricanes. Although the Hurricane had a good record, the German BF109 was superior and the Italian air force was now fielding improved aircraft which were also superior to the Hurricane. Furthermore, the Germans where fielding the Me109F which was an important improvement of the previous E version and practically outclassed the Hurricane under all aspects.
Apart from tactical mistakes of how the defending Hurricanes were being deployed, the RAF pilots where doing what they could and beyond to defend the island. However, at this point in time, the war had reached a point never reached before. Up till the end of the Battle of Britain air combat was characterised by chivalry. Respect towards the opponent was more or less retained. But by 1942 the war descended in a state of total war and the end justified the means. Reading biographies from RAF pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain and thereafter the Battle for Malta, all more or less agree that there was nothing that compared to the dogfights over Malta. Unforgiving tactics were being used against the Hurricanes, the Luftwaffe resorting to attacking Hurricanes whilst they were landing. Many regard this as a cowardice attack but far worse claims of deliberate murder were made, but the RAF never officially recognised these claims. This was also claimed by the AXIS pilots and in Denis Barnham’s book “Malta Spitfire Pilot” he clearly hints at this, even though they were conversations with the other pilots. Thus, the air war over Malta descended into total war and will be exasperated in the months following February and March.
At this point the striking power of the RAF from Malta was practically nullified. The British knew that the fall of Malta would invariably mean the fall of North Africa. Something had to be done and Spitfires seemed to be the only answer. However Spitfires were being kept for the defence of Britain as Fighter Command was certain that a second Battle of Britain was bound to happen. But this did not materialise in 1941 and the situation in the Mediterranean was becoming more and more dangerous. On the 7th of March 1942, the first batch of Spitfires where delivered to Malta. Delivery of these fighters was done by HMS Eagle, thus becoming the first Spitfires to ever take off (operationally) from an aircraft carriers. But a few Spitfires surly could not turn the fortunes in the Mediterranean and soon the first Spitfires defending Malta were lost in face of overwhelming odds.
Indeed more deliveries of Spitfires followed, increasing the RAF complement on the island, but the air battle soon turned into one of the bloodiest in the war, with the Luftwaffe attacking at will. For months the number of serviceable Spitfires dwindled, replenished, dwindled again, and replenished again. But whilst these air battles raged, at sea the Navy was also fighting a savage battle.
By 1942 The Germans perfected tactics how to attack shipping and aircrews/divisions specialised in these types of attacks were formed. The dramatic improvement in the effectiveness of the German attacks was demonstrated in the disastrous Atlantic convoy PQ17. Apart from the catastrophic decisions taken by the admiralty, it was clear that the Axis were having the upper hand. The Royal Navy tried new tactics to counter this menace, but the real problem was that the Navy’s Fleet Air Arm fighters were no match to the shore based fighters that the Axis fielded. Even worst they lacked the necessary climb rate to reach a high altitude in a short period of time, which forms the basis of any scramble/intercept. Thus they were unable to use the key advantage of altitude and in most cases they were unable to intercept the German dive bombers. The most effective defence the Royal Navy had was antiaircraft, but the menace for convoys was not only from the air, but also from submarines, e-boats, and the Italian Navy.
Soon convoys to Malta where deemed too dangerous to undertake and the Germans where slowly succeeding in their objectives. But the Royal Navy insisted in supplying Malta with precious spares, ammo and fuel, at least for the defending Spitfires. In the dark days of the first 5 months, one ship built a worthy reputation: HMS Welshman. The Welshman was stunningly similar to the French Leopard Class destroyer. Designed to be a minelayer, the characteristics of the Welshman were ideal for the current needs. Removing the mines from its storage meant that it had a good sized store to carry Merlin engines for the Spitfires, fuel, oil, and ammo. Moreover it was a very fast minelayer and speed was critical for the passage to Malta. With some modifications done to the superstructure (adding a wooden chimney) to resemble even more the French Leopard Class destroyers, the Welshman set out on its first run to Malta on the 8th of May 1942. The disguise worked brilliantly, for German recon planes were deceived in thinking it was a French destroyer, but the disguise did not last for long following the first delivery. However, its sheer speed meant that she would still be ideal to do quick runs to Malta, and so she did. But it was soon clear that the bravery of the Welshman and its crew was not enough.
In June operation Julius was set in motion. It consisted in 2 separate convoys, 1 departing from Gibraltar(Harpoon) and the other from Haifa, Palestine and Port Said(Vigorous). The idea was that the 2 convoys, approaching from opposite sides of Malta, would divide the Axis attacking force, allowing the defending antiaircraft ships to concentrate their fire on fewer aircraft. The tactic made sense, but the command of the entire operation was onshore and not where the metal meets the flesh. That was one of the main factors that resulted in the tragic end to the entire operation. Decisions where being made on redundant information, and the operation descended in chaos. Eventually only 2 ships from Harpoon will reach Malta, 4 merchant vessels where lost and 2 destroyers. Vigorous was attacked by air, Italian Navy, submarines and torpedo boats. Eventually It returned to Alexandria with no supplies reaching Malta. It was a complete disaster.
To add insult to injury, in June Tobruk fell to the Germans and the Eight Army was pushed back over the Egyptian border.
The lowest point
June and July possibly marked the lowest point in the Mediterranean war. From a political point of view Churchill was under intense pressure in the House of Commons, accused of not being able to gain any ground or significant victory against the Germans. Moreover Alexandria was under serious threat and the Axis had complete control of the Mediterranean seas and skies.
An eventual fall of Alexandria presented even far more reaching consequences, to the point of being catastrophic for the British Empire. If Alex fell, the British ground forces had no-where to retreat to and another Dunkirk was looming, only this time on a larger scale. Furthermore, the fall of Alex would inevitably spell out the automatic fall of the Suez Canal. The situation was dramatic.
It was at this point that the Germans failed tactically: the invasion of Malta was pulled off! It is still a point of debate if the Germans really wanted to invade Malta or not. Some argue that following the losses in Crete an airborne invasion by the Germans was put out of the question and a sea borne invasion was not practical. The German idea was that Malta would fall if North Africa was taken. This may be so, still, it is also undeniable the presence of Gigant aircraft in Sicily. These were clearly photographed by RAF recon aircraft and the defenders were already getting used to the idea of an imminent invasion. The operation was also given the code name Hercules. But in all this an assist was given by the unexpected: Rommel decided that the invasion of Malta was no longer needed; he captured enough supplies in Tobruk to conclude the battle in North Africa.
Churchill decided that another convoy to supply Malta is to be attempted, and this time it had to be a large convoy with overwhelming power. This resulted in the Pedestal convoy, and true to his promise, the largest convoy in history was assembled and will remain the most heavily defended convoy to date. However, what was supposed to be a top secret convoy ended up in an epic sea battle, with the Axis clearly knowing that not only the convoy was on the way but also the composition of the convoy. Pedestal was also a convoy that sparked tensions between the allies. Stalin was demanding supplies from the UK, something which Churchill was turning down: everything that could float and maintain speed was to be diverted to the Pedestal convoy. Stalin was furious, but Churchill stood his ground.
On the night of 9/10 August a force of 14 merchant vessels protected by no less than 44 warships passed through the straights of Gibraltar: the convoy was on its way. At first the convoy did not meet too much resistance, but on the 11 August the Axis drew first blood. HMS Eagle was hit by 4 torpedoes fired by U-73. Immediately it started listing and sunk after 8 minutes. This was a huge blow for the convoy and from there on savage attacks will follow, day and night. Eventually 9 merchant vessels will be sunk, 4 reaching Malta and the SS Ohio being literally a bonus since it was one of the main targets for the Axis and it was a pure miracle that the tanker entered Grand Harbour on the 15th of August. The Royal Navy lost 1 carrier (Eagle), 2 cruisers (Manchester and Cairo). One carrier (Indomitable), two cruisers (Nigeria and Kenya) and three destroyers were damaged.
Pedestal has been widely described as the convoy that saved Malta. From a certain point of view it is true, but, it is not totally correct either. When operation Pedestal was over, Churchill claimed victory, giving him some degree of push politically. The Axis were equally jubilant: they claimed that they achieved a crashing victory. In all honesty both were wrong and both were correct. From the Axis point of view they sunk 75% of the merchant vessels, with the bonus of the 1 aircraft carrier sunk and another damaged. But their bid was to annihilate the convoy, not to do as much damage as possible! From the British point of view, the mission was to supply Malta for good, but the supplies that reached Malta indeed gave a life line to the defenders but it was calculated that the supplies would only last for 3 months. In fact the ration on the island was not lifted – another convoy had to be attempted.
Crucially, what the convoy achieved was something which had deeper consequences particularly for the Luftwaffe. Up till Pedestal the Germans mounted an onslaught against Malta that lasted for months. During the Pedestal operations, the Luftwaffe alone (Fliegerkorps II) mounted no less than 650 sorties in the space of 3 days. Axis aircraft lost were not catastrophic, but AXIS records of operations against Pedestal convoy are not complete and it is not known what happened to damaged aircraft. With the chronic shortage of spares the AXIS had it is plausible to assume that much of the damaged aircraft which made it back were never repaired. Other records also show a number of aircraft listed as their faith unknown. Besides losing experienced pilots, the AXIS aircrews were overworked and psychologically shocked by the powerful defence the convoy mounted. As a result, following Pedestal, the air raids over Malta will never be again to the same level as before. This was also true in regards to attacks on convoys. In November operation Stoneage successfully delivered supplies in full, with only HMS Arethusa being seriously damaged. This convoy significantly eased the situation for Malta and in December operation Portcullis reached Malta intact and practically unmolested. From the island’s perspective air raids were on the decline also thanks to the RAF now capable of intercepting incoming raids with squadron strength and far out at sea. The AXIS from their part started to mount more night operations, a tactic similar to the one used following the Battle of Britain. Thus the siege was lifted and in October the Italian-German forces in North Africa were defeated at Al Alemein, following a long build up, and Tripoli was captured in January 1943.
That the situation had improved drastically could also be seen by the RAF’s change of stance. The RAF not only became more aggressive in attacking enemy shipping, but allowing Spitfires venturing as far as Sicily to tempt the AXIS into dogfights and eventually strafing the AXIS airfields.
The Year of the Spitfire
The Spitfire already gained notoriousness in the Battle of Britain, but in Malta the situation was far more acute than during the Battle of Britain. Reading through biographies of RAF pilots there is one common belief amongst the pilots that served in Malta: nowhere in the ETO compared to the intensity of the air battles in Malta!
In the opening stages of 1942, the Hurricane was the RAF’s choice of defence for Malta, but a new breed of fighters from both the Italian and German airforces soon put the Hurricane in a hopeless situation and became totally outclassed. Apart from the fact that the Hurricane was further frustrated by erroneous tactical deployment, it was plain clear that Spitfires were needed, and with immediate effect.
Supply of aircraft to Malta had to be done by ferrying them to a point in the Mediterranean and launching them at extreme range to avoid attacks from the Axis seaborne and airborne forces. Also, the Spitfire was designed to operate from airfields, not from aircraft carriers, which meant that the amount of aircraft delivered was limited by space (they had no folding wings) and once launched Spitfires had no other option but to proceed to land based airfields.
Once they reached Malta, RAF pilots found themselves fighting a battle massively outnumbered. Intercepts outnumbered 10 to 1, and even more, were common. Luftwaffe tactics were specifically targeted at eradicating Spitfires, mounting air raids as bate for the Spitfires. Intense dogfights are described both in George Buerling’s biography, “Malta Spitfire” and Denis Barnham’s book “Malta Spitfire Pilot”. Barnham’s descriptions particularly give in depth descriptions. Arriving in Malta during operation Calendar, Barnham describes a constantly deteriorating situation with the Luftwaffe gaining air superiority. But the problem was not only overwhelming odds; spares was also a problem and Barnham found himself with a blown engine, blinded by oil on his windscreen, surrounded by Me109s, battling it out. Similarly George Buerling describes dogfights with staggering odds, but depicts a situation where the Spitfires were somehow holding the line. Apart from the legend of the Spitfire, at this point in the war Malta was receiving experienced pilots, and where constantly increasing their personal score, with Buerling receiving the DFM at the end of June and added a bar to his DFM end of July. It was inconceivably clear that the AXIS held the initiative, but it was also clear that with adequate supplies the Spitfires were able to have it their way.
By mid-1942 the situation was becoming desperate. At times only one Spitfire remained operational or dispatched for an intercept. And here is a testimony of what the Spitfire meant. In his book Barnham distinctively describes an intercept of 100+ enemy aircraft by a flight of 3 Spitfires he was leading. His instructions were specifically not to engage the enemy fighters but to make only 1 fast pass on the bombers. Barnham “complained” what is the use? The AOC’s reply: The moment the Germans see even one Spitfire in the air, they will think twice to invade. If that wass “romance” or the truth I will leave it to you to judge, but it is also true that following the 15th of September 1940 (Battle of Britain), the day the Luftwaffe thought they would crash the RAF and instead were attacked over and over again by swarms of RAF fighters, left an indelible mark in the psychic of the Luftwaffe.
Surely one Spitfire or a flight of three would not stop an invasion force, however, there is another factor which indirectly led the Germans to think that there where squadrons of Spitfires in Malta ready for a repeat of the 15th of September: the colour scheme of the Spitfires in Malta. Basically, there was no standard scheme and Spitfires were re-painted in whatever colour was found, some with US Navy Grey, some with Royal Navy Grey, others with Dark Mediterranean blue, and some even retained in desert camouflage. This mixture of colours was not applied at squadron level, but rather dictated by the availability of paint. Luftwaffe pilots were reporting a large variety of Spitfire hues and camouflage which might have lead the Luftwaffe to think that Spitfires are present in Malta enforce.
Nevertheless the air war descended in total war and no-one was spared. Reports of aircrews being gunned down after bailing out was common, on both sides; even civilians attacking downed pilots. Eventually the point was reached where Malta would surrender unless re-supplied. Odds at this point were staggering, intercepts even being 20 to 1, fighting on empty stomach and fighting dysentery. Added to that there was no-where safe on the island. When a pilot was off duty and given time off the base, or what remained of the base, he would end up in an underground shelter due to air raids or at best witnessing his comrades in another dogfight against staggering odds. And even if they managed to get away from it all, they were unable to find anything to unwind: beer, wine, food: everything was out of stock. This was in stark contrast with the Battle of Britain where pilots were able to “unplug” in bars. Replacements where out of the question, both pilots and machine, which further increased the pressure on the pilots being aware not to lose Spitfires in stupid accidents.
As July approached and the situation was by now regarded as hopeless, rumour was that something big was planned, which was in actual fact the Pedestal convoy. Again, Barnham gives some interesting recollections. When the convoy was approaching Malta, Spitfires based in Malta were instructed to fly out as far as possible in search of the convoy, taking into account the return leg. If found they had to mount standing patrols until all the fuel was expanded. Once all the fuel is expanded they were to ditch near the convoy and be rescued by the convoy escort. According to Barnham it is not clear if any of the pilots followed these orders as all pilots reported they could not find the convoy. How true that was is open to each and everyone’s opinion, however one has to consider that indeed the convoy did scatter at a certain point in time. Also, the conditions in the Mediterranean, with intense haze and glare, makes it difficult to spot vessels. It is also known that when the convoy approached Malta the weather conditions deteriorated significantly to the point that even a powerful raid by the Germans was unable to locate the convoy.
After the Pedestal convoy it is undeniable that the RAF pilots turned more aggressive, even with raids on the Sicilian airfields. Intercepts were now being carried out in larger numbers, squadron strength, and in a short period of time the squadrons were re-organised and brought up to full strength. In the end the Spitfire pilots again held the line against staggering odds. However, it was not all down to the RAF pilots alone. One has to keep in consideration the tremendous price the Royal Navy paid to keep Malta supplied, and where the RAF failed to stop the Luftwaffe the Royal artillery put up a protective defence worthy of mention for years to come. But it is without any shadow of doubt that the Spitfire pilots did wonders in face of overwhelming odds. The pilots knew that they had a thorough fighter in their hands and did the most of it, with some pilots flying the Spitfire to its limits in an air battle where if you pause for a second you will, with all probability, be shot down.
The RAF in Malta was not only present with the Spitfire. As already mentioned the first line of defence was represented by the Hurricane. In the first part of 1941 the Hurricane was still effective against any aircraft the Italian air force could field, but when the Luftwaffe entered the battle for the Mediterranean, the situation changed dramatically. The first stint by the Luftwaffe was represented by the BF109E, which was in some ways superior to the Hurricane, especially firepower, but the Hurricane was still able to turn tighter than the 109. However, to put in the words of a famous fighter pilot, you could not keep turning forever. There will come a time when you have to sort yourself out.
The RAF fighter pilots had one considerable advantage in Malta: they were free of the shackles of the command chain. This was determined by the low survival expectancy of the RAF fighter pilots which gave them a free hand on the way that they conducted dogfights. The AOC still had command of when, where and how they are to be deployed but both on the ground and in the air they had a free hand. For example, Laddie Lucas in his book “Malta, The Thorn in Rommel’s side” describes how he and Raoul Daddo-Langlois studied the German’s flting style. Up till then the standard RAF battle formation was the Vic formation, consisted in three fighters in a tight V formation. This has been widely criticised by the RAF pilots because the concept was totally incoherent with modern warfare. The drawback was that this configuration gave the leader absolute control and the other 2 aircraft had to concentrate on the leader to keep the close formation. This prevented them from doing the most important job: that of scanning the skies for enemy aircraft. When Laddie Lucas and Raoul Daddo-Langlois explored the possibility of changing the battle configuration to the finger four formation adopted by the Germans, better known as the schwarm, they started achieving far better success.
This kind of freehand will be further exploited by successive fighter pilots. A clear example of this is the top scoring ace George Buerling. In Britain Buerling had problems when away from fellow Canadian pilots and was regarded as a rebel and despondent towards the command chain. After a number of rows with his squadron mates he was transferred to 249 Squadron in Malta. Ironically the situation in Malta adorned perfectly with his style of fighting in the air. The combat situation in Malta precluded the standard RAF text book fighting techniques and being overwhelmed it was totally useless to have a wingman stick to his leader “like glue”. Once embroiled in a dogfight the best chance of survival was to split up, each man by himself concentrating on the target and who or what is behind. This was exactly Buerling’s characteristics, basically hitting the ground running and paving his way to become Malta’s top scoring aces.
From a striking point of view Malta was bolstered with a mixture of aircraft which were more of an occasional nature rather than strategic. To harass the Axis, at first a mixture of Albacores, Wellingtons and Maryland aircraft was used. Later Beauforts were mainly used. Whatever landed in Malta to strike at the enemy was welcome.
When you consider this line-up, one could not be that elated. The Albacore was supposed to be a replacement for the obsolete Swordfish which, as a project, totally failed and even from Malta it enjoyed few success. The Wellington was more effective as a bomber, harassing shore basses in Sicily and targets further inland, but for anti-shipping medium and large bombers were totally ineffective. The Maryland was also ineffective and eventually was used for photo recon duties where it achieved much more success.
Eventually Beauforts will be delivered which were much more effective than any other strike aircraft on the island. However this type of aircraft was not the scariest battle cry either. The main problem of the Beaufort was its engines which were slightly under powered. This was bad to the extent that if the Beaufort was hit in one engine or one of the engines simply failed, it was unable to stay in the air. When the engines where replaced by the engines used on the Beaufighter the performance of the Beaufort improved significantly and could even fly on one engine.
One of the unsung heroes of the Malta air war was the Beaufighter. Historically the Beaufighter was over shadowed by the Mosquito, but in the early stages of the war it dragged the cart along for the RAF. The Beaufighter was the result of the modern thinking of a long range fighter which could attack ground targets and at the same time able to defend itself without the support of escorting fighters. As things where in Malta, these characteristics made it ideally placed to attack shore line defences in Sicily and enemy supply routes in North Africa. Its sheer speed coupled with a devastating fire power quickly made it earn the respect of the enemy forces and was used in almost all roles, including photo recon. The only role that the Beafighter was not successful was torpedo bombing, at least up till the Mk6. It was only when the Mk9 was rolled out of the production line that it was used by Costal Command as a torpedo bomber, but by that time the sea battles was practically over. Another crucial, but daring, role for the Beaufighter was invented in Malta. With the Beauforts becoming more aggressive following the Pedestal convoy, it was demanded that the Beaufighters not only assume the role of long range fighter escort but also take an active role in attacking the shipping in tandem with the Beauforts. The tactic was to have Beaufighters head the charge against the shipping, drawing fire away from the torpedo carrying Beauforts. In return the Beaufighters would pave the way using its devastating firepower to inflict as much damage as possible on the defending anti-aircraft from the shipping. The result was a massive improvement in the survival rate of the Beauforts and a more devastating result in terms of AXIS shipping sunk. As this tactic was used over and over again the Beaufighters even got to use bombs on shipping. Still its main striking power remained its guns and the Beaufighter will be used till the very end of the war, even in the pacific.
Blenheims were also used for anti-shipping operations from Malta, though Blenheim squadrons where not a permanent stay on the island. There is very little information about actions of Blenheim operations from Malta. In general the Blenheim was faster than the Beaufort, but it was smaller and the Beaufort could carry more bombs than the Blenheim. For sure Blenheims were used to attack the Italian Navy in their ports when the Pedestal convoy was coming in range. RAF reports claim that these raids were highly successful in that they prevented the Italian Navy in intercepting the convoy. In actual fact the Italian Navy never tried to deploy due to Kesselring not authorising the needed oil to set sail enforce.
The Luftwaffe had two stints in the Malta air war. In the first, the main fighter was the BF-109E which was superior to the Hurricane. Many argue this, but it is also a fact that during the Battle of Britain the Hurricanes were mainly used to attack bombers, while Spitfires were left to deal with the fighter escorts. If this needed any verification, one could definitely look at the attrition of Hurricanes in the Malta air war during 1941. But the 109 was not the only aircraft used by the Luftwaffe. For bombing operations JU88 and JU87 Stukas were used and were highly effective. With the Hurricanes kept in check by the 109s, these bombers had pretty much danger free hunting ground, except for the anti-aircraft. Bf-110 and Heinkel 111 were also used but they were not intensely used as the JU88. This includes both land targets and shipping.
When the Luftwaffe seemed to have complete mastery of the skies, the unexpected happened: the Luftwaffe left Sicily, with the Hitler diverting all efforts to the East, the invasion of Russia. This gave the British the much respite they needed and in a releativly short time frame they bolstered again the defences. Problem was that the British re-enforced the garrison in Malta with Hurricanes, again.
By November 1941, the Luftwaffe was back in Sicily to thwart once and for all the British garrison in Malta, with special emphasis on RAF. It is this second stint by the Luftwaffe that is very interesting, both in terms of strategy and repercussions. By now the 109 was upgraded to the F version which was superior to the Hurricane under all aspects and ruled the skies, nor question about it. The usual JU87 Stuka and Ju88 resumed bombing operations. For anti-shipping, this time round, the Germans had by now specialised air crews and they started to be devastatingly efficient. Furthermore, the mobility of the Luftwaffe was also astonishingly efficient, and a monument to this is when I I and II/LG1.I under the command of Fliegerkorps X were re-positioned to Sicily in preparation of operations against convoy Pedestal on the 11th of August. They were ready for operations the following day! Moreover the level of interoperability of the Luftwaffe meant that bombers taking off from their assigned airfield could land in other airfields, and still be able to conduct further operations from the airfield they landed on.
In this second part, the Luftwaffe also put on standby Gigant aircraft, these having the ability to land troops and machinery, including tanks, for invasion purposes. Although the aspect of invasion is controversial, Gigant aircraft in the southern part of Italy were clearly photographed by the RAF and later German archive photographs confirm this.
Eventually the Luftwaffe will suffer from what could be considered as a sudden degradation in the ability to mount operations in the Mediterranean. Replacement of lost aircraft and spares has been a chronic problem for the Luftwaffe since the beginning of the war and will continue till the very end of the war. Thus the relentless bombing of Malta was having a toll on the Luftwaffe as well and the Pedestal convoy was basically the drop that spilled the cup. In preparation to stop the Pedestal convoy, the Luftwaffe committed all its striking power. But here there were already signs of things to come. The Luftwaffe indeed did put extensive pressure on the convoy but the Italian air-force was heavily committed as well. Thus, the inability to have a proper devastating attack force of their own was a direct result of the attrition in both in terms of machine and aircrews. After the Pedestal convoy, the losses further aggravated the situation and the fact that damaged aircraft could not be repaired further exasperated the situation. The Luftwaffe was till that point fighting on 3 fronts, and replacement of both machine and aircrews was lacking.
But what is perhaps more of an enigma is the type of fighter used during 1942. The 109F was yeas an improvement on the E version, and yes it was a plane that could hold its own against the Spitfire, still the Spitfire MK5 had an edge. However, in the inventory of the Luftwaffe there was the Focke Wulf 190: the plane that sounded all the alarms in fighter command, especially after the debacle of Dieppe. The 190 was never used in the air war over Malta, and will make a brief appearance in 1943, in a defensive role. Arguably, the 190s were being held by the Luftwaffe in France since RAF incursions might have started to be worrying. Yet, with the Fw190 the Spitfire pilots would have found the going definitely tougher.
The Regia Aeronautica
There is a huge misconception concerning the Italian air force in WW2. IN order to appreciate the the Regia Aeronatica one has to start from the beginning g of the war. Italy, like many other nations which took part in WW1, did not want to be involved in another war. Military development stopped after WW1 and aeronautical development was totally devolved towards air races and the achievement of performance.
When Italy joined the war, whether they liked it or not, they found themselves at a terrible disadvantage. Its fighter force was represented by a hopeless CR42 biplane, which was yes very manoeuvrable, but it was desperately inadequate when compared to the British fighters. As such, when the Hurricanes defended the island, they were mora than adequate in this role, although RAF pilots maintain that the Italian air force was producing some extremely good pilots and given their inadequate machinery they were certainly doing a tremendous job.
Eventually the CR42 was phased out, the Italians switching to the Macchi C.200 Saetta. The C.200 was a very good aircraft, had an excellent diving speed which made it ideal for ground attack, as well as a good climb rate, even better than the Hurricane. It had a radial engine and was highly manoeuvrable. The main problem for this sublime fighter was it fire power which was graded as insufficient and slightly underpowered.
The C.202 was an improvement over the C.200. Incorporating the wings and fuselage of the C.200, the engine was replaced by importing the DB601 engine. From the very first trials it was evident that the MC.202 was an advanced design and was a definitive improvement built on the already respectable C.200. Still, the armament was lacking and lacked the necessary punch.
The C.205 again retained the wings and fuselage of the C.202 with the engine replaced with the DB605 engine. The C.205 again proved to be a further improvement. The Luftwaffe evaluated aircraft and deemed it as a formidable aircraft to the point of adopting this model into a squadron. An allied test pilot opinion, Capt. Eric Brown, CBE, DSC, AFC, RN, Chief Naval Test Pilot and C.O.: Captured Enemy Aircraft Flight, remembered how they were impressed when they tested the Veltro. “One of the finest aircraft I ever flew was the Macchi MC. 205. Oh, beautiful. And here you had the perfect combination of Italian styling and German engineering. I believe it was powered by a Daimler Benz DB 605. It was really a delight to fly, and up to anything on the Allied programme. But again, it came just before the Italians capitulated so it was never used extensively. And we did tests on it and were most impressed. The cockpit was smallish but not as bad as the Bf 109.”
It was from a bomber perspective that the Italians paid a heavy price. The main stay of the Italian bombers was the SM79. It was a 3 engine medium bomber that had a small bomb bay and a low payload capability. It had very poor self-defence but what even worse it was practically impossible to develop and eventually hindered the Italian offensive capabilities. To improve its payload capability, bombs were stored in a vertical position as opposed to the normal horizontal position. Although this allowed some extra bombs to be carried, the SM79 will pay a high price in terms of accuracy with this arrangement. Some historians incorrectly state that the Italian bombers used to bomb from high altitudes to avoid the flak. Actually they used to bomb from high altitudes because they had a very sophisticated bomb site which was the most advanced at that point in time, even more than the German counterpart. But this was overshadowed by the way the bomb s were stored in the aircraft. As soon as a bomb is released it will aerodynamically take a “flatter” glide rather than keep dropping vertically. That change in angle compromised the trajectory of the bombs and the higher the altitude, the more acute is the final effect on the trajectory. It has also been said that Italian bombers used to drop their bombs into the sea rather than face the defences. This was also incorrect. The bombs dropped in the sea were in actual fact mine laying operations.
The SM79 was not a push over either. Lacking in the bomber role, it was found that it was extremely deadly as a torpedo bomber. Its engine arrangement made it ideal for the torpedo bomber role and it was found that it was more stable than the HE111, JU88, and any other allied counterpart. This was thanks to its engine arrangement. It is known that twin engine aircraft produced a lot of drag, especially when taking off and at low level. However, the SM79 had an extra engine in the nose which produced that extra airflow in the centre part of the aircraft which eliminated the effect of drag, making it extremely stable. Yet, it was a fragile aircraft that was not designed to be a war bird but a transport aircraft.
Paradoxically later Italian bomber designs will not improve the situation, if anything they were worse, namely the Cant Z1007. But what the Italian air force was badly lacking was in dive bombers. The Italians never achieved the design which satisfied this dive bombing requirements and eventually Ju87s where imported from Germany. The adoption of the JU87 was so swift that the Geran standard camouflage colours where retained, with Italian markings being field applied and the German markings overpainted. In some cases, the German balkencreuz was even retained which prompted confusion by some historian thinking that they were German crews while in actual fact they were Italian crews.
Politics and tactics
“Malta was the rock on which our hopes in the Mediterranean foundered”- a statement taken from the official Italian NID reports on the war in the Mediterranean. Make no mistake, it was an honest reflection and if the strategic importance of Malta needed any reminder, 1943 will prove that all over again. However, the importance of battle for Malta potentially has even deeper repercussions and not just for the Mediterranean.
When the 8th Army was pushed back as far as Egypt, the political situation for Churchill was very precarious. He was under constant pressure because the British forces knew nothing but defeat till that point in time. True, the Battle of Britain was won, but the menace was not over and no terrain was gained. Dieppe was a complete debacle, with the only positive aspect of it being the lessons learnt, and in the Pacific the Royal Navy was suffering humiliating defeats, with the fall of Singapore practically ending the myth of the Royal Navy in the Pacific. At this point, if Egypt fell, the garrison in Egypt had practically nowhere to fall back, a disaster of greater proportions than Dunkerque. And with the fall of Egypt, the British would inevitably lose the Suez, which meant that any supplies to or from Australia would have to go the whole way through the Atlantic. Even more desperately worrying was that from further East the Japanese were advancing relentlessly. Burma fell in Japanese hands in January 1942 and the fall Egypt to the Germans and Italians would have practically opened a highway to the linking of the AXIS forces, forming an attack line to Russia which potentially would have been difficult to stop.
The conquest of North Africa would have invariably opened the doors to South Africa as well. Although it is not clear as to the interests of the AXIS in this region, if the AXIS did indeed expand to South Africa there could have been the potential of mining uranium. That would have enabled the AXIS producing nuclear weapons. Although it is a far cry, it is neither science fiction: after all the Germans produced the first stealth bomber, and proven that it could fly:` the Horton – compare that to the modern B2 bomber!
Given the situation, Malta was the key not only to North Africa, but possibly the course of the war since this still remains a “what if” analysis. The enigma in all this is the strategy the Germans adopted. In hind sight it can be termed as a tactical blunder which could still be difficult to interpret. However, when piecing together the various bits, one could draw a plausible conclusion, but not definitive.
When the Germans returned in Sicily in late 1941, their target was to invade Malta and no longer keep it in check. None other than Kesselring was put in charge. The invasion operation had even a name, operation “Herkules”. But when Tobruk fell, Rommel declared that he had captured enough supplies to end the mission in North Africa and that the invasion of Malta was no longer needed. But here is the crux: a general, nick named as the Desert Fox for his strategic cunningness, leaves elements of his enemy at the rear?! Reading through a number of books from different authors on different battles, one can piece together some politics that could have shaped the decisions taken. But to understand this we need to go back to the beginning of the war, precisely Dunkerque.
In Dunkerque the escapee of the British army is widely known. But one question that always went through my mind was how on earth a modern and mobile army like the Wehrmacht, capable of crushing French army in 2 weeks and with the creed of a lightning war, the Blitzkrieg, fell short of finishing the job, as if unable to reach Dunkerque in time. Years ago the answer I got was that Hitler did not want to crush the British army and was viewing the British as an ally, not a foe. Still, not convinced. Recently I was reading the book, “Kursk – The Greatest Battle” by Lloyd Clark, and in that book there is a statement by Gudarian which reads:
“The Supreme Command (Hitler) intervened in the operations in progress, [the] results of which were to have a most disastrous influence on the whole course of the war…. The order contained words: Dunkirk is to be left to the Luftwaffe… We were utterly speechless.”
Hitler’s faith in the Luftwaffe can be further seen in Battle of Britain, and basically confirmed this when he called the failure to crash the RAF as a betrayal. Still, Goring enjoyed Hitler’s trust, but not the Wehrmacht. Hitler never trusted the Wehrmacht, and the infiltration of the SS in the chain of command at all levels, is proof of this.
It is possible that the invasion of Malta was pulled off because it was once more left in the hands of the Luftwaffe to finish the job. But the problem was that the Luftwaffe was already stretched to the limit. With operations in Russia and numerous squadrons being kept in France to keep vigilance on RAF incursions, the Luftwaffe had to mobilise units into Sicily to beef up the operations against the Pedestal convoy.
From the British perspective, in Denis Barnham’s book “Malta Spitfire Pilot”, he clearly mentions his Commanding Officer mentioning that the moment the Germans see a Spitfire in the air they will think twice to invade. This might also be very true, and the garrison in Malta was trying to preserve as much Spitfires as possible for such a day. German combat reports also re-enforce the theory of the Spitfire, as in these reports German pilots seem to be concerned with the various Spitfires having different hues, possibly making the Germans think that on the island there were swarms of Spitfires hidden ready to take to the air to deliver a blow similar to the 15th of September 1940: the big wing.
After the Pedestal convoy both the Axis and the British claimed victory. Who was right in claiming victory is open for debate. In actual fact, the British were right to claim victory as they still managed to get supplies to Malta. But it is also true that the Axis inflicted terrible damage as well, notably the sinking of the carrier Eagle and the serious damage caused to Indomitable. Henceforth, Pedestal was a strategic failure by the British but a success in the objective to supply the garrison in Malta. For the Axis it was only a victory for a propaganda campaign since the losses they suffered will never be replaced and practically drained out the last energies of the Luftwaffe.
The strategic consequences for the Germans cannot be better described than by the events which will occur in 1943. When the North African campaign turned definitely in favour of the allies, the Afrika Korps found themselves caught between the advancing allied army and from the rare strikes from aircraft based in Malta, with little or no supplies arriving since they were systematically attacked by Malta based anti-shipping squadrons as well. Malta was yes the key to North Afrika, but for the Germans it was the key to get out of North Afrika; but thate key was by now firmly in the hands of the allies.
By Etienne Galea Musu (email@example.com)