World War II
The first Great Siege of Malta took place in
1565. The Second Great Siege. took place in 1942. The islands strategic
importance and retention played a vital role, being the key to the final
Allied victory in North Africa and from there the springboard on into
Fortress Europe. The second Great Siege of Malta was truly a pivotal event
in the war in Europe and was vital to the Allies eventual victory.
One quote from the distinguished Australian War Correspondent Alan
Moorhead shows the trials and tribulations suffered by the island for the
"The greatest of battles for supply fell upon Malta. This was now turned
into a hell. Malta was a base for British submarines and aircraft preying
on Axis lines of supply to Libya. In the spring of 1942, the Axis decided
to obliterate that base and they wanted to starve it as well. Right
through the spring they turned such blitz upon Malta as no other island or
city had seen in the war. It was a siege of annihilation. One after
another all the great sieges were eclipsed - England and Odessa,
Sebastopol and Tobruk. Malta became the most bombed place on earth."
The first attacks on the island were made following the Italian
declaration of war in June 1940 and until 1940 fighters to defend the
vital island were virtually non existent. The first modern fighters, a
group of eight Hawker Hurricanes were sent to the island in June 1940. The
range of the island from Gibraltar, the nearest strategic base to support
it, could only be bridged by the use of aircraft carriers. 12 Hurricanes
were flown to the island from the aircraft carrier HMS Argus and this got
the islands defences up to strength until the Axis forces set their sight
on a major attack on the island in 1942.
Royal Navy submarines and RAF and Fleet Air Arm torpedo carrying aircraft
out of Malta were wreaking havoc on Axis shipping carrying supplies and
reinforcements to the German and Italian forces in North Africa, the
islands sitting astride their key supply lines. The German High Command
decided that it could no longer avoid this harassment and decide to get
rid of this problem and to invade Malta. If the German forces were to
succeed in North African and on into the Middle East then Malta would have
to fall. Operation Herkules was to be mounted in the spring of 1942, but
first of all the island defences had to be wiped out by the Luftwaffe and
the Italian Regia Aeronautica.
Winston Churchill was completely convinced of the islands strategic
importance and that they had to be held. At this time the need for more
modern fighter aircraft for the defence of Malta was deemed vital.
Spitfires were flown into Malta from the carrier HMS Eagle on the 7th
March 1942 to augment the obsolescent Hawker Hurricanes valiantly holding
The bombing of the tiny fortress island was intense and this suffering can
be brought into perspective by a series of comparisons
In a 24 hour period on 20-21st March 1942 295 tons of bombs fell on
Ta’Qali airfield making it the most bombed allied airfield ever.
6,728 tons of bombs to fell on Malta in April, 36 times the amount to fall
3,156 tons were dropped on the harbour at Valetta in April 1942
In March and April 1942 more bombs were dropped on Malta than fell on
London during the entire Blitz.
There were 154 days of continuous raids in comparison to London’s 57.
On 15 April the George Cross was awarded by King George VI to the Maltese
people for their bravery during the air raids "To bear witness to the
heroism and devotion of its people during the great siege it underwent in
the early parts of World War Two."
The anti-aircraft defences were vital and in April alone 102 enemy
aircraft were shot down by anti-aircraft gunners. The would shoot down 454
aircraft before the siege ended.
601 and 603 Squadrons arrived on the 20th of April, then after a request
from Winston Churchill to US President Roosevelt, the US carrier Wasp was
made available, and together with HMS Eagle, delivering 46 and 13 more
Spitfires respectively, helped turn the tide. Day after day outnumbered
but dogged fighters climbed from their heavily bombed bases into the skies
to defend "the most bombed patch of land in the world". By the end of the
siege 30,037 buildings were destroyed or damaged.
The suffering of the islands was not just due to the air bombardment. The
most notable memory of many on Malta during the siege was the hunger they
endured. The re-supply by convoy was through "Bomb Alley" and this wreaked
havoc and heavy losses on allied shipping trying to get through and few
convoys were getting through. Many
ships were sunk before getting to
Valetta and if they did reach it they were often sunk in the harbour. The
islands could not survive without supplies and at one stage were only two
weeks away from having to capitulate. There was very little food for the
30,000 troops and 250,000 residents and almost no fuel left for the
fighters defending the island.
Operation Pedestal was to became a turning
point in the survival of Malta and the arrival of Port Chalmers, Melbourne Star, Rochester Castle, Brisbane Star and the crippled aviation fuel laden
tanker Ohio, 5 merchant ships out of a convoy of 14, enabled the islands
to go on. The Royal Navy escort had also suffered heavily in getting
through to Malta.
In August and September, the German and Italian air forces suffered heavy
losses over Malta and in October they conceded defeat. At one stage in
just a few days, the Luftwaffe lost about 500 aircraft, either destroyed
The defence of Malta was an All Arms maximum effort; Royal Navy, Royal Air
Force, Army, Merchant Navy all contributing to their limits together with
the people of Malta battling in a fight to the finish, a fight that