Malta - 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.

Valetta Harbour under attackOne quote from the distinguished Australian War Correspondent Alan Moorhead shows the trials and tribulations suffered by the island for the Allied cause.

"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."

Soldiers building blast pens and clearing the runways for the defence (IWM)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 aircraftAn attack on Luqa airfield. Photo: Malta National War Museum Association 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.

An attack on the Harbor at Valetta. Photo: Malta National War Museum AssociationRoyal 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.
A Spitfire being fuelled and armed with the pilot still strapped in the cockpit. Photo: Malta National War Museum Association
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 fort.

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 on Coventry.

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.


Anti aircraft gunners defending Valetta harbour (IWM) 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.

Spitfire taking off of USS Wasp en route to reinforce Malta (US National Archive)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.

Soldiers preparing ammunition for the fightersThe 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 SS Dorset under attack - she did not make it after incessant attack (IWM)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. Texaco tanker Ohio limping into harbour (IWM) 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.

Pilots from JG3 preparing for an attack on Malta from their base in San Pietro 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 or damaged.

The bombed Opera House in Valetta.  It remains this way today. Photo: Malta National War Museum Association

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 triumphed.
 

 

 

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