GERMANS AND MALTA

It was Mussolini’s failed invasion of Greece that eventually brought the Germans hurrying to his rescue and into the Mediterranean theatre.  Units of the Luftwaffe’s Fligerkorps X were transferred from Norway and sent to Sicily in December, 1940.  Their first attacks, however, were directed at British shipping rather than the island itself, when Ju 87 ‘Stuka’ dive bombers attacked the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious.  Badly damaged, Illustrious limped into Grand Harbour, but the Axis soon discovered her whereabouts and on 16 January launched their first aerial blitz over the island. For the Maltese, used to the infrequent and often inaccurate bombing of the Regia Aeronautica, this attack was a devastating wake-up call to the reality of war.  The ‘Illustrious Blitz’ as it came to be known, signalled the beginning of the siege proper.  The ship itself managed to slip away and make it to Alexandria, but much of the Three Cities on the southern side of Grand Harbour lay in ruins.  Civilians had witnessed destruction on a scale they had not previously imagined.

The Luftwaffe remained in Sicily until various units began leaving in anticipation of the German invasion of Russia, launched in June 1941.  In addition to the Ju 87s and Ju 88 bombers, the crack fighter unit Jagdgeschwader 26 arrived in March 1941, led by Battle of Britain ace Joachim Müncheberg.  Not only were these pilots highly skilled and, for the most part, battle-hardened, they were also flying Messerschmitt 109Fs, a vastly superior aircraft to the Hurricane IIs that were the mainstay of the RAF on Malta at the time.  During JG 26’s two months over Malta, they claimed at least 42 Hurricanes in the air, of which Müncheberg himself had shot down twenty.  Even more had been destroyed on the ground.  There can hardly be a better illustration of German fighter supremacy and the woeful inadequacy of the battered Hurricanes.  During that time, Müncheberg did not suffer a single operational loss.

The Luftwaffe did not return until the following December, 1941.  In between, the Malta-based torpedo bombers, submarines, and the Royal Navy’s Force K were able to cause havoc with Axis shipping to and from North Africa – the Axis lost 77% of all Mediterranean shipping, for example, in November 1941.  Malta was becoming a serious thorn in Hitler’s side and so, with the onset of winter in Russia, brought the Luftwaffe back to Sicily.  Field Marshal Kesselring, the Axis Commander-in-Chief South, vowed to bring Malta to her knees. ‘Malta had assumed decisive importance as a strategic key-point,’ he later wrote in his memoirs, ‘and my primary objective was to safeguard our supply lines by smoking out that hornet’s nest.’

So began the worst period of the siege – five months of near-constant aerial attacks.  Nearly 4,000 tons of bombs were dropped on the island in March; 6,728 tons in April.  To put this in some kind of perspective, 18,000 tons of bombs were dropped on London during the entire Blitz; 1,700 tons of bombs destroyed Dresden.  On March 20/21, Takali airfield became the most heavily bombed Allied airfield ever: 302 tons of bombs dropped in a 24-hour period (Coventry was hit by 260 tons). 

And alongside the bombers were the Me109s, back on the warpath and every bit as destructive as JG 26 had been the previous year.  Fifty Hurricanes were destroyed on the ground in January alone, whilst in the sky the Luftwaffe’s domination was total. 

By the beginning of May, Kesselring believed his task was finished and so units began to be withdrawn once more.  Malta was on its knees, but the Germans failed to kick her into the dust: with the arrival of over 50 Spitfires on 9 May, the RAF quickly proved that Malta had lost none of her fire or ability to fight back.  When the Luftwaffe once again appeared over the island in October, there were, for once, more than enough RAF fighters to meet them.  The Luftwaffe’s command of Malta’s skis had been lost forever.

 

 

 

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