THE ITALIANS AND MALTA
Throughout the 1930s, Benito Mussolini, the
fascist dictator of Italy, had made it clear that he saw Italy as a global
power, one whose territories dominated Africa and the Mediterranean. The
so-called Pact of Steel signed with Nazi Germany in 1939 strengthened his
position, but it had based – on his part – on the assumption that Germany
would not engage in full-scale war for at least five years. This was
short-sighted to say the least and by the time Germany invaded Poland in
September 1939, Italy was still woefully ill-prepared for war herself.
Mussolini bided his time throughout the Phoney
War, but with France’s capitulation looking certain and believing Britain
would be forced to sue for peace, Il Duce reckoned he could
benefit from the misfortunes of the Allies and so, on June 10, 1940,
After firing the opening salvoes over Malta,
Mussolini pulled back his attacks in order to concentrate the bulk of his
airborne forces against the now-dying France and French-held Tunisia,
which he determined should be his first objective. But despite the fall
of France and Britain’s weakened position, Italy was ill-prepared for war,
and the slackening of Italian air attacks on Malta – at a time when the
island was desperately vulnerable – demonstrated not only how limited his
resources were, but also his woeful lack of judgment.
It was this lack of judgement, however, that
eventually brought the Germans to the Mediterranean. In October 1940,
without Hitler’s knowledge, Mussolini invaded Greece; but far from gaining
the sweeping victory he’d been expecting, the Italians were soon in
retreat. Furious, Hitler ordered German forces to the Balkans the
Mediterranean to help. So began an uneasy partnership that would bring
misery to the whole Mediterranean, Malta included.
It is fair to say that the majority of
Italians were unenthusiastic about the war and had little interest in
destroying their island neighbour. Lying just sixty miles south of
Sicily, Malta had always had close ties with Italy and much in common,
especially their mutual links with the Catholic Church. Most Maltese
could hardly believe that in June 1940, Italy was bombing their island.
The Maltese soon
learned to scorn the Italian pilots: their bombers were frequently way off
target, and too high; their fighter pilots equally ineffective. Yet this
said more about the Italians’ unwillingness to attack an enemy they
regarded as an ally than it did about any lack of skill or bravery. Nor
did many of the Italians share the ruthlessness of their Axis partners.
On Christmas Day, 1941, Italian pilots flew over Takali airfield and
dropped a package: inside was a hand-drawn card with the inscription,
‘Happy Christmas to the Gentleman of the Royal Air Force at Takali from
the Gentlemen of the Regia Aeronautica, Sicily.’ There were also numerous
reports of Italians dropping bombs in the open sea and firing their guns
into the air. One RAF pilot found himself being pursued by an Italian
fighter. No matter what he did, the Italian stuck on his tail and the
British pilot could not understand why his adversary was not firing. Then
eventually the Italian pulled up alongside, waved, fired his guns into the
air, and disappeared back to Sicily.
Most of the Regia Aeronuatica’s pilots and
aircrew operated over Malta at some point, and there were a number of aces
who emerged from the aerial war over the island - men like Ennio ‘Banana’
Tarantola, Furio Niclot Doglio and Walter Omiccioli. Niclot was a former
test pilot, and in his thirties by the time he was becoming Italy’s first
Malta ace. Throughout the early summer of 1942, he and Tarantola flew
together in a highly successful partnership. Sadly for Niclot, on July
27, he became one of George ‘Screwball’ Beurling’s four victims.
Britain never had much cause to doubt the
loyalty of the Maltese, although there was an Italian faction on the
island before the war. Most with known Italian sympathies were deported
to the Sudan, but there was one notorious case of a Maltese man arriving
from Italy in an attempt to spy on the British. His entire mission was a
fiasco and he was caught before even making it ashore. There would be no
mercy, however. Borg Pisani was tried and convicted as a traitor and in
November 1942, was hanged.