RAF ON MALTA – ON THE ATTACK

The reason Malta was so critical to Allied fortunes in the Middle East was because of its strategic location.  Lying midway along the Mediterranean and halfway between Italy and the North Africa, it was the perfect place from which to attack Axis shipping heading to Libya.  The war in North Africa was, as much as anything, a battle for supply: whichever side managed to get the most fuel, men and munitions would ultimately win.  It is no coincidence that whenever Axis attacks on the island intensified, Axis fortunes in North Africa improved.

Working with the Royal Navy, steadily increasing numbers of RAF bombers – Wellingtons, Blenheims, Beauforts and attack aircraft like the Beaufighter – played a crucial role in attacking enemy shipping.  Two Royal Navy air squadrons also played their part.  Most shipping attacks were carried out by dropping torpedoes, although enemy ports, both in Italy and North Africa, were also bombed.  A third means of attack was to drop mines at the mouths of enemy-held ports.

All pilots on Malta suffered terribly from the bombing.  The Special Duties Flight, for example – a night-flying Wellington anti-shipping flight – was based at Luqa, but its crews messes at the sea-plane base of Kalafrana, several miles away. When the mess was repeatedly bombed they continued to eat there, although one side was now completely open to the elements.  For most of 1942, the pilots and crews were expected to walk to and from the airfield, even on returning from a long and hazardous night operation.

Being a torpedo bomber was one of the most dangerous flying jobs in the RAF, and this was even more so in the Mediterranean theatre.  Chances of completing a tour of six months was 17.5%.  The chances of surviving a second was just 3%. 

During the most intense period of the Axis blitz in early 1942, RAF bombing and torpedo operations virtually ceased.  By the end of April 1942, three Wellington squadrons had become so depleted they were forced to move to Alexandria; four Blenheim squadrons had similarly either left or become inoperable since January 1942.  Wrecks littered all three airfields.  Groundcrews had desperately tried to keep their aircraft airworthy but the attrition rate was simply too great. 

By the summer of 1942, however, torpedo bombers operating in tandem from bases in North Africa and Malta were making General Rommel’s life a misery.  Tanker after tanker was sunk, which was to prove a decisive factor in his defeat firstly at Alam Halfa at the end of August, and then again at the Second Battle of Alamein in October.

Also key to Allied successes in the Mediterranean was the work of RAF reconnaissance crews, who observed enemy shipping and aircraft movements and were able to report on the results of Allied air strikes.  Most the most famous Malta-based pilot of all was Adrian Warburton, DSO*, DFC**, DFC (US), a man whose fearlessness knew no bounds.  He had arrived on Malta in September 1940 as a navigator rather than a pilot, having shown little aptitude for flying.  Necessity pushed him back into the pilot’s seat, however, and his transformation began.  His bravery and ability to always get his pictures was first confirmed during the run-up to the Royal Navy’s aerial strike on the Italian Fleet at Taranto in November 1940, but he continued to perform incredible feats of daring and soon became one of the most valued pilots in the Middle East. ‘Warby’ – as he was known to all – also arguably became the island’s first ace.  Although reconnaissance pilots were usually unarmed, Warby eschewed such rules and never shied away from taking on another enemy plane whenever he had the chance.  No Malta pilot was more decorated than the incomparable Adrian Warburton. 

 

 

 

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