RAF OVER MALTA – ON THE DEFENSIVE

“The tempo of life here is just indescribable.  The morale is magnificent – pilots, groundcrews and army – but it is certainly tough.  The bombing is continuous on and off all day.  One lives here only to destroy the Hun and hold him at bay; everything else, living conditions, sleep, food, and all the ordinary standards of living have gone by the board.  It all makes the Battle of Britain and fighter sweeps seem like child’s play in comparison.”  This was the verdict of Pilot Officer Herbert Mitchell of 603 Squadron, but his sentiment would have been wholeheartedly endorsed by most pilots who served on Malta during the Siege.  Mitchell was one of 174 fighter pilots killed during the fighting above the island, but whether fighter pilot, torpedo, bomber or reconnaissance pilot, serving on the island was one of the most hazardous postings in the RAF.

Malta, like Britain, was ill-prepared for war and when the first Italian bombers arrived over the island on June 11, 1940, had just a handful of loaned and modified Royal Navy Gloster Gladiator biplanes with which to defend the island.  The first few Hurricanes arrived shortly after, although as soon as the Luftwaffe appeared over the island in January 1941, these fighter planes, who had done such sterling work during the Battle of Britain were shown to be massively inferior both in terms of numbers and performance to the German Messerschmitt 109Fs & Gs.  Compounding the problems were the lack of spares and maintenance equipment, which meant that Malta’s aircraft rarely operated at maximum performance anyway.  By the end of January the island had just 28 Hurricanes remaining from the 340 that had been delivered since the siege began.  Many had been destroyed on the ground; the island’s three airfields were bombed and strafed repeatedly.  In March 1942, Takali airfield became the most bombed Allied airfield in the history of warfare: 302 tons of bombs were dropped in a 24 hour period, more than had destroyed Coventry in November 1940.

It was only once Spitfire Mk V – like the example here at Duxford today – started arriving in numbers and with proper plans in place for their arrival that Axis dominance began to diminish.  On 10 May 1942, 65 Axis aircraft were shot down by the RAF, which marked a turning point in the air war of Malta.  The RAF’s successes improved further with the arrival of Air Vice Marshal Keith Park in July.  By establishing his ‘Forward Interception Plan’ he virtually eliminated further Axis daylight bombing over the island.  In October 1942, the Axis tried one final concerted effort to blitz the island into submission: it failed.  350 enemy aircraft were shot down during the month, a loss from which the Axis never recovered. 

As elsewhere, Malta’s fighter pilots were drawn from around the world: Britain, Canada, USA, Rhodesia, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.   Many men made their reputations in the frantic struggle over Malta’s skies, but perhaps none more than Canadian George ‘Screwball’ Beurling.  Arguably, the most naturally gifted Allied fighter pilot of the war, Beurling shot down no less than 26 confirmed enemy aircraft between July and October 1942.  No other Allied pilot could claim more victories in such a short time. 

 

 

 

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