RAF OVER MALTA – ON THE DEFENSIVE
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.
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.
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.