The embattled Mediterranean island of Malta
became a symbol of defiance as it endured
a rain of Axis bombs.
Within six hours of the Italian declaration of war against Great Britain on June 10, 1940, the British island of Malta was under air attack. A harbinger of what was to come, 35 Italian bombers and 18 fighters raided the Maltese capital of Valletta and its port facilities and the 122-square-mile island’s airfields.
With virtually no fighter defense, Malta endured the initial raid without offering opposition. In subsequent attacks, four Gloster Sea Gladiator aircraft rose in defense. One was lost quickly, but the three others are remembered today as Faith, Hope and Charity. More than just poetic names representing the aerial defenders of Malta, those three virtues, along with indomitable courage, enabled the island’s residents to prevail through a maelstrom of German and Italian air raids that dropped a total of 14,000 tons of bombs.
The strategic importance of Malta was clear to everyone. Only 55 miles south of Sicily, the island menaced Axis convoys bound for North Africa as long as aircraft could land and take off from it and submarines could shelter in Valletta’s grand harbor. By the fall of 1941, the British forces operating from Malta were sinking 75 percent of the shipping en route to resupply Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. In fact, Axis losses in the Central Mediterranean were so heavy that Italian Foreign Minister Count Galeazzo Ciano advised Adolf Hitler that the convoys should be suspended. “The British on Malta are slaughtering us,” he said.
Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring responded by instructing his air legions that Malta should be “coventrated.” Göring’s reference was to the English city of Coventry, which had been devastated by air strikes during the Battle of Britain. While specially trained German air units concentrated on destroying the convoys that kept Malta supplied, efforts to reduce the island to rubble were increased in December 1941. The people of Malta remembered that bleak period as the “black winter.”
The turning point in the war for Malta came with the ordeal of the convoy code-named “Pedestal,” which left Britain on August 2, 1942, bound for the embattled island. Pedestal included 14 fast merchant ships carrying food, fuel and ammunition. The convoy escort included the battleships Nelson and Rodney, the aircraft carriers Victorious, Indomitable and Eagle, 14 destroyers and three anti-aircraft cruisers. The aircraft carrier Furious joined the convoy for a time and dispatched 38 sorely needed Supermarine Spitfire fighters to Malta before turning toward Gibraltar. Later, the heavy cruisers Nigeria, Kenya and Manchester were added to the escort, along with 11 additional destroyers. The convoy reached the Strait of Gibraltar on August 10.
On the morning of the 11th, a German U-boat spotted Pedestal, and a force of 21 German and Italian submarines, nearly 800 aircraft, 23 torpedo boats and units of the Italian fleet swung into action. Eagle was hit by four torpedoes from U-73 and sunk. Indomitable took a bomb hit and was unable to launch aircraft, while Manchester fell victim to the Italian torpedo boats. Nine of the merchant ships were lost. The huge tanker Ohio survived, reaching Malta on August 15. Three other survivors, Port Chalmers, Rochester Castle and Melbourne Star, had steamed into Valletta Harbor on the 13th. Brisbane Star also made it to port.
Axis air attacks against Malta intensified early in October as the pivotal North African battle of El Alamein drew near. For eight days, the Luftwaffe pounded the island, but it lost 42 planes to 27 for the British. More and more German aircraft were being transferred to the Russian and North African fronts, and finally, on October 18, daylight raids against Malta were suspended.
On April 15, 1942, during Malta’s darkest days, Britain’s King George VI awarded his country’s highest civilian decoration not to an individual but to the entire island. His citation read: “To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the island fortress of Malta, to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history. George R.I.”
Malta endured more than 3,000 air raids. A total of 1,540 civilians had been killed and 1,846 wounded. The British lost 707 aircraft in the island’s defense, while the Germans and Italians lost nearly 1,500.
Hitler underestimated the resolve of the British people during the Blitz of London, but the gallant citizens of Malta also taught the Germans a lesson.
Michael E. Haskew, Editor, World War II