The Importance of Malta
The opening of a new front in North Africa in mid-1940 increased Malta's already considerable value. Malta was such an important point because it was right on the Axis supply line between Italy and North Africa. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, in command of Axis forces in North Africa, recognized its importance quickly. In May 1941, he warned that "Without Malta the Axis will end by losing control of North Africa".
The Axis resolved to bomb or starve Malta into submission, by attacking its ports, towns, cities and Allied shipping supplying the island. Malta was one of the most intensively bombed areas during the war. The Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica (Italian Royal Air Force) flew a total of 3,000 bombing raids over a period of two years in an effort to destroy RAF defenses and the ports.
By the end of 1941, Field Marshal Kesselring took over command of the Luftwaffe in Italy and he made his plans for Malta very clear and public – that he wanted the island to be taken. In March 1942, Kesselring had a formidable force at his disposal – 500 Stukas, between 200 and 300 Me-109’s and numerous Ju-88’s.
The attack on Malta started in the first week of March. More Hurricanes could only come from Gibraltar, as those based in North Africa could not be spared. One of the first batches of Hurricanes was lost at sea. Subsequent ones made it but found that their airfields were under constant German bombing. Supply ships trying to make it to the island were also targets. For a time, supply runs were stopped as they were simply too risky. However, one of the fastest ships in the Royal Navy, ‘HMS Welshman’, made numerous nighttime runs to Gibraltar to bring in ammunition. Submarines brought in medical supplies.
In April 1942, Operation Calendar saw 45 Spitfires take off from the ‘USS Wasp’ bound for Malta. After a flight of 600 miles, they needed to re-fuel on the island before they commenced patrols. By the end of the day, over half the Spitfires had been destroyed on the ground. By the end of their first week in Malta, only four were serviceable for flying while six were in hangars for maintenance.
The Germans flew many nighttime raids. However, the island’s Spitfires were not fitted with radar. An attempt to fly them at night lasted just three days before the idea was shelved. Radar-equipped Beaufighters did arrive from Egypt and on their first nighttime patrol they shot down nine Ju-88’s.
The Luftwaffe heavily outnumbered the RAF crews. The maximum number of Spitfires that were serviceable at RAF Takali stood at six, though there was usually less than this. However, while there were few fighters, they were numerous pilots so they could be rotated with frequency. The same was not true for the ground crews who had to keep as many Spitfires in the air as was possible – the delayed-timing bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe on airfields were as much to keep the ground crews awake as anything else as no one could predict when they might explode.
On May 9th 1942, the first batch of new Spitfires flew into Malta – 64 in total. They had been carried as near as was feasible by ‘HMS Eagle’ and ‘USS Wasp’ before flying onto the island. Rather than risk what had happened before when many Spitfires were attacked on the ground, the RAF ensured that no low flying German fighter would be safe. A heavily armed protective cordon was prepared around the perimeter fence at Takali and once the new Spitfires had landed, they were quickly moved into hangars before being refueled. The ground crews could turn around twelve fighters in just seven minutes.
That very day, 36 new Spitfires V’s patrolled the skies over Malta and made their first contact with the Luftwaffe, who may have been lulled into complacency regarding the island’s air defenses. Victory for the Spitfires was decisive with a reported 33 kills.
On the following day, the Germans lost 64 aircraft. By May 14th the rumor went around the island that 172 Luftwaffe aircraft had been destroyed in just six days with the RAF losing just three Spitfires. As with any campaign, accurate figures were hard to come by but many believed the rumor and it did a great deal to boost the morale of a civilian population that had been bombed almost daily from the start of March.
Interestingly enough, while the Spitfire Mk. V was proving unable to bring the decisive advantage to the RAF over the Channel, it meant all the difference between defeat and victory over Malta. By transferring Spitfires from the carriers to Malta, the British established a credible air garrison on the island against all odds. By the end of 1942, the Axis did no longer command the skies over the island.
Edited by Mugsy_, 15 April 2014 - 12:38 AM.