Past Talks : April 2019

“The Defence of Malta from 1940 to 1942” by Christopher Shores

“Faith”, “Hope and “Charity”, were the three obsolete Gladiator bi-plane fighters based on Malta, that heroically and alone fought off the Axis Forces in those early days in the Mediterranean in WW2. It is a lovely story, but as Chris Shores reminded us, it is just a story, possibly created by a journalist to inspire optimism at home in Blighty, during an otherwise unsettling stage of the war. You will not be surprised to learn that this is just one possible version of the origins of the story.

Many of you will know our speaker, Chris Shores, not only as a long-standing SOFFAAM Council Member, but also as prolific and well-informed military aviation history writer. If you have not read any of his books, go to it now. You will learn a great deal. Meanwhile, what really happened in those early days on Malta? Well, there were no Gladiators to be seen in the Spring of 1940. In fact there were no operational RAF squadrons on Malta at all. The picture was still building. Italy had not yet formally declared war, but all the signs were there that it was simply a matter of time. HMS Glorious, the aircraft carrier converted from a WW1 battlecruiser, was recalled from her Mediterranean base to support proposed operations in Norway. On board Glorious were 18 crates containing Sea Gladiators, which, it was decided were to be unloaded at Malta before HMS Glorious continued her journey home. Due to the imminent possibility of attack by Italy, it was decided to erect four Gladiators and set-aside two for spares. All four had seat-back armour added during the process. While this was happening, arrangements were made to fly Hurricanes across France, to be based on Malta and in North Africa.

On the 11 July 1940, the day after Italy joined the War alongside Germany, the Italians quickly demonstrated their intent by making a heavy bombing attack on the Malta, which was of course of strategic importance to Britain in the Mediterranean (and was in fact a British Colony). Winston Churchill is quoted as referring to Malta as ‘an unsinkable aircraft carrier’. During this first conflict one Italian Macchi fighter was shot down. With the arrival of the Hurricanes, 261 Squadron was formed and sustained fighting continued against the Italian air attacks. Chris told us that the rather superior Macchi fighters were withdrawn temporarily around this period, due to mechanical problems and the RAF was instead up against the Fiat CR42 fighters, which looked remarkably like the Gladiator and were undoubtably agile, although not as fast as Hurricanes.

So far, the British forces on Malta had been constantly on the defensive and the time had come to take the war to the Italians. A reconnaissance flight made by Pilot Officer Adrian Warburton in an ex-French Martin Maryland aircraft, spotted the large build up of warships in the Italian Harbour of Taranto. The Italian fleet was largely modern and this was too good an opportunity to miss. Without delay plans were executed to launch the highly successful night raid by carrier-based Swordfish biplanes against the Italian fleet. Not only was this was a terrific blow for the Italian Navy (and a great inspiration to the Japanese for the later attack on Pearl Harbour), but Italian forces were becoming over-stretched due to the number of assaults being made by them against other Mediterranean countries. In parallel, it was all going wrong for them in Libya where the Army was beaten heavily by British 8th Army. The British Army had always had the upper hand in fighting the Italians and Mussolini needed help. He turned to Hitler who sent a German Army and aircraft to establish themselves and restore the initiative in North Africa and on Sicily. Among the aircraft now based on Sicily was the  formidable Messerschmidt 109e. In response, 12 Hurricanes were put on board HMS Argus, which was ordered to sail to within flying range of Malta and then the aircraft were to be flown off when within range of the Island. That was the theory. In reality, the Captain of Argus worried about the high risks to his ship and launched the Hurricanes before they were comfortably within range of Malta. Consequently eight of the Hurricanes ran out of fuel and crashed, leaving only four able to complete the journey and be of any use. Probably barely noticeable to the Malta defences, German aircraft were later being eased away from Sicily to support the occupation of Crete, Greece and operations in North Africa. In the meantime, HMS Ark Royal made several successful runs into the Mediterranean to fly off dozens of Hurricanes to bolster the defences of Malta. HMS Ark Royal earned a reputation for being a lucky ship, having survived many near misses during its sorties into the Mediterranean. However, in November 1941 a devastating blow was struck when she was torpedo by U-81, and sank the next day. By the end of 1941, Hurricanes were able to attack Italian and German aircraft and bases on Sicily. However, the attrition of British fighters on Malta was so heavy that RAF bombers were sent away from the Island because they could no longer be protected. By January/February 1942 there were hardly any airworthy Hurricanes left on Malta. By this stage of the war, the Hurricane as a fighter could no longer match the Me 109. Up to this point, the Spitfire had never been allowed to be sent outside of the UK, but had been retained for Home Defence. The time had come when this had to change and HMS Eagle was sent into the Mediterranean with the first 12 Spitfires, from 249 Squadron, to be launched for delivery to Malta. Also around this time, 89 Squadron equipped with Beaufighter night fighters were posted to Egypt and were used with great effect against Italian bombers making night raids on the Island.

In August 1942 another set-back occurred when HMS Eagle was successfully attacked by U-73 and sunk by four torpedoes off the Spanish Island of Majorca. This was a great shock and put an immediate stop to aircraft deliveries to Malta. The Island was in a desperate situation. Without these constant aircraft replacements, Malta would be lost very quickly. The German’s were once again building up their air strength on Sicily and along with Italian bombers were subjecting Malta and the supply convoys to intense bombardment and the fighter defence was simply being overwhelmed. Fortunately, USS Wasp, a large carrier, capable of handling fixed-wing Spitfires on board, was relatively close to hand and having put her own aircraft ashore in the UK, she took on board Spitfires and their pilots from 601 and 603 Squadrons, to ferry within range of Malta. Sadly, the first shipment flew off and although arriving successfully (all but one), an immediate air raid destroyed most of the aircraft shortly after their arrival. A second delivery by USS Wasp was quickly arranged. As the delivery pilots landed on Malta and climbed out of the aircraft, everything was ready for them and ground crews promptly re-fuelled and re-armed the aircraft, while experienced pilots jumped in and flew them immediately into battle, with great success. Further aircraft deliveries followed, to the point where Malta at last was well equipped with fighter aircraft and 601 Squadron was posted to North Africa. The Hurricane squadrons continued to fare so badly in combat that they were eventually disbanded.

The siege of Malta still continued and the lifeline of supply convoys was still very tenuous. ’Operation Pedestal’ in August 1942 was one such convoy, that was terribly savaged on-route. You probably already know the story, where the tanker ‘SS Ohio’, carrying precious aviation fuel, was set on fire, but so desperate was the need for fuel that the fire was contained sufficiently for the ship to be secured to escorting warships that pulled it into Grand Harbour, Malta. Only 5 of the 50 ship convoy arrived, but the delivery of the fuel cargo saved the Island.Coincidental with the build-up of RAF aircraft on the Island, was the departure of many German aircraft in support of ‘Operation Barbarossa’, the surprise invasion of Russia, Germany’s supposed ally. By October 1942, the final big raid was made on Malta by the Germans. Suddenly the bombing stopped, due in part to losses, but also due to Germany becoming aware of the concentration of Allied Forces in readiness for ‘Operation Torch’, to retake North Africa. From mid-1943 onwards, the forces on Malta were, at last, able to go on the attack. The siege was over.

Thank you Christopher Shore for a very well-informed presentation on this intense and dramatic period.