The importance of Malta

Spitfire bound for Malta

 

“Either, sir, we get the Spitfires here within days, not weeks, or we’re done. That’s it.”
Sqn/Ldr Stan Turner to AOC Sir Hugh Lloyd about the situation on Malta

The outcome of land fighting was determined by a supply war, in which the main front was the Mediterranean Sea. Control of the convey routes over the sea, the three main ports and the supply lines linking the ports to the front were crucial for success in North Africa.  Control of these channels required air supremacy; this demanded the island of Malta.

Malta was a significant military and naval fortress, being the only Allied base between Gibraltar and Alexandria, Egypt. It was a linchpin in the British Empire overseas—a vital way station along Britain’s lifeline, through Egypt and the Suez Canal to India and the Far East. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, in command of Axis forces in North Africa, recognised 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. It was one of the most intensively bombed areas during the war. The Luftwaffe and the Italian Regia Aeronautica flew a total of 3,000 bombing raids over a period of two years in an effort to destroy RAF defences and the ports. Success would have made possible a combined German—Italian amphibious landing (Operation Herkules). Despite strong urgings from Rommel, it was never carried out. In the end, Allied convoys were able to supply and reinforce Malta, while the RAF defended its airspace, though at great cost in material and lives.

Keith Park arrived in Malta in  July 1942 as AOC.  He brought his Battle of Britain experience to bear and within weeks he was able to turn the tide for the besieged island. With plenty of Spitfires to operate, Park sought to intercept the enemy and break up his formations before the bombers reached the island. Up until this point, the Spitfires had fought defensively. They scrambled and headed south to gain height, then turned around to engage the enemy over the island. . Using three squadrons, Park asked the first to engage the escorting fighters by ‘bouncing them’ out of the sun. The second would strike at the close escort, or, if unescorted, the bombers themselves. The third was to attack the bombers head-on.

The impact of Park’s methods was instant. His Forward Interception Plan, issued officially on 25 July 1942, forced the Axis to abandon daylight raids within six days.

However, without adequate aviation fuel, ammunition and other vital supplies, the might of the Spitfires would soon be silenced. Operation Pedestal took place in August 1942; this epic attempt to run some 80 ships past bombers, minefields and u-boats has gone down in military history as one of the most important British victories of the Second World War – though at a cost of more than 400 lives.

Many of the attacks were against the SS Ohio, an American oil tanker essential to the mission’s success. Waves of bombers targeted her and the Ohio was finally torpedoed on 12 August before then being caught by two more bombs the following day.  Although crippled, she did not sink immediately, giving the forces one last chance to bring her in. HMS Ledbury, working with other warships, came alongside. With sheer determination, the ships succeeded in propping up the Ohio and towing her into port before she could be hit again. Her vital cargo was offloaded and the Allies defense of Malta continued.

Rommel’s position became critical. He was starved of his supplies while the British reinforced their lines in Egypt, prior to the Second Battle of El Alamein.

In December 1942, air and sea forces operating from Malta went over to the offensive. By May 1943, they had sunk 230 Axis ships in 164 days, the highest Allied sinking rate of the war. The Allied victory in Malta opened the door for the the eventual Allied success in North Africa.

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