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Chapter 3: Malta Under Attack—January to June 1941

See Maps 3 and 5

Map 5

Map 5. Malta, showing airfields in spring 1941

The sea communications between Italy and North Africa were short but they were vulnerable. The importance of this simple fact was obscured from time to time by resounding and compelling events elsewhere, which affected the ability of the British to attack this weak link and that of the Axis powers to defend it. In the first volume of this history there are frequent references to the strategic importance of Malta, to the island’s urgent needs—both civil and military—and to the attempts made from time to time to increase its ability to defend itself and to strike at the enemy. After the fall of France it was only from Malta that naval and air forces could offer any permanent threat to the enemy’s vital sea route to North Africa. But the Chiefs of Staff realized that the result of successful operations of this sort would be to invite heavy retaliation upon the island, culminating perhaps in an attempt to capture it. If Malta was to become a thorough nuisance to the Italians it was first necessary to make the defences strong enough to withstand the consequences.

A scale of defence had been drawn up in 1939, but the general shortage of fighter aircraft, anti-aircraft guns and searchlights made it impossible to attain these numbers even when Italy showed unmistakable signs of entering the war. In July 1940 the Chiefs of Staff decided that the most they could do would be to bring the anti-aircraft defences up to the approved scale by April 1941, and to build up the fighter strength to four squadrons as soon as possible; the date would depend largely upon the progress of the Battle of Britain. Not until October, after the Italians had made their advance into Egypt, did the Chiefs of Staff feel able to make up the fighter strength of Malta to even one squadron and the Glenn Martin reconnaissance aircraft to twelve. During the British offensive in the Western Desert in December 1940 the Commanders-in-Chief made a strong appeal for the air forces in Malta to be strengthened, but the Chiefs of Staff, while fully agreeing with the arguments, could only make a very modest addition.

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It has been seen how the defeat of the Italians in Cyrenaica attracted the attention of the Germans, who felt obliged to support their ally and try to make it impossible for the British Fleet to remain in the Eastern Mediterranean. In January 1941 they began to make violent attack upon Malta from the air, in order to neutralize the island while their own forces were on passage to Tripoli. At this time there were not sufficient means of reconnaissance or enough attacking power at Malta to interfere seriously with these movements. The striking forces that had been regularly available were a few submarines and one squadron of Fleet Air Arm Swordfish. One Wellington squadron of the Royal Air Force, also based on Malta, had taken part from time to time when it was not engaged upon other tasks—such as the attacks on the Italian supply lines to the Albanian front.

The five months from January to June 1941 saw the start and finish of Malta’s first spell of severe bombing by the Luftwaffe, in comparison with which the earlier attacks by the Italian Air Force were almost insignificant; the German air attacks, however, were to become much heavier a year later. It was during the early months of 1941, too, that the limited capacity of Malta’s airfields made it necessary to strike a balance between the fighters needed for self-defence, the bombers for making attacks of all kinds, and the reconnaissance aircraft for gaining essential information about the enemy. Moreover, this problem could not be viewed in isolation, for Malta was not the only claimant for resources during the months from January to June, though she was a very important one. There were also air operations in Greece and the withdrawal in April; the building-up of a new front in the Western Desert; the campaign in Iraq; and incessant naval activity culminating in the withdrawal from Crete. In the present chapter attention is focussed upon Malta, but the background of events in the Eastern Mediterranean must not be lost sight of.

The scale of defence which had been drawn up for Malta in 1939 included four squadrons of fighters, and 112 heavy and 60 light antiaircraft guns with 24 searchlights. Modernization of the fixed coast defences had been in progress since 1937, with the result that the harbour and dockyard were reasonably well protected from sea-borne raids and to some extent from bombardment by ships. For defence against invasion seven battalions of infantry were thought necessary in addition to The King’s Own Malta Regiment. When the Luftwaffe began its attacks in January 1941 Malta had six of the seven battalions, but the air defences fell short of the approved scale by as much as 42 heavy and 26 light anti-aircraft guns, and instead of the four fighter squadrons there was only one.

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Fighters No. 261 Sqn RAF—12 Hurricanes Mark I
Reconnaissance No. 228 Sqn RAF—5 Sunderland flying-boats.
No. 69 Sqn RAF—4 Glenn Martins
Bombers No. 148 Sqn RAF—12 Wellingtons.
Torpedo-bombers No. 830 Sqn FAA—10 Swordfish.

There were three airfields: Hal Far in the extreme south, Luqa overlooking the Grand Harbour, and Takali lying under the high ground in the centre of the island. Between Hal Far and Luqa lay the two landing strips of Safi. The flying-boat base and the equipment and repair depot were at Kalafrana, only a mile from Hal Far. The capacity of the airfields at this time was about five squadrons in all, a figure which allowed for some dispersion on the ground and left room for aircraft reinforcements passing through to Egypt. Possible sites for fresh airfields were few. Much of the remaining level ground was intersected by ravines and even the existing airfields were bordered by rocky outcrops and church towers which limited the length of the runways and increased the hazards of taking off and landing. Machinery for airfield construction was almost entirely lacking. During this period the aircraft were dispersed around the perimeter of the airfields at no great distance from the runways. It was not until June that a network of taxi-tracks was begun which made it possible to disperse over a much wider area, thus gradually increasing the capacity of the airfields.

The air defence of Malta presented an exceptionally difficult problem. The island is so small—it is smaller than the Isle of Wight—that there was no room to give depth to the defence in any direction. It was barely twenty minutes flying time from the enemy airfields in Sicily. In these circumstances fighters and guns, even if there had been more of them, would have been at a disadvantage without an effective warning system, an efficient control organization manned by an experienced staff, and good communication between the fighters and the ground. In all these respects there were some serious weaknesses. The radar equipment was unable to give accurate heights of approaching aircraft and had many blind spots; there was no observer system to report the progress of raiders which had crossed the coast; and the radio-telephone communication between the controller on the ground and the fighter pilot in the air had insufficient range and speech reception was poor. Hence it was not practicable to send the few fighters far from the island and direct them on to enemy raiders. Instead, the policy was to send up the fighters as soon as enemy aircraft were shown by radar to be approaching, and to keep them close to the island. A running commentary of the enemy’s movements was given to the fighter leader, leaving him to search and engage. The disadvantages of this method are obvious, not the least being the difficulty of

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using both fighters and guns when interception took place over the island. At night there was none of the airborne radar aids which were to follow later in the war, and all that could be done was to maintain a single Hurricane on patrol in cooperation with the searchlights, or, alternatively, to leave the air clear for the guns.

The system of anti-aircraft fire used in defence of the principal vulnerable areas was to put up a curtain of bursting shell through which the attacking aircraft would have to fly if they were to bomb the target effectively. Brigadier N. V. Sadler, who had had experience of the anti-aircraft defence of Dover, had only just arrived in Malta; he quickly organized the first of these geographical or ‘box’ barrages just in time to meet the German attack on HMS Illustrious on 16th January. Similar barrages were ready to meet the attacks on Luqa and Hal Far airfields two days later.

The anti-aircraft defences were manned by the 7th and 10th AA Regiments RA, the 4th Searchlight Regiment RA and Royal Malta Artillery1 and the 2nd AA Regiment RMA. For the defence of the Grand Harbour there was also the 30th Light AA Battery RMA(T), manned by workers in the Dockyard, and the guns of any warships which happened to be berthed in the harbour were linked in to the defensive system. The defending fighters usually stood off outside the barrage area and attacked disorganized flights and single aircraft as they emerged from the attack. The expenditure of ammunition mounted rapidly, which, in a besieged island, was a matter for some anxiety. In the seven months from mid-June 1940 to mid-January 1941 the heavy anti-aircraft guns had fired 9,546 rounds and the light 1,098. During the first three months of the Luftwaffe’s attacks the corresponding figures were 21,176 and 18,660, which shows how greatly the number of attacks from low-level had increased.

After the damaged Illustrious had departed for Alexandria on 23rd January 1941, Fliegerkorps X’s first fierce onslaught on Malta abated. Against such a tempting target it had been natural to make a special effort, and indeed ships in harbour always attracted particular attention. But even against the permanent targets, notably the dockyard and the airfields, the scale of attack during the first five months of 1941 was not constant. The chief task of Fliegerkorps X had been laid down in Hitler’s Directive No. 22 of 11th January as the attack of British naval forces and sea communications between the Western and Eastern Mediterranean. It was also to be prepared to support Marshal Graziani’s army by attacking British ports and coastal supply bases in Cyrenaica and Egypt. At the beginning of February, in amplification of these instructions, Fliegerkorps X was ordered not only to

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neutralize Malta but also to protect transports crossing to Africa and to make attacks on the British forces in Cyrenaica. The insistent demands of General Rommel led to more and more units being transferred to Africa, and although the total strength of Fliegerkorps X increased from 243 in mid-February to a peak of 443 (excluding transport aircraft) towards the end of March, it suffered so many losses that it was unable to fulfil all its tasks.

The attacks on Malta in January were made by anything from a single aircraft to formations of sixty bombers and forty escorting fighters. Early in February the Germans changed their tactics, and instead of bombing heavily by day they began to visit the island every night. These night attacks were made by varying numbers, anything up to forty-five Ju.88s and He. IIIs coming over singly and dropping their bombs from high or low level anywhere on the island. On moonlit nights Luqa and Hal Far were repeatedly bombed. On 12th February German single-engined fighters (Me. 109s) first appeared over the island, and for a time daylight raids were made only by them, with the object, no doubt, of neutralizing Malta’s small fighter force. February also saw the beginning of mine-dropping inside the harbours and in the approaches to them. Towards the end of the month the bombers joined again in these daylight attacks and in one day six Wellingtons were destroyed on the ground and four damaged; moored flying-boats were also frequently attacked. After particularly heavy raids on 5th and 7th March Air Vice-Marshal Maynard reported that he was unable to protect the Sunderlands and Wellingtons and with great reluctance felt obliged to advise their removal. Sir Arthur Longmore agreed, and both squadrons left for Egypt during the month.

On 7th March the Governor, Lieut.-General Sir William Dobbie, sent a personal message to the Chief of the Air Staff expressing his concern about the fighter defence of the island. The enemy’s attacks were growing heavier, and he felt that without more fighter aircraft of the best performance Malta would lose its value as a naval and air base. He feared the effects of the continuous strain on fighter pilots and civil population alike. In reply, Air Chief Marshal Portal said that he was fully conscious of the seriousness of Malta’s problem—as witness the order sent to Sir Arthur Longmore directly the Luftwaffe had appeared in the Mediterranean, that his first duty was to provide Malta with an adequate force for its defence. General Dobbie would understand, however, that the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief had a great many commitments. (These had increased since January; Greece is an example.) The amount of help that could be given from home was governed by transportation, but Takoradi would be kept full and the Air Ministry would try to send some Mark II Hurricanes for Malta by the quickest practicable route.

Fighter aircraft had been reaching Egypt via the Cape, cased, or on

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board a carrier to Takoradi and thence along the air route. From Egypt they could, if fitted with long-range tanks, fly to Malta. By far the quickest method for them to reach Malta from England was to fly from a carrier in the western basin of the Mediterranean. The Navy’s aircraft carriers were urgently needed, however, for more essentially naval purposes; at this time many enemy surface raiders, including the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, were at large. Nevertheless the Admiralty’s natural objections to tying up any of their valuable carriers as aircraft ferries in the Western Mediterranean (or on the Takoradi run) were outweighed by their strong desire for fighters to reach Malta in large numbers as quickly as possible. The result was that this method, which had been used twice in 1940, was now called to the rescue.

Meanwhile, the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief had done his best by flying six Hurricanes to Malta from Egypt on 2nd March and a further six on the 14th. A fortnight later the first twelve Mark II Hurricanes promised by the Chief of the Air Staff arrived at Gibraltar in the Argus. The onward passage was, as before, entrusted to Admiral Somerville and the ships of Force H based on Gibraltar. The aircraft were transferred to the Ark Royal, which sailed from Gibraltar early on 2nd April escorted by the Renown, Sheffield, and the 8th Destroyer Flotilla. At 6 a.m. on the 3rd the twelve Hurricanes led by three Skuas were flown off when about 400 miles from Malta, where they arrived shortly after 10 o’clock. This operation was the first of several—all successful—by which during April, May and June 1941 no less than 224 fighters arrived at Malta from carriers; 109 remained on the island and the rest flew on to Egypt in the course of the next few months.

The determination with which the problem of reinforcing Malta was being faced is further illustrated by the attempt made towards the end of April to run Hurricanes through the western basin in an unescorted merchant vessel. It was hoped that if she was suitably disguised and kept as far as possible to territorial waters she might slip through. Unfortunately this ship—the SS Parracombe—struck a mine and sank off Cape Bon. Twenty-one Hurricanes and much cargo for Malta were lost, though many of the hand-picked Merchant Navy crew were rescued and interned by the French.

The weight of bombs dropped on Malta was greatest in April, and the Vice-Admiral, Malta, Sir Wilbraham Ford, had great difficulty in keeping the harbour open in the face of increasing mine-dropping and of nightly bombing raids. The arrival of a further consignment of Hurricanes, Marks I and II, flown in from a carrier towards the end of April, brought the number of serviceable fighters up to over forty. In spite of this increase in strength the results of encounters during the first weeks of May were disappointing. Air Vice-Marshal Maynard

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thought that this was owing to the inexperience of the pilots and to the shortcomings of the Mark I Hurricanes. It is possible, however, that it was as much owing to fatigue. The Air Ministry promised to send out five Flight leaders and suggested that all the pilots of No. 249 Squadron, which was to arrive in the next carrier operation, should be retained in Malta to replace those of No. 261 Squadron who should then proceed to Egypt for a well-earned rest. This transfer took place in May, following the arrival of yet more Hurricanes in operation SPLICE. At about the same time a second fighter squadron (No. 185) was formed. During May, also, some overdue improvements were made in the control organization; an experienced Wing Commander and a staff of Control Officers were sent out from Fighter Command and some up-to-date communication sets for fighter control were provided.

Fliegerkorps X was having its troubles too. It managed to keep up the general intensity of its attacks on Malta until May, but found the task increasingly difficult. Indeed, towards the end of April General Geisler reported to OKL that he could not stand the rate of wastage.2 The duties of sea reconnaissance, protection of shipping, operations against convoys, and support to General Rommel had required the maximum of flying hours often at long range over the sea. The percentage of serviceable aircraft had fallen very low, and the crews were losing their confidence. However, these troubles sorted themselves out, for during May most of the remaining units moved either to North Africa or to Greece, where they replaced units withdrawn to take part in the attack upon Russia. On 4th June the last operational unit left Sicily, and the responsibility for neutralizing Malta and for protecting shipping was handed back to the Italians. Not until the following December was Malta again attacked by German aircraft.

A few figures will help to put the attack and defence of Malta between January and June 1941 into perspective. Estimates of the weight of bombs dropped during the peak month of April varied between 350 and 650 tons, but even the higher figure is low compared with what Malta was to experience in 1942, or with many attacks elsewhere. In attacking Malta the Luftwaffe reported the loss of sixty aircraft and the Regia Aeronautica sixteen during the whole period, or an average of one aircraft every two days. Five German and seven Italian aircraft were recorded as destroyed or damaged on Sicilian airfields. Casualties to British fighters based on Malta during the same period totalled 42; 33 of these—or one every four days—were lost in combat. 36 other British aircraft were destroyed in the same period.

Casualties from bombing were surprisingly low, largely because the first Italian attacks in 1940 had helped the people to understand the problem. During the seven months of Italian attacks from June 1940 to

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January 1941, 98 civilians were killed and 91 seriously injured. In the four-and-a-half months of German attacks from mid-January to the end of May 1941 the figures were 184 and 191. In this second period the damage to buildings was also much greater. It was fortunate that the island consists largely of limestone rock which is easy to excavate and which hardens quickly on exposure to the air. It is so plentiful that it is the normal material for buildings; even the flat roofs are made of it. The two great advantages were that shelters were easily made, and that the houses were almost fire-proof. The Maltese people disliked being bombed as much as anybody. Many of them were able to make their own dug-outs and live in them out of harm’s way in conditions neither comfortable nor healthy. In the more exposed places, such as on the airfields and in the dockyard, the local labour was not always dependable.

Beneath the air battle the people went about their business amid the mounting ruins. The pattern of Malta’s daily round varied little. Work and sleep were constantly interrupted. The rubble was cleared and new shelters were dug. The tiny stone-walled fields were cultivated. Runways were repaired and protective pens for the aircraft were built and rebuilt—a disheartening task which at this time the airmen at each Station had to do almost entirely by themselves. To the antiaircraft gunners life seemed to be one long alert. The work of sweeping for mines of all kinds—magnetic, acoustic and contact—also went on continually. The dockyard carried out repairs and was itself repaired, and gradually its most important shops were moved underground. On rare occasions there were ships to unload—an urgent task, for they always attracted the special attention of the enemy’s aircraft. Throughout it all the noisy bustle of Valletta and the religious life of the people went on. These people, as devout as any in Europe, needed and deserved inspiring leadership. It was well that in the Governor, General Sir William Dobbie, they had a man they could respect and trust.

Soon after the entry of Italy into the war it had been decided to build up an eight months’ stock of essential commodities in Malta by April 1941. Seven months’ stock had been provided before the arrival of the Luftwaffe prevented the programme being completed. In March rationing was introduced. This had not been done sooner because the Government of Malta had thought it best to let the people see for themselves how dependent they were upon the rare convoys for much of their necessities. The quantity of goods issued wholesale by the Government had however been controlled since the beginning of the war, and consequently less had been available in the shops. In this way there had already been cuts in the issues of sugar, fats, tinned meat, milk, coffee, and matches. So the added effect of rationing was small, except to ensure an equal distribution. At the end of May it was calculated that by rigid control the stocks in Malta could be made to

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last until January 1942, with the exception of aviation spirit which at the present rate would last only until September. The ration of kerosene had also to be cut, and as kerosene supplied heat as well as light a reduction meant fewer hot meals for the population.

The first supply convoy since early January was run in successfully on 23rd March. It was to give extra protection on this important occasion that the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief had sent in six Hurricanes from Egypt on 14th March. Any question of offensive action by the Fleet at this moment was ruled out because the move of the Army to Greece had completely absorbed all Admiral Cunningham’s forces. He was nevertheless determined that Malta should get its supplies, and a large portion of the Fleet was temporarily concentrated to give cover to the convoy. This consisted of three ships from Haifa and one from Alexandria with coal, cement, and a mixed cargo of foodstuffs. The convoy was routed to pass close to Crete so that the Fleet Air Arm could give fighter support from Maleme. The covering force and convoy were both sighted by hostile aircraft, and the fact that no attacks followed may be put down to a combination of skilful routeing and low cloud. At Malta, however, the bombing attacks soon began. The Perthshire received a direct hit in the forehold and the City of Lincoln a small bomb on the bridge. But the supplies had arrived, and nearly all were safely unloaded.

The only other convoy to bring general supplies from Egypt during the period of the Luftwaffe’s attacks was run in on 9th May, as described in Chapter 6. In addition, on 21st April, HMS Breconshire, a newly built Glen Line ship of 10,000 tons and 18 knots, which had been commissioned as a supply ship, arrived with petrol and munitions while the Fleet was bombarding Tripoli. From the west small quantities of important cargo were brought in by warships during April and May as opportunity offered, and on 15th May the submarine Cachalot arrived from the United Kingdom with sixteen tons of special stores.

The arrival of the Luftwaffe in the Mediterranean in January 1941 and the attention it immediately began to pay to Malta naturally raised again the possibility of invasion. If this were to happen, it was extremely likely that in addition to attempting landings from the sea the enemy would make use of parachute troops. On 5th February the Governor asked for an additional British battalion, for although he could not assess the probability of invasion he felt that his single reserve battalion was not enough for its many possible tasks, including that of assisting the police if civilian morale should break down. The Chiefs of Staff agreed, but the Prime Minister urged that two battalions should be sent. Orders were given accordingly to General Wavell, whose responsibility did not extend to Malta, and two battalions were brought in from Egypt in three cruisers on 21st February.

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The opportunity was taken to pass out a small convoy consisting of the Breconshire and the Clan Macaulay. The only incident was an unsuccessful air attack on the Alexandria-bound convoy.

The garrison of Malta now included eight battalions in addition to the King’s Own Malta Regiment. These were organized into two Brigades, Northern and Southern, and a harbour Sector. In support were two field batteries RA, and a beach defence regiment RA armed with 3.7-inch and 6-inch howitzers and 18-pdr guns. There was also a special troop of the Royal Tank Regiment, armed with two light and four ‘I’ tanks.

Attention had naturally been focussed upon the need to make Malta safe, and for that reason the measures for its defence have been referred to first. It is nevertheless true to say that the strategic value of the island as a base from which to strike at the enemy’s shipping was never lost sight of. The means were sadly lacking for a long time, but a great deal was achieved during the early months of 1941 towards the systematic improvement of cooperation between the reconnaissance and the striking forces. The targets were ships at sea and in the ports of loading and unloading, as well as the port services. Nor were coastal vessels and the coast roads forgotten. By gun, torpedo, mine and bomb all these were attacked as far as the limited means allowed.

Until February 1941 Allied warships and aircraft had not been allowed to attack at sight any single ships, or small unescorted groups, except within thirty miles of the Libyan coast, or, if the ships were ostensibly Italian, within thirty miles of any Italian territory in the Mediterranean. Enemy ships could therefore use Tunisian territorial waters secure from attack by submarines or aircraft. In order to deprive them of this advantage the British policy for the control of merchant shipping was now amended. From 5th February our forces were given authority to attack at sight any enemy ships, whether escorted or not, south of the latitude of Malta; towards the end of February this permission was extended to include the greater part of the central basin. Moreover, at the beginning of March the Admiralty announced that British warships would enter French North African territorial waters to exercise control of shipping. French ships were warned not to be at sea in these waters between sunset and sunrise.

At this time the normal route for enemy convoys between Italy and North Africa ran round the west of Sicily and close inshore down the eastern Tunisian coast to Tripoli, and occasionally on to Benghazi. To relieve the pressure on road transport some supplies unloaded at Tripoli were moved to subsidiary harbours farther east in small coastal craft, a number of which were sunk or damaged by British submarines. From the western tip of Sicily, if the coast is hugged most of the way,

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the distance to Tripoli is about 400 miles. Fighter escort could not easily be provided for the middle part of this voyage, and it was usual for convoys to do this part by night. The convoys averaged four vessels each, and followed one another at intervals of two or three days. They consisted of German and Italian ships, but German troops and stores were carried principally in German ships. Surface escorts were entirely Italian, and the whole movement was under Italian naval direction.

The transport of the first German troops—the 5th Light Motorized Division—began early in February 1941. By the end of March, when General Rommel made his bound forward, fifteen convoys had reached Tripoli carrying 25,000 men, 8,500 vehicles, and 26,000 tons of stores. By the end of May the transporting of the 15th Panzer Division was complete, and Italian troops, who had been almost entirely crowded out for four months, were again able to move across.

Between February and May nine German ships (31,243 tons) were sunk and nine (54,753 tons) were damaged. If North Tunisian ports could have been used instead of Tripoli the sea passage would have been far safer although the land link would have been much longer. Negotiations with the French Government dragged on for a long time. On 27th May the French agreed to make available the port of Bizerta and the coastal railway to Gabes. In return, the Germans would allow the French to move certain reinforcements to French North and West Africa. The issue then became complicated by the British action in Syria and in the long run the French contrived to avoid making any concessions of any use. This was very fortunate for the British, for if Axis ships had merely had to dart across the Narrows it is difficult to see how they could have been much interfered with. German and Italian Commanders and their staffs saw clearly how grave was the failure to secure this concession, but Hitler appeared to think that it would not do to press the French too hard. All that mattered was BARBAROSSA—the attack on Russia; everything else would come right in the end. No wonder General Rommel was told not to embark upon ambitious projects; the fewer resources that had to be sent to him by this tiresome sea route the better.

At the beginning of April the most pressing of the many anxieties facing the British Commanders-in-Chief was how to bring Rommel to a stop. The steps taken by General Wavell to oppose any further advance have been described in the preceding chapter. Admiral Cunningham had always intended to base a striking force at Malta as soon as the protection from air attack was even moderately good, and when the crisis arose in Cyrenaica he decided to send four destroyers. In sparing these he was leaving himself little margin for screening the

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battlefleet if the Italians should decide to put to sea in spite of their disastrous experience at the Battle of Cape Matapan.3

The 14th Destroyer Flotilla under Captain P. J. Mack (the Jervis, Janus, Mohawk and Nubian ) accordingly arrived at Malta on 11th April to act as a night raiding force. The same afternoon, and the next, they put to sea in the hope of intercepting convoys reported by air reconnaissance and submarines, but without success. One of these convoys was found and attacked by No. 830 Squadron FAA, but no hits were scored and two aircraft were lost.

On the evening of the 15th came news of another convoy and this time the destroyers’ luck was in. Shortly before 2 a.m. on the 16th the convoy was sighted hugging the shoals known as the Kerkenah Banks, which stretch thirty miles to seaward of the Tunisian town of Sfax. Captain Mack steered inshore of the enemy so as to place them between his flotilla and the moon. At 2.20 a.m., when the convoy and its destroyer escort were clearly silhouetted, the Jervis opened fire at a range of 2,400 yards. A general melee ensued at ranges which varied from 50 yards to 2,000. Ships of the convoy—which were German—tried more than once to ram the British destroyers. At 2.50 an ammunition ship blew up. Smoke and flames rose to 2,000 feet, and debris showered down on and around the Jervis. By 3.20 the entire convoy and its escort had been sunk. It had consisted of four German merchant vessels and one Italian (a total tonnage of 14,398) and three Italian destroyers. One destroyer, the Lampo, was subsequently salvaged by the Italians. On the British side the Mohawk was hit by two torpedoes and had to be sunk; the casualties were 2 officers and 39 ratings killed or missing. The German losses were 350 men, 300 vehicles, and 3,500 tons of stores. The German Admiral in Rome, Vice-Admiral Weichold, with some justification, blamed the Italians for not providing a cruiser escort at a time when British surface warships were known to be at Malta.

A week later the 14th Destroyer Flotilla were again searching for a convoy, which they failed to find, but sank a 3,300 ton vessel south of Lampedusa. On 24th April HMS Gloucester arrived at Malta to support the flotilla, and on the 28th the cruiser Dido, the fast minelayer Abdiel, and the 5th Destroyer flotilla arrived from the westward as reinforcements for the Fleet, bringing in men and stores for Malta and anti-tank guns for Egypt. The 5th Flotilla (Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten; Kelly, Jackal, Kelvin, Jersey, Kipling and Kashmir ) remained at Malta in relief of the 14th, which sailed for Alexandria the same evening escorting the Breconshire. The Admiralty had proposed that both flotillas should remain to act against the Tripoli convoys, but the Commander-in-Chief could not accept this in view of the air situation

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at Malta and the urgent need for all available light forces to take part in the evacuation from Greece.

The Gloucester was not to stay at Malta for long. On 2nd May the Jersey, returning to harbour with the 5th Destroyer Flotilla, struck a mine and sank, blocking the entrance to the Grand Harbour. The Gloucester, Kipling and Kashmir were still outside, and were sent to Gibraltar to join Admiral Somerville’s Force H, which was then preparing for operation TIGER—the passage of an important consignment of tanks and cased Hurricanes to Egypt. The Kelly, Jackal and Kelvin, having already entered Malta harbour, remained there until the 9th when they sailed to join the escort of the TIGER convoy. On 21st May, shortly after the completion of TIGER, the 5th Destroyer Flotilla sailed to take part in the operations off Crete and Malta was once again without a surface striking force.

During their short stay the surface striking forces had proved very effective when they were given an opportunity, but it was the submarines which were chiefly responsible for the enemy’s rising losses. During the first five months of 1941 sinkings were shared between the larger submarines, which usually worked in the deeper water, and the ‘U’ class, which kept chiefly to the shallows off the coasts of Tunisia and Tripoli. The results over the whole period are shown in the table on page 58, but two of the successes are worthy of special note. On 25th February the Upright sank the Italian cruiser Armando Diaz, and on 24th May the Upholder, which had already distinguished herself, sank the liner Conte Rosso (of 18,000 tons) after a brilliant and daring attack for which her Captain, Lieut.-Commander M. D. Wanklyn, was awarded the Victoria Cross. All these results were not obtained without losses, and during May the Usk and the Undaunted were lost on patrol.

There was no more satisfactory way of interfering with the enemy’s supplies than to sink his ships, though the mining and bombing of his ports were effective also. A large amount of delay was caused by the mere threat of these dangers. It was later learned that convoys were often held up in North Sicilian ports for days at a time for fear of submarines, destroyers or aircraft on their route. An escorted convoy was known to have turned back when a submarine, which had no torpedoes left, fired star shell to simulate the approach of surface warships. When Italian reconnaissance aircraft reported large movements of the Mediterranean Fleet or of Force H in progress the delay to a convoy was often a week or more.

The effectiveness of the surface and air striking forces, and to a lesser extent that of the submarines, depended largely upon efficient air reconnaissance. It has been seen that in January 1941 the only reconnaissance units in Malta were No. 228 Squadron, with five Sunderlands, and No. 69 Squadron, with four Glenn Martins, later known as

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Marylands. In the second half of March it was decided to move the Sunderlands to Egypt and this left only a handful of Marylands to meet all demands. Although they were more suitable than the Sunderlands for reconnoitring defended areas, it was asking too much of this small unit to cover the Sicilian airfields, the Italian and North African harbours, and the sea routes between, in addition to patrolling Malta and the Ionian Islands. The Squadron received some reinforcements in March, but never had more than seven aircraft, of which three were usually serviceable. In these circumstances reconnaissance could be nothing like complete.

A great deal was learned, however, about the enemy’s shipping lanes and the convoy routine between Italy and North Africa. To enable No. 69 Squadron to reconnoitre Tripoli and the Sicilian ports twice a week, and Naples once a week, it was arranged for No. 39 Squadron at Matruh to take over responsibility for the patrol line to the Ionian Islands. This it did by flying a shuttle service Matruh–Zante–Malta, and return. Three new Marylands joined No. 69 Squadron early in May and some Hurricanes were adapted for photographic reconnaissance duties. From then onwards there were rapid improvements, and it was not long before more targets were being reported than the striking force could deal with.

At this time the need was being felt of fighter cover for many other activities in the Mediterranean besides the defence of Malta; for example, the Inshore Squadron running in men and supplies to Tobruk, the convoys to Greece, and the surface forces operating from Malta. The one aircraft carrier with the Fleet could not be everywhere at once, and, as it was, she was having to embark fighters to the exclusion of reconnaissance and strike aircraft. The possibility was therefore considered of using long-range fighters working from shore bases, of which Malta would be one. But this would introduce a fresh competitor for space on the airfields at Malta, where not less than two squadrons would be needed. When not being used as long-range cover these would contribute very little to the defence of the island, because they would be outclassed by the enemy’s short-range fighters. On the whole it seemed better to retain the aircraft which could bomb and lay mines, and accept the restriction that the surface striking force, with no fighter cover, could operate only at night.

It was for a totally different reason that on 1st May a detachment of thirteen coastal-type Beaufighters of No. 252 Squadron flew to Malta via Gibraltar. They were sent for the specific purpose of giving long-range protection to the Parracombe and to the TIGER convoy, while Malta’s Hurricanes covered all shipping within a 40-mile radius of the island. After the TIGER operation had been successfully completed, the Air Officer Commanding, Malta, was most anxious to keep the additional aircraft, and the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief supported

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F.A.A.him. He went further and expressed the view that night-fighter type Beaufighters would pay a good dividend over Sicily. The Air Ministry agreed that the Beaufighters could be kept for the time being, but before they could be used in the proposed way the impending attack on Crete led to their being switched to the attack of Greek airfields. Using Malta as their base they carried out a successful operation against airfields in Greece on 16th May, but on their return next day the lack of spares, maintenance troubles, and the congestion on the airfields resulted in four being sent home and the remainder being moved to Egypt at the end of the month. At the same time other Beaufighters for the Middle East began to pass through Malta, but their role was defined as protection of the Fleet in the eastern basin; they were not to be retained for attacking the enemy’s lines of communication.

In mid-April it had been decided to strengthen the air striking force by the addition of some Blenheims whose crews were experienced in operating over the North Sea. The first of these—six aircraft from No. 21 Squadron—arrived on 27th April, and an account of their activities is given in Chapter 14. Between January and June it was the Wellingtons of No. 148 Squadron and the Swordfish of No. 830 Squadron FAA which made the air’s chief contribution towards the disruption of the enemy’s supply line. The Swordfish were among Malta’s oldest air inhabitants, having arrived in June 1940. All this time they had been attacking shipping at sea with torpedo and bomb, and from April 1941 onwards they were used increasingly for laying mines in the harbours of Tripoli and Benghazi and their approaches.

It has already been told how the heavy German attacks on Hal Far on 5th and 7th March led to the decision to withdraw the Wellingtons to Egypt. Nevertheless, the activities of General Rommel soon made it necessary to accept the risk of basing them again in Malta, for it was essential to attack Tripoli, and without the use of El Adem airfield the Wellingtons could not reach Tripoli from the east. First six and then nine Wellingtons were therefore sent back to Malta, and between 13th and 20th April Tripoli harbour and shipping were attacked five times. The attack on the night of the 20th/21st was followed by a dawn bombardment by the Mediterranean Fleet, which is described in {.chapter06 Chapter 6}. When, at the end of April, room was needed at Malta for the Blenheims, the Wellingtons were once more withdrawn to Egypt. Wellingtons again made sorties from Malta on several occasions before the end of May, but these were aircraft which Air Vice-Marshal Maynard was permitted to use for only one or two sorties as they passed through on their way to Egypt.

Mention should here be made of an operation which necessitated sending five of No. 148 Squadron’s Wellingtons away to Egypt between 8th and 21st February to make room in Malta for eight

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Whitleys of No. 78 Squadron from Bomber Command. On 10th February these dropped 38 officers and men of the 11th Special Air Service Battalion in Southern Italy to demolish an important aqueduct. The object was partially achieved, but none of the party escaped to be picked up by submarine as intended. This was the first British airborne operation and much was learned from it. Coming when it did, with Italy stunned by her immense losses in Cyrenaica, it probably helped to lower Italian morale still further: if the British had begun to use parachutists, where might they not appear?

The table below shows the losses caused to enemy shipping carrying men, and stores from Italy to Libya during the five months January to May 1941. Their effect upon the Axis forces in Cyrenaica is referred to in Chapter 8. Many other enemy ships were accounted for in the same period by submarines and aircraft based on Malta, but the table includes only those lost while engaged on this particular traffic. If these losses were not yet a dominant factor in the ebb and flow of the Desert campaign they were nevertheless considerable. More than half the total tonnage was sunk by submarines, for aircraft had not yet succeeded in sinking many ships, though they had damaged several in this area, either in harbour or at sea, totalling some 50,000 tons. Surface forces had shown what they could do if given the chance, but both they and the air striking forces required the cooperation of enough air reconnaissance to find the best targets for them.

Number and tonnage of Italian and German merchant ships employed in carrying supplies to North Africa sunk at sea or at the ports of loading or unloading.*

Compiled from Italian post war and German war records

Month By Surface Ships By Submarine By Aircraft By Mine In other ways Total
January Nil 3—10,587 1—3,950 Nil Nil 4—14,537
February Nil 2—3,495 Nil Nil 1—2,532 3—6,027
March Nil 3—10,194 Nil Nil Nil 3—10,194
April 7—17,904 2—2,892 Nil 1—2,575 Nil 10—23,371
May 2—3,463 6—33,867 1—1,533 Nil 2—8,644 11—47,507
TOTAL 9—21,367 16—61,035 2—5,483 1—2,575 3—11,176 31—101,636

* This table does not include ships beached as a result of damage and subsequently put into service again, although some were out of action for months.

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Over the same period shipping losses from all causes in the whole Mediterranean amounted to some fifty ships of over 500 tons and about the same number of small coastal vessels, totalling in all some 200,000 tons.

From mid-January onwards Malta’s air defences had been severely tested and her striking power greatly hampered, but by the end of May both were stronger than they had been at the beginning of the Luftwaffe’s attacks. It may well be asked why the enemy made no attempt to capture the island. The fact is that, in addition to ordering that Malta was to be neutralized while German troops were being transported to North Africa, Hitler had taken into account the possibility of capturing it. As early as 15th February he directed a study to be prepared, and a month later it was ready. It required a minor part to be played by the Italian Navy; in all other respects the undertaking was to be a German one, in which the main formations would be Fliegerkorps X, 7th Air Division (a parachute division), and 22nd Infantry (Air Landing) Division. By this time the centre of German interest in the Mediterranean area had shifted to Greece, and proposals for the capture of Crete were being considered by Göring and Hitler. These were approved on 21st April, which led automatically to the postponement of the Malta plan, for the same forces were wanted for both. After the capture of Crete the Germans were in no shape to undertake a second operation of the same type, and the withdrawal of most of their forces for the attack on Russia caused the Malta plan to be shelved, for it seemed that the Italians alone would never achieve the necessary air and naval supremacy. The plan was revived the following year in a different form.

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