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For the 72 Million

Malta in World War II, 1940-1943

Premier Il Duce Benito Mussolini wanted the Mediterranean to be an Italian Lake. When he declared war against a defiant Britain and a defeated France on June 10, 1940, he told his military commanders the war would last four months.

After taking power in 1922, Italy had embarked upon a major defense program, especially her Navy. Wanting to restore the glory of Imperial Rome, Mussolini wanted the Regia Marina, the Royal Italian Navy, to be able to take on the world’s greatest naval power, England’s Royal Navy. By the declaration of war, he did not have a numerically superior force to the British, but he had two battleships completed with another four fitting out; seven heavy and fourteen light cruisers; seventy-three destroyers; and 106 submarines. And soon the British would be committed against the Kriegsmarine in the North Atlantic, and after 1941 against the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Pacific. With the French armistice the Italians were the dominant fleet in the Mediterranean.

The Italian Navy had three critical shortcomings — lack of training and experience, no radar and little fuel. The strategic plan gave all aircraft to the Regia Aeronautica, the Italian Royal Air Force, so the Fleet lacked their own aircraft. Germany began to give the Italians fuel in late 1940.

The United Kingdom Royal Navy had to even the balance of power if they hoped to check the Italians in North Africa. On the night of November 11-12, 1940, torpedo bombers from the UK carrier HMS Illustrious struck the Italian Navy base at Taranto. Using obsolete Fairey Swordfish biplanes nicknamed “stringbags” for the thread used to make repairs in the fabric wings and torpedoes modified to run properly in the shallow harbor waters, three battleships were sunk or damaged. Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto would study this attack closely in planning his attack on Pearl Harbor a year later.

The first job the Italians had was to protect the convoys supplying the Italian Army in North Africa. In a reverse of the Battle of the Atlantic, Italian convoys would be attacked by the British ships and aircraft based on Malta, fifty-eight miles from Sicily. The Italians began intense air attacks. Only four aircraft, obsolete Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters, were available for air defense. A brief surface engagement resulted in the sinking of an Italian cruiser and the Navy was ordered back to port. Malta would be neutralized by relentless air raids.

The Germans sent an entire air corps to Sicily and Italy to attack Malta. Fliegerkorps X was an experienced anti-shipping unit that had fought in Norway and Denmark. 200 bombers and sixty-six fighters were pitted against the beleaguered Maltese defenders.

On January 10, 1941, Ju-87 Stuka dive-bombers hit HMS Illustrious seven times. She survived, but limped into Malta were she underwent more air attacks. Hitler ordered U-boats to operate in the Mediterranean against Dönitz’s wishes after ordering the Afrika Korps into action in February 1941.

In March 1941, the Swordfish attacked the Italian Navy again, this time off Cape Matapan. The Germans asked the Italians to prevent British convoys trying to reinforce Greece. The new battleship Vittoro Veneto was hit, but escaped. Using radar, the Royal Navy sank three cruisers and two destroyers. The Italians did not score a single hit.

The Italians were demoralized. They made attacks on Malta, but could not stop the relentless pounding of their convoys to North Africa. The British based on Malta were wreaking havoc on the German and Italian convoys. 65% of the convoys were destroyed in October 1941. Rommel’s forces were starving to death. Malta had to be put out of action if the war in North Africa was to be an Axis victory. February 1942 saw thirteen raids on Malta in a single night. Axis bombers came around the clock. Operation Hercules, plans the German invasion of Malta, was drawn up.

More Allied aircraft had to get to Malta. Churchill asked Roosevelt for the aircraft carrier USS Wasp to take planes to Malta on April 1, 1942. Roosevelt agreed, and in April and May Wasp delivered 107 Spitfires to the island.

In April 1942, the island was expecting to be invaded. King George VI gave the entire island the George Cross for withstanding air attacks. The Germans called off Operation Hercules, fearing their Italian allies would not be reliable. Rommel objected — he knew the island had to be neutralized if his forces were to survive.

The Royal Navy assembled four carriers, two battleships, seven cruisers, and twenty-seven destroyers to escort a single convoy In August 1942. The fleet was the greatest concentration of British airpower in the Mediterranean to that point in the war. Operation Pedestal was bringing fourteen merchant ships to Malta. Four major air attacks on the convoy left only two cargo ships unscathed. The British lost HMS Eagle and two cruisers. But five precious ships and their cargo made it to Malta.

Thirteen convoys fought their way into Malta under heavy air attack from August 1940 through January 1943. 1,500 Maltese civilians died in air raids.

The Allied landings in North Africa on November 8, 1942 and the second Battle of El Alamein sealed the fate of the Afrika Korps. Bitter fighting awaited Rommel’s men as they retreated to the Mareth Line. The survival of Malta was key in the Allied victory in North Africa.]

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