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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Battle for Malta (1940 - 1943): 'Epilogue' - The End in Sight

Updated: Apr 13, 2023


Crowds gather in Valletta to celebrate the end of the war in Europe following Germany's surrender on 8th May 1945

Following the Allied invasion of Sicily, with Malta now practically out of the front line, the danger of air attack was still not completely over. In fact, a heavy air raid, reminiscent of those of a few months earlier, took place just before dawn on 20th July 1943. Bombs fell over various parts of the island, killing six people and seriously injuring another seventeen. German bombers returned six days later, shortly after midnight on 26th July. Although six bombers were shot down by the anti-aircraft gunners and the night fighters, one civilian was killed in Żabbar. He would be the last civilian to lose his life through aerial bombing in Malta.


Following the capture of Sicily, Luftwaffe air attacks on the island decreased, as the Germans retreated northwards. In fact, between October 1943 and August 1944, there were only eight alerts, which did not result in any damage or casualties. The last 'Alert' would be sounded at 8.43 pm on 28th August 1944, and the final 'All Clear' at 9 pm. More than 1,500 civilians had been killed since the first bombing raids, or roughly one in every 200 of the population.


The last air raid against Malta took place on 28th August 1944. Since the first one, on 11th June 1940, more than 1,500 civilians had been killed, or roughly one in every 200 of the population

The invasion of Sicily had also led to Mussolini’s downfall on 25th July 1943, when, following a drop in popularity and a vote of no confidence from the Grand Council of Fascism, he was forced to resign by King Victor Emmanuel III, who also had him arrested and replaced by Marshal Pietro Badoglio.


The next step for the Allies was the invasion of the Italian mainland, and the British Eight Army landed in the 'toe' of Italy on 3rd September 1943. Badoglio had in the meantime been negotiating with the Allies, and on that same day, the Italian government agreed to an armistice, which was announced on 8th September, already a historic day for the Maltese, as it was also the anniversary of the victory over the Ottoman Turks during the Great Siege of 1565.


Included in the armistice terms was the surrender of the Italian fleet, which was ordered to steam south towards Malta from its bases in Genoa, La Spezia and Taranto. However, the Germans were not prepared to see it go that easily, and on 9th September, the flagship Roma, a Littorio-class battleship, was sunk by German aircraft using radio-controlled bombs, resulting in heavy loss of life.


As part of the terms of the Armistice between Italy and the Allies, the Italian fleet was ordered to sail to Malta and surrender its naval units

The remainder of the fleet hurried towards Malta, escorted by the Royal Navy, with the first ships arriving on the following day. This was of course a moment to savour for the Maltese, and there were huge celebrations on the island, while Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet, proudly signalled the Admiralty:


"Be pleased to inform their Lordships that the Italian battle fleet now lies at anchor under the guns of the fortress of Malta."


By the end of the month, a total of 76 Italian naval units had surrendered at Malta.


During this time, there were a number of VIPs who visited the island, including two of the most important war leaders, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, both of whom had long expressed their wish to visit Malta, so as to see at first-hand how its brave citizens had suffered.


British Prime Minister Winston Churchill arrived on the battlecruiser HMS Renown on 17th November 1943 and visited the naval dockyard and the surrounding areas

Churchill arrived on the battlecruiser HMS Renown on 17th November 1943, while on his way to Cairo and Tehran for a conference with Roosevelt and the leader of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin. Unfortunately, he was ill with a cold and a high temperature for almost the entire time that he was in Malta, but was able to make a visit to the naval dockyard, before sailing on to Alexandria two days later.


Roosevelt flew in on 8th December 1943. He was met by a number of VIPs, including the Governor, Lord Gort, and after addressing the gathering, he presented a scroll bearing a citation, in which he described his admiration for the bravery of the Maltese. After the ceremony, Roosevelt toured the harbour area, before flying back out later in the day. Both of these two great leaders would return to the island in early 1945, along with their Combined Chiefs of Staff, for secret talks in advance of the Yalta Conference with Stalin.


U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt flew in to Malta on 8th December 1943, and presented a scroll bearing a citation, in which he described his admiration for the bravery of the Maltese

In the meantime, the war in Europe raged on. On 9th September 1943, the day after the announcement of Italy’s capitulation, the main Allied invasion force had landed at Salerno, against heavy German resistance. Although there had been a hope that, following the Italian surrender, the Germans would withdraw to the north, this was not to be, as instead they swiftly occupied the rest of the country, setting up a number of defensive lines.


The Germans also had the support of a number of Italian fascists who had remained loyal to them. The Italian Social Republic, a German client state, was set up by Mussolini, after he had been rescued from his prison in a raid by German paratroopers on 12th September 1943. However, following months of bitter fighting, the Allies captured Rome on 4th June 1944.


Following months of bitter fighting, the Allies captured Rome on 4th June 1944. Yet fighting in the north of Italy would continue until May 1945.

Two days later, the Allies landed in Normandy, on the northern coast of France, while on 15th August 1944, another invasion took place on the southern coast of France, with Allied naval units from Malta assisting in the landings. The Germans fell back under the onslaught, and Paris was liberated on 25th August. After that, the Allies continued with their slogging advance through Western Europe, while at the same time, the Russians were advancing from the East, thus closing the circle around Nazi Germany. By late April 1945, the Red Army was at the gates of Berlin.


On 27th April 1945, Benito Mussolini was captured by Italian partisans as he tried to escape into Switzerland. Together with other leading fascists, he was shot the following morning. On 2nd May 1945, the German forces in Italy surrendered unconditionally.


The dead bodies of Benito Mussolini, his mistress Clara Petacci, and other executed Fascists on display in Milan

In the meantime, the Battle of Berlin had also started. Having sought refuge in the Chancellery bunker, the German Führer Adolf Hitler appointed Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz as his successor, and as the Russians closed in, committed suicide on 30th April 1945. Following the capture of Berlin, the war in Europe finally came to an end with the unconditional surrender of Germany on 8th May 1945, leading to huge celebrations in Malta and the rest of the free world.


On 17th July 1945, the Allied leaders met in Potsdam, Germany, to agree on a policy for the occupation and reconstruction of Germany, as well as to plan the final victory over Japan. They demanded the unconditional surrender of all Japanese forces, and after Japan ignored the ultimatum, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August. This resulted in the Japanese surrender on 15th August 1945.


The official ceremony of the surrender of Japan on 2nd September 1945, almost six years to the day from the outbreak of war, finally brought World War Two to a close

The news soon reached Malta, leading to wild rejoicing. The lights had come on again, just as in pre-war years, flags were hoisted on roofs, and balconies were lit up as in 'festa' days. The official ceremony of the surrender of Japan on 2nd September 1945, almost six years to the day from the outbreak of war, finally brought World War Two to a close.

 

References


Vella, P. (1985). Malta: Blitzed but not Beaten. Valletta: Progress Press Co. Ltd.


Zarb-Dimech, A. (2003). Mobilisation in Action. Malta.


Elliott, P. (1994). The Cross and the Ensign. London: HarperCollins.

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