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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Battle for Malta (1940 - 1943): 'Malta Strikes Back' - Operation 'Husky'

Immediately following the defeat of the Axis forces in North Africa in May 1943, the Allies decided that their next step should be the invasion of Sicily, and once again Malta would play an important role, acting as the springboard for the invasion. Thus, preparations were immediately begun.


The first essential task was to re-establish Malta as an efficient naval base, following the destruction of the previous year. Work was undertaken to restore the dockyard to full efficiency, with bomb damage and machinery being repaired, while most of the wrecks which littered the harbour were cleared. A base for landing craft had to be established, and special repair facilities provided for them.


A large number of landing craft of all shapes and sizes were assembled in Malta's harbours in preparation for the Allied invasion of Sicily

Malta would also be a main base for the landing of casualties, as well as a main fuelling base for warships, with extra supplies of oil, fuel, and coal shipped out to the island for this purpose. All the warships would also replenish their ammunition stocks at Malta, while those that were damaged were to return there for repair.


A problem arose over a shortage of airstrips on Malta from which to support the invasion forces, so it was decided to build one swiftly on Gozo. A strip of cultivated land, skirting the villages of Xewkija, Għajnsielem, Nadur, and Xagħra was chosen, and the local farmers agreed to give up their fields in return for adequate compensation. American construction engineers arrived from Tunisia to carry out the job, bringing with them modern earth-moving machinery which up till then could only have been dreamed of in Malta, and they were assisted by local labourers working around the clock. The work commenced on 8th June, and both runways, as well as dispersal facilities and accommodation for 78 aircraft, were completed by the 22nd, with the first aircraft landing the next day - a truly remarkable feat.


Prior to the assault on Sicily itself, it was decided to capture the nearby islands of Pantelleria, Lampedusa, Linosa, and Lampione. Pantelleria was attacked first. Italian morale was very low, and once the defenders had been pounded by Allied bombing and naval gunfire, they quickly surrendered on 11th June, before any Allied troops could land. The other three islands also surrendered one by one over the next few days.


As a preliminary to the invasion of Sicily, the Allies captured the Italian island of Pantelleria without a fight, after having subjected the defenders to intense aerial and naval bombardments

At 5 am on 20th June 1943, the Rediffusion - the local network over which important announcements were made to the population - announced the impending arrival of HM King George VI on a surprise visit. Following his decision to award the George Cross to Malta, he had decided to come and see the island and its brave people for himself. As soon as news of the visit broke out, every vantage point around the Grand Harbour was crammed with excited people, waiting to catch a glimpse of the King. Flags and portraits of the Royal Family were to be seen all over Malta, and there was loud cheering when HMS Aurora, escorted by four destroyers, neared the breakwater, with the King standing on a specially erected platform on the cruiser’s bridge, saluting.


For a moment, Malta forgot the ugly reality of war; this was a moment to be cherished. The crowds fully appreciated the dangers which their sovereign had had to accept in order to reach their still embattled island, while the King was moved by the warmth of the welcome. For twelve hours on that beautiful, hot summer day, the King and the Maltese shared joy and risk, as the King was taken around the island by the Governor of Malta, Lord Gort, who was himself presented with his field marshal's baton by the King, in recognition of his courage and leadership during the siege. When it was dark, the King reembarked in the Aurora and left Malta by night.


Following his decision to award the George Cross to Malta, King George VI decided to come and see the island and its brave people for himself

In the meantime, preparations for the invasion went on. Malta’s role in the coming battle would be as a gigantic aircraft carrier, right on the enemy’s doorstep. Soon, ships of every kind, British and American, crammed every inlet in Malta’s harbours. Battleships and aircraft carriers returned for the first time since 1941. There were numerous cruisers and destroyers, as well as a large number of landing craft of all shapes and sizes assembled in Sliema Creek. Numerous military tented camps sprouted up all over the island to accommodate the large numbers of troops that were brought in, especially since many barracks had been destroyed by enemy action. Apart from Malta’s own aircraft, many more were assembled on the islands. Bombing raids were made on Sicily in preparation for the assault, and later they would be tasked with providing top cover for the invasion fleet.


This was to be the largest amphibious military operation since the beginning of the war, and it needed to be carefully planned and coordinated. The Allied senior commanders agreed that Malta presented the ideal location for an advanced headquarters for the early stages of the operation. The nerve centre would be housed within the War Headquarters at the Lascaris War Rooms, in Valletta, located in a network of tunnels and chambers deep underground, from where the defence of the island, as well as all offensive operations in the Mediterranean, were directed during the war.


The opening stages of Operation 'Husky' were coordinated from within the War Headquarters at the Lascaris War Rooms, in Valletta

On the night of 9th/10th July 1943, the invasion of Sicily, codenamed Operation 'Husky', was launched, with large-scale airborne and amphibious landings, covered by naval bombardment and air support. This was to be followed by six weeks of fighting, with the capture of Messina on 17th August bringing the campaign to a close. The Allies had managed to achieve their goals; driving Axis air, land and naval forces from the island, and opening the Mediterranean's sea lanes, as well as paving the way for the Allied invasion of Italy.

 

References


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


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


Forty, G. (2003). Battle for Malta. Hersham, Surrey: Ian Allan Publishing.

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