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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Battle for Malta (1940 - 1943): 'Prelude' - The Road to War

Updated: Apr 12, 2023



Since the 19th century, the Mediterranean island of Malta, situated between Sicily and the North African coast, had been a vital way station along Britain's lifeline through the Suez Canal, to India and the Far East.


Malta’s importance increased following the outbreak of World War Two, when, being the only Allied base between Gibraltar and Alexandria, it was ideally located for British naval and air forces based there to attack enemy shipping transporting vital supplies and reinforcements from Europe to the Axis forces in North Africa.


Malta’s proximity to enemy territory meant it was difficult both to defend and resupply the island, but this had to be done at all costs, for as long as Malta’s striking forces were targeting the North Africa-bound Axis convoys, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps could be kept in check. On the other hand, if Malta was eliminated, a flood of reinforcements could be shipped across the Mediterranean, and Egypt, the Suez Canal, and the oil reserves of the Middle East would fall into German hands.

The Axis were also aware of Malta’s importance, and thus a life and death struggle ensued between the stretched defensive forces and the might of the Axis powers, who attempted to neutralise the island through air bombardment and sea blockade.


Malta’s survival against the odds was an inspiration to the rest of the world and was marked by the granting of the George Cross to the island. There is no doubt that the eventual Allied victory, achieved at great cost, was crucial to the Allied success in North Africa, and the subsequent invasion of Sicily. This series of blog posts will tell the story of the Battle for Malta.

 

The Maltese archipelago consists of a group of islands that together occupy only around 316 km². The islands lack any important natural resources - even water is scarce - and the soil is not particularly fertile. Yet despite all this, due to Malta’s location at the centre of the Mediterranean, it has through the ages played a key role in the region’s major historical events.


Malta was always highly attractive to foreign military powers, who knew that whoever held the island held the key to dominance in the Mediterranean. First inhabited around 5,900 BC, Malta was in turn ruled by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese, and Spain. In 1530, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, granted Malta to the Knights of St. John, who made it their home for the next 268 years but only after a heroic defence against the Ottomans during the Great Siege of 1565. In 1798, on his way to Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte captured the island practically without a fight. The British began their involvement with Malta shortly thereafter when they came to the assistance of the Maltese, who had quickly become disillusioned with their French rulers, and the island eventually became a British Crown colony.


Malta's strategic location at the centre of the Mediterranean Sea

Its excellent harbours and its location between Gibraltar and the Suez Canal, on the trade route to India, made Malta extremely important. It became home to the British Mediterranean Fleet, and the Admiralty did much to improve the harbours and dockyard facilities. During the First World War, thousands of casualties from the Gallipoli and Salonika campaigns were treated on the island, which became known as the 'Nurse of the Mediterranean'.


Italy’s expansionist policy during the 1930s further highlighted Malta’s importance, as the island would clearly be key to the Royal Navy’s ability to protect British interests in the region. This was the position that Malta found itself in, as the darkening clouds of yet another war approached, and not surprisingly, it was once again to play a starring role.

 

In 1919, following the end of the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles reshaped the map of Europe with new borders and countries and placed the blame for the war entirely on Germany. Under the treaty, Germany lost parts of its territory and all of its overseas colonies, reparations were imposed, and limits were placed on the size and capability of the country's armed forces.


This was seen as a great humiliation by the Germans, who were left embittered and resentful towards the new Weimar Republic for having accepted such harsh terms. In 1923, the leader of the Nazi Party, Adolf Hitler, attempted a coup d’état against the republic, in what became known as the Beer Hall Putsch. Although it failed, and Hitler was trialled and imprisoned, he gained recognition as a national hero amongst the German population, and the popularity of his party grew.


Although Italy, as one of the victors of the war, had made some territorial gains, Italian irredentists were angered that promises made by Britain and France to secure Italian entrance into the war had not been fulfilled. In 1922, Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party made the famous ‘Marcia su Roma’. The King invited Mussolini to form a government, and the Fascists slowly established a totalitarian regime. They advocated a strong-handed foreign policy, which would make Italy a powerful and respected nation, and recreate the glory of the Roman Empire.


Benito Mussolini

The financial crisis from 1929 onwards caused widespread unemployment and inflation. The lure of a steady job and adequate food led many people to support totalitarian governments like that established by Mussolini. The Great Depression affected Germany tremendously and resulted in an increase in domestic support for the Nazis. In 1933, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, and shortly afterwards he created a totalitarian single-party state, led by the Nazis. Under the new regime, Germany initiated a large rearmament programme and started seeking its own expansion, in an attempt to restore the 'rightful' boundaries of pre-World War One Germany.


In October 1935 Italy invaded Abyssinia, in an attempt to expand its empire in East Africa. This episode in particular exposed the weakness of the League of Nations, an international organization that had been set up after the war to arbitrate international disputes and thereby avoid future wars. The League declared Italy the aggressor but failed to impose effective sanctions. By May of 1936, Abyssinia had been annexed and merged with Eritrea and Somaliland, to form a single colony, known as Italian East Africa.


Mussolini began to lean towards an alliance with Hitler, who in March of that year had remilitarized the Rhineland, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, once again with little response from the other European powers. In October 1936, Germany and Italy formed the Rome-Berlin Axis, and a month later, Germany and Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, which Italy would join the following year.


Adolf Hitler

The Japanese had been harbouring their own expansionist desires. Japan lacks extensive natural resources, and by the time it had the ability to gain its own colonies, much of the Pacific and its resources had been carved up between the Western powers. The largest source of raw material in Asia was China, and Japan was determined to dominate this market. In 1937 Japan invaded China, and by the end of the year had captured the capital, Nanking. However, the Japanese military victories did not bring about the collapse of Chinese resistance, and instead, the Chinese government relocated inland to Chongqing and continued the war.


Back in Europe, Germany and Italy were becoming bolder. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria. This was once again met with little response from the other European powers, encouraging Hitler to press German claims on the Sudetenland, an area of Czechoslovakia with a predominantly ethnic German population. In September of 1938 France and Britain conceded this territory to Germany in the Munich Agreement, against the wishes of the Czechoslovak government, in exchange for a promise of no further territorial demands.


However, in March of 1939, Germany invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia, which led to a change in policy by Britain and France. There was to be no more appeasement. With Poland seeming to be Hitler’s next target, France and Britain agreed to support Poland if it was attacked. Germany and Italy formalised their own alliance with the Pact of Steel. Europe was on the eve of yet another world war.

 

References


Blouet, B. (1972). The Story of Malta. London: Faber & Faber Ltd.

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