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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Battle for Malta (1940 - 1943): 'The Defenders of Malta' - Battle for the Skies

Updated: Aug 2, 2023



By the time Italy entered the war in June 1940, there were still no fighter squadrons to defend Malta. Added to the RAF’s reluctance to send reinforcements to the island in pre-war years, during the summer and autumn of 1940, all available fighter aircraft were being rallied to defend Britain from the Luftwaffe’s onslaught.


In March 1940, the RAF had enquired about the availability of twelve Gloster Sea Gladiators, belonging to the Fleet Air Arm, which had been left behind by the fleet carrier HMS Glorious when she left Malta for the Norwegian campaign and were stored in crates at Kalafrana. Four of them were quickly turned over to the RAF, and a number of volunteers, mainly flying boat pilots used to handling much larger aircraft, were found. The new Fighter Flight was up in the air during the very first bombing raids on Malta.


For the first few weeks of the war, Malta was being defended by a very small number of obsolete Gloster Sea Gladiators

However, the age of the Gloster Sea Gladiator was a cause for concern to its pilots, and it was also considered to be of little threat by the Italians. Furthermore, their pilots had no combat experience. Yet, for months they fought valiantly, bringing down many of the raiders for the loss of only one fighter. Although four aircraft were available at most times, only three were ever in the air, with the fourth being kept in reserve. Ground accidents accounted for two Gladiators during June, and two more were assembled to replace them. In the meantime, bits and pieces of wrecked or unserviceable Gladiators were being used to keep the others flying.


There were a number of airfields on the island. The seaplane base at Kalafrana, built during the First World War, had been the birthplace of aviation in Malta. Just after World War One, the need for a permanent shore base was felt, leading to the construction of Ħal Far airfield, which was officially opened in 1923.


In the 1930s, large tracts of arable land at Ta' Qali were taken over to build the first civil aerodrome. This was inaugurated in 1935 but was found to lack all-year-round facilities, especially since it was prone to flooding after rainstorms. In October 1940, shortly after the outbreak of war, the airfield was taken over by the RAF.


RAF Luqa was opened in 1940

Work on the construction of Luqa airfield commenced in October 1939 and was completed in April 1940. It was the only tarmacked airfield in Malta at the time and had been designed to overcome the bad weather restrictions of the other airfields.


As it became clear to the RAF that these airfields would become a prime bombing target, it was decided to find a way of dispersing the aircraft. The road between Luqa and Ħal Far was converted into a taxiway, which was lined with numerous protective pens for the aircraft. This later developed into Safi airfield, while another site, at Qrendi, also started being developed. Due to the heavy bombings which followed, construction of these two airfields went at a snail’s pace, and they were only finished in 1942 but were to prove vital to the survival of aircraft during severe bombings.


The unexpected arrival of eight Hurricanes in transit to the Middle East on 21st June 1940 provided a significant boost to the defences and to morale. However, they suffered very bad serviceability due to a lack of spares, and as week followed week, the aircraft strength dwindled precariously, and it became imperative to send more fighters to Malta.


This was to lead to a number of operations to ferry aircraft to the island. They would be loaded on board an aircraft carrier at Gibraltar, taken to a point west of Malta within the fighters’ range of the island, and from there, flown off the carriers’ decks to Malta’s airfields. The first such operation took place on 2nd August when the carrier HMS Argus flew off twelve hurricanes, all of which reached their destination.


A number of ferrying operations saw fighters being delivered to Malta by flying them off the decks of aircraft carriers

The success of this operation encouraged the Chiefs-of-Staff to send in another batch of twelve Hurricanes from the same carrier two weeks later. However, this attempt ended in tragedy, as only four of the aircraft reached Malta, while the rest were forced to ditch after running out of fuel.


By the end of 1940, the RAF’s fighter strength in Malta was still quite low. To make matters worse, the arrival of Fliegerkorps X in Sicily tipped the balance of air superiority in the Axis’ favour. Heavy bombing raids resulted in a number of Hurricanes being destroyed on the ground, while most of the airfields were rendered temporarily unserviceable.


Between 3rd April and 12th November 1941, the RAF was reinforced by a large number of Hurricanes, delivered in batches, by the carriers HMS Ark Royal, HMS Argus, HMS Furious, and HMS Victorious. Furthermore, with the departure of the Luftwaffe from Sicily in May 1941, a quieter period in the air war followed.


However, in November 1941, the Luftwaffe returned, with its latest fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf 109F, against which the Hurricanes could do very little. The defenders were now not only outnumbered but also outclassed by German aircraft. The need for Spitfires, which were considered to be superior to the Hurricanes, and seen as the only way to match the German fighters, now became even more apparent.


Malta had to wait until 7th March 1942 for its first batch of Spitfires to be delivered. Two more flights arrived towards the end of the month, but this piecemeal method of reinforcement left little noticeable impression on the Luftwaffe’s attacks.


Further fighter deliveries were essential, but at such a crucial stage, no suitable British aircraft carrier was available, so British Prime Minister Winston Churchill personally appealed to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow the USS Wasp to undertake one of these trips, together with HMS Eagle, on 20th April.


The carrier stayed out of range of the enemy bases in Sicily, but the Germans were carefully monitoring the situation and were able to estimate the time when the Spitfires were to land in Malta. In fact, within twenty minutes of their arrival, the Germans bombed the airfields, destroying twenty and damaging twelve of the 46 newly arrived fighters. Subsequent aerial combat with Messerschmitts took its toll, and after three days, only six or seven Spitfires were left serviceable.


The Supermarine Spitfire was the only British fighter that could truly match the German Messerschmitt Bf 109F

On 9th May, the USS Wasp, together with HMS Eagle, made a second delivery, this time flying off 64 Spitfires. The lessons from the previous delivery had been learned, and elaborate preparations were made to ensure the safety of the new reinforcements, by having them airborne again within the shortest possible time. Their arrival coincided with that of HMS Welshman on the following day, carrying essential supplies, and as the Luftwaffe attempted to sink her, the local defences shot down or damaged 63 enemy aircraft. The ‘Glorious 10th of May’, as it became known, marked the turning point of the struggle for local air superiority.


In the following months, the aerial defence of the island was strengthened further, with more Spitfires being delivered. The quality of the pilots also improved, as most of them were veterans of the Battle of Britain. These daring and gallant men from the Commonwealth and Allied nations fought under extremely difficult conditions, and there is no doubt that they played a huge role in the defence of Malta.

 

References


Caruana, R. J. (1996). Malta George Cross: Victory in the Air. Valletta: Modelaid International Publications.


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

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