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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Battle for Malta (1940 - 1943): 'Under Attack' - Fliegerkorps X and the Illustrious Blitz

By the end of 1940, apart from their failure to neutralise Malta, the Italians were also faring badly in North Africa. Following an invasion of Egypt in September 1940, their offensive stalled, and in December, the British counterattacked. The Italian 10th Army was destroyed, and the British and Commonwealth Forces captured Cyrenaica. The Germans were forced to dispatch troops to reinforce their allies, in order to prevent a complete Axis defeat.

These forces would need to be resupplied by sea, and the Germans realised that Malta posed a dangerous threat to their supply routes. To counter this, in December 1941, Fliegerkorps X - a veteran formation of the German Luftwaffe that specialised in anti-shipping operations - was transferred from Norway to Sicily, with the aim of attacking Allied shipping in the Mediterranean, and neutralising Malta as a military base.

On 6th January 1941, the Royal Navy launched Operation 'Excess', a series of convoys to send badly needed supplies to Malta and Greece. Included in the strong naval escort was HMS Illustrious, the Royal Navy’s newest aircraft carrier.

HMS Illustrious, launched in 1940

On 10th January, the convoy - well within range of the airfields in Sicily - came under attack from German and Italian bombers, and Illustrious was repeatedly singled out. Hit six times, she was badly damaged, and the crew suffered heavy casualties: 126 killed and 91 wounded. With her steering gear out of action, Illustrious was nursed into Grand Harbour and berthed at Parlatorio Wharf in French Creek, where a huge operation was mounted to save the ship and the wounded.

Surprisingly, during the next six days, the Germans did not return to finish the job, and the dockyard workers operated round the clock to repair the damage. However, this respite was too good to last.

Early in the afternoon of 16th January, the Germans launched their first blitz over Malta, with Illustrious as their target. Junkers Ju 87 dive bombers, known as Stukas, made repeated attacks on the carrier, with the screeching of their air-driven sirens, known as Jericho Trumpets, further contributing to the deafening noise of the explosions, and the heavy anti-aircraft barrage that was put up by the defenders.

Bombs rained down on the dockyard, but only one hit the Illustrious. The brunt of the attack was borne by the Three Cities of Senglea, Vittoriosa and Cospicua, where many people lost their homes and belongings. Many were killed, and hundreds were trapped beneath the rubble of their dwellings.

Bombs rained down on the dockyard, as the Luftwaffe tried to finish off HMS Illustrious at her mooring

The heavy toll was due to the fact that a large number of evacuees had returned to the harbour area as the number of raids by the Italian Regia Aeronautica decreased after the first few months of the war. The greatest tragedy occurred at Vittoriosa, where 35 people were killed when the crypt at St. Lawrence Church, where they were sheltering, received a direct hit.

On 18th January, Illustrious was hit again in another heavy raid, this time being damaged underwater. Repair work on the ship went on, regardless of raids and bad weather, as it was imperative for the carrier to leave Malta. At dusk on 23rd January, she slipped out of Grand Harbour, bound for Alexandria, from where she would proceed to the United States of America for major repairs.

For the Maltese, this episode marked the beginning of a long and harrowing experience. It led to a second exodus of refugees, as once more, hundreds of families decided to move to safer parts of the island.

The Germans now turned their attention to the airfields, which sustained heavy damage, while a number of RAF bombers were destroyed on the ground. The Luftwaffe had been successful in its attempt to protect the Axis convoys resupplying the German and Italian forces in North Africa, who were able to receive the majority of their supplies. However, towards the end of May 1941, in preparation for the German invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece, Fliegerkorps X was withdrawn from Sicily, giving Malta a welcome respite. Instead, the Regia Aeronautica was left to continue its ineffective hit-and-run tactics for the next few months.



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

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