Malta & Its Role in World War II: A Crucial Fortress Island

A tiny island Archipelago in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta played a crucial role in the Second World War.

Jan 19, 2024By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma
malta world war ii

 

A tiny archipelago of three small islands in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta seems an unassuming point of interest for any major role in world history. This, however, couldn’t be further from the truth. Malta was strategically placed and played a vital part in the British war effort in North Africa and as a base for disrupting Axis efforts in the Mediterranean.

 

As a result, Malta was a constant focus of British and Axis attention. Without this fortress island, the war would have taken a very different course. This is the story of Malta in World War II.

 

A Base of Operations in the Mediterranean

malta mediterranean map
Malta’s position in the Mediterranean. Map supplied by the author using Google Earth.

 

In the first few months of the war, it was unclear where the conflict would lead. The fighting was confined to Europe, but within a year, Italy had joined the war, along with its colonies of Somaliland and Libya.

 

Sitting in the Mediterranean Sea and wedged directly between Sicily and Libya, Malta was an obvious target for the Axis and an opportunity for the Allies. Originally assumed to be indefensible, the British began to put serious effort into turning Malta into a powerful stronghold that had a chance to withstand the Axis assault that was sure to come.

 

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However, with the focus of Germany on Britain and the skies over the British Channel being in flames, the War Cabinet had few options for fortifying Malta. Only six Gloster Gladiator biplanes were stationed there. Most of the Royal Air Force was needed at home to fend off the German Luftwaffe.

 

The Italians Enter the War

gloster gladiator biplane
A Gloster Gladiator. Source: BAE Systems

 

On June 10, 1940, Italy entered the war on the side of the Axis. Almost immediately after, the first of many bombs would be dropped on Malta. A total of eight raids were conducted on the first day.

 

Opposing the Axis in the air were the six old Gladiators aircraft. Only three of these aircraft could be put in the sky at any point in time. Parts were cannibalized from each aircraft to service the others, and what was actually six aircraft was seen by the populace as three. They were named “Faith,” “Hope,” and “Charity.” They were slow but performed well and boosted the Maltese morale as their intrepid pilots gave all they got, scoring victory after victory against the Italians.

 

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Malta suffered from intense bombing during the war. Source: Times of Malta

 

Within a few months, virtually all the land surrounding the Mediterranean would be in the hands of the Axis. If Malta fell, the British bases at Alexandria and Gibraltar would be cut off from one another.

 

Italian plans to invade the islands, however, were scuppered after the Battle of Taranto in November 1940 when the Royal Navy soundly defeated the Italian fleet and put much of the Italian Navy out of action. The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini realized that if he was going to suppress Malta and the Royal Navy operating out of the islands, the key to victory was air power. The Germans realized this too, and the Luftwaffe became heavily invested in bombing Malta into submission.

 

For the Italians, the situation was not great. Large naval operations were ruled out, as problems with fuel supply meant virtually all the oil available was being redirected to the Germans in their preparations and subsequent war against the Soviets. Erwin Rommel and his North Afrika Korps would suffer the same fate as the Italians in this regard. Despite the Royal Navy having the upper hand in this regard, the growing Axis air power meant the British ships were in constant danger whenever they ventured out, and so British morale was heavily affected.

 

Nevertheless, the British Navy’s continued presence emboldened Malta’s populace, and the Maltese people stood firmly in defiance of the Axis attacks, which turned their towns into rubble.

 

The Beginning of 1941

antonio beltrame la domenica del corriere
Italian troops in Cyrenaica advancing towards Egypt by Antonio Beltrame. Source: Meisterdrucke

 

With the failure of the Italians in North Africa and the Mediterranean, Hitler deemed it necessary for the Germans to intervene. The oilfields of the Middle East were the main targets, and securing the Mediterranean was a vital stepping stone in securing these vital resources.

 

With British and Commonwealth victories against the Italians in North Africa, the Germans launched Operation Sonnenblume and managed to drive the Allies all the way back to Egypt. The logistical complications of operating in Africa were a concern, and the Germans dispatched the Luftwaffe Fliegerkorps X to Sicily to strike at Malta and destroy the British ability to disrupt German supply lines in the Mediterranean.

 

Operating out of Malta, the British had a difficult time intercepting Axis supply ships. This was mainly due to the thousands of sea mines placed by the Italians around Malta, effectively blockading it. Malta also needed to be resupplied, and on January 6, 1941, the British launched Operation Excess, in which a series of convoys led by the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious were sent to break through the Axis blockade and get supplies to the beleaguered Malta.

 

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The cruiser HMS Southampton which was sunk on January 11, 1941. Source: Boot Camp & Military Fitness Institute

 

As the convoy sailed within range of the Luftwaffe bases, Stuka dive bombers took to the sky and swarmed in over the British ships. From the British perspective, the operation should not have been launched. It was far too risky, especially with the meager support that the RAF could offer. Through a breakdown in information channels, the British Admiralty had not been informed of the proximity of Luftwaffe bases near the convoy. Had they known, it is doubtful the operation would have been launched.

 

Losses were heavy. The Illustrious was severely damaged, and the light cruiser HMS Southampton was so badly damaged that it had to be scuttled. However, the convoy did get through to Malta. German losses were light, and the British realized that in the future, supplying Malta would have to be done piecemeal with light cruisers at best. Malta would have to make do with what they had.

 

Luftwaffe Superiority, Malta Digs in

ju 87 stuka dive bombers over malta
Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers over Malta. Source: Times of Malta

 

In the following months, the Luftwaffe held complete superiority in the air, and the RAF was losing Hurricane fighters faster than they could replace them. With air raids happening daily, morale was low on Malta, and all men between the ages of 16 and 56 were conscripted into the volunteer workforce. Food rationing caused the already flagging morale to drop even lower.

 

Allied forces did score a victory in April when the British Navy managed to intercept an Italian convoy headed for Libya. The Battle of the Tarigo Convoy saw several Italian vessels sunk along with their cargo headed for Libya.

 

The British also needed to supply their forces in North Africa, and a flotilla of ships was accumulated in Malta for this purpose, successfully managing to escort cargo ships across the Mediterranean to the strategically vital port of Alexandria in Egypt.

 

The Axis bombing of Malta continued, and the islands’ towns were severely hit as the British focused on defending military targets. As a result, most of the Maltese left the towns and cities for the countryside. Two-thirds of the population of the capital of Valletta fled their homes, and the city became the single most bombed place on Earth.

 

hurricane malta broken
A damaged Hawker Hurricane making contact with the Maltese soil. Source: World War Photos

 

In April, the Germans invaded Yugoslavia, and in May, the Luftwaffe concentrated its power on the invasion of Crete, which, although a victory, was costly for the German Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers). The experiences during the invasion of Crete suggested the Germans would not try the same tactic on Malta, and the Maltese felt a bit safer knowing an airborne invasion was unlikely. The hardships, however, would continue.

 

In June, the bulk of the Luftwaffe forces left the Mediterranean in order to take part in Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. However, the Italian forces and the token German force that was left were still highly effective.

 

On June 1, Air Vice Marshal Keith Park took over operations on Malta and immediately set to work repairing the damage and getting Malta ready to be able to conduct offensive operations. Malta was the only base in the Mediterranean where air operations could be conducted against German forces in North Africa, and as such, Park took his job very seriously.

 

Despite losses, convoys continued to arrive in Malta. Stockpiles of supplies were built up, and aircraft continued to arrive, bolstering the RAF’s capability. Amid the buildup of forces, the Italians and Germans continued their raids, but the redeployment to the Eastern Front had sapped their ability to carry out round-the-clock bombings. Malta was able to weather the storm and build up a sizable force that could go on the offensive.

 

hms urge submarine
British submarine based out of Malta, HMS Urge. Source: Royal Navy

 

In the second half of 1941, the British started causing significant losses to Axis shipping with air attacks and naval operations, including the use of submarines. Fifty to sixty percent of the much-needed cargo headed to North Africa to reinforce the Afrika Korps and its allies was lost.

 

With the victory of the RAF in the Battle of Britain, aircraft were released for other theaters of the war, and by December, over 700 fighters had been brought to Malta, with 500 of them being shipped off again to take part in the Allied war effort in North Africa.

 

As a result, the British offensive in the North African desert, Operation Crusader, was a complete success, and the Allies managed to check Rommel’s potential for complete victory.

 

The Allies were not without losses, however. They also had to run the gauntlet of supplying their troops in North Africa, and many ships, including a battleship and a carrier, were lost to mines and U-boats. And by December, the Luftwaffe returned in significant numbers to the Mediterranean, taking advantage of the clear skies.

 

1942: Shifting Fortunes

malta theatre destroyed
The aerial bombing on April 7, 1942, left the Royal Opera House (Teatru Rjal) in Valletta in complete ruins. Source: Times of Malta

 

With the return of Luftwaffe operations to the Mediterranean, the British successes were curtailed, and furious battles in the air saw hundreds of aircraft being shot down on both sides. By the end of January, however, only 28 RAF fighters remained on Malta, while the number of Axis raids increased, and the number of Luftwaffe aircraft rose to several hundred. The inferiority of the Hurricane fighters against the German Messerschmitt Bf 109s was a major factor, reducing the morale of the pilots, as well as the other defenders. Things would change in March, however, as Spitfires started arriving.

 

Axis successes continued for the next few months, including the destruction of Allied naval assets, most notably 19 submarines. Nearly 100% of the Axis supplies were getting through to their troops in North Africa.

 

It took considerable time to build up enough Spitfires and Hurricanes to challenge the Axis forces for air superiority, and many of the new arrivals were quickly dispatched as they were completely outnumbered. By May, however, the tide had turned, and the RAF wrested control of the skies from the Luftwaffe.

 

malta ship explosion
A ship subjected to an air raid off the coast of Malta. Source: Times of Malta

 

Despite regaining air superiority, Malta was still suffering. The Maltese people and the defending forces were facing starvation as supplies dwindled. A major supply operation in mid-June attempted to rectify the situation, but amid bombardments from the Italian Navy, the convoys suffered heavy losses, and only two of 17 ships made it through.

 

In August, another convoy was sent; this time, only five of 14 ships managed to get through. This last convoy, known as Operation Pedestal, was a turning point, and it saved Maltese morale from complete collapse. It was highly likely that without the supplies that got through, Malta would have capitulated.

 

With the resupply of Malta and the buildup of the RAF, Malta was again able to go on the offensive. Submarine and air operations crippled Axis shipping over the next few months.

 

Starved of fuel, Rommel’s Afrika Korps was forced into an impossible position and eventually defeated at El Alamein from October 23 to November 11. This battle, along with the Battle of Stalingrad, represented a turning point in the war.

 

With air and naval superiority, further Allied convoys were able to get through to Malta, and the “siege” was lifted. Malta was saved and would serve as an important staging point for Allied landing operations in North Africa, Sicily, and the Italian mainland.

 

There is no doubt that Malta served an incredibly important purpose in the Allied war effort. Without the stubborn resistance of the Maltese defense and the offensive operations that its vital location offered, it is probable the Axis would have won in North Africa.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.