At the beginning of the Second World War Malta was a part of the British Commonwealth and had been at the centre of Britain’s strategic naval planning in the Mediterranean since the early 19th century. In early 1940, it was thought that the island could no longer be the main base for the Mediterranean Fleet because of the threat created by the close proximity of the Italian Air Force. Britain therefore moved their focus to Alexandria in Egypt and left the defence of the western Mediterranean to the French. This worked well until France surrendered to the Germans at which point Britain set up Force H in Gibraltar to maintain a presence there, and to help with the defence of the island of Malta. With the French out of the war Malta was now the only British held harbour between Gibraltar and Alexandria and as such was needed to play a vital role as a base for air and submarine attacks on convoys supplying the Axis forces in North Africa as well as protecting supply convoys to the British forces in Egypt.
Germany recognised the strategic importance of Malta and subjected the island to relentless bombing attacks beginning in earnest in January 1941 with great success. The German plan was to starve the island’s military and civilian populations into submission. By early summer more than 1,500 civilians had been killed and the situation was critical with supply ships regularly being sunk and stocks of food, fuel and anti-aircraft ammunition diminishing rapidly. The situation was becoming critical when the Luftwaffe was re-deployed to Russia in the summer and Malta had a brief respite. British aircraft and submarines based on the island were able to go on the offensive against the Axis supply lines with Malta’s submarines sinking 300,000 tons of Axis shipping in less than three months. In November of 1941 63% of all Axis cargo destined for North Africa was lost which had a huge impact on Rommel’s plans for pushing the British out of North Africa.
In support of the forces based in Malta Churchill set up Force K with a number of cruisers and destroyers which arrived in Valetta on 21st October 1941. Force K had a huge impact in November when they sank an entire convoy of 7 German merchant ships and one of the escorting destroyers as well as damaging 3 others, in that one action Force K cut the Axis supply line by 50% and Tripoli was virtually blockaded. Things were difficult for the German troops in North Africa as Operation Crusader pushed their troops back, regular supply was essential and so replacement merchant ships were sent but these, too, fell prey to Force K with Germany losing over 60% of it’s shipping in the Mediterranean in November. The Axis forces in North Africa were in danger of running out of fuel and their planes could only fly one sortie a day as Rommel was forced to retreat in order to shorten his supply lines.
The British success was, however, short lived as the German aircraft returned to Sicily in December and a second siege of Malta began. As 1941 turned to 1942 the convoys carrying supplies to Malta suffered huge losses of ships and crews – between February and June less than 8% of British ships reached port and unloaded their cargo. The bombing of the island was so intense that civilians were forced to seek shelter in caves and tunnels which they dug into the limestone rock despite the lack of suitable equipment or any skilled miners. The demand for shelters was huge and those that were available were frequently overcrowded. The insanitary conditions inside the shelters led to epidemics of dysentery, typhoid and tuberculosis among an already malnourished population.
In March 1942 a convoy of supply ships made the perilous journey from Alexandria to Malta to try to help the island but only 7,500 tons of the 26,000 tons of supplies which set out actually arrived. During this time Allied air forces were constantly in combat with the Germans losing most of their aircraft – many of them whilst still on the ground. The Germans flew bombing raids against Malta almost every day from 1st January to 24th July (there was only one 24 hour period during that time in which bombs did not fall).
Things were looking bleak for the embattled island until the Luftwaffe was diverted to support Rommel which allowed Malta some breathing space. From a peak of 8,788 sorties flown against the island in April the attacks dropped to 956 in June – in March and April 1942 Axis forces dropped 6,728 tons of bombs on Malta (more than had been dropped on London during the whole of the Blitz), killing 1,493 and wounding 3,764. In recognition of the incredible fight and stoicism of the Maltese people King George VI wrote to the Governor of the island on 15th April 1942 to inform him that he was awarding the George Cross to the island and its people ‘To bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.’
Things began to look up in early 1942 with the arrival of Air Vice Marshall Sir Keith Park who ordered fighter planes to fly out and intercept incoming raids rather than defending over the island and then chasing the raiders away, but supply convoys continued to be at risk. With the supply situation on Malta becoming critical in August the Royal Navy put together one of the major convoys of the war – Pedestal. The convoy left Gibraltar on the night of 9th August and was under almost constant attack for most of the journey – only 5 of the 14 ships which set out arrived in Valletta, the last being an oil tanker, the SS Ohio which although badly damaged limped into port on 15th August. Although the losses were heavy 55,000 tons of supplies were landed. Thanks to Allied victories, including El Alamein, the enemy threat to shipping was reduced and convoys were also able to sail from Alexandria to Malta, this was a turning point with the Allies regaining control of the sea and air, with the arrival of more convoys in November and December the island had enough supplies to last into the new year and the siege was broken. Yet no one knew if convoys could continue, and an island of more than a quarter of a million people needed constant re-supply so starvation rationing continued into the new year.
With the siege lifted the Allies were able to use Malta as a base to launch landings in North Africa in November 1942, Sicily in July 1943 and mainland Italy in September 1943.
The people of Malta had suffered incredibly during the siege which is why George VI awarded the George Cross* to the island in April 1942 and visited the island himself on 20th June 1943. For security reasons no one was informed that he was coming until 5am on the 20th but that was enough time for crowds to gather to meet his ship. Three hours later the King was standing on a specially built platform so that everyone could see him as the church bells rang out to welcome him.
*The George Cross, which is the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross, was instituted by King George VI, on 24 September 1940 to replace the Empire Gallantry Medal. It is intended mainly for civilians but is also awarded to certain fighting services for which purely military honours are not normally given.