Tag Archives: Italy

Malta – the brave island which was awarded the George Cross

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.

THE BRITISH ARMY ON MALTA 1942 @IWM GM946
THE BRITISH ARMY ON MALTA 1942 @IWM GM946

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.

Italian_bombing_of_the_Grand_Harbor,_Malta
Italian bombing of the Grand Harbor, Malta

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.

Bomb Damage Valletta Malta @© IWM A 8701
Bomb Damage Valletta Malta @© IWM A 8701

With_a_strong_anti-aircraft_defence,_RAF_fighters_and_rock-hewn_shelters,_the_islanders_of_Malta_do_not_fear_air_raidsThe 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).

Hoisting_the_red_flag_which,_with_a_siren,_warns_everyone_in_Malta_that_an_air_raid_is_imminent
Hoisting the red flag which, with a siren, warns everyone in Malta that an air raid is imminent

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.’

 

© IWM (GM 1480)
© IWM (GM 1480)

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.

King George VI greets Malta servicemen.
King George VI greets Malta servicemen.

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.

Guardig the cross one year after it was awarded
Maltese ratings of the Royal Navy mounting guard over the George Cross as it is ceremoniously displayed in Palace Square, Valletta, on the first anniversary of the award

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*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.

 

Cavalry, tanks, and a German propaganda coup

The cavalry charge at Krojanty on the first day of the Second World War is widely described as the last cavalry charge in modern warfare. The story goes that the Poles came across advancing German tanks and bravely charged them, pennants flying, sun shining on their swords and lances; an out of date and backward country taking on the mechanical might of a modern army. In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich William L Shirer even described the charge as ‘Horses against tanks! The cavalryman’s long lance against the tank’s long canon! Brave and valiant and foolhardy though they were, the Poles were simply overwhelmed by the German onslaught’; it is an evocative image of the Polish upper class, a well-educated fighting elite, sacrificing themselves in the defence of their homeland against Nazi Germany to the west and the Soviet Union to the east. But is it really true?

charge-savoia-cavaleria
The Italian Savoia Cavalleria at Isbuscenskij, August, 24, 1942, one of the last cavalry charges of WW2

Many may be surprised to know that horses, which had always played an important role in warfare, continued to do so during the Second World War. The German Army still had around 500,000 in 1939, and almost 2.7 million in service by the end of the war; in two months during the winter of 1941-2 179,000 horses died of exhaustion and cold on the Eastern Front. The majority of these horses were used for logistical purposes, but cavalry had not disappeared altogether. Some cavalry units still used lances and sabres, but most were now mounted infantry able to get quickly from one place to another where they would dismount to use more modern weapons such as machine guns, anti-tank rifles, and mortars. There were cavalry units attached to a number of armies – the French, British (particularly the Sikh sowars who led the last British sabre charge of the war on the Burma Frontier), Americans, Hungarians, Russians, Rumanians, and Italians, as well as the Germans and Poles.

In 1939 Poland had 11 cavalry brigades which made up 10% of the army and were intended to be used as mobile reserves, and far from Krojanty being the last cavalry charge there were at least 14 such engagements by the Poles during the first month of the war,* most of them successful. So why is the Krojanty charge so famous and so misrepresented?

Polish Uhlan with anti-tank rifle 1938
Polish Uhlan with anti-tank rifle 1938
Eugeniusz_Swiesciak
Eugeniusz Swiesciak

The action, which was part of the wider Battle of Tuchola Forest, took place near the village of Krojanty on the evening of 1st September 1939. A group of German infantry were resting in the forest and Colonel Kazimierz Mastalerz (who had fought in the cavalry during the First World War and knew from experience that the element of surprise would be vital in any attack) ordered Commander Eugeniusz Świeściak of the Pomeranian Uhlans to initiate a charge in one of the very first engagements of the Second World War. The Germans were unprepared and taken completely by surprise, quickly retreating before the Polish cavalry. But the attacker’s upper-hand was short lived as German armoured reconnaissance vehicles deployed from the forest road and opened fire; as the horsemen retreated Świeściak and a third of his 250 men were killed, Colonel Mastalerz was killed trying to save them. The charge had been successful though in that it slowed the German advance and allowed other units of the Polish army to make an orderly retreat in front of the advancing Germans.

Hitler youth magazine
Hitler Youth magazine perpetuating the story

The following day a number of German and Italian reporters visited the battlefield where tanks had now arrived and were deployed near the dead Polish cavalrymen and their mounts. An Italian Journalist named Indro Montanelli jumped to conclusions and sent a report saying that the Poles had been cut down whilst attacking the German tanks. It would have been easy enough for the Germans to deny this, but they quickly saw the propaganda value of the story and ran an article in Die Wehrmacht, a propaganda magazine in Germany, implying that the charge demonstrated how strong and sophisticated the new German army was and how weak and ill-prepared were her enemies. At the end of the war the story was reinforced by the Soviets to show how the poor Polish peasants had been failed by a decadent aristocratic class. As Germany and Italy had the only reporters to visit the site this propaganda myth continued to be perpetuated even up to the 1990’s.

There seems to have been only one instance of the Polish cavalry charging German tanks, and this happened entirely by accident at Mokra. In the middle of the confusion and smoke of battle Captain Hollak suddenly found himself and his unit riding directly at the flank of a German column, with little choice and before the enemy had time to react he led his men at the gallop through the German tanks and seized the high ground. Two days later Mokra was lost to the advancing Germans.

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The monument to the Wołyńska Cavalry Brigade at Mokra

There were a number of other small cavalry charges in different theatres of the war during World War 2 whilst Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and Mozambique used cavalry into the 1970’s; the Americans used horses in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, and the 61st Cavalry unit is still a part of the Indian Army today.** So the importance of the horse during warfare continues, and the Charge of Krojanty rather than showing a last brave cavalry charge as the past gave way to modern warfare should probably be seen more as an enduring testimony to the power of propaganda.

**(I believe this is the only non-ceremonial cavalry unit in a modern army but would be interested if anyone can tell me otherwise).

*Polish cavalry charges during the first month of the Second World War:

  • 1st September 1939 – the battle of Krojanty
  • 1st September 1939 – against a small group of the 4th Panzer Division in Mokra
  • 1st September 1939 – Polish and German cavalry met at Janów
  • 2nd September 1939 – Polish and German cavalry met at Borowa Góra
  • 11th September 1939 – Polish cavalry attacked German infantry at Osuchowo
  • 11th – 12th September 1939 – Polish cavalry recaptured the village of Kaluszyn
  • 13th September 1939 – Polish cavalry were repelled at Mińsk Mazwiecki
  • 13th September 1939 – A second charge retook Mińsk Mazwiecki
  • 15th September 1939 – A polish charge at Brochów
  • 19th September 1939 – Polish cavalry cleared the way for the army to retreat from Wólka Weglowa
  • 21st September 1939 – A Polish charge halted a German assault at Łomianki
  • 23rd September 1939 – Polish cavalry retook Krasnobród (German cavalry was also involved)
  • 24th September 1939 – A Polish cavalry charge initially halted a soviet advance at Husynne before being stopped by tanks
  • 26th September 1939 – 2 Polish charges forced the Germans to withdraw from Morańce