Text: Michal Krechowski
Due to its strategic location at the crossroads of the shipping lines between Gibraltar and Alexandria as well as Italy and North Africa, Malta became a target of the continuous enemy air attacks. During the WWII, in order to defend the island, the British were forced to constantly deploy more and more fighters and pilots to its “unsinkable aircraft carrier”.
Initially the air defense was provided by the obsolete Gladiators and Hurricanes. The much-desired Spitfires could only be transferred to the island during the spring months of 1942. Newly delivered Spitfires Mk.Vb/Vc ultimately earned their greatest glory defending this extremely strategically important island.
Battle of Malta took place from June 1940 till November 1942 and went down in history as the battle for the “unsinkable aircraft carrier”. In the beginning of the WWII this overlooked Mediterranean island became one of the key spots of the battle for the Mediterranean and the battle of Africa as well as its strategic importance was paramount. The aircraft, submarines and ships operating out of there were able to interrupt the supply routes to the Rommel’s Afrika Korps and in this manner to defend Africa, Suez Channel, and valuable oil fields behind it. It is well known fact that the mistaken political and strategic judgement of the air commanders lead to the situation that in June 1940 there were almost no fighter aircraft based on Malta. Had not four crated Sea Gladiators been accidentally discovered the whole island’s air defense would have been non existing. One of the aircraft was soon heavily damaged and the pilots bravely defended Malta with those three remaining airplanes against the enemy attacks for eighteen days until four Hurricanes arrived as a reinforcement. Consequently, the British, now fully aware of Malta’s importance and its strategic value, started gradually to reinforce the island defense with more Hurricanes.
For the whole year of 1941, Malta had to be defended against the concentrated enemy attacks. The Axis powers bombed the island’s infrastructure focusing on the port, airport and storage facilities. In the meantime, the convoys headed for Malta were mercilessly pursued and destroyed which in fact put the island under the siege. On December 4, 1941, at night the German Luftwaffe launched the continuous bombing which lasted five long months and intended to break the resistance of the Royal Navy and Air Force finally. At the end the plan to invade Malta, code named Hercules, was hastily prepared. The Field Marshall Albert Kesselring was put in charge of the attacks on Malta. His forces were clearly numerically superior over the defenders. The frequent bombing raids destroyed a major part of the British aircraft on the ground and in the middle of February 1942 the defenders were left with only eleven airworthy Hurricanes. At the same time the pressure to re-equip the fighter squadrons defending the island with Spitfire mounted.
Keith Park in his personal Spitfire Mk.Vb at Safi Airport on the occasion of the opening of the new runway on May 15, 1943.
Spitfires over Malta
In the middle of 1941 the Spitfire production in its latest version Mk.V was not yet meeting the Fighter Command squadrons re-equipment requirements therefore the British aviators in the Mediterranean and (later) in the Pacific had to make do with the obsolete types. Only in September 1941 the decision was made to dispatch the first two Spitfire squadrons to North Africa. The transfer started in February of the following year. A portion of these aircraft was re-directed to Malta. After a year and half of the fighting the procedure of the fighters transportation to the besieged island was well established. First the crated, dismantled aircraft were transported to Gibraltar where they were assembled and boarded on the aircraft carrier. After the approach to Malta, the airplanes took off directly from the decks of the aircraft carriers Eagle, USS Wasp (CV-7) or Furious which immediately after turned back. Except of one instance when Eagle and USS Wasp (CV-7) sailed together (Operation Bowery) only a single aircraft carrier sailed to Malta at a time.
In order to get Spitfire airborne off the mere 200 m (660 ft) long flight deck it had to place the landing flaps into the take-off setting. However, the Spitfire’s pneumatically controlled flaps had only one setting – 85 degrees which was actually a breaking setting for slowing down the aircraft during the landing. The solution was quite simple – wooden shims were inserted into the space between flap and wing that prevented the flaps to close and in this rather primitive manner assured some 25 degrees setting. Once Spitfire was safely airborne, the pilot fully dropped the flaps for a moment and the shims fell off. After that he retracted the flaps and continued in cruising flight.
The first fifteen Spitfires were delivered to Malta on March 7 as a part of the Operation Spotter. Two weeks later another nine Spitfires followed (Operation Picket I). In order to increase the transportation capacity, the American aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV-7) was on loan to the Britons. As a part of the Operation Calendar further 48 Spitfires were delivered to Malta. However, very few of the freshly delivered aircraft survived more than several weeks, sometimes they were lost in couple of days after the landing and there were instances when the aircraft was lost on the same day. The intensity of the fighting was tremendous and peaked during March–April 1942. During this period, the tonnage of the bombs dropped on Malta surpassed the bombs tonnage dropped on London during the Battle of Britain.
On May 9, during the following Operation Bowery, another 61 Spitfires were safely delivered. Immediately after the landing, those were refueled, rearmed and took off to counter the anticipated attacks. In the following days the heaviest dogfighting took place up until then and Spitfires inflicted the heavy losses to the Axis powers.
The first Spitfire leaves the deck of HMS Eagle on March 7, 1942. Codenamed Spotter, the operation sent fifteen Mk.Vb Spitfires to the island, which were received by No. 249 Squadron upon landing.
Despite this, Kesselring was convinced that the danger coming from Malta defenders to German supply routes to North Africa had been eliminated and reported to the German High Command that “there is nothing left to bomb”. The invasion of the island was thus postponed, and a substantial part of the Luftwaffe was redeployed in the second half of May to support Rommel’s offensive in Libya. Any further air offensive was thus laying primarily with the Italian Air Force.
The neutralization of Malta continued to be maintained mainly by the naval blockade of the island, where defenders were running low on supplies. The lack of fresh water was unpleasant and food rations were being reduced. Despite this desperate situation, however, Malta was not about to surrender.
When, during June, the Axis forces experienced a resurgence of losses on the supply routes to Africa, a renewed air offensive was ordered. However, the island managed to replenish Spitfire numbers in the intervening time provided during Operations Style and Salient, and so once again the attackers met stiff resistance from the defenders and again suffered heavy losses. During July, the Italian bomber air force was withdrawn from the attacks, and in the second half of the month only German bombers appeared over Malta with a combined Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica fighter escort.
Spitfire Mk.Vb, BP844, the first of nine Spitfires to reinforce the RAF in Malta during Operation Picket I, takes off from the deck of HMS Eagle on March 21, 1942. In its cockpit sits the commander of E Squadron. J. “Jumbo” Gracie. BP844 was shot down over Malta on April 2, 1942.
Spitfire Mk.Vc, BR344, 3oM, during an engine test aboard USS Wasp during the delivery of Spitfires to Malta under the code name Operation Bowery.
Here comes Park
The failure of the renewed air offensive was also significantly affected by the change of the air force high command on the island in mid-July. The command of the air force defending Malta was taken over by AVM Keith Park. Park’s adversary, coincidentally, became Albert Kesselring again. Park had been pitted against him in the Battle of Britain as commander of No. 11 Group. In his new position Park immediately introduced a new tactic, the aim of which was to attack enemy bomber formations over the sea between Sicily and Malta and force them to drop bombs before reaching their target. The change in tactics later proved to be a turning point, as it was very successful and forced the Luftwaffe to stop bombing in daylight. By the end of July, one hundred Axis aircraft had been destroyed, greatly reducing the strength of the bombing offensive. When the enemy then switched to high-flying fighter patrols, Park showed keen tactical insight. He limited the Spitfire patrols to 20,000 feet (6,100 m), so that the Bf 109s had to drop to an altitude where the defenders with Spitfires had the advantage in terms of the performance of their aircraft.
By August, however, the stock situation on the island was critical. The defenders were running out of fuel and other necessary stuff again and if they were not delivered to Malta by September, the island would probably have to surrender. With fuel in short supply, Park was forced to instruct his pilots to save as much as possible. When a Spitfire landed, it did not proceed with engine on. The pilot immediately shut it down and the aircraft was pushed onto its stand. If the plane made an emergency landing, it had to be pushed off the runway immediately, even if there was a risk of further damage, just so that others didn’t have to circle the airfield and waste valuable fuel.
With all this in mind, the convoy of the operation Pedestal was dispatched during August with a hitherto unprecedented supplies load carried by 14 British and American merchant ships loaded with ammunition, aircraft spare parts, fuel and food. They were escorted by 36 warships, including three aircraft carriers. The Axis powers understood the strategic importance of this convoy and responded with a coordinated air and naval attack to prevent it from reaching Malta. Despite significant losses of merchant and escort ships, including the sinking of the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle, sufficient supplies were eventually managed to reach the besieged island. Thus, in late August, three squadrons of Spitfires were able to make a highly effective attack on three Sicilian airfields, in which they shot down ten enemy aircraft and destroyed 29 on the ground with the loss of only two Spitfires.
A Spitfire Mk.Vc is transported by lift aboard the aircraft carrier USS Wasp bound for Malta during Operation Bowery.
An RAF ground crew refuels and rearms a Spitfire Mark Vc from No. 603 Squadron RAF at Ta Kali airfield. The protective wall was raised from empty fuel cans and sandbags.
September became the calmest period of the whole year 1942. The number of attacks on the island dropped significantly, and for the whole month Spitfires took off for only 38 scramble sorties. The important things, however, took place at sea. Thanks to the success of the Pedestal convoy and ample fuel supplies in Malta, British offensive operations aimed at supply routes for Rommel’s “Panzerarmee Afrika” were once again in full swing. While the British were successfully building up supplies in advance of the decisive battle, the Axis forces gradually lost 20 per cent of all supplies sent by sea from Italy during September and as much as 44 per cent of supplies in October. Fuel shortages were particularly critical. It was therefore decided to carry out another bombing offensive against Malta with the aim of re-securing safe shipping routes and eliminating it once and for all.
The offensive, also known as the October Blitz, was launched on October 11, and once again there were “dogfights” between Spitfires Mk.V, German Bf-109F/Gs and Italian C.202s and Re.2001s. However, air superiority over Malta was by then clearly in the hands of the re-enforced British squadrons, while considerable fatigue was already showing on the German-Italian side, as well as frustration and wear and tear from the previous battles. The spectacularly planned October Blitz lasted only seven days and was a clear defeat for the Axis forces. During those days, RAF pilots flew nearly 2,400 combat sorties with their Spitfires, shooting down 99 confirmed enemy aircraft, 51 probably and 122 aircraft damaged with the loss of 24 Spitfires and thirteen pilots. In addition, 40 aircraft were damaged and 13 Spitfires were destroyed on the ground.
In November the number of Luftwaffe raids dropped significantly, with only 29 alerts during the month. With the intensity of hostilities so drastically reduced, Allied convoys bringing essential supplies found it easier to reach the island and also brought material for repairs and airfield construction. Malta’s survival was essential to the victory at El Alamein and the subsequent success of the land battle in North Africa.
So much desired Spitfires therefore ultimately achieved the air superiority over the battlefield and thanks to them Malta held on. Until the middle of November, when the air raids on Malta were recalled, 385 Spitfires were dispatched to Malta during thirteen operations off the aircraft carriers, 367 of them flew over to the island. During the heavy fighting, the Spitfire pilots were credited with at least 600 aerial victories. The most successful of them all, Canadian George “Screwball” Beurling scored 28 confirmed kills.
He was followed in distant second place by “Paddy” Schade with 14 kills, Canadian Wally McLeod with 13 kills and “Slim” Yarra with 12 kills. A total of 41 Spitfire pilots scored five or more kills during the fighting for Malta, earning ace status. Almost one hundred of Spitfire pilots paid the ultimate price during the combat.
Mechanics of the special assembly group at the Spitfire Mk.V at Gibraltar. Behind them the fuselages of Hawker Hurricanes can be seen in their shipping crates. The Special Assembly Group was set up at Gibraltar in July 1942 to assemble and test fly aircraft transported from Britain and destined for Malta. The two earliest Mk.Vb Spitfires, EP720 and EP791, became part of the Operation Train, the last delivery of Spitfires to Malta.
Spitfires Mk.Vb from No. 249 Squadron at Ta Kali airfield, autumn 1942.
After the battle
During the first months of 1943 the air battle for Malta ceased. The defenders won having destroyed more than a thousand of the enemy aircraft in combat. Another sign of the change in the situation of Malta’s defenders was the arrival of new Mk.IX Spitfires at the end of March. The Mediterranean Island was transformed from the besieged base to the “spring board” for the Operation Husky, i.e., invasion of Sicily. On the eve of the operation there were 35 squadrons with 600 aircraft based in Malta. The capacity of the four existing airfields at Luqa, Ta Kali, Hal Far and Qrendi was expanded, and a fifth airfield, Xewkija, was temporarily built for USAAF on the adjacent Gozo archipelago. On July 10, 1943, this operation opened the way to the liberation of the whole continent. In just couple of days, the Allies captured the solid supporting base on the Sicilian soil and soon after the Allied aircraft were transferred from Malta bases to the liberated airfields in Sicily and Southern Italy. Due to these changes the special Malta camouflages became history. Spitfires flew their further missions carrying the standard camouflage patterns only.
A trio of Mk.Vc Spitfires from No. 249 Squadron waiting on the main runway at Ta Kali for scramble, while a Bristol Beaufighter lands in the background.