Fortress Malta by Nicolas Trudgian Leaping to defence the Maltese port of Valetta from their nearby airfield at Takali come Spitfire Mk VBs of No.249 Squadron, who become entangled with the enemy escort fighters. These include Me109s of JG53 and Italian Air Force Re2001s of 2º Gruppo based in Sicily. Such gallant efforts by the RAF squadrons led them to overcome seemingly impossible odds to protect this vitally strategic island.
Some of the most bitter air fighting of the war took place over the tiny island of Malta. Situated athwart the Mediterranean between Sicily and North Africa, it was ideally placed to allow British forces to interdict Italian supply routes to their army in Libya. But as a corollary, its very proximity to enemy air bases made keeping the island supplied a matter of considerable difficulty. For 30 months, Malta was effectively under siege.
Initially the air defence was minuscule: a handful of Sea Gladiators which were barely able to catch the Italian bombers, reinforced by a few Hurricanes pilfered from the trickle of reinforcements bound for Egypt. It was more than seven weeks before a dozen Hurricanes were flown in from the carrier HMS Argus, to give Malta its first real fighter defence. More Hurricanes followed later in the year but there were never enough.
The nearest Italian air bases were on Sicily, less than 20 minutes’ flying time from Malta. With so little early warning, the British fighters were hard pressed to gain sufficient altitude in time. Fortunately the Regia Aeronautica, or Italian air force, was not a particularly aggressive foe, and until the end of 1940 the scanty British fighter force sufficed. While this was the case, Malta remained home to bombers, warships and submarines, all of which cut a deadly swathe through Italian supply convoys to North Africa.
Early in 1941, circumstances changed with the arrival of the Luftwaffe in Sicily. Attacks on the island now intensified. The Italian fighters consisted of Fiat CR. 42 biplanes and Macchi MC 200 monoplanes, reinforced by a single Staffel of Bf 109Es. The latter, led by high-scoring ace Joachim Müncheberg, wrought havoc among the Hurricanes, which were unable to counter the bombers. Before long Malta had been neutralised as an offensive base. In the late spring, however, the build-up for the invasion of Russia drew off most of the German effectives. This coincided with an accession of air strength on the beleaguered island, and by mid-1941 the unsinkable aircraft carrier was back in business. Axis shipping losses soared, and German and Italian forces in North Africa, starved of supplies, were forced to retreat.
From the Axis viewpoint, this could not be allowed to continue. Once more the Luftwaffe returned in force to Sicily, determined to smoke out the British hornets’ nest. This time the German fighter was the Bf 109F, while the Regia Aeronautica introduced the superb Macchi MC 202. The Hurricanes were totally outclassed, and fought a gallant but losing battle in the sky over the island. The figures tell the story: RAF claims during January and February 1942 totalled 10, against 19 Hurricanes lost.
To redress the balance, 15 Spitfires were flown in on 7 March. They were too few to make much difference, and further small deliveries served only to replace losses. The blitz continued apace, and as in the Battle of Britain, the RAF fighter pilots were ordered to concentrate on the bombers and avoid combat with the 109s.
This was difficult. The total area of the Maltese islands was rather smaller than the Isle of Wight, which allowed the raiders to saturate the area with their fighters. All too often the defenders became embroiled with the patrolling 109s, and failed to reach the bombers. And it was the bombers which reduced the British fighter strength. Serviceability, aggravated by a shortage of spares, kept all too many Spitfires and Hurricanes on the ground, where they were destroyed or damaged by bombs or strafing. Others came to grief while landing on cratered runways while constantly harassed by relays of 109s patrolling the airfield approaches, looking for easy victims.
Odds of five to one, or even ten to one, were quite normal. The consensus of veterans of the Battle of Britain was that the Malta fighting was far more intense. For most the odds were frightening. For a few, the fact that whenever they flew there was no shortage of targets turned Malta into fighter pilot Valhalla.
However, the Malta experience differed from the Battle of Britain in one major respect. Although fighters were in short supply, there was an abundance of pilots, and the usual rota was one day on and the next off. This was just as well; many were debilitated by ‘Malta Dog’, a virulent form of the ‘trots’, not helped by the absence of a balanced diet. American volunteer Reade Tilley praised Lena, the No 126 Squadron Maltese cook, for the number of variations of corned beef that she could devise. And he wasn’t joking.
In an attempt to break the vicious circle, the British ‘borrowed’ the American carrier USS Wasp, to fly off 47 Spitfires in one go. Predictably the Luftwaffe reacted to the challenge, catching many of them on the ground. Raid followed furious raid, and by the end of the month only a handful of defending fighters remained.
The turning point came in May, when Wasp, accompanied by the British carrier HMS Eagle, flew off 64 Spitfires. The lessons of the earlier attempt had been learned; no fighter was worth much on the ground. As they arrived over the island low on fuel, every available machine was up to cover them. Then as soon as they touched down, they were refuelled and rearmed in record time, and taken straight back into the air by veteran Malta pilots. The Luftwaffe, used to dealing with penny packets of defenders, now found its hands full as a large and confusing multi-bogey fight swirled across Malta. The following day again saw the attackers defeated.
Gradually the pace of operations slackened, while more and more Spitfires flooded in, which over the next few months enabled supply convoys to be fought through. Once again the demands of the Western Desert and the Russian Front caused the withdrawal of many German units from Sicily. They were replaced by units of the Regia Aeronautica.
It had always been obvious to the Axis powers that Malta was the key to success in North Africa, but they had signally failed to reduce it by air attack alone. Now, with Rommel’s Deutsche Afrika Korps halted near an obscure place called El Alamein, and his supply lines at the mercy of Malta’s air power, they decided on one last try. A massive Luftwaffe influx of six Gruppen of bombers and three of fighters reinforced the already sizeable Italian contingent, and in October 1942 they struck. Opposed by five full-strength squadrons of Spitfire Vs, in just seven days they lost at least 42 aircraft, three-quarters of which were bombers. Spitfire losses were also heavy, but the raids were beaten off, and the assault finally faded away.
Within a matter of weeks, Axis forces in the desert were in headlong retreat, and a huge Allied landing had taken place at the far end of North Africa. For the Axis forces in the theatre it was the beginning of the end. Never again was Malta threatened, and the unsinkable aircraft carrier became a platform for offensive action against Sicily during the following year.
The most important British fighter type here was the Spitfire V. But whereas in Western Europe the VB was the most widely-used variant, in Malta it was the VC. Whereas the VB was armed with two 20mm Hispano cannon and four Browning machine-guns, the VC arrived with four 20mm cannon. The extra weight increased wing loading, and, with ammunition often in short supply, the usual practice was to leave two of the cannon unloaded, but not always. The extra firepower could be devastating.
Other differences were heavier armour protection, a strengthened main gear leg, and often a Vokes filter beneath the nose. Dust in the Mediterranean theatre of operations was a constant problem, causing excessive engine wear. While the Vokes filter countered this problem, its drag reduced performance, but this had to be accepted. The Spitfire VC was inferior to the Messerschmitt Bf 109F and G in rate of climb and maximum speed, but it was always able to out-turn them.
The two Macchis-the MC 200 Saetta and the MC 202 Folgore. A close contemporary of the Hurricane and Spitfire, the design of the Saetta was hampered by the lack of a really good Italian engine. The only possible choice was the Fiat A. 74 radial, which produced a mere 870hp. Another drawback was an official requirement for the best possible view for the pilot. While this allowed the gun-sight to be kept on target at quite high deflection angles (in both the Spitfire and the 109, at high angles off the target was usually invisible under the nose), the consequence was that the cockpit had to be raised, giving a distinct hump-backed appearance and considerable extra drag.
With these disadvantages, the Saetta could hardly be fast, but it outclimbed and out-turned the Hurricane; handling was excellent, and stability in a high-speed dive was exceptional. As designed it had an enclosed cockpit, but in service the canopy was removed to improve visibility. (Many British pilots liked to fly with the hood open for the same reason.) It was, however, seriously under-gunned, with just two 12.7mm Breda-SAFAT heavy machine-guns mounted in the front fuselage, although the final production model also carried a 7.7mm gun in each wing.
The Folgore was a horse of a different colour. Even as the American Mustang was transformed by the British Merlin engine later in the war, so a developed (and low drag) variant of the Saetta was equally transformed by the German Daimler-Benz DB 601A engine, to become a sleek and racy-looking fighter. Much faster and rather heavier, it retained the excellent all-round handling of its predecessor. Armament consisted of two fuselage and two wing-mounted guns. Allied pilots who flew against the Folgore were impressed with its performance and manoeuvrability.
‘We were too busy fighting to bother about clever tactics!’ This remark, by First World War veteran Harold Balfour, sums up the situation on Malta quite accurately. Heavily outnumbered for most of the time, the defenders could do little other than fly with their heads on swivels and take what shooting chances were offered. This was easier said than done, and the result was almost invariably a large and extremely messy multi-bogey dogfight, in which it was hard to keep track of friend or foe. It was not made any easier by the German penchant for head-on or front quartering attacks, which compounded the difficulties of timely recognition. When they opened fire, it was a trifle late.
A standard ploy was for the British fighters to gain height over the sea to the south of the island, then, when vectored in to attack by ground control, make a fast run in to intercept the bombers. A major problem was that this move was rather obvious, and all too often gaggles of 109s would be lurking up-sun in this area, waiting for the Spitfires to come out to play. Avoiding these while waiting to go in against the bombers was not easy, and all too often the defenders became embroiled with the 109s, and were unable to break away to engage the bombers.
By the spring of 1942, the standard British formation had moved from the ‘finger four’ to fours in line abreast. This was equally good when using the cross-over turn, ensured to a degree that there were no laggards, and when attacking bombers enabled all aircraft to attack simultaneously.