MALTA’S HISTORY AND DEFENCE

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Matteo Perez D’Aleccio’s painting of the Turkish assault on the Post of Castille (21st August, 1565)

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Map of Malta by Johan Jacob Muller dated 1743-90

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Knights of St. John.

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Knights of St. John.

Malta’s history has been one of occupation by other countries in order to gain an advantage within the Mediterranean for economic and military importance. Ever since earliest recorded times Malta has been looked upon as “the navel of the inland sea”, long providing a natural bridge between Europe and Africa. Malta has been inhabited since as early as 4000 B.C. By 218 B.C. it was ruled by the Roman Empire. During the period of Roman control it is said that Saint Paul was shipwrecked on the island in A.D. 59 and converted the population to Christianity. The Romans remained in control of Malta, or “Melita” as they called it, until it was taken over by Arabs in A.D. 870 The Arabs held the island until 1091 when the Norman ruler of Sicily defeated them. With the Arab defeat Roman Catholicism was reestablished. During and after the Middle Ages the island again gained importance within the Mediterranean. The Ottoman Empire attempted to capture the islands from the Knights of St. John, who held Malta for close to 270 years, in the Great Siege of 1565. During this siege the Knights held off the Turkish fleet from May to September of that year. The Knights would continue to hold the islands until surrendering them to Napoleon and the French in 1798. Britain would next blockade Malta and then occupy the island in 1800.

Malta’s location in the central Mediterranean Sea made it as important strategically as Gibraltar was to the British. Gibraltar controlled access to the Mediterranean Sea. Malta, however, was able to provide the British with the ability to control access to three seas; the Western Mediterranean, the Adriatic, and the Aegean through the Eastern Mediterranean. Because of Britain’s naval strength it was able to influence the strategic actions of the three powers that bordered the Mediterranean; France, Spain, and Italy. As long as Great Britain possessed Malta and Gibraltar it would be the dominant sea power in the Mediterranean.

Malta had been the most important British naval base in the Mediterranean since its capture from the French. It possessed a dry dock and complete repair facilities capable of handling the largest ships in the service of the Royal Navy. It also had ample equipment reserves and resources, sufficient to maintain the British Mediterranean Fleet that was based at Malta and which, between World War I and World War II, was second in strength only to the Home Fleet. The security of the base, symbolized by the presence of up to four battleships and their attendant cruisers and destroyers anchored in Grand Harbour, seemed unshakeable until the mid-1930s.

After the Ethiopian crisis of 1935, it became increasingly clear to Britain that Italy could not be relied upon to remain a friendly power. With Italian airbases in Sicily, the Regia Aeronautica was only twenty minutes flying time away from Malta. And it should be recalled that in the mid-to-late 1930s, Italy had what was considered to be a first-class air force, given the standards of the time. The British War Cabinet concluded that the threat of aerial bombardment jeopardized the security of Malta to such an extent that in July 1937 the cabinet decided to develop Alexandria as the main base of the Mediterranean Fleet. In the middle of 1936 the Italian Consul-General was expelled for organizing espionage and subversion and thereafter Italy appears to have abandoned any further attempts at spying or sabotage. From this point the British took measures to increase the security of the island base.

In July 1939, the British Committee of Imperial Defense authorized an increase of antiaircraft defenses for Malta. The Army and Royal Air Force protested that it was a waste of money and equipment to try to improve the air defenses of a fleet base that was so obviously vulnerable. Following a technical evaluation, the Committee decided to base four fighter squadrons on the island, along with 112 heavy and 60 light antiaircraft guns, supported by 24 searchlights. In April 1939, Malta was one of the first overseas bases to receive a new Radio Direction Finder (RDF)–as radar was then referred to.

Nevertheless, Malta was practically defenseless in June 1940 when the war commenced in the Mediterranean and could have easily been taken by Italy, who had just declared war on Great Britain. Very few of the authorized increases in the defense had been delivered. The searchlights had arrived, but only 34 of the heavy guns and 8 of the light ones. None of the fighter squadrons were on hand. Manning the coastal and antiaircraft batteries were the men of the Royal Malta Artillery and the King’s Own Malta Regiment. A few days before Mussolini declared war, Admiral Cunningham sent the old monitor HMS Terror to La Valetta, Malta’s main harbor, to add its guns to the defense. Thus Italy’s failure to capture Malta in a coup de main at the outset gave the British an opportunity to reinforce the base. The consequences of this failure on the part of Mussolini became more and more evident as the war progressed.

On Italy’s entry into the war Italian residents and some pro-Italian Maltese were interned and there was no sign of any fifth column activity or resumed espionage until May 1942. In that month Carmelo Borg Pisani landed on the southeast coast in an Italian E-boat with a wireless radio set, maps, money, and instructions to report to Italian naval intelligence on British operational movements, morale, and food supplies. Pisani was immediately captured by a patrol from the 1st Dorsets. He was handed over to military intelligence and later executed in November 1942 as a spy. After this the Axis made no further attempts to land spies.

For centuries prior to the Second World War Malta was a strategic island. It is relevant to see what the strategic situation was for each of the significant powers in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. These powers are defined as the countries of Great Britain, Italy, and Germany. Each had different goals at the strategic level, and therefore each had a different view of Malta and how it would impact their strategic and operational conduct of the war.

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