Despite the heavy bombings that Malta had to endure, the biggest threat to her survival came from attacks on merchant shipping, which, due to the island’s lack of natural resources, was crucial in order to supply food and fuel to its civilian population and the British garrison.
While Malta’s proximity to Italy and North Africa was an advantage when it came to taking the attack to the enemy, it was disastrous for those desperately trying to relieve the island. The British adopted the convoy system, where a number of merchant ships would be grouped together and provided with a naval escort until they reached their destination. The running of such convoys to Malta was fraught with danger, as during their voyage they could expect to come under attack from enemy aircraft, submarines, fast torpedo boats, and the Italian battle fleet. There are few who would dispute the enormous burden of responsibility carried by the Merchant Navy, without whose massive contribution, Malta simply could not have survived.
The first of many convoys to supply Malta, Operation ‘Hats’, set sail from Alexandria on 29th August 1940. The convoy, consisting of three merchantmen and a close escort, was shadowed by an Italian submarine, and at about midday on 31st August, came under attack from Italian aircraft. One of the ships, Cornwall, was damaged when she received three hits, however, the listing ship, with many dead on board, was able to rejoin the rest of the convoy, which reached Malta on 2nd September.
Operation ‘Hats’ was followed by a series of other convoys from Gibraltar and Alexandria between November 1940 and March 1941, including Operation ‘Excess’ in January, which resulted in the ‘Illustrious Blitz’. However, the amount of supplies delivered by these convoys was relatively small.
Two major convoys were undertaken in the summer of 1941. Convoy Operation ‘Substance’, consisting of six merchantmen and their escort, sailed from Gibraltar on 21st July. It came under attack from Italian aircraft, and one cruiser was hit and a destroyer sunk. The steamer Sydney Star was torpedoed by an E-boat but still managed to make it to Malta with the remaining merchantmen, and 65,000 tons of supplies were delivered.
Convoy Operation ‘Halberd’ consisted of nine merchant ships and their escort. Once again, they came under attack by Italian torpedo bombers near Sardinia, and the transport Imperial Star was sunk, but the rest of the convoy reached Malta on 28th September and delivered 85,000 tons of food, ammunition, and aircraft spares.
Although most material was delivered by sea, aircraft also played a small, yet important role. The British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), then the United Kingdom’s national airline, as well as the RAF, operated a number of services to the island from both east and west, mostly using flying boats, which usually arrived after dark, so as to refuel and take off before dawn.
As it became increasingly difficult for British surface ships to run convoys to Malta, the Royal Navy started using large, fast, minelaying submarines as underwater freighters, to ferry vital cargo from Gibraltar and Alexandria to Malta. This became known as the ‘Magic Carpet Service’.
The supplies delivered by these submarines included ammunition, aviation fuel, food, and medical stores, as well as mail. They installed their cargo in every conceivable space. The submarine HMS Clyde had one of her main batteries removed in order to create a hold for store carrying. Other submarines had external containers welded to their casing. They could each carry about 100 tons of valuable cargo, and while this was but a fraction of the cargo of one full merchantman, it was better than nothing. The supply runs took place roughly once every twelve days, coming in at dawn, discharging their cargo during the day, and leaving again that night.
Heavier units of the Royal Navy also ran the gauntlet to break the blockade. Supply ships such as HMS Breconshire were used for one-ship deliveries. The Breconshire was a converted merchant ship that could carry 5,000 tons of fuel, as well as general supplies. It made numerous solo trips to Malta, mainly from Alexandria, relying on speed and cover of darkness to get through. Other ships used included the fast minelayers HMS Manxman and HMS Welshman. These vessels sustained the island between large convoys and had a significant effect on Malta’s ability to survive.
In spite of all these efforts, the interruption in the arrival of regular supplies inevitably led to shortages. In February 1941 the Government decided to introduce the rationing system, to make food stocks last, and to ensure that everyone got their fair share. Ration cards were issued to each family, and the scheme became operative on 7th April.
Although rationing was at first restricted to sugar, coffee, soap, and matches, more items were gradually added to the list as supplies diminished. The rationing of kerosene, which was widely used as a cooking fuel, became necessary in May. People instead turned to wood, but since there are few trees on the island, the Demolition and Clearance Department were tasked with collecting wood from demolished buildings.
The authorities were very reluctant to ration bread, a staple food for the Maltese. However, as supplies, including wheat, increasingly failed to reach Malta, other ingredients, such as potatoes, maize, and barley, were added to the mixture. As a result, both the appearance and the quality of the bread deteriorated.
By March 1942, Malta had not received a substantial convoy since the previous September, and the situation was beginning to look desperate. On 20th March, convoy MW10, consisting of the freighters Clan Campbell, Pampas, Talabot, and Breconshire, sailed from Alexandria. Escorted by a sizeable force, the convoy was unmolested until the 22nd, when the escorts were engaged by the Italian battleship Littorio and three cruisers. While the escorts kept the Italians distracted, the convoy changed its route and carried on towards Malta.
However, as the ships approached the island, they came under heavy attack from the Luftwaffe. Clan Campbell was sunk twenty miles from harbour, and Breconshire was too damaged to reach Valletta. She was eventually towed into Marsaxlokk Bay by tugs, where she again came under repeated attacks until she eventually rolled onto her side and capsized. She had made a total of seven trips to Malta since April 1941 and was able to make a final contribution when a few hundred tons of oil were pumped from her hull.
The other two merchantmen, Pampas and Talabot, reached the Grand Harbour virtually unharmed, but it was to be in vain. The remarkable unloading arrangements which were to mark the arrival of later convoys had not yet been organised, and for some twelve hours after the ships arrived, not much unloading was done. Then came heavy and accurate air raids, making it impossible to unload the cargo quickly, as the stevedores had to stop and take shelter every time.
Pampas was eventually sunk and she grounded on the bottom, although two of her holds remained intact and much of her cargo was salvaged. Talabot was also hit and set ablaze. Her holds were full of ammunition, and desperate attempts were made to extinguish the fire, but as it started to spread, there was the risk of a tremendous explosion. Dense smoke enveloped Floriana, a large part of which had to be evacuated. Eventually, it was decided to scuttle the ship, in order to eliminate the danger.
Out of 29,500 tons of stores and munitions carried by the four ships of MW10, only just under 5,000 were salvaged. Besides depriving the civilians and the garrison of the long-awaited and badly needed replenishments, this tragedy also dampened the island’s morale. By April 1942, the situation had worsened considerably, with further reductions to the food entitlements and new items being added to the list. On 5th May, the Government even took the drastic decision to ration bread.
Daily calorific intake fell drastically, resulting in the spread of disease, as well as an increase in the death rate among old and weak persons, and the rate of infant mortality. To keep the situation under some measure of control, the Communal Feeding Department had been set up in January 1942, resulting in the opening of a number of Victory Kitchens to provide meals for the population. Families were urged to register voluntarily at the kitchens, bartering a percentage of their ration. In return, they received cooked food, consisting partly of the surrendered portion, and partly of unrationed commodities.
The first Victory Kitchen was opened in Lija on 3rd January 1942, but soon many more mushroomed throughout the island. Premises were acquired in every locality, and efforts were made to furnish them with basic requirements. Dockyard workers manufactured large cooking utensils, and the army offered surplus cauldrons.
Subscribers used to get one meal, either at midday or in the evening. There was a daily menu, varying from ‘minestra’ (vegetable soup), ‘balbuljata’ (an egg and vegetable mixture), tinned sardines and herrings, and goat’s meat. The food was often quite unpalatable and the Victory Kitchens were not popular, but most people had no other option but to make recourse to them. They would remain in operation until improved conditions led to their closure in September 1943.
This blog was first featured on Combat Archives.