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Malta - The Thorn in Rommel's Side

The North African Campaign of World War Two was a back-and-forth struggle which began in September 1940, when Italian forces in Libya advanced upon British and Commonwealth troops stationed in Egypt to protect British interests in the region. Malta’s strategic location, halfway between Italy and the North African coast, meant that the island was destined to play a critical role in this campaign, as it was the perfect place from which to attack Axis shipping heading to Libya. In fact, the North African Campaign was very closely related to that of Malta; whenever the striking forces based in Malta were strong, the Axis forces in North Africa were usually in retreat, or at least short of petrol and supplies; on the other hand, when attacks on the island intensified, Axis fortunes in North Africa improved.

The North African Campaign was often very closely linked to events in Malta

Immediately following Italy’s declaration of war in June 1940, Malta was in no position to be used as an offensive base. The Royal Navy withdrew most of its Mediterranean Fleet to the safety of Alexandria, while due to the RAF’s belief that Malta could not be defended, no aircraft were permanently stationed on the island. However, Malta’s potential eventually started being realised, and a number of bombers were sent to the island for operations against Italy and North Africa.

A number of reconnaissance aircraft were also operating from Malta at this time. Indeed, photographic reconnaissance of the central Mediterranean was the responsibility of Malta-based aircraft from 1940 till the end of 1942. Their main task was to cover a vast expanse of sea, seeking out convoys at sea, or photographing ports from where they were about to set sail. Aircraft from Malta made the reconnaissance of Taranto, as a preliminary to the successful attack by the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) in November 1940.

Reconnaissance aircraft operating from Malta made the reconnaissance of the Italian naval base at Taranto, prior to the attack by Swordfish torpedo bombers of the Fleet Air Arm in November 1940

On 14th January 1941, a number of U-Class submarines arrived in Malta. Due to their small size, they were considered ideal for patrolling and attacking in the shallow waters around Malta. The submarine base was established at the Lazzaretto, a former quarantine hospital on Manoel Island, in Marsamxett Harbour, and commissioned as HMS Talbot. Labourers tunnelled into the rock behind the old hospital buildings to create underground facilities, consisting of engineering workshops and a sick bay. However, there was no protection for the submarines; a project commenced in the mid-1930s to excavate purpose-built pens in the rock face along Marsamxett Harbour had been abandoned due to rising costs.

Malta Force Submarines, later to become the 10th Submarine Flotilla, was given orders to stop all supplies from Italy to Tripoli, and the submarine offensive began in earnest. Over the next few months, these submarines would wreak havoc and destruction among enemy shipping in the Mediterranean, though not without cost, as a number of them perished on patrol.

Operating from their base on Manoel Island, the submarines of 10th Flotilla wrought havoc and destruction among enemy shipping in the Mediterranean

On 8th April 1941, orders were issued for 14th Destroyer Flotilla to join Malta’s striking forces. The four destroyers would soon have their first success, when on the night of 15th/16th April, they targeted a convoy off Cape Bon, sinking all eight enemy vessels, including their three escorting destroyers, for the loss of HMS Mohawk.

In the meantime, the North African campaign had seen the arrival of German troops in the theatre during the previous weeks. Following the Italians’ advance into Egypt in September 1940, the British had launched Operation 'Compass', a counterattack which drove the Italians back into Libya and resulted in the destruction of the Italian 10th Army in February 1941. The Germans responded by deploying the newly formed Afrika Korps, under the command of Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel, in order to prevent a complete Axis defeat. Rommel’s orders were to assume a defensive posture and hold the front line, but, realising that the British defences were thin, he launched an offensive, which by April had pushed the British back to the Egyptian border, recapturing all of Libya except for Tobruk, which was besieged.

Towards the latter part of 1941, offensive operations from Malta gained momentum, as RAF and FAA aircraft bombed and torpedoed Axis shipping, and attacked ports in Italy and North Africa. Mines were also dropped at the mouths of enemy-held ports, while the submarines enjoyed various successes. On 21st October 1941, Force K, consisting of the light cruisers HMS Aurora and HMS Penelope, as well as two destroyers, was formed to operate out of Malta.

The light cruiser HMS Aurora, together with her sister ship HMS Penelope and two destroyers, operated from Malta as Force K from 21st October 1941

Cooperation between the Royal Navy and the RAF was crucial. Particularly important was the work of the Special Duties Flight, which consisted of a number of Wellingtons fitted with air-to-surface vessel radar. They were tasked with tracking Axis convoy movements during the hours of darkness and directing other units to the target. Apart from working in conjunction with other aircraft, they also relayed their information to Force K, which could continue the chase once the enemy was out of range of Malta’s aircraft.

A typical example of this inter-service cooperation occurred in November 1941. The Axis convoys had actually stopped sailing due to their losses, but Rommel’s forces badly needed supplies, and in response to an urgent request, a heavily protected convoy was dispatched. On 8th November, the convoy was discovered by a reconnaissance aircraft from Malta, and Force K immediately put to sea. That night, they attacked the convoy and sank all seven of the supply ships and one of the escorting destroyers. Force K returned to Valletta on the following afternoon, without a single casualty. This unit had become so effective that a further striking force, Force B, arrived to join them on 29th November.

The Italian tanker Minatitlán was one of seven supply ships sunk by Force K in the Battle of the Duisburg Convoy on the night of 8th/9th November 1941

Axis shipping losses throughout November 1941 were particularly heavy. As a result, Rommel’s forces were unable to resist a strong counter-offensive by the British in Operation ‘Crusader’, launched on 18th November. Rommel was forced to withdraw, and the British Eight Army relieved the siege of Tobruk.

Tragedy struck on 19th December 1941, when Force K and Force B ran into a minefield while pursuing an Italian convoy. Damage from the mines sank one cruiser, HMS Neptune, and damaged another, HMS Aurora, while the destroyer HMS Kandahar had to be scuttled. Following this incident, as well as the return of the Luftwaffe to Sicily in December 1941, with Fliegerkorps II mounting heavy attacks on Malta, especially during the Spring offensive and April Blitz of 1942, surface ships were withdrawn from the island.

Only the submarines remained. Their base regularly came under attack, suffering extensive damage. During air raids, the submarines submerged and lay on the harbour bottom, to minimise the risk of damage. Two of them were sunk while underwater in this way, and another was destroyed whilst undergoing repairs. At the end of April, the surviving submarines were also withdrawn to Alexandria. Between January 1941 and May 1942, they had sent to the bottom an incredible 400,000 tons of supplies.

HMS Talbot, the submarine base in Marsamxett Harbour, was regularly targeted by enemy bombers

The RAF had also been forced to withdraw a number of its aircraft from the island during the first half of 1942, as it became impossible to keep them airworthy, and too many of them had been destroyed on the ground. Thus, bombing and torpedo operations virtually ceased. In this period, Rommel was able to receive thousands of tonnes of supplies, as Axis convoys sailed largely unmolested to North Africa, enabling him to move back onto the offensive. By late June 1942, the Axis forces had captured Tobruk and were driving the British eastwards, until Rommel was eventually halted only 70 miles from Alexandria, at the First Battle of El Alamein, in July 1942.

However, with the move of Fliegerkorps II out of Sicily towards the middle of the year, attacks on Malta finally abated, and once again it became possible to station striking forces on the island, with the inevitable effects upon enemy convoys. Once again, enormous losses started being inflicted on Axis shipping, and this was to prove a decisive factor in the battles to come. The Axis were denied much-needed supplies for the Second Battle of El Alamein in late October to early November 1942, which proved a decisive victory for the British, and turned the tide of the war in North Africa, as the Afrika Korps was pushed out of Egypt, and further into Libya.

Attacks on Axis shipping by Malta-based units denied the Axis forces crucial supplies before the decisive Second Battle of El Alamein in late October 1942

On 8th November 1942, Allied forces launched Operation ‘Torch’, landing in various places across French North Africa, thus opening a second front. Tobruk was retaken on 13th November, while Benghazi fell a week later. Throughout this period, Malta-based bombers kept up their attacks on the enemy’s supply lines and military targets in North Africa, in aid of the Allied forces. Force K and Force B, together with the submarines, also played their part, and by the turn of the year, more than half of the ships sailing from Italian ports were failing to reach their destination.

On 23rd January 1943, the British captured Tripoli, which led to great rejoicing in Malta. The Axis forces would soon find themselves trapped in Tunisia, between the recently landed Anglo-American forces to the west, and the British Eight Army pursuing from the east. Malta kept up its attacks on everything sailing southwards, and this denied the enemy any chance of holding out. Cut off from all their supplies, the Axis armies were hemmed in on the Cape Bon peninsula, and the Royal Navy was determined that there should be no evacuation. Rommel was recalled to Germany, while his beloved Afrika Korps was forced to surrender on 13th May 1943, with around a quarter of a million troops taken prisoner. The church bells in Malta rang out for the first time since Italy had declared war in 1940, to celebrate the final triumph of the Allied forces, in which the island had played such an important role.


This blog was first featured on Combat Archives.

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