Malta, Central Mediterranean June 11, 1940

On this date in 1940, one day after Italy entered World War II on the side of Axis part­ner Nazi Germany, the Ital­ian Royal Air Force opened a nearly non­stop series of air raids on the Medi­ter­ra­nean is­land of Malta, a British pos­ses­sion since 1800. Benito Mus­so­lini spec­u­lated that he’d be in occu­pa­tion of the island inside three weeks. Lying 50 miles off Italy’s Sicilian coast and 200 miles north of the Ital­ian colony of Libya, Malta was a stra­te­gi­cally cru­cial Brit­ish holding, an “unsink­able air­craft carrier” in the words of Prime Minister Win­ston Chur­chill, whose nation had lost the air­craft carrier HMS Glorious in a battle in the Nor­we­gian Sea two days earlier. (The Royal Navy nearly lost the carrier HMS Illus­tri­ous east of Sicily to Axis air­craft the following year, on Janu­ary 10, 1941, and did lose the HMS Ark Royal on Novem­ber 13, 1941, after the carrier had delivered aircraft to Malta.)

Allied planes and sub­marines based or simply refueling at Malta pre­vented over 60 per­cent of the supplies slated for the Axis North Afri­can cam­paign from getting through. The island’s 16,000-strong garri­son was divided evenly between engi­neers and support person­nel for harbors and airfields and a field force of infan­try and anti­aircraft artil­lery person­nel. German Afrika Korps com­man­der Erwin Rom­mel pre­dicted in May 1941 that unless Malta fell into Axis hands, he and his Ital­ian allies would end up losing con­trol of North Africa. Her­mann Goe­ring’s Luft­waffe and Mus­so­lini’s Regia Aero­nau­tica thus directed special atten­tion to the is­land begin­ning in 1941, flying a total of 3,000 bombing runs over a two-year period in an effort to des­troy Malta’s defenses and sea­ports. In so doing they drove island defenders and civilians underground for years.

Operating from Sicilian and Libyan air bases, the Luft­waffe, taking over the Regia Aero­nau­tica’s unfinished busi­ness, achieved air supe­ri­ority over Malta in the first four months of 1941 just as Rommel’s expe­di­tionary force was being shipped to Libya. Flying through the most concen­trated anti­air­craft fire on earth, the Luft­waffe managed to drop more bombs on Malta in March and April 1942 than it did on Lon­don during the entire Blitz (Sep­tem­ber 1940 to May 1941). Fortu­nately for the Maltese, Allied con­voys were able to supply and rein­force the island, while the Royal Air Force defended its air­space, though at great cost in mate­rial and lives.

On April 15, 1942, King George VI awarded Malta the George Cross, the high­est civil­ian award for gal­lan­try in the Common­wealth, nor­mally awarded to indi­vid­uals, to honor the is­land’s quarter-million inhab­i­tants for their bravery. The Maltese placed their treasured award in the capital’s cathe­dral. Just six months later, by Nov­em­ber 1942, Axis for­tunes were dealt two Allied knock­out blows: a vic­tory at the Second Battle of El Ala­mein in Egypt and Allied Torch landings in North­west Africa. (A contem­plated high-risk, high-cost Italo-German air-sea inva­sion of the island (Opera­zi­one C3), to be staged chiefly from Sicily, never got close to kicking off: it was post­poned in June 1942 and can­celled in July.) Axis atten­tion was quickly yanked away from Malta to the Medi­ter­ranean littoral and the Eastern Front, thus effectively ending the island’s siege.

Axis Siege of Malta, June 1940 to November 1942

Malta in World War II: Bomb-damaged street, April 1942Malta in World War II: Malta-bound British convoy

Left: Service personnel and civil­ians clear up debris on a bomb-damaged street in Malta’s capi­tal Val­letta, April 1942. Beginning in January 1942 Malta became the most heavily bombed place on earth; in two and a half years 14,000 tons of bombs rained down from Axis war­planes, destroying three-quarters of Malta’s buildings. The tiny island (122 sq. miles, or 3‑1/2 times the size of New York’s Man­hattan) lay smack-dab in the center of the Medi­ter­ranean Sea and thus sat at two marine cross­roads: Italy’s sea route south to North Africa and Great Britain’s sea route west to Egypt, the Suez Canal, and its In­dian and Far Eastern pos­ses­sions. Which­ever coun­try held the Maltese ou­tpost could inter­rupt the other’s access to stra­te­gic military and commercial assets both near and far.

Right: Three British cruisers provide es­cort ser­vice for Malta-bound supply con­voys. Heavily escorted con­voys sus­tained the besieged island during Malta’s dark­est hours in mid-1942, a time when Malta had tem­po­rarily ceased to be an effec­tive offen­sive base for the Allies owing to its des­per­ate need of fuel for air and naval forces and food for its mili­tary garri­son and civil­ian popu­la­tion. (Malta’s agricul­tural resources could feed no more than a third of its popu­la­tion.) Small quanti­ties of impor­tant sup­plies were sent by fast warship and submarine during this period.

Malta in World War II: An Italian SM.79 Sparrowhawk attacks a Malta-bound convoyMalta in World War II: HMAS "Nestor" being scuttled, June 1942

Left: A convoy bound for Malta is attacked by an Italian Savoia-Mar­chetti SM.79 three-engine tor­pe­do bomber. The SM.79 was the best-known, most widely pro­duced Ital­ian medium bomber of World War II, with some 1,300 built. Originally designed as a fast pas­sen­ger air­craft in 1936, the SM.79 Sparviero (Sparrow­hawk) became famous and achieved many succ­esses as a tor­pe­do bomber in the Medi­ter­ra­nean Thea­ter, beginning in July 1940. However, Malta-based single-engine, single-seat Glos­ter Gladi­ator bi­planes and Hawker Hurri­canes began taking the shine off the SM.79’s repu­ta­tion, erasing the Regia Aero­nau­tica’s numer­i­cal advan­tage and air supe­ri­ority as more Hurri­canes followed by Spitfires settled in on Malta’s airbases.

Right: The HMAS Nestor sinks after being scuttled on June 16, 1942. The Austra­lian destroyer was part of a Malta convoy of 11 mer­chant ships carrying food, fuel, and sup­plies to the besieged is­land. Having left Haifa in Pales­tine on June 12, the Nestor was heavily damaged by an Italian bomber off Crete. Attempts to tow the ship to base were abandoned.

The Battle for Malta, 1940