When Malta started to be affected by the Second World War, the Marfa-Gozo ferry service was gradually reduced from six crossings a week in 1940 to four, and eventually to two in 1941. In 1942, the service was curtailed to two morning crossings a week. On May 6, 1942, one of the ferryboats, the Royal Lady, was bombed in Mġarr Harbour and broke in two. Only the Franco and other small boats continued to operate between the two islands.
In early May 1942 it was decided to send more Spitfires to Malta. Sixty-seven Spitfires were loaded on USS Wasp and HMS Eagle. However, only 62, of which 45 were from USS Wasp, were delivered safely. The launching of these Spitfires, code-named Operation Bowery, coincided with the arrival of HMS Welshman from Gibraltar.
This mine-layer cruiser was disguised as a French cruiser, and managed to enter Grand Harbour carrying vital supplies, which apart from essential foodstuffs included fuel, ammunition and aero-engines as well as 100 RAF technicians to service the newly-arrived Spitfires. Both the warship and the Spitfires reached Malta on May 10.
The Luftwaffe mounted a series of raids to sink the ship in harbour. The German fighters, however, were greeted with three surprises – a highly concentrated anti-aircraft barrage, a large number of Spitfires and, for the first time, a smokescreen over Grand Harbour. There were dogfights all over the sky and Malta’s defences destroyed or damaged 63 enemy aircraft.
The cargo of HMS Welshman was completely unloaded by noon. This day became known as the Glorious Tenth of May.
In his memoirs, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill acknowledged the turning point in the Battle of Malta: “The bombing attacks (on Malta) which had reached their peak in April (1942), now began to slacken, largely as a result of great air battles on May 9 and 10, when 60 Spitfires which had just arrived went into action with destructive effect. Daylight raiding was brought to an end.”
There were 246 air raid alerts on Malta in May; during June they decreased to 169, but during July they increased again to 184. According the Royal Artillery statistics, Axis raiders dropped 628 tons of bombs on Malta, while the figure for June went down to 270 tons. However, in July, Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica bombers dropped 667 tons of bombs on the island.
Before Benito Mussolini’s declaration of war on the Allies on June 10, 1940, a number of Maltese were studying or working in Italy. One of them was Carmelo Borg Pisani, who was born in Senglea, and who had nurtured pro-Italian sentiments since childhood. In October 1936, he was awarded a scholarship by the Italian government to study Art at the Regia Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome. In May 1940, he wrote to Mussolini informing him of his decision to stay in Italy to see Malta’s annexation with Italy materialise.
During the night of May 17-18, 1942, Borg Pisani, using the undercover name of Caio Borghi, was brought to Malta aboard an Italian torpedo assault craft to spy for the Italians. He was landed in a dinghy and headed towards a cave at Ras id-Dawwara, between Dingli and Mtaħleb. However, within two days the sea had washed away all the items he was carrying. Realising his helplessness, he waved and shouted for help and a motor-launch was sent to pick him up.
When he arrived at Mtarfa Military Hospital he was identified by a young doctor and arrested. Borg Pisani was taken to a house at St Julian’s and later transferred to a residence in Sliema, which housed Allied secret service agents, including Italians, Germans and Yugoslavs.
In conjunction with this spying mission, as the Axis powers were preparing to invade Malta, on April 29-30, Adolf Hitler and Mussolini met in Salzburg, Austria, to discuss their Mediterranean strategy. It was decided to take first Tobruk in Libya and then Malta. The island’s invasion, codenamed Operation Herkules by the Germans and C3 by the Italians, would take place only after the British forces in North Africa had been beaten.
In the early months of 1942 the German air force’s Fliegerkorps II mounted heavy attacks on Malta to neutralise its defences and demoralise the population. By May 10, the German commander in the Mediterranean, Albert Kesselring, regarded the task as accomplished andFliegerkorps II started moving from Sicily to North Africa.
On May 26, Erwin Rommel duly attacked, and by June 21 Tobruk was in Axis hands. According to his directive, Rommel should have halted, and the forces should have been reorganised for the invasion of Malta. Instead, Hitler permitted Rommel to continue his advance to the Suez Canal.
This decision is generally considered as the end of Operation Herkules. However, Hitler was reluctant to lose more paratroops, as had happened during the airborne invasion of Crete in May 1941, and alternative plans for the invasion of Malta were drawn up.
The invasion force, under the command of General Student, was to consist of the Seventh Fallschirmjäger (paratroops) Division and the 66th Special Purpose Panzer Company, chosen to deal with the strong anti-tank defences on the island. These tanks were to be landed by barges in Marsaxlokk Bay.
There would be also a Gebirgsjäger (mountain) Division. These troops were to be carried by 500 Junkers and 12 Messerschmitt Me323, 300 DFS230 and 200 new Gotha Go242, 216 fighters as escort and 200 other mixed aircraft.
The Italians were to contribute the Folgore Division and La Spezia Infantry Division. The Regia Aeronautica would supply some 222 fighters plus 470 mixed bombers, while the Regia Marina would contribute five battleships, four heavy cruisers, 21 destroyers and 14 submarines. In total, some 30,000 men were to be made available for the airborne assault, plus a further 70,000 to follow by sea.
To help the Axis invading troops a Centro Militare G was established, consisting of a number of Maltese (living in Italy) and Italians, led by Captain Lamberto Negri. They were to act as guides and interpreters to the Axis invading forces during the invasion.
The landings were planned to be made on the south-west coast of Malta on July 18, 1942, in the area between Wied iż-Żurrieq and Għar Lapsi. The Qrendi airfield and any anti-aircraft positions in the area would be captured and held. However the unexpected capture of Tobruk and Hitler’s permission to Rommel to continue advancing into Egypt led to the shelving of the plan to invade Malta.
In May 1942, the Admiralty decided to send two simultaneous convoys to Malta from both ends of the Mediterranean. The convoy from the west, known as Operation Harpoon, left Scotland on June 4,1942. It consisted of the freighters Burdwan, Chant (American), Orari,Tanimbar (Dutch) and Troilus, joined during the night of June 11-12 by the American tanker Kentucky.
On June 14 the convoy was attacked by the Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica andTanimbar was sunk. Early next morning, the convoy was attacked by an Italian cruiser squadron. As the surviving ships were approaching Grand Harbour during midnight of June 15-16, Orari, HMS Matchless, HMS Badsworth, ORP Kujawiak (a Polish destroyer) and HMSHebe hit mines, but only the Polish destroyer sank.
The Luftwaffe did not attack the two freighters Orari and Troilus in harbour, and in five days a total of 13,532 tons of cargo were unloaded.
The second convoy, known as Operation Vigorous, was less fortunate. The freighters Aagtekirk, Buthan, City of Calcutta and Rembrandt departed from Port Said on June 11; the freighters Ajax, City of Edinburgh,City of Lincoln, City of Pretoria and Elizabeth Bakke (Norwegian) left Haifa the following day, while the freighter Potaro and the tanker Bulkoil left Alexandria on the 13th.
The three branches joined up into one convoy during the afternoon of June 13, north of Tobruk. After suffering several losses in Luftwaffe attacks, and also with the intervention of the Italian navy, the remaining ships turned back to Alexandria. During their return voyage the British also lost the cruiser HMS Hermione, which was sunk by the German submarine U-205.
The failure to sufficiently reinforce Malta deeply worried Churchill. In his words, during June 1942, “in spite of our greatest efforts only two supply ships out of 17 got through, and the crises in the island continued”.
With the failure to reinforce Malta sufficiently, Churchill was preoccupied about the island’s ability to continue to resist Axis attacks. However, as will be seen next week, a large convoy was to be sent to Malta in mid-August 1942, to resupply the island at all costs.
Mr Debono is the curator of the National War Museum at Lower Fort St Elmo, Valletta, where relevant artefacts and information can be seen.
This article first appeared on The Sunday Times of Malta, 19TH August, 2012