April 1942 was called l-April tat-Tnejn u Erbgħin by the Maltese because the death and destruction which occurred during this month remained in their mind for many years. The heavy attacks carried out by the German air force, the Luftwaffe, during this month were part of the assault, which became known as the April Blitz 1942, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring’s plan to neutralise Malta’s ability to attack Axis convoys on their way to North Africa. Charles Grech recounts: “The first day of April 1942, happened to be Wednesday of Holy Week, when special functions are held in church, marking the start of the religious ceremonies…
“When I arrived at the junction of St Mary Street with St Trophimus Street (Sliema), where there is a niche dedicated to St Mary, Fort Manoel’s guns engaged the enemy. I looked skywards to see whether anything was visible. I saw a Ju-88 approaching from the direction of Valletta, at a height of about 3,000 feet. I wanted to run for cover but I had no time so I remained where I was, clinging to the wall. I did not dare move from where I was, lest I would be machine-gunned. I saw the aircraft releasing two bombs above the submarine base at Manoel Island…”
The Maltese gunners manning the coastal and anti-aircraft guns drew widespread admiration for their dogged determination to defend their homeland. Attacks on the island grew in intensity and on Easter Sunday (April 7), the Luftwaffe carried out 10 air raids.
One of these caused the destruction of one of Malta’s architectural jewels. During the fifth air raid alert of the day, which lasted from 5.55 to 7.18 p.m., an aerial bomb hit the Royal Opera House in Valletta, demolishing it partially; debris blocked the railway tunnel shelter close by. Memè Cortis remembers that day:
“But eventually the noise subsided and the All Clear rang out. As they clambered up the steps, their first sight was of the Royal Opera House – or rather, what remained of it. This magnificent theatre, considered by many to be the finest building in Valletta, now lay in ruins. ‘It was just a heap of rubble, not one wall was standing – just a few arches left. I couldn’t believe it. The Royal Opera House was like Covent Garden to us.’ Memè had even performed there once in a special school play...”
Initial incursions on April 9 were small, and only after midday did a large formation of enemy raiders, around 100, approach the coast, targeting the airfields. However, just before 1 p.m. around 75 aircraft made for Luqa airfield. Nine of the Stukas detached from the formation and bombed Luqa.
A large part of the parish church of St Andrew collapsed. The centre of the village was devastated, resulting in heavy casualties. Agnes Azzopardi remembers perfectly this tragic day:
“Men suddenly seemed to spring up from nowhere and rushed to the scene of the tragedy to render assistance. In the meantime bombs began to rain down again and those of us who stayed behind in the shelter feared that the people who went to help, my father among them, would be killed too. None of the men seemed to care about the great risks they were taking as they struggled to save possible survivors. In fact, there were a few survivors but 32 people died on that unforgettably tragic day.”
The shelter referred to was in Pope Innocent III Street, where 23 out of 32 persons inside actually died, many of them children from the same families. Other shelters were buried under the rubble and those inside had to grope in the darkness to get out when the blast blew out the oil lamps and the candles.
After this devastation and during the same day, around 80 aircraft resumed the attacks on Ta’ Qali airfield. A Junkers and a Messerschmitt were to create the legend of the miracle of the Mosta Rotunda, when at 4.40 p.m. a bomb penetrated the dome and bounced on the floor below without exploding and sparing the 300-odd worshippers there.
Other smaller calibre bombs fell at the front and at the side of the church without exploding. Anthony Camilleri wrote a book about this episode:
“Fr Salvo Sammut recalled that there were some 300 parishioners inside the temple, scattered about the floor, and the majority had moved to the side walls as the attack increased in intensity. At one stage a woman picked up her chair and ran with it into the sacristy and others followed her. As Fr Sammut himself left the confessional, several people went up to him and asked for absolution.
“At that moment a bomb pierced the roof with a loud crash, grazed the corner of the lunette with the painting of Christ and the Apostles, chipping part of the stonework, hit the ground with a bang and rolled towards the pulpit, coming to rest underneath the twelfth Station of the Cross. Several boulders rained down to reveal a large hole in the ceiling...”
Meanwhile, after Kesselring visited Cyrenaica on April 7 and 8, 1942, he reported to Hitler and Mussolini. He reported as follows to Il Duce about the success so far obtained in the offensive against Malta:
“The planned air attack on Malta between 1 and 9 has, in the opinion of the C-in-C of the Southern Area, eliminated Malta as a naval base. The shipyards and dock installations have been so badly damaged that there can be no question of using Malta as a base for a long time; the last surface forces have left Malta, and the British submarine base had been transferred to Alexandria.
“The airfields and their equipment suffered heavy damage.... C-in-C, Southern Area, intends to continue, if weather conditions permit, until April 20, and then, by continuous harassing raids, to prevent the enemy from repairing the damage...”
Kesselring’s observations give an idea of Malta’s situation in April 1942. For almost two years Malta had been on the frontline and was being bombarding continuously. The courage and determination of the Maltese population won widespread admiration in Britain.
It was in acknowledgment of this that in April 1942 Lieutenant-General Sir William Dobbie, the Governor of Malta, received the following message, dated April 15, 1942, from King George VI:
“To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.”
Governor Dobbie replied to the King with this message: “By God’s help Malta will not weaken but will endure until victory is won.” In the evening, the Governor spoke to the people over Rediffusion. Pointing out that this was the first time that an honour of this kind been bestowed by a British Sovereign on a community, Dobbie continued:
“The safety and well-being of this fortress rests, under God, on four supports. These are the three Services and the civil population. Each of them is essential to the well-being of the others, and each one depends on the other three and cannot do without them.”
The George Cross award to Malta came when in 1942 Allied fortunes were at a low ebb. The ‘impregnable fortress’ of Singapore had fallen to the Japanese on February 15, 1942. Other British possessions in the area had already fallen to them. The Americans were besieged at Bataan (they surrendered on April 10), and later, Corregidor (finally surrendering on May 8), and the Germans were besieging the Soviet naval base of Sevastopol, Crimea (which surrendered on July 4).
With these important Allied stands against all odds and also keeping in mind the limited military resources and food rations in Malta, the George Cross came as a morale booster both to the garrison and the civilian population of the island, collectively for the first and only time in history.
Although the two initial batches of Spitfires sent to Malta in March 1942 brought some respite, they could not operate for a long time. It was for this reason that, on April 1, 1942, Winston Churchill cabled US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, appealing to him to permit a US carrier to be used to deliver Spitfires to Malta.
The USS Wasp was sent and the two RAF squadrons selected to go aboard the aircraft carrier were both from the Auxiliary Air Force. These were the No. 601 ‘County of London’ and No. 603 ‘City of Edinburgh’. Both squadrons included pilots from Britain, the Commonwealth and North America. The aircraft were Spitfire Mk VCs.
The delivery of new Spitfires to Malta was code-named Operation ‘Calendar’. The delivery took place on April 20, 1942, with the exception of one whose pilot defected and crash landed in Algeria.
The first scrambles of the day came early on April 28, two Spitfires of No. 126 Squadron and one of No. 601 Squadron going off at 7.40 a.m. They were followed 10 minutes later by four Hurricanes, to counter an estimated 43 Ju-88s, 20 Ju-87s and a large fighter escort.
Three German bombers were seen to detach themselves from the last wave, dive low over Floriana and release their bombs. One struck the dome of St Publius church, penetrated into the crypt and exploded, killing about a dozen people taking shelter, including Fr Pawlu Portelli; two other bombs also hit the church, which was severely damaged. An oral testimony cited by James Holland is that of John Agius:
“The destruction never seemed to end. One by one the famous buildings he had known all his life – buildings that represented Malta and the Maltese – were hit. He had been at work early on the 28th and after the first raid heard that the famous church of St Publius in Floriana had been hit. Standing in front of a large square, it was a sight familiar to anyone entering or leaving Valletta. John rushed up to the top of Kingsgate to see the damage for himself.
“St Publius church had a clock in each tower – one of which was never repaired. To this day it is kept at 7.50 in the morning, the time the great church was struck.”
By April 29, Malta had become too precarious a base even for her successful submarine unit, 10th Submarine Flotilla, which was ordered to withdraw to Alexandria.
During April 1942 some 9,500 sorties were flown against the island and some 282 air raid alerts were sounded. Estimates of tonnes of bombs dropped ranged from 6,117 (according to the Royal Artillery) to 6,728. These bombs damaged or destroyed 11,450 buildings. A relatively low number of 297 civilians were killed and 330 seriously injured, and 208 servicemen were killed through enemy action. During the month, Malta was under alert for a total of 12 days, 10 hours and 20 minutes.
By the end of the month the Germans hardly knew where to drop their bombs. Malta’s naval and air bases were put completely out of action. Ships lost in Grand Harbour during April 1942 included HMS P36 and HMS Pandora (N42) and the minesweeping drifter HMS Sunset, the minesweeper HMS Abingdon and the Royal Hellenic Navy submarine Glaucos; the destroyers HMS Lance and Kingston; the anti-submarine trawler HMS Jade and minesweeping tug Andromeda.
On the airfields, at least 22 Spitfires and 19 Hurricanes were destroyed. The five fighter squadrons defending Malta had just seven operational Spitfires by the end of April, as well as a few Hurricanes. In April the gunners claimed 102 victories, 12 probables, and 69 damaged, against claims by the fighters for 53 shot down, 29 probables and 118 damaged.
Meanwhile, the Axis preoccupation about Malta’s interference in their strategy in the central Mediterranean and North Africa and the determination to eliminate it was also confirmed on April 21, when a photo-reconnaissance Spitfire revealed a large rectangular area near Gerbini airfield in Sicily.
Two more such areas were discovered in the vicinity, parallel to the main runway, each within reach of a railway station. These areas were suspected to be glider airfields, to be used for the planned invasion of Malta.
At the same time, according to Churchill’s memoirs, in early 1942 Grand Admiral Erich Raede insisted with Hitler that Malta was the key for the conquest of the Middle East: “The favourable situation in the Mediterranean, so pronounced at the present time, will probably never occur again. All reports confirm that the enemy is making tremendous efforts to pour all available reenforcements into Egypt… It is therefore imperative to take Malta as soon as possible and to launch an offensive against the Suez Canal not later than 1942.”
Mussolini, who was more concerned about Malta’s position and Italian losses sustained in attacks on the island, decided that all preparations for the capture of Malta should be hastened. He asked for German help, and proposed the assault for the end of May 1942.
The operation was called Operazione C3/Operation Herkules. Ugo Cavallero, the Chief of the Italian Supreme Command, offered the Italian Folgore Parachute Division of two regiments, a battalion of engineers, and five batteries. Hitler gave orders for Germans to co-operate with two parachute battalions, an engineer battalion, transport aircraft for one battalion, and by the German navy, an unspecified number of barges. However, the operation was postponed to July 1942.
The Italian Foreign Minister (and Mussolini’s son-in-law) Count Galeazzo Ciano, wrote in his diary on April 28, 1942: “We leave for Salzburg. This is a meeting that was desired by the Germans, and for which, as usual, they have given us no indication of an agenda. During the journey, Cavallero talks to me about the Malta operation. He realises it is a tough nut. The preparations under way are being made with maximum attention and care, and with the conviction that the attack is essential. This is to give the maximum incentive to those concerned. But whether the operation will take place, or when, are other matters and Cavallero makes no commitments. As in his nature, he digs himself in behind a great quantity of ifs and buts...”
When the topic of the Mediterranean came up, nearly everyone agreed that Malta needed to be taken, even Rommel, who was busy planning his own offensive. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel also expressed difficulty providing both a division of parachutists, and the 40,000 tons of fuel oil requested for the Italian Navy. Under these circumstances, he agreed that the invasion of Malta should be postponed until after Rommel’s offensive in Libya to take Tobruk. Cavallero agreed, stating that the Malta operation as a result could not be held in May, but must take place early in July.
The matter was settled with Hitler stating that the attack in Libya was to be carried out at the end of May and the attack on Malta in mid-July. Once Tobruk was taken, the bulk of the Axis air forces would be transferred back to Sicily while the Afrika Korps would dig in near Sollum on the Egyptian frontier. The leaders expected both objectives to be taken by June.
According to Hitler, however, the land war was to be decided in the East against the Soviets as only victory there would compel the British to seek terms. North Africa and Malta would contribute, but would not be the decisive blow he needed.
However, as we will see in the next features, General Erwin Rommel not only took Tobruk, but was also allowed by Mussolini and Hitler to presume his offensive against a weakened British Eighth Army, to take Suez and the Middle East oilfields.
Thus, the planned invasion of Malta was shelved and then definitely cancelled, allowing the island to take the offensive again against Axis shipping in the Central Mediterranean and determine the final outcome of the war in North Africa.
Mr Debono is curator of the National War Museum, Valletta.
This article first appeared on the Sunday Times of Malta 17th June 2012.