Episodes & Studies Volume 2
SPITFIRES OVER MALTA
SPITFIRES OVER MALTA
THE Illustrious blitz by the Luftwaffe in January 1941 had been largely opportunist and designed to bolster flagging Italian morale, but the opening months of 1942 brought a definite strategic plan to eliminate Malta. By the New Year the sudden renewal of German attacks on Malta allowed important supplies to be shipped across to the retreating Afrika Korps. The Eighth Army's advance had stopped on the border of Tripolitania because of overland supply difficulties, and on 21 January Rommel was able to retaliate with a reconnaissance in strength which developed surprisingly for both sides into a swift and seemingly irresistible advance whose impetus had carried it by July to El Alamein. Malta faced the most critical period in its struggle for existence. If Malta should go, then Axis supplies would pour freely across the Mediterranean and the Middle East must fall. Throughout the first half of 1942, Malta's small and changing force of fighter pilots, among whom were nineteen New Zealanders, was to contest odds which frequently appeared almost hopeless.
In the first three weeks of January 950 raiders came to Malta, and an average of 150 sorties a week was maintained. At the outset, bad weather saved the island, as winter gales, electric storms, and low cloud limited and impeded enemy attacks. The 15th was the first clear day in February, and Kesselring selected Luqa for a heavy attack by 123 Junkers 88 light bombers, escorted by some fifty Messerschmitt 109 fighters. Malta's Hurricane fighters were barely faster than the Junkers 88, and since few were armed with cannon, their. 303 ammunition made little impression on the Germans' armour plating. Nor did they match the Messerschmitt 109E fighters in speed or fire power. During February 990 tons of bombs fell on the three airfields and the Grand Harbour, and the vital all-weather runway at Luqa became a variegated pattern of bomb holes filled with clay, limestone, and earth. Wing-Commander J. R. Bloxam, who had completed his tour of reconnaissance operations with No. 69 Squadron, was made Operations Officer at this airfield. Throughout the blitz which followed for seven months he was able to keep the bomber airfield in action in spite of incessant damage; the location and disarming of unexploded bombs became routine. The airfield defences were steadily built up, and all three Services and the Maltese people laboured at the primary task of building anti-blast aircraft pens. The Army supplied up to 3000 men, and anybody with a few hours to spare from his or her normal job helped. Luqa was kept serviceable, and the vital stream of reinforcement Wellington bombers for Middle East Command continued to pass through the airfield by night, even when enemy air attacks were in progress.
At the end of February, when the weather improved, Malta possessed twenty-one serviceable Hurricanes. The skirmishing period was over, and the tonnage of Axis bombs increased to 2170 for the month of March. The island's striking force of Wellington bombers virtually ceased to exist after 8 March, and the reinforcement aircraft on passage to the Middle East were being consistently damaged and immobilised. The Air Officer Commanding signalled that only Spitfires could hope to avert the loss of the island. On 7 March the first batch of fifteen came through from Gibraltar. His Majesty's Aircraft Carrier Eagle brought them as far as the Malta approaches, south of Sardinia, where the pilots, among whom was Sergeant R. B. Hesselyn,14 made their first take-off from an aircraft-carrier and flew to the island. The Luftwaffe made determined page 22 efforts to obliterate the new reinforcements, and at the end of March only nine Spitfires and five Hurricanes remained serviceable. On 27 March Squadron-Leader D. Kain15 led in as further reinforcements No. 229 Squadron of Hurricane night fighters from Port Said; within a month the squadron was so reduced that it was unable to operate.
The February convoy had failed to get through to the island, but in March a combined operation by all Services, which demanded a feint attack by the land forces in North Africa and strategic bombing by the Middle East Command of enemy airfields in Rhodes, Greece, and Crete, brought three merchant vessels through ‘Bomb Alley’ from Alexandria. But the Luftwaffe finally sank all three, and only 807 tons of cargo, including some oil, was salvaged. Middle East Command could not afford another convoy for April. Malta was about to be ‘Coventrated’, announced the Axis radio, but the 186 tons of bombs which fell on that English city hardly compared with the 6728 tons which were dropped on Malta during April. This attack was to be a prelude to a sea and air invasion such as that on Crete, and glider airfields in Sicily were being prepared.
April was the cruellest month. An average of 170 bombers raided Malta in three waves each day, and each raid lasted about one hour. To face this the Royal Air Force could seldom muster more than ten fighters; on some days the figure was as low as four. The dockyard area, which absorbed approximately half the tonnage of bombs, became a shambles, and the submarine flotilla, which had long been based on Malta, was finally forced to leave. Thanks, however, to the rock shelters, no more than 300 civilians were killed in this peak month, and the people were heartened by His Majesty's award of the George Cross to the ‘island fortress of Malta’.
The fighter pilots on the island appeared to be attempting the impossible. On 1 April Sergeant Hesselyn, of No. 249 Squadron, flew in the afternoon detail. Four Spitfires were patrolling at 1000 feet when a Dornier flying-boat, with heavy fighter escort, was reported by the ground controller to be flying into Malta at sea level. The Spitfires made individual diving attacks. Hesselyn overshot the Messerschmitt 109 which he had selected, but intercepted a second fighter as it turned ahead of him. He opened fire with a four-second burst from 50 yards and the Messerschmitt turned on its back and dived into the sea. Elated at his first success Hesselyn circled the crashed aircraft, to be abruptly sobered by two streams of explosive cannon-shell passing his port wing from a further two German fighters. The enemy raiders broke away to the north and Hesselyn pursued them, but having exhausted his ammunition and being about forty miles out to sea he returned to base.
One and a half hours later the Spitfire flight scrambled again. A large force of Stuka dive- bombers was plotted on the ground radar screens. As the Spitfires climbed they were attacked by some twenty Messerschmitts 109 and were forced down in broken formation to 1000 feet. Hesselyn, with another pilot, escaped the attentions of the fighters and flew straight after the Stukas through the curtain of anti-aircraft fire. He caught one Stuka* as it recovered from its dive, at which point it was most vulnerable, and fired a two-second burst with both cannon and machine guns; the Stuka exploded and dived into the sea. The two Spitfire pilots escaped page 23 from the German fighter escort and returned to base, but as Hesselyn prepared to land he was attacked by a Messerschmitt 109, which in accordance with the usual enemy practice was lurking above the airfield. Hesselyn promptly retracted the Spitfire's undercarriage, opened the throttle fully, and turned steeply; the Messerschmitt 109, whose tracer fire was passing over the Spitfire's wings, overshot and climbed away. In the whole sortie each of the five pilots had claimed a Stuka. Hesselyn had his most successful day on 21 April, when he was credited with one Stuka and one Messerschmitt destroyed and one Messerschmitt damaged in one sortie, and with one Messerschmitt damaged in another.
The beleaguered garrison received new heart on 20 April, when forty-seven Spitfires flew in from the United States aircraft-carrier Wasp. They had been despatched from the carrier by Wing-Commander J. S. McLean,16 a former Battle of Britain pilot, who was now spending a tour of duty on board these carriers as they shuttled between Gibraltar and their flying-off position south of Sardinia. Previously many similar Hurricane reinforcements and some Spitfires had been lost, but by carefully reducing the aircraft weight and increasing the petrol tankage, Wing-Commander McLean made the new Spitfire arrangements work smoothly and successfully. Within twenty minutes of the Spitfires' landing at Ta Kali, they were dive-bombed by ninety German aircraft. The runway was virtually blotted out, but by first light the next morning determined Army reinforcements working with oil lamps and in the light of burning aircraft and petrol bowsers had cleared and rolled the runway. A total of twenty-seven aircraft was all that could be mustered, and after the day's fighting only seventeen remained serviceable. One of the new pilots from USS Wasp, Sergeant J. D. Rae,17, was shot down two days after his arrival; he returned to flying, although the shrapnel wound in his arm was not properly healed, and was soon to rank among Malta's best section leaders, being credited with four and a half aircraft destroyed and eight and a half probably destroyed or damaged.
As April ended the position was desperate. Anti-aircraft ammunition needed to be carefully rationed, while the pilots were showing signs of ‘cracking’ under the immense strain. Captured German bomber pilots, who had been making three sorties a day, four days a week, were confident that the air battle was over, for they no longer needed fighter protection.
Kesselring believed he had achieved his object. During April Malta's striking power had been neutralised and supplies run through to the Afrika Korps. The immediate invasion of Malta seemed to be unnecessary, and the expensive example of Crete was cited as a deterring argument.
General Student, who had commanded the airborne invasion of Crete, was informed by Hitler that the similar plan for Malta, Operation ‘Hercules’, had been abandoned, since the current success in North Africa, consequent upon the improved supply situation, opened up such bright prospects that Malta ceased to have any significance. The proposed force of some 600 Axis transport aircraft was allotted to other fronts. Morevoer, the Malta operations, like those on Crete, had serious effects on the German Air Force. Some 400 aircraft were kept actively and heavily engaged over the first five months of 1942, with the resultant wastage of 300 aircraft during April alone and some 500 aircraft over the whole period. The heavy expenditure of bombs and aircraft fuel was detrimental to supplies in North Africa. By the middle of May, therefore, the Luftwaffe assault abated, for by now German commitments in all theatres were page 24 overtaxing German resources: the spring offensive in Russia required fighters, while the bombers and torpedo-bombers were needed to attack the Murmansk convoys off North Russia. Malta, which had once seemed superfluous to Allied strategy, now appeared so to the Axis.
The island therefore had an essential, if fortuitous, respite. The arrival of a second heavy Spitfire reinforcement on 18 May was the climax of Malta's struggle for existence. On this occasion a concerted effort by Army and Royal Air Force personnel, who had thoroughly rehearsed their technique of refuelling and rearming, sent the Spitfires into battle within as little as nine minutes of their arrival. A force of thirty-seven Spitfires and thirteen Hurricanes, supplemented by an intense anti-aircraft barrage, rose to meet thirty escorted German bombers. Squadron-Leader K. A. Lawrence18 led No. 185 Hurricane Squadron with increasing success, while Sergeant R. B. Hesselyn was again among the top-scoring Spitfire pilots, being credited with five enemy aircraft destroyed and one damaged within five days. At long last the Royal Air Force in Malta fought on equal terms, and for the rest of May German activity continued to lessen, being replaced by increasing but inaccurate Italian night attacks. On the night of 22 May Flight-Lieutenant G. McL. Hayton19 destroyed one Italian Fiat heavy bomber and probably destroyed another in the same sortie.
The supply situation was still critical, since the passage of the Narrow Seas remained closed except to essential supplies of petrol and torpedoes which came in by submarine. In June a convoy of eleven ships was turned back to Alexandria under threat of the Italian Fleet, and six merchant ships simultaneously approaching from Gibraltar fell to Axis air attack from Sicily and Sardinia. The non-arrival of the Alexandria convoy was a bitter disappointment since Malta had kept up continuous observation of units of the Italian Fleet at Naples, Palermo, and Taranto. Flying-Officer H. G. Coldbeck,20 flying the specially-stripped photographic Spitfires of No. 69 Squadron, whose flight he later commanded, made frequent sorties over the Taranto main fleet base, while Squadron-Leader A. H. Harding,21 of No. 221 Squadron, patrolled in a radar-equipped Wellington outside Naples and Palermo by night. A force of two battleships, four cruisers, and destroyer escort was detected putting to sea from Taranto on 14 June. Beaufort and Wellington torpedo attacks from Malta, supplemented from the Middle East by Liberator bombers of the USAAF, turned the Italian Fleet back, but the Alexandria convoy had by then used so much of its anti-aircraft ammunition in defending itself south of Crete, that in spite of the fact that the way was clear it was ordered to return to Alexandria.
As July opened Malta took stock. The Royal Air Force on the island possessed ninety Spitfires, with a total of 4000 men to fly and service them as well as to operate the changing anti-shipping forces of Wellingtons, Marylands, Baltimores, Beaufighters, and Beauforts and the stream of reinforcement aircraft passing through to the Middle East. The capture of Malta was again considered by the Germans, and the air fighting flared up, but the enemy raids, although continuous, were on a smaller scale than those of the spring and their losses were heavier. In the first two weeks of July, the Royal Air Force claimed 102 enemy aircraft destroyed for the loss of twenty- five Spitfire pilots. Pilot-Officer G. Stenborg22 was credited with two Messerschmitts destroyed in each of two sorties. When the Luftwaffe significantly abandoned dive-bombing in favour of safer high-level bombing from 16,000 feet, it was clear that, after six long months, the victory had gone to Malta's fighter pilots.
* The Stuka pilots made near-vertical dives from 15,000 feet and released their bombs at 5000 feet. As a pilot pressed the bomb-release, an automatic device took control of the aircraft to pull it abruptly out of its dive, for this manoeuvre was usually so violent that both pilot and rear-gunner blacked out; at this point the Stuka became momentarily defenceless.