New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Volume III)
CHAPTER 6 — Malta
A PPROACHING it from the air, Malta first appears like a leaf, green or brown according to the season, floating upon the blue sea. The whole of the island is visible for quite a time with its terraced fields and villages, its churches and small farms all close and compact; then can be seen the port of Valetta and the enclosed waters of the Grand Harbour, where tiers of little houses look down across stone terraces and green palms to the blue beneath. It is a memorable view, but at the same time it all looks so very small, such a simple, rather fragile and easy target—especially for hostile bombers based only seventy miles away on the spacious airfields of Sicily. Yet for well over two years this small island, whose long history had seen it as a military fortress of the Knights of St. John and as Nelson's ‘important outwork to India’, withstood the worst that the enemy could cast upon it and by its persistence played a vital part in Mediterranean strategy.
Malta's indomitable resistance under the enemy attack, the heroism of its defenders and the endurance of its people, won high praise at the time, and rightly so, but a good deal less was said of its achievements as a base for striking at the enemy. Yet this is the true significance of the Malta story. For the island was essentially an aerodrome and its retention meant that air power could be applied in offensive operations over all areas of the Mediterranean within range of its aircraft; it could also serve as an air staging post and a reconnaissance base. Above all, because of its position athwart the enemy's supply routes to North Africa, Malta could, and did, exercise a profound effect on the land campaigns in that area. But for Malta, Rommel might well have pressed on to Alexandria and beyond; without it, the invasion of Sicily and Italy would have been well-nigh impossible.
Maynard was there at the outset. A fighter pilot of the First World War who had already spent two periods in the Middle East during the intervening years, he had been appointed Air Officer Commanding at Malta six months before Italy declared war. At that time the island's chances of survival were considered slender owing to its close proximity to Italian bomber bases; moreover, although three airfields had been built and a radar station was ready to operate, there were no fighters, only a few reconnaissance machines. Maynard, however, was convinced that the island could be held against the Italians. Casting about for some means of defence he discovered four Gladiator biplane fighters—spares for an aircraft carrier—still in their packing cases. They were soon assembled, volunteers to fly them were at once forthcoming from his staff and by the time the first Italian air raids came, the improvised flight was ready for action. Unfortunately one of the Gladiators was soon damaged beyond repair but the remaining three— now dubbed ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’—continued to defy the Italian Air Force for some weeks. At the end of June 1940 they were joined by four Hurricanes1 and for the next month the seven fighters, together with the anti-aircraft guns, were Malta's entire defence against over two hundred Italian aircraft in Sicily.
Almost every day Italian bombers raided the island and every time all the serviceable Hurricanes and Gladiators went up to meet them; some indication of the effect they caused is shown by contemporary Italian estimates of Malta's fighter strength as twenty-five aircraft. And not only did Malta survive but a marked lack of aggressiveness on the part of the enemy led him first into bombing from great height, then into operating under escort and finally, for a while, into attacking by night. Only two of our fighters were lost in combat and no serious damage was suffered on the ground.
But now a new danger threatened. For German air units had begun to arrive in Sicily with Ju87 dive-bombers, twin-engined Messerschmitt fighters, reconnaissance machines and long-range Heinkel bombers. They soon made their presence felt. Attacking a Malta-bound convoy in the Sicilian Narrows on 10 January 1941, they sank one of the two escorting cruisers, crippled the other and severely damaged the carrier Illustrious. On reaching Malta the carrier became a target for further attack and the next fortnight saw what came to be known as the ‘Illustrious Blitz’; a serious attempt was now made to wreck the island's airfields and above Grand Harbour dive-bombers ‘came screeching through a sky that was three parts flying steel and drifting smoke and one part spray or falling water’ in a determined effort to destroy HMS Illustrious. But Malta and the Illustrious came through. Twelve aircraft were lost—six of them destroyed on the ground—but our fighters and guns between them accounted for eleven German machines and an unspecified number of Italian, while our Wellington bombers destroyed nine more in raids on Sicily. And after a miracle of effort by the repairers the Illustrious slipped out of harbour under her own steam and reached Alexandria safely.
The departure of the Illustrious, however, brought no respite; for the Germans were determined to neutralise Malta and control the supply routes to Rommel's forces, now active in North Africa. By early March their bombers had wrought such havoc on the island's airfields that the Wellington bombers and Sunderland flying-boats had to be withdrawn to Egypt. Malta's shipping offensive practically ceased. But its small Hurricane force continued to resist, although at times the pilots were too weary and exhausted to climb the stairs to their rooms; the continual night raids were a severe trial; and it was April before reinforcements—including some Hurricanes of a later type—reached them. Eventually, after five months of constant attack, came welcome relief with the transfer of the German squadrons from Sicily to the Balkans; there they replaced other units moving east, for Hitler's attack on Russia was impending.
At this stage Maynard handed over to his successor, Air Vice-Marshal Hugh Lloyd.1 His sixteen months at Malta had certainly been a remarkable record of achievement. In the face of formidable enemy superiority and all manner of supply difficulties, he had built up the island's defence and shown it could be held. He had inspired all by his cool judgment and fine leadership; and his handful of fighters had been credited with fifty enemy aircraft destroyed and as many damaged. He had also prepared for the coming offensive, in particular by persisting with the building of a bomber airfield, with a 1200-yard tarmac runway, at Luqa in the centre of the island. Its construction was really a triumph of ingenuity, since the whole area had to be levelled from stony ground, hills and quarries; there were no proper tools for construction, and the work was done by the most primitive Maltese labour methods with horse and cart.
1 Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh P. Lloyd; GBE, KCB, MC, DFC, Croix de Guerre (Fr), Legion of Merit (US), Order of Nicham-Iftikhar (Fr), Legion of Honour (Fr); RAF (retd); born Leigh, Worcester, 12 Dec 1894; joined RFC 1917; commanded No. 9 Sqdn 1939; RAF Station, Marham, 1939; SASO No. 2 Group, 1940–41; AOC Malta, 1941–42; SASO, HQ Middle East, 1942–43; AOC NWACAF 1943–44; AOC Tiger Force, 1945.
Several New Zealand pilots operated from Malta during those remarkable months when Maynard was in command. Flight Sergeant Hyde,1 who had joined the RAF a year before the war, flew Hurricane fighters; arriving in August 1940, he took part in the first phase of the island's defence against the Italians and remained to serve for the next nine months with No. 261 Squadron—the first complete fighter squadron formed at Malta. Another fighter pilot, Pilot Officer Langdon,2 who joined this same unit a few months later, was lost in action during the time of the heavy German attacks. Flight Lieutenant L. W. Coleman and Flying Officer C. A. Pownall each captained Wellington bombers flying from Malta during the early months of 1941; their chief target at that time was the enemy's North African supply port of Tripoli, but they also bombed the airfield at Catania in Sicily.
Flight Lieutenant Bloxam3 did fine work as pilot of one of the first Maryland aircraft based on Malta; these machines, which were fast and reliable, provided the chief means of sea reconnaissance and they ranged far and wide over the waters between Tripoli, Sardinia, Naples and Greece. Even when the Germans maintained standing patrols around Malta to intercept them on their inward and outward flights, they still continued to carry out their missions. In mid-April 1941, Bloxam found and shadowed a convoy of five merchant ships escorted by three destroyers off the island of Pantellaria, north-west of Malta; as a result of his reports a destroyer force, led by Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten, was directed to the target and Bloxam subsequently reported all the merchant vessels and two destroyers lying beached on the Tunisian coast. A few weeks later he found a convoy near Tripoli which had eluded naval attack; subsequent bombing by Marylands from Malta set at least one 15,000-ton troopship on fire. On another occasion, Bloxam shadowed and reported the Italian Fleet off Cape Matapan. By the end of 1941 he had flown over seventy reconnaissance missions and he then remained at Malta for a further period as operations officer at Luqa airfield.
Their long-range transport and reconnaissance missions were not without hazard. One night when Milligan was flying a heavily laden Sunderland on the thousand-mile flight to Aboukir, the starboard outer engine threw off its propeller and then caught fire; it was only with great difficulty that he kept control and then, with the fire extinguished, flew back to make an emergency landing in darkness at Kalafrana Bay without the aid of a flare-path.
* * * * *
With the departure of the Luftwaffe from Sicily in May 1941, enemy air activity against Malta was considerably reduced. There was some night bombing but, by day, only an occasional bomber or low-flying fighter attack and intermittent reconnaissance. The Hurricane Is were able to deal with the Macchi 200 fighters which comprised the main Italian force and reinforcement by some Hurricane IIs was a further discouragement to the enemy.
Notable developments occurred at Malta during the next few months. In the first place, devoted efforts by the Merchant Navy and the crews of escorting ships and aircraft brought in several convoys from the west, so restocking the island with food, bombs, ammunition, aviation fuel and many other vital commodities. At the same time Air Vice- Marshal Lloyd and his construction teams, helped unsparingly by the Army, pressed on with the development of the island's air facilities; despite an almost complete absence of all those devices which make modern building so fascinating a spectacle, they succeeded in building new airfields, taxi tracks, dispersals, radar stations and operations rooms. The provision of adequate aircraft dispersal space was a major problem since every yard of the island's poor soil was needed for crops, but Malta's stone-walled roads were put to good use in forming the celebrated Safi strip which linked Luqa and Hal Far airfields in a unique dispersal area.
Meanwhile, with the Italian bombers showing a marked disinclination to visit the island, Malta struck out boldly at enemy ports and shipping. And she struck with such effect that Admiral Raeder was soon reporting to Hitler that ‘German shipments to North Africa are suffering heavy losses of ships, material and personnel as a result of enemy air attacks by bombs and torpedoes and through submarine attacks’, while Mussolini bemoaned the loss of nearly three-quarters of Italy's shipping employed on the African supply routes. It is now known that the enemy lost at least 220,000 tons of shipping on his page 134 North African convoy routes as a result of our naval and air operations between 1 June and 31 October 1941. Of this total 94,000 tons were sunk by our naval vessels—mainly submarines—and 115,000 by aircraft of the Royal Air Force and the Fleet Air Arm. Ninety per cent of the sinkings were of loaded southbound traffic, and at least three-quarters of those attributed to aircraft were the work of the squadrons at Malta. This destruction of enemy cargoes undoubtedly helped Auchinleck outpace Rommel in the build-up of supplies and so launch the CRUSADER campaign that took the Allied armies forward to Benghazi at the end of 1941.
British submarines and Swordfish torpedo-bombers of the Fleet Air Arm, whose pilots won a high reputation for the courage and accuracy with which they operated their obsolete ‘String Bags’, continued to play a major part in the shipping strikes from Malta during this period. But the RAF Blenheim bombers now operating from the island soon established a fine record with their low-level attacks; and RAF reconnaissance planes continued to locate and report suitable targets.
The Blenheims each carried four 250 Ib. bombs, fused for eleven seconds' delay, and flying in at mast height they released them in a closely spaced stick. These tactics were at first highly successful; but as the enemy began to arm his ships and to provide escorts, the low-flying Blenheims found their operations more and more hazardous. Frequently they were shot down on the run in to attack, for in the clear Mediterranean skies surprise was almost impossible; fire would be opened long before aircraft were within range and huge sheets of water would be splashed up from the falling shells. ‘Under such conditions,’ Air Vice-Marshal Lloyd remarks, ‘the attacks required incalculable courage, determination and leadership on the part of our young men.’
Allport flew many sorties with the same squadron; on one patrol he sank a large Italian transport and on another scored hits on a tanker. Thompson had notable success with his No. 107 Squadron; he led the attack on the 10,000-ton Iridio-Mantovani which was afterwards abandoned; he sank another smaller transport and also made several effective attacks on land targets. These three pilots were decorated for their part in these hazardous operations; only a few days after receiving his DFC, Edmunds was shot down while leading a low-level attack.
An interesting episode in which Buckley and Knight took part was the bombing of a 9000-ton transport off the island of Lampedusa in mid-August. The ship had run ashore as a result of damage suffered earlier; a destroyer and torpedo-boats stood by and a swarm of lighters were busy salvaging the deck cargo of motor vehicles. During their approach the two Blenhcims were an easy target for the anti-aircraft guns—especially those which the Italians had quickly placed on the cliffs above the ship. Buckley was wounded twice, first by a bullet which shattered his windscreen and hit him in the hand, then when a cannon shell went through his navigator's map case to explode on the Very pistol, bits of which were blown back into his legs. But his bombs hit the transport squarely, set her on fire and, as her main cargo was oil, she continued to burn for eight whole days. Bombs from Knight's aircraft sank a 700-ton schooner lying alongside.
Wellington bombers—some of them detached from squadrons in Egypt—continued the assault by night. Ships and port facilities in places as far apart as Naples, Benghazi, Tripoli and Taranto were their main targets, but when Auchinleck began his CRUSADER offensive, they also flew over to bomb the main enemy airfields in Cyrenaica at Berka and Benina and the air depot at Castel Benito near Tripoli. In the six months ending December 1941, the Wellingtons at Malta flew well over one thousand sorties. ‘It was an incredible achievement,’ says Lloyd. ‘The crews never asked for a rest but continued to go out night after night despite the weather. In the autumn heavy rains played havoc with the taxi tracks and dispersal points at Luqa and it became impossible page 136 to move aircraft at night so that on their return the Wellingtons had to remain on the airfield until it was light enough to taxi away; this was an added strain on the pilots.’
Flying Officer Ashworth,1 Pilot Officers Easton2 and Munro3 and Flight Sergeants Walsh,4 Thornton5 and Lewthwaite6 all piloted Wellingtons from Malta during this period, while Pilot Officer Ball7 was a navigator and Flight Sergeant Holford8 a gunner.
In the circumstances of the time, casualties and crashes were not infrequent. Lewthwaite and his crew were lost during an attack on the airfield at Castelvetrano in Sicily; after one October raid on Naples, Flight Sergeant Thornton's Wellington crashed on landing: the front gunner was killed, three other members of the crew were injured and Thornton himself seriously hurt. And Flying Officer Ashworth relates how: ‘Returning from Tripoli one night it wasn't until touching down that I discovered we had no brakes. They had been put out of action by anti-aircraft fire and we just ran on and on until stopped by a stone wall. On the far side of that wall was a quarry about one hundred feet deep.’
While the Blenheims and Wellingtons thus maintained their attack on the enemy's supply routes, the Sunderland flying-boats continued to do yeoman service, transporting supplies and personnel to the island as well as providing sea reconnaissance. These were usually uneventful missions but, towards the end of December 1941, Flight Lieutenant S. W. R. Hughes and his crew were involved in a remarkable episode. They had taken off from Aboukir in Egypt shortly after midnight, bound for Malta with supplies. On board as passengers were Pilot Officer Easton and his crew, whose Wellington bomber had crashed in North Africa and who were returning to Malta. Here is the story of what happened.
By mid-day the party found themselves on a rocky beach, which they estimated, accurately, to be approximately 100 miles east of Benghazi. Italian soldiers suddenly appeared from behind a wall of rocks, and Flight Lieutenant Hughes decided to go forward and surrender as his exhausted party was without arms. To his astonishment the nearest Italian raised his rifle above his head, threw it away ostentatiously, and advanced with outstretched hands. The British party had not quite recovered from seeing the soldiers behave as friends when another group of about eighty Italians arrived. This group was more aggressive and formally declared the British party to be their prisoners. Hughes, however, had one duty to fulfil, and with the pretext of searching for the wounded gunner's flying boots he returned to the wreck and jettisoned into the sea a bag of one hundred pounds' weight of gold sovereigns, which had been destined for the Malta Exchequer. Back on shore, a stretcher made of oars from the dinghy was improvised for the wounded man, and in a long procession the mixed band started off along the coast. It was raining and streaks of lightning lit up a leaden sky. Night came, and with it small comfort. There were no blankets, rations, or water, and no fires were allowed as the Italians feared Arab sharpshooters. The second-pilot and the gunner were both suffering from shock, and the party huddled around them, massaging them constantly in an effort to keep them warm. At dawn another start was made. Suddenly twenty Italian officers ran forward from a cluster of bushes. Highly agitated, they indicated to Flight Lieutenant Hughes that the Germans had taken their vehicles and told them to get to safety as best they could. They offered to help the party in exchange for favoured treatment should they be captured by the British. Again, for the fourth time, the party was increased in number, on this occasion by an Italian major with about one hundred men. The major was a unique personage, middle-aged, with a heavily tanned and deeply lined face. He carried a cat-o'-nine-tails at his belt, presumably as a fly-whisk, but he used it for its original purpose later when one of the British party indignantly announced that an Italian soldier had stolen the wounded man's flying boots. The thief was flogged in front of his comrades. Later that day the wounded air-gunner died and the major conducted a form of military burial.page 138
In due course the party arrived at the Senussi village of El Hania. Here they were given macaroni and coffee; three eggs were bartered for a wrist watch and a two-shilling piece, and a bag of dates cost one Egyptian pound. The major sent for Flight Lieutenant Hughes and told him that he proposed to leave for Benghazi. The question arose as to who actually held the town and finally bets were made on it. The Italian decided that he would leave with his men, allowing the British to remain with the Arabs, and he offered to leave rifles for their protection. Once the Italians had gone, the Senussi freely disclosed an abundance of food and sent a messenger towards the advancing British lines. Hughes and his party decided to follow, hoping to reach an Indian Army unit which the Arabs reported to be some fifteen miles away.
The end of this incident was equally remarkable. After walking for an hour the Royal Air Force party overtook some of the Italian major's men. One of these ran over to the group, drew his bayonet, propped it against a rock, and jumped on it until it snapped. There were some two dozen Italians, each of whom threw away his rifle or handed it over and cheerfully joined the procession. Similar incidents happened on four occasions, and after three hours the company was more than a hundred and fifty strong. The British lines were soon reached, for the Eighth Army was making a bid to take Benghazi by Christmas, and Flight Lieutenant Hughes, who had successfully led his men through the whole grim yet whimsical adventure, added his prisoners to those of the Army.
* * * * *
Malta's offensive against enemy supplies to North Africa proved so successful that Hitler was compelled to take action against it. Accordingly, in November 1941, he ordered Field Marshal Kesselring, the soldier turned air commander, who was then conducting operations in front of Moscow, to move with the whole of his Luftflotte 2 to the Mediterranean, where he was to ‘suppress’ Malta, ‘obtain air and sea supremacy in the area’ and ‘establish safe shipping routes to Libya.’ Kesselring wasted no time and by the middle of December the enemy air forces in Sicily had grown to some 250 long-range bombers and reconnaissance aircraft and nearly two hundred fighters. Against them Air Vice-Marshal Lloyd could muster only sixty serviceable bombers and seventy serviceable fighters, the latter still Hurricanes whose performance was not equal to that of the latest German Messerschmitts. Not until another three months had passed were a first fifteen Spitfires—our best contemporary fighters—to be spared from the many hundreds in Fighter Command.
Malta now faced its longest and sternest test. It began in the last week of December when over two hundred aircraft attacked the island. Kesselring's first objective was plainly the RAF, for the raids were concentrated almost entirely against the fighter grounds of Hal Far and Takali, the bomber airfield at Luqa and the flying-boat base at Kalafrana. At first the Hurricanes, although outclassed by the German page 139 fighters, broke up some of their formations and kept the damage within tolerable limits. But with the opening days of January 1942 came heavier attacks and the defence of the island grew increasingly arduous for the small force of Hurricane fighters; then heavy rains turned the battered fighter airfields into quagmires so that for a time all squadrons had to be concentrated on the equally battered but better drained Luqa. Yet Malta still continued to hit back; in an attack on Castelvetrano airfield Blenheims destroyed eleven and damaged twenty-eight of a large force of transport aircraft on the ground; then Wellingtons followed up with a night raid which left another sixteen aircraft ablaze and blew up a petrol dump. But as the enemy bombing of Malta continued with increasing strength and ferocity, our offensive slackened and February saw only sixty sorties by bombers and only one enemy ship sunk.
In March only one day passed without the wail of the air-raid siren and over 2000 tons of bombs fell on Malta. Very heavy damage was caused in the harbour area and at the island's airfields; soldiers and airmen worked day and night clearing the rubble, filling craters, repairing the runways, building protective pens and servicing aircraft; and the guns and fighters succeeded in shooting down sixty of the enemy raiders. Yet under the strain of continual attack, Malta's offensive power and even her capacity for self-defence were now diminishing. The arrival of the first few Spitfires at odd intervals during the month was heartening, but although their pilots took them straight into action and fought gallantly they could not work miracles; moreover, with limited spares and an almost complete lack of the special equipment designed for maintaining Spitfire fighters (they were not just super-Hurricanes but an altogether different machine), it proved exceedingly difficult to keep them repaired and in action. By the end of March Lloyd had only nine Spitfires and four Hurricanes serviceable and the anti-aircraft guns were short of ammunition. Food and other essential supplies were also running out. The February convoy had failed to get through and in March all three of the ships that reached Malta were sunk at their berths before much of their cargo had been unloaded.
April brought the severest ordeal. That month the enemy cast down no less than 6728 tons of bombs on Malta, which may well be compared with the 186 tons dropped on Coventry at the height of the blitz on Britain. Moreover, most of these bombs were directed against the few square miles at the western end of the island, where lay the main airfields and the port of Valetta. Soon the airfields were a wilderness of craters, the docks and their surrounding districts a shambles and Valetta itself a mass of broken limestone. At the height of the assault, on 20 April, forty-seven Spitfires flew in from the United States carrier Wasp; page 140 but the hopes they raised were soon crushed for the Germans observed their arrival and, within twenty minutes of the last Spitfire touching down at Takali, they launched a series of violent attacks on the airfield. The following morning only twenty-seven fighters were fit for action and, after the day's fighting, only seventeen. By the end of the month, Lloyd was down to seven serviceable Spitfires and ‘it was a continual struggle to hold it at that modest figure.’ Over a hundred fighters were now awaiting repair. Spares were being used at a far quicker rate than they were being delivered by air. Men would rob parts from every unserviceable Spitfire to make others fly, but there was a limit to that, particularly with engines.
Yet, battered and blasted though it was, Malta refused to admit defeat. Amazing spirit and powers of endurance were displayed by the Maltese people; the fighter pilots continued to take off against fantastic odds; the ground crews, the army gunners and repair teams fought and worked on under the incessant attack, badly equipped, badly accommodated and often hungry though most of them were. Most remarkable was the way in which, night after night, reinforcement aircraft were passed through to Egypt—over three hundred were landed, refuelled and sent on their way during March and April. This was a nerve-racking business for, apart from the battered airfields and lack of equipment, there were intruder bombers overhead on most nights. Often there would be a mad scramble and rush to repair the holes so that these transit aircraft could be landed; sometimes they would arrive when the guns were firing, but then the guns would close down and they would accept the bombs in order to give the aircraft all the illumination they required for their landing, rather than see one of them get lost or crash. Thus did Malta, in its extremity, continue to serve the RAF in Egypt—and the Eighth Army.
Towards the end of April, reconnaissance aircraft brought back disturbing news from Sicily. Their photographs showed that the enemy was preparing airfields for launching gliders and that railway sidings were being laid alongside them. The Germans and Italians were, in fact, now well advanced with their plans for Operation HERCULES—the airborne invasion of Malta.
But the prospect of invasion, alarming though it was, was not the only danger that threatened. For with the passing weeks the island's last stocks of fuel and food were ebbing relentlessly away. Both the February and March convoys had succumbed to German aircraft; no convoy had sailed in April and the chances of one sailing in May were remote; Malta was now existing on what could be brought in by submarines, aircraft and fast minelayers like the gallant Welshman. ‘Conditions had become extremely difficult,’ writes Lloyd. ‘The poor quality of the food had not been noticed at first, then suddenly it began to page 141 take effect. In March it had been clear enough but in April most belts had to be taken in by two holes and in May by another hole …. Our diet was a slice and a half of bread with jam for breakfast, bully beef for lunch with one slice of bread, and except for an additional slice of bread it was the same fare for dinner. There was sugar but margarine appeared only every two or three days; even drinking water, lighting and heating were all rationed. And things which had been taken for granted closed down. The making of beer required coal so none had been made for months. Officers and men slept in shelters, in caverns and dugouts in quarries …. Three hundred slept in one underground cabin as tight as sardines in a tin and two hundred slept in a disused tunnel. None had any comfort or warmth. Soon, too, we should want hundreds of tons of fuel and ammunition ….’
Meanwhile the enemy pilots were showing greater determination in their attacks. Our fighters were invariably outnumbered, often by as many as ten to one.
‘We were fighting a stern, uphill battle, and were coming off second best,’ writes one New Zealand Spitfire pilot. ‘We were also feeling the strain, not only of the continuous air fighting but also of the bombing and the general living conditions of Malta. Our barrage was also falling away. The gunners were growing tired and many of the gun barrels were becoming worn. All of us were getting less sleep for the enemy bombers were coming over in greater numbers at night when the moon was favourable. They were pressing home these attacks with more determination than previously and were coming down much lower. We had insufficient night fighters to hold them all back. With the lengthening days, we were doing longer periods of readiness and the night bombing prevented us from obtaining proper sleep. We were becoming irritable and on edge.’
‘The civilian population were showing the effects of the strain in somewhat similar fashion. The Maltese appeared to have aged and looked more haggard and nervous. Less and less of Valetta was standing, half the streets were blocked with debris and the interiors of the houses were everywhere spewing out of the doorways. Practically every civilian was living in one of the rock shelters. Food distribution was becoming more difficult than ever and the authorities had been forced to set up communal feeding centres.’1
As April gave place to May, Malta's plight had thus become extremely serious. Indeed, it seemed that her epic of defiance might well end, not in a last glorious if unavailing fight against the invader, but in the humiliation of surrender, with the guns silent for need of ammunition, the aircraft idle for lack of fuel and the defenders weakened for want of food. But this was the ‘darkest hour before the dawn’ and with the next few weeks there came new hope for Malta's survival.page 142
Strangely enough, it was the enemy who provided the first relief. A new campaign in Russia was making heavy demands on German resources; Hitler was also anxious to take reprisals against Britain for Bomber Command's mounting offensive, and since Malta appeared to have been subdued, with substantial supplies reaching Rommel, he decided to transfer the greater part of Kesselring's bombers to Russia and France; others would go to Cyrenaica where Rommel was about to attack. The German calculation at this stage was that, if the Italians played their part, enough aircraft would still remain in Sicily to keep Malta ‘neutralised’ until Operation HERCULES could be launched— somewhere about the end of July. The Italians were not so sure and with good reason. For only a year earlier the departure of a German bomber force from Sicily had been the signal for renewed activity on the part of Malta.
Meantime the aircraft carriers Eagle and Wasp, loaded with Spitfires, had passed through the Straits of Gibraltar and were ploughing their way across the Mediterranean towards Malta. On 9 May, somewhere to the south of Sardinia, they flew off sixty-four fighters. All but two of them reached the island safely.
This time most elaborate preparations had been made for their reception; a gun barrage was concentrated to protect the airfields while servicing parties, soldiers as well as airmen, stood ready to receive the precious Spitfires; in every aircraft pen there was petrol, oil, ammunition and food, and in most a fighter pilot waiting to take over. As the Spitfires came in runners sprang to guide them to the right spot; and within five minutes of their touching down on Malta the first arrivals were refuelled and ready for action. Many times that day German and Italian aircraft strove to repeat their success of the previous month but they were met and defeated by the very fighters they had come to destroy. Further reinforcements followed during the next few weeks, bringing the total number of Spitfires on the island to over a hundred. Then, early in June—after a series of most bitter air and sea battles in which we lost a cruiser, five destroyers, two minesweepers, six merchant ships and over twenty aircraft—two supply ships reached Valetta and were safely unloaded.
With the arrival of the Spitfires and these dearly bought supplies, the task of the defenders was, for the time being, greatly eased. Enemy fighters and bombers continued to come over regularly but their assault was on a reduced scale and, under cover of stronger fighter defence, Malta began to renew her offensive. Wellington bombers struck out again to good effect and they were soon joined by some torpedo-carrying Beauforts; the faithful Marylands increased their reconnaissance sorties, a duty they had never ceased to carry out even at the height of the enemy attack.page 143
Thus did Malta continue to exist and, as far as her impoverished state allowed, to hit back at the enemy. But her position was still precarious and, with Rommel now sweeping forward towards Egypt, it might well be only a matter of weeks before she was isolated and invaded. Such indeed was still the enemy intention.
During these critical months the exploits and adventures of the New Zealand airmen were many; and the contribution they made to Malta's continued survival was quite substantial. Three fighter pilots, Squadron Leader Lawrence,1 Flight Sergeants Hesselyn2 and Rae,3 deserve special mention, for between them they shot down at least twenty enemy aircraft, probably destroyed another twelve and damaged something like fourteen more.
Lawrence led Hurricanes through more than four months of the heaviest fighting, and won recognition as ‘a very fine leader whose example when the odds were great was of the very best’; he destroyed four enemy aircraft, damaged seven and probably destroyed two, which was a very fine achievement in view of the odds at which the Hurricanes fought in the early stages.
Hesselyn was one of the first Spitfire pilots to reach Malta; he flew off the carrier Eagle early in March and was soon in action. Within the next few months he shot down no fewer than twelve enemy machines— in one active period he destroyed five in as many days—and by the end of May he had won the immediate award of both the Distinguished Flying Medal and bar.
Rae flew his Spitfire to Malta from the United States carrier Wasp towards the end of April; a few days after his arrival he was shot down and wounded; but he returned to flying before the shrapnel wound in his arm was properly healed and was soon ranked as one of Malta's finest section leaders; within a matter of weeks he had destroyed five enemy machines, with another three probables.
Here is an episode related by Hesselyn which may recapture for the reader some of the atmosphere of the air battles in which these men took part. It was an afternoon in mid-April and heavy raids were falling on the airfields. Pilots on their way to dispersal at Takali had to leap into a crater as bombs screamed down to crash nearby. The raiders passed over and the pilots reached their machines. A few moments later they were ordered off to meet another attack.
We scrambled at three o'clock, climbing south of the island getting to 26,000 feet with the sun behind us. Wood called up and said: ‘Hello Mac. There's a big plot building up but its taking time to come south. Keep your present angels and save your gravy. I will tell you when to come in.’ We stooged around until he gave us the word. Then we sailed in ….
Suddenly, glancing behind, I saw four 109s coming down on me. Three of them overshot. The fourth made his turn too wide and I got inside him. I was slightly below when I attacked from 200 yards, firing perhaps 20 feet ahead of him in the hope that his aircraft and my bullets would arrive at that spot simultaneously. They did. I kept on firing as I was determined to make certain of him. He caught fire. Black smoke poured out, he rolled on his back and went into a vertical dive and straight into the drink.
As he crashed it struck me suddenly that there might be something on my tail. In my excitement I had forgotten to look but luckily none of the other 109s had dived down on me. Wood now reported that the 88s were diving on Takali, and I pulled up to 10,000 feet. The next instant the 88s were diving past my nose and the other boys were coming down from above to attack them. I picked out one and went for him and as I pressed my gun button his rear gunner opened fire. I had fired for about a second when my port cannon packed up. Luckily I was travelling fast. This prevented my aircraft from slewing from the recoil of my starboard cannon as I was able to correct with rudder. I concentrated on the 88's starboard motor and wing root and could see my shells hitting. Bits were flying off him and flames began spreading as he continued in his dive; he was well ablaze when he crashed.
I started a normal circuit about 300 feet above the airfield, put my wheels and flaps down, did weaving approach and, as my wheels touched ground felt a sigh of relief. I taxied to my pen, forgetting to put up my flaps. All I could do when I got there was to lie back in the cockpit and gasp for breath. The ground crew had to help me out of my aircraft and, dazed and dizzy, I groped my way along the wing out of my pen.
I met Laddie as I was wandering over to dispersal. Both our tunics were soaked with perspiration. We looked up to see how Mac was getting on. He was making his approach about 50 feet up when suddenly two 109s darted out of the sun. Their shooting, however, was poor and whipping up his wheels Mac turned sharply into them. The 109s overshot him, carried on and beat up the aerodrome. Mac made a quick dart, put down his wheels and managed to get in. He landed with two gallons of petrol—at the pace we were using it, sufficient fuel for only another two minutes in the air. I had had five gallons; the others about the same.
Night-fighter patrols, bombing and photographic reconnaissance missions were also flown by New Zealanders during these months. The battle in Malta's night skies was less spectacular and usually less rewarding than that fought by day, but Flight Lieutenant Hayton1 showed remarkable skill as a night-fighter pilot; in just over three months he intercepted and shot down four enemy bombers and probably destroyed two more. In the field of reconnaissance Flying Officer Coldbeck2 did fine work as pilot of a photographic Spitfire; in June, when an attempt was made to run a convoy from Alexandria to Malta, he made frequent sorties over the main naval base at Taranto, keeping watch on the Italian Fleet; and that same month Squadron Leader A. H. Harding captained a radar-equipped aircraft which watched the ports of Naples and Palermo by night.
There were other ways in which New Zealanders served Malta at this time. The Battle of Britain pilot, Wing Commander J. S. McLean,1 despatched the reinforcement Spitfires from the United States carrier Wasp, aboard which he was spending a period of duty as it shuttled between Gibraltar and the flying-off position south of Sardinia; previously some fighters had been lost, but by carefully reducing the aircraft weight and increasing the petrol tankage, McLean made the new arrangements work smoothly and successfully. On Malta itself Wing Commander Bloxam, as operations officer at Luqa, did much towards keeping the bomber airfield in action despite the incessant damage; it needs little imagination to realise what this meant in terms of rain and mud, bomb craters, unexploded bombs, bogged aircraft and inadequate equipment; and there were always the reinforcement aircraft to pass through to Egypt. Mention must also be made here of the work of Flight Lieutenant R. D. Daniell, who flew Dakota transport aircraft between Egypt and Malta carrying in supplies and taking out sick or injured civilians. In one month two Dakotas brought out more than a thousand passengers, most of them women and children. To Malta they carried hundreds of pounds of supplies above their authorised load, including parcels from the New Zealand Club in Cairo, and such small comforts as were obtainable in Egypt—notably cigarettes, of which No. 117 Transport Squadron had given up their ration to a man for distribution by a padre in Malta.
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1 Wing Commander J. S. McLean, OBE, DFC; RAF; born Hawera, 19 Feb 1912; law clerk; joined RAF Sep 1932; commanded No. 111 Sqdn 1941; Wing Leader, North Weald, 1941; commanded RAF Station, Hunsdon, 1941–42; RAF Station, Catterick, 1943; staff duty, Organisation, No. 10 Fighter Group, 1944; commanded RAF Station, Predannack, 1945.
The original design had been for Rommel to pause on the Egyptian frontier while Malta was invaded and captured; but Rommel was now eager to press on to Alexandria. Hitler supported him and Mussolini, although somewhat concerned at ‘Malta's active revival’, agreed that ‘the historic moment to conquer Egypt had now come and must be exploited.’ Accordingly, the invasion of Malta was postponed and, instead, Kesselring was ordered to keep her subdued so that Rommel's supply lines would be safeguarded. Kesselring was alarmed at the change of plan and pointed out the dangers of Rommel's ‘foolhardy enterprise’, but Rommel had his way.
So it came about that, in the opening days of July 1942, Malta was spared from invasion only to come once more under very heavy air attack. Kesselring now had some five hundred fighters and bombers at his disposal and in the first fortnight of July they flew about one thousand sorties against the island. Many times the attacks struck home against the airfields which were their main objective, but the enemy planes were given a hot reception by our anti-aircraft batteries, while the Spitfires by day and the Beaufighters by night shot down an increasing number. At the height of the attack six raiders were destroyed and nine damaged within an hour. That day the enemy control in Sicily was heard calling: ‘Look after that bomber in the sea.’ ‘Which one?’ answered one of their fighter pilots.
By 14 July the new assault on Malta had cost Kesselring forty-four aircraft, of which thirty-three were bombers. Malta's fighter losses for the same period were thirty-nine from which, thanks in large part to the fine work of the Air-Sea Rescue Service, twenty-six pilots survived to fight again. By mid-July the German attack had begun to weaken.
At this stage Air Vice-Marshal Park took over the air command at Malta. Thoroughly experienced in leading a vigorous fighter defence, he at once introduced a system of forward interception similar to that which he had employed so successfully in the Battle of Britain. Previously, because of the Hurricane's slow rate of climb, pilots had been compelled, when warned of the enemy's approach from the north, to gain height to the south of the island and then return to engage the attackers as they swept in across the coast. But Park felt that with the advent of the latest Spitfires in considerable numbers ‘the time had come to put an end to the bombing of our airfields in daylight.’ Accordingly he ordered his pilots to gain height while approaching the enemy and to intercept not over the island but as far north as possible. This scheme was an instant success, and in addition to continued slaughter of the enemy, there was a most welcome reduction in the proportion page 148 of bombs falling on Malta. Indeed, it was not long before the enemy was driven to adopt the same tactics as in the closing stages of the Battle of Britain—high-level fighter and fighter-bomber sweeps which kept the defences at full stretch but accomplished little else.
Having thus gained the initiative, Park was determined to hold it. At the beginning of August he told his fighter leaders: ‘Because our Spitfires, using the forward plan of interception, have recently stopped daylight raids it does not mean that only fighter sweeps are likely to be encountered over or near Malta in the future. Any sign of defensive tactics by our fighters will encourage the enemy to reintroduce bombers or fighter-bombers. Therefore, the more aggressively our fighters are employed the better will Malta be defended against daylight bombing.’ But Park's concern was not only for Malta's defence. And as far as conditions allowed, he sent his Beauforts and Wellingtons out to attack with torpedo and bomb; their operations soon proved highly profitable.
But to sustain this offensive and, at the same time, maintain Malta's hard-won air superiority, petrol was urgently needed. Indeed, despite deliveries by aircraft and submarine, the island was again in desperate need of supplies; food was still very scarce and bread strictly rationed. Accordingly, another convoy began to fight its way through from Gibraltar early in August. This time Malta's aircraft were able to make a larger contribution to its passage, but before the convoy came within their range it suffered severely at the hands of enemy bombers and torpedo-bombers from Sardinia and Sicily. Of fourteen merchant ships only five, including the crippled tanker Ohio, which was towed in with decks awash, finally reached Malta. Forty-one enemy aircraft were shot down but, in addition to the cargo ships sunk, we lost the aircraft carrier Eagle, two cruisers, a destroyer and eighteen aircraft. At this high cost, Malta received a new lease of life.
With some three months' petrol now in hand, Park at once stepped up the attack on the enemy's ports and airfields and, more particularly, against his shipping; for with Rommel's armies now threatening Egypt at El Alamein, it was essential to do everything possible to disrupt their long and vulnerable supply lines.
The torpedo-carrying Beauforts had remarkable success with their gallant low-level attacks. In three weeks they hit four large cargo ships, two of which were sunk, one left a blazing wreck and the fourth later beached; they also torpedoed two tankers, one of which blew up, throwing the superstructure high in the air, and the other was afterwards found beached and the surrounding sea covered with oil. In September over 120 sorties were flown from Malta against enemy ships, and these, in conjunction with others flown from Egypt and the patrols of our submarines, took increasing toll of the supply convoys.page 149
The enemy soon began to feel the effect of this onslaught. ‘Rommel is halted in Egypt because of lack of fuel,’ Ciano wrote in his diary. ‘Three of our tankers have been sunk in two days.’ And Admiral Weichold records: ‘The situation was becoming serious …. at the front the soldiers of the Afrika Korps fought and conquered but far from the decisive areas of the land fighting, the British were systematically throttling the supplies of the German-Italian Panzer Army. In September shipping losses were again very high, with 23,000 tons sunk and over 9,000 tons damaged.’ In October ‘practically every one of our convoys was spotted by the British air reconnaissance from Malta and successfully attacked. Of shipping proceeding to North Africa, 24,000 tons were lost and over 14,000 tons damaged—an enormous blow to the Italian Transport Fleet. Of the 32,000 tons of German cargo and 940 vehicles, only 19,000 tons and 580 vehicles reached North Africa. The loss of fuel was even greater; of almost 10,000 tons, only 3,300 tons reached Cyrenaica.’
All this was undoubtedly a major contribution to Rommel's defeat at El Alamein.
Meanwhile, vigorous fighter action from Malta had led to a further decrease in enemy air activity. In September the number of alerts fell to thirty-eight and on ten days no enemy aircraft at all approached the island; at night few bombers got close enough to attack, the rest being forced to drop their bombs in the sea. But as Malta's renewed striking power made itself felt, Hitler was compelled to order another blitz against the obstinate island and once again Kesselring assembled a large force of fighters and bombers in Sicily.
The new and, as it proved, final assault on Malta began on 10 October 1942. It met with little success. Time and again the enemy formations which, significantly enough, now consisted of a few bombers heavily escorted by fighters, were met and broken up well to the north of the island. After ten days of constant attacks, during which forty-six German aircraft were shot down, Kesselring withdrew his Ju88 bombers from the battle and thereafter the attacks gradually fell away. By the end of October, they had practically ceased.
At the height of the assault some bombs fell on Malta's airfields every day, but they were never put out of action for long. Reconnaissance aircraft continued their sorties without interruption and there was only one night when the bombers failed to take off against enemy shipping; and that was a night on which there were no targets within range of Malta. Such was the measure of the enemy's failure. Far from knocking Malta out, he had suffered damaging losses and between five hundred and six hundred aircraft had been kept tied down in Sicily at a time when they might have helped him more on other fronts.page 150
New Zealand fighter pilots continued to play their part in patrol and attack. Two of them, Flying Officer Stenborg1 and Sergeant Park,2 were among Malta's highest scoring pilots at this time. Stenborg landed on Malta from the carrier Eagle early in June, went into action immediately and within two months had destroyed six Messerschmitts. Twice he achieved the unusual feat of shooting down two enemy fighters in one flight. He was finally shot down himself but miraculously survived. Flung from his Spitfire at 13,000 feet while travelling at over 400 miles an hour, he landed in the sea five miles from Malta and was picked up by a rescue launch. Here is his account of that harrowing experience:
I was with an American sergeant flying at 31,000 feet. He saw Messerschmitts which I could not, so I told him to attack and I would follow, but as he went for six Huns, three more followed him up.
I shot down one from his tail at point-blank range, but the next minute a great chunk flew off my starboard wing. I heard explosions and the plane shook everywhere and black smoke poured into the cockpit. I began diving out of control at 27,000 feet.
I tried to get the hood off, but it would not budge. I tried all ways, while the Spitfire fell 14,000 feet at over 400 miles an hour, and the cockpit filled with smoke. I thought had had it. It was a horrible feeling; I was expecting the plane to blow up at any moment. But fortunately the hood came off, and I suddenly found myself thrown out. I had seen a German pilot open his parachute at that speed and his harness was ripped off by the force of the sheer speed, so I waited for a while before pulling the ripcord in order to slow up, and then I pulled the cord and landed in the sea.
I spent five minutes trying to get free from the parachute and get the dinghy working. That trip shook me to the teeth.
Sergeant Park arrived in Malta in mid-July at the same time as his namesake and commanding officer, Sir Keith Park. In the air battles of the next three months, he shot down eight enemy aircraft, shared in the destruction of another and damaged two more. Park was frequently in action during the heavy fighting in October. On the 12th, he reported three successful encounters. The first came shortly after dawn while he was on patrol with two other Spitfires from his squadron. Sighting a formation of seven Ju88 bombers, they made a head-on attack; Park shot one down and then, despite the efforts of the escorting German and Italian fighters, he turned and destroyed a second. On patrol again a few hours afterwards he attacked and damaged another bomber. And two days later he almost certainly destroyed a Messerschmitt and damaged a Ju88. That these successes were by no means easily won is shown by his report of a subsequent encounter:
We were patrolling at 21,000 feet, 20 miles north-east of Grand Harbour, when we sighted nine Junkers 88 with a swarm of fighters heading south. We turned into the attack, Red I and myself going into the bombers. I got on one bomber's tail, but my guns had frozen so I broke away, and after shaking off two attacking Messerschmitt 109s, I dived away down to 10,000 feet. On hearing the Ground Controller broadcast the height and position of the bombers, I went east to Kalafrana Bay, where the bombers were seen heading back to the north-east. I tried to intercept them, but was jumped by two M.E. 109s. I turned quickly to avoid, and after a complete turn got on a Messerschmitt's tail. I closed in without opening fire to about 100 yards, when he changed his turn and I gave him a three-second burst from dead astern. He went into a steep dive straight into the sea.
Unhappily, Park was lost in battle with a large formation of enemy fighters towards the end of October.
Other Spitfire pilots prominent in the air fighting during these months were Flying Officer Lattimer,1 Flight Sergeant Brough2 and Sergeants Philp,3 Hendry4 and Yeatman.5 During these months Lattimer was credited with the destruction of four enemy planes and damage to others; while taking part in the patrols that were flown to cover the arrival of the crippled tanker Ohio, Philp shot down one Ju87 dive-bomber and shared in the destruction of another. Hendry and Yeatman each reported successful combats during the October fighting. It is also interesting to record that the fighter airfield at Hal Far from which many of our pilots operated was commanded throughout the second half of 1942 by Wing Commander Dawson,6 himself an experienced fighter pilot, who had led Hurricanes in sweeps over France and had also made special low-level reconnaissances over enemy territory from Malta.
An amazing experience, unique in the air war, was shared by Brown and Wilkinson towards the end of July 1942. The Beaufort in which they were wireless operator-air gunners was hit during an attack on a convoy off the west coast of Greece and forced to land on the sea. It sank quickly but the crew managed to climb into their dinghy and began paddling towards the coast. Presently an Italian Cant float plane alighted on the sea near them. The Beaufort pilot, South African Lieutenant E. T. Strever, swam over to it and was received with brandy and cigarettes; shortly afterwards the rest of his crew were picked up and treated likewise, then the Cant taxied slowly to a harbour in the island of Corfu. Here the prisoners were taken to a camp, where the Italians again showed them every consideration, and an excellent dinner was followed by a lively party in the evening and comfortable beds in rooms vacated by Italian officers.
The next morning their captors informed them they would be taken to Italy by air. At this their hearts sank for this mode of transport offered no chance of escape. The only possibility, they decided, was to capture the plane; but how this was to be done no one knew.
Down at the harbour, their aircraft proved to be the same Cant with its crew of four, together with a corporal escort carrying a revolver. The plane took off and set course westwards; and for a while the flight proceeded uneventfully. Then suddenly Wilkinson saw an opportunity. Attracting the observer's attention, he hit him heavily on the jaw, jumped over his falling body and seized the astonished escort's revolver. Passing this to Strever he moved towards the pilot, using the corporal as shield. Strever followed close behind brandishing the revolver at the pilot, who attempted to draw his own gun and put the aircraft down on the water but, threatened again, he levelled out the aircraft and submitted to capture. Meanwhile Brown and his English navigator had disarmed and tied up the other Italians with their own belts; Strever now took over the controls.
The next problem was how to fly a strange aircraft without knowledge of its instruments, so they put the Italian second-pilot at the controls and set a rough course for Malta. At length they recognised the toe of Italy and, taking a chance in the matter of petrol, ordered the pilot to turn south for Malta. Eventually the island was sighted, but as the float plane came in low, three Spitfires swept down upon it. All efforts to explain the situation, including the waving of the navigator's singlet, proved unavailing, and when a stream of bullets poured through the wing Strever decided that the time had come to put down on the water. As the Cant landed, its engines spluttered and stopped from lack of petrol. It remained only for the captives, now turned captors, to climb out and signal frantically to the Spitfires, and before long a launch appeared to tow them in.
The British crew, feeling a little conscience-stricken at the way they had repaid the Italians' hospitality, could only offer their apologies and do all they could for the comfort of their captives. The latter cheerfully accepted the situation although they had, in fact, been proceeding on leave to the mainland—one of them even produced a bottle of wine which he insisted on sharing with the men who had so neatly turned the tables on him and his comrades.
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Malta now emerged triumphant from her long ordeal. For the victory of Park and his men in the October fighting had been decisive and the Germans, faced with a heavy Allied offensive from Egypt and a simultaneous attack from Algeria, could no longer spare forces to launch another assault. On 16 November 1942, a convoy sailed from Egypt to relieve the island. It was covered by aircraft of the Desert Air Force operating from their newly captured bases in Cyrenaica, and although attacked by torpedo-bombers during the passage across, it reached the approaches to Malta intact. Beaufighters and Spitfires flew out to cover the last 135 miles of the convoy's voyage and Wellingtons bombed the Sicilian airfields during its approach. The long line of ships entering Grand Harbour presented an easy target for enemy bombers; but none came. On every vantage point and amid the debris of their bombed buildings, the people and garrison stood to watch and cheer these ships. Naval bands played on the escort vessels. And during the following days the unloading proceeded uninterrupted, save for the sound of the Spitfires patrolling above. The relief had arrived none too soon for Park's squadrons were reduced to about a week's supply of aviation petrol; apart from this, near-starvation, disease, infantile paralysis and all the after-effects of undernourishment were to be found in Malta in the autumn of 1942.page 154
The advent of fresh supplies enabled Park to intensify the air offensive and give full support to the campaigns in Cyrenaica and in Algeria. More Wellingtons and Beaufighters arrived and Spitfires, adapted by local ingenuity to carry two 250 Ib. bombs beneath their wings, were now employed as fighter-bombers. On the night of 7 November, the Wellingtons struck at Cagliari airfield as a diversion for the initial landings in Algeria; thereafter they operated on every night except four in November and every night except seven in December, in spite of a good deal of bad weather towards the end of the year. Their principal targets were the enemy's ports and airfields in Tunisia and his air bases in Sicily and Sardinia, most of which were near enough for the bombers to make two sorties each on many nights. Substantial damage was done to port installations, railways, stores, petrol dumps and airfields—and photographic reconnaissance revealed that on several days in November the chief German air base at El Aouina in Tunisia was out of action because of the many craters in the landing area.
The Beaufighters operated with increasing success. Sweeping over the area bounded by Tunis, Sirte and Tripoli, they attacked shipping with bomb, cannon and machine gun; they also strafed aerodromes, shot up trains and transport columns and, in company with Spitfires, intercepted enemy air convoys on their way to and from Africa. One day early in December six Beaufighters and eight Spitfires on a sweep off Pantellaria sighted two large formations of Ju52 transports escorted by Ju88s and Me110s. The Spitfires took on the escort and, having shot down four of them, overtook the transports and destroyed two, probably destroyed another and damaged two more. Meanwhile the Beaufighters had shot down no fewer than six Ju52s and damaged four more. An Me110 which came up to see what was happening was promptly shot down by the Spitfires; we lost only one Beaufighter, with two others and a Spitfire damaged. Altogether, during November and December, the Beaufighters and Spitfires destroyed over fifty transport aircraft in the air and many others on the ground.
Spitfire bombers, which had been prevented from operating by the shortage of fuel, began harassing attacks on Sicilian aerodromes towards the end of November; by the end of the following month they had flown a total of 133 sorties, bombing and strafing airfield buildings and grounded aircraft at Comiso, Gela and Lampedusa. And along with this mounting offensive both by bombers and fighters, the reconnaissance aircraft kept up their valuable sorties over enemy airfields, ports and naval bases, while the torpedo-bombers—Beauforts by day and Wellingtons by night—continued their highly effective attacks on enemy ships.
Malta's efforts to help others did not pass unnoticed. During November, Eisenhower was ‘most grateful for splendid support afforded page 155 by air operations from Malta’, and Montgomery later paid high tribute to Park and his men for ‘the great assistance rendered to the Eighth Army during the advance along the African Desert.’
With the early months of 1943, Malta swung more and more over to the attack. Convoys were now arriving steadily with war material and enemy air activity had fallen away so much that it was quite an event when a few Messerschmitts flew high over the coast. Fighters, bombers and fighter-bombers ranged out in greater strength to strike at the enemy over a wide area; they bombed and machine-gunned his ports and airfields; they attacked his ships both in harbour and at sea; they strafed his columns on the coast road between Tripoli and Tunis; and they shot up railways in Sicily and Italy.
This last activity grew in importance as the months passed for the enemy relied largely on the railways to run material down to Sicily, where it could be loaded on small craft bound for Tunisia. The railways which follow the coast southward from Naples and Taranto to meet opposite the Messina train ferry, and the railway leading westward along the north coast of Sicily to Palermo, became a happy hunting ground for Mosquitos, Beaufighters and Spitfires. And the results of their attacks were quite spectacular. In January, fourteen locomotives were reported destroyed or severely damaged; in February there were thirty; and in March the figure rose to seventy-four, permanently or temporarily out of action. Reconnaissance aircraft also maintained a high level of activity, keeping watch on all enemy movements, on his embarkation ports and the routes by which he attempted to run supplies to North Africa. For it was on the information brought back by the photographic Spitfires and Baltimores that the striking forces were briefed.
In the months of January, February and March, Malta's bombers and torpedo-bombers claimed nine vessels sunk, fourteen probably sunk and many others damaged. A typical strike was made in mid- March when a reconnaissance Baltimore sighted a southbound convoy, with a destroyer escort, in the Gulf of Taranto. Nine Beauforts, escorted by Beaufighters, were briefed to attack, and some five hours later found the convoy protected by about fifteen Me110s and Ju88s. While the Beaufighters engaged the air escort, the Beauforts went for the largest vessel, a tanker of about 8000 tons. Three hits were seen, a column of water and a cloud of smoke rose from the ship and more smoke poured from its decks. A Baltimore sent to photograph the results of the action could find nothing except a Ju88 and a twin-engined flying-boat circling a patch of oil, a quarter of a mile in diameter.
In all these various operations New Zealand airmen were well represented. With the Wellington bombers, Wing Commander J. E. S. page 156 Morton, Flight Lieutenant McLachlan1 and Flying Officer A. B. Smith of No. 40 Squadron, together with Flight Lieutenant H. H. Beale, Flight Sergeant Sommerville2 and Sergeant Muggeridge3 of No. 104 Squadron, all achieved a fine record as captains of aircraft.
Morton, who commanded his squadron at Malta, was described as ‘one of the outstanding bomber pilots operating from Malta at this time.’ On one occasion when Bizerta was covered with low cloud, he went in below it and, despite searchlights and intense anti-aircraft fire, hit the railway junction by the dockside; on another night he scored a direct hit on a merchant vessel in a small harbour near Tunis, his success being confirmed by other aircraft. McLachlan and Smith both made a series of good attacks in the offensive against Tripoli, Sfax, Sousse, Tunis and Bizerta and on the Sicilian supply ports. Beale, Sommerville and Muggeridge also flew consistently and effectively with their squadron against these targets.
All displayed those essential qualities of a good bomber pilot—careful flight planning, with reliable and steady flying. Nor did they lack courage when the occasion demanded. On the airfield one night Beale drove up to a crashed aircraft which was burning with a bomb load on board, and just before the machine blew up he got a lorry away— for transport of any kind was at a premium on Malta. Muggeridge bombed targets on three occasions when his Wellington had already been damaged and he was quite entitled to turn away for base; Sommerville made a particularly determined attack on the port of Tripoli in January 1943, despite an unusually intense and accurate barrage of anti-aircraft fire. Also with No. 104 Squadron were Flying Officers R. C. Earl and Parker,4 both of whom captained bomber aircraft, and Flying Officer Peterson,5 who did good work as air gunner and unit gunnery leader.
Squadron Leader Crafts2 led a Spitfire squadron with notable success in attacks on enemy airfields and on Italian railway traffic; Sergeants Houlton,3 Hendry, Mortimer4 and Pilot Officer Piggott5 also flew Spitfires on many such missions. On one occasion Houlton was returning from an attack on the airfield at Gela in Sicily when he sighted a formation of eight Ju52 transports flying about 1000 feet above the sea. He attacked three of the aircraft in turn. The first held its formation but the second was definitely hit and turned back towards Sicily; the troops in the third aircraft put up a barrage of small-arms fire from the windows, but Houlton saw his own guns register hits round the pilot's cockpit and when last seen the transport was losing height very close to the sea.
Hendry, Piggott and Mortimer each reported successful actions during a sweep over the Sicily-Tunis channel. North of Cape Bon, Hendry and Piggott caught an Italian Fiat Br20 bomber at sea level and made a simultaneous attack; both engines were hit and the aircraft immediately plunged into the sea, where it exploded in a sheet of flame. Fifteen minutes later the Spitfires intercepted an aerial train of some thirty transports flying at sea level, escorted by long-range Messerschmitts. Mortimer was engaged by one of the German fighters but he eventually drove it off with black smoke pouring from its starboard engine. Hendry saw a large four-engined Ju90 detach itself from the main body of the transports and climb slowly towards the safety of cloud cover; he overtook it and was able to fire a burst just as it disappeared. Climbing sharply, he picked out the ponderous shape of the Junkers passing below him through breaks in the cloud. He opened fire and scored strikes on the starboard wing, which began to trail black smoke; when he last saw it the transport was steadily losing height.
4 Flight Lieutenant J. E. Mortimer, DFC; born Auckland, 12 Jul 1916; warehouseman; joined RNZAF 13 Apr 1941; shot down over Somme Estuary, 3 Oct 1943; evaded capture for eleven months; reported safe 8 Sep 1944.
One night in January 1943, Hornung attacked an enemy cargo vessel of some 4000 tons, escorted by a destroyer; there was a barrage of light anti-aircraft fire from both ships during his attack and breakaway, but at least one of the two torpedoes struck the merchant vessel, which immediately burst into flames.
Fraser had an exceptional fortnight at the beginning of February. On the 2nd, he was despatched against a 6000-ton tanker which two search aircraft had picked up in a convoy off the south-east coast of Italy. When he reached the area the illuminating Wellington had only one flare left, and because of the position in which it fell, Fraser had to make a difficult head-on attack in order to silhouette the tanker and avoid the two escorting destroyers. But he managed to release his first torpedo at a range of 700 yards and get away before either destroyer could fire a shot. The tanker caught fire and was subsequently beached. Five days later Fraser shared in seriously damaging a 6000-ton merchant ship. Then, on 15 February, he attacked a second tanker of 5000 tons. It was escorted by two destroyers and intense anti-aircraft fire damaged the Wellington and wounded one of the crew, but Fraser had the satisfaction of seeing his torpedo strike the tanker amidships.
During the spring and early summer of 1943, Park's squadrons continued the offensive with increasing vigour. They played an important part in the short but fiercely contested campaign in Tunisia which came in April as the Eighth Army advance from Libya linked up with that of the Anglo-American armies from Algeria. Simultaneously, they were making intensive preparations for the assault on Sicily. For Malta was soon to enjoy the sweet revenge of acting as a stepping-stone for the invasion of that island which had tormented her for so long; and she would also help with the landings in Italy.
By the end of May 1943, there were 600 first-line aircraft at Malta as against 200 only six months previously; among the new arrivals that month were four whole Spitfire wings and more Mosquito and Beaufighter squadrons. New landing grounds—one of them built in the record time of twenty-eight days—had been blasted out of rock and old airfields greatly enlarged to take the expanding air force. New operations room and additional signals facilities had been provided and the island restocked with technical spares, fuel and other equipment. Thus equipped and armed, Malta dominated the central Mediterranean and provided a forward striking base for the coming invasion of Italy by the Allied forces.page 159
So the wheel turned full circle. And, in September 1943, by which time Sicily had been conquered and Italy invaded, they paused to remember. That month ‘Faith’, the sole survivor of the three original Gladiator fighters which had faced the first onslaught of the Italian Air Force, was brought from the bottom of a quarry where she had lain for nearly three years and, with appropriate ceremony, presented to the people of Malta by Air Marshal Sir Keith Park. And there, in honoured place, she stands today, a symbol of the courage and fortitude with which the long battle of Malta was fought.