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Episodes & Studies Volume 2


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‘The key to our position in the whole Mediterranean lay in Malta.’

Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder,Cambridge University, 1947

ON A CLEAR DAY from the Grand Harbour of Malta the coast of Sicily is visible as a faint blue line on the horizon only sixty miles away. Throughout 1939, with the Italian Air Force well established in Sicily and able to assemble up to 900 first-line aircraft, Malta lay under the threat of Axis air power. It was officially believed that little use could be made of the island as a naval or air base should the war spread to the Mediterranean, a belief which had prevailed since sanctions against Italy were mooted in 1935. Moreover, there was some justification in the assumption that, in the Central Mediterranean, French forces from the West could co-operate adequately with the Royal Navy and Imperial forces from Egypt, while Italy itself could be attacked from the Tunisian airfields.* The difficulty of holding Malta might therefore have no grave consequences. The island's long history, which had seen it as the military fortress of the Knights of St. John and as Nelson's ‘important outwork to India’, now seemed temporarily to be closed. As the year 1940 opened, Italian intentions became clear; accordingly, the Royal Navy withdrew its Mediterranean Fleet to Gibraltar and Alexandria, and the Royal Air Force dispersed its squadrons. There were plans for four fighter squadrons based on Malta but the Battle of France was approaching; no squadrons were sent and His Majesty's Aircraft Carrier Glorious was withdrawn with her squadrons of fighters to take part in the Norwegian campaign. In the shadow of the airfields of Sicily and Southern Italy, it was difficult to see how Malta, which had been held in turn as a fortress and a naval base, could persist as an aerodrome.

In the three eventful years that followed, during which the Royal Air Force both defended the island and demonstrated its unique value in the Mediterranean campaigns, Malta's airmen made a proud record. By the end of 1942 the defensive years in the Mediterranean were over; it is with those years that this account is concerned. The airmen who made up this small force on the island came from every part of the British Commonwealth. New Zealand representation was necessarily not large—a total of 84 New Zealanders served in Malta during this period—but two of the three Air Officers Commanding were New Zealanders.

On 26 January 1940 Air Commodore F. H. M. Maynard, AFC,1 a New Zealand officer in the Royal Air Force, was appointed to Malta as Air Officer Commanding, Royal Air Force, Mediterranean. Maynard had had long service in the air arm. He had joined the Royal Naval Air Service in 1915, and in the inter-war years had spent two tours of duty in the Middle East and had held various commands in the organisation for the Air Defence of Great Britain. He came to Malta from the Air Ministry.

* Three years of war in the Mediterranean were to pass before this strategy became possible.

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Air Commodore Maynard's contribution to the new chapter in Malta's history was his conviction that the island could be held. The record of his sixteen months in command at Malta is not so much one of dramatic air successes as of difficult strategic decisions made on the most tenuous resources. Determined to offer some opposition, Maynard was fortunate to find four Gladiator biplanes still in their packing cases which the Glorious had left behind. On 19 April he formed a fighter flight at Hal Far airfield, where three of these obsolete fighters were assembled, given the names of ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’, and ‘Charity’, and flown by members of his personal staff and surplus flying-boat pilots.

Malta could do little but wait for the Italians to begin the fight. At midnight on 10 June 1940 Italy declared war. The Regia Aeronautica was not slow to start. The island had its first air raid at dawn, followed by seven more before nightfall and by forty-nine before the month ended. Air Commodore Maynard also succeeded in retaining four Hurricanes which were in transit through France to Egypt; his total of seven fighters, backed by the Army's anti-aircraft defences and an efficient radar warning system, enabled the island to survive. Under the Governor- General, Sir William Dobbie, air-raid precautions were well organised and the morale of the Maltese remained generally high. Maynard was assisted by a lack of real enemy aggressiveness, for from the Italian point of view there was no need for haste: Mussolini's attention was attracted to Albania, where unbeknown to his Axis partner he was preparing an invasion of Greece. But on 25 June 1940 the whole strategic picture abruptly darkened. France fell, a German Armistice Commission visited Tunisia, and the entire Mediterranean coastline, save Egypt, Palestine, and the islands of Cyprus and Malta, was closed to the British Fleet. Malta, lying in the Narrow Seas of the Central Mediterranean, was now the Royal Air Force's loneliest command, for the nearest British base at Alexandria was some 800 miles away and Gibraltar almost 1000. Italy could cut the Mediterranean in two if she could eliminate the island airfield.

Malta offered special problems for an Air Commander. From the air it was a compact and seemingly easy target, measuring only seventeen miles by nine, with an area of about ninety- five square miles. Two islands, Comino and Gozo, lie conveniently off the north-west tip to orient any incoming pilot. The four military targets, the Grand Harbour and the three airfields, were confined in the eastern half of this small area and linked only by dusty and tortuous lanes. The condition of the airfields was poor. Hal Far on the south coast was a narrow strip, limited by rocky outcrops and ravines. Ta Kali to the north, dominated by hills on three sides and familiar to Italian civil pilots, had been built on the site of an ancient lake and its grass surface bogged easily. But despite the unpromising future, Air Commodore Maynard persisted with the building of a bomber airfield at Luqa, in the centre of the island, overlooking Valetta and the Grand Harbour. Its construction was a triumph of ingenuity, since the whole area had to be levelled from hills, quarries, and nullahs. Villages, each with its large church, crowded upon the airfield. There were no tools for airfield construction, yet the most primitive Maltese labouring methods with horse and cart succeeded in building the longest runway on the island, 1200 yards of tarmac. Aircraft dispersal was a major problem, since every yard of the island's poor soil was needed for food 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.

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One natural advantage was the island's pale limestone which was soft to work and yet hardened quickly on exposure. The fact that it was an island of rock contributed largely to Malta's survival. Given the labour, bomb damage could be readily repaired, and fire, which devastated the bombed European cities, was no real danger. The people went underground. Natural caves and the old tunnels of a defunct railway were enlarged by British coalminers, now working as Royal Engineers' tunnellers, to form adequate air-raid shelters. When raiding aircraft were close to the island, ships in the Grand Harbour were put on the alert by a yellow flag while the congested population were warned by a red flag and siren. The 270,000 inhabitants prepared for a state of siege. The ancient underground granaries of the Knights of St. John were a safe store for the island's supply of grain. But Malta, which had depended for its existence on peacetime Service establishments, was virtually unproductive, and stocks of food and all war material had to come by sea. Above all, petrol, the bugbear of every Mediterranean commander, was at a premium. Public transport stopped; horses, it was true, pulled carozzins for hire, but were marked down as ‘reserve meat ration’.

For these first seven months of Italian attack Malta continued unexpectedly to survive. Convoys came through under cover of the Battle Fleet, and gradually Air Commodore Maynard built up a Hurricane fighter defence, obtaining reinforcements from Egypt or by aircraft-carrier through the Western Mediterranean, in spite of the pressing need for these fighters in Great Britain. page 6 Maynard carefully husbanded his forces. On a coloured chart in his office was plotted every type of operation against the weekly allowance of petrol. There was soon a complete Hurricane squadron, of which Flight-Sergeant R. J. Hyde2 was a member, and formations of up to twenty Italian Fiat fighters and Savoia-Marchetti bombers were met and dispersed by seldom more than two Hurricanes and one Gladiator. By the beginning of August Maynard's view that Malta could not only be held but used to tremendous advantage was definitely accepted. While Royal Air Force aircraft supplied accurate reconnaissance, Royal Naval surface craft, submarines, and torpedo-bombers were increasingly successful in their attacks on Italian merchant vessels running to North Africa. Equally valuable was the island's use, with Gibraltar, as a vital link in the aircraft reinforcement route to the Middle East.

By October Italian plans in the Mediterranean were beginning to go awry, and the German High Command, which had originally intended to leave the Mediterranean area in the hands of Italy while concentrating on the Russian offensive for the summer of 1941, was forced to adopt a more positive role in the Central Mediterranean. By January 1941 Italian forces were ignominiously retreating in North Africa, while the Italian Navy was proving incapable of commanding the Mediterranean, with the losses at Taranto and, later, at Matapan, as outstanding instances. Malta was unsubdued, and the German decision to reinforce the Italian Army in North Africa required the neutralisation of this island base. Accordingly, a complete coastal air group, Fliegerkorps X, was transferred from Norway to Sicily with some 260 first-line aircraft, mostly Stuka dive-bombers and Messerschmitt 109 fighters. On 10 January His Majesty's Aircraft Carrier Illustrious limped back into the Grand Harbour after being heavily hit, and the period which became known as the ‘Illustrious blitz’ had begun. But Malta stood firm, as it had against the Italian Air Force. Its shipping offensive, however, practically ceased, while the Luftwaffe forced the re-routing of Middle East convoys around the Cape of Good Hope, thus impeding the supply of war material to the British forces in Greece and allowing the free running of Axis convoys to North Africa. Again other campaigns produced distractions, and in April 1941 the Luftwaffe, after transferring its dive-bombers to Rommel's Afrika Korps, left Sicily to support the Balkan and Russian campaigns. Enemy operations over Malta devolved again upon the Italian Air Force, and there was a general lull.

Air Vice-Marshal Maynard,* who had guided Malta through the Italian and German offensives in turn, could now be relieved. His achievements had been considerable. In the face of superior types of enemy aircraft and immensely superior numbers, his handful of fighters had been credited with fifty aircraft destroyed and as many damaged. The island now boasted two complete Hurricane squadrons. Maynard initiated plans for a swift build-up of the fighter defence in preparation for the island's coming offensive role. During May and June 185 Hurricanes, some of which were destined for the Middle East theatre, were flown into Malta from aircraft-carriers. Maynard's development of Luqa airfield was proving invaluable, and in the attack on the Axis sea lanes the Royal Air Force, whose function to date had largely been reconnaissance, could share the offensive with the Royal Navy. It was clear that Malta was not the ‘military liability’ which it had appeared at the outbreak of war. On 1 June 1941 Air Vice-Marshal Maynard handed over his command to Air Vice-Marshal H. P. Lloyd.3

* In February 1941 Maynard's post in Malta was regraded from Air Commodore to Air Vice-Marshal. By a special award, in recognition of the defence of the island, he was created a Companion of the Order of the Bath.