The Siege Of Malta In WW2

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Children on the Island of Malta

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The Battle of Malta

At one point in World War II, the tiny Mediterranean Island Malta, a British outpost, was the most bombed place on earth. The Italians and later, the Germans were determined to wrestle control of Malta from the British. Considering its location in the proximity to Italy, Sicily, and Tunisia, it was a thorn in the side of the Axis powers. Italy attacked Malta in June 1940 after declaring war on the Allies. The Italians were set on laying siege to Malta with its air and naval forces. Malta’s became even worse when France signed the armistice. Malta was left with a potential German takeover of the powerful French fleet and its bases in the Mediterranean and North Africa. At that time Malta had a meager defense of 14 antiaircraft, 4 Gladiator bi-plane fighters, and five old Fairey Swordfish torpedo planes. The first Italian raid consisted of 25 Savoia Marchetti SM-79 bombers, escorted by 12 Macchi C.200 single-engine, single-seat fighters. After several attacks in which the Gladiators rose to attack the Italians, one was lost, leaving Malta with only fighter planes, apt named “Faith, Hope and Charity.”

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SM.79 Sparviero Italian Bomber

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Italian Macchi C.200 Saetta Fighter

In June Malta received reinforcement from North Africa in the form of 4 Hawker Hurricanes fighters, and 12 of the venerable Swordfish torpedo bombers to attack Italian shipping. This small infusion was able to deter the Italians. Meanwhile the British Navy negated the threat of the French Navy interfering on the side of the Axis by attacking the Vichi Fleet Oran and Mers-el-Kebir in Vichy-French occupied Algeria. When the French did not comply, the British destroyed several of their ship, effectively neutralizing the French. This action allowed the British to re-supply Malta from Gibraltar in the west, and Alexandria in the east. Malta had now withstood 6 months of attacks by the Italians, however, the Italian were failing miserably in North Africa. Germany stepped by inserting General Evrin Rommel in North Africa to save the day. The Germans knew Malta was a direct threat to their supply lines, so they intensified the air attacks on the island early in 1941.

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German Junkers JU 88 Bomber

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German Messerschmitt Fighter

In May the Germans have a change in plans when they turn eastward to attack Russia in June 1941. As a result, they withdraw air assets from the Mediterranean. The British used this lull to re-supply Malta and go on the attack against Axis shipping. The tide of war took another turn when in late 1941 the British were driving Rommel back in North Africa. The air assets sent to the Eastern Front were returned to the Mediterranean, this time determined to bring Malta to its knees. The Messerschmitt Bf 109 F was a terror in the sky nearly decimating the Hurricanes. To counter this action the British desperately needed to bring in their top fighter, the Spitfire, in large numbers. The most logical route was to ferry them in from the west past Gibraltar by aircraft carrier, dubbed “Club Runs.” Now that the American had joined the fight, in April 1942 the USS Wasp, along with accompanying ships ferried 47 Spitfires to within flying distance to Malta. All but one arrived, however, the Luftwaffe had anticipated this plan and immediately attacked, destroying many of the Spits. Undeterred, the Allies executed another “Club Run” in May. This time they launched 64 Spitfires, 61 arrived on Malta. This time, the planes landed re-fueled and new pilots flew back in the air to meet the Luftwaffe. In the ensuing air engagement, the British shot down 47 Axis aircraft.

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Beitish Hawker Hurrican Fighter

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USS Wasp Aircraft Carrier Ferrying Spitfires

Despite the heroic efforts of the people, pilots; men like George Beurling (Falcon of Malta) and soldiers, the immediate future of Malta looked bleak. Malta needed to be continuously supplied by sea, this was a very dangerous proposition in the Mediterranean. By mid-summer Malta was down to its last resources, predictions were that they could not last much longer. British military leaders were advising Churchill that Malta could not be saved. Churchill decided to roll the dice and ordered a convoy in force(Operation Pedestal) to supply Malta. In August a convoy of 14 merchant ships, protected by two forces consisting of 3 carriers, 2 battleships, 7 cruisers, and 32 destroyers. When the convoy reached the Sicilian channel the Axis began their attack. Over the next several days of intensive fighting the battle hung in the balance. When the remnants o the convoy arrived, it was apparent of the cost. Nine of the merchant ships were lost at sea. One carrier, two cruisers, and destroyer were lost. One fuel carrying merchant ship in particular, signified the battle, the Ohio. Badly damaged and under constant attack, arrived with enough fuel for a ten-week supply.

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SS Ohio Entering Malta Harbor

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Operation Pedestal Supply Convoy To Malta

For its heroic perseverance Malta was awarded the “George Cross” by King George VI.His Majesty, King George VI visited the Island of Malta in June 1943 to honor the people of Malta. In December, Again, Malta would be honored with a visit of another world leader when President Roosevelt visited Malta; his words are immortalized on the walls of the Palace in Valletta: “In the name of the People of the United States of America, I salute the Island of Malta, its people and defenders, who, in the cause of freedom and justice and decency throughout the world, have rendered valorous service far above and beyond the call of duty. Under repeated fire from the skies, Malta stood alone but unafraid in the center of the sea, one tiny bright flame in the darkness – a beacon of hope for the clearer days which have come.”

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> Field-Marshal Lord Gort, King George VI, Hon. D. C. Campbell on Malta

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George Cross awarded To Malta

Two significant battles in Egypt turned the tide in North Africa. The battles of El Alamein fought in July and October. As a result of these battles the Afrika Korps was in full retreat. The long and deadly siege of Malta was lifted at the end of the year. The full effect of the siege break was felt by Malta when supply convoys arrived virtually unscathed in November and December. In 1943 Malta would now have an opportunity to repay the Italians by becoming the staging -point for the invasion of Sicily, and later, the Italian mainland. In July 1943, Allied Commander, General Eisenhower and command group set up command on Malta in the Lascaris War Rooms, a tunnel complex that had served as the command office for the defense of the island. It was here that the Allies would prepare for one of the largest amphibious operations of the war. The island was now filled with air, sea, and naval forces.

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Italian Premier Pietro Badoglio and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower on battleship HMS Nelson for Italian surrender

After an elaborate deception, the Allies executed Operation Husky on July 10, 1943. Over 400 Spitfires provided cover for an armada of 3,000 ships of all sizes. The Allied commanders were Sir Bernard Montgomery of the British 8th Army, And American General George S. Patton of the 7th Army. The air dominance was so complete that the Axis were only able to offer token resistance. After 30 days of bitter fighting the Allies take Sicily. In addition to Sicily, the Allies launched an invasion of the Italian mainland, Allied bombers attacked and bombed the city of Rome. As a result of the reversal in fortunes, on July 25th King Victor Emmanuel III meets with Mussolini, removes him from office, and has him arrested. He is replaced by Marshal Pietro Badoglio, who announces plans to continue the war. However, on August 6, secret negotiations between Eisenhower and Badoglio begin for the surrender of Italy. The Badoglio government sign the armistice of surrender in September. A second armistice on the HMS Nelson in the harbor of Malta. The Germans immediately move troops into northern Italy, and free Mussolini from house arrest in a daring commando raid. He is installed in an opposition puppet government, and the war continues.

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