April 15, 1942 - The Siege of Malta during World War II
Updated: Jun 11, 2021
April 15, 1942. King George VI of the United Kingdom awards the George Cross to the entire island of Malta. Ever since World War II came to the Mediterranean, Malta has been at the eye of the storm: the epicenter of the Axis struggle to defeat the British. This brave little island, more than anyone else, deserves this debt of gratitude.
Malta is a tiny spit of rock in the Mediterranean Sea, about midway between Sicily and the North African coast. Its position has made it a strategic chokepoint for a long time, essentially dominating the divide between the western and eastern Mediterranean seas. Its good harbor and craggy shores make it both beautiful and robust – an excellent defensive position and a gorgeous vacation spot.
The island had passed from hand to hand until the Order of the Knights Hospitaller gained it in 1530 by gift of the King of Spain. The Knights had been the long-term enemies of the Ottoman Empire, and in 1565 the Ottomans assaulted the tiny island in what has become known as the Great Siege. This struggle served as the high-water mark of Ottoman rule and proved to be a decisive battle in European history; the Knights stopped the Turks cold in their tracks.
From this time until 1800, the Knights ruled Malta, but in that year the British quietly took over the island to protect it from Napoleon’s France. From that point on, the British Empire controlled Malta as one of its critical posts in the Mediterranean Sea. Malta was the critical link between Gibraltar on the coast of Spain in the West and Egypt and Cyprus in the East. This tiny little linchpin, a quiet island of shepherds and shipwrights, maintained the British Empire throughout the inland sea.
Malta was a poor island, and only British military movement brought any income to its shores. By 1921, the increasing poverty of the residents brought the institution of Home Rule. This was partially in gratitude for World War I; huge numbers of British soldiers fighting at Gallipoli and in Egypt were nursed to health at Malta, which become known as the “Nurse of the Mediterranean.” In 1921, the British allowed self-government and the election of an assembly.
Malta’s political entanglements were multiple. The Catholic Church held vast sway over the island, despite British beliefs, and language became a major issue as well. Despite the prevalence of English and Maltese, Italian was a major tongue as well, and multiple disputes broke out over who really governed in Malta. The tiny island was a conglomerate of competing identities and beliefs throughout the 1930s.
And then the war came.
Italy declared war against the British Empire on June 10, 1940. Italy was directly north of Malta, controlled the inland seas of the Mediterranean, and posed a major threat to this tiny linchpin of the Empire. Malta had a garrison of 4,000 soldiers and few food supplies, as well as only a few antiaircraft guns and 8 (literally eight) airplanes to defend it. From that moment on, the Siege of Malta had begun. The beleaguered island would be literally surrounded by Axis planes, troops, and ships.
The day after the Italian declaration of war, on June 11, 1940, six attacks hit the island. The British rushed planes and supplies to Malta, realizing its crucial importance. If Malta did not hold, then the Mediterranean became an Axis province, and they could knock out Egypt or Gibraltar at will. All of a sudden, a sleepy island concerned with its own autonomy had become Ground Zero for one of the greatest struggles of World War II.
For the next two years, Malta was bombarded day and night by Italian and German aircraft. The British sent multiple squadrons of fighter planes, as well as hundreds of antiaircraft guns, to defend their tiny fortress in the sea. In 1941, when Rommel’s Afrika Korps was sent to help the Italians in North Africa, Malta became even more important because it sat astride the critical supply lines that sent food, tanks, fuel and reinforcements to the desert army. Planes from Malta could bomb and sink convoys headed to Africa, crippling Rommel’s already tenuous supply chain.
With fewer than 60 planes, the Royal Air Force threw back attacks by both Germans and Italians. Spare parts were hard to come by, ammo was scarce, and fuel had to be run in by vulnerable convoys escorted by Royal Navy ships. The British Navy lost many ships bringing supplies and troops to Malta; on one such voyage in November 1941, a British aircraft carrier and a battleship were sunk by U-Boats after delivering aircraft to Malta. There was no complaint. By constricting Axis supply lines and serving as a supply base for Egypt, Malta had to be kept alive whatever the cost.
By December 1940, 330 civilians had died and 297 were wounded by the Axis aerial bombardment. Day and night the enemy pummeled the little rock in the sea, but they fought back hard. The German Tenth Air Korps’ arrival in January 1941 brought further pain, with 820 more civilians killed. Against it all, the island slagged away; Axis aircraft were shot down in droves, and the island held out against all odds.
Malta was critical both as an air base and as a midpoint between Gibraltar and Egypt. The British used Malta to send critical aircraft from Britain --- Gibraltar on the coast of Spain ---- Malta --- Egypt. These aircraft were vital to stopping Rommel and his Afrika Korps, and the supply lines had to remain open. As an air base, planes based in Malta sunk over half the Axis shipping that crossed the Mediterranean in 1941. Over half of the tanks sent to reinforce Rommel in North Africa were sent to the bottom.
In April 1942, the Axis planned to launch an amphibious assault on Malta with airborne divisions. This attack was called off due to Hitler’s nerves about a full-on airborne assault after the failure of the Crete battle in 1941 (coming on May 20) and the German Luftwaffe promising that they had neutralized Malta through their bombing. They were wrong, of course, but Hitler believed them. Britain had regained air superiority through daring convoy runs to Malta and reigned supreme once again. It is tempting to wonder what might have happened had Germany and Italy dared to attack Malta and finally secure their supply lines through the Mediterranean.
On April 15, 1942, King George VI of Great Britain awarded Malta the George Cross, an award created for this war. It was a special recognition of the heroism and sacrifice exhibited by the native Maltese, a semi-Italian people who had no part in World War II. They had nonetheless done everything they could in the face of Axis tyranny. They had endured air attack, starvation, war requirements, and outfitted ships and planes to defend their tiny spit of land in the sea. They had even prepared for an attack by enemy parachute troops, although that never materialized.
The award changed little. Tough times were still ahead for Malta. The biggest relief effort for the little island, Operation Pedestal, took place in August 1942; four British aircraft carriers, two battleships, and over 60 other ships ran a critical shipment of supplies and ammunition to the isolated fortress. The most critical ship was the American ship SS Ohio, bearing aircraft fuel for its defenders of the sky. Struck by German and Italian bombers, submarines, and mines, fewer than 5 of 14 ships made it to Malta, but despite heavy damage to ships and loss of men, the convoy kept Malta fed and fighting.
The long Siege of Malta only ended when the Allies landed in Algeria in November 1942, finally extending their air curtain over the island. The Allies would later invade Sicily and Italy with their headquarters on Malta, Dwight D. Eisenhower directing the assault on Sicily from the deep stone bunkers on the miniscule crag of rock. Never had so little land been so crucial to the fate of the world.
After World War II was over, the British allowed for Malta to have a slow move towards true self-government. With many false starts and some controversy, by 1964 Malta had truly gained full independence. It remains a proud, tiny country to this day, secure in its own destiny amidst the wine-dark sea of the Mediterranean. Malta has proved its courage time and again, no more than in its darkest days, when it was under siege by air, land and sea during the Second World War.