From undefended to ‘island fortress’: Malta's strategic role in WW2

Malta’s strategic role in WW2 is often either inflated for romantic reasons, or minimised as merely ‘symbolic’. But why would the Allies mobilise such a massive operation to save a ‘symbol’? RAPHAEL VASSALLO revisits the island’s military significance to both sides of the conflict

Valletta 1942
Valletta 1942

Malta’s strategic importance in the early part of World War II has been vigorously debated ever since.

Looking back 70 years later, it is evident that the Allies were willing to invest considerable resources in maintaining a naval base in the middle of the Mediterranean; and common sense dictates that one does not invest heavily in unimportant things.

Nor does one commit so many lives and resources to destroying a target, unless its destruction can be demonstrated to serve a vital purpose. So even the fact that both Germany and Italy were evidently hell-bent on destroying that base – or at least, rendering it inoperative – suggests a strategic significance that was appreciated on both sides of the conflict.

But this view emerges only with the hindsight of how the Mediterranean theatre of war would evolve until Italy’s unconditional surrender in September 1943. At the beginning of the same war, the strategic worth of Malta was not immediately apparent at all. In fact, from the outset there were indications that the island was not considered top priority for either Axis or Allied command.

Recently declassified documents reveal that up until 1940, Sir Winston Churchill was willing to offer Malta to Italy on a silver platter, as part of a deal to keep Mussolini’s forces out of the war altogether. This ‘diplomatic’ approach would cease immediately upon Italy’s declaration of hostilities on 10 June 1940. But even at this point, little effort seems to have gone into protecting Malta from attack… or even, for that matter, in attacking her.

Paradoxically, having refused Churchill’s offer to take Malta without a fight, Mussolini proceeded to pass up a unique opportunity to annex the island with only minimal effort. In June 1940, Malta was almost his for the taking: Its total aerial defence capability may have since gone into legend as ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’ (as the three Gloster Gladiators later came to be known – though in reality were more than three, and other aircraft too) but, valiant though they undeniably proved in dogfights, they were already considered obsolete by the end of World War I.

Coastal defences and anti-aircraft capability were all likewise minimal at the time. In practical terms, there was little or nothing the island could realistically do to repulse any serious attempt at a ground-based invasion.

Yet for some reason, Mussolini abandoned an early plan to invade Malta. Instead he limited his initial efforts only to sporadic aerial bombardment, coupled with an aggressive radio propaganda blitz urging the population to surrender of its own accord.

This latter detail suggests that ‘Il Duce’ was acting on exaggerated or erroneous intelligence to the effect that Maltese public opinion was generally favourable towards Italy (as indeed it partly was, if only on a cultural level). Perhaps he believed that it was only a matter of time before the island willingly forsook its British ‘oppressors’ and capitulated to Fascist rule. Or perhaps he simply lacked the foresight to realise how the island’s strategic importance would change beyond as the war progressed.

Either way, at the early stages of the war Benito Mussolini clearly concentrated his efforts on the altogether more difficult Eastern Mediterranean front. And by the time his assessment of Malta’s loyalties proved hopelessly unfounded, Italian bombers discovered to their dismay that her overall defences had been massively reinforced.

Island fortress

From a virtually defenceless position in June 1940, Malta came to be regarded as an ‘island fortress’ by the middle of 1941. Hurricanes (and later Spitfires) were flown in from aircraft carriers to bolster the woefully outnumbered and outgunned Gladiators; and even as Allied forces worked to further strengthen these and other defences, the Axis stepped up its own efforts to wipe Malta clean off from the map.

By January 1942, the main responsibility for subjugating Malta passed from the Italian regia Militare Aeronautica to German bombers under the command of the widely respected Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, based in Augusta in Sicily. And from the sporadic air raids to which Malta had hitherto grown accustomed, by March that year the island found herself enduring what seemed at the time to be a constant, determined annihilation campaign. In the words of British historian Alan Moorhead, “One after another all the great sieges were eclipsed - England and Odessa, Sebastopol and Tobruk. Malta became the most bombed place on earth.”

Clearly, something unexpected had meanwhile occurred, causing both sides to radically reassess the island’s strategic importance to their own campaigns. That ‘something’ can arguably be summed up in a single name: Germany’s General Erwin Rommel, whose Afrika Korps had taken even its own military command in Berlin by surprise by registering a string of impressive (and unscripted) victories in North Africa.

At a time when nearly all of Europe was already under Nazi occupation, and the Allies had yet to secure even a single victory on the battlefield in any theatre of war, the prospect of losing Alexandria to Rommel– more specifically, the Suez Canal, and with it access to the oil fields of the Middle East – served to galvanise Allied attempts to retain their foothold in North Africa at all costs.

Placed against this stark backdrop, the image of a tiny but unconquered island called ‘Malta’ suddenly emerged at a blazing beacon of hope, in a scenario that must have appeared truly hopeless at the time. Not only did the island seem to consistently defy fate by resisting the fiercest aerial bombardment hitherto seen in the war; but Malta-based submarines were also wreaking havoc with Axis supply lines between Sicily and the Libyan coast – denting Rommel’s advancement in the North African campaign, and giving British newspapers something to actually cheer about for a change.

For much the same reason, the outright destruction of Malta quickly became almost an obsession among Axis forces: forming the basis for ‘Operation Herkules’, the plan (abandoned, luckily for us, by November 1942) to launch a full scale invasion of Malta in order to rid the central Mediterranean of all Allied presence once and for all.

Meanwhile, the island’s defences may have held out against endless air raids, but there was also a growing sensation that her luck couldn’t possibly be expected to hold forever. The need to keep Malta constantly supplied with essentials such as food, ammunition and fuel gave rise to ever-growing logistical problems. Just as Rommel’s supply lines were open to attack by Malta-based submarines, German U-boats were likewise deployed to disrupt Malta-bound convoys from Gibraltar and Alexandria.

Both sides registered their fair share of successes; and by August 1942, the ‘island fortress’ that had held out so unexpectedly against wave after wave of enemy attacks, was literally on its last legs. Food reserves were all but depleted (contemporary reports suggest that starvation was a matter of only weeks away) and without fuel or ammunition Malta could neither defend herself from invasion, nor launch any counter-offensive to cut off Rommel – by then only 35 miles away from Alexandria – from his supplies lifeline.

It was against this increasingly bleak backdrop that Sir Winston Churchill finally took the decision to assemble the single largest convoy in the history of naval warfare – 14 merchant ships, two battleships, four aircraft carriers, seven cruisers and 33 destroyers – for a last desperate attempt to relieve Malta before her otherwise inevitable surrender.

The rest is history…

This feature article first appeared in a special edition by MaltaToday marking the 70th anniversary of the Santa Marija Convoy