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Britain's island weapon: Malta in the Second World War

James Holland, historian and presenter of a 2013 documentary on Malta in the Second World War, explains how the island became such a thorn in Hitler's side

A view of Valletta during the Second World War, showing its harbour filled with naval hardware. (Photo by Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Published: January 29, 2013 at 1:00 pm
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This article was first published in the January 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

Dusk, Saturday, 24 May 1941. Some 40 miles east of the southern tip of Sicily, the crew of a lone British submarine, Upholder, were preparing to attack an Axis convoy of four troop ships and five destroyers. The odds were stacked against them: there was quite a swell, which made both observation and balance difficult, they had just two torpedoes left, and their ASDIC – or sonar – was out of order. Worse still, if they did attack, the chances of being caught by the destroyers was high.

Despite these handicaps, Upholder’s 29‑year-old commanding officer, Lieutenant-Commander David Wanklyn, decided to press home the attack. His plan was to make the most of the fading light and get as close as possible. So, despite the sea sluicing against the periscope, they manoeuvred towards the convoy steaming towards them. Upholder was now so close, she was almost rammed by one of the close-escort destroyers. With the second in command, Lieutenant ‘Tubby’ Crawford, frantically trying to keep the submarine steady, and with Wanklyn preparing to fire, another of the destroyers suddenly loomed in front of the periscope. Rapidly diving, they avoided collision by a hair’s breadth.

British Royal Navy Submarine HMS 'Upholder', N99, at sea, date not given. (Photo by Arkivi/Getty Images)
British Royal Navy Submarine HMS 'Upholder', N99, at sea, date not given. (Photo by Arkivi/Getty Images)

They were now inside the destroyer screen, a decidedly unhealthy place to be, but despite the danger, quickly pressed home the attack. No sooner had they fired point-blank at the largest troop ship, the track was spotted and the alarm signalled. It was too late for the Italian ship, which was struck with a massive explosion and began to sink rapidly.

Immediately diving, the crew of Upholder now faced a harrowing ordeal. Avoiding the depth charges of five determined destroyers steaming after them at 10 times their own speed required nerves of steel.

They were depth-charged 37 times over the next 20 minutes, the submarine often shaking and rolling with the blasts. “It was,” Crawford admitted, “a little hairy.” Somehow, they avoided their attackers, and when, several hours later, they finally surfaced once more, the sea was clear. Only an oily smell hung on the breeze, all that remained of the 18,000-ton Conte Rosso. Of the 2,729 troops on board, 1,300 had perished with the ship.

Upholder now set sail for Malta. The Conte Rosso was the third enemy vessel they had sunk during that patrol, and Wanklyn was later awarded the Victoria Cross for this action. A year on, when she left Malta for the last time, Upholder had accounted for some 119,000 tonnes of enemy shipping.

It was this harrying of Axis shipping throughout much of the north African campaign that made Malta such a vital outpost. The Upholder was part of the Malta-based 10th Submarine Flotilla, and although never more than 14 in number, these submarines, along with RAF bombers, two Fleet Air Arm squadrons, and the Malta-based cruiser and destroyers of Force K, caused havoc among Axis supply lines to north Africa.

Malta is a small island – smaller than the Isle of Wight – but it lies at the very heart of the Mediterranean and just 60 miles south of Sicily. This made it a key strategic asset for the British, but at 840 miles from Alexandria and over 900 from Gibraltar, it was also isolated and vulnerable. Before the war, both the RAF and army believed Malta was untenable, and only the Royal Navy, who since Nelson’s day had used it as the headquarters of the Mediterranean Fleet, believed it worth holding on to. The navy’s view held sway, but in the event, the Mediterranean Fleet moved to Alexandria before Italy entered the war in June 1940.

At that moment, with France almost beaten and Britain facing up to possible invasion, few believed Malta could hold out; certainly, in June 1940, the island’s defences were minimal to say the least, with woefully few guns and just a handful of obsolete biplanes.

Fortunately for the British, Italy’s war leaders regarded a seaborne invasion as unfeasible at that time, and her navy and air force lacked the will or determination to press home the attack. As Britain held firm against the Luftwaffe at home, so the new prime minister, Winston Churchill, urged Malta’s reinforcement. More anti-aircraft guns and Hurricane fighter planes had strengthened the island’s defences considerably by the end of 1940. Italy had missed her chance.

Luftwaffe flies in

The Luftwaffe briefly joined the Regia Aeronautica, the Italian air force, on Sicily as Germany prepared to send troops to north Africa for the first time. Yet for much of the rest of 1941, attacks against the island were largely left to the Italians.

Malta in 1941 was undoubtedly a tough posting, with supplies and equipment always short and the defenders battling with now obsolete Hurricanes and the claustrophobia of a small, sun-scorched island. Yet the missed opportunity of the previous summer really came to haunt the Axis as Malta-based submarines, aircraft and ships sunk critical amounts of shipping.

A major problem for the Axis was that, unlike the Allies, the amount of shipping at their disposal was both finite and rapidly diminishing. The Conte Rosso was one of the largest ships sunk in the Mediterranean; Axis ships became smaller and less efficient. There were no vast shipyards in Italy or Greece pumping out merchant vessels as there were in Britain, the United States and the Dominions.

Field Marshal Kesselring, who became German commander-in-chief south in November 1941, quickly realised that logistics held the key to victory in north Africa. He also recognised that Malta’s offensive power had to be neutralised, and fast, or north Africa would be lost. So he ordered Fliegerkorps (Air Corps) II to be transferred to Sicily where, alongside the Regia Aeronautica, it launched an intensive blitz the like of which had not been seen before. From January to April 1942, some 18,000 tonnes of bombs fell on Malta, more than on London during the entire Blitz. Malta became the most bombed place on Earth.

By the beginning of May 1942, the 10th Submarine Flotilla had been forced to leave the island, not one bomber remained capable of operations, and much of the harbours lay in ruins. Hitler had authorised plans for an invasion of the island, but now, as fortunes turned in favour of Rommel and his Panzerarmee Afrika, he prevaricated, as he had so often done before. Rommel preferred reinforcing victory with an all-out dash to the Suez Canal; Kesselring urged invading Malta first. Rommel, the man of the moment, won the argument.

It was a catastrophic error. Historians have often tried to belittle Malta’s role, pointing out that the island cost more to maintain than it was worth. This is nonsense. The Allies could afford to do so, and strategically had to – something Britain’s war leaders realised with renewed determination in the first half of 1942. Mark V Spitfires were hastily sent to the island, commanders of higher standing and calibre such as Lord Gort VC and Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, hero of the Battle of Britain, were posted to the island. In August, the most heavily defended convoy of the entire war was sent to Malta.

The price was high, but it was worth it, as German records of shipping losses reveal. Even in June 1942, Malta showed her incredible resilience and speed of recovery as aircraft from the island once again sank crucial amounts of fuel, ammunition, vehicles, rations and even replacement cranes for Axis-held ports.

Searchlights and Axis flares illuminate the night sky over Malta. (Photo by British Official Photo/British Official Photo/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Searchlights and Axis flares illuminate the night sky over Malta. (Photo by British Official Photo/British Official Photo/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

These losses continued as the summer rolled into autumn. In August, Rommel lost more than 40,000 tonnes of fuel; in October, that figure was 30,000 tonnes. As Malta’s strength grew once more, so that of the Axis forces in north Africa waned. Bogged down at Alamein with horribly over-extended supply lines, Rommel’s plans were savaged by the supplies ending up on the bottom of the sea.

Malta’s position also ensured that Axis shipping was forced to take a circuitous route to north Africa, which meant using more fuel and time in getting there. From Malta, Allied reconnaissance aircraft could reinforce the information garnered from German Enigma traffic and so help ensure the code-breakers were not discovered.

The island was also a staging post for the RAF operating throughout the Mediterranean, and later, the fighter-base for the invasion of Sicily. There would have been no invasion without fighter cover, so the recapture of Malta would have been a prerequisite before any Allied assault on southern Europe.

In other words, Malta was worth more than the sum of its parts. The loss of Malta would not only have denied Britain a crucial offensive base, it would also have handed that capability to the Axis.

History has accentuated the defence of Malta and her stoic fortitude in resisting one of the most intense aerial assaults of the war. And yet it was her offensive role that played such a crucial part in the Allied success in north Africa. In this, little Malta punched way above her weight.

The ordeal of Malta

From the start of the siege of Malta, getting supplies through to the island was difficult. Some could be delivered by air, but this accounted for a very small proportion. Realistically, nearly all had to come by sea, and that meant the Mediterranean, which, in all other regards, was closed to British merchant vessels. 

Life was tough on the island in the first 20 months of the siege, yet it was as nothing compared to the summer of 1942. Bombing destroyed flour mills, roads, electricity and water supplies, so that not only was food and water scarce, it was also extremely difficult to distribute. Documents from the chief medical officer on Malta, Dr AV Bernard, have recently been discovered on Malta and they show a bleaker picture than has been traditionally understood, and reveal a quite apparent sense of desperation. “The flushing of lavatory pans after urination to be prohibited,” Bernard orders in one document from May 1942. “Where necessary urinals to be flushed twice a day by a person detailed for such duty.” 

But a month later, an even harder instruction was being issued. “Drinking and washing of hands under running taps to be absolutely prohibited and stringent action taken against offenders.” Washing hands, as we know, is the very basis of medical hygiene, yet such was the shortage it was considered better to risk the spread of disease than use more water than was absolutely necessary. In the second half of 1942, Malta was struck by a series of polio, TB and dysentery epidemics.

Could Britain have done more? Probably not, although there was one dark stain on the island’s leadership. In March 1942, three ships safely reached Malta, yet despite the critical importance of the supplies they brought, no plan was put in place to use service personnel to help with the unloading. And, despite poor weather and low cloud, for two whole nights, no unloading took place at all. When the skies cleared, the Luftwaffe returned, and sank all three. Just 5,000 tonnes out of 26,000 were eventually salvaged. The next convoy in June failed, so that it was not until the Pedestal convoy in August – the most heavily defended convoy of the entire war – that Malta received any meaningful resupply again. 


Poor planning had led to the catastrophe of the March convoy and Malta’s leaders – the three service chiefs, governor and lieutenant-governor – were to blame. Governor Dobbie was fired soon after, and Air Vice-Marshal Lloyd replaced in July – and not before time.

James Holland is a historian, author and broadcaster. He is the author of Dam Busters: The Race to Smash the Dams, 1943 (Bantam, 2012)

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