Wednesday, January 18, 2017

World War Wednesdays: The People of Malta, WWII

Bomb damage in Malta
     Welcome back to another World War Wednesday! In case you're interested in a little life update, I'm settling into my last semester here at the University of Ottawa and regularly alternating between shock at how fast these four years have gone and desperation for it to end. It's been a pretty crazy life experience so far and I am looking forward to what's next (but mostly just being free from the horrors of grad school applications). For some reason, a few of my profs have decided to suddenly jump aboard the technology bandwagon and assigned regular blogs as part of our course work, which is great for me. However, a lot of the assignments say that a blog is only 300-500 words which makes me wonder if World War Wednesdays should be changed to Wordy War Wednesdays! In the interest of being a quicker, more enjoyable read (and the fact that I'm now pretty much constantly blogging) I hope to try and shorten things up in the future.

     This week's topic is something I've come across numerous times but never fully devoted my attention to until now. During the Second World War, the Mediterranean island of Malta was a military and naval fortress given its highly strategic location as the only Allied base between Gibraltar and Alexandria, Egypt (North African Campaign). It facilitated offensive action against Axis shipping and land targets in the central Mediterranean, and its proximity to Italy made it the headquarters of the British Royal Navy's Mediterranean fleet beginning in 1939.

     Malta is 27km x 14km with an area of just under 260km2 (100 sq mi). In June 1940, its population was around 250,000, with most people living in small, congested areas near Valetta, the capital. It was those locations that experienced the heaviest, most sustained and concentrated aerial bombing in history. According to, the bombing lasted a record 154 days and nights and involved 6,700 tons of bombs. There were hardly any defenses on the island because of a prewar conclusion that it was indefensible, and the British only had three biplanes on the island. These were nicknamed Faith, Hope, and Charity.

      Over the course of the war, Malta featured heavily on the enemy's agenda given its important role as an Allied base. German Stuka dive bombers based in Sicily sought to pound the island into submission, but the ultimate danger was not solely confined to the air. Italy conducted a siege between June and December 1940, consisting of both air power (the optimal method for attacking the small island) and sea attacks, and the Italians also considered a plan to invade the island using landing craft. The British responded to these with a steady stream of reinforcements when it became clear that the Italian air forces were limited and had only a marginal effect on the Maltese population.

     Malta's darkest hours occurred most significantly in 1941 and 1942, when the Germans intervened in the attacks. As a result of Italian defeats in North Africa and their failure to complete the destruction of Malta, Hitler had little choice but to rescue and reinforce his ally. In early 1941, the Italians and Germans actually had air superiority over the inexperienced and worn-out RAF. In April, however, Hitler was forced to intervene in the Balkans and therefore had to abandon operations against Malta despite the Luftwaffe's successes.

     In the meantime, the Allies were able to resupply to the extent of having an 8-15 month reserve and were able to direct numerous resources to the defense of Malta, even launching their own offensive operations from the island. Toward the end of the year, the Germans began to refocus on their Sicilian operations, and marked New Year's 1942 with yet another air raid against Malta. In April 1942, the Germans and Italians approved a plan for the invasion of the island, which was postponed as a result of hesitations by both Erwin Rommel and Hitler himself. However, the Germans resolved to continue asserting their air superiority, and beginning in April through summer 1942 they engaged in fierce combat with the RAF now recognized as the Siege of Malta. During that time, the island was pushed almost to the point of capitulation, with food and supply shortages in addition to the constant onslaught of German bombs.
George Beurling
  It was during this period that Canadian fighter pilot George "Buzz" Beurling became "Canada's most famous hero of the Second World War," "The Falcon of Malta," and "The Knight of Malta." He was credited with shooting down 27 Axis aircraft in just 14 days, with that total climbing to 31 before the war's end. Beurling hailed from Verdun, Quebec, which happens to be the hometown of my professor and mentor, Dr. Serge Durflinger, and is mentioned in his book Fighting From Home: The Second World War in Verdun, Quebec. It's a great read if you're interested in learning more about this Canadian hero.

     Miraculously, the bombed remnants of a supply convoy were able to limp into Malta's Grand Harbour on 15 August and save the population from submission and starvation. The Allies emerged victorious, with the Axis air forces all but depleted, and the siege was lifted. Supply issues and smaller-scale offensives persisted after that, and the last air raid over Malta occurred in July 1943.

     In recognition of the immense suffering on behalf of the Maltese people during the siege, King George VI awarded the George Cross (civilian equivalent to the Victoria Cross) to the entire island in April 1942 so as "to bear witness to the heroism and devotion of its people." The George Cross is now woven into the Maltese flag and can be seen whenever it is flown. Interestingly, because the award was a personal gesture by the King and not an official British government decision, the story was never officially published in the London Gazette. Despite this, it remains to this day an exceptional gesture in response to truly exceptional circumstances, and the experience of the Maltese people remains one of the war's most incredible stories.
     Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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