The Role of Malta in the North African Campaign

During World War II, Malta assumed an importance all out of proportion to its size.  At the beginning of the war, it was provided only a token defense, but British efforts to maintain this colony escalated between 1940 and 1942.  During the North African campaign, Malta assumed a vital importance for both sides.

Malta is roughly at the center of the Mediterranean Sea, measured from west to east.  It lies between Sicily and Libya, with Tunis to its northwest.  Sicily is only 60 miles away.  It held an important naval installation, for any ships passing through the Mediterranean without sailing through Italian waters would need to travel past the overwatch of ships stationed at Malta; moreover, Malta was the only link available to the Royal Navy between its installations at Gibraltar and Egypt.  Its strategic value was clear.

At the same time, it was a small island with a population less than 300,000.  It was completely dependent on supplies brought in by sea.  Its size and proximity to Italian territory ensured that British planners gave up on holding the island in the face of any determined attack; when war began, Malta was host to only five battalions of infantry and ten outmoded aircraft.  The Royal Navy had a more substantial presence, with a flotilla of submarines based at Valetta, but even this was not designed to withstand an air attack.

Malta’s importance grew with the capitulation of France and the Italian declaration of war on Great Britain.  To the British, Malta provided the opportunity to interfere with Italian naval operations, especially the flow of supplies to Italian colonies in North Africa.  To the Italians, Malta was both an easily available target and a potential threat to their control of the Mediterranean.  The Italian air force made its first foray on June 11, 1940, with British forces able to muster only three biplanes in its defense.  Regular air attacks became normal until the end of 1942.

At the beginning of 1941, the Italians were in retreat in North Africa.  Malta was an important resupply point for British forces in North Africa, and Hitler was determined to shore up his faltering ally.  In January, Hitler sent Luftwaffe units to Sicily.  The British responded by offering what reinforcements they could; many supplies were brought in by submarine, but aircraft remained a problem.  For a time, fighters were launched from aircraft carriers and landed on the island to bolster the air defenses.

Still, the first half of 1941 was a defensive period for Malta.  The Germans and Italians captured Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete, and Hitler sent two tank divisions to North Africa under the command of General Erwin Rommel.  Rommel brought more energetic leadership and powerful mobile units to the North African campaign, and the advantage passed to Axis forces.

Then in June, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, and the X. Air Corps was transferred from Sicily to Russia.  This afforded the British some breathing room, and they began again to bolster their presence in Malta, especially by building up both surface vessels and submarines.  Between sea and air attacks, a third of Axis shipping was lost in the month of August; the Royal Navy continued to increase in strength in September and October, and in November, Axis losses rose to 68%.  The Italians were dangerously close to losing their nerve, from the German perspective; they abandoned the convoy system and reduced their resupply efforts to the actions of single vessels.  Accordingly, the Germans sent Field Marshal Kesselring to Sicily to conduct an expanded air campaign over Malta.

The original idea was not unlike German plans for an invasion of England.  The Luftwaffe was to grind down the island’s defenses in order to pave the way for an eventual ground attack.  Indeed, Kesselring had been the officer who drafted the plans for Operation Sea Lion, although he never had the opportunity to see them through.  His efforts were aided by the arrival of 24 German submarines who were to help contest the Royal Navy.  The U-Boats claimed the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battleship HMS Barham among their kills.  Between the submarines and his own II. Air Corps, Kesselring created a zone of relative safety for Axis shipping between December 1941 and April 1942.  This gave Rommel the chance to resume the offensive and regain lost territory.

For Malta, this same period was devastating.  It amounted to an almost total blockade, and is often known as the Siege of Malta.  Convoys were largely ineffective, with most of the supply vessels being sunk or turned back.  Even the submarines were redeployed due to extensive minelaying.  Supply was reduced to a trickle, and much of what did come through was the result of the same expedient adopted by the Italians in 1941: the use of swift vessels acting as blockade runners.

In April, Rommel flew to Berlin to press for the capture of Malta, which would remove his greatest stumbling block.  In this, he was supported Admiral Raeder.  With some misgivings, Hitler authorized plans for Operation Hercules: German and Italian paratroopers, each at divisional strength, would land on Malta in July, with additional Italian reinforcements arriving by sea.  Like Operation Sea Lion, the Luftwaffe was expected to flatten the defenses first, and also like that plan, it never happened.

In part, Hitler was unhappy with the plan because the airborne operations in Crete had been so costly.  Crete had been taken, but at such a cost that Hitler was loath to take such a risk again.  He might have felt differently if the state of his Italian allies had been better, but as it stood, he had grave doubts about both the Italian army and navy.  For their part, the Italians were even more reluctant to undertake such an invasion.  They preferred to hope that air power alone would suffice to overcome the threat posed by Malta.

Even Kesselring had reason to hope this might be true.  On May 10, he announced success in his mission against Malta, although in his case he believed that this would be the signal for Operation Hercules to commence.  Hitler was already throwing his support behind a different plan, however: one that would see Axis forces in North Africa undertake a daring bid for Tobruk and beyond.  It was thought that supplies could travel in safety from Greece to Tobruk, and Malta would cease to be a serious issue.

Kesselring tried in vain to revive Hercules.  Once again, his meticulous planning was negated by a political decision.  His air assets, however, were being redeployed to assist the North African offensive or to bolster activity on other fronts, and once again Malta gained the opportunity to recover.

The transfer of air assets to Malta became a major objective for the Allies.  Churchill had demanded that General Auchinleck begin an attack to retake the airfields of Cyrenaica in June.  This did not prove necessary.  The reduction of the Luftwaffe presence in Sicily permitted the transfer of aircraft via carriers again, while the Royal Navy began to clear the mines and resume its presence on the island.

Full supply was not reinstated until November, however.  Kesselring had been given the forces necessary to resume intensive bombing in October, and it was not until the airfields of Cyrenaica were taken by the Allies in November that the air defenses of Malta could be considered stable.  Malta remained under threat until Axis forces in North Africa surrendered in May 1943.

During this period, control of Malta was the main factor that decided which side of the fighting in North Africa would receive the supplies and reinforcements necessary to win the campaign.  Had the Axis captured Malta, as it conceivably could have done in May 1942, it was quite possible that the British could have been driven from Egypt.  This would have prevented the invasion of Italy; it could also have been a prelude to the Axis capture of the Middle East, and even a rendezvous with German forces in southern Russia.  The course of the war might have been very different.  At the same time, however, it is important to realize that these are only among the possibilities.  It is also worth noting that the American Chief of Staff, General George Marshall, had opposed the Italian campaign and argued instead for an attack in France at the earliest opportunity.  Failure in North Africa might have brought D-Day in 1943.  The fate of Malta did not decide the entire war; it did, however, decide the course of the North African campaign.



Dear, I.C.B.  The Oxford Guide to World War II. Oxford, 1995

Macksey, Kenneth.  Rommel: Battles and Campaigns.  Da Capo, 1997

Parrish, Thomas.  Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II.  Simon and Schuster, 1978

Stilwell, Alexander, ed.  The Second World War: A World in Flames.  Osprey, 2004

Wheal, Elizabeth-Anne et al.  A Dictionary of the Second World War.  Bedrick, 1990


© 2012, 2013.  All rights reserved.