Sunday, May 19, 2013

Malta in World War II

Malta Chessboard

To understand Malta's role in the Second World War it helps to know a little about the game of chess.  Every good chess player knows about the "strategy of the center".  Power radiates outward from the middle.  Control the center of the chess board and you will almost surely win the game.

Malta in the center of the Med.
The island of Malta lies at the approximate center of the Mediterranean sea.  It lies about a thousand miles east from Gibraltar and a thousand miles west from Alexandria.  It is only 60 miles south of the much larger and more populous island of Sicily.  Malta was home to major Royal Navy and RAF bases throughout the war.

The Siege of Malta
On June 10, 1940  Mussolini, cynically observing the rapid fall of France to the German Blitzkrieg and hoping for a share of the spoils, joined the Axis cause and declared war on the Allies.  The next day Italian bombers began attacking Malta.  The first casualties were a Maltese mother and her two sons, aged four and five, who had been walking near the dockyards.   Source: Fortress Malta: An Island Under Siege 1940-1943, James Holland

"Faith", Gloucester Sea Gladiator
National War Museum, Valletta
Malta's air defence consisted of three out-dated Gloucester gladiator fighters that were dubbed Faith, Hope and Charity.  When the war began in the Mediterranean "Malta had just 34 heavy anti-aircraft guns to protect an entire island with its three airfield, a massive harbour complex and over 200 miles of coastline."  (Source: Fortress Malta: An Island Under Siege 1940 -1943, James Holland

Commander K. and Anti-Aricraft Gun
Malta at War Museum, Vittoriosa
Modern war requires massive logistical support.  Axis forces in North Africa, later led by Field marshal Rommel, were pushing on towards Alexandria in an effort to capture Egypt.  The Axis forces supply lines ran through the Mediterranean from Italian ports to ports in Libya such as Tripoli and Benghazi.  The island of Malta was perfectly positioned to interdict Axis supply lines by air and sea.

Royal Navy Submarine, Malta Maritime Museum
The Royal navy deployed submarines to Malta to attack Axis shipping.  Naval aviation also attacked Italian merchant shipping convoys.  In November of 1941, 77% of Rommel's supplies were sunk by submarines and naval aircraft operating out of Malta. Submarines "magic carpet service" was also critically important for bringing desperately needed supplies into Malta.  (Source: Fortress Malta: An Island Under Siege 1940 -1943, James Holland

Fort St. Angelo, Royal Navy base, Malta
Just as many Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II in the USA, many Maltese of Italian descent were deported and interned in British-controlled Africa for the duration of the war.

The island of Malta was the most bombed part of the world in the Second World War.  The beautiful 19th century opera house in Valletta was destroyed in the war and has yet to be rebuilt.

Plaque from George VI, Valletta, Malta
In April of 1942 King George VI awarded the entire island the George Cross, the highest civilian award for gallantry -- an unprecedented honor.  To this day, Malta is still known at the "George Cross" island.
RAF display, Malta at War Museum, Vittoriosa
While the siege of Malta was overwhelmingly a Commonwealth show, it is also true that America played a significant role in the defence of the island.

USS Wasp, Malta Maritime Museum
America provided vital assistance to the defence of Malta during the war.  Even prior to Pearl Harbor, Churchill communicated to FDR Malta's desperate need for additional fighter aircraft and the recently commissioned aircraft carrier, USS Wasp, was dispatched by FDR to Glasgow to assist the beleaguered island.  In April and, again in May, of 1942 the USS Wasp ferried Spitfires and their pilots, including Denis Barnham, the author of Malta Spitfire Pilot (, to Malta.  Winston Churchill himself rang up the captain of the USS Wasp* and said, "Many thanks to you all for your timely help.  Who said a Wasp couldn't sting twice?"

Maltese children raise the Stars and Stripes
at arrival of the USS Ohio
The USS Ohio was an American built (though English crewed) Liberty ship (see earlier post SS Jeremiah O'Brien, 8/13/12) that was part of the critical convoy called Operation Pedestal.  Hit by numerous bombs and torpedoes, she barely managed to reach Valletta harbour delivering her precious cargo of airplane fuel.  Other American ships resupplying Malta, such as the Santa Elisa, did keep their American crew.

Fort St. Angelo, Royal Navy base until 1979
After the siege of Malta lifted in 1943 there was a flood of American troops and officers into Malta.  In June of 1943 General Eisenhower, Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces North Africa and Mark Clark, planned Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, from their headquarters in Lascaris.  Many British felt that the arrival of the better paid American troops drove up prices on the island.

FDR himself paid two visits to the plucky island once in December of 1943 and again for the Malta Conference with Churchill in February 1945.  On December 7, 1943, the second anniversary of Pearl Harbor, while in Malta, FDR declared as follows...

FDR plaque in Valetta, Malta

"In the name of the people of the United States of America, I salute the Island of Malta, its people and defenders, who, in the cause of freedom and justice and decency throughout the world, have rendered valorous service far above and beyond the call of duty.

Under repeated fire from the skies, Malta stood alone, but unafraid in the center of the sea, one tiny bright flame in the darkness—a beacon of hope for the clearer days which have come.

Malta's bright story of human fortitude and courage will be read by posterity with wonder and with gratitude through all the ages.

What was done in this Island maintains the highest traditions of gallant men and women who from the beginning of time have lived and died to preserve civilization for all mankind."

Commander Kelly concludes, "Malta was simply the Minas Tirith of World War II. It was home to an unsinkable aircraft carrier that the Axis could not subdue.

Traveler notes: If you visit Malta be sure to visit the National War Museum ( the Malta Maritime Museum  ( and the Malta at War Museum ( in Vittoriosa. 

* The USS Wasp was later sent to the Pacific theatre where she was sunk by a Japanese submarine at the battle of Guadalcanal.

You can now purchase Commander Kelly's 
first book, America Invades or on

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