Luftwaffe’s 1942 spring offensive against Malta
March 1, 1942, was a deadly prelude to the Luftwaffe’s spring blitzkrieg on Malta, in the form of a devastating air raid on Floriana, leaving 20 people killed, 26 seriously injured and 23 slightly injured.
The first 15 Spitfires to strengthen Malta’s air defences were launched six days later from HMS Eagle. They were met by patrolling Hurricanes to cover their arrival and landed at Ta’ Qali airfield. The new Spitfires and their pilots were amalgamated into No. 249 Squadron. These were the first Spitfires to be stationed outside Britain.
On March 15 the Luftwaffe started a new offensive against the island’s anti-aircraft gun positions, when the German planes flew 130 sorties and the sirens sounded 10 times; it increased in intensity till the evening of March 20, when the plan was to follow up with massive bombing of the airfields, in particular Ta’ Qali. This was to result in widespread death and destruction.
German aerial photographs of Ta’ Qali showed a ramp on the airfield’s periphery, leading the Germans to think there was an underground hangar. What the aerial photographs showed in fact was an attempt by the RAF to cut the rock. However, after realising the impracticability of the project, the RAF camouflaged the caves, with painted half-open hangar doors and put the destroyed Hurricanes and Spitfires in the open.
The Luftwaffe believed what they saw in their aerial photographs. In the early evening of March 20, the German Air Force shifted its offensive from the anti-aircraft gun sites to a massive assault on Malta.
One hundred German aircraft approached the island to attack Ta’ Qali, where the Luftwaffe employed carpet bombing for the first time. Wave after wave of aircraft rained down some 114 tons of incendiary, high-explosive and armour-piercing bombs, including the special PC 1800 Raketensatz rocket-assisted bombs. Ta’ Qali airfield was rendered unserviceable.
Early next morning, the Luftwaffe returned with 210 aircraft, dropping some 185 tons of bombs, resorting again to carpet bombing. German pilots flying over the airfield described it as resembling “a lunar landscape”.
On March 21, at the height of this assault, the second batch of Spitfires was being prepared to take off from HMS Eagle. They all landed safely. In a similar operation on March 29, the remaining seven Spitfires took off from HMS Eagle. They too reached Malta safely.
However, the next day Fliegerkorps II of the Luftwaffe attacked a convoy approaching Malta. This convoy, code-named Operation MW10, had left Alexandria early in the morning. It consisted of the naval store-ship HMS Breconshire and the freighters Clan Campbell, Pampas and Talabot (Norwegian). It was escorted by the entire British Mediterranean Fleet.
During the morning of March 23, Talabot and Pampas entered Grand Harbour; HMS Breconshire was disabled in the German air attack and was anchored off Żonqor Point; it was later towed to Marsaxlokk harbour. Clan Campbell was sunk about 18 miles south-east of Malta.
The Italian Navy made a more determined attempt to intercept the convoy. Admiral Vian’s force of cruisers and destroyers, using threat and concealment by smoke, managed to hold off the Italians while the convoy escaped. The naval action was portrayed as a tactical success against a greatly superior enemy, although the convoy’s progress was sufficiently delayed to leave it vulnerable to air attacks and all four transports were sunk and the bulk of the supplies were lost.
On March 25, after the arrival of three merchant ships and before the Luftwaffe onslaught on them, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent a telegram to Admiral Cunningham, the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, congratulating the fleet for protecting the convoy:
“I shall be glad if you will convey to Admiral Vian and all who sailed with him the admiration which I feel at this resolute and brilliant action… That one of the most powerful modern battleships afloat, attended by two heavy and one light cruiser and a flotilla, should have been routed and put to flight with severe torpedo and gunfire injuries in broad daylight by the fire of British light cruisers and destroyers constitutes a naval episode of the highest distinction and entitles all ranks and ratings concerned, and above all their Commander, to the compliments of the British nation.”
In the afternoon of the 26th the Luftwaffe came to sink the three surviving freighters; the Pampas was sunk by the stern, the Talabot, which was loaded with ammunition, had to be scuttled.
Charles Grech clearly remembers these heavy attacks on the surviving ships:
“….We soon heard the anti-aircraft guns in action, particularly those of the Marsa battery at Ta’ Ċejlu, on the top of Jesuits Hill. The rhythm of gunfire increased and I got that creeping feeling of fear which would come over me whenever I was inside a shelter and could not see what was happening outside. Gradually, I started wedging my way out to get the occasional peep outside the tunnel...
“The blast from the bombs was like sudden gusts of wind. The attack was on Grand Harbour and the targets were those two cargo ships… Tongues of fire, as high as the Floriana bastions, were leaping up from Talabot. They transformed themselves into a thick, black column of smoke, rising hundreds of feet high…
“All that night, the Floriana skyline, particularly Sarria church and St Publius church, were silhouetted against the glow from the fires of Talabot. The vessel was ablaze for two days and finally it had to be scuttled in Grand Harbour, to prevent the fire from reaching the holds laden with ammunition. Luckily, some of its cargo, particularly the sugar, had been saved…”
The two merchant ships were not the only victims of the Luftwaffe attacks. HMS Southwold was sunk two miles offshore after an attempt was made to tow it to Marsaxlokk Bay, and HMS Breconshire was also sunk the next morning in Marsaxlokk. Out of a total of 29,500 tons of supplies, ammunition and liquid cargoes carried by the four freighters of Convoy MW10, only about 5,500 tons of solid and 1,738 of liquid cargo were extracted from the sunken ships.
Ships plying between Malta and Gozo were also targeted by the Luftwaffe. On March 17, a Messerschmitt Bf109F strafed the steamer Franco as it approached Grand Harbour, but the steamer reached port safely.
However, the next day a more determined attack was made by a pair of Messerschmitt Bf109Fs on the Gozo ferry boat Royal Lady as it berthed at Marfa with 209 passengers. The ship was riddled with machine-gun bullets and cannon shells and three passengers were injured – Private E. Hennessy of the Manchester Regiment, Gunner P. Camilleri of 22nd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, RMA, and the boatswain, Angelo Xuereb. The afternoon trip was cancelled and the ferry berthed at Mġarr for repairs.
In March 1942 the number of air raid alerts rose to 275, and according to Royal Artillery statistics 2,028 tons of bombs were dropped. This differs from the figure of 2,147 tons quoted in Malta: The Spitfire Year, 1942.
Mr Debono is curator of the National War Museum in Valletta, where relevant artefacts and information may be viewed.