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The Battle of Valletta 70 years ago

The June-August 1941 period of the war in Malta was much quieter than the early months of the year, when German Stuka dive-bombers first made their appearance over Malta.

The various craft approached Grand Harbour slowly so as not to alert the defences with their engine noises- Charles Debono

However, a highlight of the second year of the war was the Italian E-boat attack on Grand Harbour on July 26, 1941 in what became known as the Battle of Valletta.

The situation actually changed in Malta’s favour during the summer of 1941, and the RAF and Royal Navy, operating from Malta, increased their attacks on Axis convoys carrying fuel and supplies to Italian troops and the German Afrika Korps in North Africa.

In mid-May 1941, elements of the German air force unit Fliegerkorps X started leaving Sicily for the eastern Mediterranean or Eastern Europe. This situation brought a reduction of Axis air activity on Malta. However, units of the Regia Aeronautica, the Italian air force, quickly started moving to Sicily. At the same time Air Commodore Hugh Pughe Lloyd, was appointed as the new Air Officer Commanding Malta, arriving on June 1, 1941.

Reinforcements in terms of fighter aircraft continued to reach the island. On June 6, during Operation Rocket, 43 Hurricane Mk IIs were flown to Malta from the aircraft-carriers HMS Ark Royal and HMS Furious. More Hurricanes arrived on June 14, when 45 aircraft were flown from Ark Royal and Victorious during Operation Tracer.

On June 27, during Operation Railway I, 22 new Hurricane Mk IIs were launched to Malta from Ark Royal. Three days later, during Operation Railway II, 35 Hurricanes arrived in Malta from Ark Royal and Furious.

A year had passed since Italy entered the war on the side of Germany on June 10, 1940, with Malta finding itself on the front-line the very next day with Italian aircraft dropping the first bombs on the island.

In his wartime diary Taħt in-Nar, the well-known author and later Labour politician Ġużè Ellul Mercer recorded the following for Tuesday, June 10, 1941:

“In a few hours, at the stroke of midnight, a year will have passed since we have been at war. One year under fire – a year of fear, heart-break, sorrow, cruelty, destruction, death and loss as Malta had never experienced before… At least 205 civilians have lost their lives, many of them women, children and youth in the prime of life. Malta’s word is stronger than that of a king, showing to the world that her people are still united and stout-hearted as ever and the descendents of men and fortitude…”

The situation was totally different from that of a year before. Since January 1941, the Germans had intervened in the Mediterranean.

Even in North Africa the war favoured the Axis. On June 15, the British Western Desert Force (later Eighth Army) launched Operation Battleaxe with the aim of clearing eastern Cyrenaica of the Afrika Korps. However, after two days of heavy fighting the British were forced to retreat, only managing to lift the siege of Tobruk.

In mid-May 1941 elements of the Luftwaffe started leaving Sicilian airfields, some of them for Eastern Europe, for the invasion of the USSR, known as Operation Barbarossa, which was launched on June 22 at 3 a.m. The invasion force consisted of three army groups totalling approximately three million troops, 3,580 armoured fighting vehicles, 600,000 transport vehicles, 7,184 pieces of artillery, 1,830 aircraft and 750,000 horses.

In the first weeks and months of the invasion the Germans conquered a huge amount of territory (Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic states, plus parts of western Russia), but they were stopped some 100 km from Moscow in December 1941. Then, the Germans moved to the south, intending to capture the oil fields of the Caucasus and to conquer Stalingrad.

Given the rapidity and scope of the German advance, Hitler and the German High Command believed that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a matter of time. According to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a letter sent by the German High Command at the beginning of August 1941, to the generals commanding the west, north and south groups in Russia listed the next objectives after the Soviet defeat:

a) Strengthening the Afrika Korps to make it possible to capture Tobruk. In order to permit the passage of necessary transports, attacks by the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) on Malta should be resumed.

Provided that weather conditions cause no delay and the service of transport is assured as planned, it can be assumed that the campaign against Tobruk will begin in mid-September.

b) Operation Felix (the seizure of Gibraltar, with the active participation of Spain) must be executed in 1941.

c) Should the campaign in the east be over, and Turkey comes to our side, an attack on Syria and Palestine in the direction of Egypt is contemplated, after a minimum period of 85 days for preparation….

Meanwhile, from June to August 1941 the Regia Aeronautica carried attacks on Malta on its own. In mid-June the growing presence of Italian fighter aircraft and bombers in Sicily was reorganised with the formation of the Comando Bombardamento della Sicilia.

After the Luftwaffe left its Sicilian airfields there was a decline in air raid alerts in Malta: 98 in May, 30 fewer in June, rising slightly to 73 in July but only 30 in August.

In the meantime, the British Admiralty decided to reinforce Malta again. The convoy, codenamed Operation Substance, consisted of six merchantmen – Melbourne Star, City of Pretoria, Sydney Star, Durham, Deucalion and Port Chalmers; a seventh, Leinster, ran aground.

It was escorted by Force H commanded by Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville. The second escort, Force X (the Home Fleet), was commanded by Rear-Admiral Edward Neville Syfret. The convoy was to carry 5,500 troops to Malta.

In the attack 16 Italians were killed, 18 were taken prisoner and 11 returned to Sicily- Charles Debono

While the convoy was sailing towards Malta, after the ships left Gibraltar on July 21, it was attacked by Italian torpedo-bombers, and HMS Fearless was disabled, set on fire and had to be scuttled. Other ships were hit too.

On July 24, the merchant ships entered Grand Harbour accompanied by a number of destroyers and unloaded 65,000 tons of stores. The cargoes included 2,000 tons of frozen meat, 2,000 tons of edible oil and large quantities of sugar, coffee, tea and fats to last till October.

The Xa Flottiglia MAS, the elite unit of the Italian navy, the Regia Marina, planned a surprise attack on the ships in harbour, which fortunately failed.

On July 25, 1941, at about 10.30 p.m. the RAF radar station AMES 502 atop Madliena detected a large vessel about 45 nautical miles to the north-north-east of Malta. It was the Diana, which half-an-hour later unloaded ten MT barchini. She then retired northwards while the Xa Flottiglia MAS boats began their trip towards Malta. The route was directly southward and at about 2.10 a.m. the next day they stopped five miles north-east of Valletta.

The various craft approached Grand Harbour slowly so as not to alert the defences with their engine noises. The attack started at 4.45 a.m., but the first explosion occurred three minutes later, when a barchino hit another one; the two of them exploded and destroyed half the break-water bridge (which has just been reconstructed).

This is how Charles Grech describes the attack in his book Raiders Passed:

“It was now about 4.45 a.m. We had almost arrived near the Chalet pier, when there was what felt like a minor earthquake, followed by an explosion which seemed to come from the direction of the entrance to Grand Harbour. The searchlights of the coastal forts were lit. One of them shone from the old Sliema Point Battery close by and this was immediately followed by gunfire in a seaward direction.

“We glimpsed a small object racing on the surface of the water, illuminated by searchlights. At first, we thought this was some practice shoot because before the war, there had often been such shoots on small targets, towed by motor launches. However, that explosion soon caused us to think otherwise…”

After the first explosion, the guns of Fort St Elmo, Fort Ricasoli aided by those of Fort St Rocco destroyed or immobilised most of the craft.

At 5.40 a.m. about 30 Hurricanes took off to attack the survivors. In the attack 16 Italians were killed, 18 were taken prisoner and 11 returned to Sicily.

There were no major engagements in the first three weeks of August 1941, but Allied sorties increased. A notable success for a Malta-based submarine occurred on August 20 when the large Italian passenger ship Esperia (11,398 tons), which was sailing from Naples together with the liners Marco Polo, Neptunia and Oceania, was sunk by HMS Unique at 10.17 a.m. 11 miles from Tripoli.

The last months of the year were marked by the Regia Aeronautica’s failure to counteract attacks by the RAF and Royal Navy stationed in Malta on Axis convoys sailing between Italy and Libya, and the ‘second’ return of the Luftwaffe in Sicily, with devastating effects on the island.

Mr Debono is the curator of the National War Museum­.

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