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Luftwaffe’s deadly return to Malta in 1942

On New Year’s Day, 1942, the German air force, the Luftwaffe, for the first time dropped PC 1800 RS rocket-assisted bombs over Malta.

Churchill was worried that the island might fall in Axis hands- Charles Debono

According to the police report of January 1, 1942, one high-explosive bomb fell and exploded in the Argotti Gardens in Floriana.

Two other high-explosive bombs fell and exploded in Piazza Fosse near the Scouts’ headquarters, severing a water main.

Another high-explosive failed to explode in National Road, between Portes des Bombes and St Anne Square. This was recovered by the Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal Section.

Charles Grech, writing in his book Raiders Passed: Wartime Recollections Of A Maltese Youngster (2002), remembers clearly the first day of 1942:

“The enemy kept visiting us up to the last second of the outgoing year and the New Year started like the old one had ended. On the stroke of midnight, we heard sirens sounding, not in a festive mood from the warships, as we used to have before the war, but in mournful air raid warnings. The worst one I remember, on the first day of the New Year, had come close to midnight. I had gone to the Strand during an alert with my friends Joe and Edgar. We heard the drone of approaching aircraft…”

The dwindling stocks of food, which threatened famine, continued to cause anxiety to the authorities. The soup kitchens originally set up by government to provide meals to those whose homes had been demolished and consequently had no means of cooking, were replaced by Victory Kitchens, with the first opening at Lija on January 3, 1942. Recruiting staff, including supervisors, storekeepers, sales assistants, cooks, and labourers, was not so easy as most men and the majority of women were already engaged in other vital work. Housewives and other willing but inexperienced young women filled this pressing gap.

On January 3 at about 4.15 a.m. an enemy aircraft approached Gozo and dropped 12 bombs on Nadur. Two people lost their lives and others were wounded. Nadur was attacked again on January 15 when at 4.45 p.m., 12 bombs were dropped, killing several people, including a girl of 13 and an eight-year-old boy, and injuring others.

On the morning of January 29, Għajnsielem was attacked by a solitary bomber: Carmela Grech, the wife of a local schoolmaster, Lorenzo Grech, and four of her children, aged between six and 17, lost their lives while two others had to be pulled out of the debris. This was the first time a number of victims lost their lives in one day and from one family.

As the threat of an Axis invasion increased, on January 10, 1942, the civil and military authorities, issued secret instructions on “civil organisation in the event of an enemy landing or attempted landing”. The code word ‘volcano’ was to be signalled if “an attack on the islands is imminent, and key personnel should go to action stations forthwith”. The code word was to be transmitted to the Commissioner of Police who was to inform all police stations which in turn had to inform all key personnel on a special list kept at each station. ‘Cyclone’ was the codeword for a general action.

Meanwhile, the last British infantry battalion sent to strengthen the island’s garrison, the 1st Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, arrived on January 27, 1942.

Other members of the battalion arrived in the following weeks. The battalion was stationed in the Rabat-Verdala-Dingli area, commanding a magnificent view of the whole island. Their role in the overall defensive plan of the island was that of a mobile reserve and the soldiers were provided with 400 bicycles for this purpose.

A number of tanks had arrived in Malta in November 1940, consisting of four Matilda IIs infantry tanks (A12) and two Vickers Mk VI C light tanks. A major change was to occur on January 27, 1942, with the amalgamation of No. 1 Independent Troop with X Squadron 6th RTR who had sailed from Alexandria on January 15, the resulting unit becoming known as Malta Tanks under Major S.D.G. Longworth. However, it seems that more tanks were received on March 24 during Convoy Operation, consisting of Mk I (A9) and Mk IV (A13 Mk IIA) cruiser tanks.

Meanwhile, in Libya, General Erwin Rommel launched his second offensive on January 21, 1942, but his advance was halted by February 4, and the front line had been stabilised running from Gazala on the coast (30 miles west of Tobruk) to the town of Bir Hakeim, 50 miles to the south.

As the situation in North Africa was linked with that of Malta, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was seriously worried that the island might fall in Axis hands. After the front in North Africa had stabilised, according to his memoirs, “…during February 1942 it became apparent to General Auchinleck and he proposed to make another four months’ pause in order to mount a second set-piece battle with Rommel”. Considering this lack of resolve to defeat Rommel in North Africa, the prime minister was worried about Malta’s situation: “... it seemed to us that Rommel’s strength might well grow quicker than our own.

“These considerations were fortified by the German renewal of their attack on Malta and the consequent breakdown of our means of obstructing German and Italian convoys. Finally, Malta itself was threatened with starvation unless a steady monthly flow of supplies could be maintained…”

By this time, Fliegerkorps II strategy was to harass Malta’s defenders and the civilian population round the clock; it gained momentum at the end of January and in the first weeks of February. These tactics were used until the Germans were fully prepared for the bombing offensive of spring 1942. The Luftwaffe continued to send small bomber formations to attack airfields and the harbour during the day but persisted with its night-long intruder raids. Many bombs were dropped at random on scattered towns and villages in Malta and Gozo.

Bombs dropped in this way destroyed many buildings and killed many civilians. February 15, 1942, was the first clear day of the month and the siren sounded at 8 a.m. There followed a constant alert that lasted a record 20 hours.

The Regent Cinema in Kingsway, Valletta, had been hit in April 1941, but had reopened and was showing the Cecil B. DeMille film North West Mounted Police, starring Gary Cooper and Madeleine Carroll. The day-long alert was ignored and many servicemen and civilians booked for the afternoon show.

At 5 p.m. a solitary Junkers Ju 88 bomber dropped a stick of bombs through the clouds which fell in the area of the Governor’s Palace, demolishing the cinema, the adjacent Casino Maltese in Queen’s Square and part of the palace. Some 20 civilians, mostly teenagers, and over 80 servicemen died inside the cinema and some members and four of the staff of the Casino Maltese as well as others in the street, 38 civilians and an unknown number of servicemen were injured.

Grech remembers clearly that February 15 in peacetime would have been Carnival Sunday, but that tragic loss of human lives became known as Black Carnival. When he and his pilot friend Pete arrived on the scene, “we were faced with a grim sight. There were rows of corpses covered with sheets or blankets and doctors and nurses were milling around the casualties. Priests and monks were administering the last rites to the casualties and the dead, among who was Fr Gerald Pace, the prior of the Carmelite community of Valletta. We saw karrozzini blown up and dead horses with parts of their bodies spattered along the walls. There was a huge bomb crater in the square, by the side of the Palace, in front of the Casino Maltese, where one of the bombs had fallen.

“One of the wings of the Palace was pock-marked with splinters and the other wing, close to the Casino Maltese, had been demolished. Nothing was left of the shops on that side of the square. Everything had been reduced to rubble. Another bomb had fallen in Prince Alfred’s courtyard, near the clock we had been admiring…”

Meanwhile, in January 1942, the authorities had decided to exile a number of Maltese, who were known or alleged pro-Italian sympathisers, most of them supporters or members of the Nationalist Party. These people had already been interned at Fort Salvatore in Cottonera in May 1940. However, after the camp was hit in July 1940, the internees were transferred to the juvenile section of the Civil Prison at Kordin. It is said that the Defence Security Officer feared that the detainees would collaborate with the enemy if the Axis invaded and captured the island.

Forty-two deportees were embarked on HMS Breconshire and the supply ship left harbour at dusk on February 13, 1942. Herbert Ganado, who was one of those exiled, wrote in his memoirs, Rajt Malta Tinbidel: “…Before we sailed, the ship’s No. 1 (First Lieutenant Charles Arthur de Winton Kitcat) came to the hold and spoke to us in a highly insolent manner: ‘We have no sympathy for you. I am sure you realise that, but you can be sure that the Navy will see you through. There are no boats for you, and if anything happens and you take the boats, you will be shot.’ And he placed an armed guard, with bayonet, at the top of the steps…”

During their passage to Egypt the ship was attacked, but after three days she reached Alexandria; they were then driven to Cairo and a month later to Uganda.

A naval loss in Grand Harbour occurred after the destroyer HMS Maori arrived in Malta on January 27, 1942, as part of the escort to HMS Breconshire. However, during the night of February 11/12, 1942, German bombers attacked Grand Harbour and hit HMS Maori, which was moored to No. 3 buoy in the middle of the harbour. By the evening of February 12, only the top of the destroyer’s mast was above water. Seven crew members lost their lives.

Since the Luftwaffe had started a new offensive against Malta, the number of air raid alerts continued to increase. In January 1942 there were 263 alerts; in February these dropped slightly to 236 alerts. However, some 669 tons of bombs were dropped during January 1942, and in February, despite the fewer air raid alerts, 1,020 tons of bombs were dropped. This large increase came about because more enemy aircraft were attacking Malta.

Relevant artefacts and information may be seen at the National War Museum, Valletta.

Mr Debono is the curator of the National War Museum.

Concluded

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