Lying half way between Italy and North Africa, the 120 square-mile island of Malta unwittingly played a pivotal role during the North African campaign in World War Two.
Part of the British Empire since 1814, the island was Britain’s only military base in the central Mediterranean.
On June 10, 1940, Italy entered the war and on the following day began by bombing Malta. The British garrison on the island defended the population, and supplies and extra planes were shipped in. But it was only the start.
British submarines and Hurricane fighter planes retaliated by attacking Italian and German convoys, which were shipping men and equipment to North Africa. In October 1941 Erwin Rommel, the German commander in North Africa, lost over 60% of his supplies to British forces based in Malta.
Now the Germans
The Germans decided that Malta was causing too much damage and Albert Kesselring, Hitler’s Mediterranean commander, promised to “wipe Malta off the map.” Luftwaffe and U-boats stationed sixty miles north on the island of Sicily launched aerial attacks on Malta and the siege intensified. Supplies to the island virtually ceased and the inhabitants suffered eighteen months of hunger as well as continual bombardment. Civilians, starved and frightened, packed the caves beneath the capital Valletta.
It was during this time of deprivation that Britain’s King George VI awarded the island, as a collective, the George Cross “to bear witness to the heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.”
In May 1942 the British tried to fly in a contingent of Spitfires but most were destroyed before they could be deployed. With food and supplies nearly exhausted, the future looked bleak. Ammunition was so low that only a few rounds were allowed to be fired per day.
Spitfire to the rescue
A second attempt to bring in Spitfires was successful. Immediately they went on the offensive against the German Luftwaffe and were able to escort supply convoys through to the besieged islanders. A convoy of merchant ships escorted by Spitfires and warships managed to survive intense German attack and arrived in Valletta on August 15, the Maltese feast day of St Mary. Their survival and arrival on this important day of the Maltese calendar was seen as nothing less than heaven-sent. The worst was over.
Renewed attacks from Malta on Rommel’s supplies severely hampered the German campaign in Egypt, and by the end of 1942, British supplies to the island were arriving unmolested. The siege was over and the island had survived.
The Maltese flag
The George Cross to Malta was the first time it had been awarded to a collective. (The second and, so far, last occasion was in 1999 when it was awarded to the Royal Ulster Constabulary.) To this day the image of the George Cross appears in the top left corner of the Maltese flag.
Read more in World War Two In An Hour