Historian James Holland presents a fresh analysis of the World War Two battle for the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta.
The Battle for Malta is one of the most vicious and violent episodes of the Second World War. The tiny Mediterranean island is smaller than the Isle of Wight, yet between 1940 and 1942 more bombs fell on Malta than fell on Britain during the entire Blitz. As Axis forces threw all they had at the island, those on Malta were forced to endure a sustained attack from the air and a rapidly deteriorating condition on the ground. Beyond any form of austerity that we might understand, little Malta was close to starving. The struggle of the Maltese people against oppression was recognised personally by King George VI, who awarded the George Cross to the entire island. Yet the Siege of Malta is only half of the story.
In this documentary, Holland argues that the real importance of Malta’s position was its offensive role, which has been largely undervalued.
Caught in the crosshairs of a massive struggle between Britain and Germany to control the shipping waters of the Mediterranean, by 1942 Malta had become the most bombed place on Earth. Whilst the level of brutal attacks may seem out of all proportion to the islands size it actually only serves to underline its importance – for Malta held the key to the entire war in the Mediterranean and North Africa.
The following is an excerpt from producer’s James Holland blog commentary on “Battle for Malta”.
Today I’m heading up to London for the last day on the Battle for Malta, a film I’ve been working on since the summer. The day will be spent at Envy, post-production officers off Oxford Street, where the last finishing touches are added: smoothing over edits, laying down music, checking facts are all spot on.
Then, in just five days’ time, it will be aired, screened on BBC 2 next Monday evening. Fifty-nine minutes in which I hope I can not only tell the story of the entire Siege of Malta in the Second World War, but also present a credible thesis. Doing this in a minute under an hour is no easy task, but I think we’ve pulled it off: it’s exciting, moving, even haunting in parts, and, I reckon, conveys the very crucial role Malta played in the War in the Mediterranean.
We’ve also brought some new material and perspectives to the film, both of which I wish I’d included in my book, Fortress Malta, written ten years ago. New documents shown to me by Simon Cusens, an extremely assiduous local historian on Malta, show that by the summer of 1942, conditions on the island were even worse than I had appreciated. Simon managed to salvage a series of documents relating to the Chief Medical Officer, which show how horrendous compromises over the islanders’ health were made in the interest of saving precious supplies. For example, orders were issued at official levels banning the use of running water for washing hands – something we now do as the most basic form of hygiene.
We’ve also had to make some pretty difficult choices. There is no mention of Faith, Hope and Charity, for example. I’ve always thought that too much importance has been given to that batch of Royal Navy Gloster Gladiators. After all, they were only used very briefly and at a time when the Italians were hardly pressing home their attack. It’s a great story, but their impact on the wider battle for Malta was slight. Nor is there any mention of some of the more famous characters on the island, such as the ace reconnaissance pilot, Adrian Warburton, and his girlfriend, Christina Ratcliffe. There’s no time for George ‘Screwball’ Beurling either. Beurling was unquestionably one of the finest fighter pilots that ever lived, but again, his impact on the wider battle was not huge, for all his extraordinary achievements. In any case, Warby was the subject of a BBC film a few years ago, and I was involved in a film about Beurling earlier this year. In other words, they’ve had they share of screen time. I felt it was better to focus on a number of other, lesser known characters. Characters like fighter ace Denis Barnham, who wrote an incredibly detailed diary of his time on the island and which includes some of the finest descriptions of air combat I’ve ever read; Tubby Crawford, a very spry 94, and in 1941, second-in-commmand of the HMS Upholder, the most successful Allied submarine of the entire war; Ann Agius Ferrante, Meme Turner and John Mizzi, Maltese citizens who lived through those dark days and who bring to life their experiences with a freshness and clarity that helps melt the intervening years. Another star of the film has been Malta itself. We have tried to emphasise the very small size of the island. Yes, it’s a beautiful holiday destination now and a place of dazzling sun, azure skies and creamy limestone, but back then it was hellish, the most bombed place on earth. We wanted to convey something of the claustrophobia of the place and were lucky enough to see not only the amazing Lazaretto, where the submarines once had their base, but also some particularly interested shelters. Roman in origin, but expanded during the war, they were testimony to the richness of the island’s history.
Overall, however, I wanted to emphasise the importance of Malta as an offensive base. Tiny Malta, a small scrap of rock in the very heart of the Mediterranean, stood in the way of Axis shipping crossing the sea from Italy and Greece to North Africa. Rommel’s armies needed around 70,000 tons of supplies a month in 1941, and around 100,000 tons by the summer of 1942. Even a small dent in those supplies caused rapidly escalating problems, but it was Malta’s task to make sure more than just a dent was made in Axis shipping. For much of the time, they succeeded too. In November 1941, for example, Malta-based strike forces sank 77% of Axis shipping to North Africa, a staggering figure. By the end of the year, Rommel’s forces had been pushed back 500 miles in just six weeks.
It was because of this potentially decisive threat to shipping that Kesselring, German supremo in the South, decided to neutralise the island as an offensive base in the first few months of 1942. By the beginning of May, he had succeeded. Malta had been bombed 154 consecutive days, her infrastructure was wrecked, her defenders battered and her strike forces vanished. Kesselring had intended on using this moment to invade, but Hitler demurred, preferring instead to concentrate his forces behind another offensive in North Africa.
It was a bad mistake, because within weeks, Malta was striking back. By August, when the islanders were at death’s door through lack of food and water, Malta-based strike forces were sinking some 41% of Rommel’s fuel. Famously, Britain mounted its own convoy to Malta, including the all-important tanker, the SS Ohio. Nine of the fourteen ships sent to the island were sunk, but five made it through, including the Ohio and the island was saved. In the next fortnight, however, all four tankers sent to Rommel in North Africa were sunk; there was now miracle for him as there had been for Malta. When he attacked again on 31st August, it was with forces that were severely short of fuel. The battle was lost and the Axis were on the back foot in North Africa for the rest of the campaign.
And ironically, when the Allies finally assaulted Europe, invading Sicily in July 1943, it was with Malta as a major launch-pad. For five separate days in April 1942, Malta had had just one fighter aircraft available to defend the island, while on two days it had had none at all. By July 1943, however, it was heaving with fighter aircraft – aircraft that would play an important role in the invasion. The island’s turn around was complete.