1942: Defence of Malta

Spitfire Site

"Either, sir, we get the Spitfires here within days, not weeks, or we're done"

The following article in an excerpt from the forthcoming book dedicated to the Supermarine Spitfire, covering its wartime combat career from service introduction in 1938 to the VJ Day in 1945, and beyond. – Ed.

In February 1942 Sqn/Ldr Stan Turner, veteran of the Battle of France and Douglas Bader’s 242 Squadron, arrived to take over No. 249 Squadron on Malta. Remaining under Axis siege since the summer of 1940, Malta was now in desperate straits. The February convoy from Alexandria had failed to reach the island due to intense bombardment from German aircraft stationed in Crete. The inhabitants, under constant bombardment, were facing acute shortages of everything: food, ammunition, fuel, spare parts, aircraft. Upon arrival, Turner quickly realized that the defences faced unacceptable odds flying Hurricanes against the German Bf 109F’s and Italian Macchi C.202′s. He urgently required the delivery of Spitfires for the Malta squadrons and his request was approved. These were to be the first Spitfire fighters to be deployed outside Britain.

As delivery onboard a convoy or over land was out of the question, the only option remained to fly the Spitfires off an aircraft carrier. Contrary to what has been suggested elsewhere, this method of delivery was already well established; during 1941 more than 300 Hurricanes had been delivered to Malta this way. Now came the turn for the Spitfire, and with it a number of problems had to be solved. Firstly, the initial plan envisaged the use of HMS Eagle and HMS Argus for the delivery, code-named Operation Spotter. Unfortunately, the elevators on Argus were too small for fixed-wing Spitfires, leaving HMS Eagle as the only feasible option. During the first attempt for delivery from the Eagle on February 28 a technical fault with the 90-gallon slipper tanks was discovered preventing their use and the operation had to be abandoned. The entire task force returned to Gibraltar.

HMS Eagle pictured before the war. By the beginning of 1942, this old carrier became the only alternative for supplying Malta with Spitfires.
[Crown Copyright]

To enable the aircraft to get into the air within 660 feet of Eagle’s deck, the Spitfire needed take-off flaps. Unfortunately, the Spitfire only had one 90-degrees flap setting for landing. A simple solution was developed whereupon the flaps on ferried aircraft were locked half-way down by inserting wooden wedges between the flap and the wing. As each aircraft took into the air, the pilot had to lower the flaps fully, dropping the wedges to the sea, and then close the flaps again.

It was during the next attempt on 7 March 1942 that the full contingent of fifteen Spitfires was flown off from HMS Eagle off Algiers at the distance of 650 miles from Malta. Assisted by seven Blenheims, all fifteen Spitfires reached Malta safely. Hurricanes were up to cover their landing at Takali. During the next few days the airfields were persistently bombed, but on 10 March the Spitfires were ready for action, claiming the destruction of one Bf 109 and two more probably destroyed.

Already on 21 March HMS Eagle made its second delivery 9 Spitfires to the beleaguered island. Spitfires arrived just in the critical phase of the Axis bombing offensive over Malta, which reached its apex between 20 March and 28 April 1942. Luftwaffe records alone indicate that during this period the island was subjected to 11,819 sorties, an average of 300 sorties a day. The Germans were diverting significant forces from the Eastern front to Sicily, and their forces built up rapidly. In June the Italian and German forces ranged against the island counted some 520 Luftwaffe and 300 Reggia Aeronautica aircraft, including around 140 Messerschmitt Bf 109F of JG 53 and II/JG 3 and 80 Macchi C.202′s of the 4th and 51st Stormo.

Aerial photograph of Takali (Ta Qali) taken on 29th April 1942 at the height of Luftwaffe bombing offensive. The devastation is evident. Takali was the main fighter base on Malta and the one where Spitfires were operated. Note the massive reinforced aircraft pens in the upper part of the photo. 285 individual aircraft pens were erected on Malta during three critical months, involving the effort of some 3000 Army soldiers.
[Crown Copyright]

The general tactics adopted by Sqn/Ldr Turner was similar to that of the Battle of Britain. The available Spitfires would climb high above the incoming formations and try to engage the escorting fighters while the Hurricanes would come in at the bombers below. This provided a vital cover for the Hurricanes which had to struggle to get to 15,000 feet before the enemy approach. The interception was coordinated by ground control safely located in “The Ditch” – natural caves under Valletta.

On March 23 a supply convoy MW-10 from Alexandria approached Malta. On the day before the convoy was attacked by Italian fleet in what has become known as the Second Battle of Sirte, but the four escorting Royal Navy cruisers and 16 destroyers British managed to fight off the attack. During the approach to Malta, the Germans and Italians launched over 100 aircraft to intercept the convoy as soon as it was within range. All Malta fighters – 14 Spitfires and 11 Hurricanes – were scrambled to protect it. Despite their efforts and the significant number of Axis aircraft shot down, the cargo ship Clan Campbell was sunk twenty miles from harbour, oil tanker Breconshire was damaged and anchored outside, steamer Pampas was hit by two bombs that failed to explode, while only Talabot reached Grand Harbour intact. For the next three days the RAF Squadrons kept up a nearly continuous fighter screen over Valletta against intense bombing attacks. On the 26th the Luftwaffe launched a massive raid of 300 aircraft which sunk all three surviving ships and a destroyer at anchor. Only 5,000 tons of supplies had been unloaded. Worse still, only five serviceable fighters remained on Malta after four days of action.

Peculiar to the defence of Malta was that there were always more available pilots than aircraft. As there was no return route for all the ferry pilots, they simply reinforced the existing units. At the same time, scarcity of maintenance facilities available on the island meant that great efforts had to be made to keep the aircraft flying. Everything had to be improvised to keep the aircraft serviceable, and cannibalising several damaged aircraft to cobble together one flying machine was a common occurrence. Indeed, on the occasions where the RAF could put up no fighter cover, Malta’s Fighter Control would transmit a dummy radio communications, faking the scrambling and interception of incoming raids as if fighters were already in the air, knowing the Luftwaffe would be monitoring the conversations.

With the abundance of pilots, a special system was developed so that units and pilots could fly the available aircraft in turns. For an individual pilot this could mean several days’ wait between his flying days. On the other hand, a flying day often meant two or three missions in a row.

“On one occasion all our fighter aircraft were grounded in order to try to increase serviceability. The Hun bombers came over in force with quite a large fighter escort. It happened that there were several fighter pilots with me in the Operations Room, one of whom was a Canadian with an unmistakable voice. I put him at the microphone at a stand-by radio set and proceeded to give him dummy orders. He replied just as if he was flying his fighter. This, we suspected, caused a cry of ‘Achtung! Spitfeuer!’ to go over the German radio. In any case, two 109s enthusiastically shot each other down without any British aircraft being airborne. This knowledge that the Germans intercepted our orders stood us in good stead. We claimed that Pilot Officer ‘Humgufery’ shot down the two Huns.”
P/O Woodhall

The HMS Eagle could do one more trip on March 29 delivering just 7 aircraft. Delivery crisis deepened as her steering gear was damaged and she had to be put in dry dock. Not having any other carrier available with the lifts large enough for the Spitfire’s wing span, prime minister Winston Churchill turned for help to the United States. This was provided timely in the form of USS Wasp, a large US Navy carrier which was available in the Atlantic as part of Task Force 99 intended for protection of northern convoy route to Russia.

USS Wasp (CV-7) photographed in spring 1942 with Vought SB2U Vindicator and Grumman F4F Wildcat aircraft on her flight deck. During the time of her Atlantic and Mediterranean missions the ship was painted in a Measure 12 (Modified) camouflage pattern.
[US Navy]

Leaving off her own contingent of torpedo and dive bombers at Clyde, Wasp collected 47 brand-new Spitfires Mk. VC with pilots from No. 601 and 603 Squadrons and set off for the Mediterranean. She was escorted by Force W of the Home Fleet with battlecruiser HMS Renown and anti-aircraft cruisers HMS Cairo and HMS Charybdis. The group passed the Straits of Gibraltar under the cover of darkness on 19 April, avoiding the possibility of being discovered by Spanish or Axis agents. By dawn on 20 April Wasp reached her despatch position off Algiers. She first launched 11 Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters to cover the launch. Meanwhile, the Spitfires were warming up their engines on the hangar deck with pilots strapped in the cockpits. The Spitfires were brought up singly on the aft elevator, engines running, and then given immediate go-ahead to take off. As one aircraft was commencing its take-off run, the elevator was already being lowered to pick another.

All but one of the dispatched Spitfires reached Malta and landed safely. Unfortunately, the Germans spotted the approaching aircraft on the radar and immediately launched a large-scale attack on Takali, destroying most of the newly arrived aircraft. 48 hours later there were still only 7 serviceable Spitfires on the island.

“The Spitfires came waggling their wings as if to say ‘OK, boys, we’re here‘. But that very same evening theĀ  ‘gen’ went round that a big plot was building up over Sicily and within half an hour or so we were to see that Jerry really meant business. Standing at a vantage point in the village of Zurrieq, I saw the first waves of 88s coming all the way over the island. They dived down on Takali where the whole batch of Spits had landed. We tried to count them as they came in, but it was an utter impossibility. Straight down they went, and one could see the stuff leave the kites before it really got dark.”
Anonymous RAF Sergeant about the aftermath of Operation Calendar

Spitfire taking off from USS Wasp on 9 May 1942 during operation Bovery. Barely visible is the 90-gallon slipper tank under the aircraft’s belly. As the Wasp’s deck was longer than that of HMS Eagle, no provisional flaps were needed for take-off.
[US Navy]

By the middle of April the fighter defence was seriously weakened and the scrambles had to be restricted to six aircraft, sometimes even fewer. Of the six, four were sent to engage the enemy and two reserved for airfield defence. The interceptors scrambled and gained height as rapidly as possible in the sun. Their tactics was often limited to a single attack, diving right through the fighter escort and trying to hit one or two bombers before breaking away. Meanwhile, to save fuel, the airfield defence pair were sent up at the last possible moment. Keeping radio silence, they would fly to a point twenty or thirty miles south of the island and gain height until ordered by ground control to intervene at whichever airfield in need of defence.

When caught by the Bf 109s, many pilots found themselves flying for their lives using all helpful manoeuvres. Canadian George “Buzz” Beurling developed an evasive action when he, upon being attacked from behind, pulled the stick extremely hard, causing the Spitfire to enter a violent stall, flick over and spin. The manoeuvre was so quick and rough that it was impossible to follow, but only very few pilots ever learned to use it. “Buzz” Beurling was as good a shooter as he was a pilot: he became the top ace of the 1942 Malta campaign with 27 victories to his credit. Rumours said that he once shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 109 with only two bullets!

Despite the setback of Operation Calendar, it proved that with the aid of the large American carrier new fighters could be delivered to Malta in quantity. During the next Operation Bovery on 9 May, USS Wasp and the repaired HMS Eagle launched as many as 64 Spitfires Mk. VC. Again, the launch was preceded by 11 F4Fs taking off for combat air patrol. At 6:43, Wasp commenced launching Spitfires and the first aircraft piloted by Sgt/Pilot Herrington roared down the deck. Unfortunately, it lost power soon after take-off and plunged into the sea. Both pilot and plane were lost.
P/O Jerrold (Jerry) Alpine Smith (P/O J.A. Smith ~126 Squadron, Malta) landed his Spitfire back on the deck of USS Wasp on May 9, 1942, because his auxiliary fuel tank was out of commission.

Other pilots had more luck and took into the air without further fatalities. One more incident occurred in the air as P/O Smith found his auxiliary fuel tank unserviceable after take-off. Without the tank he had no chance of reaching Malta or other friendly territory and he decided drop it and attempt landing back at the USS Wasp’s deck once all the other aircraft were airborne. This he did an hour later, the Spitfire coming to a stop just 15 feet from the forward edge of the flight deck, making what one Wasp sailor observed to be a “one wire” landing. It was to be the first successful deck landing on a Spitfire conducted in operational conditions.

The reception of the aircraft on Malta was prepared down to the smallest detail. Each arriving Spitfire was immediately brought into a safety pen, which was a self-supporting unit. A supply of fuel, glycol, oil and ammunition was waiting ready in each pen and a human chain put up to refuel the aircraft by hand. At the same time, two mechanics assisted by two soldiers rearmed the aircraft. The moment their work was done a Malta pilot took over the machine and took off to intercept the inevitable German raid. The fastest turn-around time an aircraft noted that day was an incredible 6 minutes! Not only did the aircraft survive but they also inflicted considerable damage to the approaching Italian formation of CANT bombers escorted by MC 202s. British claims that day were three Italian fighters and two bombers shot down.

Another photograph of USS Wasp taken by the end of May 1942, soon after the completion of its two delivery missions to Malta
[US Navy]

The climax of the battle came on 9 May, when HMS Welshman loaded with ammunition laid in the Grand Harbour. The unloading was done under additional protection of a smoke screen. The Axis put up four bombing raids on the harbour that day, with the heaviest air battle taking place in the morning, when about 20 Ju 87s and 10 Ju 88s escorted by Bf 109s were intercepted by 37 Spitfires and 13 Hurricanes.

With more Spitfires at its disposal, the Malta fighter force was now able to effectively hit back at the enemy and it didn’t look back ever since. HMS Eagle continued to deliver Spitfires, making 5 more trips in May and June and launching a sum of 142 aircraft of which 135 reached Malta. By the middle of June the Germans had to revert many of their units to the Eastern Front and in support of Rommel’s offensive towards Egypt and the pressure on the island decreased. In June the number of sorties flown by Fliegerkorps II against the island amounted to 956 compared to 8788 in April.

As mentioned before, the Malta Spitfires were of the Mk. VC variant, then freshly off the production line and armed with hard-hitting four 20 cannon. However, cannon ammunition was always in short supply and most aircraft had two of the cannon removed to save on ammunition and weight.

Compared with the first Spitfires Mk. V these aircraft featured a number of refinements. A new SU injector-carburettor increased the top speed by 5-10 mph depending on altitude. Internally-mounted windscreen armour gained around 5 mph, streamlined rear-view mirror another 2-3 mph. Modified exhaust pipes brought another 6-7 mph, and a slightly improved propeller another 5 mph. Thus, despite the presence of the large Vokes tropical filter under the nose which cut the top speed by 15-20 mph, the Spitfire Mk. VC could hold its own against the German Messerschmitt Bf 109F and the Italian Macchi C. 202 fairly well. The Bf 109F was the fastest of the three, and was also superior in climb. However, the Spitfire was the most manoeuvrable of the trio and despite the reduction to two cannon had the heaviest armament. Combat victories over Malta were therefore highly dependent on pilot skills, element of surprise and efficiency of ground control.

In July came the change of leadership. Air Marshall Keith Park of the Battle of Britain fame was put in charge of the air defence of Malta. During July and August there were four more resupply operations by HMS Eagle and HMS Furious during which a total of 125 Spitfires reached their destination. This was a sizeable force but Malta was now desperately short on fuel. 11 August mark the beginning of Operation Pedestal, the final effort to supply Malta by sea before the lack of fuel and ammunition would force its surrender. Despite the loss of many ships including the invaluable HMS Eagle, 5 merchantmen out of 14 reached Grand Harbour. Among them was the crippled SS Ohio, the largest tanker in the world at the time, loaded with aircraft fuel. Together the five ships brought much more vital supplies than the defenders had seen in a long time and this enabled the island to go on.

Airfield facilities at Takali were primitive throughout the siege. Fuel bowsers were always in short supply and refuelling had to be done by hand from tin canisters.
[Crown Copyright]

The combined force of the five fighter squadrons on the island, Nos. 126, 185, 229, 249 and 1435, had now for the first time exceeded 100 serviceable fighters. Keith Park now had sufficient force to protect his own airfields and could apply the tactics of forward fighter defence, whereupon aircraft should be intercepting enemy raids as early on their way to the target as possible. By establishing his “Forward Interception Plan”, the Spitfire squadrons virtually eliminated further Axis daylight bombing over the island, winning over the German’s second and last effort to bomb Malta into submission in October. An offensive against Italian shipping to North Africa was now feasible and bomber and torpedo bomber squadrons which had to flee Malta in April returned in the late summer. Also in August, No. 126 Squadron was the first to adapt its Spitfires to carry two 250-pound bombs and commenced fighter-bomber missions against German airfields on Sicily.

Also crucial to the successes in the Mediterranean was the work of RAF reconnaissance units, who observed enemy shipping and aircraft movements. PRU Spitfires routinely conducted reconnaissance missions over Italian fleet bases at Taranto, Messina, Navarino and Naples, often three times a day. The movements of the Axis forces into Tunisia, first on the airfield at Tunis and then in Bizerta harbour, were covered by Malta Spitfires on a daily basis until it was possible to operate over Tunisia from the new bases in Algiers.

One of the most famous PRU pilots Sqn/Ldr Adrian “Warby” Warburton was a commander of No. 69 Squadron equipped with Spitfires PR Mk. IV on Malta. While carrying out a low-level photographic reconnaissance of Bizerta in November 1942, Warburton was attacked and shot up by a Bf 109 over Tunisia but managed to make an emergency landing at the newly liberated airfield at Bone. The local French admiral had him flown to Gibraltar where Warby fetched another a Spitfire and returned to Malta, shooting down a Junkers Ju 88 en route. His colleagues were astonished to see him alive, having heard nothing of him for four days.

During Autumn a method was developed to send aerial reinforcements to Malta directly from Gibraltar. The advantages were obvious as no carriers had to be risked in resupply missions, but no fighter was previously able to cover the distance corresponding to that from London to St Petersburg. Fortunately, the Spitfires could now carry a massive 170 gallon slipper tank. With armament reduced to two machine guns and PR-style enlarged oil tank mounted in the nose instead of the Vokes filter the aircraft had just enough range for the mission. The first aircraft reached Malta from Gibraltar on 25 October. But by now the Allied efforts in North Africa were beginning to have their effect and supplies were reaching Malta. Only fifteen Spitfires were delivered by air before the siege of Malta was lifted and subsequent reinforcements could be sent by convoys.

At the same time when the Spitfire Mk. V was proving unable to bring the decisive advantage to the RAF over the Channel, it meant all the difference between defeat and victory over Malta. By transferring Spitfires from the carriers to Malta, the British established a credible air garrison on the island against all odds. By the end of 1942, the Axis did no longer command the skies over the island.

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By Tommy Cullen  |  2013-03-16 at 15:58  |  permalink

249 Squadron are returning to Malta in April 2013. We will be Visiting Ta’Qali Aviation Musem, and will lay a wreath to remembers those who lost their lives in defence of Malta. The Party will be led by Air Marshal Sir John Sutton, we will also be honoured by the presence of Wing Commander Tom Neil DFC* AFC, who flew wtih 249 during the Battle of Britain and in the defense of Malta.

Tommy Cullen,
Hon Sec 249 Squadron Association

By Barbara hopkins  |  2013-08-11 at 19:41  |  permalink

My late husband corporal Eddie Hopkins, was sent out to Takali airfield in April 1942 via neutral countries in mufti along with three others,all Spitfire experts. They were sent out as they were all familiar with the mark V spitfire. He took charge of some of the electrical section and remained there until joining. 242 Sdn on the Sicily landing and from there joining the Americans for the Salerno beach landing,then on to Corsica for the Southern France landing. His stories of life in Malta leave one full of admiration for the braver y of both servicemen and the people of Malta. Their courage was unbelievable.

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