The Air Battle of Malta

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8 The Air Battle of Malta sounded upon the island, persisting month after month in the effort to neutralise it and finally, in the six months from December 1941 to May 1942, attempting wholly to reduce the garrison by aerial assault. The spirit and endurance o f the Maltese, which played so great apart in winning the battle, can only be done injustice a book devoted to their problems and triumphs while living besieged upon a target of rock. This is the story o f Malta’s war in the air, but it must be emphasised that the island’s resistance was a unique example o f a combined operation in which the Royal Navy, the Merchant Navy, the Army, the people o f Malta and the Royal Air Force were all indispensable and in­separable. With the Royal Air Force were men from all parts o f the British Commonwealth and from the United Nations. inConspicuous the island’s defence were Australians, New Zealanders and Rhodesians, while during 1942 never less than twenty-five percent of the aircrews were Canadians. Although most of them must remain anonymous in this account, their individual exploits again worthier tribute in the joint success they achieved. Such was the comradeship of fighter and bomber crews, o f the British and their brother nations, that this composite honour is the one they would themselves prefer. The siren, sounding at seven o’clock on that June morning, was the prelude to two and a quarter years o fair assault and blockade from an enemy only just over fifty miles distant at the nearest landfall. By the end o f 1942 over 14,000 tons o f bombs had fallen upon the 143 square miles o f Malta and G ozo an average o f some ninety-nine tons per square mile, though this tonnage was concentrated to a'far greater density upon the dockyards, airfields and inhabited places o f Malta. During those two and a quarter years 1,468 civilians (or about one to every 200 o f the population) were killed or died o f injuries and over 24,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged. The enemy lost 1,129 aircraft in this assault, o f which 236 were destroyed by anti-aircraft fire. In the island’s defence 568 aircraft were lost but for every aircraft bombed on the ground, the anti-aircraft gunners destroyed one Axis machine in the air. For every civilian killed, the Axis paid approximately one raider. II. The Italians try their Hand JUNE-DECEMBER I94O When the first siren sounded, on nth June 1940, Malta’s airborne defence consisted o f four Gladiator aircraft, two o f which maintained a continuous stand-by during daylight hours. As the ten Italian bombers approached at 14,000 feet they were engaged by anti-aircraft fire and by the Gladiators, which had been at readiness since dawn. They dropped their bombs round the Grand Harbour and upon the airfield at Hal Far. The first military casualties were sustained at Fort St Elmo where six Royal Malta Artillerymen, who were firing at an aircraft with rifles, were killed by a bomb falling among them. It was the busy time o f day and people were on their way to work. C a rozzins, the high, graceful, curtained carriages which ply for hire in Valetta, were crowding the streets. The painted water-craft, known as dghaises, were ferrying workers and shoppers across the har­ bours. Few took shelter during the half-hour of the first alert. The value o f deep rock shelters was learnt later. Seventy persons were killed or died o f injuries in that month o f June, a total exceeded only during the heaviest months of the assault in 1942. The story of these first Gladiator fighters which defended the island begins in April 1940, about the time of Dunkirk. The Air Officer Commanding at Malta, Air-Ccmmodore
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