Situation in Malta is critical

ADMIRAL MEZEVIRIS

The naval war of the Mediterranean 1939-1945

The Malta situation at a critical point

(source: G. Mezeviris  Vice- Admiral R.H.N.,"The Conclusions of

the Naval War of the Mediterranean 1939-1945", Athens 1961)

 

“The enemy Air force and submarine activity was creating new losses to the British.  Among other, in March 1942 the British lost their destroyer HMS JAGUAR.  

 

The situation in Malta had become unbearable. The naval base was in rubbles and surface ships could not remain in their base.  Thus, in the end of March, all ships that could sail left for Alexandria or Gibraltar where they arrived with only the loss of the destroyer HMS HAVOCK, sunk by an Italian submarine.

 

Two destroyers had remained with very serious damages that were sunk by the enemy Air force.  4 submarines - among them the Greek submarine RHN GLAFKOS - were lost following enemy air raids.  The remaining submarines started transferring in April to other bases of Southeast Mediterranean.

 

During that period, enemy ships and airplanes laid new mine fields around Malta.   One submarine and 2 auxiliary ships were lost beginning of May, having hit these mines.

 

Admiral Ναύαρχος Cunningham was dispatched to Washington to represent the British Admiralty in the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee in the preparation of the cooperation of future large scale operations of the two Navies.  Admiral Wippel took over provisionally as Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, replaced later by Admiral Harwood.

 

Towards the middle of April the situation in Malta had reached an extremely critical point. Besides the terrible destructions, there were all kinds of supplies, ammunitions and food shortages.  The German Air force, facing no serious resistance, was executing attacks from very low attitude systematically destroying all the defence infrastructure of the island.

 

On April 20, ‘Spitfire’ type airplanes flew to Malta from aircraft carriers in Gibraltar.  In a mater of a few days these airplanes were destroyed.  4 submarines and a fast minelayer ship undertook the supply with fuel and ammunitions.

 

At that time an attempt by Axis forces to seize Malta wouldn’t have met serious difficulties.  The relative preparation was practically finished.  There was provision for a 33,000 men landing force, a large number of landing crafts and around 1,300 airplanes were available.

 

The Italian Supreme Command proposed to the Germans to undertake the operation as soon as possible.  However Rommel, although realising the strategic importance of the island, asked the operation be launched after the end of the final attack against the British in North Africa that was in its final stage of preparation.  He feared that if this later was delayed the British would be reinforced and that the occupation of the Air force in Malta would be at the expense of the operations in the Cyrenaica.   Besides, he was expecting that the British resistance will not last more than a week and that one more week was necessary to take advantage of the results. Thus, it was agreed the operation for the seizure of Malta to be postponed for the second fortnight of July 1942.

 

However, Hitler who was determining the fortunes of the war effort of the Axis decided differently.  He was not realising the importance of dominance in the Mediterranean for the whole evolution of war operations and that to acquire it a basic element was the possession of Malta.  He thus withdrew an important part of the German Air forces that he sent to the Russian front.  The forces that remained in Sicily started at the end of April transferring to the Cyrenaica.  It was a fatal error for the Axis.

 

Starting in May 1942 with the arrival in the Mediterranean of the first American Air forces, the Allies started winning back air supremacy.  Twice in the first fortnight of May, an important number of fighters were sent from aircraft carriers to Malta.  The reinforcement of the Air forces of the island was to soon have an important impact on the Axis transports.

 

At the same time the British minelayer HMS WELSHMAN succeeded to escape from the enemy naval and Air forces vigilance and transport ammunitions to Malta.  An attempt to send supplies from Alexandria with 5 destroyers on the night of May 11, has however totally failed with serious losses.

 

The destroyers were detected by the enemy Air force south of Crete and running the risk to face much more powerful enemy naval forces, they reversed course towards Alexandria.  On they way back, 3 of them were sunk by German airplanes coming from the Cyrenaica.

 

On the other side, the Italians lost in April 1942 the cruiser RN BANDE NERE that a British submarine sunk, while sailing from Messina to La Spezia for repairs.

 

At around the middle of May, an attempt by Italian means of attack against the port of Alexandria was repeated, but failed.  After two months a similar operation against the port of Haifa also failed, when an enemy destroyer sunk the submarine carrying these means of attack.

 

These bold attempts had become much more difficult because the British had taken the necessary measures.”