1940: Malta is at War
At the first chimes of midnight on 10 June 1940, Malta’s churches announced the start of the second siege in the history of this fortress island. Mussolini had declared the war on the side of the Axis six hours earlier and next day, 11 June, brought a brutal introduction to modern warfare.
“we woke at 06.45 to the scream of the air raid siren…practically synchronised with a furious outburst of anti-aircraft fire all around us. We hurried into dressing gowns, and ran to the Crypt collecting the two frightened maids as we went. The fire was severe; windows and doors rattling, and the crump of bombs falling.
There are three A.A. guns 600 yards away, clearly visible from our drawing-room windows, and indeed guns on all sides of us at about the same distance. I do not know how long the action lasted – perhaps 15 minutes. Ten planes, we were told, in two formations.
We had 8 raids during that day, by far the worst being the last, when firing went on for about 30 minutes at about 7.30 p.m.It was a terrifying experience. I could hear bombs dropping. The sound is quite different from gunfire. It is a thick sound, and the word ‘crump’ just describes it.”
Extract from diary of Reverend Reginald M. Nicholls, Chancellor of St.Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, Valletta. Courtesy of website: MaltaFamily History.
Malta’s defences were minimal. Though some preparations for war were in place, the Island had fewer than 5000 ill-equipped troops, no operational fighter aircraft, only 14 coastal defence guns and enough food supplies for just 6 weeks.
For a war which would be fought mainly in the air, there were no air squadrons to call on. A search in May 1940 had revealed the packaged parts sufficient to assemble four obsolete planes, and volunteers had been quickly trained to fly them. A fighter flight of three Sea Gladiators, historically named ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity’, took to the air in a valiant effort to take on the Italian fighters. Flying Officer W J Woods found himself at about 15,000 feet in his tiny Gladiator, pursued by a Maachi 200:
Malta’s defenders had claimed their first enemy fighter but not before terrifying bombing raids had claimed their first casualties. Italian bombs fell at 0630 hours near Fort Campbell, followed by near misses at St Georges and Tigne, and a direct hit on Fort St Elmo. Malta’s first military casualties were six members of the Royal Malta Artillery, would-be protectors of their Island: Bombadier Joseph Galea, Gunners Michel’Angelo Saliba, Richard Micallef, Carmel Cordina and Paul Debono, and Boy Philip Busuttil.
More attacks soon followed killing civilians across the Island, including six in one heavy bombing raid on Gzira.
Civilians killed: Carmelo Galea (40) in Birkirkara; Joseph Ancilleri and Doris Galea (5 months) in Cospicua; Michael Camenzuli (39), Lilian Doublet (7) and Mary Doublet (46), Giuliano Micallef (65), Giovanni Trapani (48) and Rosina Vassallo (33) in Gzira; Giuseppe Ellul (36) in Mqabba; Paolo Galea (37) in Msida; Nina Farrugia (25) and her two sons Ninu (5) and Joe (4) in Pieta.
The bombing sent civilians living near the Dockyard fleeing for safety. Within days 100,000 had taken to the roads with as many belongings as they could carry, to seek shelter with family or friends in outlying towns and villages as far as possible from the bombing.
The Italians seemed intent on neutralising Malta as quickly as possible. In the following three weeks there were 53 air raids, with only a few raid-free days in between. The first night raids began at the end of June, but then the rate of attacks and number of casualties declined. This enabled supplies of much-needed equipment and additional troops to be delivered by three convoys in the autumn, to reinforce the Malta garrison.
And a few much-needed fighter aircraft had arrived: four Hurricanes in July and 12 in August. Successful convoys delivering much-needed supplies to the Island attracted the attention of the enemy who concentrated on attacking the airfields, including the Gladiators’ base at Hal far on 15September.
On 11 November 1940, Fleet Air Arm aircraft launched from HMS Illustrious attacked the Italian Fleet at Taranto Harbour; an attack so successful it became the model for the later Japanese raid on Pearl Harbour. The reconnaissance for the operation had been carried out by aircraft from Malta. This bold offensive, together with Allied air attacks on Tripoli and Naples, caused the Axis to take stock. Malta was evidently now well-equipped and able to fight back.
It was a situation which could not be allowed to continue.