16 January 1941: Ferocious Luftwaffe Blitz Illustrious at Malta

16 Jan

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The Luftwaffe today launched their first concentrated and ferocious attack of the war in the Mediterranean.  Early this afternoon the sun burned away the morning cloud to leave a clear bright sky.  Suddenly out of the blue a formation of Stuka dive-bombers screamed across the skies over Grand Harbour and HMS Illustrious, berthed at Parlatorio Wharf.  Wave after wave of Luftwaffe aircraft followed in their wake – more than seventy of them, raining bombs on the Dockyard and surrounding areas.

Bombing of Illustrious strikes Three Cities (NWMA Malta)

Bombing of Illustrious strikes Three Cities (NWMA Malta)

“Hordes and hordes of dive-bombers came over in big waves for over an hour and dived from all angles in a suicidal manner to within a hundred feet of the harbour, where they let go their enormous bombs.

The anti-aircraft barrage was as terrific as it was awe-inspiring. Bofors guns banged and crashed at a determined height, above them burst pom-pom shells and the heavier shells, below them spluttered the rifle and machine gun bullets, till the whole sky was one mass of boiling bubbling explosions completely blotting out the blue canopy above.  The prolonged din merged with the continuous echo to produce an eerie mumble which rose and fell but never slackened(2)

Forty dockyard workers huddling in communal prayer in a shelter hewn from rock under heavy bastions could feel the impact of the bombing:  “The whole shelter seemed to be trembling and shuddering as if we were in the middle of a gigantic earthquake. Sometimes it felt as if express trains with a strange kind of echo were running at full speed under our feet.  Occasionally the sharp blasts of heavy gunfire would penetrate the shelter but would quickly be drowned out by the surrounding din.” (3)

Barely able to prepare for the onslaught, Malta’s few defending Hurricane and Fulmar aircraft took to the air to try and repel the raiders.  The valiant response succeeded in preventing all but one bomb from falling on Illustrious. The merchant ship Essex was hit by a heavy bomb, killing fifteen crew and seven Maltese dockyard workers.

“The show never seemed to end, but when the last plane had gone, and the thunder of guns changed into an echo and then, too, disappeared, a pall of white smoke covered the whole harbour area.” (2)


Dozens of bombs intended for Illustrious rained down on the surrounding ‘Three Cities’ of Senglea, Vittoriosa and Cospicua.  Malta’s oldest urban communities established and fortified in the 16th century by the Knights of Malta, are now reduced to rubble. It is estimated some 200 houses have been destroyed and another 500 damaged.  Casualties are reported to be high: with reported dead – men, women and children; most survivors have lost their homes and everything they own; hundreds are still believed trapped under collapsed buildings. The sacristy of the parish church of St Lawrence, Vittoriosa, suffered a direct hit, entombing 35 people who were sheltering in the crypt. 

The effect on the population has been devastating.  The majority had fled their homes to take refuge inland during the early raids of June 1940 but through the quieter autumn many have drifted back home to rejoin Dockyard workers who had stayed behind. 

Adjutant of the Special Constabulary, Philo Pullicino, hurried to Senglea after the raid:

Senglea after the raid

Senglea after the raid

“Pale people of all ages, carrying bundles of clothing; the dismal banging of doors and windows forced open by blast; the frequent shattering of glass and the continuous stream of dust and stones from demolished houses; all this greeted me and made me pause as I entered Senglea…

Approaching the top of the long broad stretch that was Victory Street with its gentle inviting slope, I beheld little else but stones, dust and debris blocking the entire roadway at different places.  As I walked down the street, climbing over high piles of shattered masonry littered with broken furniture, I glanced down the side streets and noticed with sullen anger and amazement that these too were blocked to a height of one storey…and all the while the sickly smell of gas touched my nostrils…  At the Wharf the scene was still bad. Great voids in blocks of houses marked the trail of the bombs.  The promenade was littered with balconies, broken dghajsas, shop signs and goods…” (2)

Valletta, too, was badly hit, sending its citizens scurrying for shelter.  “The noise in our Crypt was just terrible. There were about 250 people there huddled together, many of them crying, but many were very brave. The roar was like the loudest thunder one has ever heard, but absolutely continuous, and it was not possible really to distinguish the guns from the bombs, except when one fell close to us – about 70 yards. That brought down a block of flats and 5 people were killed. We sat, holding hands and praying aloud.” (4)

Bombs had struck five buildings in Old Mint Street, Valletta, including a six-storey block of flats. Men rushed to the rescue, saving three children and over a dozen adults from the ruins, but five lost their lives.

The call has gone out for demolition squads and volunteers who are urgently needed for rescue work across Valletta and the Three Cities. (5)


Weather  Heavy morning cloud; clear afternoon.

1047-1053 hrs  Air raid alert for enemy aircraft reported approaching Grand Harbour. Six Swordfish patrol across the Island in formation from north east to south west; three Fulmars are also airborne.  The raiders do not cross the coast.

1355-1530 hrs  Air raid alert for formations of German bombers approaching the Island. 15 JU 88s approach from the north over Tigne at 8-12000 feet, wheel east and dive-bomb Grand Harbour before turning away over Ricasoli and Zonqor. The raiders are met by an extremely heavy barrage from all the heavy and light guns of the Dockyard, Luqa and Birzebbuga.  Malta fighters are scrambled.

The first attack is followed in by several more large formations of JU 87 Stuka dive-bombers, totalling some 50 aircraft, which swoop down singly from 14000 feet to a very low altitude to launch their bombs. Again the guns respond with a massive barrage and Malta fighters engage in dogfights with enemy aircraft.

Bombs dropped from as little as a few hundred feet severely damage much civilian property and buildings across the Dockyard. No 2 boiler shop is badly damaged and part of No 2 dock destroyed.  A large crater is blown in Sawmills Wharf; flying debris and splinters damage surround windows.  MV Essex is hit in the engine room by a large bomb, killing 14 or 15 men and wounding another 15.  Her vital cargo of guns, ammunition, torpedoes and other service stores is undamaged. HMS Illustrious is hit in the quarterdeck by one bomb. HMS Perth suffers a near-miss and is damaged underwater. 

Several unexploded bombs are reported in the Dockyard and creeks.  Eleven raiders are confirmed shot down and another six damaged, some by fighter aircraft and the remainder by anti-aircraft fire.

1605-1640 hrs  Air raid alert for approaching enemy aircraft. One JU88 approaches from the east and is later seen flying away from the coast to the south west, pursued by Malta fighters; the raider is believed damaged.  No bombs are dropped.

Military casualties  Stoker 1st Class Harry Hague, HMS Triumph.

Civilian casualties Floriana  Robert Grech (21); Hamrun  Pawlu Gauci (25); Marsa  Dominic Vassallo (15); Senglea  Elicio Briccio (70), Nicola Buhagiar (70), Emanuel Caruana (50), Giovanna Cassar (20), Rita Cassar (18) and Tessie Cassar (8), Antonia Farrell (27) and William Farrell (38), Mary Farrugia (8), Jane Gatt (64), Vincenza Grima (50), Angelina Kamm (50), Michael Mallia (65), Rosina Remigio (35), Rev Canon Profs John Theuma (28), Carmela Theuma (30) and Bice Theuma (5), Emily Teuma (21), Evelyn Vella (17); Valletta Vincent Cachia (40), Mary Healey (66), Carmela Mamo (44), Teresa Mamo (80), Assunta Rapinett (43), Mary Rapinett (6), Emanuel Spiteri (48);  Vittoriosa  Mary Cardona, Erminia D’Agostino (12), Joseph D’Agostino (11), Josephine D’Agostino (41), Lawrence D’Agostino, Sosa Darmanin (50), Alfonso Degabriele (67), Joseph Degabriele (21), Lawrence Degabriele (56), Francis Falzon (16), Anna Galea (9), Carmela Gatt, Cettina Gatt, Dolores Gatt (24), Laurence Gatt,  Mary Gatt (23), Lorenza German (11), Anthony Hili, Emanuel Mallia, Francis Mallia, Laurence Mallia (55), Lora Mallia, Albert Mizzi, Anthony Mizzi, Francis Mizzi (32), Lorenza Pisani (32), Vincent Pisani, Lorenzo Zarb (44); Zeitun  Albert Brignoli (51); plus 6 unidentified females and 9 unidentified males. 

Enemy casualties  Oberleutnant LG1 Kurt Pickler, Pilot, JU 88 bomber.


ROYAL NAVY  Perth sailed after dark to the eastward.

LUQA  69 Squadron (431 Flight): 1 Maryland reconnaissance Taranto intercepted by two Macchi 200s.

FORTRESS ROYAL ENGINEERS Bomb Disposal UXB reported 2; dealt with 2 (Ack Ack shell and petrol tank).

MALTA SIGNAL COMPANY  Cables damaged by enemy action at Rocco, Ricasoli and Lascaris-Ghain Dwielli.

8th Bn MANCHESTER REGIMENT  Some officers attended a demonstration of 25lb gun-hows and 6in Howitzers.

2nd Bn ROYAL WEST KENT REGIMENT  Battalion commanders reconnaissance of new positions for machine gun posts at Tal Handaq and Luqa.

(1) Joseph Attard of Cospicua, son of a Dockyard worker, The Battle of Malta, Joseph Attard, Hamlyn Paperbacks 1980

(2) The Road to Rome, Philo Pullicino, MPI Publishing 2012

(3) Illustrious Blitz: Joseph Stephens Remembers

(4) Diary of Rev Reginald Nicholls, Chancellor of St Pauls Anglican Cathedral, courtesy of website: Malta Family History

(5) Main text from UXB Malta, S A M Hudson, History Press 2010/2012


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Posted by on January 16, 2021 in 1941, January 1941


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