5 June 1941: Malta Needs Major Reinforcements to Survive

05 Jun

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From: Gov & C IN C             To: War Office, Admiralty, Air Ministry      Copy: C in C Mediterranean; C in C Middle East

The recent operations in Crete and elsewhere have again changed the defence situation of Malta. When my original appreciation was made it was considered certain that the fleet would intervene at Malta within a few days.  It seems possible now that Malta might have to stand the full weight of a German airborne attack, probably supported by a subsidiary seaborne attack for a much longer period. 

Enemy could attack by air or sea

Enemy could attack by air or sea

Previously the loss of local air superiority has been reluctantly accepted but the seriousness of such a situation has now been brought home to us, though Malta is in a much better position to stand up to it than was Crete. These changes make a review of the situation and of previous conclusions very necessary, and the following considerations emerge:

1. Malta is more than ever important for the defence of Egypt, which seems to be the enemy’s objective, since it is the only base from which the enemy’s communications from Libya can be, and are being, effectively attacked. It is also the only quick means of reinforcing the Middle East by air. Its neutralisation may therefore become vital to the enemy and we must be prepared for him to attempt it.

2. Until recently it looked as if our naval control in the Mediterranean would increase and a seaborne attack was unlikely. Consequently certain readjustments by withdrawing troops from less likely beaches were made in order to meet airborne attacks. Now, however, heavy airborne attack will probably be supported from the sea and the rapid intervention of our fleet cannot be counted upon.  Therefore, beach defences as well as defence against air landings, must be ensured. 

3. I feel the outstanding lessons for Malta to learn from Crete are:

  • (a) the necessity of maintaining fighter aircraft in operation;
  • (b) the necessity of dealing with parachutists instantly before they can establish centres of resistance and others arrive;
  • (c) the necessity of preventing any aerodrome or landing ground falling into enemy hands
  • (d) the necessity to be certain of repelling seaborne attack which will probably synchronise with airborne attack.

4. (a) To maintain fighter aircraft we must start with adequate numbers and sufficient reserves on the spot to replace casualties.

(b) To deal with parachutists instantly entails an unwelcome dispersion of force and a large number of troops must be disposed primarily for this purpose. There must also be reserves with which to strike quickly.

(c) The defence of our aerodromes also requires many men and weapons. These will be subjected to heavy attacks from the air and casualties will undoubtedly be suffered.  Artillery sited specially to bring fire onto these aerodromes is essential.

(d) Beach defences will be subjected to heavy sea and air bombardment and must have adequate depth and sufficient local reserves to deal quickly with any penetration.  Artillery is also necessary to support them.  The struggle will be protracted and our reserves must be adequate for a very persistent effort on the part of the enemy.

5.These considerations point to the fact that the infantry garrison I said was necessary last October, ie ten battalions, is not only not excessive but is now actually less than is needed. Counting in 1st Bn Kings Own Malta Regiment (the other two KOMR battalions are only forming) I now have nine battalions. I consider that two more are really needed if we are likely to be subjected to really determined attack.  More artillery is also required as what we have is inadequate to defend the aerodromes and the beaches simultaneously.  In view of the scale of attack on Malta now envisaged I can spare nothing, even if reinforced as above, for Gozo which is completely undefended, in spite of the serious military and civil disadvantages to Malta if this Island should fall into enemy hands.

6. The anti-aircraft defences, though considerable, are not yet complete and the weapons we have are gravely undermanned, so that existing personnel would be hard put to maintain a sustained effort over a long period and there is no margin for casualties. Anti-aircraft ammunition is also required to complete reserves. There are many gunners (approximately 1000) waiting in Egypt to come here, and also other badly-needed reinforcements, both Army and RAF.  The total is 2577 all ranks.  These must be got here somehow.  If the Commander in Chief Mediterranean cannot send these personnel by warship at an early date I earnestly request that special efforts be made to bring them here by air.  This would also provide a method of removing from the Fortress some of the families and [unnecessary mouths to feed].

7. In order to minimise air attacks on Malta, enemy bases must be attacked in Sicily. It is not advisable to keep large forces of bombers here indefinitely but as soon as concentrations are noticed in Sicily these must be violently attacked by aircraft. A fighter squadron should be earmarked to proceed here via Gibraltar at very short notice.

8. In addition to ensuring the defeat of an initial attack it seems to me most necessary that preparations should be made in advance for the quick reinforcement of the Fortress before the enemy could re-attack it after his initial effort had failed. It would be necessary to have at least a squadron of fighters ready to be brought here immediately we could receive them. With the prevailing winds it would be essential for these aircraft to be held in reserve in Gibraltar.  In addition it is clear that certain specialised stores and supplies would be required here with the least possible delay after the initial attack had been frustrated.  It is recommended that plans should be drawn up which would ensure vital supplies being readily available at Alexandria for quick shipment to Malta at the same time as the fleet was able to intervene.  If this view is accepted, detailed proposals can be made.

9. To sum up: the following are needed at once by the three Services for the defence of Malta:

  • (a) (i) A total of three squadrons of fighters, ie one more than at present contemplated, to be maintained to strength with reserves on the spot;
  • (ii) Army and RAF personnel currently in Egypt;   
  • (iii) certain small stores which can come by submarine or air.
  • (b) Additional requirements, though I realise commitments elsewhere and difficulties of sending them may not make their despatch possible:
  • (i) Two infantry battalions with carriers and motorcycles and bicycles for all other personnel, but without motor transport;
  • (ii) Additional field or anti-tank guns up to 30 with manning personnel. Egypt has been asked to provide Italian field guns.

10. So much for defence against attack. It is also essential that Malta does not fall through lack of supplies. With the exception of aviation spirit and fodder, generally-speaking our supplies with great care can last until the beginning of 1942.  My following telegram deals with this problem in more detail. 

Heads of all services here agree with my recommendations.


Weather  Fine and warm.

1449-1505 hrs  Air raid alert; raid does not materialise.

2207-2245  Air raid alert for three enemy aircraft which approach and cross the Island from different directions. One Sunderland approaching at the time is warned to keep clear.  17 high explosive bombs of 15kg fall are dropped between Kalafrana and Marsaxlokk and in the sea south of Hal Far. One 15kg bomb hits the roof of Loreto Church causing slight damage. 

0102-0220 hrs  Air raid alert for four enemy aircraft which approach the Island from the north east at 16000 feet, then cross the coast at Kalafrana. 15kg bombs are dropped on Ta Qali, the Dockyard, Tarxien, in the sea off Kalafrana, on Birzebbuga, Hal Far and Island Bay areas.  Searchlights illuminate three times.  A Hurricane night fighter of 185 Squadron piloted by F/Lt P Hancock engages a Heinkel 111, attacking from such close range that the two aircraft nearly collide; the Heinkel is severely damaged and the raider is suspected to have crashed in the sea. 

Military casualties  Pilot Officer Peter Lane, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, 148 Squadron.


ROYAL NAVY  Utmost returned after carrying out successfully another special mission in the Gulf of Hammamet.

AIR HQ 69 Squadron 4 Marylands on reconnaissance; 1 Hurricane on photo-reconnaissance.  139 Squadron  Squadron returned to UK.  Underground operations room now in use. 

FORTRESS ROYAL ENGINEERS  Bomb Disposal UXB reported 2; dealt with 2 (15kg).


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Posted by on June 5, 2021 in 1941, June 1941


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