Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Relief Fleet Lands in Malta 1565

The Siege of Malta – Flight of the Ottomans by Matteo Perez d’Aleccio, showing Don García’s relief force battling the retreating Ottomans.

For a week there was an uneasy lull in the fighting. The bombardment of Birgu and Senglea never ceased, but the Turkish forces made no more attacks on the tottering bastions of Castile and St Michael. Then, on 1 September, Mustapha and Piali launched another mass offensive.

Rendered desperate by the lateness of the year and by their lack of stores and ammunition, it was as if they were determined, with this last throw, to make good all their losses. But the troops who now surged forward across the shell-torn waste land beyond the walls were not the same as those who had first come to Malta ‘to save their souls’. It was not only the prolonged resistance of the garrisons and their bloody losses which had sapped their morale. Disease had enfeebled them and had reduced their numbers far more than had the cannon, the muskets, and the swords of the Knights.

In that hot summer the whole island around Grand Harbour stank like a charnel house. The Turks with their ignorance of the elementary principles of sanitation contrived their own ruin. Dysentery, enteric, and fever, had been active in their ranks since June and had increased throughout the following weeks. The reason why the defenders in their shattered garrisons did not suffer so much as the enemy can probably be traced to the Knights’ principal avocation, that of Hospitallers. Simple though their surgery was, and ignorant though they were in many ways, they did at least understand the rudiments of hygiene. In the Hospital, where under normal conditions both rich and poor, Knight and commoner, were served their food off silver plate—to increase ‘the decorum of the Hospital and the cleanliness of the sick’—even during the siege, some attempt was made to look after the patients properly. It was no doubt for this reason that the garrisons owed their relative freedom from the diseases which decimated the enemy.

The day-long attacks of 1 September failed as had all the others. The fire had gone out of the attackers and, proportionately, the morale of the defenders had increased every day since Mustapha’s failure against Mdina. Turks, Janissaries, Iayalars, Algerians, Dragut’s corsairs, all were now despondent. ‘It is not the will of Allah’, they said, ‘that we shall become masters of Malta.’ Had they known what had happened to the relief force destined for the island, it is possible they would have plucked up courage and taken the initiative again.

Don Garcia’s fleet, sailing westerly for its rendezvous off Linosa, had run straight into a heavy gale. The channel and the narrow seas between Malta and Sicily are notoriously treacherous. When a strong north-westerly, with all the fetch of the Mediterranean behind it, blows over these shallows a dangerous breaking surf builds up in a few hours. At the turn of the year, just as the summer was giving way to autumn, Don Garcia’s fleet was unlucky enough to run into just such a typical Malta channel gale. Dispersed over the sea between Terrible Bank, Linosa, and the Aegadean Islands off the west coast of Sicily, the ships were forced to run for safety. The galleys plunged and stooped as they strained to get back under the lee of the land. Oars were shattered, sails and rigging torn away, and equipment lost.

When the bulk of the fleet reassembled off the island of Favignana, opposite to Marsala on the west coast of Sicily, the condition of the ships was such that there could be no question of an immediate return to Linosa. Not only had many of them suffered extensive damage, but their sea-sick troops were in no state to land and fight the enemy on Malta. It was not until 4 September, that the fleet was ready to sail again. This time it reached Linosa in safety, and Don Garcia de Toledo found La Valette’s last message waiting for him. In it, the Grand Master explained how the whole south of the island was in the hands of the Turks and that the two ports of Marsasirocco and Marsamuscetto were occupied by their fleet. He suggested to the Viceroy that the two best places for him to land were the bays of Mgarr and Mellieha in the north of the island. Both had sandy beaches where his troops could go ashore, and both anchorages were relatively sheltered.

The fleet left Linosa for Malta in two divisions, the advance guard being under the command of the Spaniard Don Cardona, with the Viceroy in charge of the main body. Bad weather set in yet again as they neared Malta. The bulk of the fleet, losing sight of Don Cardona over night, stood to the north and came to anchor off the fishing village of Pozzalo at the southern tip of Sicily. The advance guard meanwhile had pressed on through the thickening weather and was in sight of the island of Gozo. Now was the time when Piali’s ships by all the rules of war should have fallen upon them and destroyed them. Yet it is one of the mysteries of the siege that no attempt seems to have been made to attack this spearhead of Christian ships. One can only assume that Piali’s captains, not liking the look of the weather, had all retired from their Gozo patrol and had made themselves snug in Marsamuscetto.

Don Garcia’s return to Sicily, and his seeming reluctance to proceed to Malta until he had news of the other ships, again raised doubts among the Knights as to his intentions. It was only when their demands for action became increasingly vituperative that he gave orders for the fleet to weigh and stand south for Malta. Even at this last moment his natural hesitancy seems to have come to the fore. The Abbé Vertot in his history of the Order repeats the accusations against Don Garcia which were current at the time of the siege:

But the Viceroy’s action again made people doubt whether he intended to profit by his advice (La Valette’s information that Mgarr and Mellieha would be good places to land); instead of entering by the channel between Gozo and Malta he coasted down Malta on the western side, and let himself be seen by the Turkish frigates which came out of Marsasirocco. It seemed that he sought less to make a landing, than to find some fresh obstacle which would oblige him to depart and return yet again to the ports of Sicily.

It was not until the evening of 6 September that Don Garcia’s reunited fleet slipped through the Gozo channel and came round to Mellieha Bay on the north east of the island. On the morning of the 7th the long-expected, long-delayed, relief force began to stream ashore. They plunged through the shallows, with their weapons and ammunition above their heads, while boatloads of Spanish soldiers ran up on the beach at the end of the bay.

The news reached Mustapha Pasha and La Valette at almost the same moment. To the one it brought dismay, to the other the knowledge that his long ordeal was nearing its end. Yet, after so long a time of waiting, La Valette had undoubtedly expected that the relief force would be a great deal larger than it was. Accounts vary as to the exact numbers of the troops, ranging from 8,000 (the lowest estimate) to 12,000. In any event, the relief force was hardly large enough to accomplish its task if the morale of the Turks had been high. As soon as he knew the numbers of the troops, La Valette devised a cunning piece of deception. He gave orders for one of the Moslem galley slaves, who were kept in the tunnels below Fort St Angelo, to be granted his freedom. It was, the man was told, an act of clemency on the Grand Master’s part. The slave was also told that 16,000 Christian troops under the Viceroy of Sicily were coming ashore in the north of the island, and that it was no use the Turkish Commander-in-Chief thinking he could prosecute the siege any longer. Whether he believed the story (or whether he was, in fact, given the illusion that he was making his escape without the garrison’s knowledge) the fact remains that this slave reached the Turkish camp safely. He was interrogated by some officers, and then brought before Mustapha, to whom he repeated his information—that the Knights were jubilant, that they counted the siege as good as at an end, and that 16,000 men were landing in Mellieha Bay. Dismayed at the news, disheartened by the whole conduct of the siege, and aware that his troops were on the verge of mutiny, Mustapha ordered the immediate evacuation of the island.

The inefficiency of the Turkish high command, and particularly of the fleet, during the campaign is difficult to understand. Piali had by far the most powerful fleet in the Mediterranean, while twenty-eight galleys were all that the Viceroy had managed to raise for his invasion force. (Don Garcia had, in fact, every good reason to fear that he might lose not only his ships but also all his men.) Yet the Turkish admiral, with three times as many warships at his disposal, had never attempted to contest the landing. By all the rules, Piali should have attacked the relief force at sea and sent the Christians to the bottom—more especially when one bears in mind how irresolute had been their approach to the island. But Piali and his fellow naval commanders had assumed that the Christian fleet would try and enter either Marsasirocco, or Marsamuscetto.

Accordingly, they had secured their ships in these two harbours and had barred the entrances with chains and stakes. It seems to have escaped their notice that Mgarr or Mellieha bays were perfectly adequate for landing troops—provided only that the invasion fleet did not loiter too long in these somewhat exposed anchorages. It was Piali’s timidity, coupled with his evident ignorance of the geography and weather conditions of Malta, which had from the very beginning bedevilled the Turkish campaign. Don Garcia had no intention of waiting in Mellieha. The minute that his troops were ashore he intended to return to Messina, where a further reinforcement of 4,000 men was waiting.

The joy of the garrison knew no bounds. These were the first Christian ships they had seen since the siege started. Their presence off Grand Harbour told its own tale. Even those who had been sceptical about the news of a relief force, now took heart. The very fact that these galleys could be at sea just off the harbour mouth proved that the Turkish fleet had lost all fighting spirit.
La Valette, eager to take the offensive as soon as possible, waited impatiently, in the hope that part at least of the relief force would try and make contact with Birgu during the night. Nothing happened. He heard the creak of wheels and groan of tackle which told him that the Turks were successfully removing their guns from the batteries behind Birgu. The Grand Master had hoped to capture them and make good some of his own losses during the siege.

Mustapha’s army was now on the point of embarking. The camp on the Marsa was struck. The ships which had been lying in Marsasirocco began to make their way to the north, ready to join the bulk of Piali’s fleet as it left Marsamuscetto. Cannon that had been mounted on St Elmo and the heights of Sciberras were dismantled and taken down to the ships. The troops started to withdraw from Corradino, and from their lines behind the two peninsulas. The long entrenchments were deserted. Only the assault towers and a few cannon too heavy to remove quickly were left behind. The torn, star-shaped walls of St Elmo, whose capture had been the only Turkish triumph of the campaign, were left to silence and memory. All night long, the lights and the flares along the Marsa, and over the narrow neck of land between there and Marsamuscetto, showed where the army of the Sultan was withdrawing.

The relief force, meanwhile, had marched straight inland from Mellieha Bay and had established contact with the garrison in Mdina. Under the command of Ascanio de la Corna, the troops had taken up their station on the high ground that lies on the east side of the island, a steep ridge surmounted by the village of Naxxar. Unaware that the enemy was already in retreat, de la Corna had decided to hold this high point rather than be brought to battle in the low land. As soon as day broke, he would be able to make out the enemy’s intentions. Until then he wisely decided to hold his men in check. His second-in-command, Alvarez de Sandé, was more impetuous and pressed to lead his men at once in a night attack upon the Turks. De la Corna’s discretion won the day, and the relief force waited to see what the dawn would bring.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Ancient Generals: Themistocles: Master of Deception

Ancient Generals: Themistocles: Master of Deception

"All war is deception," said Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese sage. He was correct, but deception comes in various forms. Deception at its boldest and most dynamic is carried out directly under the enemy's eyes. One might say that the United States pulled off such a deception against Iraq in March 2003.

Greek Fire – Nine Little-Known Facts About The Byzantine Empire’s Most Secret Weapon

Greek Fire - Nine Little-Known Facts About The Byzantine Empire's Most Secret Weapon

As far back as the 7th Century, fighting ships of the Byzantine Empire were dousing enemy vessels with a flaming liquid known by western historians as "Greek fire".

Thursday, March 10, 2016


General Henry Maitland “Jumbo” Wilson was appointed commander in chief of the Middle East and, under orders from Winston Churchill, mounted an expedition to occupy the small Greek islands of Kos, Leros, and Samos in September 1943 with the object of creating a diversion during the Italian Campaign. The expedition was a bad idea, and Wilson’s forces sustained heavy casualties, for which Wilson was widely blamed.

A Bristol Beaufighter releases its bombs toward the further of two German flak vessels attacked by aircraft of No. 201 Group, south of the island of Kalymnos in the Dodecanese. Inadequate air support helped doom the British campaign in the Dodecanese. Imperial War Museum photo.

Maj. Gen. Wagner, commander of German forces in the Dodecanese, and two of his staff officers come alongside the destroyer HMS Kimberley on a motor launch which the Germans had captured from the British a few months previously. The Kimberley took Wagner to the island of Symi in the Aegean, where the unconditional surrender of German forces in the region was signed, May 18, 1945. The failure of the British Dodecanese campaign resulted in German control of the islands until the end of World War II. Imperial War Museum photo.

The islands of the southern Aegean Sea off the southwest coast of Anatolia were known through much of their history as the eastern or southern Sporades (“scattered”). The islands include Rhodes, Karpathos, Kassos, Haliki, Kastellorizo (Castlerosso), Alimia, Tilos, Symi (Simi), Nissyros, Kos (Cos), Pserimos, Astypalea, Kalymnos, Telendhos, Leros, Lipsi, Patmos, Arki, and Agnthonissi. Early in the twentieth century, the Young Turks revoked the historic privileges enjoyed by the islanders, who were part of the Ottoman Empire. Twelve islands (dhodkeka nisia) joined in a failed protest against the loss of these privileges, and the name of Dodecanese stuck as a term for all these islands, even though they exceeded 12 in number.

In 1912, as a consequence of the Italo-Turkish War, the Dodecanese Islands passed to Italian control. In 1941, the Germans joined their Italian allies in garrisoning the islands, which were inhabited chiefly by Greeks. The Italians had naval and air bases on Rhodes, the strategic key to the area. There was also an airfield on Kos, a seaplane base and naval batteries at Leros, and an air base on Scarpanto.

When Italy surrendered on 8 September 1943, the Dodecanese were occupied by two poorly equipped Italian divisions totaling 37,000 men; Italian morale was very low. The Germans had one division of 7,000 men, which was well equipped with tanks and artillery. The local Greek population was excited at the prospect of liberation by the Allied powers.

British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill ordered that operations be conducted against the Dodecanese Islands. He believed that success there would open the way to the Dardanelles and the Balkans. He also sought to induce Turkey to join the war and to remove the stain of Britain’s defeat in World War I at Gallipoli. The original plan for an invasion of the Dodecanese, prepared by the Middle East Command, was known as Operation MANDIBLES, but it was subsequently renamed Operation ACCOLADE. Churchill appealed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and to General Dwight D. Eisenhower for aid to liberate the Dodecanese. The Americans, who were preparing a landing on the Italian peninsula at Salerno, rebuffed him. Roosevelt also suspected that the British hoped to open a new front in the Balkans. Coincidentally, the Combined Chiefs of Staff meeting in Quebec ordered most of the landing ships in the Middle East to the Indian Ocean, which starved the operation of needed assets.

When Italy surrendered on 8 September 1943, three British operatives led by Major Lord George Jellicoe parachuted onto Rhodes. They contacted Italian authorities there and urged them to take the Germans prisoner. However, Admiral Inigo Campioni, commander of Italian forces in the Aegean, hesitated. The Germans, meanwhile, acted swiftly and soon subdued the Italians.

The British nonetheless proceeded with some landings, and by October 1943—with a force of 5,000 men and a small flotilla—they secured several islands, among them Kos, Samos, Patmos, and Leros. They were not able, however, either to gain air superiority or take Rhodes, and as long as the Germans were secure at Rhodes, the British could not hold the Dodecanese.

German Response
When Italy surrendered to the Western Allies on September 9, 1943, 7,500 Germans of the “Sturm-Division Rhodos” overwhelmed and disarmed the Italian Dodecanese garrison of 30,000 men. Winston Churchill, fixated as always on military activity in the Mediterranean, ordered in British and Greek commandos with an eye to forcing the Germans from the Dodecanese and from Crete. By mid-October some 4,000 British commandos were spread over eight small islands, though none landed on Rhodes. Elements of the German 22nd Infantry Division from Crete crossed to Kos (Operation IRON BAR) on October 3 to eliminate the only British airfield in the Dodecanese. They forced the isolated British garrison of under 1,400 men to surrender, took an additional 4,000 Italian prisoners, and summarily executed over 100 Italian officers.

Churchill’s advisers recommended withdrawal from the Dodecanese, but the Prime Minister pressed ahead with the campaign, essentially reinforcing failure. In his defense, he hoped to provoke Turkey into the war against Germany. He also saw the island campaign as a preliminary to a larger and long-cherished Balkan campaign, a proposal repeatedly rejected by American military and political leaders. The Germans assaulted Leros (Operation LEOPARD) on November 12, overrunning the British garrison of 3,000 men and taking prisoner another 8,500 Italian soldiers and sailors. The campaign was over by November 22. Elements of the British and Greek navies took serious losses, mostly from Luftwaffe bombing but also strikes by new radio-controlled missiles used by the Germans for the first time.

Operations and Units
On 3 October 1943, the Germans went on the offensive, attacking Kos. Heavy bombing of the island by Stuka aircraft reduced the British defenses, and soon the British force there surrendered. Churchill refused to consider a withdrawal, instead ordering that Leros and Samos be held at all costs. Indeed, the British reinforced Leros. On 12 November, the Germans attacked Leros with overwhelming force, taking it four days later. The British troops remaining in the Dodecanese then withdrew.

Among British units involved were the Long Range Desert Group, the Special Boat Squadron, the Raiding Forces’ Levant Schooner Flotilla, the King’s Own, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and the Durham Light Infantry. The Greek navy provided 7 destroyers to assist the more numerous British vessels. In the offensive, the British lost 4 cruisers damaged and 2 submarines, 6 destroyers, and 10 small coastal vessels and minesweepers sunk. The Royal Air Force flew 3,746 sorties and lost 113 aircraft out of 288 involved. The British army lost in all about 4,800 men, while the Italians lost 5,350. German casualties totalled some 1,184 men, 35,000 tons of shipping (between late September and late November 1943), and 15 small landing craft and ferries. The operation failed as a consequence of Campioni’s hesitation, German aggressiveness, non-cooperation by the Americans, and the inadequacy of British resources. Holding the islands, however, stretched German resources, ultimately tying down some 60,000 Germans who might have been better employed elsewhere.
After the war, the British governed the Dodecanese until 1947. The islands were then turned over to Greece.

Suggested Reading: Jeffrey Holland, The Aegean Mission (1988).


Italian bombing of the Grand Harbour, Malta.

Italian battleship Roma (Regia Marina, 1940)

By June 1940, Italy’s battleship strength increased. The Littorio and Vittorio Veneto were completed, the last two of the Cavour class were completing modernization, and work continued on the new Roma and Impero. So now, with these new additions and the surrender of France on June 24, the situation in the Mediterranean changed drastically from what it had been nine months before, from nine Allied capital ships against four Italian, to six Italian capital ships versus four British.
For Italy, control of the Mediterranean was essential. All its African and Middle Eastern objectives could be reached only across the sea, so the Italian Navy would play a pivotal role. The fleet itself was large, modern, and possessed a very good naval commando branch. However, despite its modern character, it lacked radar, sonar, and night fighting training. Its most serious deficiency, however, was the lack of aircraft carriers, which Mussolini believed were unnecessary.

Furthermore, the Italian Navy was not allowed to have its own air units, like the British Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. For air support, it had to rely on the Italian Air Force and there was no effective coordination between the two services. Italian fleet commanders requiring air support had to contact the Admiralty, which then passed on the request to the Air Ministry, which, if it approved, would then notify the respective air units. The result of this cumbersome arrangement was that very often the Italian fleet went into battle with no air support at all. While this would be an important issue throughout the Mediterranean campaign, it should not have been an issue for an invasion of Malta, only sixty miles from the Italian bases in Sicily.

Ample land forces for an invasion were available from among the forty plus divisions of the Italian army. Furthermore, the Italian merchant marine, with a total of 1,235 ships of approximately 3,500,000 tons, would provide sufficient shipping to transport and maintain an offensive, particularly one so close.

Italy hoped to acquire Tunisia and Corsica after the fall of France, but was denied these territories in the armistice. Mussolini’s choices for conquest were now limited to Malta, Cyprus, and Egypt. From the German point of view, the first move should have been against Malta, which was weakly garrisoned and close to Italian airfields. According to Admiral Ruge, “It was the only piece of hostile territory in the central Mediterranean, and, in view of the general situation, it should have been the primary objective for a vigorous assault by all Italian arms.” The Luftwaffe Field Marshal Albert Kesselring would later state, “Italy’s missing the chance to occupy the island at the start of hostilities will go down in history as a fundamental blunder.”

The Italian Navy also supported invasion and since 1938 it had maintained that the occupation of Malta was a primary and indispensable condition for fighting any war against Great Britain. When war seemed imminent, the navy had presented a plan for the conquest of Malta to the Supreme Command. But the Supreme Command gave up this idea due to its opinion that the war would be a very short one, and also because it was believed that the Italian Air Force would be able to neutralize the island’s military effectiveness.

Furthermore, Mussolini was a disciple of air power theorist Giulio Douhet, who believed that civilian populations could be bombed into surrender. Invasion, according to Douhet’s doctrine, was unnecessary. Bombardment alone would be sufficient and the Italian Air Force was deemed up to the task, with 2,500 to 3,000 aircraft, 1,500 of which were first-line aircraft ready for combat. There were 200 fighters and 350 bombers stationed only twenty minutes’ flying time from Grand Harbour.
The bombing of Malta was the first Axis mistake and not invading at the onset was the second. Still, invasion might not have been necessary if a successful blockade had been imposed. Malta produced only 30 percent of its own food, and 70 percent of what it imported came from Italy and its North African colonies. In addition to food, fuel and munitions had to be imported. A major difference between the situations in 1565 and 1940 was that, while the knights and Maltese had ample supplies for the campaigning season, in 1940 the island had over ten times the population and was vulnerable to starvation. In this respect, the situation was more akin to the Maltese revolt against the French in 1798-1800.

JUNE 11, 1940
On the morning of June 11, the dockyard workers were streaming to the harbor to begin their shift, which started at 7 AM. At 6:50 the island’s sole radar set, positioned on the Dingli Cliffs, detected numerous aircraft approaching from the north. They were fifty-five tri-motored Savoia Marchetti 79s bombers, escorted by eighteen Macchi C. 200 fighters. Some of the attackers dropped their loads on Hal Far, while others bombed the Grand Harbour area. One bomb scored a direct hit on a gunpost at the tip of Fort St. Elmo, killing six RMA soldiers, Malta’s first army casualties. Other bombs hit Msida and Pieta. The worst damage was in heavily populated Cospicua. A second raid by thirty-eight bombers struck again later that afternoon. Altogether, there were eight raids that day. Two hundred buildings were completely or partially destroyed. Civilians composed the great majority of the 36 killed and 130 injured. Casualties would have been more severe, but the Italians used fifty-kilogram bombs.

When the first raid hit, the dockyard workers were crowded by the main gate. When sirens wailed they first thought it was a drill. Then someone yelled, “Air raid! Come on, run!” The workers panicked and surged through the gate, rushing for shelter inside the dockyard compound. Here many found safety in tunnels dug centuries earlier by the knights to house their galley slaves. Others made the best of the partially completed deep rock shelter.

The residents of Cospicua did not have shelters to flee to. No air raid drills had ever been conducted and many were confused about what to do. Many also panicked and fled to the Corradino highway tunnel a half mile away. Neither was there a plan for evacuating people from bombed areas.

Thousands fled the Three Cities and Paola on their own. It is estimated that during the first two days of the war, between 60,000 and 80,000 people fled the Grand Harbour area. Many would return, but they would find it hard to ever feel safe in their homes again.

An old railway tunnel outside Valletta was reopened and turned into an immense dormitory that served many of the capital’s residents, as well as those of nearby Floriana in the years to come. Tunnels were also dug out of the solid rock, some within the dense fortifications left by the knights. Individuals armed with pickaxes excavated smaller family shelters. These would have two entrances to reduce the chances of being blocked by debris. Many urban residents used old wells, dug before the construction of city water lines, for shelter. Those living outside the cities used caves, and in the Paola area the underground Hypogeum of the Temple Builders provided shelter. In time, more public shelters were also constructed. Many, however, never went into the shelters. Venerina Castillo of Marsa, for example, said that if she were to die, she wanted it to be in her home, and not in a hole in the ground.

It is possible that, had the Italians launched a quick invasion at the outbreak, they might have seized Malta with little effective resistance. It is also possible that if they blockaded the islands and starved the inhabitants, the people may have reevaluated their relationship with the British, much as they had done with the Phoenicians and knights. But any goodwill toward Italy vanished with the bombing of Malta. Had the Italians struck only military targets it would have been different, but the first raids destroyed houses as well, homes that had been passed down over generations. Beloved churches were hit as well. After the first raid, the matter was settled. It was 1565 all over again, and the Maltese would make their stand beside the British, just as they had with the knights. Italy lost Malta with the first bomb dropped on a Maltese home.

Stunning as the first raid was, there was another shock of a more positive nature. This was the appearance of three stubby little biplanes that rose to meet the intruders. In a modern version of David versus Goliath, these aircraft charged into bomber formations and even traded fire with the more modern Italian fighters. The Maltese soon named them Faith, Hope, and Charity. But where did they come from?

In April 1940, the carrier Glorious left Alexandria for the North Atlantic in a hurry to support Norway operations and left behind some crated Sea Gladiators at the naval air station at Kalafrana. These were reserve aircraft for the carrier. Malta’s air officer, a New Zealander named F. H. M. Maynard, asked the navy to hand them over to the RAF for air defense. Although the aircraft were already assigned to another carrier, Cunningham approved four of them for Malta. A bureaucrat at the Admiralty actually inquired as to why he would allow Fleet Air Arm property to be taken over by the RAF. Despite such interservice rivalry, the four were assembled at Kalafrana and stationed at Hal Far, where the British succeeded in keeping their existence a secret. There were a dozen qualified pilots on Malta, although they were for the most part in administrative posts and had no fighter training. All volunteered and seven were chosen.

The Gladiator had a top speed under 240 mph, a fixed undercarriage, all-steel fuselage, and an 840-horsepower Bristol Mercury engine. It was a rugged aircraft, armed with four .303 machine guns. The pilots called them flying tanks, while the Maltese thought that on the ground they looked like donkey carts.

In the first few days, three of the planes were in action, with the fourth used for parts. Damage to the aircraft, plus the strain on those flying, led to a rotation of the pilots on three shifts of two pilots each, meaning that after the first week there were never more than two and often only one Gladiator in the air to meet the Italian raiders. During an attack they would climb to 20,000 feet and then swoop down into the bomber formation, using the dive to compensate for lack of speed. Officially, they were known as Station Fighter Flight Number 1.

The pilots of Faith, Hope, and Charity were adored by the Maltese, and their newspaper photos adorned the pious Maltese homes alongside pictures of Jesus and Mary. Of the three, Faith is on display in the National War Museum. Of the seven pilots, two survived the war, Peter Keeble was killed over Malta on July 16, 1940; two others were killed in action in Belgium and Greece in 1941; another was killed in 1942 flying out of Gibraltar; and Peter Hartley was shot down over Malta and badly burned on July 31, 1940.

The Italian air raids were sustained for a month and a half. There were 53 raids in June, followed up by another 51 in July. The raids tapered off afterward, but by the end of the year there were another 107 for a total of 211 Italian air raids against Malta in 1940, or an average of just over one air attack a day.

Malta could not rely on the Gladiators forever. Fortunately, the British finally awoke to the need to hold Malta in the wake of France’s defeat. The aggressive Churchill had always advocated holding onto Malta and began to forward whatever air units were available to the island. Britain wanted to get Hurricanes to Malta and the only way was by carrier. The first attempt at this was Operation Hurry. On August 2, 1940, the old carrier Argus flew off twelve Hurricanes, and all arrived safely. This was done despite the fact that the Battle of Britain had been underway since July 10. Such operations, however, were not without risk. Three months later, in Operation White, the Argus carried another twelve Hurricanes for Malta, but only four made it on November 17, 1940. After takeoff the planes encountered a strong headwind, and eight ran out of gas, seven pilots losing their lives.

Throughout the war, the British mounted a total of twenty-seven such operations, ferrying 764 aircraft to Malta in this way: 361 Hurricanes, 385 Spitfires, and 18 torpedo bombers. Of these, 718 reached Malta, 12 returned with the carriers, and 34 were lost. Not all stayed on Malta; 150 of the Hurricanes flew from the islands to North Africa to reinforce the Desert Air Force there. These reinforcements helped, but the air defense was always outnumbered by the enemy. From October 11, 1940, to February 10, 1941, the average number of fighters available for action was eleven.