World War I continued during 1918 in many fronts, especially in Europe. It was nearly four years since the outbreak of what was then known as the Great War. However, by the end of 1918, the Central Powers were forced to surrender after they had sustained huge losses and their ports were blocked by Allied warships, which brought hardships and lack of food not only to the servicemen on the front but also to civilians. This situation brought about unrest in many European countries, including Germany.
In Malta, the war brought job opportunities but hardships too, due to the lack of food, which had to be brought by ships. At the beginning of the year, the following regulations were issued on the production of bread:
▪ As from January 2, 1918, no bread from wheaten flour could be made in Maltese islands unless it contained a mixture of potatoes in the ration of one part of potatoes to six parts of flour. The mixture had to be made by the person who made the dough;
▪ No person could bake any bread either for his own use or on his own account or for the use or on behalf of others, unless they had made the dough in the abovementioned manner or unless they had previously and positively ascertained that the dough had been made in this manner by others;
▪ For the purposes of these regulations, wheaten flour that was mixed with flour obtained from rice, barley, maize or other grains was to be deemed to be exclusively composed of wheaten flour;
▪ If any person contravened these regulations or helped anyone else to do so, they would be guilty of a summary offence against the Malta Defence Regulations 1916, and would be liable on conviction to be sentenced to hard labour or imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding one hundred pounds, or to both such hard labour or imprisonment and fine.
73 Maltese sailors perish in HMS Louvain sinking
On January 20, the British-requisitioned passenger ship HMS Louvain was torpedoed and sunk at 9.30pm, in Keros Strait, in the Aegean Sea, by the German Submarine UC-22. The ship had departed from Malta on January 18 and was on its way to Mudros, escorted by the destroyer HMS Colne. A total of 278 crew were rescued but 224 perished. This may be called a ‘Maltese’ disaster because HMS Louvain was carrying, as passengers, a large number of Maltese sailors due to serve on other warships in the Aegean. A total of 73 Maltese perished, comprising 24 crew members and 49 sailor passengers.
Agamemnon sinks Midilli in Aegean Sea, German POWs brought to Malta
In the eastern Mediterranean, on January 20, 1918, Midilli (SMS Breslau) and Yavûz Sultân Selîm (SMS Goeben) left the Dardanelles under the command of German Vice Admiral Hubert von Rebeur-Paschwitz. He had replaced Souchon in September 1917. Rebeur-Paschwitz’s intention was to support the Turkish forces operating in Palestine.
Outside the straits, the two Ottoman ships surprised and sank the monitors Raglan and M28, which were at anchor. Rebeur-Paschwitz then decided to proceed to the port of Mudros. Seeing these enemy warships, the British pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Agamemnon raised steam to attack them.
However, Midilli struck a total of five mines and sank, while the Yavûz Sultân Selîm hit three mines and was forced to beach to avoid sinking. A total of 330 of Midilli’s crew were killed in the sinking, while 133 men were rescued from the ship. The surviving German officers and men of the Midilli, now prisoners-of-war, arrived in Malta and were transferred to Verdala Barracks and St Clements camps.
Maltese servicemen in Egypt
Maltese servicemen continued to excel in their duties. One of them was Lieutenant S. Vassallo, RAMC. In the early months of the war, he was attached to the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. Afterwards, he secured an important appointment in the West Indies. After many requests to go on active service, Lieutenant Vassallo was given a commission in the Royal Army Medical Corps. By late January 1918, he rejoined the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in which there were a substantial number of Maltese countrymen.
German submarine UB-53 sunk
The German submarine UB-53 formed part of the Mittelmeer I Flotilla based at Pola in the Adriatic and started operating on November 1, 1917. During its career, UB-53 sank 14 ships totalling 16,586 tons. However, on August 3, 1918, UB-53 met its end, when the submarine hit two mines in the Otranto Barrage and sank. Ten of its crew lost their lives while 26 survived and were rescued.
Japanese naval action in the Mediterranean
Due to the deteriorating of the situation, Britain pressed for aid in the Mediterranean theatre of war, and in March 1917, Japan accepted to dispatch a naval force comprising eight destroyers to the Mediterranean, under the command of Admiral Sato Kozo on the cruiser Akashi.
When, in 1918, Germany launched its Spring Offensive on the western front, the British desperately needed to move large contingents of troops from the Middle East to Marseilles. This is where the Japanese units proved invaluable. In total, they escorted 788 Allied ships and 700,000 troops across the Mediterranean to the fighting fronts. Japanese vessels engaged submarines of the Central Powers 35 times, with the former suffering damage to the Matsu and the ill-fated Sakaki.
Zeppelin airship base set up in Bulgaria
As the German forces in German East Africa were blocked by Allied naval units, an attempt was made to supply these forces using airships. A base was constructed in Yamboli, southeast Bulgaria, to be used by the Zeppelin airships to carry reinforcements. The Zeppelins became known as the Africasciff and they were operated by the Kaiserliche Marine (German Imperial Navy).
An Africaschiff was sent to German East Africa with supplies in November 1917, but it was ordered to return back. The Zeppelin was then offered for flights to supply the Ottoman army of Enver Pasha in Arabia, or to search for mines off Constantinople, but nothing came of the proposal.
Flying boats built in Malta and based at Kalafrana
In order to protect Allied shipping in the central Mediterranean, Commodore Murray F. Sueter was appointed in 1917 to organise the operation of British aircraft from Malta, including those at the recently established Otranto Station. However, no aircraft were sent. This concerned Sueter, because he was responsible for the safety of British shipping in that area. Somehow a solution had to be found.
During the same year, Squadron Commander J. C. Porte of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) had assisted Glenn Curtis with the construction of the Curtis H12 aircraft. This was a larger version of the Curtiss H4, which was used to attempt a transatlantic crossing prior to the breakout of World War I, from which he succeeded in developing the Felixstowe F.2A. Commodore Sueter, one of the pioneer founders of the RNAS, proposed that provision be made for the building of these aircraft in Malta.
On March 8, the first biplane flying-boat built at the HM Dockyard, the N4310, was launched. Its first test flight was carried out on March 22 and it was delivered to the seaplane-base at Kalafrana on April 24. It was the first of 12 Felixtowe Type F3 flying-boats (N4310 to N4321) built at HM Dockyard under an order placed in June 1917. A Seaplane Construction Department was set up at the dockyard and a unit of workers organised and trained to do this work.
The fuselage of these aircraft was assembled inside the boathouse while the wings were attached after the aircraft was launched. Another batch of 38 were ordered in October 1917, numbered N4360 to 4397 (but due to late-completion, N4373 to 4377, 4379 to 4358 and 4387 to 4397 were cancelled in December 1918).
Most of the aircraft operated from Kalafrana on anti-submarine patrols.
Zeppelin explodes en route to Malta
Zeppelin airship LZ104 (L59) was retained at Yamboli for use as a long-range bomber, raiding various points in the Mediterranean. On February 18, 1918, it was sent to attack Naples, dropping over 56,000 kilos of bombs on the naval base and other important industrial establishments.
On April 7, 1918, it rose majestically for the last time from its base at Yamboli carrying 50 tons of bombs to attack Malta. The targets of the Africaschiff were to be ships in the Naval Docks, Grand Harbour and the naval fuel storage tanks on Corradino Hill. The airship proceeded across the Balkans to the Strait of Otranto, behind the heel of Italy.
On the evening of April 7, 1918, the surfaced German submarine UB-53 observed the Zeppellin approaching in its wake. Its commanding officer, Lieutenant J.L.E. Sprenger, reported that he watched it fly past at about 700 feet, so close, in fact, that the details of the gondola could be seen clearly. A few minutes later, Sprenger noted two bursts in the air, and shortly after a gigantic flame enveloped the airship and it went down into the water. The U-boat investigated and found some oily patches and a few pieces of wreckage.
The Governor in Malta asked the War Office for additional anti-aircraft protection against the possibility of attacks by Zeppelin airship. However, the view of the War Officer, was that while attacks by Zeppelins were theoretically possible they were not considered by the Army Council to be probable in the circumstances, and it was not, therefore, able to provide such additional protection for Malta.
I wish to thank the staff of the National Library for their continuous help, the staff of the Reading Room at the National Archives of Malta, and Joseph Caruana and Tony Camilleri for their help.
To be concluded
Charles Debono is curator, National War Museum.