Seventy-three years ago to date, a Sunday, the skies over Malta witnessed the most climactic air battle which finally turned the tide of the air war over Malta during World War II, signalling if not the beginning of the end, certainly the end of the beginning of the siege, to borrow Winston Churchill’s words used in the context of the victory at Alamein six months later.
Ever since June 11, 1940, Malta had suffered constant bombing from the air by the joint Axis forces of the Italian Regia Aeronautica and the German Luftwaffe. By early May, 1942, Malta was literally on its knees. The bombing campaign had been stepped up since the previous December when the Luftwaffe returned to Sicily from the Russian campaign with the express mission of neutralising Malta, prior to the invasion of the island planned for late July, early August, 1942.
The months of March and April 1942, had been devastating, with thousands of tons of bombs raining down not only on military targets but indiscriminately on civilian urban centres, reducing all to rubble, from parish churches to hospitals and from private residences to antique auberges, culminating in the destruction of the Royal Opera House on April 7.
The food situation was becoming desperate and the introduction of Victory Kitchens had done little to assuage the suffering of the Maltese who were on starvation rations. Ammunition and fuel were running very low. The naval dockyard had been reduced to a shambles and the few buildings and installations still standing on the airfields were in ruin.
Mindful of this, King George VI had awarded the George Cross to the Maltese population on April 15 to boost the morale of the defenders and the civilians. But wars are not won by awards. Something more tangible was needed to redress the imbalance between the Axis forces pounding Malta day and night and the dwindling force of Hurricane fighters which were being outmatched by the more modern Messerschmitt 109s and Italian Reggiane 2001 and Macchi 202 fighters.
Air supremacy had passed entirely in the hands of the enemy and there were days when the Royal Air Force could not muster any serviceable fighters to intercept the flow of enemy bombers. The first 15 Spitfires to be sent overseas from the UK had reached the island in mid-March but these were quickly disposed of by the superior Axis forces.
Churchill was insisting that substantial reinforcements of Spitfires be flown to Malta but the only aircraft carrier then available, HMS Eagle, was undergoing repairs in Gibraltar. Churchill sought the help of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the latter agreed to allow the aircraft carrier USS Wasp to undertake the Spitfire ferry run to Malta in late April. As a result, in Operation Calendar, 48 Spitfires VCs were flown off the carrier north of Algeria on April 20. However, due to lack of proper organisation at the Malta airfields, these were immediately bombed on the ground, and by the end of the day more than half had been destroyed or rendered unserviceable.
In the labyrinth of tunnels and chambers deep down under the Upper Barrakka, at Lascaris, the radar stations reported over 100 aircraft forming up over Comiso in Sicily
This disaster, coupled with the destruction of all four merchant vessels in the March convoy, had dealt a severe blow to the morale of the defenders, but Churchill was not to be deterred in pushing his chiefs of staff to relieve the island. He again requested the use of USS Wasp to run another ferry trip from Gibraltar in the company of the now serviceable HMS Eagle.
On Saturday, May 9, in Operation Bowery, 64 Spitfires took off from the two carriers for their 550-mile flight to Malta. The stage was set for the showdown in the air.
This time the RAF authorities were determined not to be caught napping. Wing Commander E.J. ‘Jumbo’ Gracie had summoned all his officers and pilots to a general conference at the officers’ mess at the Xara Palace in Mdina. He outlined his plans and told them what he expected of each one of them when the Spitfires arrived. Each Malta pilot was assigned to an aircraft protective pen on one of the three airfields of Luqa, Ta’ Qali and Ħal Far, and he was to ensure that there was enough fuel to refuel the incoming fighter, oil, glycol, coolant, ammunition and ground crew to service and arm the Spitfire.
Dispatch riders on motorcycles, with the incoming aircraft’s number on their backs, were to guide each Spitfire to its assigned pen. As soon as the new aircraft entered the pen and its engine was turned off, its pilot would leave the aircraft and a fresh experienced Malta pilot would take his place in the cockpit.
Then a team of technicians and armourers would check the engine, while others would load the gun magazines with ammunition belts. Soldiers and even policemen would help manually refuelling the aircraft from three-gallon tanks. Ground crews vied with each other to turn round the aircraft in the shortest possible time.
The organisation was so successful that it was reported that one flight of the newly arrived Spitfires was back in the air after a mere seven minutes. When the enemy approached the island in the afternoon they were faced with three fresh squadrons of Spitfires, and the few that managed to cross the coast were heavily engaged by concentrated anti-aircraft fire.
This was an encouraging prelude to what was to follow the next day, May 10, when a day-long air battle raged over the island in which the Maltese and British gunners and the newly arrived Spitfires are reputed to have shot down or damaged a considerable number of Axis aircraft in pitched dog-fights.
The alert had gone off at dawn and all were expecting the inevitable raid on the airfields and Grand Harbour. All was quiet until a lone reconnaissance Junkers 88 was picked up on Malta’s radar screens on its usual early morning flight. Although all anti-aircraft ammunition restrictions had been lifted that day, this aircraft was not engaged.
At the end of the day,57 enemy aircraft were reported to have been down or damaged by fighters while eight were shot down or damaged by anti-aircraft fire
At about 10am, the state of readiness was upgraded. In the labyrinth of tunnels and chambers deep down under the Upper Barrakka, at Lascaris, the radar stations reported over 100 aircraft forming up over Comiso in Sicily. As instructions came in from the filter room, the operations room came to life and the Maltese female plotters started putting ‘counters’ on the huge map in the centre of the room and plotting the incoming raid.
These women were grateful for the opportunity to show their mettle and explode the myth that they would panic when put to the real test. That day they rose to the occasion, and Group Captain A.B. ‘Woodie’ Woodhall, the senior controller, had later on in the day congratulated each one of them personally for the very good show they had put up.
Meantime, on the airfields, nothing happened for about 15 minutes. Then aircraft engines roared into life and flights of Spitfires were scrambled from Luqa, Ta’ Qali and Ħal Far . First off at 10.40am were 11 Spitfires and Hurricanes of 601 Squadron and nine of 126 Squadron. This initial force of 20 Spitfires was followed at 10.48am by eight aircraft from 185 Squadron, seven more from 603 Squadron and five from 249 Squadron. Eventually, 37 Spitfires and 13 Hurricanes had scrambled – an unprecedented reception for the enemy.
Some five minutes later the anti-aircraft guns started blasting away as the enemy aircraft came within range. Very soon the girls in the Ground Observers Room began receiving the first visual reports from the five observation posts in Malta located on top of St John’s Cavalier in Valletta, Tas-Silġ, Dingli, Torri l-Aħmar on Marfa Ridge and the Gozo station at Ta’ Dbiegi.
The sky gradually filled with Messerschmitt 109s, followed by wave upon wave of Junkers 88s heading for their main target, the fast minelayer, HMS Welshman in Grand Harbour. The Spitfires and Hurricanes swiftly descended upon the raiders out of the sun and mixed it with the bombers with guns blazing, while those which had taken off earlier circled to land, to refuel and rearm, covered by those with sufficient fuel left in their tanks.
The Spitfires refueled and rearmed in a very short time, rolled off, taxied to the runway end and took off again to meet waves of other incoming enemy aircraft. And the same pattern of action went on and on till nightfall.
At the end of the day, 57 enemy aircraft were reported to have been down or damaged by fighters while eight were shot down or damaged by anti-aircraft fire. Indeed May 10 can justifiably be claimed to have been the turning point. Next morning the Times of Malta had a banner headline trumpeting this victory in the air.
Undeniably there were still many months of hard fighting to come but a start had been made, and after that Sunday, the enemy could never claim to have regained air supremacy over the island.
Indeed, after what become known as ‘the glorious 10th of May’, things were never the same again.
The Malta Aviation Museum Foundation is today commemorating this episode in Malta’s history with an open day at its museum at Ta’ Qali. At 2.30pm, the Anglican Chaplaincy of Malta and Gozo is donating to the museum the RAF chapel altar front from St Paul’s Anglican cathedral. It will be dedicated in the presence of Air Commodore Neil Laird CBE, on behalf of the Royal Air Force.
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