The Royal Air Force was formed during last year of World War One with the incorporation of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Navy Air Service. The RFC had been established as Britain's first military air force by Royal Warrant in April 1912. In July 1914 it was supplemented by the RNAS, the air arm of the Royal Navy under the command of the Admiralty's Air Department. By the end of the war, the RAF had become the largest military air force of the time. A few years later, in 1924, the RAF's naval aviation branch was designated as the Fleet Air Arm.
The Royal Flying Corps merged with the Royal Naval Air Service in April 1918 to form the Royal Air Force
From a local perspective, the introduction of military aircraft in Malta occurred in 1916, when the RNAS founded a flying boat base at Kalafrana. The establishment of the RAF in 1918 then led nearly 800 Maltese to enlist for foreign service within this branch of the military. Foreign service was necessary since Malta was not directly involved in the conflict, with the nearest frontline situated in Northern Italy. Since Italy was part of the Allied Cause, the only threat Malta faced was due to maritime activity, mainly in the form of Geman U-Boots (Submarines). This led the authorities to refurbish a number of coastal fortifications, establish the air base at Kalafrana, and build a Hydrophonic Listening Station next to the Tower of St. Thomas (Marsascala).1
British Officers at Kalafrana Sea-Plane Base and the Hydrophonic Listening Station at Marsascala
In the 1920s, plans were drawn up for the construction of an airfield. A suitable site was identified in the South East of Malta and the Fleet Air Arm inaugurated the facility as HMS Falcon in April 1929.2 A decade later it had become clear that another world war was looming. Efforts to improve Malta's defensive capability, initiated by the Abyssinian Crisis of the mid-1930s, were consequently upscaled. This led to the construction of a new airfield in Luqa in 1940 and the refurbishment of an unpaved landing strip formerly used by civil aircraft at Ta' Qali. Another airfield was established at San Niklaw, l/o Siggiewi & Qrendi, followed by another at Safi, and eventually an American airfield was founded in Xewkija, Gozo in 1943.
H.M.S. Falcon aka R.A.F. Hal-Far in a photo from 1945 & Fleet Air Arm Uniform Cloth Badge
On the 10th June, 1940 Malta suddenly found itself at war with Italy, and consequently the Axis. Despite the fact that the British Authorities had long expected this to happen, preparations had been slow and half-hearted. As a result, the onset of battle found Malta poorly prepared for the upcoming onslaught. Bomb shelters were insufficient, measures to evacuate people from higher-risk areas inexistent, and co-ordinated defence procedures rather sketchy. Despite the Island's impressive network of fortifications, the majority hailed from eras past, and were built for sea and land warfare rather than an assault from the air. When the first raids came, extensions, improvements and re-armament of the older forts was still incomplete.
Preparations for War included an array of ad-hoc Bofors Anti-Aircraft Guns placed around the Grand Harbour
From an aviation point of view, the situation was appalling. Supplementary airfields were still under construction and worse still, there were practically no airplanes at all to defend the Island. In despair, half a dozen obsolete Gloster Gladiator Bi-planes were assembled from left-over packing crates, with only three aircraft being able to fly at the same time, with the other three kept as back-ups and for parts. The meagre fighting force was nominally designated as Hal Far Fighter Flight. Incredibly perhaps, these outnumbered inferior machines gave the Italians a good fight, becoming an iconic legacy of the Island's stubborn defence.3
Obsolete Gloster Gladiator Biplanes constituted Malta's only defence in the air at the onset of War in June, 1940
The situation was nevertheless unsustainable compelling British Military Authorities to ferry modern Hawker Hurricane fighters via Tunis, then a French Possession, until this came to an after the fall of France on the 25th June, 1940. Despite this blow to the Allies, a twist of fate led to Malta's air power being reinforced by a dozen Fairey Swordfish Torpedo Bombers fleeing French territory to avoid capture by the Germans. Upon their arrival they were stationed at Hal-Far and placed under command of the Admiralty becoming the core element of the Fleet Air Arm's 830 Naval Air Squadron as from July 1940.
Fairey Swordfish Torpedo Bombers & 830 Naval Air Squadron
Since Torpedo Bombers are primarily designed for offensive operations, faster aircraft better-suited for defence against the Italian raids were still urgently required in greater numbers. This led to the aptly named Operation Hurry in early August 1940.The mission involved a mock attack on Sardinia allowing the successful delivery of twelve Hurricanes to Malta. The Fighters were then organised as No.261 Squadron, RAF, incorporating the Gloster Gladiator Flight. The squadron was supplemented further by a flow of aircraft through a series of follow-ups to Operation Hurry, dubbed Club Runs.
Hawker Hurricane Fighters & Hurricanes from No.261 Squadron, RAF taking off from Ta' Qali
The Hurricanes were a much better match to the Italian fighter and bomber squadrons, improving the situation in the air and allowing a steady stream of reinforcements to arrive here through the rest of 1940. Everything changed however when the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) intervened in January 1941. The arrival of Messerschmidt Me-109 Fighters in particular reversed the tide in favour of the Axis. German Fighters were flown by well-trained, experienced pilots, and superior to Hurricanes. The situation was compounded further by wear and tear from constant use and a growing lack of spare parts, potentially affecting the battered Hurricanes' performance in the air.
Emblems of the Luftwaffe - Messerschmidt Me-109 Fighter Plane - General der Fliegerkorps X (10) Hans Geisler
A relative breathing-spate appeared when the Germans withdrew in May 1941 in preparation of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia. On June 1st, Air Vice Marshal Forster Maynard was replaced by Air Commodore Hugh Lloyd as Malta's Senior Commanding Air Officer. Upon his arrival, Lloyd inspected all the airfields and RAF installations and noted the state of the Island as worse than expected. Less than sixty airplanes of all types were in flying condition, and spare parts were mostly cannibalised from wrecks or other aircraft. The inadequately protected airfields were too small and there was no heavy machinery to work with nor sufficient tools for maintenance.
Air Vice Mrashal Forster Maynard - Royal Air Force Aircraft Emblem - Air Commodore Hugh Lloyd
This situation and Rommel's advances in North Africa required immediate re-supply of the Islands. Taking advantage of the Lutfwaffe's absence, a series of convoy operations from Gibraltar to Malta was put into action, with Operation Substance bringing the first successful convoy into port in July 1941. The supply included aircraft and spares, and raised the number of operational aircraft to 60 Bombers and 120 Hurricanes. Some of the latter had been flown in by Naval Carriers through April and May, coinciding with the arrival of the first Bristol Blenheims and Bristol Beaufighters.
Bristol Blenheim Light Bomber in Flight & Bristol Beaufighter Multi-role Fighter Bomber at Ta' Qali
Commodore Lloyd took extensive measures to rectify the RAF's deficiencies. The flying formations were re-organised in new or merged units, with personnel from other services roped-in to improve defences around airfields and help repair runways and facilities. Civilian labour and trucks were impressed to bolster the effort, for it was clear that the Luftwaffe would eventually return. In the latter half of 1941 Malta had shifted to the offensive, dispatching aircraft and submarines on predominantly successful missions aimed at destroying enemy ports and shipping.
An Army Bren Carrier towing a trolley train of 250lb GP Bombs through the mud for a Vickers Wellington in November, 1941
When the feared German attack materialised it came with a vengeance, exclusively aimed at removing the thorn Malta had become to Rommel's side. The task was assigned to Fliegerkorps II (2), under the command of Bruno Loerzer, after its relocation to the Mediterranean from the Russian Front in mid-November, 1941. The coming months would feature a world-record-setting aerial assault and bombardment by the Luftwaffe. The intensity of the attack coupled with effective Axis efforts to stop relief convoys led to much devastation on land and Allied losses at sea.
Bruno Loerzer Widespread Devastation during the 1942 Blitz Fliegerkorps II Aircraft Emblem
In the air, Malta's rapidly decimating force was back in difficulty. The situation was alleviated slightly in March by the arrival of the first Spitfire Fighters on the Island. The Fighters were fitted with supplementary fuel tanks and flown in from RN Aircraft Carrier HMS Eagle on the 21st March, 1942. Spitfires were a much better match to German fighters and considerable threat to their bomber formations. More batches were flown in through April and May, eventually turning the tide of the air battle back in Malta's favour. This success was not enough to break the siege however, as growing shortages of fundamental provisions including food, fuel, spares and ammunition started to take their toll. By Summer, Malta had been brought down on its knees, pondering surrender.
The first Spitfires destined for Malta on HMS AC Eagle Spitfire Mk. VCs (Trop) of No.249 Squadron at Ta' Qali
Air Commodore Hugh Lloyd was replaced by Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, a Battle-of-Britain veteran, in July 1942. Improved radar technology allowed better detection of incoming raids. Park utilised this and his experience to revise and improve tactics, devising a Forward Interception Plan for engaging enemy aircraft. His strategy became an instant success, causing the Axis to abandon all daytime raids within the first week of its implementation. The providential arrival of a battered convoy in mid-August and a growing trickle of Spitfires brought much relief, giving new spate of life to Malta's desperate defenders.
Air Vice Marshal Keith Park Radar Positions & Airfields The Radar at tas-Silg
The siege started to break and although the Luftwaffe regrouped for a new offensive in October 1942, the German force had become severely depleted, while Malta's defensive capability was at its zenith. By mid-October, Kesselring recognised the futility of the Lutfwaffe's efforts, leading the commander of the German Air Force in Italy to call off the attack. During this period, Malta's growing interference with Italian supply convoys added pressure on Axis forces in North Africa, generating unsustainable strains and shortages. British superiority in the air allowed more of its own convoys to reach the Islands further enhancing defensive and offensive capabilities.
Albert Kesselring Sinking of the Italian Troopship Neptunia
1943 was a pivotal year in the war. The German loss of its Sixth Army at Stalingrad and mounting losses in Russia turned the tide of the war against the Reich. Italian efforts fared even worse, and by Spring 1943, all Axis forces in North Africa had been defeated. The last air raid on Malta occurred on the 20th July of that year, before Axis airfields in Sicily were overrun by invading Allied Troops during Operation Husky. The capture of Sicily and Southern Italy led to the signing of an armistice, effectively ending any further threats to Malta from the air. Several thousand alerts had been sounded since the first attack of 11th June 1940, but the unsinkable Aircraft Carrier called Malta was still afloat, defiant and Invicta, despite all odds!
Greetings Card from Malta, the Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier
To read more above the various perspectives of the RAF in Malta during WWII, kindly access the links below. Click on image to leave page or underlying text to open in a new tab
1. The Hydrophonic Listening Station was a primitive version of underwater radar. 2. H.M.S. Falcon was also known as Royal Navy Air Service (R.N.A.S.) Hal-Far and R.A.F. Hal-Far. 3. The Gloster Gladiator trio was popularly referred to by the Maltese press and populace as Faith, Hope and Charity, but in actual fact the fame is due to the whole operational flight consisting of six planes, of which only three flew simultaneously, leading to the belief that it was always the same aircraft up in the air.
First World War in Malta: The German U-Boat Threat and the Hydrophone - Anthony Zarb Dimech via the Malta Independent on Sunday (Independent.com.mt) Forgotten Fights: Malta's Faith, Hope & Charity, 1940 - Article by Edward G. Lengel, Phd. via The National War Museum, New Orleans, USA (Nationalww2museum.org) The Real Story behind Malta's Gloster Gladiators - Matthew Willis via Key.aero First Spitfires to Malta, March 1942 - R.A.F. Memorial Club via Memorialflightclub.com Radar Stations in Wartime Malta - Charles Debono via Timesofmalta.com Losses at Sea during Word War II (1) - Ditto
Images R.A.F. Crest - Battleofbritain1940.net R.F.C. Cap Badge - Britishmilitarybadges.co.uk R.N.A.S. Cap Badge - Fleetairarmoa.org R.A.F. Cap Badge - Cultmancollectables.com Kalafrana Air Base - Unrecorded source Hydrophonic Station illustration by RNR War Shipping Artist Frank H.A. Mason - Imperial War Museums, London (Iwm.org.uk)
H.M.S. Falcon at Hal-Far - Louis Cardona via Pinterest.com Fleet Air Arm Cuff Badge - AAFM Collection & photo Bofors Position in Valletta - Warfarehistorynetwork.com / Colourmytravel.com Gloster Gladiator Biplane in Malta - Imperial War Museums, London (Iwn.org.uk) Faith, Hope & Cahrity vs the Italian Regia Aeronautica - Chip DuRant via Pinterest.com Fairey Swordfish Aircraft Layout & 803 Squadron- Master Sakhal via Sakhalianet.x10.mx R.N.A.S. Emblem - Wings-aviation.ch Faireys on a Training Flight over Scotland in 1940 photographed by Lt. S.J. Beadell, R.N. Photographer - Imperial War Museums, London (Iwm.org.uk) No. 261 Sq. R.A.F. Hurricanes & Emblem - Asisbiz.com / Spitfireassociation.com No. 261 Sq. R.A.F. Hurricanes taking off from Ta' Qali - Iwm.org.uk Fliegerkorps X Collage - Fornax via Wikipedia.org / Pngwing.com / Asisbiz.com / Wowbuilds.com
R.A.F. Change in Command & Roundel - Npgprints.com / Airliners.net / R.A.F. Museum via Artuk.org Bristol Blenheim & Beaufighter - AirWorlfHound via Flickr.com / Imperial War Museum (Iwm.org.uk) via Ww2aircraft.net Bren Carrier serving Vickers Wellington - JC Falkenberg III via Reddit.com / Louis Cardona via Pinterest.cl German Blitz of 1942 Collage - Tripti Joshi via Alchetron.com / Iwm.org.uk / Unrecorded Spitfires on HMS Eagle & in Malta - Memorialflightclub.com AVM K. Park & Radar - Rafbf.org / Malta aviation Society via Timesofmalta.com Kesselring & Sinking of the Neptunia - Bundesarkiv via Wikipedia.org / USDM via Timeofmalta.com The Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier Card - Unieke Antieke via Bidorbuy.co.za
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