The Malta Convoys were a series of Allied supply convoys that sustained the besieged island of Malta during the Mediterranean Theatre of the Second World War. Malta required military reinforcements, food for its military garrison and civilian population, and fuel for air and naval forces. The convoys bringing these men and supplies were strongly opposed by Italian and German naval and air forces during the Battle of the Mediterranean.
Malta’s significance was its position as a strategic base from which British sea and air forces could interrupt the flow of men and materiel to the Axis armies in north Africa, which in turn threatened Egypt, the Suez Canal and, potentially, British controlled oilfields in the Middle East. Its strategic importance was such that Britain took great risks and suffered severe naval losses in order to keep possession. Italy’s failure to subdue Malta and military disasters in Libya and Greece led to German intervention in the Mediterranean. German bombers and submarines tightened the sea blockade and Malta’s situation worsened. As well as set piece, heavily defended convoys, small quantities of important supplies and personnel were sent by fast warships (usually Abdiel-class minelayers) and by submarine. Fighter aircraft were critical to the island’s defence and quantities of Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires were transported to within flying distance, known as “Club Runs”.
The critical period was during mid 1942, when the island desperately needed supplies such as fuel and food and it had temporarily ceased to be an effective offensive base. The situation eased later in 1942, particularly as Allied armies advanced from Egypt after El Alamein and from north west Africa after Operation Torch, allowing greater air protection to supply convoys.
Malta was an island of 117 square miles with a population of 275,000. Malta’s agricultural production could feed only one-third of its population. The island’s geographical position close to the Sicilian Channel between Sicily and Tunis was at the crossroads of Italy’s sea route to Libya and the United Kingdom Suez canal sea route to India, East Africa, the Far East, and the major oil producers, Iraq and Iran. Either Italy or the United Kingdom could use Malta as a base to intercept the other nation’s military and commercial access to colonial possessions.
Malta had been a British colony since 1814 when Italy declared war on the Allies on 10 June 1940. Italy didn’t immediately send the “Taranto Naval Squadron” to occupy Malta as suggested by Admiral Carlo Bergamini; but, with Italian bases in nearby Sicily, maintenance of British control was more difficult from more distant British bases in Gibraltar to the west and Cyprus, Egypt, and Palestine to the east. Only two weeks after the Italian declaration of war, the Second Armistice at Compiègne ended British access to French Mediterranean Sea bases; and the 3 July 1940 attack on Mers-el-Kébir hardened French antipathy towards Britain. Axis support of General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War caused concern about security of British Gibraltar.
Italy, Sicily, Sardinia and Libya dominated the central Mediterranean, and Italian conquest of Egypt would link Abyssinia, Italian Somaliland, and Eritrea. The September 1940 Italian invasion of Egypt resulted in loss of Cyrenaica during Operation Compass in December. In January 1941 Germany sent the Afrika Korps to Libya in Operation Sonnenblume (English: Operation Sunflower) and the X. Fliegerkorps of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) to Sicily in Operation Mittelmeer (English: Operation Mediterranean) to protect Afrika Korps supply lines past Malta.
X. Fliegerkorps moved to Greece in April 1941, and the 23rd U-boat Flotilla was based at Salamis in September. Resources available to sustain Malta were reduced when Japan declared war in December and raided the Indian Ocean in April, 1942. Malta ceased to be an effective anti-convoy base in early 1942. Several warships were sunk in harbour and others were withdrawn. Supplies dwindled with the loss of convoys. Axis invasion of Malta was planned as (Operation C3 and Operation Herkules) but never executed.
In the Battle of Calabria, Regia Marina escorts (two battleships, 14 cruisers and 32 destroyers) of an Italian convoy engage battleships HMS Warspite, Malaya and Royal Sovereign and the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle with cruisers and destroyers covering convoys MF 1 and MS 1 from Malta to Alexandria.
August – Operation Hurry
Twelve Hurricanes were flown off the carrier HMS Argus to Malta in the first “Club Run” to reinforce the air defences.
September – Operation Hats
The Mediterranean Fleet escorted fast convoy MF 2 of three transports (carrying 40,000 short tons (36,000 t) of supplies including reinforcements and ammunition for the island’s anti-aircraft defences) from Alexandria and collected another convoy from Gibraltar. En route, Italian airbases were raided. The Regia Marina had superior forces at sea, but missed the opportunity to exploit their advantage.
Four ships of convoy MF 3 reached Malta safely from Alexandria and 3 ships returned to Alexandria as convoy MF 4. The escort included four battleships and two aircraft carriers. An Italian attempt against the returning escort employing destroyers and torpedo boats ended in the Battle of Cape Passero, favourable to the British.
November – Operations Judgement, White and Collar
Five ship convoy MW 3 from Alexandria and four ship return convoy ME 3 arrived safely, coinciding with a troop convoy from Gibraltar and the air attack on the Italian battlefleet at Taranto (Operation Judgement).
Twelve Hurricanes were flown off Argus to reinforce Malta (Operation White), but the threat of the Italian fleet lurking south of Sardinia prompted a premature fly-off from Argus and its return to Gibraltar. Eight of the planes ran out of fuel and ditched at sea. Seven pilots were lost.
Two transports sailing from Gibraltar to Malta and Alexandria as (Operation Collar) survived attack by the Italian fleet at Cape Spartivento. The operation was coordinated with four ship convoy MW 4 from Alexandria and three ship return convoy ME 4.
Seven ship convoy MW 5 from Alexandria and 4 ship return convoy ME 5 arrived safely. Two ship convoy MG 1 reached Gibraltar from Malta.
January – Operation Excess
Operation Excess delivered one ship from Gibraltar to Malta with three ships continuing on to Piraeus. The operation was coordinated with two ship convoy MW 5.5 from Alexandria and nine ship return convoy ME 6. The convoys arrived safely with 10,000 short tons (9,100 t) of supplies, but the Royal Navy lost a cruiser (HMS Southampton), with another cruiser (HMS Gloucester) and an aircraft carrier (HMS Illustrious) badly damaged and a destroyer damaged beyond repair. This was the first action to involve the Luftwaffe. The Italian torpedo boat Vega was sunk in the course of the operations.
Two ship convoy MC 8 reached Alexandria safely from Malta.
Four ship convoy MW 6 arrived at Malta from Alexandria.
April – Operation Temple
In two separate operations, the British reinforced Malta’s air defences. Twenty-four Hurricanes were flown off HMS Ark Royal, sailing from Gibraltar, coded Operation Dunlop. Bristol Blenheims and Beaufighters were also flown in. Three battleships and an aircraft carrier covered the fast transport HMS Breconshire from Alexandria to Malta. The operation was coordinated with four ship convoy ME 7 from Malta to Alexandria.
Malta’s importance as a base was emphasized by the complete destruction of an Afrika Korps convoy and its Italian escort near the Kerkennah Islands off Tunisia.
Freighter Parracombe was lost after striking a mine en route from Gibraltar to Malta during Operation Temple, but another ship reached Alexandria from Malta as convoy MD 3.
May – Operations Tiger and Splice
A five ship supply convoy from Gibraltar to Alexandria (Operation Tiger) coincided with reinforcements for the Mediterranean Fleet, six ship convoy MW 7 from Egypt to Malta, and 48 more Hurricanes flown off HMS Ark Royal and Furious (Operation Splice). The only loss was the 9,200 long tons (9,300 t) cargo ship Empire Song, which hit a mine and sank with a cargo of 57 tanks, 10 aircraft and several trucks.
Tiger was transporting tanks (Matildas and the new Crusader tanks) needed for the operations in North Africa, these had been intended to be sent via the Cape but were diverted via the Mediterranean. Over 200 tanks reached Alexandria on 12 May.
The Luftwaffe transferred much of its strength from Sicily to prepare for the invasion of the USSR, relieving some of the pressure on Malta.
The Malta-based submarine HMS Upholder attacked and sank the large Italian troop transport Conte Rosso.
June – Operation Tracer
Supply convoys became very difficult, with convoys from Alexandria under attack from Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica bases in Crete and Libya, while convoys from Gibraltar were attacked from Sardinia and Sicily. Submarines were used to bring in urgent supplies.
On 14 June, HMS Ark Royal and the new carrier HMS Victorious, coming east from Gibraltar, flew off 46 Hurricanes to Malta, 42 of which arrived safely.
July – Operation Substance
Six ship convoy GM 1 ran from Gibraltar to Malta, escorted by six destroyers and covered by Ark Royal, Renown, Nelson, cruisers, and destroyers (Operation Substance). On 23 July, south of Sardinia, there were sustained Italian air attacks. One cruiser was hit and a destroyer sunk. The 12,000 long tons (12,000 t) steamer Sydney Star was torpedoed by an Italian MAS boat and crippled, but the destroyer HMAS Nestor assisted her safe arrival to harbour. She was seaworthy again by September. All six ships eventually reached Malta, and seven ships returned to Gibraltar as convoy MG 1. An Italian raid to sink the transports in Grand Harbour failed and 65,000 short tons (59,000 t) of supplies were landed.
September – Operations Status I, Status II, Propeller and Halberd
Ark Royal and Furious flew off over 50 Hurricanes to Malta in operations Status I and Status II. One ship reached Malta from Gibraltar as operation Propeller and another ship completed the trip independently.
Two 19,000 long tons (19,000 t) Italian transports — the MS Neptunia and Oceania — were sunk by the submarine Upholder.
Nine ship convoy GM 2 from Gibraltar to Malta, and one ship return convoy MG 2 were escorted by HMS Nelson, Rodney, Prince of Wales and Ark Royal as (Operation Halberd). Italians ships unsuccessfully attempted intercept. The British capital ships returned to Gibraltar, with Nelson damaged by a torpedo. The 10,000 long tons (10,000 t) transport Imperial Star was sunk by an aerial torpedo, but the rest of the convoy reached Malta and landed 85,000 short tons (77,000 t) of supplies.
Force K was formed at Malta to strike at Axis shipping. It consisted of the cruisers HMS Aurora and Penelope, and the destroyers HMS Lance and Lively. One of four ships sailing independently from Malta to Gibraltar is lost.
Force K intercepted an Italian convoy off Cape Spartivento and sank all seven transports. Two Italian destroyers were also sunk.
More Hurricanes were flown off from Ark Royal and Argus, sailing from Gibraltar (Operation Perpetual, 10–12 November 1941). On the return leg, Ark Royal was torpedoed by U-81 and sank the next day.
An attempt to resupply Malta (Operation Astrologer, 14–15 November 1941) by two unescorted freighters, Empire Defender and Empire Pelican, ended in the sinking of both ships by Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 torpedo-bombers south of Galite Islands.
December – First Battle of Sirte
An Italian battlefleet covered a convoy bound for Benghazi. A flotilla from Alexandria planned to link with Force K from Malta, but the submarine HMS Urge torpedoed and damaged the Vittorio Veneto and the Italians retired.
HMS Breconshire was escorted from Malta by Force B to rendezvous with Force K near the Gulf of Sirte. Soon after, the British came across Italian battleships escorting a convoy to Tripoli. The ensuing engagement is known as the First Battle of Sirte.
After seeing Breconshire safely into Malta, Force K sailed again to search for the Tripoli convoy. While off Tripoli, they ran into a minefield. HMS Neptune and Kandahar were sunk, and HMS Aurora and Penelope were damaged.
Four ship convoy ME 8 reached Alexandria safely from Malta.
Six ships sailed from Alexandria in three small convoys. Aircraft sank 6,655-ton Thermopylae, and the remaining five arrived at Malta. Three ships made the return trip safely. One escorting destroyer, HMS Gurkha was torpedoed by German submarine U-133 and sank.
Two large Italian convoys got through to North Africa.
During the continuing heavy German air raids, HMS Maori was sunk in Malta’s Grand Harbour.
Three ship convoy MW 9 from Alexandria (Operation MF5) failed to reach Malta. SS Clan Chattan was sunk by Axis aircraft, SS Clan Campbell was bombed and forced to seek shelter in Tobruk, and SS Rowallan Castle was disabled. Rowallan Castle was scuttled by HMS Lively after the escort was warned that the Caio Duilio had sailed from Taranto to intercept the convoy.
March – Operation Spotter
Carriers Eagle and Argus successfully flew off the first Spitfire reinforcements for Malta. An earlier attempt had been abandoned due to technical problems.
March – Operation MG 1 and the Second Battle of Sirte
Four ship convoy MW 10 sailed from Alexandria escorted by the cruisers HMS Cleopatra, Dido, Euryalus, and Carlisle and destroyers. Other destroyers sailed from Tobruk, sweeping for submarines before joining the convoy; one was sunk. In all, there were 16 destroyers.
The convoy was intercepted and effectively scattered by the Italian fleet, despite a spirited and successful defence against the battleship Littorio. British tanker Breconshire and freighter Clan Campbell were sunk at sea by the Luftwaffe, while the British MS Pampas and the Norwegian MS Talabot reached Malta. Both of them, however, were sunk at anchor in Valletta harbour by Axis aircraft before unloading was completed. Only 5,000 short tons (4,500 t) of supplies were landed safely. A number of British destroyers were seriously damaged during the engagement.
April – Operation Calendar
The island had ceased to be an effective offensive base, and Axis convoys were mostly untroubled. Several submarines and destroyers were bombed and sunk in harbour, and naval units were ordered to leave for Gibraltar or Alexandria. Not all arrived safely.
Forty-seven Spitfires were flown off to Malta from the American carrier USS Wasp (Operation Calendar), escorted by the battlecruiser HMS Renown, cruisers HMS Cairo and Charybdis, and six British and U.S. destroyers. Most of these aircraft were destroyed on the ground by bombing.
May – Operations Bowery and LB
The submarine HMS Olympus struck a mine and sank while leaving Malta with the survivors of submarines HMS Pandora, P36 and P39 on board.
Sixty-four Spitfires were flown off to Malta from Wasp and Eagle (Operation Bowery). A second batch of 16 were flown in from Eagle (Operation LB).
June – Operation Style
On 20 May, SS Empire Conrad departed from Milford Haven, Wales with a cargo of 32 Spitfires in cases. The aircraft were all Spitfire Mk VcT. Also on board were the ground crew who were to assemble them, a total of over 110 men. Empire Conrad was escorted by the 29th ML Flotilla and the corvette HMS Spirea. The convoy was later joined by the Minesweepers HMS Hythe and Rye. Empire Conrad arrived at Gibraltar on 27 May. The aircraft were transferred to the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle where they were assembled. On 2 June, Eagle departed from Gibraltar escorted by the cruiser HMS Charybdis and destroyers HMS Antelope, Ithuriel, Partridge, Westcott and Wishart. On 3 June, the aircraft were flown off Eagle bound for Malta. Twenty-eight of them arrived safely, with the other four being shot down en route.
June – Operations Harpoon and Vigorous
The arrival of more Spitfires from Eagle and the transfer of German aircraft to the Russian Front eased the pressure on Malta, but supplies were needed.
Two convoys sailed simultaneously: one of 11 transports from Haifa, Palestine and Port Said, Egypt (Operation Vigorous), and one of six transports from Gibraltar (Operation Harpoon). Both had strong naval escorts. Strong Axis naval and air forces attacked both convoys. Two of Harpoon’s transports (with a critical 15,000 short tons (14,000 t) of supplies reached Malta for the loss of four transports and two destroyers (HMS Bedouin and the Polish Kujawiak).
Vigorous was heavily attacked by aircraft, torpedo boats and submarines over four days, threatened by a strong Italian battlefleet, and eventually returned to Alexandria. No transports reached Malta, and a cruiser (HMS Hermione), three destroyers (HMS Hasty, Airedale and the Australian HMAS Nestor), and two transports were sunk. The battleship Littorio and cruiser Trento were damaged by air attacks, and Trento was later sunk by submarine HMS Umbra.
More Spitfires were flown off to Malta from Eagle. HMS Welshman made an independent supply run.
August – Operation Pedestal
The supply situation had become critical, particularly aviation fuel. The largest convoy to date was assembled at Gibraltar (Operation Pedestal). It consisted of 14 transports, including the large oil tanker SS Ohio. These were protected by powerful escort and covering forces: 44 warships, including three aircraft carriers (Eagle, Indomitable, and Victorious) and two battleships (Nelson and Rodney). A diversionary operation was staged from Alexandria.
The convoy was attacked fiercely. Three transports reached Malta on 13 August and another on 14 August. Ohio arrived on 15 August, heavily damaged by air attacks, and under tow by destroyers HMS Penn and Ledbury. The rest were sunk. Ohio later broke in two in Valletta Harbour, but not before much of her cargo had been unloaded. The aircraft carrier Eagle, cruisers HMS Cairo and Manchester and the destroyer HMS Foresight were sunk, and there was serious damage to other warships. The Italian losses were two submarines and damage to two cruisers.
This convoy, especially the arrival of Ohio, was seen as Divine intervention by the people of Malta. August 15 is celebrated as the feast of St. Mary’s Assumption and many Maltese attributed the arrival of Ohio into Grand Harbour as the answer to their prayers.
It had been agreed by military commanders at the time that if supplies became any lower, they would surrender the islands (the actual date, deferred as supplies were received, was referred to as the “target date”). At that time, to stretch the supply of flour, the Maltese mixed flour with potato peelings, making a sort of brown bread. The situation became so dire that bread once again became white when there were no more potato peelings to add to flour. Many sources[who?] say that the remaining supplies were sufficient for only 10 days. The supplies brought by Pedestal (53,000 short tons (48,000 t) landed of 121,000 short tons (110,000 t) (including 11,000 short tons (10,000 t) of oil on Ohio) embarked) eased the situation, but did not solve it, and more supplies were brought in by submarines. More Spitfires were flown off from Furious.
The submarine HMS Talisman was lost on a supply run from Gibraltar, either stranded in a minefield or depth-charged by Italian torpedo boats northwest of Malta on 17 September.
Furious flew off more Spitfires for Malta (Operation Train). Essential supplies were still needed. Deliveries were made by submarines or fast Abdiel-class minelayers.
The Second Battle of El Alamein began, and the Malta-based air and sea forces significantly reduced critical supplies reaching Axis forces in North Africa.
November – Operations Stoneage and Crupper
One independently routed freighter reached Malta from Alexandria, but 2,609-ton Ardeola and 1,947-ton Tadorna were captured while trying to reach Malta from Gibraltar as operation Crupper. Minelayers HMS Welshman and Manxman made successful supply runs. Later that month, four ship convoy MW 13, carrying 35,000 short tons (32,000 t) of supplies, escorted by three cruisers and ten destroyers reached Malta from Alexandria (Operation Stoneage). The cruiser HMS Arethusa was seriously damaged and returned to Alexandria. This successful operation is seen as the “Relief of Malta”.
December – Operation Portcullis
In Operation Portcullis, five ship convoy MW 14 arrived from Port Said with 55,000 short tons (50,000 t) of supplies as the first to arrive without loss since 1941. Nine more ships arrived as convoys MW 15 thru 18 delivering 18,200 short tons (16,500 t) of fuel and another 58,500 short tons (53,100 t) of general supplies and military materiel by the end of December and thirteen ships returned to Alexandria as convoys ME 11 and 12. The resultant increase in civilian rations helped to stave off the general decline in health of the population, which had been a cause of an outbreak of poliomyelitis.
There were 35 major supply operations to Malta from 1940-1942. Eight were frustrated or suffered severe losses from Axis forces: Operations White, Tiger, Halberd, MF5, MG1, Harpoon, Vigorous, and Pedestal. There were long periods when no convoy runs were even attempted, and only a trickle of supplies reached Malta by submarine, or by fast warship. The worst period for Malta was from December 1941-October 1942, when Axis forces had the upper hand, achieving complete air and naval supremacy in the central Mediterranean (called the Italian Mare Nostrum by Benito Mussolini).
At the end of 1942, the limited success of Operation Pedestal enabled Allied ships and aircraft based on the island to become more aggressive and to deny Rommel much-needed supplies. This restricted the capabilities of the Axis armies in North Africa, and Allied land operations in North Africa changed the balance decisively in favour of the Allies. Axis forces in North Africa were then squeezed between the British Eighth Army, advancing from Egypt, and the Anglo-American First Army advancing from Algeria. Convoys henceforth had air protection flying from North Africa. The later invasions of Sicily and Italy were supported from Malta.
Further reading: The Supply of Malta 1940-1942