Episodes & Studies Volume 2
OVER TO THE OFFENSIVE
OVER TO THE OFFENSIVE
THE CONTINUED success of Malta's attack on enemy shipping depended always on the freedom of the island's airfields from enemy air attack. When Air Vice-Marshal Park came to Malta in July 1942, the Spitfires' superiority had still to be finally established, as the Luftwaffe continued to make three raids a day. Park was thoroughly experienced in leading an aggressive fighter defence: he had directed the most active Fighter Group in the Battle of Britain, and during the last six months had commanded Air Headquarters, Egypt, and had been responsible for the air defence of Egypt and the Suez Canal Zone.
When Air Vice-Marshal Park took over, the island's petrol and food supplies were still critical, and its eleven squadrons, which included five fighter squadrons, were tired after the long blitz they had sustained. But a total of ninety Spitfires represented comparative strength, and some battle-weary personnel could be relieved. Park quickly changed the defensive tactics of this fighter force. A Special Order of the Day announced his new policy of forward interception: aided by improved radio-location methods, the Spitfire squadrons swept northwards to break up the enemy formations before they could approach Malta's dockyards or airfields, and inflicted such heavy casualties that in two weeks the enemy day raids were stopped. The passage of the August convoy page 29 from Gibraltar was bitterly contested by a concentration of 650 Axis aircraft in Sicily and Sardinia. Only five of the original fourteen merchant vessels were finally unloaded in Malta and the aircraft-carrier Eagle, an old and trusted friend of Malta, was sunk, but the battered American tanker Ohio limped into the Grand Harbour under Spitfire cover and ten weeks' fuel was added to the island's four weeks' stock.
The last blitz on Malta took place in October 1942. In North Africa the British offensive at Alamein was about to open. The Luftwaffe made a final attempt to neutralise Malta and its harbour, for the offensive on Axis shipping lanes was proving too successful. On 11 October there was a raid by fifty-eight escorted bombers, but Park's Battle of Britain tactics of forward interception held good, and the Spitfires achieved extraordinary success.
Sergeant J. F. P. Yeatman,34 who had volunteered for service in Malta from No. 485 New Zealand Squadron in the United Kingdom, had a narrow escape. He attacked a Messerschmitt 109 fighter which was straggling behind its parent formation of some twenty others. His combat report continues:
I considered they had not seen me, so dived on the straggler, opened fire from 200-250 yards and observed strikes on the starboard wing. The Messerschmitt turned on its back and dived down in the direction of Sicily. I turned on my back also and followed it down, overtaking it at sea level, roughly 20 miles from Malta. I closed right up to 50 yards and gave one five- second burst, observing further strikes. At that moment I was attacked by two other Me109s and forced to break away steeply to the right. Whenever I was able, I made sharp dashes for Malta, but the Messerschmitts then started attacking one on each side so that they could get a shot whichever way I broke. I closed the throttle and both overshot. I then turned at right angles toward Malta and did not see them again until I observed cannon fire hitting the sea ahead, on the right-hand side. I broke left and was hit twice. Two Spitfires appeared and the Me109s veered off. I climbed to 500 feet, and one Spitfire orbited above me. I returned to base and landed. I claim one Me109 damaged.
Sergeant N. M. Park35 on 12 October flew in a dawn patrol of three Spitfires of No. 126 Squadron which made a head-on attack on a formation of seven Junkers 88 bombers. He shot down one and, despite the efforts of escorting German and Italian fighters, turned and destroyed a second. On the midday patrol he claimed another bomber as damaged. In a similar patrol two days later, Sergeant Park probably destroyed one Messerschmitt fighter and damaged one Junkers 88, while Sergeant R. B. Hendry36 claimed one fighter destroyed. In the afternoon sortie Park reported:
We were patrolling at 21,000 feet, 20 miles north-east of Grand Harbour, when we sighted nine Junkers 88 with a swarm of fighters heading south. We turned into the attack, Red 1 and myself going into the bombers. I got on one bomber's tail, but my guns had frozen so I broke away, and after shaking off two attacking Messerschmitts 109, I dived away down to 10,000 feet. On hearing the Ground Controller broadcast the height and position of the bombers, I went east to Kalafrana Bay, where the bombers were seen heading back to the north-east. I tried to intercept them, but was jumped by two Me109s. I turned quickly to avoid, and after a complete turn got on a Messerschmitt's tail. I closed in without opening fire to about 100 yards, when he changed his turn and I gave him a three-second burst from dead astern. He went into a steep dive straight into the sea. I circled the spot but there was no sign of the pilot. I claim one Messerschmitt 109 destroyed.page 30
Sergeant Park's total over this short period of intensive fighting was three Junkers 88 and two Messerschmitts 109 destroyed and one Junkers 88 probably destroyed—by the end of the month his score at Malta was assessed as eight enemy aircraft destroyed and two damaged after four months' operations. After the first hectic ten days the last concerted Luftwaffe blitz died away; the five Spitfire squadrons claimed 132 enemy aircraft destroyed in the course of the month —a major loss to the fighting strength of the Luftwaffe in the Mediterranean. The November convoy from Egypt came through intact. The siege of Malta was finally raised, and the populace gathered to watch and cheer the long line of ships that queued outside the Grand Harbour.
By November, therefore, Air Vice-Marshal Sir Keith Park* could use his aircraft more freely in giving tactical assistance to the Mediterranean land campaigns. By the beginning of the month enemy reconnaissance had ascertained that a considerable Allied seaborne operation was intended in the Western Mediterranean. Naval and air concentrations at Gibraltar could hardly be concealed from the Spanish border. Accordingly the Luftwaffe's torpedo-bomber force in Sicily and Sardinia was again hastily strengthened by units from Norway, Greece, and Crete, since the German Intelligence believed that the vast Allied convoys were meant to force the passage of the Mediterranean and reinforce the Eighth Army in Egypt. Every night in November, except on four when the weather was bad, Air Vice-Marshal Park despatched Wellington bombers from Luqa to bomb the massed enemy aircraft at Cagliari on the southern tip of Sardinia. And, in the event, Operation ‘Torch’, the invasion of North-West Africa under General Eisenhower, suffered only inconsiderable shipping losses.
During this month, therefore, the Allied forces in the Mediterranean theatre had abruptly swung over to the attack, with the United States and British Armies from the west and the Eighth Army from the east converging for the final clearance of North Africa. When it was clear that the Axis was determined to defend Tunisia, it became Malta's part, as well as sustaining its anti- shipping offensive, to reduce Axis air power in the Central Mediterranean, and especially to disrupt the aerial reinforcement of Tunisia by the Luftwaffe which was having serious effects on the campaign. Air Vice-Marshal Park switched his Wellington night-bomber force to attack El Aouina aerodrome outside Tunis, where many aircraft of all types were destroyed on the ground, and his Beaufighters added to the devastation. The Spitfire squadrons for their part attacked the airfields in Sicily and Italy. For the first time these aircraft were modified in the field and used as fighter-bombers. By drawing upon local ingenuity, two 250-lb. bombs were fitted under the wings.
Sergeant J. A. Houlton,37 of No. 185 Squadron, flew in a section of four Spitbombers with fighter escort which bombed Gela airfield in Sicily. Returning to Hal Far airfield at 7000 feet, he sighted a formation of eight Junkers 52 transports flying west from Sicily at 1000 feet above the sea. He attacked three of the aircraft in turn. The first held its formation, but the second was definitely hit and turned back toward Gela; the troops being carried in the third aircraft put up a barrage of small-arms fire from the windows, but Houlton saw his own machine-gun fire register hits around the pilot's cockpit, and when last seen the Junkers 52 was losing height and very close to the sea. He claimed the last two aircraft as damaged.
Three New Zealand pilots scored an unusual success on 14 November. Five Spitfires of page 31 No. 126 Squadron were despatched to sweep the Sicily-Tunis channel. North of Cape Bon, Sergeant R. B. Hendry and Pilot-Officer D. A. Piggott38 caught an Italian Fiat BR20 bomber at sea level and made a simultaneous attack; white smoke came from both engines, and the aircraft immediately plunged into the sea, where it exploded in a sheet of flame. Fifteen minutes later the formation intercepted an aerial train of some thirty-five transports, flying at sea level and escorted by long-range German fighters. Sergeant J. E. Mortimer39 was engaged by one of the Messerschmitt 110 fighters, but he eventually drove it off with black smoke pouring from its starboard engine. Hendry saw a large four-engined Junkers 90 detach itself from the main body of the transports and climb slowly toward the safety of cloud cover; he overtook it and was able to fire a burst just as it disappeared. Climbing through the ceiling of cloud, Hendry picked out the ponderous shape of the Junkers 90 passing below him through breaks in the cloud. He used all his cannon shells against it, scoring strikes on the starboard wing, which began to trail black smoke, and he last saw it steadily losing height. Among them the three pilots claimed one enemy aircraft destroyed and two damaged.
Hence, as the vital year of 1942 closed, Malta had swung whole-heartedly to the offensive. The future was bright. New and long-range aircraft, Beaufighters and Mosquitoes, were soon adding to the weight of the island's striking power. Malta Air Command was created, and Air Vice-Marshal Park, who remained in command for the whole of 1943, made full use of the island's unique geographical position to assist each Mediterranean land campaign in turn. The lean years were over, and in place of the poverty which had faced Air Vice-Marshal Maynard in his resolve to defend the island, Malta's air power was to increase until, when the island base prepared for the invasion of Sicily, there was almost an embarrassment of riches as a force of more than thirty squadrons assembled. But the foundations of this success were laid in the siege, unexampled in modern warfare, which the island had sustained for two and a half years. Among the airmen who fought and shared in Malta's lonely ordeal, the small band of eighty-four New Zealanders made their mark. Air Vice-Marshal Maynard, the first Air Officer Commanding, was one of the few to perceive that in the new war of movement and supply Malta was the key to the Mediterranean, and Air Vice-Marshal Park had later effectively demonstrated the truth of this. The aircrews who broke up the Axis air raids, sank Axis supply ships, and ranged over the encircling enemy coastlines, knew how much depended on them, and felt it was no small honour to be at this time in Malta.