Malta is an island in the Mediterranean situated midway between Tunisia and Sicily. It became part of the Roman Empire in 218 BC. Given the name Melita by the Romans, it was conquered by Muslim Arabs in 870. The Normans captured it and held it until it came under the control of Spain. Under Emperor Charles V the island was given to the Knights Hospitallers (1530). In 1798 the island came under the control of France but two years later it was taken by the British.

On the outbreak of the Second World War, Malta was Britain's only military base in the central Mediterranean area. When Italy declared war on the Allies in June 1940, Britain feared that the island would be invaded by the Italian Army. At that time it was only defended by only five infantry battalions and ten aircraft. Only sixty miles from Sicily, the Allies considered Malta to be important for future offensive operations against Italian supply routes to North Africa.

Adolf Hitler began to plan an airbourne invasion of Malta. However, the airborne assault on Crete between 20th May and 1st June, 1941, was very costly when 4,000 parachutists were killed. Hitler was shocked by the scale of these losses and decided that no more large-scale airborne operations should be undertaken.

In 1941 the Luftwaffe began continuous night and day bombing attacks on Malta. Fighter aircraft were flown to the island but supplying the besieged island became more and more difficult. Only two merchant ships reached Malta in the first-half of 1942. After most of a new consignment of Supermarine Spitfire fighters were destroyed on the ground there were only six aircraft left on Malta by April, 1942. The people of Malta were forced to live in air raid shelters that had been hewn out of the coastal rock. As a result of the people's bravery, the island was awarded the George Cross by George VI.

In the summer of 1942 Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to concentrate on providing support for General Erwin Rommel in the Desert War. The situation in Malta improved after the Allied victory at El Alamein and the Allied landings in north-west Africa.

In 1943 the Royal Air Force was able to establish new forward air bases and the Allies now had air superiority over Mediterranean supply routes. Later that year Admiral Andrew Cunningham set up his headquarters in Malta where he planned the large amphibious invasion fleets for landings in southern Europe.

Primary Sources

(1) Anthony Eden, diary entry (13th October, 1940)

After dinner continued our flight to Malta which we reached about 7.30 a.m. I again had a splendid view of our approach

from my conning tower. We learnt later that we had flown too far to the south, and had been with difficulty reached by radio and redirected.

Spent the whole day in conference with Lieutenant General William Dobbie (the Governor) and tour of island and visits to troops. It was unhappily difficult to see much of the last who were in small detached posts. Not greatly enamored of dispositions for defence which seemed to me to concentrate too much on beaches. No depth and too small a mobile reserve. All the men I saw certainly seemed fit and cheerful, but in some battalions officers appeared to be only a moderate lot. The company commanders too old and too sedentary. We must give the good youngster his chance and make it for him.