Tightening the Mediterranean “Tourniquet”: 
The Role of Malta During the Second World War

Malta’s Great Harbour (Valetta)

I originally wrote this essay as part of a course on the Second World War. I found Malta’s role in the war so intriguing because in spite of its tiny size, its location made it a vital and hotly contested piece of territory. WordPress’s formatting won’t let me include footnotes here, but if you reach out at “Contact” I can provide you with a full list of sources and where I used them.

The Second World War challenged European empire as it had never been challenged before.  While European powers had not yet discovered the full extent of Middle Eastern oil wealth, Allied policymakers feared Nazi capture of colonial possessions in the Middle East and North Africa.  For this reason, even as the war effort strained European economies at home, British policymakers sought to defend their empire as well as their island. The defense of the empire, much of which had already fallen into Axis hands (Italian and German forces controlled much of North Africa by the middle of the war), necessitated a major logistical effort on the part of the Allies.  The Axis controlled much of Southern and Eastern Europe, the most natural “launch pads” for Allied air and naval attacks. Fortunately, the British still controlled Malta, a tiny Mediterranean island between Sicily and Libya. Despite its small size, Malta’s location at the crossroads of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East allowed it to play a strategically vital role in the Allied defense of the Middle East and North Africa.  As historian Kenneth Macksey puts it, the RAF’s defense of the island allowed Malta to become “a decisive thorn in the Axis side throughout the remainder of the North African campaign,” as well as a “springboard for the Allied invasion of Sicily” in 1943.

Historians of the Second World War might be inclined to draw a comparison between the defense of Malta and the Allied “island hopping” campaigns in the Pacific.  Both engagements involved the defense of tiny islands with key airfields and other strategically important territory. Historian Anson McCullough has argued, however, that within the “compressed” territory surrounding the Mediterranean, “the close positioning of strategically located islands [played] an even more important role than did Guadalcanal in the Pacific in dictating the operational agenda, because there was little room for alternate undertakings.”  As McCullough puts it, Malta acted as a Mediterranean “tourniquet”: “Tighten it, and the lifeblood of Axis supply would be cutoff to their armies in North Africa.  Loosen it, and General Irwin Rommel’s Africa Corps would be able to resume its drive on Egypt and the oilfields of the Middle East.” 

Fortunately for the Allies, German and Italian forces found themselves too overextended to attack Malta at key junctures in the war.  Even once the German military machine began to engage seriously with Malta, launching an intensive bombing campaign in 1942 under Kesselring, the British defense of the island prevented this vital “tourniquet” from falling to the Axis.  The first half of this study will focus on the bombing campaigns themselves, both from a military and civilian perspective.  The remainder of the paper will explore Malta’s significance in terms of both grand strategy and key individual military engagements, focusing on historiography surrounding Malta’s role in the war.

McCullough argues that Hitler’s preparations to invade the Soviet Union and the Balkans, as well as his ongoing support for Rommel in North Africa, prevented him from devoting sufficient resources to the capture of Malta.  Italian forces found themselves similarly bogged down by other engagements: attacks on Sicily and the bloody fight against Greek insurgents in Albania weakened their ability to wage war elsewhere. When Mussolini’s forces did attempt to subdue Malta in 1940, their efforts proved unsatisfactory.  McCullough writes that “Italian bombers flew too high before releasing their bombs, and were too small in number to have much effect.”  As a result, Malta would not experience its worst bombings until Kesselring’s siege of 1942.  As Macksey puts it, this siege would bring the beleaguered island “within a hair’s breadth of surrender.”

Macksey’s characterization of Malta’s experience during the 1942 siege was no exaggeration.  Malta’s small size, along with British forces’ refusal to surrender the island, drove Axis forces to wage a war of attrition.  As McCullough put it, German bombers aimed not only to destroy strategic targets, but to “pulverize Malta and destroy the will of its defenders and civilian population, many of whom were subsisting on a meager diet of less than 1,500 calories per day.” As a result, Maltese civilians endured a variety of hardships during the intense two-year bombing campaign.  McCullough writes that German bombers tested a myriad of new weapons on the island, deploying 2000-pound burrowing bombs as well as “cracker bombs that went off 500 ft. in the air, showering deadly shrapnel from a 3,000-ft. perimeter.”  Even more horrifying, German airplanes dropped bombs disguised as everyday objects — pens, for instance — that exploded when children picked them up. 

Historian James Holland writes that few Maltese civilians had expected or prepared for the conflict and “barely had time to get used to the idea that Italy had declared war.”  Despite the initial panic that broke out after Italy’s first bombing raids, the Maltese quickly adapted to the conditions of the war, digging tunnels and even, after some time, continuing to live as if nothing had changed.  Holland writes that many civilians eventually became “so blase they…stopped bothering to take cover even when the raiders arrived.”  Today, the war continues to live on in civilian memory: Valletta boasts a war museum carved from a former air raid shelter, and numerous memorials proudly commemorate Malta’s sacrifices during the siege.

The beautiful “Victory Bell” of Valetta, Malta

Thanks in large part to a steady supply of materiel (oil, shipments of food, and other supplies), Malta survived “incessant attack, averaging five raids by more than 100 planes nearly every day for six straight months.”  Convoys and even submarines could occasionally slip past the German defenses (including the famous tanker S.S. Ohio, which survived a barrage of German attacks so intense that she would sink in harbor immediately after discharging her vital oil supply).  The RAF, supplying Malta with Spitfires and Hurricanes, proved able to defend the island until Axis powers found themselves forced to turn their attention elsewhere — a decision that would have momentous strategic consequences.

The British success at Malta hinged not only on the effectiveness of Allied operations, but also on the strategic errors of German and Italian forces.  McCullough writes that Italy’s hesitance to attack the island early in the war allowed Malta to serve as an effective British base of operations at key junctures in the war.  As he puts it, “Had the Italian Navy based in southern Italy been more aggressive, the Axis might have neutralized Malta then and there.”  Fortunately for the Allies, Italy’s logistical difficulties weakened its ability to wage effective war in the Mediterranean.  For one, Italy possessed consistently inadequate amounts of oil, most of which had to be directed towards the North Africa campaign.  In addition, “poor training in antisubmarine warfare and night fighting, inadequate air support — one reason why it did not bomb Malta force fully — and questionable tactical decisions by its timid commanders” hampered Mussolini’s army, rendering it unable to take decisive early action against Malta.

Historians have continued to debate, however, the extent to which the defense of Malta affected the outcome of the war in the Mediterranean theater.  If Malta had fallen to the Axis, many historians have asked, would the outcome of various Mediterranean and North African engagements have changed all that drastically?  Historian Douglas Austin, who traces the historiography of Malta’s role in the war in his book Malta and British Strategic Policy 1925-1943, emphasizes that “Historians have divided sharply on the impact made by the operations of those forces on Rommel’s campaign in North Africa.”  Austin, for his part, presents differing views on the issue.  He points out that even Italian historians have reached opposing conclusions regarding Malta’s role in the war — while some consider it “a serious menace in only three months of a conflict that lasted three years,” others have cited it as a “‘principal factor’ in Allied victory.”

Austin also points out that while some historians believe that British interwar planners considered the island relatively unimportant, military policymakers had supplied Malta with “still highly secret radar equipment” by 1939.  Furthermore, Austin argues, Britain had “authorised the despatch of a fifth battalion of infantry to strengthen the island’s garrison” when Germany invaded France in 1940, suggesting that British policymakers recognized Malta’s potential role as a “tourniquet” early in the war.  Austin also points out that the subject of Malta’s defense came up on “hundreds of occasions between 1925 and 1939” in Joint Home and Oversea Defence Committee meeting agendas, and that even Rommel himself hinted at the role the island played in the defense of Africa.  According to Austin, Rommel wrote that “‘Malta has the lives of many thousands of German and Italian soldiers on its conscience’” and recorded “the frequent occasions when supply difficulties endangered or limited his operations.”  This calls into question some historians’ claims that logistical problems within North Africa itself, not supply interruptions due to fighting in the Mediterranean, were primarily responsible for hindering the success of Rommel’s campaign.

Further investigation of The Rommel Papers, a collection of Rommel’s diary entries and miscellaneous writings, reveals that the “Desert Fox” agonized over the vital role that Malta could have played in a counterfactual Axis campaign.  He wrote that “Malta should have been taken instead of Crete”; if the Axis had done so, he reasoned, “Powerful German motorised forces in North Africa could then have taken the whole of the British-occupied Mediterranean coastline, which would have isolated south-eastern Europe.”  Rommel’s further musings, involving not only the Mediterranean theater but also the Eastern Front, reveal the key role that Malta could have played in his grand strategy had the Axis seized it. In his own words,

“Greece, Yugoslavia and Crete would have had no choice but to submit, for supplies and support from the British Empire would have been impossible.  The price in casualties of this scheme which would not only have achieved our aims in south-east Europe, but would also have secured the Mediterranean area and the Near East as sources of oil and bases for attack on Russia would not have been much greater than the price we did in fact have to pay in Greece, Yugoslavia, Crete and North Africa in the summer of 1941.”

Evidently, Rommel himself viewed Malta’s role as instrumental to the failure of the Axis not only within Africa, but also against Greek and Eastern European insurgents.  Rommel’s writings indicate that had the Axis taken Malta, the German campaign in the Mediterranean could have resulted in a drastically different outcome.  

Some might be inclined to denounce Rommel’s counterfactual as mere speculation, or perhaps even as an attempt to use Malta as a scapegoat for other strategic mistakes.  After all, Rommel’s claim that the capture of Malta would have allowed Germany to secure the entire Mediterranean and Eastern Europe does seem quite grandiose. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the decision to prioritize other strategic ventures over Malta had been made at Rommel’s behest.  As Macksey recounts, “while Rommel directly appealed to Hitler to allow him to make his dash for Alexandria and the Suez Canal after the fall of Tobruk, Kesselring was urging the Fuhrer to capture Malta first and secure the Axis supply lines.”  Macksey points out, however, that “Hitler demurred to Rommel with fatal consequences,” drastically weakening supply lines to North Africa causing disaster for Rommel’s forces at El Alamein.  (In Kesselring’s own words, his suggestion that German forces occupy Malta was “brushed aside with the flat statement that there were no forces available for this.”  Kesselring’s arguments regarding Malta were not taken seriously until 1942, when Hitler seized Kesselring’s arm during a tense meeting and burst out, “Keep your shirt on, Field-Marshal Kesselring.  I’m going to do it!”)  Knowing this, historians should view Rommel’s tactical insights regarding Malta as a clear indication of the island’s vital role in the Mediterranean campaign.  Rommel clearly had no ulterior motive for blaming the failure of the North Africa campaign on Germany’s inability to subdue Malta. His willingness to admit his own miscalculation suggests that he genuinely regretted the decision to sacrifice Malta on the altar of the Egyptian campaign.

Despite ongoing historiographical debate, primary sources indicate that Axis forces’ inability to capture Malta played a key role in the failure of Rommel’s North Africa campaign.  The courage of Malta’s civilian and military inhabitants shifted the balance of power in the Mediterranean theater, creating logistical disruptions that would prove instrumental to the Allied war effort.  As McCullough puts it, “Had Malta been captured and Rommel given the aid he required, the battle in the desert might have taken a very different turn. In the end, it all came down to the valiant resistance of a small speck in the sea, which survived through its control of the air above it.”

Works Cited

Austin, Douglas. Malta and British Strategic Policy 1925-1943. London: Frank Cass, 2004.

Holland, James. Fortress Malta: An Island Under Siege 1940-43. New York: Hyperion, 2003.

Kesselring, Albert. The Memoirs of Field-Marshal Kesselring. Gloucestershire: Greenhill Books, 2015.

“Malta at War Museum.” Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna. Accessed December 9, 2019. https://www.maltaatwarmuseum.com/. 

McCullough, Anson. “Siege.” Airpower 31, no. 6 (November 1, 2001). https://link-gale-com.proxy.library.nd.edu/apps/doc/A79757085/EAIM?u=nd_ref&sid=EAIM&xid=b9a8dbd2.

Rommel, Erwin. The Rommel Papers, edited by B.H. Liddell Hart. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953.

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