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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Siege of Malta

June 1940 to May 1943

Location: The Mediterranean island of Malta
Outcome: One of the most heavily bombed populations resisted capitulation to the Axis powers and the nation was awarded the George Cross in 1942.

The British colony of Malta was crucial to the war in the Mediterranean. Hitler showed Malta no mercy and it has been estimated that the island was one of the most intensely bombed areas in the entire war - proportionately more bombs fell on Malta than did on the city of Coventry. The population of 270,000 however refused to capitulate.

Malta was strategically important because it hosted several airfields and the only British harbour between Gibraltar and Alexandria, Egypt. Most importantly, Malta was essential to operations against Axis supply convoys destined for North Africa. Malta had always been under threat and invasion had been considered by the Germans, but in the end Crete was favoured. Instead a bombing campaign was decided on, which would neutralise Malta.

The first attack came from Italy on 11 June 1940, but the arrival of the German Luftwaffe in Sicily in 1941 intensified the campaign. This was relaxed when Hitler turned his attention to war with Russia. But in December 1941, raids on Malta returned to previous levels of intensity.

During 1941 and 1942, more than 3,000 raids occurred. The towns surrounding the industrial areas around the harbours took a fearful pounding, and much of the population was evacuated to the centre of the island. Thousands of the inhabitants and British defenders were killed and maimed.

In the first six months of 1942, there was only one 24-hour period without air raids. The inhabitants were forced to lead a subterranean existence which caused severe health problems and eventually led to a typhoid epidemic. Casualties were high: 1,493 civilians died and 3,674 were wounded. Children suffered greatly.

The island was defended by fighter squadrons and fast merchant ships which were able to get supplies through. However, ships were constantly sunk or damaged. Between 1940 and 1942, 31 ships were lost. Axis minefields surrounding the island were deadly and even submarines had to withdraw. By the early summer of 1942, the island was cut off and suffering from severe shortages.

Then the German mistake was made; lulled into an early sense of victory, aircraft were diverted to fight the war in other theatres which enabled 61 British Spitfires to be delivered to Malta. Raids decreased and defences improved, but it wasn't until the arrival in August of a convoy from Alexandria that food was brought to the near-starving civilian population. Without those supplies, Malta would have had to capitulate to the Germans.

The Luftwaffe were alerted and attempted a second wave of attacks in October 1942. But the Allied effort in the Middle East had begun to pay off. More supplies arrived intact, delivered by a convoy codenamed Stonehenge. By the following summer the siege was lifted as the Axis powers faced defeat in North Africa.

The people of Malta had shown extreme bravery in the face of severe threat and hardship. To acknowledge such bravery, King George VI made a gesture unique in history: on 15 April 1942 he awarded the George Cross to the Maltese nation, an honour still borne by the Maltese on their flag.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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