Malta Convoys

Malta Convoys
The Mediterranean Theatre

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. The convoys 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[note 1] in order to keep possession.[1][2] 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,[3] 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's geographical position, halfway between the strategic British bases at Gibraltar and Alexandria, close to the Sicilian Channel between Sicily and Tunis and on the sea route between Italy and its possessions in Libya, made it a vital base for control of the Mediterranean Sea routes. For Britain, this was the short route, via the Suez Canal, to its colonies in India, East Africa and the Far East and also to the major oil producers, Iraq and Iran.[note 2]

During the first year of the war, however, this region was a military backwater. Much of the coast was under Allied control — either French or British: the rest was neutral. Moreover, the British and French fleets dominated; the only other effective regional naval power was Italy, but at this time she was neutral. As a result, British defences on Malta were neglected.

Italy declares war

Italy at first held back from supporting Germany; the outcome in northern Europe was uncertain and no decision was required. When the German blitzkrieg had crushed the French army and Britain had been weakened and isolated, Italy took its opportunity and declared war on the Allies on 10 June 1940, expecting an easy and quick victory. Mussolini believed the British would accept peace agreements with the Axis, after France's surrender, and did not anticipate a long lasting war. Consequently, Italy entered the war inadequately prepared.

The opportunity was missed by the Italians to occupy poorly defended Malta in June 1940: Admiral Carlo Bergamini later claimed that he had proposed to send the "Taranto Naval Squadron" to occupy the island, but had been told to postpone the attack.[4] He later regretted (in 1943) the lost opportunity to control the central Mediterranean and thus reduce the heavy losses suffered when supplying Italian forces in Libya.

Italy's entry into the war, and the defeat of France, radically altered the balance of power in the Mediterranean Sea. Britain controlled only Gibraltar in the west; Malta at the centre; and Cyprus, Egypt, and Palestine in the east. Vichy France was susceptible to Axis pressure. So the coast of North Africa from Morocco to Tunisia, the island of Corsica, the coast of Syria and Lebanon, and the Mediterranean coast of France itself were closed to the British and possibly hostile. The French fleet itself also became a potential threat and had to be neutralised leading to Operation Catapult. The destruction of the French fleet further hardened French antipathy towards Britain.

Spain was also a potential Axis partner. The Fascist and Nazi governments in Italy and Germany had enthusiastically supported General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War and might expect support in return.

Italy and its possessions dominated the central Mediterranean and Mussolini wanted some victories in North Africa against the British forces in Egypt. There was also the potential of linking with Italian possessions in East Africa: Abyssinia, Italian Somaliland, and Eritrea. But this did not occur. The Italian Army in North Africa was poorly equipped and poorly commanded. In September 1940, the Italians invaded Egypt but did not advance far beyond the border. In December, during Operation Compass, the Italian forces in Egypt and Cyrenaica were captured, routed, or destroyed.

Control of the sea routes remained vital. British naval and air forces based on Malta threatened and destroyed supplies for Italy's African army. Malta acted as a forward defence for the Suez Canal. The Italians still thought the Regia Aeronautica (Italian Royal Air Force) and the Regia Marina (Italian Royal Navy) would quickly isolate the island and neutralise it.

Malta's supply line was crucial. Malta needed reinforcements. The garrison had to be sustained; and the air and naval forces needed fuel. The civilian population also had to be provided for. Everything had to come by sea, exposed to air and naval attack for long stretches. The Italians attempted to starve Malta and destroy its defences.

They failed. During 1940, without air cover from French territories, several supply convoys arrived safely at Malta, and other convoys passed directly between Gibraltar and Alexandria. The attacks the Italian Navy attempted were repulsed without serious loss. Even worse for the Italians, Fleet Air Arm aircraft sank three Italian battleships in the harbour at Taranto, negating one of the Italians' advantages.

German involvement

In January 1941, responding to the serious situation of Italian forces after the loss of Cyrenaica (Operation Compass), the Germans sent help. The Afrika Korps was formed and sent to Libya in Operation Sonnenblume (English: Operation Sunflower), and X. Fliegerkorps of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) was moved to Sicily in Operation Mittelmeer (English: Operation Mediterranean) to protect the Axis shipping lanes and to defeat the British forces in Malta.

German involvement was not only more vigorous than the Italian, but because of the occupation of Greece and Crete, it had a greater reach into the eastern Mediterranean. British forces came under increased threat. The pressure built and, in early 1942, Malta ceased to be an effective anti-convoy base. Several warships were sunk in harbour and others were withdrawn. Supplies dwindled with the loss of convoys.[5]

In August 1942, when Malta was near capitulation, the Italians and Germans planned the invasion of Malta (Operation C3 and Operation Herkules). It was not done because Rommel (after the conquest of Tobruk) preferred to attack Alexandria in Egypt.[citation needed]


July 1940

The inconclusive Battle of Calabria took place between the Royal Navy (the battleships HMS Warspite, Malaya and Royal Sovereign and the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle with cruisers and destroyers) covering convoys from Malta to Alexandria and the Regia Marina escorts (two battleships, 14 cruisers and 32 destroyers) of an Italian convoy.

August 1940 – Operation Hurry

Twelve Hurricanes were flown off the carrier HMS Argus to Malta. This was the first so-called "Club Run" to reinforce the air defences.

September 1940 – Operation Hats

The Mediterranean Fleet escorted a fast convoy of three transports (carrying 40,000 short tons (36,000 t) of supplies including reinforcements and ammunition for the island's anti-aircraft defences[6]) 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.

October 1940

The heavily-escorted Convoy MB6 from Alexandria reached Malta safely. 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 1940 – Operations Judgement, White and Collar

A supply convoy from Alexandria 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.

A fast convoy sailed from Gibraltar to Malta and Alexandria (Operation Collar). It was attacked by the Italian fleet at Cape Spartivento. All transports arrived safely.


January 1941 - Operation Excess

Operation Excess took place — a sequence of simultaneous supply and empty return convoys between Malta and Gibraltar and Alexandria. The transports 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.[note 3][7] This was the first action to involve the Luftwaffe. The Italian torpedo boat edit] March 1941

A small convoy arrived at Malta from Alexandria.

April 1941

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 Kerkennah Islands off Tunisia.

May 1941 – Operations Tiger and Splice

An urgent supply convoy from Gibraltar to Alexandria (Operation Tiger) coincided with reinforcements for the Mediterranean Fleet, two small convoys from Egypt to Malta,[3] and 48 more Hurricanes flown off HMS Ark Royal and Furious (Operation Splice).[9] 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.[10]

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 1941 – 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 1941 – Operation Substance

Six transports 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 MAS boat and crippled, but the destroyer HMAS Nestor assisted her safe arrival to harbour. She was seaworthy again by September. All the transports eventually reached Malta. An Italian raid to sink the transports in Grand Harbour failed and 65,000 short tons (59,000 t) of supplies were landed.[6]

September 1941 - Operations Status I and Status II

Ark Royal and Furious flew off over 50 Hurricanes to Malta in two separate operations.

Two 19,000 long tons (19,000 t) Italian transports — the edit] September 1941 – Operation Halberd

Nine transports ran from Gibraltar to Malta, escorted by HMS Nelson, Rodney, Prince of Wales and Ark Royal (Operation Halberd). The Italians sailed to intercept but aborted and returned home. The British capital ships returned to Gibraltar, with Nelson damaged by a torpedo. The 10,000 long tons (10,000 t) transport aerial torpedo, but the rest of the convoy reached Malta and landed 85,000 short tons (77,000 t) of supplies.[6]

October 1941

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.

November 1941

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.[11]

December 1941 – 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.

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.


January 1942

Three small convoys arrived at Malta from Alexandria. One escorting destroyer, HMS Gurkha was torpedoed by German submarine edit] February 1942

During the continuing heavy German air raids, HMS Maori was sunk in Malta's Grand Harbour.

Three transports from Alexandria (Operation MF5) failed to reach Malta. Tobruk, and edit] March 1942 – 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 1942 – Operation MG 1 and the Second Battle of Sirte

A Malta convoy in the Gulf of Sirte

Four fast transports 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. Two transports 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 Valetta harbour by Axis aircraft before unloading was completed.[13][14] Only 5,000 short tons (4,500 t) of supplies were landed safely.[6] A number of British destroyers were seriously damaged during the engagement.

April 1942 – 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 1942 – 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 1942 – Operation Style

On 20 May, SS Empire Conrad departed from Milford Haven, Wales with a cargo of 32 Spitfires in cases.[15] The aircraft were all Spitfire Mk VcT.[16] 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, edit] June 1942 – 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[17])[note 4] 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, 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.

July 1942

More Spitfires were flown off to Malta from Eagle. HMS Welshman made an independent supply run.

August 1942 – 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 Valetta 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.[18]

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").[19] 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.[citation needed] The supplies brought by Pedestal (53,000 short tons (48,000 t) landed[6] of 121,000 short tons (110,000 t) (including 11,000 short tons (10,000 t) of oil on Ohio) embarked[20]) eased the situation, but did not solve it, and more supplies were brought in by submarines. More Spitfires were flown off from Furious.

September 1942

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.

October 1942

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 1942 – Operation Stoneage

Minelayers HMS Welshman and Manxman made successful supply runs. Later that month, a convoy of four transports, carrying 35,000 short tons (32,000 t) of supplies,[6] 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 1942 – Operation Portcullis

In Operation Portcullis, four transports arrived from Port Said with 55,000 short tons (50,000 t) of supplies; the first to arrive without loss since 1941.[6] More convoys took place during this month and, by the end of December, substantial amounts of supplies had been safely discharged and stored; 18,200 short tons (16,500 t) of fuel and another 58,500 short tons (53,100 t) of general supplies and military materiel. 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.[21]


There were 35 major supply operations to Malta from 1940-1942. Axis forces frustrated the ressuply missions or inflicted losses on eight of these: 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 a fast warship running the gauntlet. 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 relative 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 Axis' north African armies' ability to fight and Allied land operations in North Africa changed the balance decisively in favour of the Allies. Axis forces in North Africa were being squeezed between the British Eighth Army, advancing from Egypt, and the Anglo-American First Army advancing from Algeria. Convoys henceforth had protection from North Africa airstrips. The later invasions of Sicily and Italy were supported from Malta.

See also

Media related to Malta convoys at Wikimedia Commons



  1. ^ British and allied losses included one battleship (HMS Barham), two aircraft carriers (HMS Ark Royal and Eagle), cruisers, destroyers and smaller craft.
  2. ^ Iran would be occupied in 1941 to secure oilfields and obtain a supply route to the Soviet Union.
  3. ^ The damage to Illustrious was severe, but after repairs at Alexandria and in the U.S., she returned to active service in May 1943. HMS Gallant was mined off Pantellaria and towed to Malta where she was later sunk as a blockship.
  4. ^ Another source (Merlins over Malta) states that 25,000 tons were landed, enough to sustain the population for two to three months.


  1. ^ Jackson, p.121
  2. ^ "ROYAL NAVY VESSELS LOST AT SEA, 1939-45". Retrieved 27 July 2010. 
  3. ^ a b Hague, Arnold (1995). "THE SUPPLY OF MALTA 1940-1942, Part 1 of 3". Retrieved 9 September 2010. 
  4. ^ Di Cirella, Arturo. Per l'onore dei Savoia. 1943-1944: da un superstite della corazzata Roma. Mursia Editore. Milano, 2003
  5. ^ Operations
  6. ^ a b c d e f g "CHRONOLOGY OF THE SIEGE OF MALTA, 1940-43". Merlins over Malta. September 2005. Retrieved 23 July 2010. 
  7. ^ Thomas, David A (1999). Malta Convoys. Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books. p. 65. ISBN 0 85052 663 9. 
  8. ^ Homepage for the red duster merchant navy maritime information archive
  9. ^ The Supply of Malta 1940-1942 by Arnold Hague
  10. ^ Kurowski, Franz (2004). Panzer Aces II: Battle Stories of German Tank Commanders in World War II (Translated by David Johnston). Stackpole Books. p. 211. ISBN 0811731758. 
  11. ^ The Supply of Malta 1940-1942
  12. ^ Woodman, pp.285-286
  13. ^ Royal Mail ship list
  14. ^ Wilh. Wilhelmsen Line ship list
  15. ^ a b "THE SUPPLY OF MALTA 1940-1942, Part 2 of 3". Naval History. Retrieved 21 July 2010. 
  16. ^ "Spitfire aircraft production, page 029". Spitfires. Retrieved 1 August 2010. 
  17. ^ Lippman, David H.. "June 14–20, 1942". Retrieved 23 July 2010. 
  18. ^ Castillo, p.207
  19. ^ Woodman, p.283
  20. ^ Castillo, p.199
  21. ^ Woodman, p.465

External links

Coordinates: 39°13′N 14°20′E / 39.217°N 14.333°E / 39.217; 14.333

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