Malta is an archipelago in the central Mediterranean between Sicily and the North African coast. It was a British colony for close to 150 years before gaining its independence in 1964. The island has a chequered history and has been ruled by many nations from the Roman era. It is dotted with many fortresses, megalithic temples as well as a subterranean complex of halls and burial chambers. Called ?al Saflieni Hypogeum, these date to 4000 BC.
The island came under the control of the British in 1814 after the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Its importance as a stopover shipping destination greatly increased with the opening of the Suez Canal and it became an important stopping point en route to India. The importance of the island increased during World War II and was a constant source of irritation to the German- Italian axis especially when they were operating in North Africa.
During World War II Malta was close to the axis shipping lines and was repeatedly bombed by Germans and Italian bombers. The British had a naval presence as well as a submarine base and launched attacks on the axis shipping lanes. More important it was used as a listening post to coded Enigma messages of the axis powers.
The Italian high command had realized the importance of Malta and Mussolini was keen to capture the island. By the beginning of 1941, he had however realized that capturing the island was not going to be easy. The Italian general staff was not confident of success in an amphibious attack. As it is the Italian army was having a tough time against the British army led by General Wavell and they could not think of an assault on Malta.
After the capture of thousands of Italians as POWs by the British- Indian army Adolf Hitler turned his attention to North Africa and that is the time the problem of Malta was projected to him. During a meeting on 29-30 April 1942 between Hitler and Mussolini it was agreed that the island of Malta would be invaded. Hitler appointed General Kurt Student, head of the German paratroopers to prepare plans for the invasion of the island. At the back of Hitler’s mind, was the German invasion of the island of Crete in May 1941. During the battle of Crete waves of German paratroopers had landed on the island to secure airports and vital installations till the arrival of German troops in gliders. The German paratroopers suffered heavy casualties and Hitler was wary of launching a similar attack on Malta. Nevertheless, plans were formulated to capture the island. General Student was now asked to prepare a three-stage plan for the capture of Malta and the capital city Valetta. “Operation Herkules” was sanctioned.
The Italians had carried out a thorough reconnaissance of the island and the positions of the guns and even their caliber and the location of the harbor and pens had been carefully mapped out.
The first assault was to be carried out by airborne troops of the Italian and German army under the overall command of General Kurt Student. The general had been in charge of the airborne assault on Crete and he could draw on his experience in that battle.
In the first phase, the axis powers planned to land 29,000 troops. For this purpose, they planned to use the JU 52 and DFS 30 and GO 42 gliders. The DFS 30 could carry 10 paratroopers while the Jio 42 could carry 23. In addition, 24 giant Messerschmitt ME 321 gliders towed by HE111 bombers which could carry 200 troops would be used. The Luftwaffe was to put 500 aircraft into operation. The Italian Air Force agreed to pitch in with 180 to 200 aircraft for the invasion.
Even the troops who were to take part in the operation were identified. These were the German Flieger division 7 and the Italian 185 airborne division. The Italians also were to use the 80th Infantry division of about 10,500 men for the landing.
.After phase 1, phase 2 would be launched and this would include 70,000 Italian troops landing on the beaches of Malta to further the conquest. The Italian warships were supposed to give cover to the landing troops. The paratroopers were expected to have neutralized and taken control of most of the vital positions on the island.
The axis powers were aware that Malta was defended by 15 battalions approximately 26,000 troops and capturing the island was not going to be easy.
Phase 3 of the operation was a complete capture of the island and the taking of British soldiers as POWs.
The operation never took place
The British had fortified the island with guns at strategic points. The operation was planned for mid-1942. General Rommel was aware of this plan and requested Hitler that he be given overall command of the assault on Malta. Rommel was well aware of the importance of capturing Malta and he had also suggested that he would not mind transferring some of his troops for the operation from Libya but Herman Goering the chief of the Luftwaffe was opposed to this invasion. He feared a disaster similar to the one in Crete and voted against it. Field Marshal Kesselring was in favor of the invasion but he was dissuaded when it was told to him that too many units from the German advance lines in Egypt would be withdrawn for the operation to capture Malta. Hitler himself had his misgivings and by then the operation in Russia was in full swing. In the minds of the OKH and Adolf Hitler, Malta lost its importance. This was a strategic blunder which at that time Hitler could not have imagined. Rommel was the only man who could understand the importance of the capture of Malta which would have given a tremendous boost to the German- Axis battles in North Africa. He was overruled and in November 1942 the entire operation was canceled.
This was to be the most important phase of the battle and the Luftwaffe was to carry out the regular bombing of the island and the Italian Navy was supposed to give fire cover to the landing troops.