South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 16 August 2012 was fellow-member Bob Buser (Honorary Treasurer/Assistant Scribe), whose subject was Malta 1939 to 1942, with a digression into the decade of the 1930s.

Malta is a group of three islands, 316 km2/122 miles square, in the narrowest part of the Mediterranean, 1,466 km/911 miles from Gibraltar and 1,770 km/1,100 miles from Alexandria. When the Suez Canal was opened in November 1869, Malta became an important port of call on Britain's strategic sea route to its Empire in the east.


Italy had a modern or modernised, well-balanced and large fleet and its air force was large, modern in the mid-1930's but on the way to obsolescence by 1940. France and Britain were allies. The French fleet was also modern and fairly large. Most of its ships were based in the Mediterranean and the fleet large enough to counter-balance the Italian fleet.

During the 1930's, it became obvious that Italy wanted to extend its African empire. Italy owned a large slice of the Horn of Africa and Libya. In 1935, Italy invaded Abyssinia and was involved in the Spanish Civil War along with Nazi Germany to help put down the communist insurrection. In 1937, the Rome - Berlin Axis was formed between Hitler and Mussolini. The Suez Canal was the route by which Italy's East African Empire would be supplied. This was British but coveted by Mussolini who wanted to add Egypt to his empire. It was clear that the Mediterranean area would become a war zone.


Britain controlled both entrances to the Mediterranean. It also controlled the narrowest point, which also sat astride the sea routes between Italy and Libya, with its base at Malta.

Malta could launch attacks against supply convoys running from Italy to Libya where any North African war would be fought. A leading writer on strategy rightly stated that the control of Malta would decide the outcome of any war in North Africa.


In light of the above, it comes as a great surprise to learn that, during the 1930's, there was considerable discussion in Britain whether or not Malta should be defended at all. The Navy believed that Malta must be defended while the Air Force and Army felt it was indefensible. In 1935, the possibility of war with Italy was accepted by the Army because of the invasion of Abyssinia by Italy and its involvement in the Spanish Civil War.

It was then agreed that the main naval base should move to Alexandria but that the existing base should remain in Malta. Later in 1937, the RAF promised one fighter squadron to arrive in 1940. In July 1939 the force was set at 4 squadrons but these would be long in coming. By September 1939, a garrison of four infantry battalions was in place.

Royal Navy strength on Malta on 3 September 1939 consisted of submarines and motor torpedo boats. The airfields were a vital air link to the Middle East from the UK.


World War 2 started on 3 September 1939 and Italy entered the war on 10 June 1940. The intervening period was a quiet one.

There were no fighters but some Sea Gladiators were found. The Navy gave the RAF permission to use these and six were assembled by RN and RAF technicians. Four formed the Malta Fighter Flight. Some flying boat pilots turned themselves into fighter pilots.

On 10 June 1940, Mussolini declared war on Britain. The first air raid took place the next day. There was little opposition as there were few guns and only a flight of Gladiators and the Italians launched daily raids. The first air reinforcements were Swordfish torpedo bombers which had been in France and had reached Malta via Tunisia when France capitulated. In August 1940 the first Hurricanes arrived and the first fighter squadron was formed. Later more Hurricanes arrived. 1940 saw many raids but losses on both sides were small.

At sea there was more action. A number of convoys reached Malta. Control of the Central Mediterranean was won by the Royal Navy. Many Italian convoys reached Libya almost without loss. RN submarines started to operate during 1940. In September 1940 a Submarine Flotilla was formed in Malta, made up of small U-class boats better suited to the shallow waters in the Mediterranean.

Italy had taken Albania and, in August 1940, invaded Greece, which resisted strongly and drove the Italians back into Albania. In September 1940, the Italians invaded Egypt but were counter-attacked by Gen O'Connor's Western Desert Force and driven back. Mussolini now called for help from his friend Hitler.

The Luftwaffe arrived in Sicily during January/February 1941. The British sent land and air forces to help the Greeks, thus ruling out any further advances in Libya. The Germans overran Yugoslavia and invaded Greece. The British evacuated Greece in April and moved to Crete which was evacuated in May 1941. These moves took place under heavy air attack and many ships were sunk or damaged.

Malta had come under heavy air attack by the Germans. The anti-aircraft defences had been strengthened but there still was only one fighter squadron. RN carriers delivered more Hurricanes during the year.

The British fleet and convoys were heavily attacked by the Luftwaffe and, in January 1941, HMS Illustrious was dive-bombed by Stukas. Six bombs hit the carrier which limped into Malta where further heavy attacks followed. Illustrious, defended by her own guns and nearly every gun in Malta, made temporary repairs and reached Alexandria.

German fighters outclassed the obsolete and patched-up Hurricanes and the bombers were wreaking havoc on Malta. The Germans and British attacked each other's convoys but by mid-May the Central Mediterranean was closed to the British and Libya could be reinforced at will.

Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941 and the Luftwaffe units attacking Malta were moved to the Eastern Front, leaving the Italians to carry on. Large quantities of supplies managed to reach Malta. Small numbers of strike aircraft could now operate from the beleaguered island. Wellingtons and Swordfish operated at night and Blenheims by day. Two squadrons of Beaufighters and some night fighters arrived. The garrison and the anti-aircraft defences were strengthened. The supply situation had also improved.

In June 1941 Air-Vice Marshal Maynard was replaced by AVM Lloyd. The navy surface ships returned in the last three months of 1941 and Italian convoy losses increased. Naval losses to torpedo bombers and U-boats were heavy. Surface vessels withdrew from the Central Mediterranean in January 1942.

Luftflotte 2 returned to the Mediterranean front in December 1941/ January 1942, turning the tide again.

The aerial strike force was eliminated. Bombing attacks on Malta increased heavily and RAF losses grew concomitantly. The Malta and Middle East commanders argued that only Spitfires could see off the Luftwaffe. These started to arrive in March 1942.

The submarines had to be withdrawn and the reduction in Malta's offensive strength meant that Italian convoys were reaching Libya with only small losses. More fighters reached Malta and the tide started to turn again in favour of the allies. Malta was in dire straits and food supplies were running out. Two convoys were unsuccessful and had to turn back. The largest convoy ever sent to Malta was 'Pedestal' in August 1942. Although heavy losses were incurred, the convoy got through - this saved Malta from starvation and surrender.

In July 1942 AVM Park took over command of the RAF in Malta. More radar stations arrived, the fighter force was reinforced and the Luftwaffe was now intercepted before they reached Malta. The British air offensive continued with heavy losses inflicted on the Italian convoys from June 1942 onwards. The submarines successfully returned to Malta in August 1942. Supply shortages played a large part in the defeat of Rommel at El Alamein.

The Luftwaffe returned in force in August 1942 but was defeated by the enlarged Malta air forces. The allied armies were on the advance across Libya, thus enabling air cover for convoys from Alexandria. Two further convoys finally ended the siege.


INFANTRY: The number of infantry battalions varied. Four were present on 3 September 1939, increasing to 11 in December 1941, with sappers and admin troops. There were 3 Malta battalions. What did the infantry do? They guarded beaches, harbours, airfields and other vulnerable points and helped build the land defences. They helped to clear bomb damage.

The infantry often acted as stevedores. This was a very dangerous business. Not only were there constant, heavy air attacks but the cargoes caused many problems. All freighters carried mixed cargo consisting of all the bare necessities - tinned petrol, anti-aircraft shells and bombs as part of their cargo. The tins were lightly constructed and leaked easily. General cargo was loaded on top of the petrol and ammunition and had to be removed first. The petrol was then unloaded with great care. The petrol fumes from the leaked petrol were powerful and the troops could spend only a very short time in the hold before being relieved while unloading the spilled - and spoiled - fuel by hand, using buckets.

The infantry also helped move aircraft in the dispersal areas and refuel and rearm the aircraft. Another vital task was the construction of taxi strips and bomb-proof pens for the aircraft. Taxi strips were not paved and the pens were built of sandbags and four gallon petrol tins, filled with sand, rubble or stones recovered from bombed-out buildings, and stacked by hand. This task was started in 1939 and continued right to the end of the siege. There were eventually 386 blast pens constructed.

They also helped the engineers repair airfields after bombing raids. With 3,332 raids in two and a half years this was an ongoing task, especially as there was no mechanical earth-moving equipment.

ANTI-AIRCRAFT: Much of the defence of Malta was supplied by anti-aircraft guns. By June 1940, there were only 34 heavy and 8 light guns. The final strength was 112 heavy and 144 light guns in April 1942, organised into 5 heavy and 4 light AA regiments.

The heavy guns covered the cities, harbour and naval installations. The light guns covered airfields and other targets. Many German pilots commented on the volume and accuracy of the barrage, comparing it with Moscow. There were times when the guns were Malta's only defence as there were no or only a few fighters left. All this required massive expenditure of ammunition. So ammunition was often rationed.

BOMB DISPOSAL: With 3,332 raids in two and a half years there were many unexploded bombs lying around. Each service had its own bomb disposal teams, with very little specialised disposal equipment.

With Malta's rocky soil, most unexploded bombs were found lying on the surface or under bombed buildings, rarely buried in the ground. There were many such large bombs, unexploded or with delayed fuses. There were anti-personnel bombs designed to explode if moved or to explode after a specified time. Big bombs were usually defused and small ones exploded in situ. The Navy also faced unexploded mines, torpedoes and the Italian one-man torpedoes which were deadly.

The three services cooperated very well. The disposal squads were very busy and many men were killed. Often the disposal teams would be working while under fire.

CIVILIAN POPULATION: The civilian population could not be evacuated so they endured two and a half years of siege. Human casualties were not very large as many people had moved out into the country areas or lived in the shelters, dug in the Maltese limestone.

The main problem was food or the lack thereof. Some 275 000 people had to be fed every day and there were at least three occasions where Malta was near to surrender because the food stocks were close to zero, when the Luftwaffe was present in Sicily at full strength - early 1941, January-May 1942 and September-November 1942. Food rationing was introduced at the outbreak of war and all food stocks kept under government control. When the convoys came under heavy attack, less food would be available and rations would be cut at times by as much as 50%. 1942 was the worst year.

Victory Kitchens had been set up in January 1942 to provide everyone with a basic meal. Starvation stared the Maltese and the garrison in the face. In 1942 most of the livestock was slaughtered, there was a shortage of water and everyday commodities were unobtainable. Insufficient food and poor living conditions led to disease.

The civilians suffered from the bombing raids just as much as the servicemen. The first raid occurred the morning after Italy declared war and continued daily. By April 1942 most of the buildings in the area round Grand Harbour were either destroyed or seriously damaged. In the period 11 June 1940 to 31 October 1943 there were 3,332 raids, the peak period being January to June 1942 with 1,471 raids. In April 1942 Malta was awarded the George Cross by King George.

RADAR AND OTHER ELECTRONIC DEVICES: The first radar set arrived in Malta in March 1939 and was set up on the Dingli cliffs. This was a set used for long range detection. Three low-level sets arrived in early 1941. By the end of 1941 a Ground-Control Interception (GCI) radar station and three more low-level sets were erected to improve fighter control.


DEFENCE OF MALTA: Malta would not have remained British if the RAF had failed to defend the airspace above the island. In September 1939 the Fighter Flight was formed. No other aircraft arrived until June 1940. The Italian raids involved small numbers of bombers heavily escorted, which prevented the few RAF fighters from tackling the enemy bombers. In July/August 1940, some Hurricanes arrived in Malta.

Fliegerkorps X arrived in Sicily and air attacks increased drastically. Luftwaffe fighters were in action and totally outclassed the Hurricane Mark 1's, the oldest in RAF service. For a long period the RAF fighters were totally outclassed and outnumbered.

From August 1940 regular reinforcements of fighters arrived in Malta, first Hurricanes (Mk1 then Mk2) and, from March 1942, Spitfire Mk 5s. The Hurricanes were often in a state of poor repair, as were the early shipments of Spitfires.

The same applied to pilots. Malta was under attack by the very best of German pilots and competent Italian pilots but the Air Ministry persisted in sending inexperienced pilots to Malta. They either learned fast or they died young, as every scramble invariably ended in a dogfight.

All the pleas for modern fighters during 1941 had been ignored by the Air Ministry. But at the end of 1941, Group Capt Basil Embry was sent to investigate conditions on the island. He was appalled by what he found. He reported that modern Spitfires must be sent to Malta, pilots should serve there for no more than six months, experienced pilots should be sent and a proper control system with experienced controllers be set up.

Group Captain Woodhall was sent to Malta to organise the control system and radar network. This was just in time, as the Germans returned to continue their attacks in January to May and August to December 1942. The first of these periods was the time of sustained attacks by day and night. More fighter squadrons arrived in April and May 1942, giving the island five squadrons and a squadron of night fighters. AVM Park took over in July 1942. Spitfires were now arriving in a steady stream. The Luftwaffe was back in August but the defences held. By December 1942 the war in North Africa had moved towards Tunisia.

Pilots were rotated out after six months But the ground crews remained, some serving on Malta from 1939 to 1944 without leave, working under fire for 12 to 14 hours a day, repairing scarcely usable aircraft and cannibalising wrecks to produce usable aircraft. This they did on poor, often starvation rations, without respite. Living conditions also were appalling.


During June 1940, RN Swordfish had reached Malta to operate as a strike force. They were joined by Wellingtons in December 1940. These attacked Italian and North African ports by night. The Swordfish were first used as day torpedo bombers but their losses were very heavy, so they became night torpedo bombers. Some of the Swordfish were equipped with ASV (Air to Surface Vessel) radar, a great help when conducting night torpedo attacks.

The first Blenheim bombers arrived in April 1941. Slow, short-ranged, not manoeuvrable, under-armed and carrying only a small bomb load, they carried out daytime attacks on Italian convoys. The squadrons were decimated. They had been in transit to Egypt but Malta "retained" them for operations. With the Luftwaffe heading for Russia, in June to December 1941, the RAF was able to attack enemy convoys and ports successfully.

In September 1941, three ASV-equipped Wellingtons arrived at Luqa Airfield on Malta. ASV radar was very new and secret and only these aircraft and some of the Swordfish carried it. The flight could find and shadow convoys by night. An ASV beacon made of a spare IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) set was fitted to the mast of the flagship of Force K and to SDF (Simplified Directional Facility) Wellingtons and Swordfish. The ships and aircraft were shown on each other's radars in a distinctive form. The attack force could now find the convoy in an early form of electronic warfare. The Wellingtons were, in the late summer of 1942, also used to drop torpedoes at night and drop mines.

Beaufort torpedo bombers arrived in Malta in mid 1942. Low level attacks against ships carrying heavy anti aircraft armament was dangerous and. the Beaufort squadrons suffered heavy losses as the aircraft was not manoeuvrable and slow. Attacks now included Beaufighters as escorts, also used to attack flak positions on the convoy's ships with their heavy armament. They were also used to protect British convoys against air attack and as torpedo bombers, to replace the Beauforts

. GERMAN AND ITALIAN AIRCRAFT: The Messerschmitt Bf109F and Bf109G outclassed the Hurricane and Spitfire V respectively. The Junkers Ju88 served as a bomber, dive-bomber and long range fighter. The Heinkel He111 was used as a bomber and torpedo bomber. The Junkers Ju87 Stuka was slow and vulnerable to fighters. German pilots were very good quality and were very aggressive.

Italian aircraft tended to be manoeuvrable but slow, as the Italian aircraft industry was not able to produce high-powered engines. Licence production of Daimler Benz engines meant that good quality Italian fighters could be built. The standard bomber/ torpedo bomber was the Savoia-Marchetti SM79, a sturdy and useful aircraft. The Italian pilots were well-trained with a number of aces.


OFFENSIVE OPERATIONS: When Italy declared war on 10 June 1940, it became obvious that the large fleet type submarines were not suited to operations in the Mediterranean and in January 1941 a flotilla largely made up of U class boats arrived. They had many successes but some 40 British submarines were lost in the Mediterranean in WW2. Submarine operations were complicated by the large number of minefields that had been and were being laid in the narrow parts of the Mediterranean. Operations continued unabated even when the Luftwaffe was on the offensive.

The large submarines were used to lay mines and as transports to carry essential supplies from Gibraltar and Alexandria to Malta --- many trips were made and some were sunk. The fast minelayers HMS Welshman and HMS Manxman were also used to rush key personnel and urgent supplies to Malta. With ample space and a speed of 40 knots, these were useful.

In October 1941, Force K was based on Malta to attack North African-bound Italian convoys. These ships operated mainly at night, at high speed. Attacks were carried out by radar concentrating on theescorts first and then the merchantmen. Italian convoys were normally escorted by destroyers and torpedo boats and only rarely by cruisers, so they were normally outgunned. On 19 December 1941, Force K incurred severe losses when the ships blundered into a minefield 32 km/20 miles off Tripoli. Some ships were sunk and others damaged. In October 1942 another force was formed to operate against Italian convoys.

CONVOYS - BRITISH AND ITALIAN: During 1939 and up to June 1940, British ships sailed to Malta largely unescorted as Italy was not yet in the war. But, from June 1940 to December 1942, the Mediterranean was at war and 21 major convoys were routed from either Gibraltar or Alexandria to Malta. The reason for this is that escorts had to be assembled from far and wide to defend the convoys against heavy air and submarine attack and possibly the Italian Navy as well. The Mediterranean Fleet was not strong enough to provide the ships needed, especially after the fall of Greece and Crete and the heavy losses incurred during those operations.

In the case of convoys from Alexandria, the Mediterranean fleet would be reinforced by ships from the Eastern fleet depending on the threat faced at the time by the latter. Escort levels for convoys from the eastern end of the Mediterranean were affected by the length of North African coastline held by the British Army. Aircraft based in British held North African coastline could support such convoys against attack.

In the case of convoys from Gibraltar, Axis spies could watch Gibraltar from Spain and convoys would easily be spotted. There was only Force H, based on Gibraltar, to do the escorting. Reinforcements would come from Western Approaches and/or Home Fleet. Italy had a number of heavy ships which posed a serious threat as they might get under steam at short notice. There were many German/Italian submarines and strong air forces so battleships and aircraft carriers would be needed. So it can be seen that the availability of escorts was the major factor to be considered when planning convoys and explains why only 21 major convoys sailed to Malta.

The Italians were more successful in reaching their North African destinations. The distances to be sailed were quite short and protected by minefields. The ships were smaller and the convoys smaller and more frequent than the British ones and the escorts usually small, made up of destroyers and torpedo boats. The Italian heavy ships were not often used. Why? There was a lack of fuel for the ships as the Germans parcelled this out parsimoniously. The escorts fought hard to defend their charges and their skill in anti-submarine warfare grew as time passed. The worst axis convoy losses occurred in July to December 1941 and June to December 1942, when the Luftwaffe was otherwise occupied.

The main Libyan ports were Tripoli, Benghazi and Tobruk, with limited berthing and handling capacity. Tripoli and Benghazi were far from the main desert battlefields and the transport of supplies to the front required large numbers of trucks, which the Axis powers did not have. There was only one road often attacked from the air.

Fighter aircraft used RN and, twice, US aircraft carriers to fly to Malta. 767 aircraft took off from the carriers and 719 arrived in Malta while 12 returned with the carriers. 38 were lost.

The Italian fleet attempted to attack British convoys from Alexandria in December 1941 and March 1942. In both cases the escort force held the Italians at bay. The first convoy reached Malta, the other had to turn back to Alexandria.

The largest convoy escort in WW2 covered 'Pedestal' from Gibraltar. The convoy was heavily attacked from the air and by submarines. Only four merchantmen and a tanker (the well-known 'Ohio') reached Malta. This and two later convoys broke the siege of Malta.

CONCLUSION: The war in North Africa moved towards Tunisia and the Malta Air Force was now attacking the supply routes to Tunis. The Invasion of Sicily took place in early 1943. Malta was left in peace. The abandonment of Malta or its surrender would have permitted the undisturbed flow of supplies to North Africa. The outcome of the desert war might well have been very different. The Middle East might have fallen to the Germans....and the war may well have ended very differently.

Major Tony Gordon thanked our speaker and presented him with the customary gift.


We welcome Mr Justin Zimmerman who joined the Cape Town Branch recently and hope to see him at our meetings. Not only is he a keen amateur military historian and scale modeller, but has already made name for himself as a military aviation artist, both locally and internationally. He has also successfully made a transition to maritime art and is due to complete the third (and last) painting of the Daphne-class submarines on a commission basis.

On the debit side we have also lost two members since our previous meeting. We are sad to announce the passing of fellow-member Mr Geoffrey Mangin, shortly before his ninety-fourth birthday. Geoffrey Temple Corah Mangin was born on the 5th of September, 1918, and was actively involved as a civilian advisor on the technical side of the implementation and application of RADAR in South Africa and "up north" during WWII. The late Mr Mangin's contribution and active involvement as far north as the Mediterranean is well-documented in Peter Brain's book on the Special Signals Services (SSS), South African RADAR in World War II (1993). In spite of his age Geoff to the end was busy in promoting the activities and historiography of the SSS. Those who knew him well and had regular contact with him and in recent years visited him in his flat at Rosedale, will recall that he invariably was busy typing away on his computer keyboard, recording history, doing research or answering queries regarding the activities of, and on erstwhile members of the SSS.

Mr Mangin had for many years been actively involved in the branch's activities - not only was he the Honorary Auditor of the Cape Town Branch for many years, he was also the person who, in earlier years, with his specialised technical skill, rigged up a radio/cassette combination with which he recorded the monthly lectures on cassette tapes. Because of his hearing disability he used to turn up the volume to excruciating levels on the premise that if it is not loud enough for him to hear, then the rest of the audience will also have difficulty in hearing! One can only wonder how many members still remember watching with bated breath while Mr Mangin twiddled the volume knob before the start of every meeting....

We were also saddened to hear that Lt R M "Bob" Ritchie (RNVR) "crossed the bar". He passed away peacefully in his sleep on the night of 3/4 July in the ripe old age of ninety. Lt "Bob" Ritchie had a distinguished naval career during the Second World War where he served in HMS Sikh in the Mediterranean in 1942; in HMS Morris Dance in West African waters in 1943-44; HMS Northern Chief in South African waters, 1944-45, and in HM LST 157 (LST - Landing Ship Tanks), 1945-46, in the Far East. He also was the Honorary Life Vice-President of the Naval Officers' Association of Southern Africa.

We honour their memory, legacy and, especially, the late Mr Mangin's selfless contribution to the activities of the Cape Town branch of the society. We will not forget them.

SUBSCRIPTIONS: Just a reminder that some subscriptions are still outstanding. If you are in doubt whether you have paid for 2012, please liaise with the honorary treasurer (he never is in doubt).



Maj Römer-Heitman's annual strategic review of the military and political situation in Africa is always well-received and this year again it should be no exception, especially in view of the fluidity of events in North, Central and East Africa. In addition to the standard geopolitical review of the continent's security status quo, Maj Heitman will also focus on the internal situation and a forecast of the future through analysing and discussing the current SANDF Defence Review.

Time permitting; Maj Heitman will also briefly discuss some little-known aspects regarding Special Operations in the Second World War, the topic of which will be: GERMAN SPECIAL OPERATIONS DURING WWII. Gauging from the attendance figures of his previous talks it is easy to predict that the September meeting will probably result in a record turnout - please bear in mind that we have only limited parking and seating available, therefore arrive early, so as to avoid disappointment.



Mention the Great or First World War and most people instantly think of the Western Front. For South Africans, it's not much different with thoughts generally turning to Delville Wood. If East Africa is mentioned, thoughts often turn to Ethiopia (WW2) rather than World War 1 and if they do turn to World War 1, it is of 1916 when the South African forces under General Jan Smuts faced the Germans under General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. There was far more to the war in East Africa than what happened in 1916 and the two lead protagonists, Smuts and Lettow-Vorbeck's paths crossed on a number of occasions before, during and after the war. This presentation will shed some light on the nature of the war in East Africa, on land, water and in the air, and those who led it through from its start on 8 August 1914 to its end on 25 November 1918.

Anne Samson completed her PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London in 2004, the outcome of which was published by IB Tauris in 2006 as Britain, South Africa and the East Africa Campaign: The Union comes of age. Anne has written a number of chapters and papers related to the East Africa campaign and South Africa's involvement in Africa. Her most recent book, World War I in Africa: The Forgotten Conflict Among The European Powers is due out in 2012 (IB Tauris). She works as an independent historian and is currently, in 2012, collaborating with the Great War in East Africa Association on various events. In her other life, she works in Education in the Lifelong Learning Sector in the UK and with state primary school education in Tanzania. She currently lives in the UK but spends as much time in Africa as possible.

BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /