Maltese Falcons

by F H E Hopkins
British Air Commission
Flight Comdr F H E Hopkins has been in the Royal Navy for 18 years, and in the Fleet Air Arm since 1933. He has been under Axis fire in Holland. Belgium, Greece, France, Libya and the Italian Somaliland. For valor at Malta, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Order
The "unsinkable flat-top" of the Mediterranean remains invincible, defying the full fury of the Luftwaffe

"Planes from Malta attack Tunis in support of Montgomery's Eighth Army." That headline is good news, indeed. I know how glad the people on that small island of rock in the central Mediterranean are to get their innings now.

Ever since the war began, Malta has been Britain's loneliest outpost — and one of the most vital. But it has had to do its job, until now, under the most amazing difficulties. For almost two years, it has been the most bombed spot on earth. But somehow, through the miracle of patience and determination of its people and its defenders, it has hung on, barring the passage of Axis supply ships to Libya and keeping the sea lanes open so that the convoys could get through.

When I went there in December, 1941, to commanded a torpedo bomber squadron, I found that the people of Malta had already suffered severe hardships from Italian raids. But it developed that Mussolini's bombers were only preparing the Maltese for the day when the Luftwaffe took over. In January, German bombers moved into Sicily, sixty miles away, and the fireworks began!

Every day we had bombing raids for breakfast, lunch and dinner, delivered by two and three hundred Germans at a time. Every night brought attacks from sundown to sunup. During the day, bombers were escorted by fighter planes, flying low, machine-gunning people or anything they could see moving. No town was spared by the bombers. Cities near the harbor were completely wiped out. The Maltese who survived picked up the remnants of their belongings and calmly moved into caves. Many raids lasted a day and a half without a let-up. At one time, 900 tons of bombs were dropped on our airfield in three weeks.

It was the job of my squadron to torpedo Axis shipping en route to Rommel's troops in Libya. If we failed, Axis ships could sail unmolested through the Mediterranean. Malta was Great Britain's only Mediterranean base from which this supply line could be attacked. We had a rocky island less than one-tenth the size of Long Island to do it from and enemy planes overhead day and night to make our task even more lively.

We started with twelve Fairey Swordfish, but German dive-bombers and anti-aircraft fire soon reduced this number. Since we were no match for the enemy fighters patrolling over the island all day, we were forced to fly our slow old biplanes mainly at night. The Swordfish may be slow and old, but I am certain that none of my squadron would have exchanged them for any other type. Their maneuverability more than made up for any other shortcomings. The effectiveness of these aircraft may be judged by the fact that we kept 74 ships from reaching Rommel. We spaced the planes a mile apart on the island to make them less vulnerable to air attack, but the Luftwaffe was doing such a thorough job that many were destroyed on the ground nonetheless.

We usually knew when an enemy convoy was on the move because the enemy would give us warning with a continuous "round-the-clock" raid on our airfield. From previous reconnaissance, we would have a rough idea of the location and usually had little difficulty in finding a target.

My men were all volunteers to serve in Malta, and the majority volunteered with their eyes open, knowing even then that Malta was the most bombed spot in the world. They saw war at its worst, flying at night, sleeping between raids during the day, getting little food and no recreation. Their living quarters were open trenches or any twisted heap of stone. But not once did I see a sign of weakening, in spite of the fact that many of them were only youngsters of from eighteen to twenty-two years old.

The only friction amongst flying crews that I ever noticed was when one group thought it was getting less flying than others. Often I had to restrain the ground crews from doing jobs they were not assigned to do and which exposed them to too much danger. One member of my ground crew, when he was off duty, would always be the first on the field to put out fires in burning aircraft. This is particularly dangerous because, if a bomb sets fire to a torpedo plane ready to take off, the heat might explode the torpedo. He was told on several occasions to keep away, that one day a torpedo would explode. But he paid no attention and went his way successfully putting out fires — until one day our fears were realized. He was blown to bits.

No flying crew was allowed to stay at Malta for more than six months, and I think that was a good rule. The strain of continuously flying at night under those conditions must have been great on everyone, but the difficulty of getting any real rest during the day was far more serious. I noticed that after the first few weeks only a bomb which shook them out of their bunks would really awaken my men, but the continuous s roar of the guns and whistle of bombs was not conducive to restful sleep.

Probably the greatest strain on everyone was getting off the ground. Crews were briefed in the ruin that we called the officers' mess, everyone crowding around one dim lantern, peering at charts and checking positions. Then out into an old truck and down to the airfield. The Germans nearby always kept at least one bomber over the airfield all night, dropping bombs at few-minute intervals. The position of the bomber could be followed by watching the searchlights and the anti-aircraft shells bursting. Once the engine of your own aircraft was running and you started taxiing out to the airfield to the take-off position, you could no longer hear the drone of the aircraft overhead, the guns seemed more distant, and you tried to be too busy to notice which way the searchlights were pointing. While you were taking off, you would cross your fingers and hope that none of those splinters or pieces of shrapnel which had been flying around since dusk had penetrated any vital part of your airplane.

Once this ordeal was over, I think everybody really enjoyed the actual trip. Watching a supply ship sink, loaded with troops, tanks, and food for Rommel, was the best tonic for morale that I knew.

Recreation was very limited. Our chief occupation during leisure moments was listening to a member of the squadron playing the piano. This piano had been blown to pieces twice, but the bits had been collected and somehow made into a piano again.

Our food varied, depending on what our convoys would bring. Near the end of our six months, so few convoys got through that we had to depend on what the island could offer. Oddly enough, we had eggs occasionally. Sometimes we had bread or biscuits. The only meat we could get was in tins — a sort of stew. We seldom had potatoes. In fact, the only food that seemed to be plentiful was beans. Even water was difficult to get, since the raids destroyed most of the water mains. We sometimes had to pull what there was out of a hole. using a tin on the end of a string.

For a while we got seafood from a fish bar in one of the villages. It was a nice spot, run by an old man, his wife, and two sons, who used to go out in a small boat to catch their fish. The fish was good and certainly a welcome change in our diet. Then one day when the fisherman-family was not more than two or three hundred yards from shore, two German fighters bore down and machine-gunned their boat. We had no more fish.

I am sure that the story of the civilians of Malta will go down in history as one of the most heroic achievements of all time. It has been their courage that has written the story of Malta. Never before in the history of the world has a whole nation been subjected to such an ordeal and I hope never again. The story of Malta will be written many times, but it will be difficult for any historian, however good, to convey the spirit of these people. a spirit which never faltered.

Now, at last, the Allies are advancing from East and West along the African coast. Malta is still hitting hard at the Axis supply lines, and will do so until the enemy is driven from the Mediterranean.

This article was originally published in the February, 1943, issue of Skyways magazine, vol 2, no 1, pp 42-45, 79.
The original article includes a small portrait of the author, 5 thumbnail shapshots, and 9 photos.

Photos include: