This year at Vintage Wings, one of our featured programs is “Warbirds of the Med.”
This program will see the Supermarine Spitfire, Hawker Hurricane, P-40 Kittyhawk, and Fairey Swordfish – all significant contributors to the game that played out in the Mediterranean basin – travel together to air shows throughout the 2012 season. Along the way they will be trailing, in addition to exhaust fumes and splatters of oil, little known stories about the many battles that were fought above North Africa and the Mediterranean.
Everyone knows about the World War II European air heroes. Heck, even people that don’t like airplanes have heard of the Battle of Britain. But bring up the Siege of Malta and there are a whole lot of blank stares.
Many Canadian aces cut their teeth during the blitzes on Malta, including Canada’s George “Buzz” Beurling. In his book “Malta Spitfire – The Story of a Fighter Pilot,” he recounts his arrival in June 1942 on the small island country:
“Our arrival on that tiny piece of rock, in the centre of the sea in which we hadn’t a friend from Gibraltar to Alexandria, was like coming awake from a pleasant dream into the heart of an earthquake.[…]We seemed to have blown right into the middle of general hell from the azure peace of the western Mediterranean.[…]Before you had been there a day you got the idea Jerry had decided to either sink the damned island or blow it away – and you weren’t far from wrong.”
Stuck on that rock, there were few reinforcements. Most supply ships never made it all the way to the island, which mean that both food and fuel were not in abundance. And the numbers were not in their favour either.
“You’d grind up there to meet them as if the fate of mankind depended on the time you could make in reaching 20,000 feet and picking yourself a handful of Jerries and Eyeties with odds of five, seven, and even ten to one against you. That was Malta for the Spit pilots that summer.”
Not even the most relentless of fighter pilots could help but reflect on the reasons behind the mission.
“You would do a lot of wondering about the why of it, particularly after some sidekick you thought a lot of had gone down and hit the deck. Why would anybody in his senses want to hang onto a hunk of rock, so exposed that not even the navy could use it? Why didn’t we just get the hell out of there and let Jerry have the damned place if he wanted it? Why didn’t we tell the Malties to keep it and go on home? After a while you knew why, but you didn’t get it at first, and sometimes you were convinced it was all screwy. Then you realized that just so long as the fighter pilots could hang on and keep knocking the Me 109s and the Macchis and Ju 88s into the sea we still had a toehold in the Mediterranean and an advance base close to the African coast that the other fellows couldn’t use as a jumping-off place. And when you lay back on the hospital pillows, thousands of miles away from Malta, when Montgomery and the Eigth Army came rolling up the coast from Egypt, chasing Rommel and the Afrika Korps back to Tripoli and beyond, you realized at last that not one of those grand guys you’d lived and fought with from Kalfrana Bay to Sicily coast had spun down in vain. Malta had played a superhuman role in keeping the stage set for the Big Show – and the lad who went west in the Spits had done a great job.”
For every Spitfire that “went west” on Malta during the summer of 1942, ten enemy aircraft went down – and don’t forget that the odds were often ten to one, not in favour of the RAF. During a two day siege, over 100 enemy aircraft were confirmed either destroyed or damaged. Buzz Beurling alone shot down over 28 aircraft (including previous flying in Europe) – in one instance downing four aircraft in a single day.
Blue skies, bright yellow sunshine and warm, clear water may make a better backdrop for your next vacation than for fierce aerial battles, but the story of Malta is an important one. And it is but one of many that we will share with Canadians this summer. Stay tuned and check www.warbirdsofthemed.com for regular updates.