The island of Malta was at the heart of the struggle between Allied and Axis powers for control of the Mediterranean. Between 1940 and 1942 it was subjected to some of the heaviest sustained bombing attacks of the entire war, known as the Siege of Malta.

Background

Malta's strategic position in the Mediterranean meant that it played a key part in the Second World War. In September 1939, Malta was part of the British Commonwealth. It was vital to the Allies, as the only British-held harbour between Gibraltar and Alexandria and as a base for air and submarine operations against Axis convoys supplying North Africa.

Forces at an anti-aircraft gun position overlooking Grand Harbour, Malta, 10 June 1942
Forces at an anti-aircraft gun position overlooking Grand Harbour, Malta, 10 June 1942.IWM (GM 946)

Malta Under Attack

German and Italian forces attempted to starve Malta's military and civilian population of essential supplies. The island's three airfields were repeatedly targeted and more than 1,500 civilians were killed in the bombing. By the early summer of 1941, the situation was critical. Many ships laden with supplies for the island were sunk before they could reach Valletta. Stocks of food, fuel and anti-aircraft ammunition were very low.

An Italian medium bomber attacking a convoy bound for Malta
An Italian medium bomber attacking a convoy bound for Malta. IWM (IWM FLM 3795)

In March and April 1942, Axis air forces dropped more bombs on the island than had fallen on London during the Blitz. On the night of 9 August, the largest relief convoy yet left Gibraltar, codenamed Operation Pedestal. Under almost constant attack by sea and air, only five of the convoy's 14 vessels made it to Valletta. The last to arrive was the severely damaged oil tanker SS Ohio, which entered the Grand Harbour on 15 August.

A damaged convey ship carrying vital fuel limps into Grand Harbour, Malta
A damaged convey ship carrying vital fuel limps into Grand Harbour, Malta. IWM (GN 1480)

The convoy brought 55,000 tons of desperately needed supplies. Malta had been on the verge of collapse and capitulation. It now had enough to carry on resisting a new wave of air raids in the autumn. The threat to Malta finally diminished after the defeats suffered by the Axis powers in North Africa in late 1942.

Aftermath

Almost 6,000 Commonwealth servicemen and women lie buried in Malta's cemeteries or are commemorated by name on memorials to the missing. The Commission also cares for more than 200 war graves of other nationalities in Malta. Almost 4,000 non-war graves, mostly those of servicemen, their dependants and civilian workers attached to military establishments are also cared for by the CWGC.

Related Cemeteries & Memorials

Malta Memorial bears the names of more than 2,290 Commonwealth airman of the Second World War who have no known grave. They died in the skies above Malta, the Mediterranean or surrounding countries.

Malta Capuccini Naval Cemetery contains the graves and memorials of nearly 720 Commonwealth servicemen of the Second World War, of whom six remain unidentified. Also commemorated in the cemetery are more than 340 servicemen of the First World War and more than 1,600 non-war and foreign national graves.

Pembroke Military Cemetery contains the graves and memorials of more than 310 Commonwealth servicemen of the Second World War, of whom one remains unidentified. Also commemorated in the cemetery are more than nine servicemen of the First World War and more than 270 non-war graves.