Malta : A Decisive Island
The British Island colony of Malta played a critical role in the battle for the Mediterranean.1 It was critical because it directly affected the outcome of the North African Campaign. The Islands strategic importance lay in its geographical position (60 miles from Sicily) and its offensive capability against the Axis convoys that supplied the Afrika Corps in Libya. To the Allies Malta and Force K (The submarine and surface fleet based at Malta) were absolutely necessary and indeed decisive in preventing the Axis convoys from reaching North Africa and therefore helping the Eighth Army in defeating Rommel and later Arnim, due to their lack of fuel and supplies. The fact is that if the Axis powers had captured Malta then it would have been a severe blow for the Allies in that their offensive capability in the Mediterranean would have been significantly weakened, whilst the Axis convoys would have been more successful in supplying North Africa. The effect of this, coupled with the effect of the Luftwaffe being based at Malta would have been a huge blow to the Allies and could well have had a decisive affect upon the course of the Desert War. The Island came under constant bombardment and the civilian population was reduced to horrendous standards of living, with a typhoid epidemic in the summer of 1942, but the Island was awarded the George Cross in April of that year.
The Island was only able to hold out to the Axis onslaught through Allied convoys such as Pedestal and Harpoon that brought food, fuel, medical supplies as well as more fighters arriving (61 Spitfires in May 1942). This was a costly effort however and out of the 86 supply ships sent to Malta between August 1940 and August 1942, 31 were sunk and many others severely damaged.
The Axis powers deliberated over an invasion of Malta, it was decided that it was both not worthy of such effort as the units could be used more effectively elsewhere (Eastern Front) and possibly too risky as the invasion of Crete had proved. Nevertheless Malta stands among the decisive factors in the North African Campaign as it enabled the Allies to win the battle of the Mediterranean, which was certainly decisive in aiding the Allies victory in North Africa.
1.. The Oxford Companion To The Second World War, Oxford University Press 1995 (page 713)
Diverted and Committed Troops
Weapons In North Africa
Commanders and their tactics
High Command Disputes And Interference
Concluding thoughts on the North African Campaign