The non-strategic importance of Malta

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Wargames
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The non-strategic importance of Malta

Post by Wargames » 07 Dec 2007 10:35

Please excuse me if this has been debated before. I just watched a "Military" channel program which declared the Axis overstated the importance of Malta and that most historians agree with this.

I consider myself to be something of an historian and I would disagree with this. British swordfish and submarines operating out of Malta were a major pain to Italian supply efforts to North Africa. I believe Malta also launched daily air recon of Italian harbors looking for any ships that had departed from the previous overflight.

I suppose I can look at this statement of this Axis mistake of attributting significance to Malta to a few "big picture" views:

1) Malta was unimportant to Germany: Germany could have won the war in North Africa and still would have lost WWII. Thus bombing Malta was a waste of time.

2) Malta was of no importance to Britain. The British could lose Malta and still not lose North Africa. Thus, bombing Malta was a waste of time.

If the above are the basis for the claim that the Axis overrated the importance of Malta then I suppose I can't argue it. However, if I'm a German or Italian officer assigned to the war in North Africa, I would take a different view. Malta is a significant obstacle to supplying North Africa.

Of course, in reverse, supplying Malta was also costly to the British.

What is the thought here on this?

2)

Jon G.
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Post by Jon G. » 07 Dec 2007 10:49

Hi Wargames,

I am moving this topic to this section because it goes somewhat outside the scope of the German strategy section.

Also see these threads:

Operation C3/Herkules
http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?t=23605
http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?t=55655

Why didn't the Germans invade Malta?
http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic. ... 39&start=0

How important was Malta?
http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic. ... 36&start=0

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LWD
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Post by LWD » 07 Dec 2007 15:36

I think a better wording would be that the Axis misjudged the signfigance of Malta but that was part of it's value. Ultra was actually responsable for the intercept of much of the Axis supply shipping but Malta was used as a cover. Many of the subs and search aircarft were vectored via Ultra. The search aircraft so that the it would be less likely that the Axis figured out that thier mail was being read. So in one sence Malta wasn't responsible for as much shipping being intercepted as the Axis thought but it's not clear without Malta as a cover that the British would have considered the potential compromise of Ultra was worth sinking as much shipping as was the case with Malta.

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Re: The non-strategic importance of Malta

Post by Jon G. » 10 Dec 2007 18:43

Wargames wrote:...1) Malta was unimportant to Germany: Germany could have won the war in North Africa and still would have lost WWII. Thus bombing Malta was a waste of time.
In the big picture Malta was indeed not very important to Germany. Even if the Germans had been serious about a Mediterranean strategy, they may well have decided to leave Malta alone and instead aim to seal off the Mediterranean at the Suez and/or Gibraltar. Then Malta would simply have been starved out.

On the other hand, Malta was very important, if not crucial, to Italian strategy. As long as it remained in British hands they were forced to convoy their supply ships to North Africa, ULTRA or not, while burning scarce navy fuel oil escorting those same convoys. That essentially confined the Italian navy to the central Mediterranean at least post Cape Matapan. The Italians were already seriously handicapped by the small ports and the great internal distances of Italian North Africa, which made even holding on to Libya challenging.

With Malta in Axis hands the Axis' North African supply difficulties would have begun at Tripoli and Benghazi; British Malta meant that Italian-German logistics difficulties began the moment their supply ships left port.
2) Malta was of no importance to Britain. The British could lose Malta and still not lose North Africa. Thus, bombing Malta was a waste of time.
Again in the big picture bombing Malta may not have changed much, and the PAA probably never had very good chances of pushing all the way to the Suez - but it should be added that when the Axis mounted major air offensives against Malta - in early 1941, in late 1941/early 1942 and finally in March-April 1942 - Axis fortunes were generally better in North Africa.

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Post by Lkefct » 15 Dec 2007 05:03

One of the reasons was the weight of Rommel's argument that Malta was the root of his supply problem. While the shipping lost to the Allies was not insignificant, the bigger problem was his reliance on trucks to bring the supplies forward the vast distances. Trucks are only effective transport for about 400-500 km before the additional fuel for the return trips and other maintenance/lubrication issues become prohibitive. Often Rommel's trucks had to travel further then that. Rather then accept that limitation on his trucks, it was easier for him to blame the shortcomings of the Italian merchant marine/Navy.

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Re: The non-strategic importance of Malta

Post by Andreas » 15 Dec 2007 13:03

Jon G. wrote:Again in the big picture bombing Malta may not have changed much, and the PAA probably never had very good chances of pushing all the way to the Suez - but it should be added that when the Axis mounted major air offensives against Malta - in early 1941, in late 1941/early 1942 and finally in March-April 1942 - Axis fortunes were generally better in North Africa.
That is a bit too simple. In April/May 41 the British were distracted in Greece. In late 41 they were again distracted in the Far East, and they lost all capital ships in the Med in a short space of time, (Barham and Ark Royal to subs, Valiant and Queen Elizabeth to X MAS, and on the same day as that happened the Malta-based raiding force Force K was crippled by mines). For early-mid 42 again distraction in the Far East was a serious issue. Also, note that March 42 was not a good month for Axis supplies, in fact it was almost the worst of the first half of the year.

Arrival rates of all military supplies in NA, Italian navy data, all units, volume of military supplies received in 1,000 tons:

Jul 41 - 81% (61.5kt)
Aug 41 - 87% (75.6kt)
Sep 41 - 79% (66.3kt)
Oct 41 - 76% (56.2kt)
Nov 41 - 26% (16.2kt)
Dec 41 - 78% (29.7kt)

Jan 42 - 100% (60.5kt)
Feb 42 - 100% (56.8kt)
Mar 42 - 80% (38.7kt)
Apr 42 - 99% (142.0kt)
May 42 - 92% (76.6kt)
Jun 42 - 79% (30.1kt)
Jul 42 - 92% (74.4kt)
Aug 42 - 66% (49.0kt)
Sep 42 - 81% (77.3kt)
Oct 42 - 50% (33.9kt)
Nov 42 - 74% (60.3kt)

All the best

Andreas

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Post by Wargames » 16 Dec 2007 23:38

Malta based Swordfish and submarines were credited with about 1,000,000 tons of Axis shipping. If we assume 5,000 tons to represent a suitable sized cargo transport, that's the equivelent of 200 TR's lost with cargo (about six a month). However, there seems to be a concentration of these losses in Oct/Nov of 1941 and 1942 making this monthly average misleading. In most months there would have been less than six ships sunk (30,000 tons) but for four months it would hve been greater than 30,000 tons. I "guess" based on this that Malta was a "problem" for most of the war, but not an insurmountable one, except for four months when it was, indeed, insurmountable.

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Post by Andreas » 17 Dec 2007 12:51

There is no need for guesstimating, the loss numbers, and to a certain extent the loss causes are well known, and described in 'Dati Statistici'. I won't have time to post more on them, but maybe somebody else will.

All the best

Andreas

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Re: The non-strategic importance of Malta

Post by Jon G. » 19 Dec 2007 01:50

Andreas wrote:
Jon G. wrote:Again in the big picture bombing Malta may not have changed much, and the PAA probably never had very good chances of pushing all the way to the Suez - but it should be added that when the Axis mounted major air offensives against Malta - in early 1941, in late 1941/early 1942 and finally in March-April 1942 - Axis fortunes were generally better in North Africa.
That is a bit too simple. In April/May 41 the British were distracted in Greece. In late 41 they were again distracted in the Far East, and they lost all capital ships in the Med in a short space of time, (Barham and Ark Royal to subs, Valiant and Queen Elizabeth to X MAS, and on the same day as that happened the Malta-based raiding force Force K was crippled by mines). For early-mid 42 again distraction in the Far East was a serious issue.
Well, the Greek distraction applied to all involved parties - and most of all to the Italians in terms of ressources. The Far Eastern distraction, on one level, had been evident since the 1930s, and without it (i.e. safeguarding a line of communications with an overseas empire) the Mediterranean wouldn't have been as important to British strategy as it was historically. On a more direct level, the Far East didn't matter too much for the Middle East in terms of forces deployed, save perhaps for the Australians post-7 December, in the absence of an open land front against Germany. And the crippling of Force K doesn't really disqualify the importance assigned to Malta by all sides involved.
Also, note that March 42 was not a good month for Axis supplies, in fact it was almost the worst of the first half of the year...
That's a nice qualifier :wink: The 1942 bombing offensive against Malta increased greatly in intensity around March 20th (predicably enough culminating on April 20th :| ), with 2,200 tons of bombs dropped on the island in March and a whopping 6,700 tons of bombs dropped on Malta by Fliegerkorps II in April - which, incidentally, is a record month for supplies successfully delivered to the PAA.

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Post by Jon G. » 19 Dec 2007 02:00

Wargames wrote:Malta based Swordfish and submarines were credited with about 1,000,000 tons of Axis shipping...


Not all of it can be credited to Malta-based forces, although they accounted for a great deal of lost Axis shipping. I composed two pie diagrams for this thread http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?t=93416 earlier if you remember that :)

Image

Image

...and this table shows Axis merchantmen lost to aircraft. It's in Italian but should not be difficult to read. For the periods when Cyrenaica was in Axis hands, Malta-based aircraft were the only Allied a/c within range of the North African convoy routes.

Image

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Re: The non-strategic importance of Malta

Post by Andreas » 19 Dec 2007 10:48

Jon G. wrote:
Andreas wrote:
Jon G. wrote:Again in the big picture bombing Malta may not have changed much, and the PAA probably never had very good chances of pushing all the way to the Suez - but it should be added that when the Axis mounted major air offensives against Malta - in early 1941, in late 1941/early 1942 and finally in March-April 1942 - Axis fortunes were generally better in North Africa.
That is a bit too simple. In April/May 41 the British were distracted in Greece. In late 41 they were again distracted in the Far East, and they lost all capital ships in the Med in a short space of time, (Barham and Ark Royal to subs, Valiant and Queen Elizabeth to X MAS, and on the same day as that happened the Malta-based raiding force Force K was crippled by mines). For early-mid 42 again distraction in the Far East was a serious issue.
Well, the Greek distraction applied to all involved parties - and most of all to the Italians in terms of ressources.
Not in terms of naval assets.
Jon G. wrote:The Far Eastern distraction, on one level, had been evident since the 1930s, and without it (i.e. safeguarding a line of communications with an overseas empire) the Mediterranean wouldn't have been as important to British strategy as it was historically. On a more direct level, the Far East didn't matter too much for the Middle East in terms of forces deployed, save perhaps for the Australians post-7 December, in the absence of an open land front against Germany.
I do not think that is correct - post 7 December naval, air, and later ground assets were moved to the Far East, which took the pressure of Axis forces (not Panzerarmee at that stage, BTW) and enabled the 21 January 42 counter-offensive to happen and to be successful. E.g. without the Japanese attack two of the four battleships/cruisers in the far east could have been sent to the Med to replace Queen Elizabeth and Valiant, with a direct negative impact on the Axis supply situation in January 1942, threatening the important convoys that ran across without loss at the time. The loss of the three battle ships and the carrier in the Med had nothing to do with Axis air activity over Malta.
Jon G. wrote:And the crippling of Force K doesn't really disqualify the importance assigned to Malta by all sides involved.
Exactly. But what I meant is that the direct link you drew between Axis air activity and reduction of shipping losses is too simple. Force K's loss was not due to air activity over Malta, it ran onto a mine barrier laid by Italian destroyers. Had that not happened they may have had a good go at the M.42 convoy, and later ones.

All the best

Andreas

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Re: The non-strategic importance of Malta

Post by Jon G. » 19 Dec 2007 13:15

Andreas wrote:...
Jon G. wrote:Well, the Greek distraction applied to all involved parties - and most of all to the Italians in terms of ressources.
Not in terms of naval assets.
Yes, also in terms of naval assets, both merchants and warships. When we focus our attention on Malta, eg. Cape Matapan would be more of a distraction for the Italians than it was for the Royal Navy. The port of Valona in Albania had the same importance to the Italian war in Greece that Tripoli had to their war in North Africa - and the Italians had far larger forces committed in Greece.

Conversely, the Royal Navy had the ships and the ressources to launch operation WINCH in April, delivering Hurricanes to Malta simultaneous with British convoys to Greece.

There's an interesting brief article on Sturmvogel about Italian war priorities which, using numbers from Sadkovich, demonstrates that Greece had a higher priority for Italian ressources than North Africa (and by extension suppressing Malta) did. And note that whenever the Italians embarked on a major naval action, such as eg. Cape Matapan, the attempt to intercept Greece-bound British convoys, they had to break their oil piggy-bank.
I do not think that is correct - post 7 December naval, air, and later ground assets were moved to the Far East, which took the pressure of Axis forces (not Panzerarmee at that stage, BTW) and enabled the 21 January 42 counter-offensive to happen and to be successful.
I am genuinely interested in seeing evidence for any transfers of British/Commonwealth air, naval and land forces from the Middle East to the Far East between Dec 7 and Jan 21.

I explicitly stated that bombing Malta probably did not matter much in the big picture, but conversely explaining away Axis successes in North Africa with British distractions elsewhere is (also) too simple. After all and from a Mediterranean perspective the Axis themselves embarked on the ultimative distraction in June 1941 when Barbarossa started.
E.g. without the Japanese attack two of the four battleships/cruisers in the far east could have been sent to the Med to replace Queen Elizabeth and Valiant, with a direct negative impact on the Axis supply situation in January 1942, threatening the important convoys that ran across without loss at the time. The loss of the three battle ships and the carrier in the Med had nothing to do with Axis air activity over Malta...
True, the loss of three battleships had nothing to do with the Axis air campaign against Malta. However, the Italians' decision to provide very heavy escorts for convoy M.41/M.42 (and the laying of the minefield that crippled force K, for that matter) had everything to do with the importance of Malta.

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Re: The non-strategic importance of Malta

Post by Andreas » 19 Dec 2007 13:20

Jon

I think we are talking past each other. To recap, without any examples, this is what I am replying to:
Andreas wrote:
Jon G. wrote:[...]but it should be added that when the Axis mounted major air offensives against Malta [...] Axis fortunes were generally better in North Africa.
That is a bit too simple.
So I am not arguing Malta was unimportant, and I am not arguing that distractions were more important. I am simply saying that the statement you made above is a bit too simple.

The reasons why the fortunes improved are more complex than Axis air offensives.

All the best

Andreas

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Post by Jon G. » 19 Dec 2007 13:42

Andreas, I agree with you that Axis success and failure in North Africa did not depend solely on whether they were bombing Malta at the time or not. I just thought I had that covered when I wrote that '...in the big picture bombing Malta may not have changed much...'; I just maintain that you can't explain Axis war fortunes in North Africa with British distractions elsewhere.

On the other hand, Axis successes in North Africa are generally fairly contemporary to Axis bombing campaigns against Malta. That doesn't make every ton of bombs dropped on Malta equal a mile of advance in North Africa. It doesn't even make the relationship causal. But it does make Axis bombing campaigns against Malta one factor among several to consider if we want to determine how important Malta was in the big picture.

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Post by Andreas » 19 Dec 2007 14:11

Jon G. wrote:But it does make Axis bombing campaigns against Malta one factor among several to consider if we want to determine how important Malta was in the big picture.
Absolutely no disagreement there.

All the best

Andreas

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