SIEGE: MALTA 1940-1943 (Pen & Sword Military Classics)by Ernle Bradford is a wonderful book which describes the whole operation conducted by Italo-German forces in Malta. Malta was an island roughly the size of London, England. Yet this small island was arguably the main reason the Axis lost the Desert War. England was a protectorate of Malta, and with its great Grand Harbour, was able to provide a port to Allied warships as well as launch air strikes to Axis convoys headed for Africa. Because so many Axis convoys were sunk by British aircraft based in Malta, Mussolini concluded that the only hope to save the Axis forces in Africa was to invade and conquer Malta.
The plan for invasion was developed in mid 1941 by Italian Commanders and then assisted by German commanders. It was to be called Operation Hercules and was set for July 10, 1942.
3 Italian parachute battalions
1 German parachute division
Follow up Italo-German troop placement by German navy landing crafts
Regia Marina sea cover
Regia Aeronautica and Luftwaffe air protection
1 armored unit of captured Russian tanks
Total troops: 35,000
Mid 1942 was the perfect opportunity to implement Operation Hercules. The threat of RN aircraft carriers was not that strong. The British did not have the luxury to send that many carriers into the Mediterranean, and the British did not want to risk sending such a large force, when at that time, the Axis had complete superiority in the skies near Malta. The waters surrounding Malta were greatly mined by Italian torpedo boats, and by mid 1942, central Mediterranean was still controlled by the Regia Marina, even with the growing oil shortage.
Mussolini convinced Hitler to conduct this co-invasion, but Hitler was more interested in the Soviet conquest. When Hitler saw the early successes of Rommel’s Axis forcing in retaking Tobruk and the disabling of 2 British battleships by Italian frogmen in Alexandria, he considered the invasion as unwarranted. Hitler later convinced Mussolini to hold off on the invasion “for now” since the Desert War had a new chance of leading to Axis victory.
It is truly the successful protection of Malta that hampered Italy and Germany’s chance to win the desert war.