Eighty years ago, the Luftwaffe joins the assault on Malta
HMS Illustrious, one of the Royal Navy’s newest aircraft carriers which had launched the devastating strike against the Italian fleet at Taranto, was sailing to help escort ships taking assistance to Greece when she was attacked by Luftwaffe Ju87 dive-bombers. She was hit by six bombs and severely damaged. Her Fulmar two-seat fighters had provided little protection. She made for Malta for urgent repairs and was again bombed by German aircraft in Valetta harbour. But for her armoured flight-deck, she would probably have been sunk. Her ship’s bell was riddled with shrapnel. The attacks came to be known by the Maltese as the Illustrious Blitz. It was a significant escalation of earlier Italian raids on the island, which was to become the most heavily bombed area of Europe in the years that followed as the Axis strove to neutralize it as a key base for attacks on surface shipping in the central Mediterranean. Malta was only 60miles (100km) from airbases in Sicily and thus severely exposed. The attack on Illustrious gave the first clear proof of the presence of German units in Sicily, a harbinger of ever-more intensive German support for Italy.
The Greek army’s offensive against the Italians in Albania reached its climax with the capture of the Klisura Pass. It was considered a significant enough victory for the British C-in-C in the region, General Wavell, to send a telegram of congratulations to the Greek government. An Italian counter-attack in superior strength was an abject failure, with two regiments nearly eliminated. This triggered another reshuffle in the Italian command which had an air of desperation to it. After a tenure of only four weeks, General Ubaldo Soddu, the Italian front commander, was dismissed. He was replaced by General Cavallero, the chief of staff of the Italian army, who also kept the senior appointment, with a deputy keeping his seat in Rome warm for him. He had spent most of the inter-war period as a Senator and businessman. The Greeks though had reached the limit of their logistic support and this was to be their deepest penetration into Albania.
Plymouth became the latest city in Britain to suffer severe air attack. Its distinctive coastline made it an easy objective. The Luftwaffe’s main target was the naval dockyard at Devonport but the historical centre was also badly damaged. Mercifully the incendiaries which cascaded onto the city failed to create uncontrollable fires such as the ones that had ravaged the City of London.
The removal of David Margesson as Conservative chief Whip had marked the final deconstruction of the Chamberlainite regime, but Churchill was prepared to be conciliatory to his vanquished foes in the party in the choice of his successor. A Scottish aristocrat, James Stuart had been Margesson’s deputy and had had an especially acrimonious relationship with Churchill, but the prime minister had never been a holder of grudges. Stuart was also a very effective operator and a more popular personality than Margesson. He was also close to King George VI to whom he had been an equerry. Churchill had largely rebuilt his standing in the eyes of the King after his catastrophic support for Edward VIII during the abdication crisis and understood clearly how important this was in legitimizing his position with a still-suspicious Conservative and conservative establishment.
Watch out for this documentary on Wallis Simpson at 9.30pm on Saturday 16th January featuring interviews with me amongst others.