An epic 29 month siege of the strategic island of Malta was a central part of the Mediterranean Campaign.
Like the Battle of Britain, the Spitfire became the Allies’ iconic image of that fight.
The physical location of Malta pretty much guaranteed it would play a role in the Mediterranean War. With Italy trying to secure North Africa (and ultimately mid-Eastern oil) from its Libyan colony and Great Britain wanting secure transport from Gibraltar to Alexandria (Egypt) and the Suez Canal, Malta lies at the crossroads.
Through World War II Malta was a colony of the British Empire. The capital, Valleta, had been the major Royal Navy base and port (Grand Harbour) in the Mediterranean prior to the War. But this was moved to Alexandria just before the War because of how exposed Grand Harbour was. Defenses had been improved in the proceeding years, including over 100 anti-aircraft guns, all weather airfield, submarines and motor torpedo boats. But no assigned fighter squadron.
When Italy entered the War, June 1940, the RAF was in no position to send fighters either. The air station did have a number of patrol types and Fairey Swordfish. Because the naval base was well supplied, the Air Officer Commanding (AOC, Air Cdr Maynard) took it on his own authority to claim four Royal Navy fighters from storage. These were not quite modern Gloster Gladiators, that were assembled and flown by volunteers. June 11, 1940 the Italians attacked with ten SM.79 bombers that were intercepted by the Gladiators and represents the start of the 29 month siege.
By the end of June, Hurricanes had been flown in, they finally reached squadron strength in August. The Regia Aeronautica (Italian Air Force) never proved to be a major threat, but the pressure was constant. On several occasions the Luftwaffe joined the fight. This mainly coincided with major German re-enforcements heading to North Africa, but it always meant major trouble. In December 1940 over two hundred German aircraft supplemented the 100+ Italians, more came in February. This blocked all British shipping for a period and shredded the defenses. But the Germans also had too many commitments, and transferred aircraft to Eastern Europe the following Summer.
Early 1942 saw another German assault on Malta; II Fliegerkorps with 250 bombers and 160 Bf 109s put heavy pressure on the island’s 50 Hurricanes in three squadrons. In early February several pilots, all Battle of Britain veterans were flown in. Then on March 7, 15 Spitfire Vb were flown in from the HMS Eagle. This was the first time Spitfires were allowed out of Great Britain. It was also the start of a new chapter in the siege of Malta. Aircraft carriers would continue to shuttle Spitfires in as combat and attrition continued at a fearsome pace.
In one famous instance the USS Wasp delivered 47 Spitfires (on April 20) and by dusk the following day only 17 remained airworthy. On May 9 Wasp and Eagle delivered another 64 Spitfires. In some ways this was a turning of the tide. Much ferocious fighting lay ahead, but the Germans again had too many conflicting commitments and yielded the initiative to the RAF.
This particular aircraft was among those flown by the top Malta Ace (either side) and top Canadian Ace (he was RAF at the time, so not the top RCAF Ace), George Beurling. With 27 of his 31 kills scored over Malta he had more than twice the credits of any other allied Malta pilot. He flew onto the island in July 1942, which was a period of massive combats. The Africa Korp was driving the British Eighth Army deep into Egypt and shipping was heavy to keep the army fed and supplied. There was also increasing Allied air power on the island and the tide was turning.
On July 27th Beurling scored four victories in this plane in two different combats. In the first he claimed two MC.202 and a Bf 109F, one of the Italian pilots was captured unconscious on Malta and can claim to be the only victim of Beurling’s to survive the experience. Later that day he scored another Bf 109 in this plane (BR 301). That also made this the most successful aircraft of the Malta campaign with nine kills scored by three different pilots.
In spite of his obvious talents in the air, Beurling often had personal conflicts on the ground. After clashing with his CO on a later tour of duty he was discharged from service in April of 1944. In 1948 he took a job flying Mustangs for the Israeli Air Force, but died in an air crash from Rome before arriving.
Modeling BR 301 proved to be a far different challenge than I expected. This is the Tamiya kit, which is a reliably simple build. But what a can of worms the research came to be! My first source claimed it was Spitfire Vb, so that’s how I did the build. But when I was researching markings and colors I came to (strongly) suspect the plane was actually a Spitfire Vc. Different sources claim directly contrary things, so certainty is difficult. Basically, the first batches of Spits delivered to the island were Vb and later arrivals were Vc. And BR 301 was a well used aircraft by Summer of 1942, so it could be either. Most frustrating, my Spitfire “bible”, the big “Spitfire” book by Morgan and Shacklady, only identifies it as a “Mark V”. Gee thanks, it has wings and a propeller too.
So I’ll try not to loose sleep over it, and keep telling myself the difference between a Vb and Vc is pretty small. Of course its all in the guns, and I can tell the difference if I only had a good picture!
But the color research was fun! My primary source said “Light Mediterranean Sea Blue” and “Dark Mediterranean Sea Blue” over “Azure Blue”. A lot of blue! But only Azure Blue is really an official RAF color. So while trying to get a match for the others I read an account of how these Spitfires were all originally in the RAF’s standard desert scheme of Middlestone and Dark Earth over Azure Blue. Then they were oversprayed in some sort of blue-gray color before their arrival on Malta. Well that sounds interesting. It would also explain why those standard desert colors are often visible in patches. And if the blue-gray coat was thin it might read as a two-tone overall coloring. So I painted this is standard desert colors, including the red spinner. Then I put a thin layer of USN Blue-Gray overall. Other sources do claim the planes delivered by Wasp were in fact painted in USN colors. Although I think I saw somewhere BR 301 was delivered by the Eagle; but hey, “Blue-Gray” should at least be in the same ballpark as blue-gray, right?
It is often amazing to me how much we (okay, maybe just me) don’t know about major and well documented events. Building this plane really made that clear.
Another delightful tale of a build and the research. I must admit I never put this much research into my builds outside a generic “Europe” authenticity. It is fun to read about, and quite frankly, you can’t go wrong with a Spitfire. It is one of those things that looks exactly like what it is, a fast, sleek killing machine.
I do find the research fun, especially when you get unexpected results! Although sometimes it’s not so fun when you find something unexpected just. Too. Late.
But yeah, I always love Spitfires.
There is good book on Beurling written in 2017.
That’s definitely a different take. He is normally seen as a loner and troublemaker, but of course hasn’t been able to defend himself in over 70 years.
More about Malta and Spitfires… https://anotherunsunghero.wordpress.com/
Also, I see another P51 on your workbench so as an addendum to the last post, the spitfire and the mustang are the apex predators of the piston driven aircraft, brief as that period was.
I know you’ll make your case for the Zero, or the FW or the Messerschmitt, and I would expect no less, but to me, the Spitfire and the Mustang will never be equaled.
I might add Thunderbolt and Hellcat too! But I do live Spitfires and Mustangs, the most capable and good looking of a great group.
You’ve done a really good job with the Spitfire! I suspect that the Gladiators you mentioned were Faith, Hope and Charity. The best account I found was from New Orleans strangely enough:
Yes, it always makes me laugh a little, the FOUR Gladiators were Faith, Hope and Charity. I should build one of those eventually and have more of that story then.
Well done Dave, both the model and the research!
Thank you Jeff!