Friday, 7 November 2014

Malta: The Spitfire Year 1942 - C Shores, B Cull, N Malizia

Title: Malta: The Spitfire Year 1942
Author: C Shores, B Cull, N Malizia
ISBN: 978-0-948-81716-8
Publisher: Grub Street
Pages: 704
Photos/Maps:100’s b/w /3

The authors have a long record of producing quality books of exceptional detail and breadth. This follow on to their first installment “Malta: The Hurricane Year 1941” is no exception.

As with their previous works, the authors break down their narrative into individual days and provide the reader with significant incidents on the ground, at sea and in the air as they occur (incorporating the experiences of both the Allied and Axis forces). The degree of detail that they are able to provide throughout their discussion (down to the serial numbers of individual aircraft engaged for example) is stunning and certainly adds a tactical dimension that compliments the strategic and operational narrative beautifully.

Books should be educational and not just a reiteration of dry facts and statistics; to that end the reader learns a great deal about the peripheral activities that were critical but have been neglected in the documentaries regarding the Battle for Malta. For example, the Italians lacked the capacity for RDF (Radar Direction Finding) resulting in their being severely hampered in naval operations in the Mediterranean. What is not well known was their superb capability in the development of ‘Servizio Alfa’ (Alfa Service) which entailed the use radio interception in order to track British movements, advise their aircraft of impending interceptions and interfere with British radio direction finding to draw Allied aircraft off course as they were transiting toward Malta. The Germans, for their part, employed multiple Freya radar systems to aid in the tracking and engagement of Allied resources.

Additionally, their discussions relating to the Allied use of Ultra intercepts – Ultra was the German coding system that had been broken by the British and subsequently provided unprecedented insight into Axis operations – showed the lengths to which the UK went to protect their accomplishments. The Commander at Malta was provided with information derived from Ultra about Axis convoy movements; however, he was ordered to have the convoys located via reconnaissance flights before engaging in order to ensure that no suspicions were raised regarding how the Allies were able to find these targets.

This book is focussed upon the air campaign associated with Malta; however, the sea and land campaigns within Africa and the Mediterranean could not help but have a direct effect upon the fortunes of the island. The authors incorporate these facets seamlessly into the narrative and provide for the reader not only ‘the bigger picture’ but also highlights the variety of operations that were undertaken concurrently (torpedo attacks, harassment bombing operations, fighter interception, reconnaissance, air sea rescue etc) by all players involved.

Due to the fact that the authors have broken out the narrative into individual days, one develops an appreciation of the scope and nature of operations that occurred on a daily basis but never have been recounted in histories. Individual strikes, close calls, narratives of downed flyers spending days floating in the Mediterranean with little hope for rescue are all included. Additionally, the steps taken by the Allies to aggressively take the fight to the enemy with strikes on Axis airfields and harbours despite the heavy pressure of the Axis on the defences of Malta are very eye opening.

One also begins to appreciate just how perilous was the situation facing the Allies. The logistic lines were extremely tenuous and the ability of aircraft to respond to Axis incursions relied exclusively upon the ability of tankers and supply ships to get through to the island; the story of the tenacious defence of and fortuitous arrival of the oil tanker Ohio being recounted in great detail. Associated with this, were the events surrounding the rescue of two Italian pilots (shot down while attacking the convoy) by a German flying boat being guided and escorted by British Spitfires and Beaufighters; all as a result of mistaken communications!

There is a heavy Canadian connection to the air battle above and around Malta. RCAF pilots and aircrew were a significant and integral part of operations associated with the battle. Probably best known is the success of Plt Ofr GF ‘Buzz’ Beurling of 249 Sqn. His reputation as a loner and superb fighter pilot was enhanced by his being the top scoring Allied pilot during the Malta Campaign with 26.5 kills credited (compared with his next closest at 12.5 kills).

There are very few observations to be made regarding this book that may be seen as anything but positive; the most significant being that the index is printed in a painfully small font. The degree of detail provided is unsurpassed and the flow and tone of the narrative, tight and engaging. Grub Street has produced a book of the highest quality. I highly recommend this book. 

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