The Malta Independent 24 April 2019, Wednesday

The Royal Air Force And Malta (1918-1978)

Malta Independent Sunday, 1 May 2011, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

he year 1978 marked not only the Diamond Jubilee of the formation of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in April 1918 but also of the operational closure of the Royal Air Force in Malta.

The Royal Air Force has been strongly represented in Malta not only in times of peace and prosperity but also during the turmoil and depravity of war.

It was in the formation of the No.267 Squadron (Seaplane) at Kalafrana in 1918 that marked the beginning of this long historical connection between the RAF and Malta. The last operational Squadron being the No 13 (PR) which left the island at the end of September 1978…….This Feature traces the highlights of this eventful period.

The First World War (1914-1918)

The origin of the decision to use air power from Malta can be traced to the growing activity of the German U-boats in the Mediterranean in 1915. At the end of May 1915 the submarine U22 torpedoed and sunk the British battleships Triumph and Majestic at the Dardanelles, and by the end of that year some 15 U-boats were operating in the Mediterranean. It was primarily to counter this threat that the decision was made to set up a sea-plane base in Malta from which aircraft would be able to patrol in search of enemy U-boats.

The formation at Kalafrana in August 1918 of No. 267 (Seaplane) Squadron, equipped with F 2A flying boats and No. 268 (Seaplane) Squadron, equipped with Short Sunbeam 320 float sea-planes marked the beginning of the long association between the RAF and Malta.

Inter-War Years

Throughout the early 1920s, sea-planes from Kalafrana continued to operate on naval co-operation duties including the following:

• Spotting

• Torpedo running

• Range finding

• Bombing runs on sea targets

• Photographic reconnaissance

• Aerial gunnery.

The above were all part of the training requirements. In January 1923 a new aerodrome was opened at Ħal Far for use as a shore base by carrier aircraft and in April 1929 Ħal Far was taken over as a RAF station equipped with Fairey 3Fs and Flycatchers. This first large RAF land airfield in Malta was based on a grass runway which deteriorated badly in wet weather.

During the Abyssinian crisis of 1935, the aircraft strength was increased by Hawker Demon aircraft of 23 and 74 Squadrons and Vildebeest aircraft of both 22 Squadron and the Coastal Defence Development Flight.

The Second World War


In January 1940 there were no RAF defence aircraft in Malta, though an additional airfield was available at Takali, laid down on the bed of an ancient lake. Luqa airfield went into operation as Malta’s first tarmac airfield on 1 April 1940.

At the outbreak of war with Italy, the total RAF strength was 5 target-towing Swordfish aircraft, one Queen Bee pilotless drone and 4 Gloster Gladiator biplanes, which had previously belonged to the Fleet Air Arm. Eight of these aircraft had been left in packing cases on the dockside at Kalafrana when the aircraft carrier Glorious sailed hurriedly for the Norwegian campaign in May 1940.

The first of the 3,340 raids carried out by he enemy on Malta started when the war with Italy was not yet 12 hours old: at 0645 on 11 June 1940, 10 Savoia Marchetti SM 79 bombers attacked Grand Harbour and Ħal Far followed by 25 more bomber aircraft of the Regia Aeronautica based in Sicily.

On 28 June 1940, 4 Hurricanes arrived to provide some relief, but on 13 July only one Gladiator and one Hurricane were serviceable to provide the island’s defence. The aircraft fought on for 5 months from June to November 1940 and during this period, the 3 Gladiators accounted for 37 destroyed and damaged enemy aircraft.

Throughout the long months of the siege of 1940, 1941 and 1942 the RAF fighter bomber and reconnaissance aircraft based on Malta operated under constant air attack. To provide more aircraft dispersal and make it harder for the enemy to target airplanes, Safi Airfield (February 1941) and Qrendi Airfield (November 1942) were opened.

The air attacks grew daily in intensity to a peak in the 2 months of March and April 1942, when 7,000 individual enemy aircraft sorties were flown against Malta in preparation for the joint German/Italian airborne invasion of Malta, planned for July 1942. This was postponed by Hitler due to pressing commitments in the African and Russian fronts as well as the 4,000 paratrooper during the airborne invasion of Crete.

By early 1943, the allies were on the offensive: Rommel and Kesserling were driven out of North Africa by May 1943 and the allied invasion of Sicily was launched from Malta and North Africa in July.

The last operational airfield to be built in he Maltese islands was in Xewkija, Gozo (Malta’s sister island) and this was built in 13 days and became disused 2 months later in August 1943. Its purpose was to operate up to 100 Spitfires in support of the landings in Sicily.

The Post War Period

Since the war, Malta’s strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean acted as launching bases for reconnaissance and maritime patrol aircraft. In June 1946, Kalafrana was passed on to the Royal Navy. Qrendi airfield was closed. Takali became a base for a number of fighter squadrons until it was passed on to the Maltese Government in February 1968.

Luqa airfield saw the last MR Lancaster in the RAF take off in 1954, and was the scene of intense activity during the 1956 Suez crisis.

The last operational RAF squadrons based on the island were Nimrod Squadron and 13 (PR) Canberra Squadron.

Other RAF units in Malta

Many other RAF units have played a distinguished part:

840 SU Communications Unit at Siġġiewi and Benghajsa set up on 1 May 1919 when the first shore-based radio station in communication with UK from Malta was set up at Rinella.

The Radar Station at Madalena had since 1961 been used as an Air Defence Radar Unit.

No 1151 Marine Craft Unit at Marsaxlokk established in Malta in 1918 to tend and refuel sea-planes at Kalafrana.

During the Second World War the 2 Air Sea Rescue units based in Malta, No 204 at Kalafrana and No 205 at St. Paul’s Bay carried out the successful rescue of some 220 sailors and airmen from death in the sea, including some 52 of the enemy.

Numerous other small units were set up over those 60 years from the 1918 RAF Kite Balloon Base at Gzira and the Recruiting Centre at Paceville to Ħamrun, Mosta and other units.

The last Serving RAF Units in Malta

The last personnel and units serving with the RAF in Malta were the following:

• Air Commander Malta

• Staff f the Air Commander Malta

• RAF Staff of CBFM

• Station Commander RAF Luqa

• 13 (PR) Squadron

• Operational Wing

• RAF Detachment Madalena

• Supply Wing

• Administrative Wing

• Engineering Wing

• 840 Signals Unit (Communications Centre Malta)

• RAF Provost and Security Services (Malta)

• 1151 Marine Craft Unit

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