Return to Malta:
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
When Italian planners forged Operazione C.3, the invasion of Malta, they along with their German colleagues covered an intricate set of details. The assault would include both airborne and amphibious landings, and would require follow-up landings of supplies and reinforcements, all on a very tight timetable with very little margin for error. Ultimately, that margin would appear thin enough to cause the operation’s cancellation.
Island of Death, our game of the planned invasion of Malta, covers the best-known aspects of the Axis invasion plan. The Fortress Malta book expands the game to become a much more intensive historical study of the possible invasion plans as they evolved over time.
But Fortress Malta doesn’t address quite all of the planning that went into this invasion that never was. The Italian staff also looked at what would happen after a successful landing and conquest: how would they hold the island against an Allied counter-attack? And how soon might such a counter-attack strike Malta?
Those questions are the foundation of our limited-edition supplement Island of Death: Return to Malta. The pieces and scenarios were originally drafted for inclusion in Fortress Malta, but that book already has too many pieces (420 instead of the 280 for which it was budgeted) and didn’t have room for any more text.
In Return to Malta, it’s the Axis (meaning the Italians) who have to defend the island, and the Allies who have to capture it. The Allied invasion force is of enormously better quality in terms of troops and equipment, but they’re having to conduct a major operation relatively far from their own bases by the standards of the European theater. It’s not an impossible task – the Japanese and Americans operated over far greater distances in the Pacific – but it’s not going to be easy for either side.
The defenders have to make do with decidedly second-line forces. Experience on Crete had shown that the elite units spearheading the invasion would take enormous damage and would have to be withdrawn soon afterwards. The paratroopers and Marines could not be counted on to wage a second battle, nor could such capable troops be tied down to await an attack that might never come. So the planners Italian worked in a third wave in the initial invasion.
The two standard infantry divisions of Lt. Gen. Carlo Rossi’s XVI Corps, the 26th “Assieta” and 54th “Napoli,” would land after the assault divisions and assist in mopping up any remaining resistance. They apparently undertook no special training in disembarking from landing craft, and would be expected to unload at a captured port. Rossi, a former alpino, collected four serious wounds and six medals for bravery in the Great War. He commanded against the French in 1940 with some success, and against the Greeks later that year with very little. In 1943 he would be in charge of the port defenses at La Spezia, when the garrison’s stout resistance allowed the Italian fleet to escape the Germans. He spent the rest of the war in German concentration camps, defying Mussolini and the Nazis.
Each of XVI Corps’ two divisions had two infantry regiments, plus a Blackshirt “legion” about hre size of a large battalion. The Assieta division saw action in France and Yugoslavia, and fought reasonably well against the Americans during the 1943 invasion of Sicily. The Napoli division experienced no combat until the invasion of Sicily, when it was fairly quickly wiped out by the British.
Rossi would also have a number of coast-defense artillery batteries contributed by the Navy and by the MVSN (Blackshirt) organization. Additional artillery and support units would also be attached to XVI Corps from the invasion force’s other formations. The Italian defenders would therefore number a little less than 20,000 men counting the coast-defense units, considerably less than the Allied garrison which would have had about 25,000 men at the time of the planned 1942 attack.
On the Allied side, little if any thought appears to have been giving to re-taking Malta; the British did not intend to lose the island in the first place. But if they had, Winston Churchill would surely have demanded its re-conquest. And it’s not that difficult to identify the formations that would have been available to assault the Italian-held fortress.
Second Canadian Division had spent the early months of 1942 training in amphibious assault operations in preparation for Operation Jubilee, a pointless division-sized raid on the port of Dieppe in landing from warships to destroy port facilities and coastal trading vessels, and meddling dilettante Winston Churchill insisted that such a scheme would still work almost 150 years later. The miniature invasion accomplished nothing beyond an astounding 68 percent casualty rate among the two Canadian brigades that conducted the landings. The concept of “descents” might have been outdated, but Napoleon’s assessment of “lions led by asses” was not.
While Canadian training included visits to slaughterhouses to inure the men to the sights and smells of blood and guts, the troops were otherwise well-prepared and the Canadian government wanted them actively deployed as soon as possible. With months of amphibious training behind them and the political necessity to get them into action, the Canadian division would be the obvious choice to lead an attack on Malta.
Along with its three infantry brigades, each of three battalions, the division also included a machine gun battalion and an attached Canadian tank regiment (battalion) with Churchill tanks. The division numbered about 18,000 men, but in 1942 was still mostly led by older veterans of the Great War.
Two small brigades of Royal Marines would have been available; some of these men participated in the Dieppe raid. And the United States Marines had their 2nd Provisional Brigade built around the 3rd Marine Regiment. Finally, the Polish Parachute Brigade was ready for operations; conducting a parachute landing at such an extreme range (probably taking off at Gibraltar) would have been extraordinarily difficult and the troops would likely have had to come over the beaches. But the possibility, however remote, would have forced the Italian defenders to prepare to repel parachutists as well as amphibious invaders.
Return to Malta asks a question that we just couldn’t fit into Fortress Malta: if the Axis had captured Malta in 1942, could they have held it against the inevitable counter-invasion? Gold Club members will get to find out.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.