By Mark ‘Crowley’ Russell
The Mediterranean saw some of the most intense fighting of the Second World War, and the Allied island outpost of Malta was subjected to a relentless bombing campaign which saw several thousand aircraft shot down over Maltese waters. In the second of our six-part series previewing the wrecks recently opened to technical divers by Heritage Malta’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit (UCHU), we take a look at two types of aircraft – one Allied and one Axis – that both played instrumental roles during the conflict, with thanks to information and photographs provided by UCHU.
- Part 1 – HMS Olympus and HMS Russell
- Part 2 – Fairey Swordfish and Junkers Ju88
- Part 3 – HMS Southwold
- Part 4 – HMS Nasturtium and Le Polynesien
- Part 5 – SS Luciston and HMS Trusty Star
- Part 6 – ORP Kujawiak and Schnellboot S-31
The Fairey Swordfish biplane was a torpedo bomber designed by the Fairey Aviation Company which first took flight in 1934, but continued to serve in both the RAF and Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy until 1945, long after the arrival of single-wing (monoplane) aircraft.
Also known by its nickname ‘Stringbag’ – because it was capable of carrying a vast array of different items, like a large string shopping bag – the Fairey Swordfish was primarily a carrier-based aircraft, notably on the famous Illustrious-class aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. It was also used for aerial reconnaissance, naval mine deployment and pilot training.
Although considered to be obsolete by the start of the Second World War, by the time the war ended in 1945, Swordfish were reported to have been responsible for sinking more Axis shipping than any other type of Allied aircraft. The Swordfish was especially successful during anti-submarine operations, sinking a total of 14 U-Boats during the conflict.
In May of 1941, Swordfish were instrumental in the sinking of Nazi Germany’s notorious Bismarck, one of the largest and most heavily armed battleships of the Second World War. During a series of attacks launched from HMS Victorious and HMS Ark Royal, several Swordfish torpedoes struck the Bismarck, with the last damaging the battleship’s rudder to such an extent that she could no longer evade the Allied guns.
This particular aircraft was forced to ditch into the sea in April 1934 due to engine failure. The pilot was picked up and rescued by off-duty men from the Royal Air Force Air-Sea Rescue Service, who just happened to be sailing past on a 27ft boat from the RAF Kalafrana sailing club.
The wreckage was discovered at a depth of 65m outside St Julian’s Bay in 2017. The skeleton of the Swordfish remains, along with its engine, propeller and cowling (the covering for the biplane’s engine), which have all survived intact. The ‘plane lies on an otherwise sterile seabed, attracting a wide variety of sealife.
Junkers JU 88
The twin-engined Junkers Ju 88 was designed by Junkers Flugzeug und Motorenwerke (JFM) in the 1930s to be a versatile combat aircraft performing a variety of different functions. The Ju 88 was originally built to be a Schnellbomber (fast bomber), capable of delivering a payload while outrunning contemporary fighter planes, but many different variants were built and the Ju 88 also served as a dive bomber, night fighter, torpedo bomber and reconnaissance aircraft.
During the Second World War, Malta – at the time still a British colony – was the only allied base between Gibraltar and Alexandria in Egypt, and consequently became a prime target for Axis bombers, particularly during the North Africa Campaign which lasted between 1940 and 1943.
In what became known as the Siege of Malta, Axis forces attempted to seize control of Malta through a sustained bombing campaign. When the first raids by the Italian Air Force commenced, the Allied air defence consisted of twelve obsolete Gloster Sea Gladiators – six of which were still in their shipping crates. The first strike aircraft to reach the island were actually twelve Fairey Swordfish, which landed at Malta’s Hal Far airbase after escaping the south of France.
When the Luftwaffe arrived in January 1941, squadrons of Junkers Ju 88 bombers and dive bombers, accompanied by Messerschmitt BF-109 fighters, joined the relentless bombing campaign. Allied reinforcements came to Malta’s defence, eventually numbering over 600 fighters and bombers. In November 1942, thanks in part to the arrival of a large contingent of Spitfires on the island, the Axis forces were forced to withdraw, although air raids would continue until July 1943.
The loss of ships, aircraft and lives around Malta was immense. 27 Allied ships, 38 submarines and 433 aircraft were destroyed, but the Axis forces were decimated. It is estimated that more than 2,000 Axis aircraft and 2,300 ships were destroyed during the Siege of Malta. It is thought that these losses were instrumental in the success of the Allied campaign in North Africa.
The remains of this Ju 88 were discovered at a depth of 55m outside Salina Bay in 2009, probably shot down by flak over its target or as the result of a dogfight. The tail section is separated from the fuselage but the wreck is otherwise well preserved, with the forward-mounted machine gun still in place at the front of the cockpit.
The wrecks featured in this series have been declared to be Archaeological Zones in the Sea by the Cultural Heritage Act of Maltese law, and it must be remembered that most are also war graves. As such, the wrecks can only be dived through dive centres approved and registered with the Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit of Heritage Malta, and protective measures to prevent unauthorised diving are strictly enforced. For more information, the original UCHU reports and a complete list of approved dive operators, visit the Heritage Malta Historic Wreck pages at www.visitmalta.com.