This volume covers the period September 1941 to early March 1942 when the first Spitfires arrived in defence of Malta. The autumn of 1941 saw the Fleet Air Arm, the Royal Air Force, the warships of Force K and the submarines operating from the island, taking a heavy toll of the Italian convoys arrying troops and supplies to the Axis forces in Cyrenaica. The Royal Navy escorted several convoys to Malta but lost twommajor warships in November, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, when only one sailor was lost out of a complement of 1739, and the battleship Barham, sunk with the loss of 861 officers and men, including 36 Maltese ratings, a few days later. Another heavy loss was sutained in december when force K ran into a minefueld off tripoli and HMS Neptune and HMS Kandahar sank with the loss of 763 officers and men in the cruiser and 73 in the destroyer.
In December, Hitler appointed Field Marshal Albert Kesselring as Commander-in-Chief Southern Area when the Luftwaffe returned to Sicily with orders to eliminate the island’s offensive capabilities. The Eighth army had advanced as far as Benghasi in Operation Crusader but with the Luftwaffe pressing its attacks on Mlata with increasing ferocity and curtainling operations from the island. The Afrika Korps Commander, General Erwin Rommel, took the offensive and swept the British troops back almost to the Egyptian frontier in January 1942. With most of Cyrenaica back in Axis hands, the oyal Navy had to fight the convoys to Mlata from Alexandria and lost a number of warships and merchantmen in the process. Malta was now more beleaguered than ever before, under intermittent air attacks on the airfields and the harbours. There were very heavy civilian casualties and massive destruction of public buildings and private homes in Valletta and in many of the towns and villages.