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E - 126 : Thanks to Malta No Oil for the Axis

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

HMS Eagle sinking after being torpedoed during "Operation Pedestal", August 1942

We talked about the strategic importance of the Mediterranean in WW2 in a previous blog. One of the key reasons for invading Italy in 1943 was to establish airbases from where the US and Royal Air Force could attack and destroy Hitler’s oilfields in Romania. Their destruction would decisively reduce the Wehrmacht’s and Luftwaffe’s mobility.

We start our trip this summer in Malta which had to endure a half year-long Ottoman siege in 1565. The walls from that battle are still visible everywhere. From 1940 to 1942, Malta was besieged again - by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The scars of this siege are also visible everywhere. The map below with its concentric rings explains why Malta was such a lethal threat to the Axis’. It derailed their war strategic quest for oil.

The drawing line indicates the range of Blenheim , the punctuated line of Wellington bombers. The blue lines are the supply routes of the Axis

When I read once that the German High Command intended to take Alexandria and the Suez Canal as stepping-stones for pushing into Palestine and Iraq, I thought this was a bit far-fetched. Blocking the Suez Canal seemed to be already an important strategic goal. Except that it was not. Given the threat from the Italian Navy, the Regia Marina, the British Empire had diverted most of its maritime traffic to India around the Cape of Good Hope. There was not much traffic going through the Suez Canal anymore. As a matter of fact, all the supplies for British Forces in North Africa were shipped via Cape Town. When the Imperial Japanese Navy tried to establish submarine bases in Madagascar in May 1942, the British Empire reacted quickly and occupied the island, a Vichy French colony at that time.

Recent publications shed light on the German war efforts in the Mediterranean. When it comes to oil, the world in 1930 was quite different from today. The United States produced 70% of the world’s oil. This easy access to transportable energy allowed it to build the most modern and efficient industry and early mass mobility. The US Army was small in 1938 and had only 174’000 men. But thanks to the America's industrial potential, it was possible to increase it quickly to 8.7 million men by the end of 1945. This new fighting force was fully motorized, had a high number of armored divisions, mobile artillery and air power never seen before. The firepower of the US Forces had no equivalent.

Global oil production - the chart is a bit outdated since it does not reflect the recent surge of US oil production - but still illustrates my point

The remaining 30% of oil were pumped in Azerbaijan, Persia, Venezuela and Northern Iraq. England had insisted after it won WW1 that the formerly Ottoman oilfields in Mesopotamia became an English Protectorate. Iraq was created. The Royal Navy never forgot that it was dependent on US oil during the Great War. It needed its own oil to stay a relevant super power.

The German Nazis knew these fundamental facts as well. Two of their major war efforts were directed to secure oil for the Reich. Many people laugh about Hitler, the lance corporal. But he understood that fighting modern wars required energy and mobility. Not for nothing had he built a modern Air Force and the world’s best Tank Divisions. But without fuel, they were of little use. Germany did not have any – except the synthetic trickle produced from coal at exorbitant cost. Azerbaijan and Iraq were places Hitler was strategically interested in. He needed to conquer at least one of them. Hitler knew that he could not take on America “where the Jews governed without constraints” without oil.

We won’t have the time to talk about the Wehrmacht’s summer 1942 campaign to reach and take over the oilfields of the Soviet Union in Baku. But focus on General Rommel’s efforts to get to Iraq instead. He almost got there. El-Alamein, where his summer offensive in 1942 came to a halt, was only 118 km or 64 nautical miles away from Alexandria in Egypt.

British Soldiers from the Arab Legion protect an airfield taken from the Iraqis - May 1941

Rommel knew from secret contacts which Nazi Germany maintained with Arab nationalists that England was an unpopular colonial power. In May 1941, a nationalist government in Iraq almost succeeded in throwing the British out. They secretly received weapons from Germany via French Syria. Had the British Empire not shipped Indian troops to Basra, Iraq may well have been lost. Within a month, the Indians occupied Bagdad and re-asserted British control. But it was close. Rommel knew that. If he could destroy the British 8th Army in Egypt, there was nothing left to stop him from pushing into the Levant and to Iraq. A nationalist Arab uprising against the British masters would surely follow – and guarantee Nazi Germany’s access to Iraq’s oil.

And that is the moment when Malta came to matter. It is an open secret that Rommel could not maintain his summer 1942 offensive because he run out of ammunition, fuel, food and spare parts. He was forced to stop. Rommel thus lost the momentum to defeat the remainder of the demoralized British 8th Army which he had routed in Tobruk. His supply trucks had to catch up first. But when they did – they had very little to deliver!

Wellington Bombers from 458 Squadron attacking Axis freighters in the Mediterranean

A flotilla of Royal Navy submarines and several bomber squadrons stationed in Malta in 1941 constantly attacked the Italian and German supply lines. They were so effective that Rommel at one point lost 80% of the supplies he was supposed to get. His mechanized Africa Corps became immobilized. Even worse, there were not enough freighters in the Mediterranean for the task. Italy’s shipping industry was busy churning out warships but had no ability to mass-produce merchant ships. With every tanker and freighter the Royal Navy sent to the bottom of the sea, the shortage became more severe. With radar on their spotter planes, the English pilots directed their submarines and bombers precisely to the Italian freighters who tried to run the gauntlet. Four out of five were struck and sunk - albeit at horrible costs for the attackers. Many never returned..

This photo is titled "Italian Air Force bombing Malta" - I assume it is a fabricated. The plane looks more like an inserted German Ju-52 and bombing the 16th century fortifications of La Valetta visible here was not a strategic target

The German High Command was always aware of the danger of leaving Malta in the hands of England. But its actions were inconsistent and not decisive. Italy was bombing Malta with little effect in 1940. Germany then sent an entire Air Flotilla (first half of 1941) which caused much more damage but still could not break the island's resistance. It was withdrawn in summer 1941 when it was needed for the Russian campaign.

Dry Dock damaged by German Raid in 1942

As Rommel made progress in Africa early 1942, the German Luftwaffe returned and serious preparations were made to invade Malta. But there was resistance in the German High Command and the plan came to nothing. More about this in one of my next blogs. In the meantime, England was able to re-supply Malta with convoys, albeit at terrible losses. Of the 14 merchant vessels taking part in the relief “Operation Pedestal” (talked about this in a blog last year), 9 plus an aircraft carrier were sunk. But the five surviving merchant ships brought in enough supplies for Malta to survive.

The tanker Ohio limping into Malta's Grand Harbor after being hit several times, Aug 1942

This blog is now getting long. Want to keep it at five minutes reading time but it is already at six. To close the story I shall mention the several thousands brave Maltese civilians, British pilots, submariners, sailors and merchant crews who gave their lives to defend Malta. Had they failed, the Axis would have gained access to unlimited oil from the Middle East. I dare not think of the consequences.

For anyone who has time for further reading, I recommend the following:

John Broich’s book “Blood, Oil and the Axis”, published in 2019 or

For people who prefer watching a documentary: The Siege of Malta,

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