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Book Review: Operation C3: Hitler's Plan to Invade Malta 1942


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Book Review: Operation C3: Hitler's Plan to Invade Malta 1942
-John Burtt

Throughout the history of the Second World War, there have been numerous military operations that were planned but never carried out for one reason or another. The German invasion of England in 1940 is one such operation, and the chances for success or crushing failure have been discussed endlessly since the war, as is the planned 1943 Allied invasion of Europe. A lesser-known operation that never got out of the planning stage was Operation C3, the 1942 German-Italian plan to invade Malta. Until recently, however, there has not been any serious academic look at the plan, the forces devoted to invading and defending the island, and its chances for success. John Burtt has set out to change that with a book examining the historical background, discussing the forces involved during the critical years of 1942, and then providing a military history of an invasion that never actually took place.

The first chapters of the book set the scene by examining the complicated relationship between Mussolini’s Italy, Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Great Britain. Italy had entered the First World War on the Allied side, but was severely disenchanted by what it saw as a lack of booty in exchange for its efforts. Mussolini took advantage of both political weakness and economic downturns by launching a coup, taking control of the country and setting her on the path to reclaim what he saw as a lost military heritage. Mussolini was not up to the task, however, and Italy’s early steps towards military supremacy could easily have ended very badly if Britain and France have shown more resolve. The idea of keeping Mussolini and Hitler apart was understandable, but wrong-headed. Hitler could, at least in theory, offer Mussolini more in return for his support. He had cause to regret it.

It also discusses the political background on Malta itself. The island was not as loyal to Britain as post-war stories suggest, with clashes over religion and social ties to Italy, or at least to the Vatican, raising the spectre of a fifth column that might rise against the governor if the Italians invaded. There were, however, good reasons for any dissident locals to sit on their hands, as while they might have ties to Italy they had relatively few to Mussolini and his fascist regime.

The next set of chapters outline the Mediterranean War between 1940, when Italy entered the war without any real planning or preparations, and 1942, when the fate of the Mediterranean theatre seemed to hang in the balance. The Italians did better, Burtt argues, than many of their detractors insist, but the lack of planning severely hampered their efforts. Indeed, the author states that a surprise descent on Malta in 1940 would almost certainly have been successful, as the island was almost undefended at the time, yet the Italians did not seem to realise the opportunity existed until it was far too late. The early aerial attacks on Malta were largely unsuccessful, which properly helped keep the island loyal, but later attacks - spearheaded by German aircraft - were far more destructive. It was incredibly difficult for Britain to keep the islands supplied with food, weapons, and everything else it needed and the island came very close to starvation more than once. Indeed, there were strong suggestions that the pressure on the Royal Navy was too high to be born, and if the island was invaded it would be very difficult to interdict enemy troop convoys with forces based at each end of the Mediterranean (Gibraltar and Alexandria). Fortunately, in the original timeline, the Royal Navy was able to keep the islands supplied with just enough to keep them from having to surrender.

The book then goes on to discuss the forces assigned to invading and defending the island. On paper, the Germans and Italians could have landed enough troops to win even if they took very heavy losses. They might even have been able to land a soldier for every able-bodied man of military age on the island. The British forces were reasonably well-equipped for their mission, but overall planning for defence was severely hampered by command failures, which made training and joint exercises incredibly difficult. There was also the severe weakness that it was unlikely additional supplies could be rushed to the island if the invasion began, ensuring that once the defenders ran out of war stocks they would have to surrender. Worse, it would take several days for naval units to reach the island and block the troop transports, which would be extremely costly even under the best case scenario. The British commanders had no illusions about what would happen if the invaders got a solid foothold and could bring in reinforcements. The island almost certainly be lost.

In practice, it isn’t clear how easily the invasion plan could have been carried out. The German ability to land paratroopers had taken a severe beating during the invasion of Crete and, even the best case scenario, there would be a considerable gap between the landing of the paratroopers and their seaborne reinforcements. (Ours, at best.) The Italian Navy have done a great deal of self-improvement work, after several painful early lessons, but they would find it very difficult to land troops on Malta - the terrain alone would prove a serious obstacle, as one Italian spy found to his cost (he had to be rescued by British troops) - let alone keep them supplied. On the plus side, the British had very limited supplies and would almost certainly lose control of the air very quickly, while the Royal Navy ships rushing to the island would be following a very predictable path, bringing them into range of Italian submarines and aircraft.

The book then moves on to outlining a hypothetical four-day invasion of Malta, ending with the conclusion that the Germans and Italians would probably have won the day. It seems to me that the outline is a little optimistic - in that, it has much in common with Kenneth Macksey’s campaign history of a successful Sealion in 1980 (Invasion; a condensed version is included in The Hitler Options (1995)) - and gives the Germans and Italians credit they probably do not deserve, but is always more interesting to explore a campaign that might change the course of the war than a brief, vicious, yet ultimately unsuccessful invasion. That said, Malta’s supplies really were very low and a high-intensity engagement would drain them very quickly. It is possible the Germans might win by simply outlasting the defenders.

If the Germans and Italians had conquered Malta, what would happen next? Burtt argues the effects would be less dramatic than most people think. The United States had entered the conflict and American resources meant that the British could not be driven out of the war. Rommel might have more supplies, in a world where the Germans and Italians controlled Malta, but there is no way he could been given enough to tip the balance. However, with the Mediterranean theatre looking significantly less favourable to the Allies, it is quite likely that the Americans would have refused to commit to either Operation Torch or the invasion of Italy. Instead, they might have demanded an invasion of France in 1943.

It is beyond the scope of this book to speculate on how that might have gone, but I will. On one hand, the German defences in France were very weak and the German air force would have taken significant losses in the Mediterranean even if it had finally emerged victorious. On the other hand, the Americans were much less prepared for modern warfare (as proven in the Battle of Kasserine Pass), and is possible that the invasion would have stalemated or produced a bloody defeat. Hitler would have seen this as a good thing. Stalin would have been furious. But, regardless of how the war developed in 1944-1945, the atomic bomb was on the way. The war might have been ended by the Americans dropping atomic bombs on Berlin, after which – hopefully - Hitler would have been overthrown and the Germans doing their best to surrender.

If the invasion had failed, what then? Burtt does not speculate. It is possible to argue there would be no major changes. Historically, Malta was never invaded. However, a failed invasion would certainly have cost the Germans and Italians dearly even if they inflicted crushing losses on the defenders (which represented a tiny fraction of British forces), and those losses would be heavily concentrated in aircraft, ships, and highly trained pilots and paratroopers. It is possible, to borrow a concept from Dale Cozort’s Operation Torch Delayed, that the aircraft losses would be heavy enough to convince Hitler to allow his forces to retreat from Stalingrad before it was too late to get them out without horrific losses, if it was clearly impossible to supply them from the air. It is also possible that dissent within the Italian government would become more open, if the invasion failed on the scale that could not be easily concealed. Mussolini might be removed from power much earlier.

It is always fascinating when a military historian commits himself to outlining a campaign that never took place in the real world. A good historian is very aware of the true strength and weaknesses of the forces involved, something most amateur alternate historians lack. He goes into the matter with a depth few can match. This book is a very good outline of the background, the political and military situation in 1942, and how a hypothetical campaign might have played itself out. It does not explore the possible outcomes for the war in great detail, if invasion had taken place, but that would be beyond the scope of the book.

If you enjoy setting the background, and then following an outline of a campaign that is realistic as possible even though it never happened, you might enjoy this book.