DIARIES OF A SPITFIRE PILOT

The author, Lord James Douglas Hamilton, is the nephew of Lord David Douglas Hamilton who commanded 603 'City of Edinburgh' Squadron when it was based in Malta, flying Spitfire Mk V's. He was killed subsequently on a photo reconnaissance mission in a Mosquito from RAF Benson, but his diary has lived on as one of the very few contemporary records of the extraordinary siege of Malta.

The author, Lord James Douglas Hamilton, is the nephew of Lord David Douglas Hamilton who commanded 603 'City of Edinburgh' Squadron when it was based in Malta, flying Spitfire Mk V's. He was killed subsequently on a photo reconnaissance mission in a Mosquito from RAF Benson, but his diary has lived on as one of the very few contemporary records of the extraordinary siege of Malta. The author claims that it is the lack of such records which accounts for the relative obscurity of this crucial air battle that alternately smouldered and flared between mid 1940 and mid 1943.

There can be little doubt about the importance of the outcome of this desperate siege. The Axis powers knew that air supremacy was a vital prerequisite for a successful invasion of the island, but on the two major occasions when this was within their grasp they went for other goals Crete on the first occasion and Cairo on the second. With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see that not invading Malta when he could was one of Hitler's worst mistakes. The island became an unsinkable aircraft carrier which preyed upon the Axis airborne and seaborne supply routes across to North Africa, and it was the consequent severe shortages of matériel which did for General Rommel in the end.

Like most of us, I was aware of the legend of the defence of Malta by the three Gloster Gladiators, Faith, Hope and Charity, but I had no idea that this episode was just the start of a three year saga. Little by little the strength of the air defence was increased, first by a few Hurricanes, then some Spitfires, then three whole squadrons of Spitfires. These were greatly outnumbered by German and Italian bomber forces strongly supported by Me 109's and based only sixty miles away in Sicily.

The air battle of Malta is a continuing tale of victories against impossible odds, and surprisingly small losses on the British side. They were very much helped by fighting over their own territory, and there were many cases of pilot baling out, being pulled out of the drink by the rescue launch and getting back in the air again on the same day. By the time that North Africa had fallen to the Allies there were some 600 aircraft based in Malta, which had become the springboard for the air assault on Sicily. The parallel with the Battle of Britain is easily drawn, and many of those pilots who fought in that and subsequently in the defence of Malta reckoned Malta to have been the tougher contest by far.

This is a well written, convincing and vivid account of one of the world's great aerial battles. Nigel Everett.

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