Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Malta Story

(UK, 1953)

I’m a sort of WWII buff, but I hadn’t known much about the siege of Malta. The little island is smack dab in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, and thus, in wartime, was a vital place for airfields used to attack convoys coming from any direction The British held it, but it was a very tenuous hold. The British troops and RAF pilots and the Maltese people were hammered every day by fucking Nazi and Italian bombers. Most of the fighter planes had been destroyed on the ground, and repeated attempts to replace them had failed. Even if they had the planes, they had almost no petrol, what Americans would call kerosene. The situation was beyond dire. There was very little food, either. It was vital that a convoy make it into the harbour, most of all with more petrol.

Finally a squadron of 61 Spitfires were able to land, and now the marauding bombers were picked off by the British fighter planes, which also took a heavy toll on the German fighters. The Spitfire was the hottest plane in the European theater at the time. But there was still very little fuel.

Alec Guinness plays an RAF photo reconnaissance pilot, a mild-mannered archaeologist in civilian life. There is a romance, but it’s really a small side story to the main one, which is the desperate and, so far as I can tell, extremely accurate telling of the bigger story of the defense of Malta. Jack Hawkins is the RAF commander, sweating his way through one skin-of-their-teeth situation after another.

It all came down, in the end, to one ship, the SS Ohio, confiscated from the Texaco company a bit earlier. She was a tanker, the only one in the most critical convoy. If she didn’t get through, Malta would almost certainly have been invaded, and the invasion would have been successful. Though the story told in this movie is a good one, the story I’d really like to see is that of the Ohio. It is a saga in itself, and a most improbable one. I just read up on it at Wiki, and it staggers the imagination. This ugly old lady just would not go to the bottom. Hit repeatedly by bombs, on fire, her back broken, abandoned at least three different times, she stayed afloat with almost unimaginable damage. Many died keeping her up and at least minimally running. In the end, they lashed her to two destroyers and brought her into the harbour very slowly. (She was greeted with full military honors, a brass band, and most of the Maltese population cheering on the shore.) As the petrol was pumped out of her, she finally gave up, broke in two, and settled to the bottom.

This movie effectively blends real footage of German planes flying over to drop their loads with good model work (some of it by my friend Albert Whitlock). There is actual footage of Ohio arriving, between the two destroyers.

Watching this, I was struck by just how many times the whole course of the war was changed for England by things that were so close they took your breath away. There was Dunquerque, then the Battle of Britain, and then this. It really was totally vital. When the RAF was able to fly from Malta again, they could attack convoys bound for North Africa to re-supply Rommel, who was at El Alamein. If that clever bastard hadn’t run out of gas, I think he would have eaten General Montgomery’s lunch. His tanks were better and his men were better trained. But he did run out of gas, and it was because of Malta.