Throughout the 1930s, Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy, had made it clear that he saw Italy as a global power, one whose territories dominated Africa and the Mediterranean.  The so-called Pact of Steel signed with Nazi Germany in 1939 strengthened his position, but it had based – on his part – on the assumption that Germany would not engage in full-scale war for at least five years.  This was short-sighted to say the least and by the time Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Italy was still woefully ill-prepared for war herself.

Mussolini bided his time throughout the Phoney War, but with France’s capitulation looking certain and believing Britain would be forced to sue for peace, Il Duce reckoned he could benefit from the misfortunes of the Allies and so, on June 10, 1940, declared war.

After firing the opening salvoes over Malta, Mussolini pulled back his attacks in order to concentrate the bulk of his airborne forces against the now-dying France and French-held Tunisia, which he determined should be his first objective.  But despite the fall of France and Britain’s weakened position, Italy was ill-prepared for war, and the slackening of Italian air attacks on Malta – at a time when the island was desperately vulnerable – demonstrated not only how limited his resources were, but also his woeful lack of judgment.

It was this lack of judgement, however, that eventually brought the Germans to the Mediterranean.  In October 1940, without Hitler’s knowledge, Mussolini invaded Greece; but far from gaining the sweeping victory he’d been expecting, the Italians were soon in retreat.  Furious, Hitler ordered German forces to the Balkans the Mediterranean to help.  So began an uneasy partnership that would bring misery to the whole Mediterranean, Malta included.

It is fair to say that the majority of Italians were unenthusiastic about the war and had little interest in destroying their island neighbour.  Lying just sixty miles south of Sicily, Malta had always had close ties with Italy and much in common, especially their mutual links with the Catholic Church.  Most Maltese could hardly believe that in June 1940, Italy was bombing their island.

The Maltese soon learned to scorn the Italian pilots: their bombers were frequently way off target, and too high; their fighter pilots equally ineffective.  Yet this said more about the Italians’ unwillingness to attack an enemy they regarded as an ally than it did about any lack of skill or bravery.  Nor did many of the Italians share the ruthlessness of their Axis partners.  On Christmas Day, 1941, Italian pilots flew over Takali airfield and dropped a package: inside was a hand-drawn card with the inscription, ‘Happy Christmas to the Gentleman of the Royal Air Force at Takali from the Gentlemen of the Regia Aeronautica, Sicily.’  There were also numerous reports of Italians dropping bombs in the open sea and firing their guns into the air.  One RAF pilot found himself being pursued by an Italian fighter. No matter what he did, the Italian stuck on his tail and the British pilot could not understand why his adversary was not firing.  Then eventually the Italian pulled up alongside, waved, fired his guns into the air, and disappeared back to Sicily.

Most of the Regia Aeronuatica’s pilots and aircrew operated over Malta at some point, and there were a number of aces who emerged from the aerial war over the island  - men like Ennio ‘Banana’ Tarantola, Furio Niclot Doglio and Walter Omiccioli. Niclot was a former test pilot, and in his thirties by the time he was becoming Italy’s first Malta ace.  Throughout the early summer of 1942, he and Tarantola flew together in a highly successful partnership.  Sadly for Niclot, on July 27, he became one of George ‘Screwball’ Beurling’s four victims.

Britain never had much cause to doubt the loyalty of the Maltese, although there was an Italian faction on the island before the war.  Most with known Italian sympathies were deported to the Sudan, but there was one notorious case of a Maltese man arriving from Italy in an attempt to spy on the British.  His entire mission was a fiasco and he was caught before even making it ashore.  There would be no mercy, however.  Borg Pisani was tried and convicted as a traitor and in November 1942, was hanged. 




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