I’VE NEVER BEEN ONE FOR THE “WHAT IF” GAME. You know what I mean: if only the Germans had done this or the Japanese done that, then World War II would have turned out differently. If only Hitler hadn’t halted the panzers at Dunkirk in May 1940, or diverted his forces toward Kiev in summer 1941. If only the Japanese had bombed the fuel tanks at Pearl Harbor along with the U.S. Pacific Fleet on December 7, 1941.
It’s enjoyable enough, toying with history’s possibilities. But the “what if” scenarios almost always fall apart when you examine the details. Command decisions in World War II usually happened for good reasons, imperatives that we sometimes fail to recognize.
Take one of the great “what ifs” of the war: Malta. With German, Italian, and British armies clashing for supremacy in North Africa, and German general Erwin Rommel’s panzers driving toward the Suez Canal, the stakes were high: nothing less than the fate of the British Empire.
But armies alone could not win the battle of North Africa. That theater placed the problem of logistics front and center. Every bullet, bean, and gallon of gas had to be shipped from Europe. For Rommel, that meant convoys of merchant ships making the run directly across the Mediterranean from Italy, heading right past Malta, and braving air attacks by Royal Air Force aircraft stationed on the island. Supply limited what Rommel could or could not do. If the convoys had a bad week, Rommel cooled his heels; if they got through, he ran wild.
The Axis command—Rommel; his boss, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring; and General Ugo Cavallero, chief of the Italian Supreme Command—knew all this, of course. They could see that Malta was the key to Suez. All three wanted to control Malta, or at least neutralize British air strength on the island. And so German and Italian air forces bombed Malta, and kept bombing it. Malta became one of the most bombed places on earth, and Maltese civilians suffered terribly.
Air raids never did wreck the RAF, however, and that’s where the great “what if” comes in.
Many folks argue that had the Germans and Italians invaded Malta—launching a paradrop on a vast scale like Operation Mercury, the invasion of Crete in May 1941—they could have shut down the RAF once and for all, rendering the Mediterranean safe for Axis shipping and allowing Rommel to smash his British and Commonwealth foe in North Africa.
In fact, in spring 1942, the Axis worked up plans to do just that: an airborne invasion of Malta, code-named Operation Hercules. Then Rommel’s drive into Egypt that summer siphoned off too many men, planes, and equipment, and the invasion never happened. Not a few analysts argue that failing to invade Malta was Hitler’s great lost opportunity of World War II.
Don’t count me among them. It just so happens that I am standing on Malta at the moment, and here’s what I am seeing: one of the most densely populated little islands on earth. A capital city, Valletta, so sprawling it’s tough to see where it ends and another urban area begins. One towering stone fortification after the other. Narrow, winding streets barely capable of handling vehicles. Sure, Malta is more built-up today than it was in 1942, but not that much more. If ever a target could frustrate airborne troops—who are basically light infantry, after all—Malta was it. Crete had been a bloody mess for the German paratroopers, but they did manage to take the island. Malta would have been simply a bloody mess.
The Germans lost World War II for a lot of reasons. Failing to take Malta was one of many. And frankly, from where I’m standing, I’m not sure they could have. ✯
This column was originally published in the December 2018 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.