Fortress Malta: Matthew Willis interview

Matthew Willis

The aviation historian has written a series set during Operation Pedestal, the fight to relieve the island of Malta.
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You’ve written a number of books of historical fiction of a different era, but your Fortress of Malta trilogy is the first fiction you’ve written that has incorporated your love and expertise of naval aircraft from the Second World War. Why is that?

Partly circumstances, but mostly I hadn’t previously been struck by an idea or a character that really inspired me. With fiction, my writing tends to stem from something that comes out of the blue. Something will hit me without warning – a scenario or a character, usually just a little fragment of something that promises a lot more behind it. It just happened that prior to The Fortress of Malta, those ideas had been about other things – the 19th century navy, airships in the 1920s, the early life of William the Conqueror – and the Second World War aviation hadn’t really had a look in. Perhaps because I was writing a lot about that in non-fiction and it felt more like work, it’s hard to say.

The trilogy is set around Operation Pedestal, the naval operation to relieve Malta during the Second World War. Putting yourself in the place of the Admiralty and Churchill at the time, would you have proceeded with the operation?

Absolutely, I don’t think there was any alternative. Malta needed the supplies somehow, and it needed more than could be sneaked past the Axis in submarines or fast minelayers, and without it, Malta might well have had to surrender. It certainly wouldn’t have been able to act as the base for offensive operations. After the earlier convoy, Operation Harpoon, which is the basis for the first book in the trilogy, had failed to bring through the volume of supplies that Malta really needed, then it was clear that only this last throw of the dice would be sufficient. And it was also clear after Harpoon that only an absolutely maximum-effort convoy would have any chance of success. Harpoon had used two old carriers and a relatively small number of aircraft. Pedestal would use three carriers, two of them big, modern fleet carriers which the Royal Navy could ill afford to lose. It was undoubtedly a huge gamble, but the stakes were too high not to attempt it.

Your hero (or anti-hero) Edmund Clydesdale is a Sea Hurricane pilot fighting against overwhelming odds. What is his view of Operation Pedestal?

Well Edmund has a personal reason for wanting Pedestal to succeed, but having seen what it’s like on Malta at the height of the siege, which is covered in the middle book, Bastion, he’s in absolutely no doubt that it has to succeed. He tends to be a bit on the pessimistic side, but in this case, the sheer human cost of failure has been brought home to him in such stark terms that he can’t possibly consider the possibility that they might not succeed in bringing the supplies through. And because of that, he knows he can’t be half-hearted about it, he has to throw everything into protecting those merchant ships even if it means incredible risks both for himself and the people he’s fighting alongside. Essentially, they’re expendable.

Historians have stated that the Sea Hurricanes on the Royal Navy carriers were not in the same class as their German and Italian counterparts, as well as being heavily outnumbered. Is that fair?

The Sea Hurricanes used during Operation Pedestal were modified MkI – that’s the same model as the RAF were using during the Battle of Britain, fully two years before Operation Pedestal. They’re not just an older type, they’re older individual aircraft so they’re all worn out to one degree or another. The RAF had only very reluctantly agreed to transfer Hurricanes for conversion to the Navy, and initially only released its oldest, least capable aircraft that it had rejected for front line use. They were still much better as interceptors than the slow, unwieldy Fulmar long-range fighter that the Navy had relied on until then, but hardly the perfect tool for the job.

The Hurricane. Credit: Creative Commons

And of course the enemy hasn’t been standing still. Some of their fighters are still machines like the Macchi C.200, which a Sea Hurricane Mk I can still fight on roughly equal terms, but there are also newer Reggiane Re 2005 and Messerschmitt Bf 109F fighters which are significantly in advance of the Sea Hurricane. Worse still, the Italian and German bombers were fast enough that the Sea Hurricanes had trouble catching them.

In fact, Churchill was shocked when he visited HMS Indomitable earlier in 1942 and discovered that her air group would contain Mk I Hurricanes, and he demanded that the Navy be supplied with newer fighters. And indeed this was a lesson that was reinforced during Operation Harpoon. The pilots and fighter directors did a magnificent job, better than anyone had a right to expect, but there’s no doubt that they were being asked to do it with inferior equipment.

What were the German and Italian planes most feared by the convoy?

The two most deadly aircraft were the Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 torpedo bomber and the German Junkers Ju 88 medium bomber. Both of these were fast, well-armed and between them could hit the convoy at low level with torpedoes and high level with bombs, dividing the convoy’s defences and making it difficult to avoid an attack from one source or another. In addition to those was the Ju 87 Stuka, which added dive-bombing to the mix.

The merchantmen showed outstanding bravery, as the larger Royal Navy vessels turned back to Gibraltar – how much did that bravery contribute to the relief of Malta?

The Ohio limps into Malta

Unquestionably it was critical. You only have to read about the ordeal experienced by the crew of the tanker Ohio, under repeated attack by bombs and torpedoes from aircraft and a submarine, with very little ability to defend, to see how essential it was. It was superhuman what those men endured, on a broken-backed, burning, sinking ship, but still they fought with everything they had to keep the ship together and moving, and pumping out as much of the flooding as possible. No-one could have forgiven them for giving up, but they kept at it for days on end.

In the village where I grew up, a relative of a neighbour had been a sailor on one of the Pedestal merchantmen and I got to speak to him about it a couple of times. I’ll never forget the story of his ship being torpedoed in the bow, and as the water rushed in it hit a store of flour, which expanded to fill the gap and set like concrete, keeping them afloat until they could get to Malta. It takes nerves of steel to fight with the armed forces during a battle like Pedestal, but I can’t even imagine what it’s like to go through it on a lightly armed, sluggish merchant ship under a rain of bombs for two or three days straight.

What’s your favourite fighter of the Second World War?

I’m biased of course, but it’s the good old Hurricane. It may lack the glamour of the Spitfire and Mustang but to my mind it was more important than both of them put together. Pedestal was just one of three or four battles or campaigns where Hurricanes had a decisive impact on the outcome and I’m not sure you can say the same for any other fighter.

What are you working on next?

In terms of non-fiction, some more Malta-related work with an article on the Gladiators ‘Faith, Hope and Charity.’ In terms of fiction, I aim to finish a very long-term project, a novel about US Army fighter-bomber pilots in the Mediterranean theatre in 1943. In fact, one of the characters in The Fortress of Malta – the war correspondent, Vickery – was first created for that novel, and it’s really at least half his story, so readers of the Malta novellas should have an idea what to expect.

This book has been with me for a long time and has grown with me as a writer. It’s a bit of a monster at the moment – about twice as long as the average novel, so it needs an awful lot of work to carve it into shape, but I’m quite excited that it might see the light of day before too long, probably around a decade after I first started work on it.


Harpoon, Bastion and Indomitable form the trilogy, Fortress Malta, by Matthew Willis, published by Sharpe Books.