During the nineteen fifties annual air defence exercises were held in Malta to test Malta's air and coastal defences. These were given code names such as D.X.M. 1951 and D.X.M. 1952 for the exercises held in 1951 and 1952. This article recalls one of these exercises, D.X.M. 1951, which was the Malta element forming part of a major exercise in the Central Mediterranean, code named Beehive and this article is based on The Times of Malta reports.
This exercise started at midnight on 12 August, 1951. The forces "attacking" Malta were codenamed White Force and were represented by the American Sixth Fleet. "The defenders", including the Royal Navy's Mediterranean fleet, were tagged as Black force.
The first aerial attacks were at 5a.m on Monday 13 August and were made by carrier-based fighters. Banshee jet fighters and piston-engined Corsairs swept down from an early morning sky, screaming in over Ta' Qali and Luqa, catching Black force aircraft on the ground and theoretically destroying parts of both stations. But Black force Vampires had not been asleep and had already been vectored unto the raiders and many sharp dogfights took place over and around Malta's skies as British and US jets fought it out.
This was the first effort on the enemy's part to neutralize Malta, Catania and Augusta, all Black strongholds - as a prelude to an attempted forcing of the Sicilian Straits. Black Lancasters sought out the White fleet early the day before and had shadowed them at extreme radar range, reporting their position regularly and enabling the Naval commanders at Lascaris to deploy Black fleet accordingly. No contact however had yet been made by the surface naval forces.
The White fleet and a convoy all under the command of Vice Admiral Matthias B. Gardener, Commander Sixth fleet, was reported as being 360 miles north west of Malta, with the carriers Coral Sea and Oriskany some 70 miles closer.
Well-informed sources believed that the White strategy was split into three phases, the first being the neutralizing of Black air positions at Malta, Catania, and Bizerta. Secondly came the forcing of a sea engagement, in which the White fleet - the US Sixth fleet - is considerably stronger. Thirdly, it was planned to carry out an amphibious landing on Malta to pave the way for the successful forcing of the White convoy through the Sicilian narrows.
A complete inspection of Malta was made to try to anticipate the most likely place for White force to land small sabotage parties and the main assault force. Defences were also sought out and airfield defence systems investigated. At Mellieha and Ghajn Tuffieha there were no troops. The only defending personnel who could be seen were at the Royal Marine training centre, Ghajn Tuffieha, where troops were receiving a briefing with the aid of a relief tabletop map of Malta.
On crossing Marfa Ridge and Mellieha Ridge - both unmanned until late yesterday - one could look down on Armier and Paradise Bays. Both would provide suitable landing parties for nuisance raids, with good roads right near at hand. St Paul's Bay was likewise unmanned although Fort Campbell provided seaward cover there. At Bahar ic-Caghaq there was only one anti-aircraft gun and the proportional amount of radar tracking and range finding gear, all manned by the Royal Malta Artillery. No signs of activity came from the nearby Fort Maddalena. From that height, one could see three minesweepers headed by HMS Fierce some way off Grand Harbour. All were flying a red pennant indicating air raid warning red.
The fighter airfield at Ta' Qali was kept very busy, twin red Very lights arching up and over from the control tent, every now and again, sending Vampires off in force to intercept White force raiders. One of the major strikes by White force against our fighter airfield came at about 10.40 a.m. Banshees howled over in waves, just after our Black Force Vampires had been vectored in the opposite direction. Men lay flat on the deck as the American jets came over fast, pulling up around Mdina and Boschetto. More and more Vampires were sent off, each in its own particular cloud of grassy dust, until only a small number were left as reserve.
Near the Dingli W/T Station men were encamped and equipped with portable wireless sets. Another mass strike by Corsair and Skyraider aircraft of White force was carried out against Luqa. The raiders proceeded to beat up Grand Harbour and the warships berthed there. They also caught the Mediterranean fleet submarines leaving harbour. A detachment of 2nd. HAA regiment, Royal Malta Artillery, was deployed near the airfield at Luqa, their H.Q. tent elaborately camouflaged. No weapons or searchlights were to be seen at the time.
Down at Hal Far, it was apparent that HMS Ocean's three squadrons of Fireflies and Sea Furies were 'visiting'. Their dispersals were empty apart from one or two odd planes. "Visiting" also seemed to be the case with No 827 squadrons Firebrand torpedo bombers, which were also absent from their dispersal. Possibly they were engaged on air attacks on the White Force and Convoy. Troops from the 60th HAA. battery, Royal Artillery were in residence at Fort Tas-Silg. Men where sunbathing besides their huge coastal guns down at Fort Delimara. It was thought yesterday that the attacking sabotage parties would stand a fair chance at night, should they attempt a landing along the south east coast. One of the most favourable locations was St Thomas Bay. Another was Marsascala Bay. Swinging round to the west coast there were plenty of places where well-trained men could scale the cliffs and close up to the wireless and pumping stations on that side.
Second Day of D.X.M. 14 August, 1951
It was not until 2.45 am that the island showed signs that it was playing a vital part in this biggest post-war air, sea and land manoeuvres. Above the usual droning of night patrol Mosquitoes and, now and again, the heavier reverberating hum of a returning maritime reconnaissance Lancaster, came the characteristically erratic noise of the naval Firebrand torpedo bombers, their engines running up before take-off.
Soon after this the RN Air Station at Hal Far seemed to disgorge Firebrand and other types into the cool night. The planes circled overhead, red and green navigation lights twinkling, until they headed northwards for an unseen target. One strike of Black naval aircraft successfully found the carrier task force of the US Sixth Fleet in the early hours of the morning and carried out mock torpedo, rocket and bombing attacks.
With a characteristic whine and whistle, a flight of silver-winged Vampires circled above a bank of grey cloud, the rising sun glistening on their fuselages and wings. They were orbiting, waiting to be vectored onto an anticipated dawn strike by White Forces Carrier planes. At about 6.17 am they got their chance and came howling down onto a force of White Skyraiders and Corsairs which were beating up the cruisers HMS Liverpool and HMS Gambia together with their destroyer escort. People living in St Julians got an attack by American White Skyraiders early in the morning when the aircraft, beaten off by Black Vampires, took to their heels across the Island, crossing the coast at Sliema just above roof top level. (In those days there were no television aerials. I was a thirteen year old kid in those days and this was one fantastic spectacle that I will remember all my life).
The Official Communiqué takes over here: "During the past 13 hours White sea forces composed of the amphibious force, a convoy and a fast carrier Task force have moved within the 150 mile radius of Malta, constantly shadowed by maritime aircraft. Air strikes against the island have continued. These have thoroughly exercised the heavy and light anti-aircraft defences of Malta, who estimate that they have destroyed five and damaged 14 White aircraft. Black fighters claimed 26 White aircraft destroyed and damaged. They have intercepted Washington heavy bombers, Banshee jet fighters, Skyraiders and Corsairs.
Meanwhile three crashes occurred off Malta. Two US Navy Banshees collided and a No 73 Squadron Vampire crashed during one of the various dog-fights.
The approach of the White amphibious force close to the South of Malta was the signal for considerable activity during the night in the Black area. At the same time the all-important White convoy moving close to the Sicilian Straits approached. These forces passed through the Black submarine zones and were constantly reported by them but no attack is known to have taken place. Earlier squadrons of Black Fireflies and Sea Furies concentrated their attacks on the White Carriers USS Coral Sea and USS Oriskany.
The Third day - Wednesday, 15 August, 1951
The Black Force was still defending Malta and attempting to deny the use of the Sicilian Straits to the enemy (the white forces). The force commanded by Admiral Sir John Edelsten C-in-C Mediterranean, comprised the Mediterranean fleet, Italian and French naval and air units, the Royal Air Force Malta Formation, aircraft from HMS Falcon and HMS Ocean and the Malta Garrison.
White Force (the enemy), was commanded by Admiral Matthias B Gardner and comprised the United States Sixth Fleet with support from the United Kingdom based heavy bombers. White Force had to pass a convoy through the Sicilian narrows by midnight of the third day, when the exercise concludes.
During a Naval engagement it was deemed that the Black cruiser force defending on Malta was completely destroyed. This left Malta wide open to an amphibious assault by White force. However the Amphibious force had no air cover as it was deemed that a daring attack by the French ships Elan and Mameluck had damaged the White carriers.
The scale of air effort on both sides remained in the same high level as on previous days with many White raids on Malta and a considerable number of B1ack interceptions. In the evening, naval Firebrands from Malta escorted by RAF Vampire jet fighters carried out their last strike against the convoy. The convoy was constantly harassed by Italian, British and French aircraft and received two further attacks by Italian Helldivers and French Blochs.
Last Day - Thursday, 16 August, 1951
At 9.45 a.m., all available Fireflies and Sea Furies from Malta rendezvoused with the French aircraft off Cape Bon, Tunisia and made a coordinated attack. The British aircraft refueled in Tunisia before returning to Malta.
The Black cruiser force managed to draw two White cruisers and destroyers away to the south, thus enabling the French destroyer force to get in to 4,000 yards and engage the convoy. HM submarines Teredo, Tabard and Talent reported successful attacks against a cruiser, a carrier and the convoy.