The Axis plan to invade Malta had its origin in Italian military studies conducted in the mid-1930s during Italy's conquest of Ethiopia. By 1938, the Italian army command had estimated the amount of sea transport it would require to move significant military forces into North Africa and identified the seizure of Malta as a necessary prerequisite. An outline plan for a seaborne assault was drawn up and periodically updated but the Regia Marina (Italian Navy) initially showed little interest in it.
The concept was approved at a meeting between Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini on 29–30 April 1942.
The planning for this attack was extensive.
Overall command of Herkules' airborne component was given to Generalmajor Kurt Student and his XI Fliegerkorps. Student had previously planned and executed the German airborne assault on Crete in April 1941. In contrast with the hasty planning necessary for that operation, Student now had months to prepare and he determined not to repeat the mistakes made previously on Crete. Knowledge of the enemy's defensive positions on Malta was extensive, thanks to meticulous aerial mapping by the Italians. Every fortification, artillery emplacement and AA battery was carefully noted and scrutinised. Student claimed later that "We even knew the calibre of the coastal guns, and how many degrees they could be turned inland."
Ten Gruppen of Junkers Ju 52 transports, totaling 500 aircraft, were allocated for the air landings along with 300 DFS 230 gliders (carrying ten men each) and 200 larger Go 242 gliders (each carrying 23 men or a light vehicle/gun). Also to be included were two dozen Me 321 Gigant gliders capable of carrying up to 200 fully equipped paratroopers or a 25-ton tank. These were to be towed by the newly developed He 111Z (Zwilling), a five-engined modification of the He 111 medium bomber.
The Regia Aeronautica (Italian Air Force) would significantly contribute approximately 180–220 transport aircraft, mostly three-engined SM.75s (carrying 24–28 men each), SM.81s (carrying 12–14 men each) and SM.82s (carrying 30–34 men each).
Given the short distance (90 miles) between Axis airfields on Sicily and the planned drop zones over Malta, it was possible for the motorized transports to make four round-trips per day. They were to drop one Italian and one German airborne division onto the southern side of the island. The paratroopers had two primary objectives: securing the high ground behind the invasion beaches and seizing a nearby airfield so Axis transport aircraft could quickly land an additional division and supplies.
Airborne units slated for the invasion included Germany's 7. Fliegerdivision (11,000 men) plus Italy's Folgore Paratroop Division (7,500 men) and La Spezia Airlanding Division (10,500 men) for a total of approximately 29,000 airborne troops.
Additional preparations for the airborne assault included construction of three glider strips 25 miles south of Mount Etna on the island of Sicily.
The seaborne assault force comprised a total of 70,000 Italian ground troops. They were to make amphibious landings at two points on the south-eastern side of the island, in Marsaxlokk bay, with the main effort falling upon a site designated "Famagosta beach" and a smaller secondary landing at a place designated "Larnaca beach". Also to be seized were the lesser islands of Gozo and Comino. Amphibious feints would be directed at St. Paul's Bay, Mellieha Bay and northwest of Valletta near the old Victoria Lines to draw British attention away from the actual landing sites.
The main assault convoy was scheduled to begin landing on Malta just before midnight on the first day of the invasion, after the airborne forces had already landed during the afternoon hours and secured the heights above the selected beaches. The bulk of the first-wave assault troops would come from the Friuli Infantry Division (10,000 men) and Livorno Infantry Division (9,850) of the Italian XXX Corps. Also included were 1,200 men from the 1st Assault Battalion and Loreto Battalion (both drawn from the Regia Aeronautica); two battalions of San Marco Marines (2,000); three battalions of Blackshirts (1,900) and 300 Nuotatori (a commando unit of San Marco marines specially trained in ocean swimming and beach assault). Armour support comprised nineteen Semovente 47/32 and eight Semovente 75/18 self-propelled guns plus thirty L3 light tanks (comparable in size and armament to the British Bren Gun Carrier).
The follow-up convoy would be mainly made up of troops from the Italian XVI Corps: the Assieta Infantry Division (9,000) and the Napoli Infantry Division (8,900) along with attached artillery assets (3,200). It would also include the remainder of the 10th Armour Regiment (3,800). The Superga Infantry Division (9,200) plus a battalion of Blackshirts and a small detachment of San Marco Marines (1,000) were to be in position to land on the smaller island of Gozo in the early morning hours of the second day.
Additional armour intended for Herkules included 2.Kompanie/Panzerabteilung z.b.V.66, a German unit partly equipped with captured Russian tanks. A mix of ten KV-1 (46-ton) and KV-2 (53-ton) heavy tanks were made available for the invasion and at least ten Italian motozattere (landing craft) were modified with reinforced flooring and internal ramps to carry and off-load these vehicles. Other tanks in the unit included captured Russian T-34 medium tanks, up-armoured German light tanks (five VK 1601s and five VK 1801s) plus twelve German Panzer IVGs armed with 75mm guns.Ref An additional twenty German Panzer III medium tanks were offered for use in the invasion but it is not known what unit these were to be drawn from.
Two days were allowed for the main amphibious assault and landing of the follow-up convoy, though this was heavily dependent on quickly securing Marsaxlokk Bay which would allow heavier artillery pieces and a much higher tonnage of supplies to be brought in.
Lacking enough landing craft for a major amphibious assault, the Regia Marina secured design plans from the German Kriegsmarine to build copies of the Marinefährprahm Type A (MFP) in Italian shipyards. These 220-ton shallow-draught vessels were capable of transporting up to 200 fully equipped infantrymen, 2–3 medium tanks or an equivalent weight in cargo, and could unload directly onto an open beach via a drop-down bow ramp. Sixty-five of these motozattere (MZs) were completed by July 1942 and about 50 were available for the invasion. A further 20 German MFPs were transferred to the Mediterranean via the river Rhone to make up for an expected shortfall of Italian-built landing craft.
Additional German-operated landing craft sent to Italy via rail for the invasion included twelve Siebel ferries (catamaran rafts powered by automobile engines driving water screws and armed with a mix of 88mm and 20mm flak guns), six Type 39 Pionierlandungsboote (carrying 20 tons of cargo, 2 light vehicles or 45 infantrymen and unloaded via clamshell doors at the bow), six Type 40 Pionierlandungsboote (a larger version of the Type 39, carrying 40 tons of cargo, three or four light vehicles or 80–90 fully equipped infantrymen), a company of eighty-one Sturmboote (Type 39 Stormboats, small plywood boats carrying up to six infantrymen and powered by 30 hp outboard motors) plus an assortment of large inflatable rafts (carrying 25 infantrymen each). Some of these rafts were powered by outboard motors and some were propelled by oars alone.
The Italians assembled a varied collection of other naval craft to transport the amphibious forces. These included two former Strait of Messina railway ferries (converted to carry 4–8 tanks each); ten passenger ships (800-1,400 men each); six former passenger ferries (400 men each); six cargo ships (3,000 tons of supplies each); 30 ex-trawlers (300 men each); five converted minelayers (500 men each); and 74 assorted motorboats (30–75 men each). The Italians also requested the use of 200 additional German Sturmboote to assist in quickly transferring men from ship to shore. The Italian landing flotilla and the supporting ships formed the "Special Naval Force" (Forza Navale Speciale) under Admiral Vittorio Tur.
Specialised landing equipment slated for Herkules included the Seeschlange (Sea Snake), a floating ship-to-shore bridge originally developed by the German Army for Operation Sea Lion. It was formed from a series of joined modules that could be towed into place and act as a temporary jetty. Moored ships could then unload their cargo either directly onto the "roadway" or lower it down onto it via their heavy-duty ship's booms. The Seeschlange had been tested by the Army Training Unit at Le Havre in the fall of 1941 and was easily transportable by rail.
The Regia Marina had the twofold task of protecting the invasion convoys from attacks by Britain's Mediterranean Fleet and providing off-shore gunfire support during the landings. The force assigned to accomplish this included four Italian battleships (Littorio, Vittorio Veneto, Caio Duilio, Andrea Doria), four heavy cruisers, eight light cruisers and 21 destroyers. These ships would sortie and assemble from the ports of Messina, Reggio Calabria, Augusta and Cagliari. The two older Duilio-class battleships would carry approximately 200 rounds each for shore bombardment missions.
Italian and German submarines were also to be deployed for scouting purposes and for intercepting any British naval forces attempting to interfere with the seaborne landings. One submarine was to be stationed midway between Sicily and Malta and act as a guide beacon for the transport planes on their way to and from the drop zones.
The Italians were confident they could fend off any daylight incursions by Britain's Royal Navy, especially given the German Luftwaffe's ability to dominate the daytime skies, but there were legitimate concerns the Italian fleet would face serious difficulties if the British sought to disrupt the seaborne landings by night. Lacking ship-borne radar and neglectful in providing night-fighting training and equipment to its naval forces, the Regia Marina had fared badly during a night action with British forces off Cape Matapan in March 1941. A similar encounter off Malta might wreak havoc on the slow-moving Axis invasion convoys, leaving the airborne forces cut off and imperiling Axis chances of taking the island.
The Italian Navy had made some efforts to rectify this situation by equipping the battleship Littorio with an experimental E.C.-3/bis Gufo (Owl) radar apparatus in August 1941 but the unit was considered unreliable (not until September 1942 did Littorio receive a standardised production-version Gufo with better performance; this set could detect surface ships at a range of 17 nmi (31 km; 20 mi) and aircraft out to a range of 45 nmi (83 km; 52 mi)).
In September 1941, while awaiting production of Italian-made radar units in quantity, the Regia Marina requested from the Kriegsmarine installation of a FuMO 24/40 G DeTe unit on Italy's newest destroyer, Legionario (then still under construction). DeTe units could detect surface ships up to 14 nmi (26 km; 16 mi) away. By March 1942, the requested set had been delivered and installed and a small group of Italian ratings had undergone training in Germany on its use. Operational testing began that spring and, by May, fleet commander Vice-Adm. Iachino had submitted a report praising its performance.
In 1942 the main garrison forces on Malta consisted of 15 infantry battalions (11 Commonwealth, 4 Maltese) organized into four brigades totaling 26,000 men. Armour support was provided by the 1st Independent Troop of the Royal Tank Regiment. This unit was initially equipped with four Matilda II "Infantry Tanks", armed with 2-pounder (40mm) guns and two Vickers Mk.VIC light tanks, armed with two machine guns (all tanks as part of detachments from the 7th Royal Tank Regiment and the 3rd The King's Own Hussars), before being reinforced by an additional eight tanks (four Cruiser Mk I and three Cruiser Mk IV cruiser tanks, and one Vickers Mk.VIC light tank), with the cruiser tanks armed with 2-pounder (40mm) guns (all additional tanks were as part of a detachment from the 6th Royal Tank Regiment).
Also on hand was the 12th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. This unit had two dozen 25-pounder 3.45 in (88 mm) field guns, capable of providing indirect fire support out to a range of 11 km (6.8 mi) and covering most of the island while remaining in protected static positions.
Malta's fixed defences included 19 heavy coastal guns (varying in size from 12-inch to 16-inch), 130 smaller coastal guns (4.5-inch to 9.2-inch), 112 heavy and 144 light anti-aircraft guns.
The smaller coastal guns were composed of:BL 6 in (150 mm) Mk XXIV, on Mounting, 6 in (150 mm) Mk 5 or 6
BL 9.2 in (230 mm) gun Mk X, on Mounting Mk 7
QF 4.5 in (110 mm) gun Mk II, on Mounting Mk I
A date near mid-July 1942 was set for the invasion, partly to allow time to bring troops from other front line positions.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel supported the idea of seizing Malta, to the point that he personally asked Hitler to allow him to command the invasion forces. His reasons for supporting an invasion were to hinder the Allied troops fighting in Africa, as well as remove the threat to the convoys heading to Italian-German forces with supplies, oil, and men, all of which they were desperately low on. He put the emphasis on the attack to such an extreme that he was willing to move units from his front for the attack. The head of the German Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, opposed the invasion, fearing it would turn into another near-disaster for his paratroops, as had happened on Crete.
General Field Marshal Albert Kesselring tirelessly promoted Operation Herkules but even he was eventually dissuaded when it became apparent that too many air and ground units had been siphoned off to support Rommel's drive into Egypt, thereby significantly diminishing any chance of Herkules' success. This, along with Hitler's lack of faith in the paratrooper divisions as a result of the Invasion of Crete and in the Italian Navy's ability to protect the invasion fleet from British naval attacks, led to scrapping of the plan.