Situated as it is in the heart of the Mediterranean between the Italian peninsula and Africa, Malta has long been of great strategic importance. For millennia, people have fought for control of this island, using its position to dominate the surrounding seas. And the last time this occurred was during the Second World War.
Malta had been a Crown Colony of the British Empire since 1813, and its position meant that it was a thorn in the side of the Axis powers, particularly as the war raged across North Africa in 1941 as Italy and Germany fought against the British Imperial forces. Indeed, Churchill described Malta as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier”, and the island proved critical for launching attacks on the convoys which were supplying the Axis forces in Libya and Egypt.
By mid-1941 these convoys were taking heavy losses to British submarines and aircraft based in Malta, and the Germans and Italians determined to do something about this. They had already committed to a heavy bombing campaign, which saw Malta endure thousands of bombing raids, making it one of the most heavily bombed places on Earth.
In early 1942 the Germans and Italians decided that serious thought needed to be given to the capture of the island, mainly due to new leadership arriving on the scene. In January Albert Kesselring was dispatched to Sicily to take command of efforts to destroy British air power on Malta that was attacking the North African convoys.
Kesselring was certainly no slouch when it came to military planning and operations, and he fully appreciated the importance of the island. He swiftly made a point of relaying this to Hitler, and this all culminated in a meeting between Hitler and Mussolini in April where it was agreed that preparations should commence to seize the island in a joint effort, the German portion of which was codenamed “Operation Herkules”.
This was provisionally scheduled to take place that July and the plans were, as I am sure you can imagine, highly complex. Involved were paratroopers, air forces, naval armadas and amphibious operations, with a force of over 100,000 troops to be landed. It would have been one of the largest such combined operations ever launched, matched in scale only by the later Allied landings.
But amongst all this, one particular factor stands out as a real oddity; the Germans planned to use captured Soviet tanks for the invasion.
The defences of Malta had, understandably, been a subject of close attention for Italian intelligence even before the war broke out and as so they were aware that amongst the British defensive forces were tanks, though admittedly in small numbers. All told, the British could muster on Malta two Mk. IVC light tanks, four Cruiser I and three Cruiser IV medium tanks and, of potentially more concern, four Matilda infantry tanks.
Now, none of these vehicles were rated as first class by mid-1942. But for lightly equipped paratroopers or forces in the very vulnerable process of conducting an amphibious landing, they represented a very real danger.
Additionally, Malta was riddled with defensive structures tunnelled into or built from the native rock, a product of the generations of warfare that the island had seen.
To tackle both these respective issues, heavy tanks would be hugely valuable. And in 1941-early 1942, the most formidable heavy tanks in the world were built by the Soviets, principally the KV-series.
The KV-1 weighed in at 45 tonnes, carried a 76mm gun and had armour up to 90mm thick.
At the time this was the most formidable tank in the world, on paper at least, with the exception of the KV-2.
This took the KV-1, added an additional 20mm of armour and a new, rather massive turret that carried a 152mm howitzer which was intended for smashing heavy fortifications.
Both tanks had proven a huge shock to the Germans when they had first encountered them during their invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, and there were several occasions where KV’s operating either alone or in small numbers proved to be formidable adversaries for German forces. And truth be told the Axis had no real equivalent to them, with the German heavy tank, the Pz.IV, weighing roughly half as much and having far inferior armament and armour to the Soviet tanks.
But despite their formidable capabilities, the KV’s were both designed as assault and breakthrough tanks, and the rapid and broad sweeping mobile warfare that they had been thrown into in the first six months of the German invasion of the Soviet Union was definitely not their strong suite.
Faced with well trained and experienced German armoured units, many of the KV’s were lost when they were simply bypassed or else broke down because they just weren’t designed for long and continuous movement under their own propulsion, particularly a problem for the KV-2s that weighed in close to a whopping 54 tonnes.
As a result, a number of both KV types fell into German hands and were a subject of great curiosity and helped generate ideas for later German tank designs. They also provided the inspiration for their possible usage by German forces.
After all, the KV’s weren’t particularly well suited to the German mobile offensive operations that were being undertaken at the time in Russia and North Africa, being too mechanically unreliable for long route marches to contact. But in a confined area such as Malta which featured a mass of fortifications and urban structures that would need to be fought for, well, it was almost like they were custom made for the job.
So on the 30th of May, 1942, the Wehrmacht formed Panzer-Abteilung zbV 66. This was created by expanding the existing Panzer Company zbV 66, which was a specialist assault tank unit that employed oddities such as the VK16.01 prototype, which was a Pz.II with much heavier armour, and the VK18.01, a breakthrough version of the Pz.I.
The Soviet tanks were added to the newly formed second company of the battalion, and in total ten KV’s of both types constituted the new company’s strength.
These received the German designation Pz.Kpfw KV-1A 753(r) and Pz.Kpfw KV-II 754(r) and it appears that they were scheduled for use in the very first wave of the invasion where, had it occurred, they would likely have proven a nightmare for the defenders.
I haven’t been able to get solid information on the anti-tank weapons available to the British on Malta in Mid-1942, but that is practically irrelevant as neither the 2-pdr or 6-pdr anti-tank guns, the primary weapons of their type in service with Imperial forces, would have made much of an impression on either KV type. And formidable though the Matilda tank had been in 1940, its 2-pdr main armament would basically just chip paint on the huge Soviet vehicles.
Nor would they have been much use against the captured T-34 tanks that were also apparently integrated into zbV 66.
These supplemented the KVs, but as to whether these were intended for use in Operation Herkules doesn’t seem to have been recorded. Because, despite the Soviet tanks suitability for the job, the idea of using them was quickly scrapped.
It seems that mainly this was due to the German’s deciding that in fact they had enough military commitments already without throwing additional resources into the planned invasion. Soon after the new assault unit was formed, the decision was made that instead the German contribution would be limited to paratrooper and air support. Armour for the invasion would now be entirely Italian, consisting of Semovente M/40 self-propelled guns, M13/40 medium tanks and CV-3 tankettes.
But developments meant that soon the whole operation was cancelled. In June the Axis forces managed to force the Eighth Army into retreat after the Battle of Gazala. This saw the Allies withdraw back across the Egyptian border and, with victory in North Africa looking like a real possibility, the German’s decided to concentrate their efforts to that end.
There were also doubts about the Italian Navy’s ability to protect the landing force anyway in the face of Royal Navy’s apparent dominance in the Mediterranean and so Herkules was abandoned.
The KV’s and T-34s of ZbV 66 seem to have then been distributed to other units mainly fighting in Russia, where some received modifications such as the fitting of standard German panzer command cupolas. Their record in action with German units is somewhat nebulous, just as it is with the original intention to use them in the invasion of Malta.
But as a historical note it remains intriguing to think that, but for circumstance, these tanks would have seen use against Allied forces.