By the time World War II broke out on Sunday, 3rd September, 1939, it had already been realised that fighter aircraft would have played a vital role in defence of the Island. It was reckoned that at least four fighter squadrons would have been required for the aerial defence of Malta. Yet not a single fighter had reached the Island by the time Italy declared war against Britain and France on 10th June, 1940.
The RAF had to pay quite a high price in wartime for this lack of foresight. In March 1940 following prolonged negotiations, Air Commodore Maynard, AOC Malta, had been authorised to take over six Fleet Air Arm Sea-Gladiator biplanes which were crated and stored at the FAA depot at Kalafrana. They had been left behind by HMS Glorious when she left the Mediterranean Station to take part in the Norwegian Campaign
A few fighters were flown to Malta from Cyrenaica when circumstances permitted but until October 1942 most of the fighters were flown-off aircraft-carriers; these carriers left from Gibraltar escorted by Force Hand flew-off the fighters south of the Balearics.
On 1st July 1940 Admiral Cunningham asked London to send more fighters to Malta to enable him to use the Island for the refuelling of his destroyers. In compliance with this request the first delivery of Hurricanes - Operation Hurry - was carried out in August 1940.
It was later decided to furnish Malta with a strong fighter defence by April 1941. In pursuance with this decision a delivery was made in November 1940; code-named Operation White, this turned into a disaster as the Hurricanes were flown-off at their extreme range and eight out of twelve aircraft ran out of fuel! The next batch of Hurricanes was delivered as cargo by the steamer Essex in January 1941 taking advantage of the British occupation of Cyrenaica, from where the Hurricanes were flown. When the Axis reoccupied Cyrenaica delivery of Hurricanes to Malta reverted to the aircraft-carrier method and 34 were sent safely in two deliveries carried-out during April 1941, in Operations Winch and Dunlop. But a contemporary delivery of 21 crated Hurricanes by the blockade-runner Parracombe failed as the steamer hit a mine off Cape Bon on 2nd May 1941, and sank.
The success achieved by the use of aircraft-carriers induced the authorities to ferry Hurricanes to Egypt by carriers via Malta and nearly 150 aircraft were delivered in three Operations named Splice, Rocket and Tracer which were carried out in late May and early June. Then followed Operation Railway, which delivered more Hurricanes in late June in two phases - Railway I and Railway II. A few fighters from these five deliveries were retained at Malta but most of them flew on to Egypt.
As rapid Hurricane reinforcements were required for the desert offensive (Crusader) of autumn 1941, another delivery via Malta was carried out during September; this was divided in two phases, Operations Status I and II. A follow-up delivery code-named Perpetual was carried-out in November; this was again divided in two phases, Perpetual I and II. The former was carried out in mid-November but as Ark Royal was torpedoed and sunk during this operation, the latter had to be cancelled.
When the Luftwaffe returned to Sicily in January 1942 the Hurricanes were outclassed by the Bf109Fs and it was finally decided to send the superior Spitfire fighters to Malta. The first attempt had to be aborted owing to defects in the fuel system of the Spitfires. Eagle made three deliveries during March: Operations Spotter, Picket I and Picket II. Eagle then developed steering defects and the next delivery, Operation Calendar, was carried out in April by the American aircraft-carrier Wasp. The Luftwaffe destroyed these Spitfires on the ground on their arrival, hence another delivery was most urgently required but there had to be enough aircraft to overcome the massive number of German raiders.
In Operation Bowery the US carrier Wasp, in conjunction with Eagle, delivered 59 Spitfires on 9th May 1942. Special measures were taken to refuel and rearm these Spitfires as rapidly as possible and most were ready for action within minutes of landing. Thus, when the Luftwaffe came to destroy them on the ground, to its utter surprise found most of them already airborne. A crucial air-battle ensued in the skies over Malta the following day; the Malta defences decisively won this and indeed 10th May 1942 is considered to be the turning point of the air-battle of Malta. To maintain air supremacy over Malta Britain continued to reinforce the Island with Spitfires. Eagle made five other delivery operations between May and July, respectively code-named L B, Style, Salient, Pinpoint and Insect.
In mid-August, to ensure air superiority during the unloading of convoy Pedestal, the carrier Furious made two more deliveries, Bellows and Baritone. Finally, apprehensive that the intensification of German air raids in early October 1942 was the prelude of another massive blitz, Furious delivered a further batch of Spitfires on 29th October in Operation Train. Following the heavy losses sustained by the Axis Forces in the October Blitz, there was no further need for more carrier-borne reinforcement Spitfires.