Faith, Hope and Charity: Gladiators over Malta

Text by Divan Muller
In his book ‘Fight for the Sky’, Battle of Britain ace Douglas Bader described the siege of Malta as a fight for the key to the Mediterranean. “From June 1940 to November 1942, the island had 3 215 air raid warnings: an average of one every seven hours for two and a half years,” wrote Bader. That was the setting for the legend of ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity.’
Gloster Gladiator - Tim Felce
The Gloster Gladiator

Before we examine the role of the above mentioned aircraft in Malta, let us glance over the history of the Gloster Gladiator. Its prototype first flew in 1934 and the type entered service with the Royal Air Force (RAF) in February 1937. It was the last biplane fighter to serve with the RAF and, for all practical purposes; it had already been rendered obsolete before it entered service. The more advanced Hurricane and Spitfire monoplane fighters, for example, had completed their maiden flights in 1935 and 1936 respectively. Nevertheless, after the outbreak of war in 1939, Gladiators saw combat with many countries in just about every theatre of World War II. Even the South African Air Force used Gladiators in Sudan and East Africa during 1941. ‘Sea Gladiators’, which served with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm (FAA), were equipped with arrestor hooks and could be launched by catapult from aircraft carriers. In spite of their antiquated design, Gladiators were surprisingly effective in combat. Sure, they were outclassed by more modern enemy fighters, such as Messerschmitt Bf-109s, but Gladiators proved their worth against bombers and Italian fighters in Africa and the Mediterranean. In the hands of an ace, a Gladiator could be a deadly weapon. This was illustrated by South African ace ‘Pat’ Pattle, who scored fifteen of his estimated fifty aerial victories whilst flying an RAF Gladiator.
Italian bombing of Grand Harbor, Malta
The Siege of Malta

On 10 June 1940, Italian leader Benito Mussolini declared war on the Allies and immediately set his sights on the Mediterranean island fortress of Malta. The island had vital strategic importance in the region and was known as the ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier.’ On 11 June, the first of thousands of raids on the island took place. Only a handful of Sea Gladiators, operated by the RAF, were available to defend the island against Italian bombers and fighter escorts. Due to a shortage of fuel and ammunition, Gladiator pilots initially focussed mainly on breaking enemy formations and disrupting bombing runs, rather than shooting down aircraft. Three days later, the RAF only had four of its original twelve Sea Gladiators in a serviceable condition. Three of those aircraft, numbers 5520, 5531 and 5519, later became known as ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity’ respectively. According to Group Captain George Burges, who served at Malta during that time, “it was only during our training period, before the war started for us, and for only about the first week or ten days of the war period that the population ever saw three Gladiators in the air together. From then on it was two and sometimes only one. During this period none of us ever heard the aircraft referred to as ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’ and I do not know who first used the description. Nevertheless, the sentiment was appropriate because the civil population certainly prayed for us and displayed such photographs. There is no doubt that the Gladiators did not ‘wreak death and destruction’ to many of the enemy, but equally they had a very profound effect on the morale of everybody in the island and most likely stopped the Italians just using the island as a practice bombing range whenever they felt like it.”

By the end of June, four Hawker Hurricanes arrived on the island to help defend the island against intensifying bombing raids. Meanwhile, the RAF had managed to rebuild some of its damaged aircraft and increase its Sea Gladiator numbers to six. Some of those aircraft used parts from Swordfish bombers, as well as three-bladed variable pitch propellers, which were salvaged from Blenheim bombers. Even so, the RAF wasn’t able to keep more than three Gladiators in a serviceable condition simultaneously, further fuelling the legend of ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity’ taking on the full force of the Italian Air Force.

In ‘Fight for the Sky’, Douglas Bader wrote how three Gladiators and four Hurricanes defended the island against incredible odds. “These seven fighters alone faced about two hundred enemy aircraft operating from Sicily. Raids were carried out almost every day. The defence was so fierce that the Italians, despite their enormous superiority in numbers, only ventured over the island by night.”

The raids intensified dramatically with the arrival of the Luftwaffe in Sicily. The RAF supplemented its aircraft with more Hurricanes and the Gladiators slowly moved out of the picture. The story of Malta’s ultimate defenders, ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity’, seems to be a mixture of fact, fable and mystery, but what happened to those three aircraft? Sources are contradictory, but it appears ‘Charity’ was shot down, either on 24 June or at the end of July 1940. ‘Hope’ was destroyed on the ground during an air raid in early 1941. ‘Faith’, which had shot down two Italian fighters during the opening days of the siege, was retired in 1943 and presented to the people of Malta as a gift from the RAF.

Whilst the operational details of ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity’ could be disputed, it is undeniable that these obsolescent biplanes gave the Maltese civilians, who had suffered more than can be imagined, exactly what they needed most. Hope.