Stephen Miles explores British fortifications erected in preparation for a war that never happened.
On 5 September 1800, French forces surrendered Malta to the British, marking the beginning of 164 years of colonial rule. For centuries the island had commanded an important strategic position in the Mediterranean, lying midway between the European mainland and North Africa and sitting astride sea routes running east and west. Anyone wanting to dominate trade and maritime politics in the region could not ignore this rocky outpost of three islands – Malta, Gozo, and Comino – with a combined surface area roughly the same as the Isle of Wight.
As Britain extended its influence into the Mediterranean during the 19th century, this importance came into sharp focus. Of Malta, Lord Bathurst, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies (1812-1827), commented, ‘there appears no spot in the south of Europe so well calculated to fix the influence and extend the interests of Great Britain’.
Valetta was regarded as one of the most perfect harbours in the world. Apart from affording a safe anchorage for the largest of fleets, it had enormous storage capacities (its gunpowder magazines were capable of storing 21,000 barrels). Later in the century Malta was an indispensable coaling station for ships travelling to the far corners of Queen Victoria’s Empire.
The island’s fine climate made it a good centre for medical care and patient recovery. Its hospitals provided the epithet ‘Nurse of the Mediterranean’ and it played a key role in treating the wounded from the Gallipoli campaign in 1915.
The fortifications of Malta
In 1800, Britain had inherited an impressive range of fortifications built up principally under the rule of the Knights Hospitaller (1530-1789). The harbours of Valetta were protected by such forts as St Elmo, Ricasoli, St Angelo, St Michael, and Manoel – the so-called ‘keys to Malta’ – as well as the robust Santa Margherita and Cottonera Lines. Malta, in consequence, has one of the largest concentrations of military works anywhere in the world, and the legacy of this British ‘imperial fortress’ is an important aspect of tourism on the islands to this day.
Malta has had to withstand three major sieges: against the Turks at the time of the Knights Hospitaller (1565), against the British trying to dislodge French forces (1798-1800), and against first Italian then German air bombardments during WWII (1940-1942).
By the mid 19th century, however, the suitability of the fortifications inherited by the British in the event of further attack was called into question. France’s new shell-firing guns, developed in 1837, and their long-range rifled muzzle-loading (RML) cannon, which appeared in 1842, were cause for concern. At a stroke Britain’s entire stock of wooden ships became highly vulnerable.
The French increased their lead by introducing the first iron-clad warship in 1858, accelerating a technological arms race. The British countered by commencing work on HMS Warrior, a warship constructed entirely of iron, in 1859. This had profound implications for land-based fortifications.
Admiral Nelson’s wise advice against ‘laying wood before walls’ was now turned on its head. If a navy could lay iron before walls using long-range explosive shells instead of the old short-range solid round shot, then existing defensive structures would soon become obsolete. At the same time a related threat was developing from the growing technology of steam-powered ships which could transport infantry units quickly to different parts of a coastal battle zone. The danger to the northern and western coast of Malta and from a surprise overland attack on Valetta was clear.
The need for stronger fortifications
In 1859 a report on the state of the Fortress of Malta was issued by the War Office, highlighting the need for new and strengthened fortifications in the harbour area. In addition there was a recommendation for ‘continuous lines of advanced works’ to combat a ground offensive. In 1860 these were subsumed into a Royal Commission, which recommended the improvement of home defences to combat a perceived invasion from France.
In the 1860s some 76 works of various sizes were built in Britain. These were never used in active defence and were soon nicknamed ‘Palmerston’s Follies’ (after Lord Palmerston, British Prime Minister, 1859-1865). There was a firm belief in government circles that an attack on Britain’s Mediterranean possessions would be a prelude to an attack on the country itself. For this reason, Palmerston’s defence improvements were rolled out into the ‘British Lake’. On Malta a number of new forts were constructed at Sliema (1872), St Rocco (1873), St Lucian (1874), Pembroke (1875), St Leonardo (1875), Delimara (1876), and Tas-Silg (1879).
The importance of refortifying Malta was greatly increased with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. This made the island a military base not just in a Mediterranean context but also in its relation to Britain’s overseas empire in Asia. The acquisition of Egypt by Britain in 1882 further added to the strategic importance of the island.
The unification of Italy in 1861 created a new European power and a new threat to Britain’s Mediterranean interests. An Italian Navy (Regia Marina Italiana) was soon founded. Although its reputation suffered a blow with its ignominious defeat by the Austrians at Lissa in July 1866, increased commitment and expenditure in the 1870s soon made it the third largest amongst the world’s navies. This was demonstrated by the laying down of two new ships in 1873 – the Duilio and Dandolo – which, when completed, were armed with four 450mm RMLs, the largest guns then in existence.
These behemoths each weighed 100 tonnes and could each fire one 864kg projectile every 15 minutes up to 8 miles. To counter this threat, new batteries were built at Cambridge (1878) and Rinella (1879) with identical monster guns. The one at Rinella is a major tourist attraction today. The ‘world’s largest cannon’ is fired once yearly.
The threat to Malta in the event of a belligerent Italy was now very real, and this was compounded politically by continuing pro-Italian sentiment among the Maltese population. Although this played itself out in often acrimonious conflict over culture and language between Italo-phile and Anglo-phile Maltese, the imperial power remained edgy about the sympathies of the island’s Latin population.
What was unsettling for Britain at this time was Italy’s belief that she could not become a ‘real’ nation without a successful war. This was crystallised in the comments of the Marquis Alessandro Guicciolo in 1882: ‘A new nation can only be properly consecrated with a baptism of blood.’ Between 1862 and 1913 Italy spent 25% of its state expenditure on the army and navy. A further concern was the revival of the old Roman concept of the Mare Nostrum (‘Our Sea’) and the nascent idea of an Italian empire.
The Victoria Lines
The threat of a combined sea bombardment and land invasion of Malta led Britain to consider extending the line of fortifications away from the harbour area. An additional consideration was the growth of suburbs in Valetta which were now lying outside of the protective canopy of these forts. In 1875 work began on fortifying the long limestone ridge known as the Great Fault (running from Fomm ir-Riħ Bay in the west to Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq in the east). The result came to be known as ‘the Victoria Lines’ in commemoration of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897.
The defensive properties of the ridge had already attracted the attentions of the Knights Hospitaller, who had built rudimentary fortifications around Naxxar in the early 18th century. There is evidence, however, that the ridge was fortified as early as the 16th century, and a Bronze Age citadel occupied the site of Fort Mosta.
The first work to be constructed was a fort at Bingemma to protect the western end of the line, whilst Fort Madliena, started in 1878, protected the east. In 1880 Fort Mosta was started to cover the centre. From the beginning the forts were intended to have a dual land/sea defensive role, particularly those on the extremities. When complete the fortifications extended over a distance of roughly 12km. The entire ensemble was continued over many decades and a wall was built between the forts, 1.5m in height, with gun loops to provide a covered firing positions (completed in 1899).
Several commentators have pointed out how this curiously reverts to the old pre-gunpowder days of solid linear walled fortification designed with shoulder-to-shoulder defence in mind. It does, however, reveal British Army concerns about land-based attack.
Gun batteries and emplacements were added at intervals between the forts, such as the central Targa Battery. There were also entrenchments, stop walls, searchlight emplacements, and howitzer positions. The ridge is interrupted by gorges at Wied il-Għasel, Wied Anglu, and Wied il-Faħam through which rivers flow after heavy rainfall. The parapet at the last two is supported by bridge-like structures maintaining the continuity of the defences. Bridges, now disappeared, also existed at the Wied il-Għasel and Wied Filip.
The Victoria Lines, also known as the North-West Front, had many advantages. They dominated the entire northern area of the island of Malta, and, as if by act of Providence, the Lines cut off the western part of the island, which had convenient bays and facilities for any landing by a hostile force. The idea was that the cliffs to the south of the island would preclude any landings from that direction and new forts would plug gaps on the north and east side. In addition, the best of the island’s resources and water, scarce on Malta even to this day, were on the defenders’ side of the walls. A less publicised reason for building the Lines where they was that land at the time was cheaper in the north of the island than nearer to Valetta!
Although formidable in appearance, the Lines did have their limitations. It was soon realised that due to the topography there were parcels of dead ground over which the guns of the forts had no control. Further gun batteries to rectify this problem were proposed, but not all were built.
Another defect was the sharp fall off of ground at the extremities, particularly in the west, where an enemy could, with stealth, outflank the entire line. Military exercises landing troops at Fomm ir-Riħ Bay showed how a force could get to the rear of the fortifications without alerting the defenders. Several suggestions to counter this weakness were put forward, such as making it easier to move field guns into the gap, improving the wall in this area, and constructing blockhouses.
The demise of the Victoria Lines
Malta continued to play a pivotal role in the control of Britain’s Mediterranean empire as the threat of war continued. But the danger from Italy turned out to be chimeric. The Italians were more interested in provoking France into war in the late 1880s – a war which did not materialise – and then ended up on the Anglo-French side in the Great War.
In the 1890s enmity developed between Britain and France, mainly over colonial disputes, but this sabre-rattling again came to nothing. No shots were fired in anger over Malta, and the fact that Britain allowed her new ally Italy to use Valetta harbour for her navy in WWI adds a supreme irony to the story of the Victoria Lines.
In 1900 the Victoria Lines were considered too vulnerable after being ‘penetrated’ in a military exercise. The concept of repelling an invasion force directly from beaches was now being developed. In 1907 the Lines were abandoned only seven years after completion, having never been used in anger. They were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.
The walk along the whole length of the Victoria Lines is an exhilarating experience and one which really gives you an insight into the strategic necessity of these fortifications. The 30km walk can be done in one go or in two days using the bus service which crosses the Targa Gap near Mosta. There is no public transport to the western end of the Lines, but you can start at Mġarr and walk or take a taxi from there. The walk is described in ‘Walking in Malta’ by Paddy Dillon (Cicerone) or at www.victorialinesmalta.com