18th Century Hospitaller Coastal Batteries

Coastal fortifications were an important component of the Order’s defensive strategy throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Initially, the Hospitaller defensive scheme was conceived as a sort of early-warning system intended to warn of approaching danger but this strategy was eventually augmented, by the end of the eighteenth century, with a wider network of defensive positions redesigned to serve as a series of physical obstacles against invasion.

When the knights took possession of the Maltese islands in 1530, they were unwilling to construct any but the most essential defensive works and, right up to the end of the cinquecento, the Order confined its attention primarily to the fortification of the harbour area. As far as the defence of the coastline was concerned, the Hospitallers continued to rely upon the same system of militia watch-posts that had long since been employed by the Maltese. Few military outposts were erected beyond the Harbour area until the turn of the seventeenth century when the knights embarked upon a spree of tower-building but it was the eighteenth century, however, which was to witness the heaviest and most widespread investment in coastal works of fortification. Between 1714 and 1716, the Order’s French military engineers designed and built a vast network of coastal defensive positions comprising a network batteries, redoubts, and entrenchments. Unlike the towers, however, these new elements were designed to actively resist invasion and provide solid barriers to attack, reflecting a deliberate change in strategy that was to remain the Hospitaller knights’ main concern throughout the course of the settecento.

Most of the coastal fortifications, particularly the batteries and redoubts, were built in the manner of permanent stone fortifications, along formal lines with revetments of carefully cut stone although, many others, particularly the coastal entrenchments, were built more hurriedly in the manner of field defences.

The first to materialize were the coastal batteries, or platforms, designed to mount guns intended to fire on approaching ships.  Although many of the batteries which took root around the islands' shores materialized in the years 1715–16, the idea for these French style coastal defences had been first mooted by the Commissioners Jacques de Camus d’Arginy and Bernard de Fontet and a French secondary engineer by the name of François Bachelieu in 1714. The coastal defence strategy found a great exponent in the Prior of France, the Balì de Vendôme, and it was mainly through the latter’s insistence, and a generous loan of 40,000 scudi which he presented to the Order, that the network of batteries and redoubts was made possible. A number of other knights too, made small financial donations toward this effort – as can be witnessed by the fact that a number were  named after their benefactors, such as Arrias Battery, Crevelli Redoubt,  Ferretti Battery, Gironda Battery, etc.

Eighteenth-century plan and section of typical coastal battery (National Library of Malta)

Article continues after video of a model of a typical Hospitaller coastal battery by Mr Eman Portelli:

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Initially, it appears that these were simply prepared positions for artillery, undefended and open to the rear but most soon began to acquire defensible perimeters and blockhouses to shelter troops and munitions.  Most of these structures followed the French pattern, albeit on a smaller scale, and basically consisted of semi-circular or polygonal gun-platform, sometimes ringed by embrasured parapets, and having one or two small blockhouses.  For protection from landward attack, the batteries were given loopholed walls and redans. In most cases the blockhouses were placed in such a manner as to seal off the gorge and their walls were pierced with musketry loopholes. The engineers experimented with various combinations of blockhouses and redans depending on the tactical requirements of the site.  In two instances, at Mellieħa (Westreme Battery) and Comino, a single blockhouse was placed diagonally across the gorge so that its two outer faces functioned as a redan. Some batteries were also protected by rock-hewn ditches placed either on the landward or seaward sides, or both. Those batteries built very close to the sea, like Orsi, Qajjenza, and Buġibba had moats filled with water.

St Mary Battery, in Comino, which guards the opposite side of the Fliegu channel

The entrance to all batteries was from the landward side. A drawbridge was usually fitted to the gateway but it seems that not all batteries were actually fitted with one since, in 1792, the Congregation of Fortification and War ordered that those still lacking a drawbridge were to be supplied instead with two wooden planks.

Design-wise, hardly any two batteries are the same. They all differed in some detail from one another, either in size, shape of the artillery platform, number of embrasures on the parapet, or the layout of the barrack blocks and landward defences. This variety may reflect the personal preferences of the relatively large number of military engineers who were present on the island in the years 1714–16.

Typical layout of a coastal battery

Eighteenth-century plan of St Julians Tower and Battery (National Library of Malta)

A variant of the coastal battery, was the coastal redoubt. In shape and form, there was little to distinguish a Hospitaller coastal redoubt from a coastal battery other than that the former usually lacked embrasures and gun platforms for cannon, for both were equipped with blockhouses and ditches. Unlike the batteries, however, the majority of redoubts erected by the knights in Malta and Gozo followed a more or less standard pentagonal plan. The redoubts were not generally designed to mount cannon since they were intended to serve as infantry strongpoints. Tactically, they were designed to allow small detachments of  militia equipped with muskets to hold out against landed troops and prevent them from establishing a beachhead.  The defensive roles played by redoubts varied considerably, making it difficult to give a precise definition and any particular configuration to this form of fortification.

Article continues after video of a 3D Model of St. Julians Battery Tower by Dr. Stephen C Spiteri

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The pentagonal-plan redoubts were all fitted with a single blockhouse at the gorge and had low parapets and all-round shallow ditches.  Eleven redoubts were built following this standard pattern. The majority are found along the northern shores of Malta from Baħar-iċ-Ċaghaq to Marfa, (Tal-Bir, Eskalar, Armier, Louvier, Mellieħa, Qalet Marku, and Baħar-iċ-Ċagħaq) together with two in Gozo (Marsalforn and Ramla).  Only two were built in the south of Malta, namely at Marsascala and Marsaxlokk (Del Fango Redoubt). A few coastal redoubts were built with semicircular or rectangular platforms such as St George Bay Redoubt, Xwejni Redoubt in Gozo, St George Redoubt (Birżebbuġa), and the two Salina Bay redoubts. That known as the Perellos Redoubt, at Salina (now demolished), was particular in that one corner of its perimeter wall was fitted with a small bastion.  Ximenes Redoubt, on the opposite side of the bay, on the other hand, had two blockhouses but these were later unceremoniously replaced by a large magazine designed to house salt from the nearby Saline Nuove. Both Salina redoubts were unique in that they were later also fitted with internally-placed fougasses.  The most sophisticated redoubts, certainly, were the tower-like works pierced with rows  of musketry loopholes. These were designed along the lines of blockhouses or tour-reduits, a type of fortification much favoured by the French throughout their colonies in the Americas, where most were built in wood. In all, three tour-reduits were built and these  were confined to Marsaxlokk Bay, namely  Fresnoy, Spinola, and Vendôme Redoubts.  The Spinola and Vendôme tower-redoubts were squarish in plan but that at Kalafrana (Fresnoy), had a semicircular front and a redan to the rear facing the landward approaches. Only the Vendôme example survives to this day. A fourth tour-reduit was erected in 1720 at Marsalforn in Gozo, presumably by Mondion, but this too, has disappeared.

Eighteenth-century plan of typical Hospitaller pentagonal redoubt


Dr. Stephen C Spiteri (C) 2010 - Militaryarchitecture.com



Dr. Stephen C Spiteri (C) 2010 - Militaryarchitecture.com

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