The Sighting towers in Basilicata
"New life" for defence military architecture: the case of the sighting towers in Basilicata....
Image 1: A view of Fort Campbell as seen from the road leading to it. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
by Simon MIFSUD
One of the most fascinating aspects of the military architectural heritage of the Maltese islands is the fact that it documents, in a comparatively small space, all the salient stages in the evolution and development of gunpowder fortifications. The Hospitaller and British forts and fortifications which were built across the span of some four centuries provide us a with a fascinating insight into the manner in which the art and science of defence developed across the centuries in response to new ideas, new technologies and changing methods of warfare – from the early bastioned enceinte ‘alla moderna’ of the sixteenth century down to the polygonal ramparts and concrete bunkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
This brief paper is concerned with the final stages of this long process of fortification, as reflected in Fort Campbell, the last of the British forts to be built in Malta prior to the commencement of the Second World War. At this point in time, static defences had to contend with another major weapon that was then being brought to bear against them – the airplane, or better still, the aerial bomber - a weapon that would ultimately deliver the coup de grace to the whole notion of fixed and permanent defences.
Up until the First World War, the main threat to the Maltese Isles came from the sea. The forts and fortifications built in the nineteenth century, and before, were constructed to resist and repel a naval invasion and bombardment. Although called forts, most of the British works were actually little more than coastal batteries with their main armaments pointing out to sea, arranged in a manner so as to prevent enemy warships form approaching and entering the Grand Harbour. By the Second World War, the sea was still the major preoccupation facing the military authorities but now fixed defences also had to counter the threat posed by aircraft. When seen from above, the formal outlines of major works of fortifications, with their polygonal trace and ditches, thick parapets, and fixed emplacements, became obvious and vulnerable targets. The modern fort, as a result, now had to shield itself from aerial bombardment and hide from view to avoid detection.
It is here that Fort Campbell becomes interesting. For in their attempts to achieve thist, the British military engineers departed from the rigid manner of fortress construction employed in all the other forts at Malta and created a work of fortification that sought to integrate itself, rather than impose itself, on the landscape
The Anatomy of Fort Campbell
Fort Campbell was the last major British fort to be built in Malta. Like many of its sister forts its main function was to protect the island from the sea. As a matter of fact, its specific purpose was that of an ‘Examination Battery, which meant, that it was designed to challenge enemy ships approaching the Grand Harbour from the north. To do this, it was armed with two 6-inch BL (breech-loading) coastal guns.
In this aspect there was nothing new. The novelty at Fort Campbell lies not in its armament or function, but in its design - in the manner in which both the defensive perimeter and the interior elements of the fort were laid out to blend in with the natural surroundings in order to escape the attention from the air. This was achieved by means of an irregular plan and the dispersal of the main structures within the enceinte. The perimeter defences, rather than the usual rigid and thick parapets were constructed in the manner of a high boundary wall that was built in such a way so as to mimic the surrounding rubble walls that characterize most of Mellieħa’s countryside. The trace of perimeter wall, planned out in a large irregular enclosure, was laid out to blend into the surrounding terrain of terraced fields.
To defend the perimeter against assault, Fort Campbell was given a number of fixed perimeter defence posts, some of which were actually concrete bunkers not much unlike the concrete pillboxes which also began to appear around the bays and beaches at the time. The concrete machine gun bunkers were incorporated within the perimeter wall at irregular intervals dictated by the change in direction of the trace of walls. The majority occupied salient or re-entrant angles but one of these projected outwards from the main wall in the form of a caponier to provide enfilading fire across a relatively long and straight stretch of the perimeter. As stated earlier, the structure of these concrete machine gun bunkers resembles that of the pillboxes and beach posts built from around the time of the Abyssinian Crisis of 1935 onwards. The entrance to most of these concrete machine gun bunkers was through a small, thick metal, two-flap door. Inside the machine gun bunkers, there were the machine gun tables in which the defensive armament was mounted. In other areas of the perimeter, defence was provided by means of a series of rifle loop-holes
Image 2: The perimeter wall of Fort Campbell is highly irregular in such a way to resemble the arrangement of the surrounding terraced fields. This made it more difficult for the enemy to recognize the presence of this fort. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 3: The differences between the rubble wall below and the perimeter wall of Fort Campbell above are very minimal. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Images 4 and 5: Two perimeter concrete machine bunkers. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 6: Interior view of one of the perimeter concrete machine gun bunkers. Note the semi-circular seating arrangement for the gunner hugging the machine gun emplacement. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 7: Inner view of the rifle loop-holes defending certain parts of Fort Campbell. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
The Gun Emplacements
The offensive element of Fort Campbell was provided by its battery of two 6-inch coastal guns. These were housed in two concrete barbette gun emplacements. The main advantages of mounting guns above the parapet (i.e., en barbette) was that it provided them with wider fields of fire but this advantage usually came at a price as the gunners were more exposed and thus more vulnerable to enemy fire. To counter this, most such guns were fitted with protective metal turrets or overhead covers, as were the ones at Fort Campbell. Each of the two concrete emplacements had a covered loading chamber just behind the gun pit, an underground magazine, and a partially underground accommodation for the gun crew. The loading chamber basically consisted of a single large room hugging the shallow gun pit. The loading chamber contained various cubicles whereby shells and cartridges where stored separately. Each loading chamber had a fire station close to one of the entrances to the gun emplacement.
Image 8: A view of one of the 6 inch BL coastal gun emplacements. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 9: A view of the shallow gun pit and the mounting screws onto which the 6 inch BL coastal gun was anchored. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 10: A view of one of the 6 inch BL coastal gun emplacement as seen from the BOP. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Images 11a and 11b: Detail showing the labelling of the cubicles inside the loading chamber of the gun emplacements. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 12: A fire station inside the loading chamber of the gun emplacement. Each fire station was numbered. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 13: The passage that leads to three submerged rooms which were once used to accommodate the gun crew. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
On the left hand side of the loading chamber, lies the passageway that led to the underground gun crew accommodation. The gun crew accommodation consisted of three separate rooms each with its own doorway and one or two windows. The passageway was also fitted with three windows in order to light up the three submerged rooms. Joining the loading chamber on the right, stood the opening to the large underground magazine. The underground magazine was connected to a number of underground passages that led to the surface via vertical channels fitted with metal rungs. Nowadays due to vandalism and neglect, these vertical channels are filled with rubble and rubbish and thus entry into the magazine is dangerous. The gun emplacement had two entrances. One of these was protected by a thick blast protection wall in front of it whereas the other had a bent entrance in an attempt to contain the blast within the emplacement if an explosion took place.
A third gun emplacement in Fort Campbell, apparently built to house another 6-inch BL gun (No.3 emplacement) may have housed a heavy anti-aircraft gun. At its rear, this gun pit was surrounded by a small ammunition magazine containing several cubicles just like those of the 6-inch coastal gun emplacements. Although this emplacement, lacked space for gun crew accommodation, a few metres away the British constructed two underground rooms to serve this purpose.
Image 14: Interior view of the loading chamber showing the large opening that leads to the underground magazine.
Image 15: Three large openings that were probably used to ventilate the underground magazine. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 16: A blast protection wall. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 17: A view of the gun pit and the ammunition magazine for the anti-aircraft gun. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 18: A view of the partially underground building used for the anti-aircraft gun crew accommodation. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
The Battery Observation Post and Fortress Plotting Room
Directing and co-ordinating the fire of the 6-inch guns was the work of the Battery Observation Post (BOP). This structure was roughly situated in the centre of the Fort, immediately to the rear of the gun emplacements and faced northwards out to sea. The BOP was a long stepped building that contained the position finding cell and the gun control room. The gun control room lay above the position finding cell and both of these rooms had a cantilevered flat roof. This building was the nerve centre, or command post, of Fort Campbell. The position finding cell inside the BOP served to detect and record information regarding any enemy sightings, target ranges and bearings, as well as the fall of shots of the coastal guns of the Fort. This information was then transmitted to the Fortress Plotting Room adjacent to the BOP by means of a MAGSLIP arrangement (electrical transmission). In the plotting room, enemy sightings were accurately tracked and recorded on a plotting table. These plots were then relayed to the gun control room in the BOP so as to work out the coordinates required to direct the fort’s coastal guns to fire and possibly hit the enemy targets. In 1943, the BOP was modified in order to support a roof-mounted Coastal Artillery (CA) Number 1 Mark 2 Radar. The Fortress Plotting Room was a rock-hewn chamber located very close to the BOP. Entrance to this underground room was by means of two passages. A few metres away from the Battery Observation Post lies a downward ramp that used to lead to another underground concrete chamber. The floor of this underground chamber had two raised concrete bases onto which the electricity generators were mounted to supply electrical energy to the roof mounted radar on the BOP. Apart from this, the roof also had three large openings for ventilation for the chamber underneath. The downward slope also led to an underground rock-hewn shelter that could have provided some protection to soldiers during air raids.
Image 19: A view of Fort Campbell’s Battery Observation Post and the two entrances that led to the underground Plotting Room. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 20: Detail of the floor of the Position Finding Cell within the BOP. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 21: Interior view of the gun control room in the BOP. Unfortunately the concrete roof gave way and collapsed. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 22: The remains of the roof mounting that once supported the Coastal Artillery No.1 Mark 2 Radar on the BOP. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 23: One of the stairways that led to the underground plotting room.
Image 24: Interior view of the underground plotting room. The electrical conduits and switches that used to control the lighting of this room are still intact. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 25: The entrance leading to the underground radar engine room. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 26: A view of the roof of the underground radar engine room. Notice two of the three square openings that used to ventilate this underground engine room. Unfortunately, the concrete roof of this room is collapsing. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
The Main Gate and the Guard Room
Fort Campbell was designed as a purely functional military outpost. Unlike the earlier forts of the Victorian era, no concern was given to any aesthetic architectural considerations. Even the limited architectural decoration that was often applied to the main gateway is missing. Indeed at Fort Campbell the main gate was simply a wide cutting in the perimeter wall which was closed off by means of a metal palisade gate. Accompanying the gate was a nearby guard room.
Image 27: A view of the main gate of Fort Campbell. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 28: The guard room was located just behind the fort’s main gate. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Underground Water Tank and Generator Room
Fort Campbell was equipped with an underground shallow concrete chamber capable of storing 10,000 gallons of water. This shallow chamber was accessible by means of two sets of metal rungs located on either side of the chamber. The pipes that carried water into this underground tank were positioned next to the metal rungs. The tank is surrounded by a set of small rectangular shaped openings. Most probably these were used to allow any excess water to overflow as otherwise it could damage the structural integrity of the concrete tank. Next to the water tank, where the pipes entered there are vertical passages fitted with metal rungs as well. Unfortunately, nowadays these passages are filled with rubble and rubbish so their exact function is unknown.
Image 29: The underground water tank. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 30: Detail showing the metal rungs that allowed the British troops to enter and check the interior of the water tank. Furthermore one can also note the pipe that used to carry the fresh water to be stored inside the tank. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Rock-hewn underground shelters were dug up both inside and outside Fort Campbell. These could not have been used by the inhabitants of Mellieħa as this area was closed off and they had no access to it. In fact in order to prevent any strangers from gaining entrance into Fort Campbell, most of the area behind Selmun Palace was closed off to the inhabitants of Mellieħa.
Image 31: One of the many rock-hewn underground shelters inside Fort Campbell. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Other structures within the fort included an artificers’ workshop and storage area and the Coastal Artillery Searchlight engine room. Fort Campbell had three coastal artillery searchlights placed in fixed protective emplaces (with steel shutter opening) located outside the fort along the coastline overlooking the St Paul’s islands.
With such a small number of buildings inside the perimeter, Fort Campbell’s relatively walled enclosure is rather barren. Furthermore these few buildings were scattered throughout the fort in such a way so as to prevent clusters and identifiable patterns that could be picked up by enemy aircraft flying overhead. Another interesting feature of this fort was the large number of underground passages and chambers. In Fort Campbell only those buildings that were essential to the fighting capability of the fort were built above ground, whereas others such as the generator room, the gun crew accommodations etc where built beneath ground level. Building underground not only helped to protect the British troops from enemy fire, but it also helped to reduce the concentration of buildings inside the fort, thus making Fort Campbell more invisible from the skies. In this manner, Fort Campbell resembles similar arrangements adopted by the British military in the defence of other important outpost around their empire, such as Fort Stanley in Hong King (likewise built in 1936/37), Good Head Battery in New Zealand, and Brownstone Battery in Kingswear, Devon (1940), and Fort South Sutor in Scotland (1939).
Outside the Perimeter Wall
Barrack accommodation for the garrison was not located within the defensible perimeter. Instead a long range of blocks situated immediately outside the fort contained the barrack blocks, dining room, cook house, officer’s mess, ablution room and other services. These structures were not built as part of the original fort but were constructed at a later stage during the War (around 1942-43) to house a force of infantry, that was stationed in the area in order to patrol Selmun and its surroundings as well as man the several beach posts and pillboxes. Various areas of the fort and its immediate external perimeter were also fitted with prefabricated Rimney and Nissen huts.
Image 32: Dining and Cooking took place inside this building. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 33: Interior view of the dining room. The iron beams that supported the roof were removed. As a result the concrete roof is caving in under its own weight (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 34: A view of the Barrack Blocks that housed the British infantry stationed at Fort Campbell. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 35: The remains of three shower bases inside the Ablution Room. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Coast Artillery Search Lights
Important adjuncts to Fort Campbell’s night-fighting capabilities were its electrical searchlights. Known as the Coastal Artillery Search Lights (CASL – formerly referred to as Defence Electric Lights -DEL) these fixtures were generally housed outside the fort and placed at strategic points along the coastline. Fort Campbell had three such CASLs. These served to light up the entrance to Mellieħa Bay, St. Paul’s Bay and the channel between Selmun and St. Paul’s Isles. The Fort Campbell search lights were sheltered inside special concrete emplacements. When not in use, the apertures of the concrete emplacement were closed off by means of steel shutters so as to protect the search light inside. The search lights were powered by electrical energy coming from generators inside Fort Campbell. These electric generators and their respective engines were housed in two barrel vaulted rooms unlike all the other structures inside the Fort which had roofs supported by iron beams. The cables that used to serve these Defence Electric Lights were placed and protected in shallow rock-hewn trenches.
Image 36: A view of the barrel vaulted room that once housed the electrical generators required to power the search lights. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 37: Detail of the tiled floor of the generator room. Notice the concrete base onto which the engine and the electrical generator were mounted as well as the shallow channels on the ground that carried pipes or cables to or from the engines/generators. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Images 38, 39, 40 and 41: Views of the three concrete emplacements in which the defence electric lights were housed. The last concrete emplacement shown still retains the metal shutters. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 42: A shallow rock hewn trench that once carried the cables to power one of the searchlights. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
A need for restoration and rehabilitation
As can be clearly seen from the photographs accompanying this brief descriptive article, Fort Campbell, despite retaining many of its original features, lies in a derelict, neglected and abandoned state. It has been in this state for many, many decades. Sadly, ever since it was decommissioned by the British military, Fort Campbell has lain open to the destructive elements of both nature and man. Some of its features have suffered more than others. Particularly impressive are the efforts that various unknown vandals have gone to in order to remove the iron beams that supported the roof of barrack blocks, many of which have either collapsed or are caving in under their own weight. It is sincerely hoped that this interesting fort will one day, before it is too late, benefit from a thorough restoration and rehabilitation intervention. True, the site is an extensive one and the resources required for such a task cannot but be considerable. Money (or more precisely, a lack of it) is always a critical factor. However, the fort and its surrounding area are highly popular picnic and camping sites with the Maltese public and in this, perhaps, may lie the secret of the Fort Campbell’s salvation – its rehabilitation and sensitive and sympathetic reuse as a soft camping site.
Simon MIFSUD (C) 2012
Borg Paul P., Selmun - A Story of Love, Malta, 1996
Catania J. (ed.), Mellieħa - Through the Tides of Time, Malta, 2002
Spiteri Stephen C., British Military Architecture in Malta, Malta, 1996
Date and Time to be