Fort St. Rocco

A British Flankless Fort in Malta.

Col. Lewis, writing in the 1860s, stated that in the early years of the nineteenth century, British officers considered Fort Tigne', built by the Knights of St. John in 1792-95 in Malta, to epitomise the 'perfection of a small fort without flanks ... capable of considerable resistance.'

Major McKerras writing soon after Britain had taken over the government of the Maltese  islands in December 1800, considered it a work constructed with great deal of ingenuity. The British military were immediately impressed by this small diamond-shaped fort and their engineers were quick to take up its theme of a flankless fort, erecting their first such work on the Island of Anholt, off Denmark a few years later, in 1812, and then in a more fully-developed form at Fort George on the island of Vido off Corfu in 1825. The three main aspects of such 'polygonal' forts, inspired by the writings of the Frenchmen Marc Rene' Marquis of Montelambert, were the polygonal plan which did away with the need for projecting bastions; the use of caponiers and counterscarp galleries inside the ditch to provide flanking fire in lieu of the missing bastion flanks; and an isolated keep commanding the gorge of the work.

Above, Fort Tigne’, Malta (1793).  Drawing by author.

Above, left, Britsih Battery, Anholt Island (1812) and right, Fort GeorgeVido Island, Corfu (1824)

The first British 'polygonal' fort to be built in Malta, however, would only materialize in the 1870s. It was erected at San Rocco, on the eastern shoreline, opposite Fort Ricasoli. Rather than a veritable fort, however, it was actually a small coastal battery designed to command the approaches to the Grand Harbour.  Unfortunately, given the importance of the site, it was not to last long and was eventually replaced by a much larger coastal defence battery.  Luckily, however, the record plan of the first Fort St. Rocco, drawn by Lieut. Chard RE and signed by Col. Henry Wray, CRE, on 9 January 1878 has survived and this shows a small fan-shaped work, with a detached rectangular keep, linked by two caponiers to the body of the work of the battery and protected by counterscarp musketry galleries accessed by underground communication tunnels (see plans below, Author’s Collection).

Close-up of detail of nineteenth century photograph taken from Kalkara, showing the keep of Fort St Rocco, its glacis, and one of its coastal guns mounted en barbette (Author’s collection).

Detail from British 19th century military survey plan showing Fort St. Rocco. (Author’s collection).

Work on this fort appears to have begun either late in 1872, or early in the following year for by January 1873 it was already being proposed to upgrade its armament of three 11- inch RML guns to 12.5-inch guns. More of a battery than a fort, its relatively small interior was occupied by three circular barbette emplacements for RML coastal guns fronted by a thick sloping concrete parapet; their adjoining magazines, and the sloping glacis of the keep to the rear which acted as a sort of parados. The magazines stood in the intervening spaces between the three emplacements, placed below ground, and capable of storing 197 shells/cartridges each. Above these, at ground level, stood the ammunition-serving rooms, the roofs of which were fitted with what were termed as 'bonnets', that is, very low parapets pierced with loopholes for infantry firing their muskets in a lying-down position.

Above, 12.5-inch RML gun of 38-tons (Author’s collection).

The most ‘innovative’ feature of this new fort - the first of a series of British defences that would quickly spring up around the shores of the island in the course of the 1870s  - was its rectangular keep, a single-storey blockhouse-type of structure built in stone and designed to house a small garrison of sixteen men, two sergeants and an officer. The men slept in a single barrel-vaulted room on one side of the building and the officers in three smaller vaults on the other side,  the two separated by a vaulted corridor in which stood a central staircase leading to the terrace, which was itself enveloped by a high four-step banquette and parapet. The walls of the keep were pierced by a total of 12 musketry loopholes and were defended by three caponiers, one of which served as a caponier of communication, linking  the keep to the body of the fort (see reconstruction drawing and 3D video). Compared to the circular tower keep of Fort Tigne, however, the keep of fort St Rocco was an evolutionary step-backwards in terms of military architecture design. It had fewer loopholes to enable all-round defensive fire and a greater degree of dead ground around it owing to its rectangular plan – defects which could only be partially remedied by the provision of three flanking caponiers.  Three 5.5-inch Coehorn mortars were kept inside the keep (they were fired from the roof) and were intended to ward off landward attacks by enemy soldiers approaching from the landward side of the fort where the terrain, owing to its many depressions, could shield their advance.

Above, Plan and sectional elevation of Fort St Rocco.  Below, Sectional elevation of the keep showing two of the caponiers and the cistern in the ditch separating the body of the fort (i.e., the battery) from the keep. (Author’s collection).

The southern face of the keep, guarding the main access path into the fort, was the most heavily defended, fitted with four loopholes and a spur-shaped caponier.  The keep had no gate or door and was only accessible from inside the fort.  The main gate into the fort itself was situated on the left hand side of the gorge of the battery, with its approach path well flanked by the keep.

An important defensive feature of the fort was the pair of counterscarp musketry galleries which were designed to enfilade the ditch on the seaward-facing front of the battery. These two musketery galleries were linked together by a tunnel and accessed from within the fort by an underground passageway that was itself entered from within the left caponier adjoining the keep (see plan).  Both counterscarp galleries have survived. These were each fitted with eight musketry loopholes but had no embrasures for carronades or heavier armament. Both caponiers were built and faced in stone, but their masonry vaulted ceilings, including the communication passageway linking them together, were all topped over and covered in a thick layer of concrete.

The fort’s water supply was housed within a large cistern dug beneath the ditch which separated the keep from the battery, in the area between the two caponiers. This deep rock-hewn water storage area was designed to collect the rainwater from the roof of the keep and its ditch.


Detail of a sectional cutting showing the vaulted interior of one of the two surviving original counterscarp galleries. Note the concrete covering. Below, Detail of one of the musketry loopholes of one of the two counterscarp galleries (Author’s collection).


Above, Detail of the surviving scarp and superior slope of the parapet of the original Fort St Rocco. The enceinte was largely cut out of the bedrock  and revetted in concrete. (Author’s collection).

Lt. Gen. Nicholson and Maj. Gen. Goodenough, inspecting Fort St. Rocco in 1888, found a number of faults inherent in the design of the work.  They believed it to be 'very cramped, owing to the interior being almost filled up by the keep and its glacis.'  They found the keep, in particular, to be really unnecessary, and strongly opined that the work would have been better without it.  Projecting above every part of the fort, they believed that the keep was actually more of a liability than an asset since it created a conspicuous skyline and an excellent target for ships to fire at.  Their recommendation was to cut down the 'useless' stone parapet and banquette to roof level;  “ Fort St Rocco is a small work mounting three 12.5-inch RML guns. It is very cramped, owing to the interior being almost filled up by the keep and its glacis. The keep is really unnecessary, and the work would have been better without it. Projecting above every other part of the fort the keep shows conspicuously on the skyline , and forms an excellent mark for ships to fire at. This evil can be modified  by removing the upper stone parapet and banquette, which are quite useless, and cutting them down to the level of the roof. We recommend that this alteration should be made. It will cost little, and will not affect the efficiency of the work, nor interfere with the barrack accommodation  which the keep contains the guns should be made available for long range fire, but as they are only 75 feet apart, and the centre emplacement is badly designed, it would be a great improvement to remove the centre gun.

Above, Aerial view of fort St Rocco c.1970. The area shaded in yellow shows the site of the original 1873 fort, the front of which, together with its ditch and counterscarp galleries was retained and incorporated into the enceinte of the later structure (Author’s collection).

In the end, as things turned out, it was not the parapet which was cut down but the whole keep and most of the battery were unceremoniously swept away to make way for a much larger coastal fortification. Work on the Second Fort St Rocco was begun in 1900 and a large fort, devoid of any keep, and fitted with three large 9.2-inch BL guns on  Barbette Mark X mountings  was planted in its stead.  A few elements of the old fort, however, particularly the front of the work with its ditch and counterscarp, including the two galleries have survived, albeit in ruins.

For further reading see British Military Architecture in Malta (Malta, 1997) by Stephen C Spiteri

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AUTHOR: Dr Stephen C Spiteri -


Dr. Stephen C. Spiteri

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