Naxxar and its fortifications

Tags: Malta

An appreciation of the fortifications in the locality of the village of Naxxar, or of any other locality in Malta and Gozo for that matter, cannot be undertaken in isolation.


By Dr. Stephen C Spiteri

The smallness of the island, coupled with its limited resources, ensured that the country had to be defended as one entity. Throughout most of its long history Malta could only support a sole urban centre, and although with the coming of the Knights a second developed within the Grand Harbour area, most of the land remained basically subservient to this arrangement. Outlying district assumed their importance, and were in turn commensurably fortified, only in relation to the role each was required to play in the defence of the whole. No particular area was fortified in order to satisfy local needs but only because it fitted within an overall defensive strategy. Of course, some outlying settlements did seek to protect themselves from the ever-present threat of unannounced corsair incursions with the building of the occasional tower of fortified farmhouses, but these were predominantly domestic rather than military structures. In times of great danger, occasioned by serious razzie and outright invasions, it was only within the islands’city walls that the rural inhabitants could find some sort of shelter.

The only exception to this rule seems to have occurred during the Bronze Age period when human settlement in Malta apparently revolved around a number of fortified villages occupying various elevated defensible sites spread around the island (1). The presence of a number of such fortified settlements tends to suggest that this was a time of conserable insecurity occasioned more as a result of inter-village struggles over the island’s dwindling resources rather than as a reaction to outside attack. (2) But from Punic times onwards, the threat became purely of one of sea-borne attack and the defence of Malta came to rest on a single point of refuge at the fortified town of Melita, later Mdina, together with a string of lookout posts and a few towers spread around the coastline to warn of impending danger. A similar situation developed in the sister island of Gozo where the site of the present Cittadella and its suburb of Rabat became the main settlement. From around the late 12th century onwards a castle appeared inside the Grand Harbour but this was intended mainly to protect naval interests. The defence of the harbour area only began to assume strategic importance with the coming of the Knights and it was undoubtedly with the erection of the fortresses of Birgu and Senglea, and more importantly Valletta, that the focus of human settlement in Malta shifted to, and became securely anchored in, this part of the island.

Nonetheless, the value of the outlying areas to the defence of the major settlements, whether these were the central fortified Punic or Medieval town, or the coastal fortresses in the harbour area, was always a critical one. The need for a reliable system to warn of approaching danger dictated that many areas along the coastline had to serve as lookout posts or mustering areas for local militia forces. The ever-increasing militarisation which accompanied the Hospitaller and British occupation of the island witnessed the fortification of many of these places. Some areas, by their very nature and location, played a more critical role than others in assuring the safety of the island. Naxxar was one such a place.

Situated a short distance inland, roughly half way along the island’s northern coastline and crowning the summit of a hill, itself girded by a geological fault to the north and deep valleys to the east, the village of Naxxar combined the defensive advantage of difficult accessibility with the command inherent in elevated sites. It offered a unique vantage point with uninterrupted views of the northern half of the island and its accessible shores. Its significance to the safety Mdina and later Valletta revolved around its commanding position over the main inland approaches from the many vulnerable and accessible landing sites along the northern shores of the island. If there ever was a location in Malta which deserved the title of Wardija, it should have been Naxxar.

The position itself, however, does not appear to have ever served as the site of a fortified settlement in antiquity possibly because the area was too vast to be enclosed within a fortified perimeter. From surviving archaeological evidence we know that Bronze age fortified sites in Malta were of much humbler proportions, as can be witnessed by the remains at Il-Qala Hill, Ras-il-Gebel and Borg-in-Nadur (3),: all took advantage of natural defensive features to minimise the need for man-made ramparts. A fortified settlement of this type, however, does appear to have existed in the immediate vicinity of Naxxar on the site now occupied by Fort Mosta. The French architect George Grongnet, who was obsessed with finding the lost Atlantis, records the presence of the remains of a citadel and a fortified settlement in the area known as Misrah Ghonoq. (4)Unfortunately the construction of Fort Mosta in the 1880s wiped out all such traces if these really existed, although one can still detect a large number of huge boulders incorporated in the rubble fieldwalls in that area.

The village of Naxxar does not appear to go back so far in time but it is still nonetheless an old settlement, dating from the ninth or tenth century. It was established as a parish in 1436 and had jurisdiction over Hal Gharghur, Musta, St. Paul’s Bay, Mellieha and Marfa (6) practically all of that part of the island north of the Great Fault, the parte disabitata of Malta, roughly a third of the whole island.. This was a huge responsibility and clearly shows Naxxar’s status and importance as a defence nucleus for the northern regions during the middle ages. Prof. Godfrey Wettinger has shown in his work on the militia list of 1419-1420 that Naxxar and its associate villages contributed one-eight (262 men) of the island’s militia force, and one-fifth of those who owned a horse (20 out of 108).(7) Under the Knights the importance of Naxxar not only increased but the village itself became the main staging post for the BirkirkaraNaxxar-Qormi regiment of country militia charged with the defence of the northern parts of the island.

In the middle ages, the island’s militia force consisted of the Ghassa or Mahras, a maritime watch, and the Dejma an inland garrison which kept watch day and night at a number of strategic places. (8) These watch duties were called Guardia and for this reason many of those places which served as lookout posts retained the name Wardija. Abela writes of a Sciaara tal Bieb Nasciar o’ spatio dell’entrata al Nasciaro, ove e’ destinata una guardia. One other such station was on the heights of Naxxar itself, (9) precisely near the church of St. George and another known as Gwejdja or il-Wardija ta’ San Gorg near tat-Targa. The cult of St. George was connected in many ways with the protection of the coast and many military posts in the parish of Naxxar reflect this devotion. Near San Pietru in Ghargur there was a military post known as il Guardiia ta’ San Gorg and other churches devoted to this saint at Mosta, on the heights of Burmarrad, Mellieha and Ghadira all adjoined a military outpost(10). By 1628 the Captain of the Naxxar Militia was responsible for nineteen watch posts including those of Lippija, della Capra and Nadur. The latter wwere then considered too remote and were passed onto the responsibility of the Capitano della Verga, to be guarded by men who held gabelle da Torre Falca verso Bingemma, Mgarr et in sino la Ramla e da parte in dentro L’Isola verso Casal Dingli (11)

The militia posts occupied natural vantage points and were generally unfortified. Nonetheless, a few towers do seem to have existed even in antiquity. Abela, in 1647, for example, records the remains of an ancient tower at a place called Burgio Torre (12) and the militia post il-Borgio tal-Melliehe, the site of Fort St. Agatha built in 1647, tends to denote the presence of yet another ancient military structure (13). A clear reference to the presence of early fortified structures in the locality point to the existence of a tower in the area of Burmarrad overlooking the old port of Salina. This was an important harbour in antiquity because it was the closest port leading to the old Capital of Mdina. This structure appears to have been still standing by 1565. It was only with the coming of the Knights that militia posts began to receive defensive structures. Indeed, one of the Knights’ major contribution to the security of the island was actually the erection of a network of coastal towers during the first half of the 17th century.

Naxxar was in fact the first locality outside the Harbour area to receive a fortified structure. This was the so called Torri tal-Kaptan, the Captain’s tower, which was erected during the magistracy of Grand Master de Valette. It was was built to house the Captain of the Naxxar Militia - a position always held by a Knight of the Order appointed by the Grand Master. Actually, the Order had tried to requisition an existing tower, the Torri Gauci, which stood a short distance away. This had been built by Francesco Gauci, possibly even before the coming of the Knights, in order to safeguard his family and property against corsair raids - pirates had actually carried off Gauci’s wife. Obviously, as the only standing fortified structure in the locality, the Knights had sought to take it over for their own military use for in 1548, Franceso Gauci, petitioned Grand Master Juan D’Homedes in order to retain his tower. The Grand Master and Council of the Order acceded to his request with a decree dated 16 May 1548. (14)

The Captain’s Tower was in many ways similar to the Gauci Tower itself. In many other ways it was also reminiscent of the many coastal watch towers which the Order had built in Rhodes during the previous century, particularly in its box-like proportions with vertical walls, and features such as the machiolated parapet and fine mouldings framing the escuthcheons bearing the coat-of-arms of Grand Master de Valette. The tower is square in plan and consists of three floors, the rooms spaned by stone arches. Important defensive features were the piombatoi, or boxmachicolations used for dropping projectiles or other offensive materials on assailants at the foot of the tower.

These were basically open-based balconies supported on stone corbels and were generally placed above doorways or other sensitive parts of fortifications. In the Maltese language, such structures are known as Galleriji tal-Mishun, a term which clearly indicates their intended purposes - that of dropping boiling water on assailants. These piombatoi were actually medieval defensive features that had by then disappeared from the bastioned fortifcations and other new military structures of the period. That they were still being incorporated into 16th century towers should not be so surprising for the towers were designed only to resist small scale attacks, by 

raiders unequipped with cannon. Machicolation helped defend against assault and escalade. These were still being added to the coastal towers in the 17th century, but more as decorative retardataire features rather than important elements in the defence. A unique and interesting feature appertaining to this tower is the columbaria set within the four-foot high parapet on the roof. Pigeons were then an important means for relaying messages and this tower would have served a critical role, given its position, in relaying messages from Gozo to the Grand Harbour.

At Torri Gauci, the structural form of the tower is much more business-like despite it being an earlier building than the Captain’s Tower. The more pronounced battered lower half of the tower and the ring of box-machicoulis projecting from the high parapet, together with an ample provision of musketry loopholes and vision slits made it definitely much easier to defend than its neigbour. A tendency to endow local towers with box-machicolulis is also encountered also at Torre Cavalieri at Qrendi and and the Torricella at B’Kara, both apparently early 16th century structures. From Francesco Gauci’s own petition we know that this tower cost 400 scudi to build and internally consisted of three floors (15)

Between them, Torre Gauci and the Captians tower, together with Torre Falcha on the Dwejra heights below Mdina, comprised the Island’s most important northern-most defensive structures for the duration of the 16th century. That they were important landmarks is attested by one of D’Aleccios fresco’showing a map of Malta, where they are distincty illustrated. These are again depicted in the panel showing the final battle between the Gran Soccorso and the Turkish troops disembarked at St. Paul’s Bay, a battle which was faught around the plains of Burmarrad. D’Aleccio’s map also reveals the existence of two other towers in the nearby Casal Gregor (Gharghur), another two small ones down near the saline nuove and a third at Monte Aliba south of the chapel of Lunciata overlooking the Fomm-ir-Rih. None of these towers have actually survived.

The construction of the Chapel of St. Paul in 1696 immediately in front of Gauci Tower signifies that the latter had by then lost its defensive value. Even the Captain’s tower had assumed the semblence of a resendence rather than a military structure for during this period the burden of the coastal watch and the defence of the northern parts of Malta had fallen on a totally new set of dedicated defensive structures - the coastal towers built by Grand Masters Wignacourt, Lascaris and De Redin. (16)

With the Order of St. John firmly settled in their new fortress of Valletta, the Order could afford to invest some of its resources in securing the island’s rural areas. The building of a string of watchtowers gave the Knights an effective early warning system to signal the approach of enemy vessels and at the same time enabled them to resist enemy forces at the point of landing. Indeed, the first coastal towers built during the magistracy of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt were designed and intended more as forts rather than simple vedettes. These sturdy, massive structures, the first of which was built at St. Paul’s Bay (actually the first coastal tower was built in Gozo in 1605 with the money left by Grand Master Garzes), mounted heavy artillery and accommodated small garrisons which, in times of impending, were augmented by mercenary and cavalry detachments to help defend the landing areas in the vicinities of the towers. During the reign of his successor, Grand Master Lascis-Castellar, the emphasis on coastal defence shifted from large towers to smaller watch-towers erected at Ghajn Tuffieha, Lippija, Nadur, Qawra, St. George’s Bay and Wied iz-Zurrieq, and possibly another at Ta’ Capra. This tower definitely existed during the mid 17th century though, according to the Order’s resident engineer Mondion, was already in ruins in 1730, having been built at the edge of a fragile cliff overlooking Fommir-Rih. The limiting factors that had determined the reduction in the size of the coastal towers and the change in their role were basically ones of manpower - the Order did not have the manpower to post large detachments of troops at every possible landing place. (17)

An attempt to revert to large coastal towers was undertaken in 1649 with the construction of St. Agatha’s Tower(Torre Rossa) at Mellieha since this was a large and important bay that had to be defended. By the time of the next phase of coastal- tower construction during the reign of Grand Master De Redin the preference for smaller signaling posts had once again taken over though unlike the ones built earlier in the 1630’s, those built by De Redin were also designed to take arillery. Grand Master De Redin paid for thirteen coastal watch-towers, the first of which was built at Ghajn Hadid, north of Selmun. Together, all the towers formed a chain of communication since each was sited in such a way to enable signals to be relayed visually from one post to the next all the way down to Valletta. With these towers the Knights re-organised the system of coastal watch because local militia guards were replaced by fixed garrisons paid for by the Universita. Each tower was manned by a bombardier and three assistants with annual salaries of 30 and 24 scudi respectively. What this actually meant was that coastal guard duty was given a national rather than parochial organisation - the assistants to the Castellano at Torre St. Agatha in 1650, for example, Gregorio Seychel and Angelo Psaila, both came from Casal Zebbug, a parish whose traditional militia responsibilities lay much further south than Naxxar.(18)

Around 1660, there were in all thirteen military coastal towers guarding the Island’s shores north of Madliena. Of these, two towers fall nowadays within the locality of Naxxar, namely those of Qalet Marku and Ghallis. The Ghallis Tower was the second of the De Redin towers to be built in the year 1568 and cost 426 scudi. It controlled, together with Qawra Tower, the entrance into Salina Bay. Qalet Marku Tower, too, was built in 1658 and cost 408 scudi. Like all De Redin towers, these two towers were some thirty feet square in plan and about thirty-six feet high. Internally they had two vaulted rooms, one on each floor with the main and sole entrance located securely on the first floor and reached by a wooden retractable ladder. The base of the tower, right up to the level of the lower cordon was given a pronounced batter but above this, the walls rose vertical to terminate in a low parapet fitted with shallow embrasures clearly designed to permit the firing of small cannon. A spiral staircase set into the thickness of the wall just to the left of the main entrance led to the roof. The De Redin towers held only small artillery pieces, generally one or two 3pdr iron cannon kept mostly for signalling purposes; comparatively, the Lascaris towers could only mount spingardi. In 1659 all watch towers were each issued with two moschettoni di posta, or large heavy muskets (18).

After the death of Grand Master de Redin in 1660, the enthusiasm for coastal defences appears to have waned and for the next fifty-five years the knights showed little interest in the coastal defences. The lessons learnt in the 17th century , however, were quickly forgotten at the beginning of the 1700s when the Knights again embarked upon the fortification of every bay and inlet around the island with batteries, redoubts and coastal entrenchments. In 1714, Arginy and De Fontet, two commissioners of fortifications, together with Order’s second engineer, Francois Bachelieu, proposed that those beaches where a large army could disembark, be protected by batteries and entrenchments. Between 1714 and mid-1715, a total of 8067 scudi was spent on the construction of batteries around the coasts of Malta and Gozo and with the arrival of . With the arrival of the Grand Prior of France, the Bali de Vendome, the scheme for the fortification of the coastline was given an added impetus, not the least because of his handsome financial gift to the Order to be employed in coastal works. The reasoning behind this strategy of coastal defence hinged around the notion that the fortification of the bays would prevent the enemy from attempting to disembark his troops, and in trying to do so, the losses would be so high that enemy forces would be unable to mount a siege, ..fortificare le Marine in tal maniera che il nemico normalmente non possa fare nessun sbarco o tentendolo, si facci tanta perdita di gente, che poi non sia in stato di fare l’assedio (19)

The main elements in the coastal system of defensive as laid down by the French engineers consisted of gun-batteries, infantry redoubts and entrenchment walls. Where opportune, existing towers were to be incorporated into the scheme. Gun batteries, whose role was to engage the enemy warships with their heavy cannon, consisted of solid platforms generally fitted with embrasures and protected to the rear by blockhouses and loopholed walls with redans. There was no standard plan to the design of caostal batteries and although most were given semicircular gun-platforms, such as found at Qawra point, Mistra, Ta’ L-Ahrax, Armier, Wied Mousa, Ghallis etc, there were also pentagonal, Qalet Marku, and triangular (Qala Lembi) layouts, depending on tactical requirements dictated by the desired fields of fire.

The redoubts were to serve as a infantry strongpoints and although there was an attempt to build a standardised pentagonal pattern such as the one still to be found at Bahar ic-Caghaq. Armier, M’Scala, they too came in many shapes and sizes; a few like those of Kalafrana, M’Xlokk and Birzebbuga were built in the form of towers or blockhouses, in a similar manner to the French tour-reduit. The most ambitious of all the elements of coastal defence were undoubtedly the coastal entrehcment walls. These were intended to stretch for miles on end inorder to seal off all accessible bays. In the end only particular short sterches of coastline came to be defended in this way with solidly built ramparts such as still to be found at Armier, Tas Kassisu (Mellieha), Qawra and Madliena thouh even these were never actually completed as can be witnessed by the surviving remains and partially excavated ditches. In the end most entrenchments came to consist of the less durable pietra a secco walls which were little better than rubble field walls.

In reality the scheme was to prove too ambitious since the knight did not have the resources to cover every single bay with fortified works, nor, as it turned out during the general alarm of 1722, the manpower to man all the batteries, redoubts and long entrenchment walls. Consequently a new defensive position was chosen along the line of the great fault and trenches built at San Pawl tat-Targa. and a decade later at ta’ Falca limits of Mgarr. That at Naxxar is the best preserved and consist of four v-shaped redans linked together by straight curtain walls built in the form of a trinciera di pietra a secco. The importance of this entrenchment is attested by the fact that it was incorporated into the trace of the Victoria lines nearly two centuries later. For the Naxxar entrenchment commanded an important road leading down to and from the plain of Burmarrad and the northern coastline.

The last element of coastal defence, proposed in 1715, but only incorporated in 1741, was the fougasse. This was a kind of massive rock-hewn stone-firing mortar. Some 48 were built around the shores of Malta and fourteen in Gozo. Tow of the best examples of the few fougasses still to be found are located at Salina Bay, one of which is placed within the Ximenes redoubt. Anoher fougasses was sited across the bay inside the Perellos redoubt, now demolished.

Throughout the 18th century the island’s militia force was organised into six regiments of country militia, with the regiments of Naxxar, B’Kara and Qormi grouped toget1her into a Northern Brigade. Its headquarters was located at Birguma in the limits of Naxxar.(20) The Northern Brigade was charged with the defence of the northern parts of the island beginning from St. Julians Bay. In 1716, the Regiment of Naxxar consisted of 477 men and was responsible for defending the stretch of coastline called il-Fliegu, between Torri l’Ahrax and Cirkewwa. This area contained three coastal batteries (Wied Mousa, Vendome and l’Ahrax), three redoubts (Raml;a tal-Bir, Barrirea and Hossiliet), an entrenchment at Armier and a De Redin coastal tower. (20)

None of these fortifications served to play any significant role during the tragic French invasion of the island in 1798, the only instance when the network of coastal defences, built at such cost, was actually put to the test. French troops under the command of General Baragey D’Hilliers landed at Mellieha and St. Paul’s bay, where the defences there were under the command of the Knights De Bizier and De La Penouse respectively, while Fort St. Agatha was under the command of the knight St. Simon. The Maltese soldiers offered what little resistance they could before hastily retreating to Mdina. As D’Hilliers made his way southwards he met some resistance from the Bailli Tommasi and his troops firing from behind the Naxxar entrenchments, also defended by the detachments from the Regiment of Naxxar militia under the Knight De Paes, but Grand Master Hompesch had ordered this regiment to take up new positions closer to Mdina, possibly at the Falca, and its place was taken by another 400 men who offered some resistance before abandoning their position. Meanwhile other French troops established a beachhead at at St. George’s Bay and a column under under Brigadier General Lannes advanced north to capture the defences of Madliena and BaharicCaghaq. (21)

Most of the coastal defences were retained by the British throughout the first decades of the 19th century but gradually many of these military works were handed over to the civilian government as they were no longer considered necessary for the defence. The majority of the towers and batteries had been shed off by the military by the late 1830’s. Therefater none of these works were to feature in the islands’defensive stategy, particularly after 1860 when the the British gradually abandoned the idea of resisting the enemy on the coast, adopting instead a mighty fortress system conceived primarily for the defence of the Grand Harbour.

Initially the original British plan was for a girdle of detached forts placed on commanding ground one mile in advance of the existing harbour fortifications but by 1866 that scheme proved particularly difficult to implement mainly due to the creation of suburbs around the Grand Harbour. A reconsideration of these circumstances led to the adoption of defensive a position far in advance of that initially entartained. The ridge of commanding ground north of the old Cty of Mdina, cutting transversely across the width of the island at a distance varying from 4 to 7 miles from Valletta was chosen as the new defensive perimeter. The new defensive strategy sought to seal off all the area around the harbour within an extended box-like perimeter, with the detached forts on the line of the great fault forming the north west boundary, the cliffs to the south forming a natural inaccessible barrier, while the north and east sides were to be defended by a line of coastal forts and batteries. (22)

General Adye, in 1872, rightly observed that the new line of defence along the ridge was to a certain extent a revival of the original views of the Knights of Malta. As already shown above, the idea of using the Great Fault as a defensive position dated back to 1722 when the Hospitallers established infantry entrenchments San Pawl tat-Targa and Ta’ Falca. In the following year, the Defence Committee approved Adye’s proposals and recommended the strengthening of |Ithe already strong position between Bingemma Hills and the Heights above St. George’s Bay.|i In 1875, work began on what was originally to be called the |INorth-West Front,|i a string of isolated forts and batteries designed to stiffen the escarpment. Three strong forts were built along the position, those at Bingemma (1874) and Madliena (1878) to control the western and eastern extremities respectively, while that at Mosta (1878) commanded the centre. The first fort to be built was Fort Bingemma. By 1878, work had still not commenced on the two other forts and the entrenched position at Dwejra.

In 1878, General Simmons recommended that the old Knights’ entrenchments located along the line of the escarpment at Targa and Naxxar were to be restored and incorporated into the defences. This opinion was once again stated by Generals Nicholson and Goodenough in 1888. Although they were against the reconstruction and re-utilisation of the old Falca lines they were totally in favour , reutilising the Naxxar enbtrenchments since these commanded the main road from St. Paul’s Bay which passed through them at a distance of around half a mile in advance of the village of Naxxar. On this account Nicholson and Goodenough considered it desirable to reconstruct those parts of the old entrenchment which commanded the road. They even underlined the importance of defending the village of Naxxar, |Ia position .... of great importance,|i in the event of a landing in St. Paul’s Bay (ibid.).(23)

The forts on the defensive line were designed with a dual land/coastal defence role in mind, particularly the ones on the extremities. But due to the topography in the northern part of the island, there were areas of dead ground along the coast and inland approaches which could not be properly covered by the guns of the main forts. By 1878, it was considered desirable that new works should be thrown up between Forts Mosta and Benjemma, and emplacements for guns placed in them. It was similarly considered advisable to have new emplacements for guns built to the left of Fort Madliena and in the area between that Fort and Fort Pembroke. The latter fort was built on the eastern littoral below and to the rear of Fort Madliena, in order to control the gap caused by the accessible shoreline leading towards Valletta. Gun batteries were eventually proposed at Targa, Gharghur and San Giovanni. Only that of San Giovanni, was actually built and armed, while the two at Gharghur were never constructed. Targa Battery, on the other hand, although actually built, encountered much criticism and was never permanently armed.

Although initially designed as a series of detached strong points, the fortifications along the North West Front were eventually linked together by a continuous infantry line and the whole fortified traced was christianed the Victoria Lines in order to Commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. The long stretches of infantry lines linking the various strong points, consisting in most places of simple masonry parapet, were completed on 6th November 1899. The cost of the work, including the building of the defence wall, the forming of the patrol path and the scarping of the cliff face, covering an 100 acres of land, was 15,882 - more than the double the estimated figure submitted when the works were authorized on 27th November 1897. (24)

The trace of the intervening stretches followed the configuration of the crest of the ridge along the contours of the escarpment. The nature of the wall, varied greatly along its length but basically consisted of a sandwich type construction, with an outer and inner revetment bonded at regular intervals and filled in with terreplein. The average height of the parapet was about 1.5 meters topped by a musketry parapet. In places, the deblai from scarping was dumped in front of the wall to help create a glacis and ditch. The rocky ground immediately behind the parapet was frequently fashioned out to provide a walkway, or patrol path, along the length of the wall. A number of valleys interrupted the line of the natural fault, and at such places, the continuation of the defensive perimeter was only permitted with the construction of shallow defensible masonry bridges, as can be still seen today at Wied il-Faham near Fort Madliena, Wied Anglu and Bingemma Gap. Other bridges, now demolished, existed at Mosta Ravine and Wied Filip.(25)

During the last phase of their development, the Victoria Lines were stiffened with a number of batteries and additional fortifications. An infantry redoubt was built at the western extremity of the front at Fomm ir-Rih redoubt and equipped with emplacements for Maxim machine guns. The record plans of the Victoria Lines, drawn around 1901, show that many maxim machine guns were deployed along the length of the front and that in most places the walls were topped by loopholes of which only very few sections have survived to this date. In 1897 a High Angle Battery was built well to the rear of the defensive lines at Gharghur and another seven howitzer batteries, each consisting of four emplacements for field guns protected by earthen traverses, were built close to the rear of the defensive line. Search light emplacements were built at il-Kuncizzjoni and Wied il-Faham. (26)

Described as a military position of great strength in 1888, this defensive front was nonetheless soon to lose most of its importance. Military exercises in May 1900 showed that the Victoria Lines could offer little effective resistance against assault by a large landing force. By 1907 it had been decided to abandon the position on the Victoria Lines as a front line of defence and to revert to the policy of conducting the island’s defence from her shores. Nonetheless, the forts, with the exception of Fort Mosta, were retained in use by being assigned a dual coastal/land defence role.

The need to defend and fortify the beaches against invasion, was seriously rekindled at the outbreak of the Second world war when many of the Knights’ long discarded coastal defences, including the fougasses, were pressed back into service and incorporated, in conjunction with new defensive structure - the concrete machine-gun pillboxes and barbed wire entaglements. The role of the concrete pillboxes was to hinder the landings and in-land advance of enemy forces. Spread out across the country side in a series of stop lines each pillbox occupied a strategic position and was cleverly camouflaged. The earlier pillboxes and beach post built in 1938 as a direct result of the threat of an Italian invasion following the Abyssinian crisis, were elaborately camouflaged with rubble stone cladding. In later pillboxes, however, paint-work became the accepted method for applying camouflage. (27)

In the early pillboxes, all the machine gun armament was deployed frontally and in series, generally in adjoining positions of two or four emplacements though structures for single emplacements can also be found. The method of mounting the machine gun armament involved mainly the use of semi-circular concrete machine gun tables with or without accompanying concrete guncrew benches, the latter roughly semi-circular in plan. Considerable attention was given to concealment, hence the elaborate rubble stone cladding camouflage and the careful adaption of their form to fit the lie of the land. Such features as stone cladding camouflage, adaptation of plan and shape to the requirements of the site, the use of curved fronts and round edges were soon abandoned in favour of pillboxes built to simpler and more standardised patterns that lent themselves more easily to mass production. This, inevitably, was a development which reflected a greater sense of urgency and the need for rapid construction that accompanied the growing threat of war and invasion. As a result, by 1939, a new type of pillbox, more box-like in shape, began to appear. The second group of pillboxes, of which there are fundamentally three basic types, were mainly rectangular or polygonal in plan and retained their bare concrete finish. As these pillboxes became more box-like in shape, they acquired in the process a high profile that rendered them increasingly difficult to conceal in a predominantly flat landscape. As a result, the only practical form of camouflage was to disguise them as rural building and farm houses. Camouflage was mainly applied in the form of paint work and sappers from units of the Royal Engineers unit were detailed to undertake the work, adding features such as doors, windows and brown lines to a sand coloured background. A recently restored example is to be found in the the ta’Alla w Ommu area just ahead of the Naxxar entrenchments. Another less common group of pillboxes consisted of farmhouses and other rural buildings converted into defence posts. On such structure can still be seen situated along the road leading from Naxxar to San Gwann.

Another important element in the island’s defence were the anti-aircraft batteries. In Malta, the need for ground defences against air attack was first felt during World War One, when a 3-pdr anti-aircraft gun was mounted on the roof of St. John’s Cavalier to help protect the harbour and Valletta against the possibility of a German Zeppelin attack (28) Although the gun was dismantled prior to the end of the war, the post-war years were to see a gradual investment in anti-aircraft defences. Initially, during the 1920s, there was only one battery, the 10th A.A. Battery of the 4th Heavy Brigade Royal Artillery, equipped with 3-inch 20cwt QF AA guns. An Instructional Anti-Aircraft Camp was established at Tigne and an anti-aircraft practice camp was set up at Benghisa. In 1926 an anti-aircraft range was set up at Torri Madliena, at Pembroke and later, an RMA instructional AA practice camp was established at Gharghur, near Fort Madliena. The latter was equipped with two 3-inch 20cwt A.A. guns on fixed mountings (29)

Malta’s anti-aircraft defences were eventually augmented during the 1930s and by the outset of the Second World War these had increased to thirty-four heavy guns and eight Bofors guns. Earlier in 1939, however, the Committee for Imperial Defence had approved a plan to stiffen the Island’s anti-aircraft defences with 122 heavy AA guns, 60 light AA and 24 searchlights. The implementation of this plan was nonetheless a slow affair and by June 1940, only the searchlight equipment had been brought up to strength. The situation had, nonetheless, changed considerably by 1942, when the heavy anti-aircraft defences had expanded to include five regiments with a total of 112 guns of 3-inch (16 guns), 3.7-inch (84 guns) and 4.5-inch (12 guns) calibres, deployed in 29 troop positions of four guns each, except for two 3-inch troop positions which only had two guns each. The light guns had also increased to 118. Two troop positions are located within the naxxar locality, that at Blata l-Bajda, in Salina, and at Birguma. made up a heavy anti-aircraft battery. (30)

The other adjuncts of the anti-aircraft ground defences which were developed in the inter-war period were the searchlights, the sound-locators and sound-mirrors, and radar. For early warning purposes, the British developed huge acoustic mirrors, known as the sound-mirrors. The first example was installed on the coast of Kent during the First World War. Others were built at Hythe in 1926, and Abbot’s Cliff in 1927, capable of detecting aircraft at a range of twenty-five miles. Larger circular ones were built in the late 1920s. A 200-foot concrete strip mirror was built in 1929 at Lydd In Malta, a large paraboloid sound-mirror was built in stone at Ta’ San Pietru, near Bahar-ic-Caghaq and aimed in the direction of Catania in order to detect aircraft approaching from Sicily. (31) The huge acoustic mirrors met with only limited success were superseded with radar. Radar was first brought to Malta in March 1939 when an Air Ministry Experimental Station 242 was set up at Dingli Cliffs to track high-flying aircraft (Vella, 1988, p.83). By middle of 1941, three other stations had been set up at Tas-Silg (AMES 501), at Madliena (AMES 502) and at Dingli (AMES 504). These were Chain Overseas Low (COL) stations which tracked medium to low-flying aircraft. Later on, they were complemented by another four stations at Ghar Lapsi, Qawra, Wardija, and Gozo. The information gathered by the stations was relayed to the underground War Headquarters at Lascaris Bastion and to the gun batteries themselves.(32)

These then comprise the fortifications and military structures that were, and some are still, to be found in the locality of Naxxar. In short, these can be effectively grouped into three main categories, firstly, those which were designed to watch the coast; secondly those which built to resist invasion and thirdly, those which contolled the inland approaches towards the southern part of the island. All in all a diverse selection of defensive structures that span over four hundred years of history and military technology, reflecting Naxxar’s ever important role in the defence of the island.


  1. Evans, J.D., The Prehistoric Antiquities of theMaltese Islands: A Survey (London - 1971), pp.6, 116, 229233; Mallia, F., The Prehistoric Fortified Sites of Malta and Gozo in the Proceedings of IBI, VIII Scientific Meeting 1968
  2. Blouet, B., The Story of Malta (Malta 1989 ed.) p.30
  3. Evans, op.cit.
  4. Library Manuscript Ms 614 Tav. XI
  5. Camilleri E. & Pirota J., Naxxar Parish 1600-1650, A Demographic Study

(Dissertation, University of Malta 1973) p.3, quoted from Bellanti D., Why Malta? Why Ghawdex? (Gozo -1964), p.59

  1. Camilleri E. & Pirota J., ibid
  2. Wettinger G., Melita Historica, Vol.V, n2 1969, pp.82-83,85
  3. Mifsud, A., La Milizia e le torre antiche di Malta in Archivum Melitense, IV (1919),
  4. Catania P., Fortifikazzjonijiet fil-Lokalita (Tan-Naxxar), script of lecture 1998
  5. Camilleri E. & Pirota J., pp37-38, qoutated from Bezzina J., San Gorg il-Harries tax-xtajtiet article in il-Hajja 23.7.1971, p.4
  6. Archives of the University of Notabile Vol. 185, ff. 124 & 124v
  7. Abela, G.F., Della descrizione di Malta (Malta - 1647) p.73


  1. ibid., p. 61
  2. Archives of the Order of St. John in Malta (AOM)Vol.241, f.f.210v-211
  3. ibid.
  4. For more information on the history and development of coastal towers in Malta see Hoppen A., The Fortification of Malta by the Order of St. John, pp. 105-125; Hughes Q., Malta, a guide to the fortifications (Malta - 1993) pp.95-98, 202-209, 278-279, 284-285: Spiteri, S.C.,

Fortresses of the Cross: Hospitaller Military Architecture, 1136-1798,

pp.272-274 and 473-504.

  1. Ibid
  2. Archives of the University of Notabile Vol

19.AOM 1012, f.183

20. Wismayer, J.M., The History of the KOMR and the Armed Forces of the Order of St. John (Malta 1989), p.11: For Country Militia Regiments see

Regolamenti delli sei Regimenti di Campagna (Malta 1761)

    Testa C., Spiteri, S.C., British Military Architecture in Malta (Malta 1996), pp.383-400 ibid. ibid. ibid. ibid. ibid. Samut-Tagliaferro, History of the Royal Malta Artillery, Vol I. 1800-1939 (Malta 1976) p. 364. ibid., pp. 394-395). Spiteri, British Military Architecture, pp.539-557 Hughes, op.cit., pp.58-59 Spiteri, ibid.

Dr. Stephen C Spiteri

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