Oct18

St. Thomas Tower and Battery

The bays, inlets, and coves in the southern part of the Malta were always a source of concern for the knights of St. John.  

 

These large anchorages provided secure landing places for invading enemy forces as well as an open back door leading directly into the heart of the island and its fortified harbour core.  The Ottoman invasion of Malta in 1565 had shown quite clearly how the then-unprotected Marsaxlokk Bay could easily accommodate the disembarkation of the whole Turkish armada which then went on to lay siege to the Order’s strongholds inside the Grand Harbour. Equally worrying were the opportunities provided by the smaller creek at Wied il-Ghajn and the bay at San Tumas, some two to three kilometres further to the north. The vulnerability of St. Thomas Bay, in particular, was well demonstrated during the course of a swift Turkish razzia in 1614. On this occasion, a large Turkish raiding force of some sixty vessels under the command of Khalil Pasha, after a failed attempted landing inside Marsaxlokk Bay, where it was repulsed by the guns of the newly-built St. Lucian Tower, put ashore 5,000 men in the then still-unguarded St. Thomas Bay, ravaging various villages in the south of the island before being compelled to withdraw by a strong militia force sent out to confront it.

Alarmed by the ease with which the Turkish force was able to land in the area and lay waste to the rural settlements and countryside in the south of the island, the knights were compelled to fortify the headland commanding the entrances to St. Thomas Bay and Marsascala with the construction of a strong coastal tower. There, in 1614, Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt and his council ordered the building of a strong tower ‘similar’ to the ones that had already been erected at St. Paul’s Bay and St. Lucian.

 

The Bastioned-Tower – foreign influence

The new structure was a sturdy rectangular construction fitted with four small corner bastions, elongated vertically in the form of turrets.  This tower, like its sister  structures at Marsaxlokk and St. Paul’s Bay, was designed to serve as a garrisoned fort and was built strong enough to mount a battery of heavy cannon on its roof. Indeed, in many documents, these towers were actually referred to as fortini, meaning small forts, and sometimes even as forti (forts). The late Prof. Quentin Hughes, in his pioneering studies on Maltese fortifications, was the first to recognize that the towers’ corner turrets were actually veritable bastions, designed to allow a limited degree of flanking fire along the faces of the intervening faces, making the whole structures, in essence, proper bastioned forts.

Above, Detail from Prof. Quentin Hughes’ early notes on Maltese fortifications showing his sketch of St.Thomas Tower and legend identifying it ‘as a proper bastioned fort’. (Author’s collection)

To date, it is not known who the architect of the St. Thomas Tower was. Traditionally, it was assumed that the Wignacourt towers were designed by the Maltese resident military engineer Vittorio Cassar, son of the renowned Girolamo Cassar and assistant to Papal military engineer Francesco Laparelli during the building of the fortified city of Valletta. This claim, however, has now been discredited. For one thing, Vittorio died in 1609  and so could not have been around to design and work on the tower, which was begun in 1614.  The only towers built in Vittorio’s time were Garzes Tower in Gozo, and perhaps St. Paul Bay Tower which was begun in the same year of his death.  Garzes Tower (named after Grand Master Martin Garzes who left money in his will for the construction of the tower) was the first of the coastal towers to be built in the Maltese islands and is documented to have been built to the plan designed by the Italian military engineer Giovanni Rinaldini da Ancona in 1599. When eventually built in 1605, however, it lacked any form of flanking turrets and so, as such, could not have served as the proto-type of the Wignacourt structures that followed.  Nor could the construction of the large coastal tower at Capo Passaro, on nearby Sicily,  built in 1607 by the military engineer Giuliano Lasso (a tower which was frequently visited by the Order’s Galleys on their outbound corso) have served as inspiration, since, likewise, it was devoid of corner turrets.

Vittorio Cassar’s influence on the design of the Wigancourt bastioned-tower solution, if any, could only have manifested itself at St. Paul’s Bay Tower, built in 1609,  which is where we first encounter the corner turrets, albeit in an embryonic form. This tower was then followed by the St. Lucian Tower in 1610, which was a larger structure with bigger turrets crowned by bulbous parapets.  In both cases, however, the turrets did not project outwards from the base of the tower to form true bastions.

Some sources mention the Maltese capomastro Gerolamo Bonici as the architect of St. Thomas Bay Tower but recent studies by the present author show that the design of this tower, i.e., idea for the turret solution adopted in all of the Wignacourt towers (with the exception of Marsalforn Tower), was most probably imported from abroad and influenced by contemporary coastal towers being erected in the Kingdom of Two Sicilies and its dependencies, as well as in Spain and its colonies in the new world.

The present author was able to trace various similar architectural solutions which were being employed concurrently around the turn of the seventeenth century in dealing with the threat of corsairing raids. The most striking of these, undeniably,is the Fortalesa de Porto Pi, also known as Castell de San Carlos in the island of Majorca (Mallorca in Spanish).  This coastal fort was constructed in 1610-12  (i.e., around the same time that St. Lucian Tower was being erected in Malta) and represents the first isolated small bastioned fort constructed by the Spaniards in the island of Majorca. The need for a tower at Porto Pi was first discussed by Majorca’s Colegio de Mercaderes in 1600, following which a request for financial assistance was made to King Philip III in 1607. Initially it was decided to build a circular fort but, on the strong insistence of King Philip himself, a rectangular bastioned structure was built instead. This was a marked departure from the circular type of fortificaciones costeras which had been employed around Majorca’s shores till then. The new tower, as a result, was built in the form of a small fort with four corner bastions. It carried a battery of six cannon on its terrace and was approached by a detached flight of steps (later demolished when the tower was enclosed within a larger fort in 1662-63). Its construction cost 12,000 libras.

Were it not for the adjoining barrack blocks grafted onto its walls, this photo of the Castell de San Carlos in Porto Pi, Majorca, could easily pass for that of St.Thomas Tower in Marsascala, Malta. This Majorcan bastioned-tower was enclosed within a larger coastal fort in 1663 as shown in the plan below  (After Juan Gonzalez de Chaves  Alemany, Fortificaciones Costieras de Mallorca)

This bastioned-tower solution seems to have been influenced by the design of earlier sixteenth- century small bastioned coastal  forts, such as that built by the Spaniards in Havana, the Castillo de la Fuerza (see picture below).  Although significantly larger than the later bastioned-towers under discussion, these small compact forts had set a pattern for small coastal works which sought to acquire greater resistance than that which could be provided by a simple rectangular design.  The solution of adding turrets to large casemated towers was applied to two such coastal towers built in Cuba by Juan Battista Antonelli at Cojimar and Chorrera.  Both the Torreon de Cojimar and the Fortaleza di Chorrera were proposed in 1633 and begun in1645, i.e., a few years before Fort St.Agatha, the last of the Maltese bastioned-tower forts was being built in Mellieha (1649).

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Another bastioned-tower design similar to St.Thomas Tower can be found in the Castello (or Torre) della Tonnara on the small island of Formica, off Trapani. Here the similarity is also striking. The date of the construction of this bastioned tower, however, has still to be determined by the author to see if it materialized before or after 1609. A report drawn up in 1640 shows it to have then already been in dire need of repair, implying that it must have been standing for quite some time.

Undeniably, these examples raise many questions about the authorship and origins of the layout of and configuration of the ‘Wignacourt’ bastioned-type of  tower design, and on the actual influence, if any, of the foreign designs on the plan and layout of St. Thomas Tower. This subject, therefore, demands further study and is currently the object of ongoing research and investigation by the present author.

  

Shape, Form, and Structure

Like at the Castell de San Carlos, the corner turrets at St. Thomas Tower projected outwards in the form of veritable pentagonal bastions, giving the whole structure a distinctive four-bastioned, star-shaped fort in plan. The projection at the base gave the turrets wider flanks and, as a result, allowed for the deployment of armament in the form of spingardi, falconetti on cavaletti and muschettoni da posta through covered embrasures.

Curiously, the other three Wignacourt towers to follow in the wake of St. Thomas Tower somehow abandon the bastioned plan. Marsalforn Tower in Gozo (1614) lacked the turrets altogether while St. Mary Tower in Comino (1618) followed the St. Lucian pattern  with the base of the turrets disappearing within the battered lower half of the structure. (For further information on the Comino tower see http://www.militaryarchitecture.com/forts/16-malta-hospitaller-fortifications/769-sta-maria-tower-on-comino.html ).  Nothing is known about Delle Grazie Tower (1620), however, but the sum disbursed on its construction, and its few guns, implies that it could not have been much larger in size and shape than the St. Paul Bay Tower. It is only at St. Thomas Tower, therefore, that the turrets assumed a distinctive bastioned format.

The construction of St. Thomas Tower cost 13,450 scudi making it the second most  expensive of the Wignacourt towers to be built, after St. Mary Tower in Comino which cost the sum of 18,628 scudi.  Much of the difference in cost would have gone to absorb the higher transportation costs of materials and supplies, however, which had to be shipped to the practically barren island of Comino.

Above, view of landward side of St.Thomas Tower showing the loopholed musketry parapet added to the orginal parapet. The right turret was ebclosed by a small room. Below, Photograph showing the restoration works being carried out along the heavily consumaed masonry fabric of the tower. These restoration interventions were carried out by the Restoration Unit of the Works Division (Photo: Author’s collection)

Above, View of one of the two high barrel-vaulted casemates forming the interior of the tower. The row or rectangular holes running along the level of the spring of the arched ceiling served to support the wooden form-work that was employed during the construction of the barrel-vault. 

Structurally, St. Thomas Tower was built around two adjoining and interlinked barrel vaults, which, in the parlance of the period, rendered the tower à prova di bomba and also allowed it to mount heavy pieces of artillery on its roof, thus enabling it to serve as a coastal artillery platform: ‘Due interni ambienti, ossia magazzini à troll di bomba, larghi tre canne e lunghi  otto tra loro comunicati, da servire all’occorenza per allogiamenti’.   The thickness of the walls was around 5 metres in places, while the corner turrets, or bastions, were themselves of solid construction, filled in with a tightly-packed mass of rubble and earth behind thick masonry skins: ‘I muri erano di una grossezza di due canne e mezzo’. The whole structure was purposely over-designed and solidly built to absorb serious punishment from naval bombardment, ‘est solide et … elle est à l’abrij de la bombe’.

Above, Sectional elevation of St.Thomas Tower (after Prof. Q. Hughes). The salient corner turret was heightened with the addition a room (shown in diagram) during the nineteenth century. Below, Sectional elevations along the two main axes of the tower (after Hughes).

Entrance to the tower was through a vaulted doorway set within a turret located centrally in the lanward face of the structure. This turret was surmounted by a corpo di guardia, or guardroom, which was added at a later stage, itself fitted with external flag-pole holders.  A small marble escutcheon with Wignacourt’s family coat of arms is mounted in a boxed frame recess above the doorway. The entrance was served by a wooden bascule drawbridge of the type commonly employed in Malta and known locally as ponte levatoio à fleccie e catena. Fortunately, the tower still retains its drawbridge lifting mechanism, the only example of its kind to survive on the island, although its wooden arms extending outwards from the tower were vandalized and set on fire and are now heavily charred, while the wooden tavolatura of the drawbridge itself has long since disappeared.

Above View of the badly charred drawbridge arms and, below, diagram showing a typical drawbridge mechanism a’ fleccie e catena’ as employed in many a Hospitaller fort and tower.

 

The fleccie e catena type of ponte levatoio was the oldest and most common type of  drawbridge mechanism employed by the knights up until the end of the seventeenth century. It was a simple and reliable device, where the counterweight was attached to the inner end of the arms. The arms protruded from vertical slits cut in the face of the outer wall and were linked by chains to the outer end of a wooden platform (tavolatura). In the closed position, the bascule arms were only partly raised. The bascule drawbridge à fleccie could usually be easily operated by a single man and was considered the best suited for local conditions since it allowed adequate access for the flow of carts and carriages (‘libero passaggio alli carri e carrozze’) and was virtually trouble-free. The counterweight, fitted to the inner end of the arms, consisted of a closed wooden box filled with iron shot or other heavy weights.

Above, View of the drawbridge counterweight mechanism.

As in many towers, the drawbridge and entrance were approached by a masonry flight of steps which was itself protected by wooden palisaded gate, the so-called ‘rastelli raddopiati di palizate’.  Such palisades were set up as a precaution against a coup de main and were intended to give the sentinels on duty at the gate enough time in which to pull up the ponderous drawbridge and close the tower’s heavy doors.  Palisaded gates consisted of wooden stakes, nailed to a framework, pointed at the upper end and sometimes tipped with metal points. The Order’s records show that these were fan-shaped for small works such as towers and batteries, although the type then designed ‘alla Maltese’ was not very effective in keeping people out. Late nineteenth-century photographs of St. Thomas Tower show it still fitted with a large rectangular palisade, although it is unclear if this was actually a Hospitaller-period  pattern, or one rebuilt during the early British period, of which there were many by the late nineteenth century.

Marble escutcheon with defaced coat of arms of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt fixed in a recessed frame on the central turret containing the main entrance into the tower.

Above, Detail of Corpo di Guardia and, below, the flagpole holder projecting from its facade. Note how the flagpole pierced the crowning cornice.

 

The Fosso

An important defensive element was the fosso, or ditch, enveloping the tower, later extended to incorporate the battery too. The tower’s ditch is around 5 canes wide (10 metres) in front of the faces and reaches its widest span in front of the bastion salients where it is some 17 metres wide. The fosso of the coastal battery, on the other hand, is much smaller and measures around 4.5 metres in width.  The ditch was excavated in soft rock and seems to have been originally revetted with masonry in places, as evidenced by the written records and description of repairs. The nature of the rock on which the tower was built seems to have affected the stability of the structure soon after its completion such that the base of the tower’s walls had to be  reinforced with buttresses, or delfini as they were then known (sometimes also referred to as contraforti). It is not clear at what stage in the tower’s history these buttresses were grafted onto the structure, but their manner of construction tends to suggest that they were added incrementally, some perhaps even as late as the early nineteenth century. The fact that one of these buttresses was already reported as being in a poor state of repair in 1766, described as ‘mezzo caduto’ (half-ruined), tends to suggest these buttresses were then already antique features and could date to very early in the tower’s life.

 

The Coastal Battery

From around 1714 onwards, The implementation of a coastal defence strategy involving the defence of all bays and landing places around the island with a system of batteries, redoubts, and entrenchments, saw the Order’s military engineers add a semi-circular gun platform to the seaward side of St. Thomas Tower,  ‘une grande batterie circulaire sus la tour di M’Scala du coste’ de la mer’.  This was a simple prepared position designed to take large calibre guns and mortars. The battery, roughly semi-circular in plan, was detached from the tower at its open gorge by the tower’s ditch and was protected from its seaward side by a shallow rock-hewn fosso some 2 canes wide.

Above, nineteenth century plan of St.Thomas Tower and Battery and enveloping ditch (Photo: Author’s collection).

The Misura & Conto Sommario dell’Opere di Fortificationi fatte nel Lido delle Marine, drawn up in 1716, gives the total expenses incurred in the construction of the St. Thomas Tower Battery as 382.8.11.1 scudi, of which the largest amount of 112 scudi went into the excavation (scavazione) of the ditch, followed by the erection of a counterscarp revetted in masonry (57.9 scudi) and the construction of the parapet wall (Muro a due facciate - 96.2.5 scudi). The paved gun platform (piattaforma) cost 57.9 scudi and the ramp leading down into the ditch at the gorge of the battery, cost another 15 scudi to fashion out of the bedrock.  The transportation of some 80 salmi of lime, sand, and puzzolana to the site involved an additional outlay of 3.4 scudi, which material was then employed in the making of lime mortar and used in the riboccatura (pointing) and biancheggiatura (whitewashing) of the parapets and revetments, a task which was valued at 10 scudi. Compared to the expenses involved in the construction of the other coastal batteries, such as those erected at Benghisa (1,855 scudi), Elminiech (1,451 scudi), Ghzira (1,109 scudi), and Richama (1,179 scudi), the construction of  the battery at St.Thomas Tower was relatively inexpensive. This, however, derived largely from the fact that the platform was neither fitted with blockhouses, nor with defensive redans, gateways, and cistern, given that the protection and accommodation of the guncrews was adequately provided by the nearby tower.

Detail from the Order’s records showing the expenses incurred in the construction of St.Thomas Tower Battery (Photo: Author’s collection).

Initially, the battery, as in many other examples erected in 1714-15, lacked embrasures since the guns were deployed crudely ‘à Barbette’, a situation that so worried visiting French military engineers in 1761 that they quickly had a high parapet built with ‘des merlons parce qu’elle peut etre battier par les vaisseuax et les galères’. By the late eighteenth century it was considered important to shield the gun crews of all low batteries behind high parapets with guns firing through embrasures.

Later in the century, the Order’s military engineers also sought to protect the tower and battery behind an entrenchment placed further out towards the tip of the promontory, ‘En avant de cette Batterie est une pointe assez spacieuse et accessible qui s’elargit, jusqu’à  100 ou 120 toises de chaque côté de la tour. Il faudroit tirer du pied de la tour de chaque côté un retrenchement qui aboutiroit à la mer et seront flanqué par le feu de la tour’.  This entrenchment, however, does not appear to have been built.

Plan of existing and proposed coastal fortifications at Marsascala and St.Thomas Bay showing the proposed entrenchment around St.Thomas Tower (Photo: Author’s collection – source: National Library of Malta).

  

Strategic Role

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the role of St.Thomas tower had changed from being simply that of a coastal watch-post to one akin to that of a command centre, or keep responsible for co-ordinating the many coastal defences in the area spanning from Zonqor Point to St.Thomas Bay. The fortifications in this area comprised three batteries, two other towers, and two sets of entrenchments. The militia regulations of 1761, for example, mention St. Thomas Tower as the official depot or ‘magazzino di deposito’ for the distribution ‘della polvere ed armi’ for the Zejtun militia regiment entrusted with the defence of the area. The tower was to hold 100 extra muskets with their bayonets and ramrods, as well as an adequate supply of cartridges (scartocci) and lead musket balls (pietre di fucili).  This deposito was kept under lock and key (‘serrati e ben custoditi dalle sentinelle’) and was placed under the command of a knight who was assisted by a ‘uomo di penna’ whose job it was to take note of the issue of weapons and supplies during times of emergency.

In one instance during the late 1700s, the Congregation of War and Fortification was somewhat upset to discover that the Capo maestro della Torre San Tommaso had failed to see to the repair of  the nearby entrenchments as he had been bound to do, ‘…non sia adempito secondo la sua promessa, all’obligo impostoli di rifabbricare detta trunciera, che anzi sono scorsi tre anni e mezzo senza che si sia curato farvi la minima riparazione ... essendo il solo luogo di detta contrada, vi ivi si potrebbe radunare la milizia’.

The Order’s military planners generally envisaged that St. Thomas Tower (together with that of St. Lucian and St. Agatha) could easily hold its own against attack. In times of emergency, a garrison of thirty men was considered sufficient for the job if adequately supplied with enough provisions for forty days, ‘Si stima che le torri debbarsi conservare anche dopo lo sbarco, essendo in stato di  mantenersi con 30 uomini. Questi sono la Torre di Marsacirocco, quella di S. Tommaso, e la Torre Rossa verso le Freghi. In questa ragione bisogna provedere quanto prima detti Torri per la sussistenza del loro presidio almeno per giorni 40 di tempo e darli le monizionji di gwerra necessari per la loro difesa’. At other times, however, it was often recommended that the contingent of troops stationed at tower be increased to 200 soldiers.

Nonetheless, the tower did not lose its ordinary coastal watch duties, even in matters unrelated with defence. In the winter of 1742, for example, owing to need to create coastal pickets following an outbreak of plague in Messina (Sicily), the sentinels stationed on top of St.Thomas Tower were provided with a ‘Guardiola di tela incerata’. This temporary canvas shelter was erected to shield the guards from the ‘eccessivo freddo che si fece scendere in quell’anno’.

  

Armament and equipment

St.Thomas Tower and its battery comprised one of the heaviest armed coastal positions to be found anywhere around the shores of the Maltese islands. Prior to the construction of the coastal battery in 1714, the tower doubled as an artillery platform with guns mounted on its roof. Details of its early armament tend to differ, although it seems to have had at least four 10-pounders and another four six-pounders mounted on field carriages (ceppi lunghi) by the end of the seventeenth century, as well as a solitary bronze mortar of unspecified calibre used for firing stone shot; ‘Vi sono in questa torre otto cannoni di differente calibro et un mortaro di bronzo per tirare pietre’. There were also two spingardi, perhaps mounted in the embrasures in the corner turrets, for close-in defence.

During the national emergency of 1761, the French military advisors headed by the Comte de Bourlamaque and the military engineer Nicholas de Ponteleroy recommended that the tower and battery be armed with three bronze mortars, four 24-pounders, nine 12-pounders, and four 6-pounders. It does not seem, however, that their recommendations for re-armament were heeded. In 1769, it was found necessary to replace three of the old ceppi as well as ‘i ceppi di mortaro’. In 1770, there are also recorded two boxes filled with 28 muskets, as well as 22 halberds and spontoons.  Most of the other towers also had a number of muschettoni da posta, but  for some unknown reason, none have been recorded as kept at St.Thomas Tower.

The low battery, on the other hand, was armed with eight 12-pounder iron guns. In 1785, the tower and battery were together equipped with a total of 1,192 iron cannon balls, and 239 rounds of bagged grapeshot  in three different calibres, together with 26 barrels of gunpowder containing some 9 quintali of Polvere di Genova.

An inventory of St. Thomas Tower, compiled by the out-going commander of artillery, the knight Fra Giovanni Francesco de St. Felix, lists the following armaments, munitions, tools, and equipment as found inside the tower and its adjoining battery in 1785:

Torre di S. Tommaso e Batteria di sotto

The Order’s records make various references to St. Thomas Tower and its eighteenth century battery. Apart from information on its armament, munitions, and state of repair one finds various documents relating to officers and men sent to command and garrison this outpost. The officers in charge of the tower were frequently known as Capi Mastri Bombardieri and were employed for definite periods of time. By 1631 the Order’s regulations had come to stipulate that the ‘forte San Thomaso, à marsascala’ be garrisoned by a capomastro and two bombardiers – the same as laid out for St. Lucian, St. Paul’s, Comino etc.  By the mid-seventeehth century the Capo Mastro of St.Thomas Tower was receiving a steady salary of around 70 scudi a year. Amongst the most famous of these was Capo Mastro Angelo Mifsud who had earlier served as a bombardier on the Order’s galleys and was involved in the capture of a renowned Turkish corsair.

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Modern Context

St. Thomas Tower played a small and inconsequential role in the defence of Malta during Napoleon Bonaperte’s invasion in 1798. Historical records show that St. Thomas Tower was retained by the British military well into the nineteenth century.  The rooms erected on top of the corner turrets, together with a thin screening wall pierced with small musketry loopholes (not of the type and pattern generally found on Hospitaller works), erected on top of the parapet along the landward side, seem to date from this later period. The rooms may have been constructed either to help ease the garrison accommodation, or as prison cells during the time when the tower was being used for the purpose of incarceration. Structurally, and visually, these additional rooms have served to raise and heighten the profile of the corner turrets, distorting the tower’s original architectural proportions when seen from certain angles.

Above and below, Restoration Unit interventions at St.Thomas Tower (Author’s collection).

Nowadays, St. Thomas Tower can be found in a relatively reasonable state of repair, largely as a result of the extensive restoration interventions carried out by the Restoration Unit in recent years. Still, the tower remains unused, begging for a sympathetic and productive use as a cultural venue. The restoration intervention focused on the replacement of the tower’s considerable areas of consumed and eroded masonry. Owing to the tower’s exposed position near the sea, and its construction in soft Globigerina limestone (Maltese tal-franka), the exterior masonry fabric had suffered considerably from erosion and weathering. A study of the various facades, particularly along the seaward-facing sides, reveals many earlier repair interventions.  Unfortunately, too, the modern urban sprawl of the nearby town of Marsascala has expanded considerably in recent years to completely surround and engulf the tower with modern buildings and a large hotel, thereby robbing this historical structure of its contextual legibility and its important, indeed critical, relationship to the coastline and the sea. Like a solitary fish in an aquarium, St. Thomas Tower now sits as an uncomfortable centerpiece inside a stretch of open ground, a rude combination of paved piazza and virgin land, both hemmed in by a thick alien band of stone and concrete buildings. Hopefully, the new commercial development which is to replace the old hotel will be redesigned in such a way so as to provide a corridor of open space that will help to re-link the tower, both visually and contextually, to the headland foreshore and the sea.

Full references and notes will accompany the article in a forthcoming issue of ARX.

View of battery from top of  St. Thomas Tower in 360 Courtesy of Maltain360.com

 


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Author:
Dr. Stephen C. Spiteri
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