Dec20

The Victoria Lines

The complex network of linear fortifications known collectively as the Victoria Lines, cutting across the width of the island north of the old capital of Mdina, is a unique monument of military architecture.


 

When built by the British military in the late 19th century, it was designed to present a physical barrier to invading forces landed in the north of Malta and intent on attacking the harbour installations so vital for the maintenance of the British fleet, the source of British power in the Mediterranean. Although never tested in battle, this system of defences, spanning across some 12 km of land and combining different types of fortifications - forts, batteries, entrenchments, stop walls, infantry lines, searchlight emplacements and howitzer positions - consitituted a unique ensemble of varied military elements all brought together to enforce the strategy adopted by the British for the defence of Malta in the latter half of the 19th century. A singular solution which exploited the defensive advantages of geography and technology as no other work of fortifications does in the Maltese islands.

Brief Historical Note

The Victoria Lines owe their origin to a combination of international events and the military realities of the time. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, pushed the importance of the Maltese islands to the fore, particularly

By 1872, the coastal works had progressed considerably well ahead but the question of landward defences had remained unsettled. Although the girdle of forts proposed by Col. Jervois in 1866 would have considerably enhanced the defence of the harbour area, other factors had cropped up that rendered the scheme particularly difficult to implement, particularly the creation of suburbs. A regard for these circumstances led the military to consider another proposal, namely, that put forward by Col. Mann, to take up a position far in advance of that which had till then been entertained..

The chosen position was 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. There, it was believed that a few detached forts could cut off all the westerly portion of the island containing good bays and facilities for landing. At the same time, the proposed line of forts retained the resources of the greater part of the country and the water on the side of the defenders whereas the ground required for the building of the fortifications could be had far more cheaply than that in the vicinity of Valletta. Colonel Mann, R.E., estimated that the entire cost of the land and works of the new project would amount to 200,000, much less than that which would have been required to implement Jervois’ scheme of detached forts.

This new defensive strategy was one which 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. In a way the use of the Great Fault for defensive purposes was not an altogether original idea for it had already been put forward by the Hospitaller knights in the early decades of the 18th century when they realised that they did not have the necessary manpower to defend the whole island. Then the Knights had erected a few infantry entrenchments at strategic places along the general line of the fault, namely, at Ta’ Falca and San Pawl tat-Targa, Naxxar. In actual fact, the use of parts of the natural escarpment for defensive purposes can be traced back even farther to preceding centuries, as illustrated by the Nadur watch-tower at Bingemma (mid-17th century), the Torri Falca (16th century) and the remains of a Bronze Age fortified citadel which once occupied the site of Fort Mosta (De Grognet).

In 1873, the Defence Committee approved Adye’s defensive strategy and recommended the strengthening of |the already strong position between Bingemma Hills and the Heights above St. George’s Bay. Work on what was originally to be called the North-West Front began in 1875 with construction of a string of isolated forts and batteries designed to stiffen the escarpment. Three strong forts were built along the position, those at Bingemma and Madliena and Mosta, designed to the western and eastern extremities, and the centre of the front, respectively. The first defence work to be built was Fort Bingemma. By 1878, work had still not commenced on the two other forts and the intrenched position at Dueira, all of which were to be completed on the vote of 200,000. 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:

Simmons also recommended that good communication roads were to be formed in the rear of the lines and while those that already existed were to be improved. The fortifications of Mdina, the Island’s old citadel, were to be considered as falling within the defensive system

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. Asa result it was eventually realised 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 Madaliena 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. Plans for these works were drawn up but only that of San Giovanni, was actually built and armed, while the two at Gharghur were never constructed and that at tat-Targa, although actually built, was never permanently.

By 1888, the line of the cliffs formed by the great geological fault and the works which had been constructed along its length from Fort Bingemma on the left to Fort Madalena on the right, constituted, in the words of Nicholson and Goodenough, a military position of Great Strength. The main defects inherent in the defensive position were the extremities, where the high ground descended towards the shore leaving wide gaps through which enemy forces could by-pass the whole position. Particularly weak in this respect was the western extremity. There, a considerable interval existed between Fort Bingemma and the sea: Military manoeuvres held in the area revealed that it was possible for troops to land in Fomm er Rih Bay and gain the rear of the fortified line unperceived from the existing works. To counter this threat, recommendations were made for the construction of two epaulments for a movable armament of quick-firing guns or field guns, the construction of blockhouses, the improvement of the wall which closed the head of the deep valley to the south of Benjemma Fort and the strengthening of the line of cliffs by scarping in places. It was also suggested that the existing farmhouses in the area be made defensible.

There were even suggestions for the reconstruction and re-utilisation of the old Hospitaller lines at ta Falca and Naxxar but only the latter put to use, particularly because these commanded the approaches to the village of Naxxar, described as a position of great importance,in the event of a landing in St. Paul’s Bay.

A serious shortcoming of the North West Front defences was the lack of barrack accommodation for the troops which were required to man and defend the works. The lines extended some six miles in length and the accommodation provided in the forts was exceedingly scanty. Consequently, it was considered necessary that new barracks capable of accommodating a regiment (PRO MPH 234) and later a full battalion of infantry were to be built and a new site was chosen in the rear of the Dwejra Lines, at Mtarfa . 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, by then nearing completion, was christened 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 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. Frequently, the walls were topped by loopholes of which only very few sections have survived to this date. In places, the deblai from scarping was dumped in front of the wall to help create a glacis and ditch. In places, the rocky ground immediately behind the parapet was fashioned out to provide a walkway along, or patrol path along the length of the line. 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.

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 and equipped with emplacements for Maxim machine guns. 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.



Author:
Dr. Stephen C Spiteri
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