The Redan No.47 October 1999

Coast Defence of Malta During the British Period 1800-1958 by Mario Farrugia


For a fortress island like Malta, coast artillery has always been the more important branch of artillery. The reason for this is obvious, the long and exposed coast could hardly be defended other than by naval means. However, when the fleet was away from the station, the fortress had to rely on its own resources. Given the rugged nature of the terrain in Malta the use of field artillery on a large scale was impossible. Defence of the island could only be exercised effectively through the concentration of coast artillery placed in strategically positioned coastal forts.

This scenario was already in place during the time of the Knights of the Order of St. John, where many miles of permanent fortifications were built to that effect. It remained largely unaltered for the next 150 years of British military presence in Malta, till the time when the very concept of coast defence based on guns was abolished in favour of new rocket technology.


On their taking of Malta from the French, the British were blessed in finding here a well planned defence infrastructure. This consisted of an extensive network of strong and equally modern fortifications that the Knights had built during their 300 year rule of the islands.


Fort St. Lucian

Fort St. Lucian, casemates for 10-inch RMLs


The moment that Malta was assigned to Britain, as another of its foreign stations, the British soon set themselves the task of adapting Malta's defences to their strategic needs and capabilities.


Proof of this is found in a report of 1803, where a full description of the fortifications was given and all available armament was listed. In the same document, the fortifications were described in a very good light, however the same was not said about their armament, as most of it was found to be either too old or completely useless in having their bore completely worn out. Reference is also made to the fact that the extent of the fortifications was too much for the garrison available. Some 1000 guns armed the ramparts at this time. However, these differed much in their weight and calibre sizes, something which caused great logistical problems. Furthermore, most of the available guns had no carriage and those with one required replacement.

This sad state of affairs in terms of ordnance, caused the British to replace practically all of the armament with British or captured French guns, which were sent out from England for that purpose. The number of guns was also reduced wherever it did not weaken the defences. This was done in order to make up for the shortage of available gunners. As a result of this action several embrasures in the parapets of the main enceinte around the Harbour were masked.


Also at this time, the armament of the fortress was standardised in the following calibres: 24 pdr for the main batteries, 12, 9 and 6 pdrs for inner harbour defence and 3 pdr as light armament. The mortars were standardised by adopting three calibres: 13, 10 and 5½ inches. Mortars at the time were not just used for defence against landward attacks, but also against shipping, especially in cases where attack in depth into a harbour was possible. In addition to this armament, the British also added 24 pdr carronades on garrison carriages for flanking ditches and curtains. The carronade started as a naval armament in the mid 1700s, however it was soon adopted by the military for use against massed troops.

By 1830, the detached coastal redoubts and batteries were abandoned in favour of a concentrated approach around the main harbours. However, most of the coastal towers were retained in service as coast watching posts against smuggling. These were manned by the locally raised militia regiment, the Royal Malta Fencibles. Military presence in Gozo was also reviewed around this time, with Fort Chambray being relegated to a military hospital.


This approach hardly changed till the 1860s, when the British military authorities contemplated at building a concentric ring of detached forts or works around the Grand harbour. This was due to their fear of having an enemy mounting a land-ward attack on the naval dockyard and arsenal from the rear.


During the Crimean war, Malta served as an important naval supply base for both the fleet and the expeditionary force operating in the Black Sea area. This fact brought about a complete change in the way that the British looked at Malta. Before, the strategic importance of Malta was equally shared, in the eyes of the British, with Port Mahon, Gibraltar, Corfu and later Cyprus. However, the Crimean war proved that the strategic position of Malta was far superior to any of the other stations. Which led the British to reconsider their defensive plan for the island and set in motion a grandiose plan which took no less than 30 years to fully complete.

By 1848, the amount of guns on the island totalled a staggering amount of 915. All these were of the smooth-bore muzzle-loading type. It was around this period that practically all captured French ordnance was phased out.


Important developments in the field of naval design and ordnance, that came out of the Crimean conflict, led to the design of ships and in turn fortifications being revolutionised. The first step in this direction was when France introduced armoured shipping in the shape of floating batteries during the bombardment of Sebastapol. The armoured nature of these vessels rendered all existing artillery of the time completely ineffective against them. Another important invention during that period was that of the rifled breach loading gun by William Armstrong. These developments and the use of steam power for propulsion, led to important changes being adopted in the design of naval ships, which until then had hardly changed since the time of Nelson. A new kind of ironclad ship thus emerged, the first of which was the French Gloire followed a year later by the British HMS Warrior. Both ships could withstand far more punishment from coastal batteries than any other of their predecessors.


The emergence of the new ironclad directly led to a revolution taking place in the field of coast artillery and the design of coastal defences. This revolution later developed into an ongoing race between the maritime powers in creating the largest and most powerful ordnance for use against the continuously growing thickness of armour on ships.


In this process, the old bastioned traced coastal defences, gave way to sturdier forms of defences made from multi-tiered casemated batteries. This system of defence was influenced by the excellent performance of the Russian Malakoff tower during the Siege of Sebastapol.

In Malta similar fortifications were planned, but very little was done to that effect. Forts Lascaris and Verdala were the only two attempts completed, and in both cases it did not amount to new works but old works adapted for the role. Over the next 10 years, it was to be seen that the use of casemated batteries in fortifications was not in any way the best solution. During the Siege of Metz, during the 1870 war between Prussia and France, guns in casemates were rendered out of action after their embrasures filled with debris from explosions. This fact, made the British adopt the en-barbette type of emplacement for their new works, which in effect was an open emplacement having a parapet that shielded the gun crew and the gun carriage from direct artillery fire.


With the introduction of armoured shipping, more powerful guns had to be devised. William Armstrong came up with R.B.L. gun firing an elongated shot. This gun being a breech loader was easier to load and therefore quicker to fire. The rate of fire of this gun was astonishingly greater than that of the conventional smoothbore muzzle loader. Additionally, it was also far more accurate. The first RBL guns were brought to Malta in the late 1850s.

In 1865, the Director of Ordnance reported that the armament of Malta consisted of 973 pieces all of which were smooth bore, except for 30 x 7-inch RBLs. According to him this satisfied the immediate defence needs, but he remarked that larger calibre guns would be needed in the future. A year later the number of heavy RMLs was increased to 27. The condition of the ramparts was not good and much work was considered to be necessary to make them withstand direct fire from the new ironclads.


During the Opium War in China, Armstrong RBLs were used. Given their complicated breech sealing method and also the poor quality material used in manufacturing the vent sealing block, fatal accidents occurred where some of the gun crews got killed. Sadly for the British and contrary to the rest of the powers of the time, this led to their reversion to the RML guns.


The 1870s were an important period for the development of coastal defences in Malta. Many new forts and batteries were built, the Victoria Lines were also started in that period. This defensive line consisting of a continuous rampart built all along the great fault that cuts the island of Malta in two, was meant to close off the rear of the naval base concentrated around the harbour. Three main works dotted this line with guns covering given stretches of the coast and likely landing beaches. Other lesser batteries were also added.


New detached forts were built on the Delimara peninsula and on each side of the entrance into the Grand Harbour. All of these forts were built on new concepts of design, wherein a combination of masonry and concrete was used. There guns were placed in a combination of open barbette emplacements or iron shielded casemates. The armament in this period ranged from 64pdrs to 12.5inch RMLs.

11-inch RML emplacement

Emplacement for 11-inch RML at Fort San Leonardo


The extent of fortification building carried out in Malta in this period was unparalleled in history and can only be compared with the building of Valetta itself, for both its scale and cost. In 1876, the newly unified Kingdom of Italy launched a new series of ironclad battleships modelled on the American Civil War Union navy monitors. These ships were to be armed with four 100 ton guns each, the kind of which none of the existing RN ships could withstand. Furthermore, the new Italian ships, Dandalo and Duilio were protected by 22 inches of steel armour which exceeded by far the combined capabilities of the Royal Navy. The range of the Armstrong 100-ton guns stood at 3 miles and that gave the Italian ships an all round superiority against any navy.


Justifiably, this fact worried the British military authorities in the Mediterranean to a great extent. Especially, as since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the Mediterranean had became the most important commercial cross roads of the world. For the British it also represented a quick and important link with India. Given the circumstances, Sir John Lintorn Simmons, Inspector General of Fortifications, himself a very gifted and influential military engineer, was sent out to the Gibraltar and Malta to assess the situation. He concluded that it would be best if 100 ton guns be also introduced in the two stations. Given the expense involved only two batteries in each station were built. In the case of Malta these were placed on each side of the entrance of the harbour to protect it from any possibility of a blockade mounted by the Italians or any naval force from dashing into the harbour.

However, this state of parity did not last for long. Slow burning powder was invented by Sir Andrew Noble in England and this brought about another revolution in artillery. Given the slow burning properties of this new powder, more gases were created in the chamber of a gun when the propellants burnt. This meant more pressure being created, which translated itself in projectiles being hurled to longer ranges and with bigger force than ever before. However, the use of slow burning powder required longer barrelled guns than those of existing RML guns. Which led to a new breed of breech loading guns to be built, as RMLs could not be used given their inherent problems suffered during loading.


10-inch BL HP disappearing emplacement at Delle Grazie Battery


By the late 1880s, muzzle loading artillery started making way for the new B.L. guns. In most cases the new guns took the place of the old guns in forts, however, at least in four cases new batteries or forts had to be built; Spinola, Delle Grazie, Benghisa and Garden batteries. Also in this period, the emergence of the torpedo boat had taken most military strategists of the time by total surprise. This caused a lot of panic and fear amongst naval and military circles, where some went to the extreme of declaring that the end of the capital ship was signed. The reply to this new weapon was the small calibre Quick Firing gun, which could fire at great rapidity. Many of these guns were added to our coast defences, and in cases new batteries were also built specifically for them as in the case of Tryon Battery at the foot of St. Lazarus Bastion in Valetta.


Steerable torpedoes also made their appearance at this time. Two Brennan installations with underground engines and machinery were purposely built at Ricasoli and Tigne' point. The purpose of their use was that of closing off the entrances into the harbours. Both installations remained in service until the building of the Grand Harbour break water at the turn of the century.

Contemporary to these developments, Electric Light projectors were installed at many forts. This enabled the coast defences to engage targets even during the night. Extensive submarine mining was also carried out at the entrance of the Grand Harbour, Marsamxett and Marsaxlokk. Submarine mining consisted of the laying of mine fields in the approaches of harbours or to close off landing bays. These were controlled from land from purposely built posts. Narrow corridors were left in these mine fields for the passage of friendly shipping.


Up to WWI, significant changes were carried out in terms of coast defence in Malta. The armament was standardised to four calibres: 9.2" and 6" for counter bombardment and 12 pdr and 6 pdr guns for anti-torpedo boats and inner harbour defence. A number of open batteries for field artillery were also built at strategic places all over Malta to cover bays and beaches. In 1906, all remaining muzzle loading guns were assigned to the scrap heap.

No action was seen by our coastal defence during the First World War, however, it is believed that a German U-Boot was sunk some three miles out of the Grand Harbour by one of the 6" guns of Fort Ricasoli.


During the inter-war period a lot of experimentation and modification of existing fortifications took place. As a result of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, new works were also built, namely Fort Campbell at Mellieha. Practically all of the forts and batteries had added to them anti-gas shelters out of fear of gas attacks from the air. Britain had then been party to the sanctions imposed on Italy by the League of Nations and it was feared that latter might launch a massive retaliatory air bombardment against Malta, if not a full scale invasion. Some 70+ concrete block houses and machine gun posts were also built along the beaches as a result of that threat.


In 1939, 9 twin 6 pdr positions were incorporated at Fort St.Elmo and Fort Ricasoli. These guns were to prove crucial during the Italian E-boat attack on the Grand Harbour on July 26, 1941. This equipment was in fact designed for use against fast attack boats. The twin 6 pdr guns were capable of great rapid fire and they could also be used against aircraft.



Emplacement for twin-sixpdr. on Fort St. Elmo


By 1940 the coast defences of Malta consisted of 7 x 9.2-inch, 10 x 6-inch and 9 x twin 6 pdrs.


As the threat of invasion loomed on these islands, various naval 4.7" were added in and around the harbours. Also various old naval and captured Italian guns were also handed over to the army for deployment along the coast in Beach Gun posts. These posts operated in conjunction with the Infantry defence plan for the island and in many cases were manned by the infantry. During WWII the full brunt of action was taken by the airforce and the A.A. artillery. For the coastal gunner there was very little to do, except for a few actions against enemy MTB at long distance and many false alarms. In 1944, coast artillery position were equipped with the radio controlled radar which was never used in action.


After the war, the whole set up of the coast artillery went under review. All Q.F. guns were abandoned, some of the 6" BL guns were maintained. But the 9.2" BL guns were removed. Their place was taken by the new 5.25". This gun was used extensively by the navy during the war and in Britain it was already used on land. This gun was most advanced for its time, it was fitted with automatic ammunition feeding and could be used both in the C.A. and A.A. role. Initially three batteries were to be provided for this armament. However, only two batteries of these were ever mounted at St. Rocco and Benghisa.


In 1956, it was announced in the House of Commons in London, that Britain was to disband its coast artillery in favour of modern rocket technology. This led to the conversion of the '1st Coast RMA' regiment into an LAA regiment and also the scrapping of all coastal ordnance from forts.

The only guns retained in service were the 5.25" but that was only for a brief time, till 1958, when the last coast artillery gun in Malta was cut up and with it some 400 years of coast artillery history came to a close