Project Gaia About Us Gaia Team In the Media Downloads Contact Us Support Us Stakeholders Links


Key to
Project Names

Main Projects

- Apollo
- Athene
- Elysium
- Hermes
- Midas
- Odysseus
- Olympus
- Persephone

Other Projects

- Galatea
- Phoenix
- Poseidon

Galatea - The Coastal Watch Towers built by the Knights of St John

:: The Coastal Watch Towers

Click to view larger image

The coastal towers built during this span of sixty years can be easily classified into two distinct groups that reflect two separate concepts of coastal defence strategy. The first group were massive squarish towers fitted with heavy pieces of artillery and garrisoned by a sizable detachment of regular troops. These large towers were built not only to guard the major bays susceptible to invasion but were also expected to engage the disembarking enemy with their powerful guns while their garrisons were required to harass and reconnoitre the enemy.

In the period between 1620 and 1649 the Knights had also introduced a much smaller type of coastal tower intended to serve solely as a permanent lookout post rather than as an isolated stronghold. The new watch-towers built during the rule of Grand Master Lascaris, but paid for by the Universita, were intended to fulfil a clear-cut role, enabling the Order's engineers to standardize and perfect their design from the elongated Lippia-type watch-tower to the more squattish example at Wied iz-Zurrieq. The latter was to serve as a blue-print for the chain of thirteen watch-towers built by Grand Master De Redin and designed to relay warning signals all the way to Valletta. 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. These lessons were soon to be forgotten in the beginning of the 18th century when the Knights again embarked upon the fortification of every bay and inlet around the island, when batteries, redoubts and coastal entrenchments were then the new order of the day.

Taken from:
Stephen C Spiteri (1994): Fortresses of the Cross - Hospitaller Military Architecture (1136-1798) Heritage Interpretation Services (p.272-273).

:: Redoubts

Redoubts were a form of military fortification widely used by the French in the eighteenth century. The defensive roles played by redoubts varied considerably making it difficult to give a precise definition and any particular configuration. Etymologically the word redoubt comes from the French reduit, and in turn from the Italian ridotta and Latin reductus, meaning a shelter or refuge; this explains the more common French meaning of a small fortification. In eighteenth century Malta, coastal redoubts took three main forms. The majority were pentagonal platforms surrounded by shallow parapets and fitted with a single block house at the gorge and surrounded by shallow ditches. Although designed primarily for use by infantry the sizable platform of a redoubt enabled the deployment of a small number of light cannon. However, only a few of these works actually mounted any guns. According to the tactical standing orders issued by the Congregation of War in 1716, the coastal redoubts were to house the entrenchment tools of the pioneer section of the militia regiments. In 1792, the Congregation of War ordered that the redoubts Ramla Bay in Gozo and that at Mellieha be armed with two 6-pounder and four 6-pounder guns respectively. These works were to receive a complement of 6 bombardiers and 22 guncrew. The majority of these were erected along the northern coast of Malta, from Baħar ic-Cagħaq to Marfa, together with another two on the northern coastline of Gozo.

Taken from:
Stephen C Spiteri (1994): Fortresses of the Cross - Hospitaller Military Architecture (1136-1798) Heritage Interpretation Services (p.539).

:: Coastal Batteries

Unlike the 17th century watch- towers, which were built to guard the various bays and to keep a constant lookout against enemy ships, the coastal batteries were intended to perform a more aggressive role by actually engaging the approaching enemy ships attempting to disembark their troops, with their heavy cannon firing from behind the safety of high and solid parapets. Where possible, each large bay was fitted out with two batteries, placed opposite each other, one on each side of the bay in order to make the widest possible use of their cross-fire. The defence of each bay and major inlet was augmented further by the system of coastal entrenchments and fougasses.

The Maltese coastal batteries built by the Knights of St. John in 1715-1716 followed a pattern evolved by the French at the end of the 17th century. They were built on the rocky seashore in places not easily accessible from the sea and in most cases they consisted, basically, of a sizeable gun-platform ringed by a parapet and fitted with embrasures. Two small blockhouses at the gorge of the battery accommodated the garrison and the ammunition. The width of the parapet in each battery varied from 8 to 9 palmi. The outer walls of the block houses were fitted with musketry loopholes to cover the landward approaches to the battery. Some of the batteries were fitted with one large blockhouse which spanned the entire length of the gorge. The land front of most batteries was fitted with a redan, a V-shaped wall, projecting outwards from the centre of the land front and fitted with musketry loopholes designed to provide the work with enfilading fire. ... Most of the coastal batteries were surrounded with a rock-hewn ditch, depending on the nature of the site. Others had only a shallow ditch protecting the redan or simply a pit in front of the main entrance. Batteries built very close to the seashore had a moat open to the seawater.

The coastal batteries, with the exception of a few, were kept locked under key and left unguarded for most of the year. They were only manned during the open shipping season and during a threat of an invasion.

Taken from:
Stephen C Spiteri (1994): Fortresses of the Cross - Hospitaller Military Architecture (1136-1798) Heritage Interpretation Services (p.507-510).

:: Coastal Entrenchments

The Knights' defensive strategy of resisting the enemy on the beaches from behind coastal entrenchments flourished throughout the 18th century and although it seems that this enthusiasm began in 1714, apparently the Order seems to have experimented with coastal entrenchments at a much earlier date. Vertot records that Grand Master Philippe Villiers de L'Isle Adam, after inspecting Gozo, gave orders for the construction of entrenchments in those places where corsairs might easily disembark ... [as a cheap] expedient of providing some form of defence against the ravages of marauding corsairs by erecting what seems to have been a form of irregular wall along the accessible parts of the Ramla and Marsalforn bays. But ... considering the size of such a defensive wall, it is difficult to comprehend how the Order expected the scarce Gozitan military detachment to make any serious military use of such an overstretched defensive work. The weakness of these entrenchments ... can be attested by the fact that they served no purpose in offering the least form of resistance to the large Turkish army that Dragut disembarked in Gozo in 1551.

... In 1715-16, the entrenchments at Ramla and Marsalforn were reinforced and a new line of entrenchments erected at Nagħag-il-Baħar ... Underwater obstacles were later also constructed in Ramla and Marsalforn bay to disrupt further any possible enemy landings.

[The Order's] strategy ... involved the construction of a number of coastal entrenchments .... at Marsaxlokk ... Marsascala, St Paul's Bay, Mellieħa and the coast overlooking the Fliegu. Vendome [in his master plan for the defence of the island] also proposed entrenchments on the coast facing the Fliegu, Salina, Qalet Marku, Madliena and Birżebbuġa.

... In 1722, the Knights realised that they did not possess enough troops to man all the coastal defences and decided that, in case of an invasion, those works north of the Great Fault had to be abandoned and instead the troops were to be deployed along the natural ridge that divided the island in two, from Madliena to Binġemma ... Troops were to be concentrated behind three newly erected entrenchments at the most vulnerable spots along the ridge, Falca, Naxxar and Binġemma, and along a coastal passage near the Madliena tower. On July 3rd, 1722, the Congregation of War ordered the construction of entrenchments beneath Citta Notabile similar to the one built at Naxxar.

[In theory the concept of defending all the Island's coast was sound, but in reality the Order had neither the resources nor the men to operate such a system. There were many [who opposed Vendome's scheme but] ... in the end the Knights chose to implement [it] and in 1723, the Congregation of War ordered the construction of entrenchments on the coast from Ricasoli to Marasxlokk and between Dragut's Point and Qalet Marku. ... entrenchments were cut at Bengħisa Point, Marsaxlokk, Tombrell, Xrob l-Għagin Marsascala.

[... By 1761, however, the chain of entrenchments fell far short from that envisaged by Vendome in 1716. ... Thereupon, the French engineer Bourlamaque, in 1761, drew up an ambitions scheme to augment the system of coastal defences involving the erection of some thirty batteries and artillery platforms, and the encirclement of the islands within a nearly continuous line of walls and artificial escarpments of the rocky coastline ... In the course of the next decade entrenchments sprung up at Armier, Mellieħa (Kassisu), Qawra, Spinola and St Julians (1767 -1770), Birżebbuġa, Marsascala and on the coast between Fort Ricasoli and Żonqor tower. On the 17th October 1762, the Knights contracted the master mason Geronimo Micallef ... to construct entrenchments and scarp the coastline from Dragut point to St Juliana's bay ...

In April 1763, three-hunderd workmen were employed on the construction of coastal entrenchment between Ricasoli and Marsascala ... Chisurlia inspected these works by boat [and] in his report warned Grand Master Pinto that in embarking on the scheme espoused by Borlamague, the Order hand not taken into consideration the costs involved in the excavation and erection of the works and the length of time required to complete the scheme and failed to take account of [the cost of manning the defences and the provision of arms]. Without this type of planning, Chisurlia believed that any project was bound to fail.

... The post-1761 effort aimed at the construction of coastal entrenchments did not progress very far and after a decade or so the whole effort ground to a halt with the death of Grand Master Pinto in 1773. Indeed, Pinto proved to be an enthusiastic supporter for the scheme of coastal fortifications and had financed the construction of St Julian's and Spinola entrenchments at his own expense. The partially excavated ditches of various works, such as those at Armier and Spinola, bear witness to a sudden and abrupt termination of the various works.

Taken from:
Stephen C Spiteri (1994): Fortresses of the Cross - Hospitaller Military Architecture (1136-1798) Heritage Interpretation Services (p.553-558).

:: Various Coastal Defence Proposals

Click to view larger image

There were other variations on the theme of coastal entrenchments. One of these involved the construction of underwater walls designed to obstruct the entrance of vessels into the bays. One such wall or artificial reef, which still survives today, is that which was built in the middle of Ramla bay in Gozo while another was built in Marsalforn bay. A second variation involved a proposal for the construction of a line of abattis ... These wooden stakes, trunks and branches were driven into the sand, in a wide band across the width of the bay to prevent small boats with flat bottoms ... from proceeding further towards the shoreline ... The line of abattis was to be situated just within range of musket-fire from the shore but in the case of larger and deeper bays it was proposed to erect [two lines, one behind the other]. In order for this scheme to be effective, it was necessary that the whole circumference of the bay ... was to be fortified with simple rubble-wall entrenchments ... built by the troops detailed to defend the coast. From behind these makeshift trenches the defenders were to engage the enemy with muskets ... But the construction of an abattis required a large amount of wood and trees which were impossible to find on the island.

Where the mouth of the bay was by nature very wide, like Mellieħa and Marsaxlokk, this would have provided enemy ships with the possibility of deploying in a straight line, thus enabling those on the flanks to shield the intermediate boats from flanking fire. One proposal designed to counteract this threat was to decrease the width of the bay by scuttling large old ships ... Two floating pontoons in the middle of the bay, camouflaged with alga and within the range of the 18-pounder guns of the coastal batteries, were to mount four guns each. ... Another proposed method was to form an abbatis of large pointed stones ... But the most impractical and farfetched scheme for the defence of the bays was that proposing the planting of a large number of olive and carob trees along the whole length of the beaches hoping that some twenty years later these would present a natural impenetrable wall.

Taken from:
Stephen C Spiteri (1994): Fortresses of the Cross - Hospitaller Military Architecture (1136-1798) Heritage Interpretation Services (p.557-558).

:: Fougasse (1740)

Click to view larger image

Shortly after embarking upon the task of fortifying the Island's coastline the Knights realized that they did not possess enough troops to man all the defences. In a desperate attempt to increase the fire-power of the coastal fortifications the Knights introduced a novel form of weapon, the fougasse. ... This was basically a conical hole cut into solid rock and was designed to be used as a stone-firing mortar. In 1715, the council ordered that sixty such stone mortars were to be cut around the various bays but apparently no action was taken. In 1717 it was again proposed to excavate a number of stone mortars ... It was also proposed that in time the number of fougasses be increased to cover every inlet but again no action was taken and it was only after 1740 that interest in the fougasse was revived an the project actually implemented. In 1740, Marandon excavated an experimental fougasse on the seashore beneath the Bastione delle Forbici, Valletta ... [and fired it] in the direction of Dragut's Point. This was loaded with a huge quantity of stones and fired with gunpowder ... The shot travelled some three hundred metres and rose to a maximum height of sixty to eighty metres. ... For all its advantages, the fougasse had one considerable defect - it could not be traversed and aimed on an approaching force but had to rely on the enemy troops to enter into its field of fire in order for it to be effective. Since each bay could not support more than two to four fougasses, this necessitated good timing on the part of the gunners for once fired there was no hope of re-arming the fougasses due to the considerable length of time required. ... It took about an hour to arm a fougasse ... a task that required a crew of some four to five men.

... The French engineers who were to inspect the islands defences in 1761 found a network of fougasses already spread around the island. ... By 1770, fifty fougasses had been excavated in Malta ... Unfortunately only a handful have survived to this day, the majority of which were filled-in or demolished during the rapid post-war development. A few perfect examples survive at Salina, Madliena and Ramla in Gozo.

Taken from:
Stephen C Spiteri (1994): Fortresses of the Cross - Hospitaller Military Architecture (1136-1798) Heritage Interpretation Services (p.583-586).

Copyright The Gaia Foundation © 2007 • All Rights Reserved