The War Tunnels Tour
& the Saluting Battery
Two separate but connected sites/activities in Valletta
, both run under the auspices of the Wirt Artna Foundation of Malta
. The Saluting Battery can be observed for free from the the Upper Barrakka Gardens, but to get up close to the cannons, see the museum parts behind it and get a guided tour you need a ticket.
All this is included when you do the relatively recently introduced War HQ Tunnel Tour – which is the real reason for this chapter. These tunnels were once a top-secret location for the British and American/NATO
underground headquarters in the Mediterranean during the Cold War
More background info:
The Saluting Battery
is an old site going back to the early days of the construction of Valletta
after the Great Siege in 1565. It mostly had just a ceremonial role – to salute arriving/departing ships and guests of honour. It only saw military action during 1798-1800 and in WWII
, when anti-aircraft guns were installed here.
In addition to its ceremonial saluting function, the battery was also used to signal the opening/closing of the city gates at sunrise/sunset as well as giving a signal shot at 12 noon. The need for such time-giving shots became more or less redundant in the 1920s with the arrival of radio (in particular the BBC).
, the Battery, which had sustained some bomb damage during air-raids, was restored and the damage repaired. Yet in 1954, the British Royal Navy, which until then ran the site, decided to shut down the Battery and removed all the cannons. In 1965, after Malta
gained its independence, the former battery was transformed into a public garden.
In 2004, the Wirt Artna Heritage Foundation acquired the site and began restoring it to its former 19th century appearance and function. For that eight working replica 32-pounder cannons were installed in 2011. Since then there have been regular salute shoots at 12 noon again, and another at 4 p.m., every day; in addition salute shots are fired when important state guests arrive, sometimes a whole six-cannon barrage – and even cruise ships can commission this special treatment for the delectation of their passengers when they leave port (though given my personal opinion of this awful cruise-ship business I'd suggest using live charges with proper steel-piercing shells and then aiming well at these monsters of the seas ;-) ... I'm only cynically joking, of course.)
Some rooms in the rear of the Battery have been turned into reconstructions of powder storage and artillery staff rooms and information panels were put up to provide some commodification
of the site beyond the salutes as such and the guided tours offered by Wirt Artna guides.
The War HQ Tunnels underneath the Saluting Battery
date back to the beginning of WWII
. They were dug out by the British military from 1940, to serve as safe locations for operations rooms, coast artillery and anti-aircraft co-ordination, communications and cypher rooms, and so forth. Most of the facilities were subsequently moved to the Lascaris War Rooms
in 1943 for Operation Husky (the Allied invasion of Sicily/Italy
After the war, the tunnel systems underwent many modifications, and from 1955, they were used jointly by the British
, especially for the tracking of Soviet submarines in the Mediterranean during the Cold War
. In 1956 the site served as the operational HQ for the invasion of Egypt during the Suez Crisis, and in 1962 during the Cuban
Missile Crisis the site was put on full alert as the Cold War threatened to turn hot, making the military installations on Malta a potential target for Soviet
With the withdrawal of the last British
military forces in 1977, the War HQ Tunnels were closed for good and long remained unused after that. In 2009 the tunnels were entrusted to Wirt Artna, a non-governmental Heritage Foundation, who have since been restoring large parts of the system and eventually started running guided tours of them.
There's more to come still. Wirt Artna are also busy making yet more underground tunnels accessible on guided tours, namely ones that were started in 1942 but actually were left unfinished and hence give an impression of the raw mining efforts that were required in creating all these secret underground spaces. When I went to Malta
in late December 2018/early January 2019, I already picked up the leaflet advertising these extra tours, but when I tried booking one at the ticket office I was told that they were a little behind schedule and hadn't quite yet begun running these tours. Shame. I'm sure it would have been interesting. By the time you read this, however, these tours should have become available.
What there is to see: The two parts described in this chapter overlap to a degree. I was invited to walk around the Saluting Battery and take in the museum parts and interpretative panels there while I waited for the commencement of the tour of the War HQ Tunnels; and after the tour we were led back to the Saluting Battery to resume the touring there and to watch the actual firing of the salute cannon at 12 noon.
The War HQ Tunnels are accessed from a side entrance to the Saluting Battery, which is normally locked, but the guide unlocked it specifically for us. Then we moved on a few yards to a gate in the rock face on Battery Street. (Note that there's no point waiting here to join a tour at this entrance – you have to get your ticket in advance from the Saluting Battery ticket office or another Wirt Artna outlet, but can't buy them actually on the tour or at the door.)
The guide, wearing a 19th century period uniform, took the group inside and began his narrative at a point just inside the tunnels and continued this at various points deeper in and further down. Quite a few steps have to be taken en route. And ventilators make a lot of noise …. there's still a lot of conservation and restoration work going on inside these tunnels, hence. In a way it is still a work-in-progress kind of visitor attraction. Yet a few side rooms have already been furnished with some period items.
The only properly reconstructed part at the time I was on the tour was the large Cold-War
-era operations room
deep inside the bowels of the rock. The main feature of this is a giant map of the Mediterranean area that this NATO
military HQ oversaw at the time (ca. 1968 – note that it still says Yugoslavia
on the map!). Some of the upper tiers and stairs have also partly been restored and the whole place will probably be fleshed out further in the years to come.
Just behind this room is another one that hasn't yet been restored and that contains other items, including some damaged maps, in the dilapidated state they were found in when the site was acquired by Wirt Artna. The tunnels continue further down from here too, but you could see that lots of work was still being carried out in them, so this was a far down as the tour could get.
On the way back, however, we were briefly led outside, namely onto a bridge at an intermediate level of the Lascaris Ditch, to get a glimpse of the massive bastions all around from this unusual angle.
We made it back upstairs and to the Saluting Battery in time to get the salute shot at noon, but before we were also able to (re-)join a guided tour of the Saluting Battery itself. This provides mainly the site's history and the function of the cannons. While the technical details are of interest only to real military hardware and war history buffs, it was interesting to hear it pointed out by the guide that the depiction of historic cannon shots in movies like “Pirates of the Caribbean” couldn't be further from the truth. The projectiles fired by cannons like these were simple stone cannonballs, solid stone that is, with no explosive charge inside. So the depiction of cannonballs hitting a target and exploding on impact are “complete nonsense”!
Eventually it was time for the actual loading and firing of the cannon. One cannon is usually selected for this, with another prepared for being able to fire as a standby in case something goes wrong with the first gun. It's quite entertaining to watch the highly ritualized proceedings, but the firing of the cannon as such is of course over in a shot (excuse the cheap joke). Just a quick boom, then the smoke dissipates and that's that.
Since only blanks are fired anyway, there isn't really anything so dark about this ceremony … except that the guide told us before the firing that in the past they had incidents when a pigeon had been hiding inside the gun barrel and that when they fired it, things got “rather messy”. These days, though, it is always checked that the barrel is clear before loading it.
All in all
, it is definitely the War HQ Tunnel tour that is the more significant dark-tourism attraction here, even if the commodification
of the underground passages isn't complete yet and probably still has a long way to go. But for those, like me, with a special interest in Cold-War
history, it's a special treat. The Saluting Battery as such is a mere bonus, but it's actually quite fun to watch from close up rather than just from upstairs from the viewing gallery of Upper Barrakka Gardens.
at and underneath the Upper Barrakka Gardens in Valletta
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: restricted, by guided tour only; the tour of the Saluting Battery alone is quite cheap, but the War HQ tunnels tour is quite a bit dearer, though neither is the price excessive.
To get to the Saluting Battery for the tour there and also the start of the War HQ Tunnels Tour, make your way to Upper Barrakka Gardens, which are easy enough to find (being the tourism hotspot they are) from Castille Place behind the stock exchange, a short walk south-east from Valletta Gate and the parliament. The ticket office for the Saluting Battery is accessed by stairs leading down a level inside Barrakka Gardens. You can also buy your ticket for the War HQ Tunnel Tour at either the Lascaris War Rooms
or the new Malta Military Bookshop on Castille Place (by the stock exchange), which is also run by Wirt Artna.
Times: the War HQ Tunnel Tours run Mondays to Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. and last an hour, so they combine well with the daily 12 noon salute shot from the Saluting Battery either after the tour or before. Guided tours of just the Saluting Battery run throughout the day every hour. Audio guides (in a dozen languages) for self-guided visits are also available.
Costs: the War HQ Tunnel Tour costs 15 EUR per person (adult price – accompanied children under 16 years old: 5 EUR). This includes the admission and tour fee for the Saluting Battery. Stand-alone tickets for just the latter are 3 EUR (only 1 EUR for children under 16 years old).
Note that the War HQ Tunnel Tours are not (yet) included in the 30 EUR multi-site passes by Wirt Artna that are available for pre-purchase online too (those only include the Lascaris War Rooms
, Malta at War Museum
, Fort Rinella
and the Saluting Battery as such).
Nor will the tours of the unfinished tunnels
be included in that package, when they start running (which may by now well be the case – see above
). These also cost a separate fee of 15 EUR per adult (no children allowed), according to the leaflet I picked up on site.
NOTE that none of these sites are suitable for wheelchairs and that during the War HQ Tunnel Tour quite a few steps have to be negotiated (first down, which is easy, but then back up), so they are no good for people with severe mobility issues in general. It's advised to wear sturdy shoes (no sandals or high heels) for the tunnel tours.
Time required: The War HQ Tunnel Tours last a bit over an hour, and the guided tour around the Saluting Battery something like half an hour – plus some time for waiting for the salute shots and watching this (though the firing itself is over in a split second, of course). So in total something like two hours should be allocated for this.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
An especially convenient combination is that with visiting Fort Rinella
, since Wirt Artna offer a free shuttle service by minibus at 12:20h from the Saluting Battery to the Fort (via the Malta at War Museum
, which is also run by Wirt Artna), making access to it much easier. In fact it's some of the same people conducting the tour at the Saluting Battery and firing the actual salute shots that then move on for their demonstrations and re-enactments at Fort Rinella. If you want to make use of this shuttle service (not available on Sundays), you should reserve your seat on the van in advance, either the day before or at the very latest just before the commencement of the tour at the Saluting Battery. Your names will then be called at the entrance to the Saluting Battery when it's time and you'll be taken to the minibus at street level on Castille Place.
Reachable on foot, and hence another good combination, is the Lascaris War Rooms
, located deep down inside the rock and bastions below Barrakka Gardens. The walk down there is signposted from the exit from the War HQ Tunnels.
As pointed out above
, yet another tour offer should by now have become available (it hadn't yet when I was there), namely ones taking visitors into the unfinished tunnels
. If the information given on leaflets at the time is now correct, these tours run daily except Sundays at 11 a.m. starting at the Lascaris War Rooms; tickets cost 15 EUR and the tour, conducted in English, is said to last ca. one hour. Sensible shoes and clothes should be worn for this, and no children are allowed on these tours.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Watching the gun firing at the Saluting Battery can arguably be seen as an attraction that isn't really dark at all, despite the military history behind it (and the odd bit of accidental cruelty towards animals in the past) – and in fact most visitors just come to the viewing gallery at Upper Barrakka Gardens to witness the salute shots.
The Upper Barraka Gardens also provide some of the best views of Malta
, especially over to the Three Cities
with Fort St Angelo
and the Grand Harbour. And they also make a very good starting point for exploring the rest of Valletta
- 01 - entrance to the war HQ tunnels
- 02 - inside
- 03 - lots of steps down - and later back up
- 04 - narrow passage
- 05 - former grain storage cavern
- 06 - side room
- 07 - at the heart of it all - the Cold-War-era NATO ops room
- 08 - upper level
- 09 - on the upper level
- 10 - the tunnel system continues, but is not yet accessible to visitors
- 11 - unrestored broken map of a difficult ex-Soviet region
- 12 - end of the tunnel on a bridge
- 13 - inside the massive ramparts
- 14 - looking down to the bottom the Barrakka Lift
- 15 - stairs to the Saluting Battery
- 16 - the charges are being delivered
- 17 - in the charge goes
- 18 - ready
- 19 - fire
- 20 - boom
- 21 - and the smoke slowly clears