Malta at War Museum & WWII shelters
A war museum in Vittoriosa
, which focuses mainly on WWII
, and, together with the official National War Museum at Fort St Elmo
(with its much broader historical scope), is the main institution on the subject on the island. Moreover, it incorporates a system of underground tunnels that were used as air-raid shelters during the bombing of Malta in WWII.
It is housed within the counterguard part of the 17th century bastions that form the main fortification of the inland-wards rear of Vittoriosa
next to Couvre Porte Gate. Casemates added in the 18th century were later used as a military barracks and during WWII
as a HQ for the police and the civil defence centre. These included a network of tunnels dug into the rock underneath to serve as an air-raid shelter. These too form part of the museum today.
The museum's development was financed with the help of money from the EU Regional Development Fund and opened in its current, expanded form in 2012.
What there is to see: On arrival you are asked to leave any large bags/backpacks and coats in the lockers provided. Then you're free to roam. If you wish you can pick up a free audio guide too from the front desk.
The main exhibition is a bit cramped in places (space is limited inside these old bastions) but it's decently laid-out. There are larger text panels providing relevant historical information and, except for a few spelling errors suggesting some tighter editing would have been beneficial, they are nice and clearly written.
Thematically, the coverage starts with the run-up to WWII
and a prehistory of aerial bombing (including Guernica
) and the development of civil defence measures against this new type of warfare. The situation in Malta
is described, which at the time before the war was a largely rural society with only a few workers employed in the harbour and a largely poor population inland, and with still very limited infrastructure.
A particular emphasis is given to the development of air-raid shelters, from very crude early reinforcements within existing buildings to the type of underground tunnels later dug en masse into Malta's soft rock. Apparently well over 400 such tunnel systems were eventually constructed (see below). The organization of these shelters, administered by a subsection of the police, is described in some detail.
There's also a side-section on chemical warfare – accompanied by the display of a veritable collection of gas masks. Another extra section is about Italy
's endeavours to create a colony in Abyssinia (see Ethiopia
) and Mussolini
's desire to take Malta as well.
But most of the exhibition then concentrates on Malta
, the “Blitz” and civil defence. In addition to lots of artefacts, photos and period posters, there are a few interactive elements, such as an audio station where you can listen to various air-raid alarm signals as well as computer touchscreens where more in-depth extra information can be punched up.
In the section about air raids a large number of different types of ordnance and bombs are on display, alongside uniforms and other smaller artefacts, plus a few bigger items such as an anti-aircraft gun and a big searchlight. The ship convoys to supply Malta
and the dramatic stories of some of the ships involved is recounted here as well. Another touchscreen provides the individual stories of a couple of dozen such ships.
One display cabinet is about the George Cross awarded the island for its resilience during the siege and bombardments in WWII
, including the display of another replica of the cross and the certificate it came with (like at the National War Museum
). Also featured here is the full-length screening of the documentary film entitled “Malta G.C.” which was commissioned by Britain
after the siege to celebrate Malta's war effort.
Civil Defence remains the main focus, though, and covers subsections such as those about food rationing, the black market, medical services, press & communications, and so on. Again interactive touchscreens supplement the static panels and displays.
The latter sections of the exhibition are about developments following the siege, such as the Allied invasion of Sicily/Italy
in “Operation Husky”, the final victory in WWII
, post-war reconstruction, and the eventual path of Malta to independence (see under Malta
And that would be more or less it – if it weren't for the separate WWII shelters underneath the museum (and beyond). And it's these that are the real highlight of this museum. Of all those air-raid shelter tunnel systems accessible to the public on a regular basis on Malta
, St Paul's
), these have to be regarded as the best in terms of reconstruction and commodification
At the top of the steps leading down to the air-raid shelters is a large basket with hard hats and you are encouraged to help yourself to one to wear while visiting the tunnels. And if you're anywhere near as tall as I am it will quickly become obvious that this is indeed a very good idea (without the hard hat I would have ended up with multiple bruises and grazes on my scalp).
The tunnel system below is quite labyrinthine, and even with the help of the maps displayed at various points inside them, orientation is not always easy. There are numbered points of interest and backlit text-and-photo panels provide background information about all of these. The points include reconstructions of the cubicle of the shelter warden (complete with a dummy warden mannequin), some private cubicles, the chapel, supply rooms, reconstructions of early air-defence measures (plus information about other types of air-raid shelters in Britain
), a first-aid post, a surgery and even a birth room.
A comparatively spacious cavern, apparently a communal refuge room, features a large graffito saying “Bomb Rome
, OK!” … that call for retribution was probably quite a common sentiment amongst the Maltese during the early bombing campaigns by the Italian
air force, though seeing it here today seems just a little “politically incorrect”.
Note that some of the connecting passageways down in these tunnels are very narrow and low indeed – so it's not something for those suffering from claustrophobia.
All in all
, I'd say that this (possibly together with the Lascaris War Rooms
) is the best of the various war-themed attractions in Malta
. As a museum it's possibly on a par with the National War Museum
, but unlike that it comes with the considerable extra bonus of featuring those reconstructed air-raid shelter tunnels. Absolutely not to be missed when in Malta!
inside the fortifications of Birgu (aka Vittoriosa)
facing inland, right next to the old main city gate.
Access and costs: a little hidden, but not too tricky to get to. Mid-priced.
To get to the museum by public transport it's best to get bus line 2 or 3 from Valletta
central bus station. The bus stop you want (called Riche) is the one on the big roundabout just outside the gate of Birgu
(line 2 actually continues into the centre of Birgu, which is however further away from the museum entrance). Alternatively you can get the passenger ferry from Valletta Lascaris Quay to the Three Cities – the landing point is a ca. ten-minute walk from the museum (it's signposted). If you come by car, there's a small number of parking spaces just opposite the fortification, or else down by the marina
Access to the museum entrance is through the Couvre Porte Gate, the original main gate to the walled city of Birgu
Opening times: Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., last admission half an hour before closing time. Closed on Sundays and major public holidays.
: 12 EUR for adults (only 5 EUR for children, and 10 EUR for seniors). You can save money if you want to visit all four Wirt Artna sites (the other three being Fort Rinella
, the Lascaris War Rooms
and the Saluting Battery
); their “multi-site heritage pass” costs 30 EUR per person (or 50 EUR for a family ticket).
Audio guides are available in some ten languages, including English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Dutch, Chinese and a few more. Use of these is free of charge.
Time required: I spent about an hour and a half at this site, but I presume those who want to read every text panel and make use of all the audiovisual material provided can spend much longer than that here.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Birgu/Vittoriosa
Further away, a good combination is going to Fort Rinella
, which is also run by the Wirt Artna Heritage Foundation. In fact they even offer a free shuttle service from the Museum at 12:45h (but you should register for this service in advance, so they know they have to pick you up – as they come all the way from Valletta
's Saluting Battery
). You can also get combination tickets covering these and the remaining two sites in Valletta that are also run under the Wirt Artna umbrella (see above
), namely the Lascaris War Rooms
and the Saluting Battery
, at a more favourable rate than what you'd have to pay for all of them separately (see above
- MWM 01 - signposted entrance
- MWM 02 - inside the main exhibition
- MWM 03 - air-raid precautions
- MWM 04 - audio station
- MWM 05 - air war
- MWM 06 - bombs
- MWM 07 - more war stuff
- MWM 08 - the medical side
- MWM 09 - interactive touch screen station
- MWM 10 - bread is important in Malta
- MWM 11 - the media
- MWM 12 - the famous George Cross again
- MWM 13 - gas mask and helmet
- MWM 14 - stairs to the underground air-raid shelter
- MWM 15 - plan
- MWM 16 - underground bunk beds
- MWM 17 - dummy warden
- MWM 18 - basic
- MWM 19 - another chamber
- MWM 20 - cave life
- MWM 21 - slightly better bedding
- MWM 22 - kitchen
- MWM 23 - main tunnel
- MWM 24 - narrow side passageways
- MWM 25 - very narrow indeed
- MWM 26 - first-aid station
- MWM 27 - supplies
- MWM 28 - ceiling support
- MWM 29 - call for retribution
- MWM 30 - hospital room
- MWM 31 - birth room
- MWM 32 - now wash your hands