National War Museum at Fort St Elmo
Fort St Elmo is another ancient piece of coastal fortifications at the entrance to the Grand Harbour of Malta
, at the north-eastern tip of Valletta
. It is also the home of the National War Museum, reopened after substantial refurbishment and expansion in 2015.
More background info:
The strategic position at the tip of the rocky promontory that is today occupied by Valletta
had always been obvious. From here the entrance to the Grand Harbour can be controlled and it's an excellent vantage point. There was certainly at least a watch post here before the first fortifications were constructed from early medieval times. The Knights of St John, after their arrival on Malta
in 1530, reinforced this important position, but initially stuck to Fort St Angelo
as their main HQ.
In the Great Siege of 1565, the attacking Ottoman Empire forces seized Point St Elmo after a prolonged and deadly battle (in which all the defending knights perished), subsequently using it as an advantageous position to launch attacks on the Grand Harbour and Fort St Angelo
. Yet the battle of St Elmo had bought the Knights enough time to get organized and receive reinforcements. After the Knights' victory and the end of the Siege, the almost totally destroyed fortifications of Fort St Elmo were reconstructed and expanded – and the whole of the rest of the peninsula was chosen to become the new capital and strategic seat of the Knights of Malta: Valletta
Further modifications and reinforcements were added during the 17th century, and yet more were built during the British
rule on Malta from the 19th century onwards, including the construction of Abercrombie's Bastion (see below
Fort St Elmo was amongst the very first targets of the aerial bombing raids by the Italian
air force in June 1940. A good year later the Italians launched a seaborne attack on Fort St Elmo and the Grand Harbour involving a type of “human torpedo” (well, not quite the kamikaze
type used by the Japanese
, in this type the pilot was supposed to jump out just before impact) as well as so-called E-Boats, or MT boats, explosive surface boats similar to human torpedoes. However, they were all detected early by the British and the attack was thus thwarted. Yet one of the MT boats rammed and destroyed the bridge linking the Fort to the main Grand Harbour breakwater. The bridge was rebuilt only as late as 2012.
The still partly war-damaged Fort remained in military use until the early 1970s, after which it largely fell into disuse. However, a first national war museum was established at the Fort as early as 1975. From 2009, the Fort began undergoing a major restoration project, during which the museum closed. After completion of the restoration work, a new and much enlarged incarnation of the museum opened in 2015.
What there is to see: Before actually entering the museum, it's worth taking a look at the land-side fortifications of St Elmo and the large square in front of the Fort to the left of the museum entrance. You can see round little stone “bumps” set across the cobbled square – these, so I was told later, are the tops of underground grain silos built to store supplies for times of siege.
Once through the entrance you can tell that the whole place has been refurbished not so long ago: everything looks clean and almost new. Well, except the old nautical relics on display by the Fort's walls, such as rusty old anchors, chains and winches.
Also on display in the outdoor
parts are rows of rusty old cannons, some more modern guns, a couple of torpedoes as well as the nose of an Italian 2000 kg bomb dropped on Fort St Elmo in the raid of 11 June 1940 (see above
), which killed six members of the Royal Malta Artillery.
From some of the walls you can also peek into some of the lower parts of the Fort that have not (yet) been restored, and are not open to the public (though they looked enticing from an urban exploration
point of view).
The inner parts of the Fort are reached through a large stone gate, “guarded” by a sculpture of four iron knights. Branching off the gate to the left is a chapel which a live guide stationed here explains to visitors is an ancient chapel of the Knights of St John – and the many instances of the well-known Maltese Cross in the glass window and by the altar give plenty of evidence of this.
The actual war-museum exhibition
is spread over several buildings and subdivided into chronological sections beginning with the really early days of the Romans, the Arabs, the arrival of the Knights of St John, the Great Siege, Napoleon, the British arrival, etc. … see under Malta
. From a specific dark-tourism perspective these sections are of less relevance (see here
) than the more modern-history parts beginning with the early 20th century.
The role of Malta in the First World War
is covered in one section, namely that as a massive hospital for wounded soldiers of battles such as Gallipoli
, which earned the island the nickname “Nurse of the Mediterranean
”. Several artefacts are on display, including some big guns, shells, helmets, uniforms and such like.
Next comes the topic of the rise of fascism
's ambitions to make Malta
part of Italy, leading to the first aerial bombing
attacks by the Italian air force the day after Italy declared war on Britain
. This is followed by the “Malta Blitz
”, the pounding of Malta by Nazi German
air strikes, as well as the sea blockade and the Allied efforts in still bringing in convoys with supplies to Malta.
Plenty of historic photos and various artefacts
are on display here, including Nazi
and fascist insignia, uniforms, equipment and, perhaps most intriguingly, a large collection of wartime souvenirs, i.e. items collected by Maltese civilians (kids maybe): bits of shrapnel, parts of plane and boat wrecks, parachutes, pilots' clothing, cigarette packets, and what not, all meticulously labelled by hand back in the day.
Amongst the largest items
on display in the museum are the fuselage of a British fighter plane, a Bofors anti-aircraft gun, a 3-foot (90 cm) diameter searchlight and an Italian MT Barchino, or “E-Boat” – a small craft loaded with explosives used much like a manned torpedo (see above
). This particular specimen was found abandoned several miles offshore, so a panel explains.
Incidentally: all text panels and labels in the museum are bilingual, in Maltese and English, and come in a good balance between detail/length and digestible amount thereof.
There is also a section on civil defence
and the life of the Maltese civilian population during the hard times of war. The medical side of things is covered here too, as are the topics of wartime kitchens, rationing and so forth. The specific topic of Malta's underground air-raid shelters, however, is better covered elsewhere (see Malta at War Museum
The holy of holies, containing the most prized possession of the museum, is the glass cabinet displaying the George Cross
awarded to Malta
in 1942. Sources differ as to whether the cross on display here is indeed the original one or a replica after all. I couldn't tell – to me it looked identical to the one on display at the Malta at War Museum
An adjacent large room primarily covers the topic of naval warfare and supply convoys and incorporates a large-scale animated video projection onto the floor of the story of the dramatic Operation Pedestal convoy and the voyage and defence of the USS Ohio, a tanker that just about made it into the Grand Harbour badly damaged, so badly that the vessel never sailed again and was cut up, but is fondly remembered in Malta as a particular “saviour”.
The final room in the WWII
part of the museum has as its central exhibit a US jeep
called “Husky” that was apparently used by both General Dwight D. Eisenhower before the invasion of Sicily/Italy (which was code-named “Operation Husky”) and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a visit to Malta. The windscreens of the jeep have been filled with flat-screens that provide the relevant background information here. From the ceiling the flags of the victorious Allies dangle, i.e. the US
flags plus Malta
's own – now featuring the George Cross in one corner (as it does to this day).
An interesting little extra topic here is that of German POW
s who helped with the reconstruction efforts on Malta in 1945 before being shipped to Britain
, the last ones as late as 1948. Hence there are items on display that feature carvings in German, which is perhaps a rather unexpected thing here.
This concludes the actual war sections of the museum, but there's also a separate exhibition that brings things up to the modern day. In a series of projections into alcoves along a long corridor inside the Fort, particular aspects of Malta
's post-war history
are pointed out and illustrated, such as its role during the Suez Crisis, gaining independence, becoming a republic, going neutral (withdrawing from NATO
), or being the venue of a summit between US
President George Bush senior and Soviet
leader Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1989 in one of the crucial meetings that ended the Cold War
. Also especially celebrated is the development of the European Union and Malta's accession to the Club in 2004.
Not strictly speaking part of the museum, but on display along rooms to one side of the main parade courtyard
at the heart of Fort St Elmo are uniforms, weapons, helmets, etc. used by the Historical Re-enactment Group of Malta (though none of this was in action when I was there … and I didn't regret it – see also here
Back on the outside fortifications there's a separate small exhibition at the historic Abercrombie's Bastion
(named after Scottish commander and politician Sir Ralph Abercromby, who is buried here). A series of text-and-photo panels illustrate the history of this particular part of the Fort. You can also explore some of the inside of the bastion and see the now empty former gun emplacements as well as the concrete towers added before or during WWII
. Behind the bastion you can see yet more modern-day additions to the fortifications.
All in all
, this is no doubt one of the prime dark-tourism attractions on Malta
, and hence a must-see. Yet some aspects of its topic are covered better, or at least visually more dramatically, in places such as the Lascaris War Rooms
or the Malta at War Museum
At the very tip of the peninsula occupied by Malta
's capital Valletta
, overlooking both the Grand Harbour to the south and Marsamxett Harbour to the north-west.
Access and costs: easy enough to get to; not too expensive.
To get to the Fort and museum from within Valletta
, you can walk it (like practically everything within the city); you can't miss it really, just keep walking one of the main drags, Republic Street or Merchant Street, to the very end, and you'll get to the Fort. The museum entrance is on the south-eastern corner of the bastions. There is also a bus stop (called Iermu) near the entrance served by line 133.
Admission: 10 EUR (seniors and students €7.50, children under 12 years old €5.50)
Opening times: daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. between April and September, only to 5 p.m. in winter; last admission half an hour before closing.
Closed Christmas Eve/Day, New Year's Eve/Day and Good Friday.
Time required: depends. If you want to go through all the sections and exploit all the multimedia elements on offer to the max, then you can probably spend up to half a day here; if you're more selective (and, like me, concentrate only on the 20th century parts) an hour or two may suffice.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
See under Valletta
While the National War Museum is run by the official Maltese agency for museums and cultural heritage, the non-government foundation Wirt Artna runs a couple of other war-related sites within Valletta, namely the Lascaris War Rooms
and the Saluting Battery & War HQ Tunnels
, as well as outside Valletta Fort Rinella
and the country's other major war museum, the Malta at War Museum
, across the harbour in Vittoriosa/Birgu
. In contrast to the national museum, the Malta at War Museum concentrates mostly on WWII
and in particular on civil defence and features a preserved/reconstructed system of underground air-raid shelter tunnels, giving it the edge over the National War Museum in terms of place authenticity.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The views to be had over the entrance of the Grand Harbour from Fort St Elmo are certainly a significant bonus.
Just a few steps south from the museum entrance, still inside some of the bastions of the Fort, is a particular tourism attraction that was heavily touted when I was in Malta
(my hotel even handed out some vouchers for discounts) but which I decided to give a miss all the same: the so-called “Malta Experience”. This is apparently a high-tech “audiovisual spectacular”, and this too supposedly covers the entire history of Malta from prehistory to the Great Siege and the height of the Knights' rule, from WW1
and all the way to the present day, all by means of “authentic imagery” and a “gripping commentary”. If that's your kind of thing, you can go and watch the 45-minute shows that run once every hour between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. (no afternoon shows on weekends and public holidays, and none at all at Christmas, Easter and on New Year's Day). Tickets cost a solid 16 EUR (students 11.50 EUR, children under 12 years 6 EUR).
- St Elmo 01 - the fortifications seen from the Gunpost
- St Elmo 02 - tops of underground grain silos
- St Elmo 03 - inside the fort
- St Elmo 04 - rusty maritime relics
- St Elmo 05 - view from the fort over the harbour breakwater and bridge
- St Elmo 06 - old rusty cannons
- St Elmo 07 - more modern cannon
- St Elmo 08 - part of an Italian 2000kg bomb dropped at the beginning of the WWII air-raids
- St Elmo 09 - torpedoes
- St Elmo 10 - parts of the fort not accessible to the public
- St Elmo 11 - Knights of St John chapel
- St Elmo 12 - iron knights greeting visitors
- St Elmo 13 - interactive multimedia elements in the historical exhibition
- St Elmo 14 - from when Malta was the Nurse of the Mediterranean
- St Elmo 15 - then in WWII Nazis came flying over
- St Elmo 16 - and Italian fascists
- St Elmo 17 - more Nazi relics
- St Elmo 18 - war souvenirs
- St Elmo 19 - badly damaged ship bell
- St Elmo 20 - the British fought back
- St Elmo 21 - also in Africa
- St Elmo 22 - war gear
- St Elmo 23 - E-Boat assault craft
- St Elmo 24 - civil defence
- St Elmo 25 - air-raid shelter section
- St Elmo 26 - supplies
- St Elmo 27 - first-aid kits
- St Elmo 28 - the holy of holies
- St Elmo 29 - the Georges Cross
- St Elmo 30 - modern projection
- St Elmo 31 - Husky jeep
- St Elmo 32 - allies
- St Elmo 33 - additional post-WWII history section
- St Elmo 34 - main courtyard
- St Elmo 35 - Abercrombie Bastion
- St Elmo 36 - former gun emplacement
- St Elmo 37 - modern fortification