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Wartime stories unearthed
2016 shone a ray of hope into what had become a forgotten space, with the Malta Airport Foundation announcing its collaboration with Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna on the restoration of the Combined Operations Room
Snaking deep beneath the Upper Barrakka Gardens and the grid-like streets of Valletta is a series of interconnected tunnels and secret rooms, covering an area of 28,000 square metres. Although this underground world is much lesser known than the iconic monuments and churches of Malta’s capital, the events that unfolded here were as important in determining the island’s trajectory, especially during World War II, as the brave battles that were fought above the ground.
Hewn in the rock in the early stages of the Air Battle for Malta in 1940, as part of this sprawling underground wartime complex, was the Combined Operations Room. The four walls of this room were important witnesses to the writing of history. Despair, hope of world peace, and eventual jubilation were only some of the emotions experienced here as wartime strategists took momentous decisions, updates of fallen enemy war planes crackled through the radio receivers, and plotters hunched over maps diligently marking aircraft movements.
After playing a critical role during World War II, when the strategically located island was one of the most heavily bombed places, the Combined Operations Room went on to be used by NATO as a submarine tracking centre in the Suez Crisis of 1956 and again in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. However, as more peaceful days dawned, the sun set on the Combined Operations Room’s own glorious days, with these once military important headquarters being permanently closed down in 1977.
2016 shone a ray of hope into what had become a forgotten space, with the Malta Airport Foundation announcing its collaboration with Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna on the restoration of the Combined Operations Room. Given the Malta Airport Foundation’s mission to invest and safeguard Malta’s heritage, this collaboration proved to be a perfect fit.
As part of the restoration project, it has been equipped with lighting, flooring and furniture evocative of the 30s and 40s. The restored underground headquarters will also be getting waxwork figures of two prominent wartime leaders; the Supreme Commander General Dwight Eisenhower and General Sir Bernard Montgomery. In 1943, these two generals had joined forces to coordinate and execute the invasion of Sicily, codenamed Operation Husky, with the nerve centre for this operation being housed within these underground war rooms in Valletta.
One of the most striking features of the Combined Operations Room is a 20-metre-wide map dating back to the sixties. Years of neglect and humidity had taken their toll on the map, which was once used by NATO to plot Russian submarines’ movements in the Mediterranean. With the expert touch of a local restorer and conservator, layers of dirt and grime were peeled away from the artefact’s surface to reveal a fully restored map, which adds much historic value to this underground war museum.
Three years into this project, the Combined Operations Room is almost ready to welcome its first visitors, and to allow them to re-live historic moments and appreciate a nation’s bravery at a time when it was targeted mercilessly by the Axis powers.