time to explore with esplora
Exploring 60m below the Upper Barrakka Gardens in Valletta
No visit to the capital would be complete without a tour of the 28,000-square-metre underground war headquarters, which stretch from right underneath the Upper Barrakka all the way to the Saint Peter and Paul Counterguard across Valletta’s main ditch
Malta’s picturesque capital, Valletta, is often likened to an open-air museum by virtue of the many monuments and sites that abound in a relatively small area, and which have earned the city prestigious Unesco world heritage status. But there’s more to Valletta than initially meets the eye, and today we are taking the stairs which lead to a complex snaking beneath the city’s bustling streets and peaceful gardens.
We are now 60 metres below the city – the Upper Barrakka Gardens to be more precise – and before us a subterranean warren of wartime tunnels and chambers stretches all the way to the Saint Peter and Paul Counterguard across Valletta’s main ditch, covering an impressive area of 28,000 square metres. This sprawling complex was originally dug out by the Knights of the Order of Saint John in 1566, and was later expanded and converted into war headquarters by the British in 1940. The complex continued to buzz with activity well after the war was won by the Allies, going on to serve as a NATO submarine tracking centre and playing important roles in both the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
More than three decades of history-defining moments unfolded here, notably during the first years of the Second World War when, despite the merciless bombings and devastating loss suffered, Malta was not beaten. A particular room within this complex – the Combined Operations Room – served as the nerve centre for all defensive and offensive naval and military action in and from Malta back then, providing some of the top military figures of the time – the likes of Air Vice-Marshals Hugh Pugh Lloyd and Keith Park and the brains behind the torpedo attack in the Battle of Taranto Admiral Andrew Cunningham – with a sheltered space away from the enemy’s gaze from where to direct operations and take strategic decisions.
Step into the rock-hewn room, aptly nicknamed ‘the cave’ by servicemen stationed in it during the war, which has an almost theatre-like structure, with a balcony positioned on the right, a dais offering the controller in charge of all operations and other liaison officers the best seats in the house, and a ‘well’ where the main plotting table takes centre stage. Let us stop for a moment in the well to admire a striking 20-metre-wide wall map facing the dais and covering one of the walls of the room entirely, which was used by NATO in the 1960s to plot Russian submarine movements. You might be wondering how the colours of this hand-painted map mounted on wooden panels have not faded with time, and the answer lies in the fact that it was recently restored by the Malta Airport Foundation.
Let us now move away from the Combined Operations Room to some of the ancillary rooms which flank it. Each of these rooms could either act independently or in support of the Combined Operations Room by relaying important information to it, allowing officers and controllers stationed in ‘the cave’ to take timely action. Let us take the narrow, dimly-lit stairs to get to two important albeit much smaller chambers: the Radar Filter Room and the Gun Operations Room. While the former was linked to all air, land, and sea radar available at any given time and would receive real-time information about all enemy movements of interest to Malta, the Gun Operations Room was linked to all the anti-aircraft gun sites in Malta.
And that brings us to the end of today’s brief tour of this underground complex. But there are more rooms to be explored and wartime stories to be uncovered, and only a visit to this place can fully do justice to the historical value of this site. Luckily, this subterranean complex has recently re-opened its doors to the public following a mammoth restoration project undertaken by Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna with the financial support of the Malta Airport Foundation.
Re-live history-defining moments from Monday to Saturday between 10am and 4pm.