The War Museum in Valletta has recently had a much needed upgrade and relocation. Previously located in two large halls in the somewhat derelict and (up to now) unrestored lower Fort St. Elmo, the museum had focused primarily on Malta’s involvement in the Second World War but has now morphed into one highlighting the islands’ vast military history.
The National War Museum is now housed in a series of halls in a recently restored section of Upper Fort St. Elmo – a beautiful area of the fort which features the ancient chapel of St. Anne, the final battlefield in the valiant defence of the fort during the Great Siege of 1565 – knights and chaplains were slaughtered here as they defended the altar in a last hopeless effort to save the fort.
The seven halls that house the museum trace Malta’s military role from ancient times. The Islands were always considered as a strategic outpost of the Mediterranean and were inevitably seen as prized possessions by whichever power sought domination over the area. Thus Malta was in turn a Punic (Carthaginian) colony, a Roman one and later a Byzantine, Arab and Norman outpost. These developments are traced in the first of the museum’s halls.
More importance is of course given to the Knights era stretching from 1530 to 1798 – with a special emphasis on the Great Siege of 1565, when a formidable Turkish armada failed to take the islands after a prolonged siege lasting over three months.
The brief two-year French era is also recorded in detail. The French had all too easily unseated the Knights of St. John from Malta but though a section of the islanders initially saw them as liberators, the relationship soon turned sour. Clearly, conservative Malta was not yet ready for the anticlerical ideas of revolutionary France. The British saw an opportunity and helped the Maltese blockade the French inside the walls of Valletta – eventually forcing their capitulation.
Of course the British era is well highlighted in the museum and Malta’s role during the 164 year rule is depicted in some detail – with emphasis on wartime of course. Malta remained unscathed by World War I and its role was primarily that of nurse of the Mediterranean – many injured Empire servicemen were brought to the islands’ hospitals for the necessary care.
Malta was of course not so lucky in World War II. The island endured heavy aerial bombardments during the war and was close to starvation at one point. The poignant tale is told in some detail and some of the museum’s prime exhibits are in this section: The Gloster fighter which was just one of three aircraft which initially defended the islands at the start of hostilities – amusingly nicknamed by the locals as Faith, Hope and Charity(the one you see in the museum is ‘Faith’ – salvaged from a Kalafrana quarry in 1943); the jeep ‘Husky’ in which General (later US President) Eisenhower rode on his wartime visit, and of course The George Cross which was awarded to Malta by King George VI as a sign of its undoubted fortitude in those troubled times. Normally reserved for individuals who have shown outstanding bravery, Malta remains the only country to have received the honour – and it is still displayed on the Island’s flag to this day.
The revamped War Museum requires a minimum of two hours to see properly and at the end of the visit there is an audio-visual presentation presented in the fort’s Cavalier – a part of the original fortress which contained living quarters for about a hundred men. The views from the museum’s esplanade are also of interest. The new red ‘drawbridge’ linking the fort with the harbour’s breakwater has recently replaced the one destroyed when a posse of daredevil Italian E-boats tried (unsuccessfully) to breach the Grand Harbour in 1941.