Fort Saint Elmo

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Fort Saint Elmo
Valletta, Malta
Malta - Valletta (Triq Rinella) 01 ies.jpg
View of the tip of Valletta, mostly occupied by Fort Saint Elmo
Coordinates 35°54′7″N 14°31′7″E / 35.90194°N 14.51861°E / 35.90194; 14.51861
Type Coastal fortification within a city wall
Area 50,400 m2 (543,000 sq ft)
Site information
Open to
the public
Condition Intact; currently undergoing major restoration works
Site history
Built 1552-1570s[a]
Built by Order of Saint John
In use 1552-1972
Materials Limestone
Battles/wars Great Siege of Malta
Siege of Malta (World War II)
Events Revolt of the Priests

Fort Saint Elmo is a fortification in Valletta, Malta. It stands on the seaward shore of the Sciberras Peninsula that divides Marsamxett Harbour from Grand Harbour, and commands the entrances to both harbours. It is best known for its role in the Great Siege of Malta of 1565.


Plan of Fort Saint Elmo.

By 1417, the local militia had already established a permanent watch post on the tip of the Sciberras Peninsula.[1] In 1488, the Aragonese built a watchtower on Saint Elmo Point, and it was dedicated to Erasmus of Formia, better known as Saint Elmo. In 1533, the Order of Saint John reinforced the tower due to its strategic location.[2] In 1551, an Ottoman raid occurred in which the Turkish fleet sailed into Marsamxett Harbour unopposed. Due to this, it was decided that a major expansion was necessary, and in 1552 the tower was demolished and a new star fort began to be built. It was designed by four Italian architects and had a cavalier, a covertway and a tenaille. A ravelin was hastily constructed months before the 1565 siege.

In 1565, the Ottomans invaded Malta once again with much more force than in 1551, in the Great Siege of Malta. Fort Saint Elmo was the scene of some of the most intense fighting of this siege, and it withstood massive bombardment from Turkish cannon deployed on Mount Sciberras that overlooked the fort and from batteries on the north arm of Marsamextt Harbour, the present site of Fort Tigné. The initial garrison of the fort was around one hundred and fifty knights and six hundred soldiers, the majority of which were Spanish, and sixty armed galley slaves. The garrison could be reinforced by boat from the forts across the Grand Harbour at Birgu and Senglea.

The Siege of Malta - Capture of Fort Saint Elmo by Matteo Perez d'Aleccio

During the bombardment of the fort, a cannon misfired and hit the top of its parapet, sending shards in all directions. Debris from the impact killed the gunner and mortally injured the corsair and Ottoman admiral Turgut Reis, one of the most competent of the Ottoman commanders. The fort withstood the siege for 28 days, falling to the Turks on 23 June 1565. None of the defending knights survived, and only nine of the Maltese defenders survived by swimming across to Fort St. Angelo on the other side of the Grand Harbour after Fort St Elmo fell. The long siege bought much needed time for the preparation of the other two fortresses and the arrival of reinforcements from Spain, which drove the Ottomans off of Malta in a bloody massacre.

After the siege, Grandmaster Jean Parisot de Valette decided to build a new city on the peninsula. Construction started in 1566, and Francesco Laparelli was sent by the Pope to design the fortifications. The ruined Fort Saint Elmo was rebuilt and integrated within the city walls.

The Carafa Enceinte. The towers on top of the bastions are concrete coastal defences built in World War II.

The fort was modified a number of times in the 17th century. The Vendome Bastion was built in 1614, and in 1687 the Carafa Enceinte was built on the foreshore surrounding the entire fort. In the late 17th century, the fort was directly linked to the cavalier and part of the ditch was filled in burying some of the original ramparts in the process.[3] In the 18th century, a new polverista was built in the Vendome Bastion,[1] and stores were built in the area between the main fort and the Carafa Enceinte. These are known as Pinto Stores and they and the surrounding area form what is known as Lower Saint Elmo.[4]

On 8 September 1775, Fort Saint Elmo was captured by 13 rebel priests along with Saint James Cavalier in what became known as the Revolt of the Priests. The Order's flag was lowered and a banner of Saint Paul was raised instead. The Order managed to recapture St Elmo so the rebels in control of St James surrendered as well. Eventually the rebels were tried and three were executed while the others were exiled or imprisoned. The heads of the three executed men were displayed on the corners of St James Cavalier, but were removed soon after Emmanuel de Rohan-Polduc was elected Grandmaster in November of the same year.[5]

The fort was once again modified in the early 19th century by the British, when a musketry parapet was built. In 1855, the polverista at Vendome Bastion was converted into an armoury, and some small arms from the Palace Armoury were transferred there. In the 1870s, more works were done on Abercrombie's Bastion. In 1917, the first heart operation to be performed on a soldier was done at St Elmo.[6] In the interwar period gun emplacements were built to house new twin 6-pounder QF guns.[1]

The fort was the site of the first aerial bombardment of Malta on 11 June 1940. Among the people that were in the fort during the air raid was the military doctor Ċensu Tabone, who later became President of Malta. He survived the attack, but six others were killed in the same air raid.[7]

On 26 July 1941, the Italians launched a seaborne attack on the Grand Harbour with two human torpedoes, four MAS boats and six MT boats. The force was detected early on by a British radar facility, and the coastal artillery at Saint Elmo opened fire when the Italians approached to close range. In the attack, 15 men were killed and 18 captured, and all the human torpedoes and MT boats, along with two of the MAS boats were lost. One of the MT boats hit Saint Elmo Bridge, which linked the breakwater with the tip of the peninsula near the fort, and the bridge collapsed. The bridge was never restored, and it was only in 2012 that a new one was built in its place with a similar but different design.[8]

Parts of the fort were severely damaged during the war and some scars of the bombing can still be seen to this day. The Royal Malta Artillery left the fort on 26 March 1972, ending its long military history. Parts of the fort subsequently fell in disuse.

Present day[edit]

Main entrance to the fort.
In Guardia parade at St Elmo

The World Monuments Fund placed the fort on its 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world because of its significant deterioration due to factors such as lack of maintenance and security, natural aging, and exposure to the elements. Since 2009 major restoration works began,[9] and as of 2014 the restoration of Upper Saint Elmo and the Carafa Enciente is nearly complete.[10][11] Lower Saint Elmo has not yet been restored, but it is being cleaned from the waste that accumulated over the years.[12]

From 1975, part of the fort housed the National War Museum, which contained military equipment and other things related to World War I and II. A replica of the George Cross that was awarded to Malta by King George VI in April 1942, was also on display in this museum.[13] The museum closed in September 2014, and its collections are to be integrated into the new Military History Museum, which will be located in another part of Fort Saint Elmo.[14]

Since the mid-20th century, Fort Saint Elmo has also housed Malta's police academy. Other parts of the fort were used for In Guardia and Alarme military reenactments until 2012 when they moved to Birgu.[15]

While the fort was being restored, some archaeological excavations were made and various elements of the original pre-1565 fort were uncovered. This was an important find because very little remains of the original fort exist, mainly since most of it was rebuilt by Laparelli in 1566 and it underwent a lot of renovation between the 17th and 19th centuries.[3]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Lower Saint Elmo was used as a film location for the Turkish jail in the 1978 film Midnight Express.[16]
  • The fort is mentioned in the 1980 thriller novel Man on Fire by A. J. Quinnell. The main character Creasy trained with the AFM inside the fort.
  • Fort Saint Elmo was featured on Maltese stamps in 1980 and 2003, and on a UNESCO stamp in 1981.
  • Popular Maltese folk band Etnika gave three concerts on 31 July, 1 and 2 August 2003 named Bumbum, that drew thousands of revellers to listen to modern Maltese folk music.
  • In the popular real time strategy game released in 2005, Age of Empires III, the first level's task is defend a fort on Malta against the Ottomans, which appears to be Fort St. Elmo.
  • The first part of the music video of the 2008 song Vodka by the Gozitan singer Morena was filmed at Lower Saint Elmo (the same part of the fort that was used for Midnight Express).
  • The fort is also mentioned in the 2014 Honorverse novel Cauldron of Ghosts by David Weber and Eric Flint, as part of a list of 'last stands' throughout history.


  1. ^ a b c "Fort St. Elmo". Heritage Malta. Retrieved 9 October 2014. 
  2. ^ "Fort St. Elmo". Visit Malta. Retrieved 5 October 2014. 
  3. ^ a b Spiteri, Stephen C. "In search of Fort St Elmo 1565". Military Architecture. Retrieved 5 October 2014. 
  4. ^ "Fort St. Elmo Project". Department of Information. Retrieved 9 October 2014. 
  5. ^ Sciberras, Sandro. "Maltese History - E. The Decline of the Order of St John In the 18th Century". St Benedict College. Retrieved 30 September 2014. 
  6. ^ "First heart op on soldier was performed in Malta in WWI". Times of Malta. 6 January 2014. Retrieved 5 October 2014. 
  7. ^ "Poignant ceremony recalls Malta's early war victims - Censu Tabone's close escape". Times of Malta. 11 June 2014. Retrieved 5 October 2014. 
  8. ^ Vella, Annette (25 July 2012). "Fort St Elmo is finally linked to the breakwater". Retrieved 9 October 2014. 
  9. ^ Ameen, Juan (18 February 2009). "Government unveils multi-million Fort St Elmo restoration job". Times of Malta. Retrieved 5 October 2014. 
  10. ^ Micallef, Keith (26 March 2014). "Iconic fort is nearly back to former best". Times of Malta. Retrieved 5 October 2014. 
  11. ^ "Updated - Upper Fort St Elmo restoration nears completion". Times of Malta. 4 November 2014. Retrieved 5 November 2014. 
  12. ^ "Lower St Elmo to be cleaned". Times of Malta. 14 November 2014. Retrieved 14 November 2014. 
  13. ^ "National War Museum". Heritage Malta. Retrieved 5 October 2014. 
  14. ^ "New Military History Museum to open at Fort St Elmo". Times of Malta. 4 September 2013. Retrieved 5 October 2014. 
  15. ^ "In Guardia moves to Vittoriosa". Times of Malta. 4 November 2012. Retrieved 5 October 2014. 
  16. ^ "Prison break at Fort St Elmo". Times of Malta. 2 August 2008. Retrieved 5 October 2014. 


  1. ^ Modifications continued until the early twentieth century.

Further reading[edit]

  • Francesco Balbi di Correggio translated Ernle Bradford (1568 translated 1965). "chapter IV". The Siege of Malta 1565. Penguin 2003. ISBN 0-14-101202-1.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  • Hughes, Q., Fort 1982 (Fortress Study Group), (10), pp. 71–93
  • Crowley, Roger, Empires of the Sea 2008, Chapters 9–10

External links[edit]