The Malta Independent 20 November 2018, Tuesday

Fort Campbell Facing its biggest threat ever

Malta Independent Saturday, 22 September 2012, 00:00 Last update: about 5 years ago

Malta’s last fort pertaining to the colonial era, dating back to the last years of the 1930s when the clouds of the Second World War were already on the horizon, is in serious risk of being lost forever. Sadly, its current dilapidated state is not the result of enemy action but rather a combination of several factors, including vandalism, pillaging and the elements which have taken their toll as well over the years.

Situated in Selmun and overlooking the Islands of St Paul’s, Fort Campbell represents an evolutionary shift in the military defences of the island. For the first time, the military authorities were faced with an aerial threat, which in practice meant that previous defences and fortifications built a few decades before became virtually obsolete.

This fort has aroused interest not only among historians, but also among the younger generations keen to discover more about the recent past. Hailing from nearby Mellieħa, 21-year-old Simon Mifsud some time ago decided to delve deeper into this subject, having been intrigued by the many questions he used to pose about this complex and other defensive installations in the northern part of the island.

Though history is not his primary field of study, as he is a full-time student in the faculty of medicine at the University of Malta, he nevertheless decided to try his best and seek professional help. Under the guidance of Dr Stephen C Spiteri, who lectures at the International Institute of Baroque Studies at the University of Malta, he wrote a paper which goes into great detail about the origins and functions of this fort. An edited version of this paper follows.

The anatomy of the fort

Fort Campbell was the last major British fort to be built in Malta whose main function was to protect the island from the sea. As a matter of fact, its specific purpose was that of an ‘Examination Battery’, which meant, that it was designed to challenge enemy ships approaching the Grand Harbour from the north. To do this, it was armed with two six-inch BL (breech-loading) coastal guns.

In this aspect there was nothing new. The novelty at Fort Campbell lies not in its armament or function, but in its design – in the manner in which both the defensive perimeter and the interior elements of the fort were laid out to blend in with the natural surroundings in order to escape the attention from the air. This was achieved by means of an irregular plan and the dispersal of the main structures within its walls. 

The perimeter defences, rather than the usual rigid and thick parapets, were constructed in the manner of a high boundary wall that was built in such a way so as to mimic the surrounding rubble walls.

It is interesting to point out that the boundary walls were constructed single-handedly by a certain Mikiel Fenech, nicknamed ‘Ix-Xahxi’ from Mellieħa, who was also commissioned to construct the perimeter wall of Marfa Road – the hill leading to the Mellieħa centre from Għadira Bay. The rest of the buildings inside the Fort were built by a building contractor whose surname was Farrugia, nicknamed id-Dobbru from Żejtun.

Defensive features

To defend the perimeter against assault, Fort Campbell was given a number of fixed perimeter defence posts, some of which were actually concrete bunkers not much unlike the concrete pillboxes which also began to appear around the bays and beaches at the time.

The concrete machine gun bunkers were incorporated within the perimeter wall at irregular intervals dictated by the change in direction of the trace of walls. The majority occupied salient or re-entrant angles but one of these projected outwards from the main wall in the form of a caponier to provide enfilading fire across a relatively long and straight stretch of the perimeter.

The structure of these concrete machine gun bunkers resembles that of the pillboxes and beach posts built from around the time of the Abyssinian Crisis of 1935 onwards. The entrance to most of these concrete machine gun bunkers was through a small, thick metal, two-flap door. Inside there were the machine gun tables in which the defensive armament was mounted. In other areas of the perimeter, defence was provided by means of a series of rifle loop-holes

The gun emplacements  

The offensive element of Fort Campbell was provided by its battery of two six-inch coastal guns. These were housed in two concrete barbette gun emplacements. The main advantages of mounting guns above the parapet was that it provided them with wider fields of fire but this came at a price as the gunners were more exposed and thus vulnerable to enemy fire. To counter this, most such guns were fitted with protective metal turrets or overhead covers, as were the ones at Fort Campbell. Each of the two concrete emplacements had a covered loading chamber just behind the gun pit, an underground magazine, and a partially underground accommodation for the gun crew. The loading chamber basically consisted of a single large room hugging the shallow gun pit. The loading chamber contained various cubicles whereby shells and cartridges where stored separately. Each loading chamber had a fire station close to one of the entrances to the gun emplacement.

On the left-hand side of the loading chamber lies the passageway that led to the underground gun crew accommodation. The gun crew accommodation consisted of three separate rooms each with its own doorway and one or two windows.

The underground magazine was connected to a number of underground passages that led to the surface via vertical channels fitted with metal rungs.

Unfortunately due to vandalism and neglect, these vertical channels are filled with rubble and all sorts of debris including rubbish and thus entry into the magazine is dangerous.

The gun emplacement had two entrances. One of these was protected by a thick blast protection wall in front of it, whereas the other had a bent entrance in an attempt to contain the blast within the emplacement if an explosion took place.

A third gun emplacement in Fort Campbell, apparently built to house another six-inch BL gun (No. 3 emplacement) may have housed a heavy anti-aircraft gun. At its rear, this gun pit was surrounded by a small ammunition magazine containing several cubicles just like those of the six-inch coastal gun emplacements. Although this emplacement, lacked space for gun crew accommodation, the British constructed two underground rooms to serve this purpose a few metres away.

The battery observation post and fortress plotting room  

Directing and co-ordinating the fire of the six-inch guns was the work of the Battery Observation Post (BOP). In a sense, this structure which was roughly situated in the centre of the fort was a much smaller version of the Lascaris War Rooms in Valletta.

The BOP was a long-stepped building that contained the position finding cell and the gun control room. The latter lay above the position finding cell and both of these rooms had a cantilevered flat roof. Unfortunately, this type of structure which offered unobstructed views for 270 degrees, was the first to give in as its design compromised the stability of its roof.

The position finding cell inside the BOP served to detect and record information regarding any enemy sightings, target ranges and bearings, as well as the fall of shots of the coastal guns of the fort. This information was then transmitted to the Fortress Plotting Room adjacent to the BOP by means of a MAGSLIP arrangement (electrical transmission).

In the plotting room, enemy sightings were accurately tracked and recorded on a plotting table. These plots were then relayed to the gun control room in the BOP so as to work out the coordinates required to direct the fort’s coastal guns to fire and possibly hit the enemy targets. In 1943, the BOP was modified in order to support a roof-mounted Coastal Artillery (CA) Number 1 Mark 2 Radar.

The Fortress Plotting Room was a rock-hewn chamber located very close to the BOP. Entrance to this underground room was by means of two passages. A few metres away from the Battery Observation Post lay a downward ramp that used to lead to another underground concrete chamber. The floor of this underground chamber had two raised concrete bases onto which the electricity generators were mounted to supply electrical energy to the roof-mounted radar on the BOP. Apart from this, the roof also had three large openings for ventilation for the chamber underneath. The downward slope also led to an underground rock-hewn shelter that could have provided some protection to soldiers during air raids.

The main gate and the guard room  

Fort Campbell was designed as a purely functional military outpost. Unlike the earlier forts of the Victorian era, no concern was given to any aesthetic architectural considerations. Even the limited architectural decoration that was often applied to the main gateway is missing. Indeed, at Fort Campbell the main gate was simply a wide cutting in the perimeter wall which was closed off by means of a metal palisade gate. Accompanying the gate was a nearby guard room.

Underground water tank and generator room

This fort was equipped with an underground shallow concrete chamber capable of storing 10,000 gallons of water. This shallow chamber was accessible by means of two sets of metal rungs located on either side of the chamber. The tank is surrounded by a set of small rectangular shaped openings, most probably having the function of an overflow. Next to the water tank, where the pipes entered there are vertical passages fitted with metal rungs as well. Needless to say these passages were not spared by vandalism and are not accessible anymore.

Rock-hewn underground shelters were dug up both inside and outside Fort Campbell. These could not have been used by the local inhabitants as the area behind Selmun Palace was out of bounds for civilians.

Other structures within the fort included an artificers’ workshop and storage area and the Coastal Artillery Searchlight engine room. Fort Campbell had three coastal artillery searchlights placed in fixed protective emplaces (with steel shutter opening) located outside the fort along the coastline overlooking the St Paul’s islands.

Interior layout

With such a small number of buildings inside the perimeter, Fort Campbell’s relatively walled enclosure is rather barren. Furthermore, these few buildings were scattered throughout the fort in such a way so as to prevent clusters and identifiable patterns that could be picked up by enemy aircraft flying overhead.

Another interesting feature of this fort was the large number of underground passages and chambers. In Fort Campbell only those buildings that were essential to the fighting capability of the fort were built above ground, whereas others such as the generator room, the gun crew accommodations etc where built below ground level.

Outside the perimeter wall  

Barrack accommodation for the garrison was not located within the defensible perimeter. Instead a long range of blocks situated immediately outside the fort contained the barrack blocks, dining room, cook house, officer’s mess, ablution room and other services. These structures were not built as part of the original fort but were constructed at a later stage during the War (around 1942-43) to house a force of infantry, that was stationed in the area in order to patrol Selmun and its surroundings  as well as man the several beach posts and pillboxes. Various areas of the fort and its immediate external perimeter were also fitted with prefabricated Rimney and Nissen huts.

Coast artillery search lights

Important adjuncts to Fort Campbell’s night-fighting capabilities were its electrical searchlights. Known as the Coastal Artillery Search Lights (CASL – formerly referred to as Defence Electric Lights – DEL) these fixtures were generally housed outside the fort and placed at strategic points along the coastline.

Fort Campbell had three such CASLs intended to light up the entrance to Mellieħa Bay, St. Paul’s Bay and the channel between Selmun and St Paul’s Isles. These search lights were sheltered inside special concrete emplacements. When not in use, the apertures of the concrete emplacement were closed off by means of steel shutters so as to protect the search light inside.

The search lights were powered by generators located inside the fort with their respective engines housed in two barrel vaulted rooms – unlike all the other structures inside the fort which had roofs supported by iron beams. The cables that used to serve these Defence Electric Lights were placed and protected in shallow rock-hewn trenches.

Decommissioning of the fort soon after the war

Sadly, ever since it was decommissioned by the British military, Fort Campbell has lain open to the destructive elements of both nature and man. Some of its features have suffered more than others. Particularly impressive are the efforts that various unknown vandals have gone to in order to remove the iron beams that supported the roof of barrack blocks, many of which have either collapsed or are caving in under their own weight.

The exact date of decommissioning is still unknown. Unofficial sources claim that soon after the war the strategic importance of this fort diminished to the point that by 1949 it was on the verge of being decommissioned. However, a watchman stationed at the fort’s entrance could be seen till the 70s, even though this did not prevent acts of vandalism to occur even in his presence. Subsequently the area was totally vulnerable to all sorts of abuses, resulting in parts of it which have collapsed completely. Other structures may follow suit, if no urgent action is taken.

Pinning hopes for restoration on the Mellieha local council

The last hope for this fort to survive rests on the efforts being made by the Mellieħa local council to regenerate the Selmun and Imgiebaħ zone. So far, the council has spent €1 million on this project which is being co-financed by the European Union. Contacted by this newspaper, the Mellieħa mayor, Robert Cutajar, revealed ongoing negotiations about the possibility of Fort Campbell being devolved to the council. As a matter of fact a formal request was lodged to the Lands Department some time ago, but is still under consideration. Mr Cutajar explained that if their bid is successful, the immediate step would be to temporarily cordon the fort to prevent further damage by third parties. A second step would be to tap EU funds for a restoration project.

However, he was keen to emphasise that the council is not envisaging this project to include retail outlets such as restaurants, but rather something highlighting the historical value of the place.

On this particular issue, Mr Mifsud, while commending the efforts to restore the fort, is also with his feet on the ground – the financial considerations of restoring the complex purely for its historical value may not be viable. Nevertheless, he believes that the popularity of the fort and its surrounding area for picnic and camping activities may be the key for its sustainable regeneration.

The unedited paper by Simon Mifsud can be found online on this website: www.militaryarchitecture.com/index.php/Fortifications/fort-campbell.html

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