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FORT ST ELMO (Maltese: Forti Sant'Iermu) is a star fort in Valletta, Malta which replaced the watch post established by local militia in 1417. It stands on the seaward shore of the Sciberras Peninsula that divides Marsamxett Harbour from Grand Harbour, and commands the entrances to both harbours along with Fort Tigné and Fort Ricasoli. It is best known for its role in the Great Siege of Malta of 1565.

In 1551, an Ottoman raid occurred in which the Turkish fleet sailed into Marsamxett Harbour unopposed. Thus, 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 whom 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.

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 who drove the Ottomans out of Malta following 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.

Parts of the fort were severely damaged during World War II 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.

Additions and alterations were carried out to the Fort over the centuries. More recently, the Fort was subject to extensive restoration works between 2009 and 2015. Today, Fort St Elmo houses the National War Museum which has a superb collection of items which dates back to prehistoric times. Artefacts are displayed in chronological order commencing from the early phases of the Bronze Age around 2,500 B.C.

Two halls are dedicated to Malta’s important role in World War I, the Inter-War Period and Malta’s historical role in World War II. Displayed in these halls one can find perhaps the three most important icons of this Museum: the Gloster Sea Gladiator N5520 FAITH, Roosevelt’s Jeep ‘Husky’ and Malta’s award for gallantry, the George Cross.

Further displays are dedicated to Malta’s Independence, becoming a Republic, Freedom Day and Malta’s joining the European Union. 

Last Updated: 11 December 2018

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