Lascaris war rooms were the Operational Headquarters which were built in order to provide a secure place from where war operations could be conducted. The war rooms are located deep in the rock under St Peter and St Paul Bastion which forms part of the defences of Valletta built by the Knights of St John in 1566. The war rooms take their name from the nearby Fort Lascaris which was built by the British in 1856. This fort had been built on the site of a private garden that had been built by Grand Master Jean Lascaris who ruled over Malta during the period 1656-1670. Access to the Lascaris war rooms was through a tunnel located in the Valletta main ditch at the foot of St Peter and St Paul bastion; alternatively one could gain access from the side of Fort Lascaris.
On 9 June 1940 Italy decided to ride the victorious German wave and declared war on France and Britain. The morning following Mussolini’s belligerent announcement, Italian warplanes launched their first bombing raids over Malta. This was the beginning of a three year campaign intent on bombing Malta into submission and neutralising her offensive capabilities. That the enemy had come so near to fulfilling its aims, but that the Island kept fighting in spite of the isolation, suffering, privation and death is one of the epic stories on the pages of history.
In the early days of the war the Island lacked a centralised setup from where the defence of the Island could be conducted. It was evident that having different headquarters each working in isolation was not the way forward.
On 14 June 1940 Lt Colonel WL Eastwick-Field, of the Royal Artillery, was appointed Anti-Aircraft Defence Commander. Together with a small headquarters he set up the rudiments of a Gun Operations Room at the Royal Air Force HQ in St John’s Cavalier. Although at the time the RAF was much the junior partner, the conduct of operations devolved on the AOC Malta. At the time Malta was equipped with a radar set which was placed at Dingli.
Later in 1940, another three radar units were brought and emplaced in different locations in Malta. In order to process the information received by the four radar stations a Filter Room had to be set up at the Operations Headquarters. Due to space restrictions it was not possible to set this up inside St John’s Cavalier. The filtering of radar information was conducted from the basement of a building in Scots Street, Valletta.
In the meantime a new underground location for the Operational Headquarters was being prepared in the rock underneath the Upper Barracca Gardens. An old communication tunnel built by the Knights of St John was used to which were added further chambers excavated deep into the rock. These contained the Filter Room, the Gun Operations Room and the Fighter Control Room. Chambers were also dug in order to accommodate the Cipher and Signals and meteorological service.
The Operational Headquarters were in direct communication with the four radar stations located in Malta. Information gathered by the radar stations regarding incoming enemy aircraft was relayed to the Filter Room. The operators in the Filter Room plotted out the information on a grid. The plots were then relayed to the Fighter Control Room where the Fighter Controller would then use this information to direct the aircraft flown to engage the enemy. The information would be relayed to the Gun Operations Room which would coordinate the fire of the anti-aircraft batteries.
The Filter Room also received information relayed by visual observation from places like the naval station located on the rooftop of the Auberge of Castille.
Malta had a sizable Signals Liaison Unit (SLU) which was housed in the Operations Headquarters. The SLU intercepted enemy communications in the Mediterranean. Intercepted communications were also forwarded from places like Alexandria. The British had the capability of reading both Italian codes as well as German messages encoded by the Enigma machine. The information gained from intercepted enemy communications provided useful information on enemy movements. This led to very significant results when operations were launched against enemy convoys bound for North Africa.
The Operations Headquarters was also equipped with an RAF Type X machine. This machine was the British equivalent of the German Enigma machine. With the Type X machine communications could be encoded for relay to Britain and in the same way messages in code received from Britain could be deciphered.
Whilst operations were conducted from under the Barracca, the need was felt for a place which could support a combined services headquarters. For this reason a new centre was excavated in the rock further down along the Lascaris tunnel.
The new war rooms at Lascaris started operations early in 1943. These war rooms were in fact completed just in time for them to be used during Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily. Lascaris was furnished with a Filter Room, Gun Operations Room and Fighter Control Room. There were dedicated chambers to accommodate signals intelligence and also the Royal Observer Corps which started operating from Malta late in 1942.
Lascaris was kept in use even after the war. In the 1950s it formed part of the NATO Naval Headquarters in Malta which came under the command of Lord Louis Mountbatten.
The old wartime Operations Headquarters under the Barracca were amplified with the excavation of further chambers. The whole complex was kept in use till the early 1970s when NATO shifted its centre of operations in the southern Mediterranean from Malta to Italy. This led to the demise of both this site and the one at Lascaris.
In 1985 an effort was made to open the Lascaris war rooms as a tourist attraction. In 1992 the place was leased to a private venture which refurbished the place and reopened it as an attraction. The establishment closed once again in 2005. In 2009 the Government of Malta passed this property to Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna (FWA), the Malta Heritage Trust. FWA intends to rehabilitate and restore this site and turn it into cultural attractions.
The vision for Lascaris war rooms and the old war headquarters is to have them portray their role and functions during the Second World War and their subsequent development and use by NATO during the Cold War. In order to fulfil this vision FWA is currently conducting extensive restoration works and this site will be opening to the public in July 2010.
Source: Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna