Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Wartime drama comes to life in underground command centre

Our last morning in Malta started once again at the coffee shop where they just brought us our espresso and accompanying shot-glass of water without us even ordering, such good service.

We walked past the Barraca Gardens and down streets and through a tunnel carved out of the rock 150 feet under the Gardens to the Lascaris War Rooms, one of Malta’s best kept secrets from World War Two. The War Rooms consist of a network of underground tunnels and chambers that housed Britain’s War HQ in Malta from where the defence of the island against Axis aggression was waged and all offensive operations in the Mediterranean were directed.

This ultra secret complex housed an operations room for each of the fighting services which included the hugely important RAF Sector Fighter Control Room from where all air and sea operations were observed and controlled. This  was supported by a Filter Room through which all radar traffic was channelled and sifted and an Anti-aircraft Gun Operations Room from where artillery fire against air attack was coordinated. A Combined Operations room, for all three services, served for joint operations, within a heavily guarded facility which accommodated the encryption machines used to receive and send secret communications. Being so deep underground the whole complex was mechanically ventilated – one of the original features that still works.

It was fascinating walking around the various rooms with huge maps that showed just which operations were in progress. It was interesting listening to visitors' comments and stories relating to serving family members as they were shared with friends.

In July 1943, the War Rooms were used by General Eisenhower and his Supreme Commanders Admiral Cunningham, Field Marshal Montgomery and Air Marshal Tedder as their advance Allied HQ for Operation Husky – the Invasion of Sicily. An excellent black and white movie of film footage from the war was shown as part of the visit.

Following the end of the war, the War Rooms became the Mediterranean Fleet HQ. In 1967 it was taken over by Nato to be used as a strategic Communication Centre for the interception of Soviet submarines in the Mediterranean. It remained in that role for the next ten years when it was finally closed down.  The War Rooms played an active part in the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt during the Suez Crisis in 1956 and went into full alert for a number of days during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when a Soviet missile strike against Malta was expected.

Our Malta visit ended fittingly back in the coffee shop, where we had a ham and cheese panini on a lovely multigrain baguette. We said our goodbyes to the Maltese owner and her Sicilian server vowing that we would return to Valletta.

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