Fort St Angelo’s intrinsic value for the Maltese Islands and their people knows no comparison. It may not be the oldest, grandest or finest stronghold, but it surely is the boldest memorial of the strategic importance of these tiny islands and of the innumerable lives sacrificed for their dominion since time immemorial. Its control meant effective rule of the Maltese Islands during at least the past thousand years. Indeed, no other fortress has been engaged with the same intensity in the shaping of Malta’s destiny.
Fashioned around a strategically located and conveniently sized hillock at the tip of the Birgu Peninsula, the stronghold dominates the Grand Harbour. The site attracted attention since antiquity, in particular following the Islands’ colonization by the Phoenicians during the first half of the first millennium before Christ. By 1274, Fort St Angelo, or the Castrum Maris (castle-by-the-sea) as known at the time, consisted of two enclosures each demarcated by an enceinte stiffened with round towers at regular intervals. It became to be viewed by the Sicilian overlords as a guarantee of their interests in the Maltese Islands, and was administered by loyal subjects under the title of Castellan.
After 1530 the Order of St John turned the Castrum Maris, christened Fort St Angelo, into their headquarters. Indeed, the Fort formed an intrinsic part of the Order’s Convent and even housed the Grand Master’s residence between 1530 and 1558. The Knights extensively remodelled the then obsolete medieval castle with the construction of a series of artillery platforms, which marked the introduction of the bastioned system of defence into the Maltese Islands. The rejuvenated sentinel of the Grand Harbour had a major role during the Great Siege of 1565. It coordinated the day to day defensive and offensive strategies, housed the main provisions’ depot, inflicted havoc on the Ottomans’ makeshift batteries on Mount Sciberras and San Salvatore Hill, and spoiled the besiegers’ plan to attack Senglea by surprise on 15 July.
In 1689 the military engineer Carlos Grunenbergh realized that the then derelict fortress was nonetheless the best option to safeguard the Grand Harbour and subsequently spearheaded its transformation into a forceful work, including four intimidating gun platforms with a capacity of some 50 artillery pieces aimed at the entrance of the harbour.
The Fort’s vocation in safeguarding the Grand Harbour stood unchallenged with the settling in of the British colonisers at the turn of the nineteenth century. A major upgrade in 1872 sought the introduction of three 9-inch rifled-muzzle-loading guns. In 1906 the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet relocated its command hub inside the Fort which was enlisted as shore base, first renamed HMS Egmont in 1912 and HMS St Angelo in 1933. Fort St Angelo was called into action again during World War II to offer protection against the Axis air raids. It still suffered the blunt of the enemy strikes and was directly hit with 69 bombs. Following the war, the Fort continued to serve as the headquarters of the Royal Navy at Malta until the last detachment of foreign forces marched out of its walls in March 1979.