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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Coastal Defence System at Ramla l-Ħamra

Renowned for its golden-reddish sand, ir-Ramla l-Ħamra - literally “the Red Sandy Beach” - is located at the bottom of a fertile valley in the north of Gozo, near the town of Xagħra. This scenic beach is the site of the famous Calypso’s Cave, reputed to be the place where the beautiful nymph imprisoned the Greek hero Odysseus for seven years in Homer's Odyssey.

View of ir-Ramla l-Ħamra. (DXR, West view of Ramla Bay, Gozo 20110428 1, CC BY-SA 4.0)

In Roman times, the bay’s orientation in the direction of Sicily, and its close location to the important harbour of Marsalforn, would have made it a place of anchorage, with evidence of seafaring coming in the form of a stock and collar from a large Roman anchor discovered just outside the bay in 1962. Undoubtedly, the most important archaeological discovery at Ramla came in 1910, when Sir Temi Zammit led an excavation that uncovered the remains of a Roman villa and baths, although these were covered up once the excavation had been completed. Yet, upon closer inspection, Ramla Bay also bears evidence of later structures which once formed part of an elaborate 18th century coastal defence system.

After the Knights of St. John settled in Malta in 1530, they initially focused on strengthening the defences around the Grand Harbour area, leaving the rest of the coast virtually undefended, and open to attacks by the Ottomans or Barbary corsairs. The early 17th century would see a clear shift in the Knights’ defensive strategy, as a series of watch towers were built all around the coast. Yet, these were mainly intended to provide early warning of approaching danger, and it was not until the 18th century that a more aggressive system was implemented. Between 1714 and 1716, the Order’s French military engineers designed and built a vast network of batteries, redoubts, and entrenchments, intended to physically resist invasion.

Wied Musa Battery was built in 1714-1716 as part of a chain of fortifications that defended the northern coast of Malta (Pygar1954, Wied Musa Battery, Marfa, Mellieha, Malta, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The coastal batteries and redoubts came in a variety of shapes and forms. The batteries were designed to mount guns with which to fire on approaching ships and usually consisted of semi-circular gun platforms, ringed by embrasured parapets, and having one or two blockhouses to accommodate the gun crew and to provide protection from landward attack. The coastal redoubts, on the other hand, were infantry strongpoints, intended to stop enemy troops from establishing a beachhead. Although they looked similar in their design to the batteries, they were not equipped with cannon but would be manned by small detachments of militia armed with muskets.

Due to its fairly large and sandy beach, which made it ideal for enemy landings, Ramla l-Ħamra was identified as one of the most vulnerable bays in Gozo. The Knights finally addressed the absence of defences here in 1715, by constructing two coastal batteries, one on each side of the beach. Ramla Left Battery, also known as Belancourt Battery or Xagħra Battery, had an irregularly shaped gun platform and a parapet with six embrasures, as well as a small blockhouse at the rear. Ramla Right Battery, also known as Gironda Battery or Nadur Battery, had a semi-circular parapet with six embrasures, and a single blockhouse. In the centre of the bay, a redoubt consisting of a pentagonal platform with a low parapet, as well as a rectangular blockhouse, was also built. It was known as the Ramla Redoubt or the Vendôme Redoubt. All three defensive structures were linked together by a retrenchment wall, built across the whole beach.

The coastal defence system at ir-Ramla l-Ħamra.

In addition to these defensive structures built on land, a large number of rocks and stones were piled on top of one another to create a wall below the level of the sea across the entire bay, which was designed to stall incoming boats, giving enough time for the soldiers on land to prepare for the attack. This wall was in fact designed to work in conjunction with a fougasse that was placed just below and to the side of the Ramla Right Battery.

The fougasse was one of the more peculiar weapons employed by the Knights for the coastal defence of the Maltese Islands. It was a kind of rock-hewn mortar, designed to fire large quantities of stone onto approaching enemy vessels. A conical hole, about 3 metres deep, was dug into the solid rock at an angle, close to the shore near a potential landing place. The bottom of the pit was filled with black powder before a circular wooden lid was placed on top to seal the firing chamber, thus enabling a more powerful explosion. The rest of the hole was then filled with a large number of stones, which would have been collected beforehand and stockpiled in the vicinity of the fougasse, ready for use. A fuse ran from the outside, down to the powder charge, which, when fired, would shower the enemy with a hail of fast-moving stones that were capable of killing men and sinking boats.

Cross-section of a fougasse.

The fougasse had numerous disadvantages. For starters, the firer would be visible to the enemy as he lit the fuse, and he had to run clear before the flame reached the main charge. Black powder was also very susceptible to moisture, and there was always a chance that it would not ignite. Because of this, there was no way that the fougasses could be kept ready loaded, as it would have been impossible to protect the powder from the damp. But perhaps the biggest drawback of the fougasse was that its firing angle could not be changed to aim at an approaching enemy, but relied on the enemy troops entering into its field of fire in order for it to be effective. This required good timing on the part of the gunners, for once fired, there was no hope of re-arming the fougasse, as reloading it required around an hour.

Although the creation of some 60 fougasses to protect vulnerable points around the Maltese coast was first suggested in 1715, it was not until 1741 that the weapon was adopted successfully, under the direction of the Order’s resident military engineer, Francesco Marandon. Marandon had completed the first successful test firing of a fougasse dug beneath the Valletta bastions, facing Dragut Point, on 28th September 1740. On that occasion, some 300 stone boulders of various sizes were propelled over a distance of some 300 metres. This success convinced the Order to go ahead with the excavation of 50 fougasses in Malta and another 14 in Gozo.

The Ramla fougasse can still be seen on the eastern flank of the beach, carved into a rocky boulder facing the bay at an angle of 45 degrees (BrandyMay, Ramla Fougasse, CC BY-SA 4.0)

To ensure the greatest tactical effect, they were normally employed in pairs in order to cover the whole bay with their crossfire. The Ramla fougasse consists of a large hollow carved into the sea-facing side of a large boulder and was strategically located in line with the sea wall so that as incoming boats floundered on the submerged artificial reef, the fougasse could be loaded and fired directly into them.

The last element of Ramla’s defensive system was Marsalforn Tower, located on the plateau above the bay. Originally built in 1616 as one of the Wignacourt towers, it had to be rebuilt in 1720, during the rule of Grand Master Ramon Perellós, after its collapse in 1716. The new structure, designed by the French military engineer Charles François de Mondion, commanded Marsalforn Bay to the west and ir-Ramla l-Ħamra to the east, and thus guarded the northern approach to Gozo.

The only known photograph of the second Marsalforn Tower, which was demolished in 1915.

The Ramla Bay defences would be tested during the French invasion of Malta in June 1798. On 19th May, a French expeditionary force, under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte, had departed from Toulon, France, intending to conquer Egypt. Yet, Napoleon’s first target was Malta, and he arrived off the island on 9th June. Napoleon requested for his fleet to be allowed to take on water. When he was informed that his ships could only enter the harbour four at a time, he ordered an invasion.

On the morning of 10th June, the French began landing their forces at four different locations: St. Paul's Bay, St. Julian's, and Marsaxlokk on the main island, and also on Gozo, which was defended by around 2,300 men, consisting of a small number of regular troops, and mostly militia. The French force tasked with capturing Gozo was commanded by General Jean Reynier and consisted of the 3rd Company of Grenadiers and the 85th Demi-Brigade. Reynier had been ordered to determine the best landing spot, and he opted for the area of Rdum il-Kbir, located between the two beaches of Ramla and San Blas, assuming that the defenders would not anticipate an attack there, due to the steep nature of the shore.

The French chose to land around the area of Rdum il-Kbir rather than at the more obvious Ramla or San Blas bays, which were directly protected by coastal batteries.

Due to unfavourable winds, the landings did not begin until around 1 pm. As it became obvious that the rowing boats were headed towards Rdum il-Kbir, many of the defenders ran towards the heights and opened fire on the French, aided by artillery from the batteries at Ramla and Sopu Tower, located on the eastern side of San Blas beach. Although French bomb vessels returned fire, the invading troops were initially unable to retaliate and suffered a number of casualties. Yet, as the boats reached the shore, they quickly disembarked and made their way up the slope in the face of heavy fire, forcing the defenders to flee. The Ramla batteries, most likely having by now been abandoned, were swiftly captured, enabling the rest of the force to land unopposed.

By nightfall, both Rabat - the island’s administrative capital - and Fort Chambray, which commanded Gozo's main harbour, had capitulated, with the island now completely under French control. On Malta, only the cities and fortresses of the two main harbours still held out. The plan to oppose the landings had been a mistake, and in hindsight, it would have been better for the Knights to retire behind the strong harbour defences until help from a country at war with France arrived. Following internal pressures, Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch was forced to surrender Malta to the French on 12th June, marking the end of 268 years of Hospitaller rule.

Engraving depicting Malta's capitulation to Napoleon.

Today, only the barely visible remnants of ir-Ramla l-Ħamra’s coastal defence system remain. The ruins of the Ramla Left Battery are located on top of a sand and clay mound found slightly to the west of the entrance to the bay, close to the remains of the Roman Villa.

The remains of the Ramla Left Battery (Matthew Axiak, Ramla Left Battery, Ramla Bay 001, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Ramla Redoubt, formerly located in the centre of the beach, was replaced by a votive statue of the Virgin Mary in 1881, although some stone slabs which once formed part of the redoubt are still visible near the base of the statue.

Remnants of the Ramla Redoubt near the base of the statue of the Virgin Mary (Matthew Axiak, Ramla Redoubt, Ramla Bay 001, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Ramla Right Battery now lies in ruins, having over the years been appropriated by local farmers who added many unsightly features to the original structure, with complete disregard to its historical importance.

Ruins of the Ramla Right Battery (Matthew Axiak, Ramla Right Battery, Ramla Bay 001, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The sea wall is still there, though some parts of it have been washed away over the years. It is best seen from the viewing area near Calypso’s Cave, from where one can notice a dark, jagged line across the bay.

The sea wall is best seen from the viewing area near Calypso’s Cave, from where one can notice a dark, jagged line across the bay. (Zefram, Gozo Ramla Bay, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Marsalforn Tower was demolished in 1915. As for the fougasse, it is one of the few surviving examples in the Maltese Islands.

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1 Comment

Daniel Cauchi
Daniel Cauchi
Jan 04

Extremely interesting, thank you for compiling this!

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