Years of neglect, theft and vandalism are being reversed at Valletta’s Combined Operations Room, Malta’s nerve centre during World War II.
The heritage NGO Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna recently embarked on the delicate challenge of restoring this rock-hewn room to its original configuration.
Built in the early stages of the air battle for Malta in 1940, within the underground War Headquarters complex beneath the Upper Barrakka, the Combined Operations Room was the place from which all the defensive and offensive naval and military action in and from Malta was directed.
“The restoration of the Combined Ops Room is a mammoth task and will take over a year to complete – we hope to have our first visitors by the end of 2018,” FWA chairman Mario Farrugia said, welcoming the financial injection of €280,000 from the Malta Airport Foundation.
“Some of the rooms are to be completely reconstructed based on authentic documentation, while the main room will be conserved in its post-war 1969 configuration when it was in use by Nato.”
Left abandoned for decades, the rooms suffered further damage from years of flooding until the government handed the complex over in a trust to the FWA in 2009. Mr Farrugia explained that anything located underground represented a serious challenge to preserve and maintain.
With the help of Malta Airport Foundation funding and the Malta Environment and Landscaping projects, the FWA set about first solving the massive flooding problem from 14 leaks and excessive irrigation at the Upper Barrakka gardens.
The next step was tackling the problems Malta’s humidity was causing, such as serious damage to all the timber and metal works, besides making the air heavy and musty.
However, the biggest hurdle in this project, Mr Farrugia explained, was the difficulty in obtaining enough documented historic and technical information to help restore the facility to its original configuration.
“Not just, but the same information is necessary to help us interpret the entire complex, which is spread over some 28,000 square metres of tunnelling and open areas.”
During the Cuban missile crisis… it was feared that the naval base in Malta could be attacked by the Soviets in case of an international escalation
The Combined Operations Room consists of a row of rooms which together formed Malta’s main air defence platform against enemy attacks during World War II.
After the war, the rooms were used as the Royal Navy’s Communication Centre and the Royal Airforce Air headquarters. In 1955, part of the place was assigned to Nato, which kept using it until 1971.
“During the Cuban missile crisis, the complex was placed on a war footing, and all staff were closed in for three day,s as it was feared that the naval base in Malta could be attacked by the Soviets in case of an international escalation,” Mr Farrugia said.
Extensive works were carried out on parts of the former War HQ complex – along with the nearby St Peter and St Paul counterguard, the Saluting Battery and the former Garrison Church Crypt – between 2013 and 2014.
These works were co-funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the government, but given the sheer size of the project’s footprint, this was not enough to cover the entire area.
In fact, there were no funds left to restore the Combined Operations Room, which is when the Malta Airport Foundation stepped in to help the FWA finalise the restoration of the complex.
Set up in 2014, the Malta Airport Foundation directs funds into the tourism industry by investing in the Maltese heritage and environment and implementing Malta International Airport’s corporate responsibility projects and investments.
The foundation’s contribution in this project is the largest ever in Malta’s heritage to date.
“Since Valletta is a key tourist attraction, we felt this embellishment would add great value to the heritage sites on offer, especially since the Lascaris War Rooms, a sister site for the Operations Room, is one of the top attractions on Trip Advisor,” said the chairman of the Malta Airport Foundation, Frederick Mifsud Bonnici.