Shadows of history in Malta’s war tunnels

In a vast network of tunnels carved into the rocks under Valletta, the capital of Malta, faded maps of the Mediterranean hint at the place’s role in directing key battles in World War II.

Malta is now restoring the 28,000 square meters (300,000 square feet) of tunnels, planning to open a huge section to the public.

The compound, hidden under the picturesque port city perched on cliffs above the sea, was built by the British and served as the staging ground for major naval operations. The British military withdrew from the island in 1979 and the compound was abandoned for almost 40 years.

German and Italian forces bombarded Malta intensively between 1940 and 1942 as part of their attempt to gain control of the Mediterranean, but did not manage to force the British out. During the Cold War, the tunnels were involved in tracking Soviet submarines.

Over the years, water and humidity have let rust and mold spread. Some rooms have been vandalized, but traces of the military apparatus that once occupied the complex still remain. Military cot beds, tangled cables and dust-covered rotary phones litter the rooms.

The Malta Heritage Trust, a nongovernmental preservation group, began the multi-million-dollar restoration of the site in 2009. (Reuters)

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Shadows of history in Malta’s war tunnels

A rotary dial telephone set and clock are seen in the NATO tunnels dating back to the Cold War in the War Headquarters tunnels beneath Valletta, Malta, March 28, 2017. (Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

Shadows of history in Malta’s war tunnels

Details on a door leading to the map room at the Combined Operations Centre, dating back to World War II, are seen in the War Headquarters tunnels beneath Valletta, Malta, Jan. 23, 2017. (Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

Shadows of history in Malta’s war tunnels

A bathroom sink is seen in the War Headquarters tunnels, parts of which date back to World War II, beneath Valletta, Malta, Jan. 26, 2009. (Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

Shadows of history in Malta’s war tunnels

The NATO tunnels, dating back to the Cold War, are seen in the War Headquarters tunnels beneath Valletta, Malta, March 28, 2017. (Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

Shadows of history in Malta’s war tunnels

A rust-covered electric socket is seen at the NATO tunnels dating back to the Cold War in the War Headquarters tunnels beneath Valletta, Malta, March 28, 2017. (Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

Shadows of history in Malta’s war tunnels

A staircase leads upwards at the NATO tunnels, dating back to the Cold War, in the War Headquarters tunnels beneath Valletta, Malta, March 28, 2017. (Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

Shadows of history in Malta’s war tunnels

A detail of a map of the Mediterranean is seen in the map room at the Combined Operations Centre, dating back to World War II, in the War Headquarters tunnels beneath Valletta, Malta, Jan. 23, 2017. (Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

Shadows of history in Malta’s war tunnels

An electricity fuse board is seen in the NATO tunnels dating back to the Cold War, in the War Headquarters tunnels beneath Valletta, Malta, March 28, 2017. (Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

Shadows of history in Malta’s war tunnels

Labelled map fragments are seen in the map room at the Combined Operations Centre, dating back to World War II, in the War Headquarters tunnels beneath Valletta, Malta, March 24, 2017. (Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

Shadows of history in Malta’s war tunnels

Bed cots are seen in a corridor at the Combined Operations Centre, dating back to World War II, in the War Headquarters tunnels beneath Valletta, Malta, Jan. 26, 2009. (Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

Shadows of history in Malta’s war tunnels

A reel of cine film is seen in the NATO tunnels dating back to the Cold War in the War Headquarters tunnels beneath Valletta, Malta, March 28, 2017. (Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

Shadows of history in Malta’s war tunnels

A lantern is seen in the NATO tunnels, dating back to World War II, in the War Headquarters tunnels beneath Valletta, Malta, March 28, 2017. (Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

Shadows of history in Malta’s war tunnels

Bed cots are seen in a restored area of the Combined Operations Centre, dating back to World War II, in the War Headquarters tunnels beneath Valletta, Malta, Jan. 24, 2017. (Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

Shadows of history in Malta’s war tunnels

A detail on a map is seen in the map room at the Combined Operations Centre, dating back to World War II, in the War Headquarters tunnels beneath Valletta, Malta, March 24, 2017. (Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

Shadows of history in Malta’s war tunnels

Pigeon feathers lie on broken pieces of a wall map in the Briefing Room at the Combined Operations Centre, dating back to World War II, in the War Headquarters tunnels beneath Valletta, Malta, March 24, 2017. (Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

Shadows of history in Malta’s war tunnels

Part of a map showing the central Mediterranean is seen in the map room at the Combined Operations Centre, dating back to World War II, in the War Headquarters tunnels beneath Valletta, Malta, March 24, 2017. (Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

Shadows of history in Malta’s war tunnels

Electricity conduits and cables are plied onto a chair in the Filter Room at the Combined Operations Centre, dating back to World War II, in the War Headquarters tunnels beneath Valletta, Malta, Jan. 24, 2017. (Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

Shadows of history in Malta’s war tunnels

Graffiti left by vandals covers the walls in the Briefing Room at the Combined Operations Centre, dating back to World War II, in the War Headquarters tunnels beneath Valletta, Malta, March 24, 2017. (Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)