By Dr Stephen C Spiteri
One of the most interesting adjuncts of coastal defence employed by the knights for the coastal defence of the Maltese Islands was the fougasse, a kind of rock-hewn mortar designed to fire large quantities of stone onto approaching enemy ships.
Although not an altogether Maltese invention as claimed by many authors, this weapon was, nonetheless, a unique adaptation of the fougasse, particularly in its method of construction and unorthodox application in a coastal defence role.
Various sources have claimed that the fougasses of Malta are not fougasses at all, the word being a misnomer, but simply singular mortars cut in rock. This statement, however, is not entirely correct since the Maltese type of weapon has features which belong both to the fougasse and mortar. In actual fact, it is a combination of three kinds of weapons, the fougasse, the explosive mine, and the mortar. The best word used to describe it is fougasse-pierrier, the pierrier being a stone-firing cannon. In contemporary documents it is more popularly referred to as the fougasse a cailloux, fogazza, or fornello a selci. Pontleroy , in 1761, referred to them simply as ‘les puits’. The fundamental uniqueness of the Maltese fougasse stems primarily from the nature of the Maltese terrain which dictated that the fougasse had to be cut into solid rock.
The local method of construction gave the weapon a permanence, solidity, and form not enjoyed elsewhere, especially since most fougasses were generally employed in field defences and earthworks thus earning in the process an ephemeral quality. In Malta, the fougasse was a product of the eighteenth century. It is known that in the first decades of the 1700s, when the Order, under the influence of French engineers, decided to implement a coast defence scheme, the fougasse was proposed to complement the coastal defences. In 1715 the council ordered 60 stone mortars to be cut at vulnerable points around the coasts of the island but no action appears to have been taken. Of these, 48 were to have been excavated in Malta. The early attempts to introduce the weapon under the direction of the military engineer Mondion seem to have failed and it was not until 1741, under the direction of Marandon, that the weapon was adopted successfully. Marandon fired his first experimental foggazza a selci on 28 September 1740.
This was cut into the rocky foreshore below the ‘bastione delle forbici’ at the foot of the Valletta bastions facing Dragut point. On the day of its baptism of fire, Marandon filled the fougasse with 306 stone boulders of various sizes, totalling in weight to 3,575 cantara. A charge of 83 rotuli of ordinary gunpowder was placed in the chamber and when fired this proved powerful enough to propel the said mass of stone over a distance of some 300m (160 canne), raising it, in the process, to a maximum height of 60 to 80m. The effect, in Marandon’s own words, was that ‘la pioggia delle selci si stese sin alla ponta Dragut lontana cento sessanta canne, e che salirono a 30 in 40 canne, e non ne resto’ ne pur una ne dentro la Fogazza ne inanti.’ Marandon was quite pleased with the result and in the following years he was ordered by the congregation of war to excavate a network of fougasses first in Malta and then in Gozo. In all around 50 were built in Malta and 14 in Gozo. In shape the Maltese fougasse resembled a large inclined tumbler with the lower side prolonged to meet the horizontal line from the top of the brim. As a result, the mouth of the fougasse was elliptical. The bore was circular but the shaft of the pit was conical, tapering from 2.13m at the mouth to 1.52m at the bottom where it curved towards the powder chamber. This measured around 0.76m in diameter and was 4.5m deep.
Arming a fougasse was a lengthy task that took about an hour. The procedure involved first the placing of the gunpowder charge of ‘100 au 120 livres de poudre’ inside its flat barrel within the powder chamber at the bottom of the pit. A long cord-like fuse was then secured to the powder casket and passed through a narrow channel cut in the side of the fougasse. The gunpowder chamber was then covered with a circular wooden lid, or Ruota, and the pit then filled in with a large number of stones, or selci, with the larger stones placed at the bottom. It appears that the stone projectiles for use with the fougasse were collected beforehand and stockpiled in the vicinity of the fougasse, if not within the pit itself, ready for use. Various custodians were also employed to ensure that these selci were not carried away. The cone-shaped pit was so designed to allow the projectiles, once fired, to spread out and cover as wide an area of ground, or sea, as possible. The stones, to quote Louis de Boisgelin, had the effect of hail and were not only capable of killing men but of sinking boats.
To ensure the greatest tactical effect, the fougasses were employed in pairs in order that a large area of sea or foreshore in each bay could be covered by their crossfire. Initially all the fougasses were made to cover the entrances to the bays but, in 1761, the French engineers advised the knights to add others for flanking fire too. The first record of the fougasse being armed and readied for war is during the emergency of 1761. The suspicious appearance of the French Fleet in the vicinity of Malta in 1792 provided a second opportunity and indeed the congregation of war then ordered that the fougasses be armed and kept ready for eventual use, ‘…si rettano le fugacce, e si tengono pronte’. The feared invasion did not materialize but in 1798 things turned out differently and it appears that a few of fougasses were actually fired against Bonaparte’s troops as they set about invading the island. Major Ritchie quotes De la Jonquiere’s reproduction of an extract from a letter written by a knight of the Order asserting that fougasses were fired against the Città Vecchia division as it was attempting a descent at Marsaxlokk bay.
Under British rule the fougasse seems to have assumed the nature of a curiosity. Various experiments were carried out with the fougasses at St. Julian’s Bay and St. George’s Bay by the gunners of the British expeditionary Force returning from Egypt in 1801. In these experiments the fougasses were charged and fired first with 140 lbss of powder and over 10 tons of stones. When the charge was increased to 180 lbs, the resultant explosion cracked one of the fougasses along a vertical axis leaving a fissure cutting through some 14 feet of rock. It does not appear that the fougasses were kept in service during the early decades of British rule in Malta. These were probably abandoned by the 1830s, as were most of the de-militarized coastal towers and batteries that were handed over to the civil government during that period. Thereafter, the fougasses do not seem to feature at all in the Island’s defensive stategy particularly since the British gradually abandoned the idea of resisting the enemy on the coast, adopting instead a mighty fortress system conceived primarily for the defence of the Grand Harbour. The need to defend and fortify the beaches against invasion, however, was rekindled at the outbreak of the second world war when many of the Knights’ long discarded coastal defences, including the fougasses, were pressed back into service and incorporated, in conjunction with concrete pillboxes and barbed wire, into an overall War Defence Plan. The Royal Irish Fusiliers, for example, were responsible for arming and maintaining the fougasses at Salina Bay. A popular photograph in the National War Museum Collection shows the fougasse outside Ximenes redoubt, in Salina, being tested fired in the presence of HE the Governor General Sir William Dobie