Great Siege of Malta
The attacking Ottomans underestimated the steadfast determination of the Knights of Saint John to preserve their island base in the Central Mediterranean
The Ottomans launched a determined attack to take the important island of Malta
CENTRAL MEDITERRANEAN SEA MAY-SEPTEMBER 1565
Asquadron of seven galleys flying the eight-pointed cross of the Order of Saint John swarmed a heavily laden Ottoman merchant galley in the Ionian Sea in 1564.
After a sharp struggle in which the knights overwhelmed the janissaries guarding its precious cargo, Admiral Mathurin Romegas netted plunder worth 80,000 ducats.
The presence of the janissaries was a clue that the cargo did not belong to any ordinary Ottoman merchantman, but rather to Sultan Suleiman I. The vessel was carrying goods from Venice to Istanbul. The cargo belonged to Kustir-aga, chief eunuch of the imperial harem, who was the agent of a commercial venture established by Mihrimah, the sultan’s daughter, and other members of the imperial harem.
Mihrimah was furious at the loss of the valuable cargo. She pleaded with her father to stop the Christian pirates. Suleiman already had plans to invade Malta, where the Order of Saint John was based, as he wanted to use the island as a staging point for amphibious operations against Italy and Spain. The incident in the Ionian Sea solidified his determination to launch an expedition against Malta.
After the fall of Acre in 1291, which marked the end of the
Latin crusader states in the
Holy Land, the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (Hospitallers) relocated to Cyprus. The knights began to build a fleet with which to harass the southern Turkish coast. They appointed their first admiral in 1301 and began building a small fleet of war galleys. Pope Clement V called on the Order to take Rhodes from the declining Byzantine Empire, which it did in 1310 after a four-year struggle.
The Order then quit Cyprus, where its future was bleak. For the next two centuries the Order thrived at Rhodes, where it continued its transformation into a minor naval power. Following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, the Order of
Saint John became the last bastion of Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean. Through stalwart leadership – which would become a recurring theme in its many battles against superior forces – the Order withstood a siege of Rhodes by the Mamluks in 1444 and the first Ottoman siege in 1480. However, they would not withstand the second Ottoman siege in 1522.
That fateful siege occurred in the second year of Suleiman’s reign. After six months of fruitless attacks that cost him 60,000 men, Suleiman granted the knights an honourable surrender in order to avoid wintering in front of their walls. As part of the sultan’s terms, they promised never to take up arms against him again – an oath they would unsurprisingly break. Because of the trouble their war galleys later caused by preying on Ottoman pilgrim transports and merchant ships, Suleiman came to regret his decision to allow them safe passage.
“THE ORDER’S STRATEGIC POSITION AT MALTA AS A BULWARK FOR LATIN CHRISTENDOM IN THE CENTRAL MEDITERRANEAN ULTIMATELY WOULD PROVE FAR MORE SIGNIFICANT THAN THEIR POSITION AT RHODES”
For eight years the Order was without a permanent base, until Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor, gave them Malta in 1530. They took the offer, despite some qualms about the lack of fertile land, shortage of potable water and an absence of forests needed for shipbuilding. The upsides of Malta were the abundance of stone for the construction of forts and its superb harbours. The strategic position on the island as a bulwark for Latin Christendom in the Central Mediterranean ultimately would prove far more significant than the Order's previous position at Rhodes.
Following an unsuccessful attack against Malta by the Ottoman corsair Dragut in 1551, the Order of Saint John constructed two new forts. The star fort Saint Elmo, on the north side of the Grand Harbour, covered the approaches to both the Grand Harbour and Marsamuscetto inlet, the island's two best anchorages. On the south side of Grand Harbour, the towns of Birgu and Senglia were situated on parallel promontories that jutted into the harbour. To protect Senglia, the Order built Fort Saint Michael across the top of the peninsula. A high wall and ditch surrounded the Birgu peninsula, and Fort Saint Angelo crowned its point. In the island's centre, a small mounted garrison defended the walled city of Mdina.
Suleiman picked Admiral Piali Pasha and General Mustafa Pasha to lead the expedition to Malta. Mustafa was a veteran of long wars in Persia and Hungary, and had fought at Rhodes in 1522. As for Piali, he was younger, but had won distinction commanding the Ottoman fleet at Djerba.
The commander of the Christian forces was 71-year-old Grand Master Jean de la Valette. He had fought the Ottomans at Rhodes in 1522. Almost two decades later, while serving as captain of a galley in 1541, the Ottomans captured his vessel and made him and his crew galley slaves. He was freed after one year in a prisoner exchange. He was inured to hardship as a result, and at the time of the Ottoman invasion of Malta he was still robust and fit. A devout member of the Order, he regarded the Ottomans as barbarians.
The Ottoman armada arrived in three divisions off Malta on 18 May 1565. La Valette’s mix of Hospitaller knights and sergeants, Spanish soldiers and Maltese militia braced themselves for an attack at one or more points. The Ottomans sailed the breadth of the island before deciding to land at Marasirocco Harbour on the southern tip of the island. The Ottomans then marched 6.5 kilometres (four miles) inland, and on 20 May they encamped at Marsa on the west end of Grand Harbour.
La Valette promptly sent a message by boat to Don Garcia de Toledo, viceroy of
Sicily, who was 48 kilometres (30 miles) away across the Malta Channel in Sicily, stating that the siege had begun and asking when reinforcements might be expected. He received a response that, if all went well, he could expect reinforcements as early as 22 June. At the time, Sicily and Naples belonged to Spanish King Philip II. Toledo, who commanded a squadron of Spanish ships at Sicily, assumed he would be able to get Philip’s permission to send a relief force, but Philip was initially reluctant to send a Spanish fleet and land force to relieve Malta, for fear that the far stronger Ottoman fleet might sink his ships. Five years earlier a Spanish fleet attacking the Ottoman corsair base at Djerba had been destroyed by the sultan’s fleet, and the Spanish navy had still not recovered completely from the damaging defeat.
From the outset the two pashas clashed over strategy. Mustafa favoured an anchorage on the northern end of Malta, with a steady advance south by the Ottoman army followed by a concentrated attack on Saint Angelo, which was the nerve centre of the Order’s defences. As for Piali, he argued that it was necessary to move immediately to capture Saint Elmo so that he could anchor his fleet in Marsamuscetto
“AT THE TIME OF THE INVASION OF MALTA HE WAS STILL ROBUST AND FIT. A DEVOUT MEMBER OF THE ORDER, HE REGARDED THE TURKS AS BARBARIANS”
inlet, where it would receive the best protection possible from storms and gale force winds that might damage the sultan’s ships. From the fleet’s anchorage in the inlet, it could support the operations against Fort Saint Elmo. Piali prevailed, and the Ottomans prepared to assault Saint Elmo by hauling guns into position on Mount Sciberras on Saint Elmo’s landward side.
The 40,000-strong Ottoman army was composed of spahis, janissaries, Iayalars (religious fanatics) and corsairs. Because the solid rock under Fort Saint Elmo precluded mining the walls, they would have to batter the walls with direct fire. Labourers hauled the heaviest guns – one of which was a massive 160-pounder – onto the ridge, placing them about 455 metres (500 yards) from the outer works of Fort Saint Elmo.
La Valette’s 5,700 Christian troops on Malta consisted of 700 knights from the Order of Saint John, 1,000 Spanish infantrymen and 4,000 Maltese militiamen. At the outset of the attack on Saint Elmo, the garrison numbered about 80 men, including around 15 knights. Each night La Valette sent small boats from Fort Saint Angelo to reinforce and resupply the garrison. The odds were evened somewhat by the fact that the garrison was supported by 19 cannon and a half-culverin.
The defence of the land wall protecting the town of Birgu was extremely important as the Order’s convent and hospital were situated on the narrow peninsula. Knights from each of the eight langues – Aragon, Auvergne, Castile, England, France, Germany, Italy and Provence – were assigned a section of Birgu’s outer wall, which was studded with bastions facing inland. Knights of the Order of Saint John fought with two-handed swords and wore suits of plate armour that were impervious to an arquebus round unless it was fired at point-blank range. As for the Spaniards, they were crack shots with their arquebuses.
Attack on Fort Saint Elmo
The Ottoman guns began bombarding Saint Elmo on 25 May. The heavy cannonballs soon took their toll on the walls, producing cracks and crumbling the battlements. It was not long before sections of the wall collapsed. While the cannons blasted away, hundreds of janissaries armed with arquebuses pinned down the Christians on the ramparts.
On 2 June the 80-year-old Dragut, a celebrated Ottoman admiral and corsair, arrived from Tripoli with 24 galleys and 2,500 men. Suleiman had ordered him to join the campaign and keep a sharp eye out for a Christian fleet coming to the garrison’s assistance.
His reputation put him on par with Piali and Mustafa. He was proficient at coastal raiding and amphibious warfare and had played a central role in the destruction of the Spanish fleet at Djerba.
Dragut immediately set to work improving the siege batteries. He ordered his corsairs to unload guns from his galleys to form additional batteries. New batteries were established at Gallows Point on the south shore of Grand Harbour, as well as on the headland known as Tigne across the inlet from Fort Saint Elmo.
This exposed the defenders of Saint Elmo to fire from three directions. Additionally, the guns
on Gallows Point were well-placed to try to destroy the boats ferrying men and supplies to Saint Elmo across the harbour each night.
After Dragut had finished his improvements to the guns arrayed against Saint Elmo, they resumed their bombardment on 3 June.
The steady battering turned Saint Elmo into something “like a volcano, spouting fire and smoke,” according to eyewitness Francesco Balbi di Correggio, a Spanish soldier stationed in Fort Saint Michael.
On the night of 6 June, Turkish janissaries in the siege trenches surrounding the west side of Saint Elmo noticed that the Christian guards were asleep. They sent word to Mustafa, who ordered them to place ladders as quietly as possible against the crumbling walls in the pre-dawn darkness. Other janissaries thrust the long barrels of their German-made arquebuses through the squares of the portcullis.
When Mustafa gave the signal to attack, arquebus fire crackled and the janissaries atop the ladders leapt onto the battlements. Men on both sides became involved in a vicious hand-to-hand fight on top of the ramparts. Turkish scimitars and hand axes clanged against the knights’ and militia's heavy swords and halberds. To prevent the Ottomans from infiltrating the portcullis, the defenders hurled clay pots containing Greek fire. When the pots exploded, they created balls of flame that engulfed whole groups of attackers. The Christians beat the defenders back and waited for the next onslaught.
Mustafa ordered a large-scale assault the following day. White-robed janissaries streamed forth from their forward trenches. As they climbed their ladders, the defenders unleashed their full array of fire weapons, including Greek fire, fire hoops and primitive flame throwers to repulse the attackers. A fire hoop consisted of a light wooden ring soaked in oil and flammable liquids, wrapped in wool and treated with pitch and gunpowder. The Christians lit the fire hoop, and then used tongs to hurl it aflame over the wall. The hoop was large enough to encircle and burn three Ottomans at once. After losing 2,000 of his elite janissaries, Mustafa called off the attack. As for the defenders, they lost ten knights and 70 soldiers.
The Ottomans then launched another night attack on 10 June, in which both sides hurled incendiary devices at each other. The Ottoman grenades, which the Christians called 'sachetti', contained a gummy substance that clung to a knight’s armour while it burned. The defenders kept large vats of water next to the walls so that when a knight was struck by one of these fire grenades, he could jump in the water to extinguish the flames. The night attack cost Mustafa another 1,500 janissaries and the defenders 60 more men.
The Christian garrison at Saint Elmo kept the Ottomans at bay for many days thanks to their large complement of cannon. The guns not only mowed down troops in the forward trenches, but also did superb work in a counter-battery role.
“HIGH ON HASHISH, THESE RELIGIOUS FANATICS CHARGED WILD-EYED TOWARDS THE FORT. THEY WORE ANIMAL SKINS AND PROTECTED THEIR HEADS WITH GOLDEN HELMETS”
To conserve the dwindling number of his elite janissaries, Mustafa ordered his corps of
Iayalars to make an attack against Saint Elmo on 16 June. High on hashish, these religious fanatics charged wild-eyed towards the fort. They wore animal skins and protected their heads with golden helmets. They scrambled over the rubble of the walls with menacing scimitars to grapple with the Christians. Cannon and arquebus fire from the fort cut many down, and 1,000 fell in the ferocious attack.
Two days later Christian cannoneers at
Fort Saint Elmo fired on a group of senior Ottoman commanders who were inspecting the siege trenches on the west side of the fort. A cannonball shattered a stone wall behind them, sending a large splinter of rock flying through the air. The splinter tore open the side of Dragut’s head, and he died five days later. His aggressive leadership would be sorely missed in the weeks that followed.
That night La Valette sent 30 knights and 300 soldiers across the harbour under cover of darkness to join the garrison at Saint
Elmo. They were the last reinforcements that would arrive. The following day the Ottomans completed a trench at the waterline along the north shore of Grand Harbour, which enabled them to fire on the boats attempting to make the night run from Saint Angelo to Saint Elmo.
On 23 June Mustafa sent the janissaries against Fort Saint Elmo. By that time the Ottoman trenches completely encircled the fort. Janissaries in the trenches poured heavy fire into the fort from all directions. The Ottomans breached the walls and wiped out the remaining 60 defenders. The siege had lasted 31 days.
From their position on the south side of the harbour, the remaining Christian troops knew the fort had fallen when Ottoman banners were raised over the ruins. The attack cost the Ottomans a month of valuable time during the campaign season. It also cost them
8,000 men, or one-fifth of their entire force. In contrast, La Valette lost 1,500 knights and soldiers in the defence of Saint Elmo. If the Ottomans wanted to conquer Malta, they still had to take two major fortresses on the south side of the harbour, as well as the heavily defended landward walls protecting Birgu.
The second phase of the siege consisted of Mustafa’s attack on the twin promontories that housed Birgu and Senglia, which were protected by the forts Saint Angelo and Saint Michael. The two commanders came to an agreement: Piali would oversee the attack against Birgu while Mustafa would orchestrate the assault on Senglia. In order to batter the landward walls protecting the peninsulas, labourers began hauling the siege guns from Mount Sciberras to new positions on the south side of Grand Harbour. One of the most imposing new gun positions was atop the heights of Corradino, from which the Ottomans could deliver plunging fire against Senglia.
In late August dysentery, typhoid and malaria swept through the Ottoman ranks, substantially reducing the number of soldiers available for combat. Piali Pasha knew that the strong north winds would soon bring rains and churn up the seas around Malta. Without a shipyard to repair and maintain his ships, Piali believed he would be risking the sultan’s fleet by wintering in Malta. For these reasons, he informed Mustafa that he planned to depart no later than midseptember for Istanbul with or without the land army on board his ships.
The Ottomans successfully detonated a mine under the land walls of Birgu on 19 August. When part of the wall crashed to the ground, the Ottomans fought their way into the town. La Valette, whose headquarters were in the town’s square, led a group of Christian troops forward in a counterattack. The grand master was only partially armoured, and when a grenade exploded near him it injured his leg. “I will not withdraw as long as those banners wave in the wind,” he said, pointing to Ottoman flags that had been planted in the breach. The Ottomans resumed their attack at dusk. The fighting see-sawed back and forth throughout the long night. At dawn the Ottomans withdrew, having failed to capture the town.
Both sides had to endure torrential rains that struck the island in late August. The Ottomans huddled in their trenches. Piali grew increasingly concerned that a Spanish fleet was drawing near, and he ordered 30 galleys to patrol the island’s coastline.
A Spanish army arrives
King Philip II was reluctant to allow the relief force from Sicily to sail to Malta for fear he would lose some or all of his galleys. But
Toledo finally succeeded in persuading the king. “Malta is the key to Sicily, and if it is lost the defence of your own possessions will have to be at such an immense expense that I do not know how it can be borne,” he told the Spanish monarch. Toledo received permission from Philip II on 20 August to transport the 10,000-man relief force to Malta.
By that time, the Ottomans had begun withdrawing their army in stages. Mustafa had a major challenge on his hands coordinating a calm retreat to the embarkation points. The pace of the withdrawal quickened when word came that a large relief force had arrived.
After dropping off the 10,000 Spanish troops at Mellieha Bay on 6 September,
Toledo ordered the Spanish warships to depart immediately to avoid a naval engagement.
The Spanish relief force marched halfway to Grand Harbour, taking up a blocking position at Naxxar only eight kilometres (five miles) away. Although some of La Valette’s men wanted to attack the Ottomans while they were loading their ships, the grand master forbade it, as he wanted to preserve his manpower.
On 10 September the Ottoman army was ready to depart for Istanbul, but Mustafa had second thoughts. He had recently received a letter from Suleiman, telling him he must return to Istanbul with news of a victory. For that reason, Mustafa wanted to try to crush the Spanish relief army before he departed. If that could be done, he reasoned, he might force La Valette to surrender. He therefore disembarked 10,000 troops the following day.
The Spaniards excelled in pitched battles on open fields, and they gladly offered combat. As the Ottomans approached Naxxar, there was a race to see which side could seize the high ground. The Spanish won the race, and they immediately began pushing back the Ottomans. Arquebusiers on both sides poured fire into their foe’s ranks. When the Ottomans wavered, the Spanish pikemen crashed into their lines. A rout ensued, with the Ottomans having no choice but to conduct a fighting retreat north to Saint Paul’s Bay. Once there, they crowded onto the waiting ships.
The Ottoman army lost 24,000 of its 40,000 men in the failed siege. A significant number of those succumbed to disease and the climate. Of the 5,700 Christian troops on Malta, 600 remained by the end of the siege.
The siege is remembered as one of the epic Christian-muslim clashes of the 16th century. The Ottoman loss can be chalked up to divisive leadership, flawed strategy and lack of safe drinking water. The soldiers were blameless, having fought heroically. The defeat derailed plans to control the North African coast.
As for the Knights of Saint John, they had shown they were formidable on both land and sea. The Order’s victory was due to La Valette’s inspiring leadership, the high morale of the troops and the arrival of the Spanish army. Without any one of those factors, Malta might have fallen.
Christian forces under Jean de la Valette give thanks upon the arrival of the Spanish fleet
The Italian-made armour worn by Grand Master Jean de la Valette
The Ottomans captured Fort St. Elmo and killed its entire garrison
Admiral Garcia de Toledo’s Spanish fleet disembarked 10,000 troops on its arrival in early September
A depiction of the defence of Birgu during an assault on the Post of Castile on 29 July
The Ottoman camp and the bombardment of St. Elmo. Piali, Mustafa and a commander of Dragut's corsairs can be seen in discussion in the centre
A cannonball fired from a Christian battery at St. Elmo mortally wounded Ottoman commander Dragut during the height of the siege