The Great Siege of Malta | The Context & the Combat

capture of st elmo

In 1565, the Ottoman Empire made their last great, convincing attempt to dominate the Mediterranean, as a stepping stone to conquering Italy and other parts of Europe. This attempt ended in resounding, bitter failure. But not before becoming a fantastical story that captured the attention of the entire Christian world and beyond, never mind the tales told in Turkey.

 

In this article I aim to take a very shallow dive into the rich story that is the Great Siege of Malta by the Ottoman Empire, and share some of the incredible highs, lows, and triumphs of the event. Note though, that even contemporary sources disagree on several points, so there are places where I’ve chosen to recount the more interesting version of the tale!

 

The leadup to the Siege

First though, some very important background.

 

The Ottoman expansion

The Ottoman Empire had, over the course of a century or so, replaced the Eastern Roman Empire (also referred to as the Byzantines or the Byzantine Empire, after their capital city of… Constantinople. It did used to be called Byzantium… all the way up until the point at which the Eastern Roman Empire came to be a thing. The city in question, for the record, is now called Istanbul).

 

The Eastern Roman Empire (ERE) had for approximately a millennium served as the primary power in the Eastern Mediterranean, and acted as something of a bulwark against both the Islamic conquests and the Mongols. However, beginning around 1071 AD with the Battle of Manzikert, Anatolia had been progressively Turkified by Seljuk conquest and turkic migrations. The ERE was also critically weakened by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 (the incredibly scandalous “crusade” in which the Venetians convinced the Crusaders that sacking the world’s largest Christian city was more important than continuing to the Holy Land).

 

Eventually, in the 14th century, the Ottoman Dynasty under Osman I rose to power in Turkish Anatolia. At this point the Ottomans were a tribal kingdom, but rapid military successes in Anatolia, the Levant, and the Balkans led quickly to the establishment of a cross-continental Empire.

 

In 1453 they finally killed off the ERE with the siege and capture of Constantinople. In the time between the rise of Osman and the capture of Constantinople by Mehmed II, the Ottomans had only lost territory to other Turks in the form of Timur the Lame. They had fought off two entire crusades, nevermind the countless other battles they won (someone has probably counted them all, but they likely missed some).

 

This breakneck expansion didn’t stop with Constantinople. Between 1453 and the 1565 Siege of Malta, they conquered parts of Persia, the rest of the Levant, the entirety of Egypt, and large chunks of Hungary (which, at the time, was a much bigger country than it is now, occupying the entire Carpathian basin). It was compared by contemporary scholars to Rome in its apparent military invincibility, and certainly the Ottomans tried to claim that they were a continuation of the Roman Empire through the ERE.

 

The only people or country that had managed to hold out at all against the Ottomans thus far were the Albanians, whose territory at the time was actually smaller than it is today.

 

In short, there was a pervading sense in Europe that the Ottomans were unstoppable, and that whatever territory they desired they would eventually gain. They had been at war nearly constantly for about two centuries, and they’d won every conflict so far (except against the Albanians).

 

The Barbary Corsairs

 

Turgut Reis, a legendary Corsair and Ottoman admiral.

 

All the way up until the 1800s, when the Europeans (and particularly the French) finally conquered the last of the North African coastline, raids on European coastlines and shipping were a constant threat. Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia had always been major bases for piracy in the Western Mediterranean, and the Mediterranean had always been a hotbed of piracy, particularly in the East where the spice trade passed through. As Western Europe rose as a producer of valuable goods, so too did piracy in the Western Mediterranean.

 

However, piracy is not entirely the high seas drama as often imagined. In reality, in addition to the cannon duels and boarding actions and men in poofy pants killing other men in poofy pants with pistols and swords, piracy in most cases also meant a brutal slave trade.

 

Islamic law was very permissive (some would say encouraging) of attacks on and enslavement of non-Islamic peoples, particularly those not ruled by an Islamic leader. And this slavery was by no means limited to the sailors taken prisoner on captured merchant vessels. A galley full of a couple hundred armed sailors and carrying a decent quantity of cannon is just as capable of attacking a merchant ship as a small coastal village or even a town. And in fact, doing so was often easier: how many villages have cannons?

 

The aims of pirates were typically to seize four things:

  • Loot, as in trade goods, gold, silver, and currency that they could then sell on for profit
  • Ships, which could be ransomed back to their owners, sold, or used to expand a pirate fleet
  • Important hostages, who could be ransomed for large sums of money
  • Able bodied young men and women, who could be sold as slaves

 

In a sense, if one were to think of the popular image of Vikings and combine that with the popular image of pirates, one would have a pretty good picture of what actual piracy was like.

 

The Barbary Corsairs (after Barbary Coast i.e. the coast of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, where they were based – itself named after the Berbers, the cultural group dominant in North Africa) were already a major menace to Christians as early as the 11th century. When the Ottomans came to prominence and found themselves in frequent conflict with the powers of Western Europe, they quickly established strong ties with the Barbary states, to the extent that they were made de jure parts of the Ottoman Empire and given funding, ships, and men with which to wage wider campaigns of raiding and piracy.

 

The flight of the Moriscoes from Spain due to the activities of the Inquisition further swelled the ranks of able sailors from which the Corsairs could draw men, and prominent European outcasts and converts to Islam frequently found a profession as corsairs in the Barbary states, which led to the spread of advanced shipbuilding techniques.

 

By the 1500s, the Barbary Corsairs were an omnipresent, Ottoman-backed threat to shipping in the Western Mediterranean as well as to Western European coastal settlements.

 

The Knights Hospitaller

 

Jean Parisot de Valette, the 70-year-old Grandmaster of the Knights at the time of the siege.

 

The Knights Hospitaller in their earliest form came into being in the 10th century as a Christian organisation dedicated to caring for the health and safety of pilgrims to Jerusalem. Soon though, they became a military order tasked by Papal charter with defending the Holy Land (Levant) in general.

 

That didn’t go very well, and they found themselves rootless after the Islamic (re)reconquest of the Holy Land in 1291. They took Rhodes from the ERE in 1310 (the ERE were Orthodox Christians so it’s fine for the Catholic Crusader knights to conquer territory from them, apparently), and were based there until 1522.

 

During that time they became extremely militarised to combat the Barbary Corsairs and disrupt Ottoman shipping and expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean. Remember what I said earlier about piracy? The Knights did all that too, because as it turns out, the Bible is about as fond of non-Christians as the Quran and Hadiths are of non-Muslims.

 

They were almost as much of a menace to Muslims in the Eastern Mediterranean as the Barbary Corsairs at the time were to Christians in the Western Mediterranean. But, very importantly for the rest of Christendom, they did very actively seek out and attack ships belonging to the Corsairs, patrolled coastlines, and escorted Christian vessels through particularly dangerous waters.

 

At Rhodes, the Knights successfully repelled a siege by the Egyptian Sultanate in 1444 and then by the Ottomans themselves in 1480 before finally being expelled in a hard-fought siege in 1522. The Knights’ fortifications on Rhodes were formidable, and it took some 100 000 Ottoman soldiers to take the island from the 7000 men commanded by the Knights.

 

After this, the Knights needed a new home. Through negotiations between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor (who was also the King of Spain at this time), they gained the islands of Malta and Gozo in 1530 (both part of modern Malta, Gozo is a much smaller island separated by only a narrow channel from the rest of Malta) as well as the city of Tripoli on the African coast – surrounded by Berber territory. They turned Malta into a major, well-fortified naval base in short order, and continued their campaign against the Barbary Corsairs and the Ottomans.

 

The first attack on Malta

In 1551 the Ottomans made their first attempt at taking Malta from the Knights. However, at this point they had little intelligence on the state of the island. The Knights had by now been located on Malta for over twenty years, and they’d fortified it in the meantime.

 

The Ottomans, in coordination with the powerful corsair Turgut Reis (a protege and close friend of the infamous Hayreddin Barbarossa, who you might know of as Redbeard) landed 10 000 men on the island. However, after probing the defenses of Birgu and its Fort St Angelo, as well as the old city of Mdina (more on all of those later), they realised that 10 000 was woefully too few to take Malta. Instead, they returned to their ships and sailed north to the second island, Gozo.

 

Here they found the city of Victoria defended only by its antiquated (at that point) Citadella, a pre-gunpowder fortress, to which the population and garrison had retreated. Unlike the main island, there were no supporting fortifications, and the walls were tall, thin, and straight – very, very vulnerable to cannonfire.

 

The governor soon surrendered, and nearly the entire population of Gozo was enslaved – 6000 people or so. The Ottomans then sailed on to Tripoli, and seized the city from the Knights’ garrison, before selling their plunder and slaves along the Barbary Coast.

 

Fortification of the island

 

A painting from shortly after the Great Siege, showing the overall geography and defenses of the Great Harbour area.

 

After the invasion of Gozo and loss of Tripoli, the Knights were quick to build more fortifications. The slight silver lining to these defeats was that the Knights’ forces no longer needed to be divided: Tripoli was now in Ottoman hands, and there was no longer any real need to fortify or even garrison Gozo, leaving the Knights to focus on Malta itself.

 

The site of the siege to come

The Knights’ presence on Malta was centered around the Grand Harbour area, on the northern side of the island. The geography of the area is just about perfect for defense: two bays directly adjacent to each other, sharing the mountainous Xiberras peninsula as a common harbour wall and with both harbour mouths extremely narrow.

 

In addition, the eastern harbour is broken up by a further two peninsulas with narrow bases jutting out westward from the eastern shore – Birgu and Senglea – that are home to towns of the same name, and whose tips come close to the Xiberras peninsula. At the time, the eastern bay was referred to as the Grand Harbour, while the western bay was known as Marsamxett.

 

The Forts St Elmo, St Angelo, and St Michael

At the time of the first attack, the only major and up-to-date fortification in the area was Fort St Angelo, at the tip of the Birgu peninsula (the northern of the two fortified peninsulas). This dominated the interior of the Grand Harbour and provided refuge for the inhabitants of Birgu and Senglea.

 

After the attack, the Knights significantly strengthened Fort St Angelo, and constructed two new forts: St Michael, protecting the base of the Senglea peninsula, and St Elmo, which they constructed at the very tip of the Xiberras peninsula, overlooking the entrances to both the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett. These were all gunpowder fortresses designed using the latest in defensive technology, and featured thick, angled, cannon-resistant walls, overlapping fields of fire, multiple layers of defense, and deep, difficult ditches that attackers have to cross while under fire.

 

In addition, the Knights had by this point installed a thick, firmly anchored chain across the mouth of the Grand Harbour, another between the tips of Birgu and Senglea, and a third between the bases of Birgu and Senglea. These chains, when slack, would lay along the seafloor. When tightened, however, they formed a line near the water’s surface. Any ship that tried to pass the chain would have its wooden bottom ripped off, and cutting the chain from a boat while under fire from the forts would be just about impossible. Thus, the harbours were secure as long as the forts held.

 

Mdina, the old capital

Significantly inland from the Grand Harbour is the city of Mdina. Before the arrival of the Knights, it had been the capital of the island, and the seat of its nobility. However, the Knights immediately snubbed the attempts of the city’s officials to cozy up to their new lords. Instead, the Knights opted to have their capital at the much more defensible city of Birgu, on the Grand Harbour, where their all-important fleet would be based.

 

However, Mdina remained an important city on the island, and while its defenses were not turned into arguably the greatest in the world, as at the Grand Harbour, the Knights did opt to reinforce them in the 1530s. The city was thus defensible enough that taking it would require significant investment, while simultaneously being completely non-vital to the Knights’ operations.

 

It would certainly not fall as easily as the Citadella of Gozo had.

 

Ottoman preparations

The Ottomans, for the many reasons outlined above, had no love for the Knights. Added to this was the fact that in the way the Muslim East was set up against the Christian West, Malta was directly in the center, and controlled the vital southern passage past Sicily – the Christians already controlled the narrow straits of Messina.

 

This meant that any Muslim seeking to sail from one side of the Mediterranean to the other would have to pass through a relatively narrow stretch of sea controlled directly by the privateering Knights.

 

Furthermore, the Ottomans intended to take the mantle of Rome (they often referred to themselves as the Sultanate of Rûm), and that meant the conquest of Italy and, eventually, Western Europe. Taking Italy would require taking Sicily, and taking Sicily would be made far easier by taking Malta as a staging ground.

 

In 1559, the Spanish organised a massive naval expedition to retake Tripoli, which the Knights joined. This ended in disaster off the coast of Djerba, and the fleet was annihilated. For some reason, the Ottomans chose not to attack Malta immediately afterwards, when the Christian powers (and the Knights) were at their weakest.

 

Instead, the final provocation came in mid-1564 when the infamous Knight, Mathurin Romegas, captured several high-ranking members of the Ottoman government at sea, along with a huge amount of wealth belonging directly to the Sultan. The Sultan ordered preparations to begin for an assault on Malta.

 

Massing the fleet

Getting 40 000 soldiers together in one place is an action that is extremely difficult to hide, particularly when you’re massing them in one of the greatest trade centers of the world. Additionally gathering enough transport ships to carry all those men halfway across the Mediterranean, along with enough warships to protect the transports, is impossible to hide.

 

Thus, when the Ottomans began preparing a massive army in Constantinople (then also called Konstantiniyye, now called Istanbul), everyone took notice, including the Knights’ spies.

 

While the planned destination of the army was not made public, the Knights’ Grandmaster, Jean Parisot de Valette, acted on the (correct) assumption that Malta was the target. He recalled any members of the Order stationed elsewhere or at home in Europe, and made preparations for a siege, stockpiling food and gunpowder.

 

In all the Knights had approximately 6100 soldiers ready by the time of the Siege, of which only 500 or so were elite, heavily armed, and heavily trained Knights of the Order, half were Maltese militiamen, and the vast majority of the rest were professional soldiers: mercenaries or aid forces or both sent by and recruited from various Christian countries.

 

Surveying the island

In addition, according to letters sent to Grandmaster de Valette by his spies in Constantinople, the Turks had sent a pair of engineers as spies to Malta in preparation for the siege. These engineers had disguised themselves as local fishermen, and made sure to go fishing on and around all the major fortifications in the Grand Harbour, as well as in the bays and inlets around the island.

 

They’d used their fishing poles as measuring rods in order to estimate the height and thicknesses of various walls and bastions, as well as recording the general makeup of the coastline, and so had provided the Ottomans with valuable information about where they could find safe harbour and the strengths and weaknesses of the Knights’ fortresses.

 

First landings

The Ottoman fleet arrived at dawn on the 18th of May, at the start of an extraordinarily hot Maltese summer, when they were spotted approximately 45km off the coast of Malta. Signals were sent out and guns were fired to warn Gozo and Mdina, and the small civilian population of Malta withdrew to the protection of the Knights’ fortresses.

 

Initial maneuvers

The Ottomans headed towards the bay of Marsaxlokk (approximately an hour’s march southeast from the Knights’ fortifications in the Grand Harbour), while de Valette, guessing that they would want to land there, sent a force of approximately 1000 men (including a full 100 knights) to oppose them.

 

The Ottomans, realising that even with their overwhelming numerical superiority they would lose an unacceptable number of men in a contested landing, continued to sail around the island, while the defenders followed them on land. Eventually night fell, with the Ottomans ending up all the way on the northwest side of Malta, having sailed along three quarters of the entire coast.

 

Turkish boots on Maltese ground

 

The Ottoman Armada finally manages to disembark its troops, at Marsaxlokk bay. Note the distance to the Grand Harbour to the west.

 

The following day saw the first very light fighting as small Ottoman scouting parties, landed during the night, reconnoitered the island. This ended in strategic victory for the Ottomans, in that they succeeded in landing enough men that the Knights’ sortie could no longer favourably engage them. This opened the way for the landing of the Ottomans at Marsaxlokk to begin in earnest on the third day, the 20th of May, as the Knights retreated back to their strongholds around the Grand Harbour.

 

Making life difficult for the invaders

However, the Knights would continue to be a nuisance outside the fortress walls, and not just with sorties: de Valette had ordered the harvest or destruction of all crops on Malta, as well as the poisoning of every single undefended well, which was completed before the Ottoman arrival. This badly hurt the Ottomans’ ability to support and maneuver their army on the island.

 

Additionally, a Napolitan member of the attacking army had defected, providing valuable information on the vast strength of the attacking force as well as their attitudes. He estimated 50 000 men, extremely numerous cannon with more than ample ammunition of various kinds, and enough stores for at least 6 months.

 

A possibility of victory

However, the attackers believed that their incredible numbers would make the battle for the island easy, while their command was badly divided – two Pashas on bad terms with one another had equal command of the attacking force, one being in charge of the fleet and the other the land force, but both were to defer to the famed corsair and military genius Turgut Reis when he arrived from Tripoli – a person entirely outside the formal Ottoman government.

 

Taken together, this meant there was hope for the Knights beyond a relief force arriving from Sicily: a hope of a quick victory can quickly turn to despair at a long siege, and a dissenting high command can result in slow or foolish decisions – or both.

 

The battle for Fort St. Elmo

There was some immediate dissent in the Ottoman high command about the best course of action to take after arrival. Piali Pasha, the Admiral, wished to move the fleet from Marsaxlokk to Marsamxett, to better shelter from the open sea and to be nearer to the fighting. Mustafa Pasha, the General, wanted to stage the invasion from Marsaxlokk (Maltese is an absolutely unique language that exists only on the islands and has no linguistic connection to any Western languages, so don’t feel bad about being confused by the names).

 

Mustafa’s reasoning was that moving the fleet to Marsamxett (which is the bay right across from the Grand Harbour, remember?) would require first taking the formidable fortress of St. Elmo – not an easy first task for the attackers, especially with the inland city of Mdina serving as a base for the Knights to raid Ottoman supply lines. He would prefer taking Mdina first, then moving on to the other fortresses, all with the fleet based in Marsaxlokk.

 

Ultimately though, the decision was made to attack St. Elmo first – contemporary letters from spies in Constantinople imply that this was the original plan before the fleet even set sail.

 

Batteries on Xiberras

Fort St. Elmo is built on the northernmost tip of the mountainous Xiberras peninsula, meaning there are positions on the peninsula which overlook the fortress directly. The Turks wasted little time emplacing cannons in these positions, and began to fire unceasingly on the fortress with approximately 36 guns on the 27th of May – officially starting the siege of St. Elmo. They even attempted a few naval bombardments, although these were ineffective as a rule due to the strong naval batteries of the fortress.

 

However, the Ottomans had thus far mostly laid siege to older fortifications, and with great success, thanks to the power of their cannon. While there had been warnings before that the newer bastion style of fortress was an effective defense against true artillery – not least the earlier difficulty in taking Rhodes from the Knights themselves – the Ottomans still believed that reducing Fort St. Elmo to dust by sheer weight of artillery would take a few days.

 

They were wrong.

 

Thick walls and safe cannons – the bastion fortress

De Valette had correctly assumed that the Ottomans would seek to take St. Elmo first, and had consequently concentrated half of his heavy artillery and significant reinforcements in the fortress.

 

In a bastion fortress, there are no safe zones against or near the walls that attacking infantry and engineers can shelter in, and the walls are low, angled, and incredibly thick so as to deflect or absorb cannon shots, particularly those fired from long range. Any areas from which artillery can fire effectively at the fortress are subject to direct fire from multiple cannons within the fortress, making setting up there near impossible. In fact, there are absolutely no areas – at all – in which an attacker is receiving fire from only one direction: it’s always coming in from multiple sides.

 

Defending infantry have safe firing positions from which to shoot at attacking infantry, who have to cross wide, flat, coverless fields in order to reach and struggle across equally dangerous ditches before being able to even attempt to enter the positions occupied by the defending infantry. The defending infantry are also able to move around rapidly within the outer ring of the fortress, making it very easy to concentrate forces quickly against an incoming attack. Of course, even if the attacker manages to overwhelm part of the outer ring, they have absolutely no cover from the inner parts of the fortress, and are extremely vulnerable to counterattacks.

 

Well before active defense was made part of the officer’s handbooks of every military in Europe, the concept was put to full use on Malta: instead of waiting behind thick walls, the Knights actively took the fight to the Ottomans wherever possible, forcing them to keep their artillery out of effective range.

 

The position of the defenders was never static, they were always shifting men to and fro to make sure that the Ottomans could never achieve a local superiority in numbers – most individual fights during the siege featured more defenders able to fire than attackers, and usually with effective artillery support for the defenders but not the attackers.

 

Needless to say, the siege of St. Elmo cost the Ottomans a lot more than they thought it would.

 

Progress fast and slow

 

A quick sketch of the layout of the Siege, showing the location of the various forts, chains, and attacking forces. The times given are approximate for soldiers marching on foot to or from those locations to the edge of the map area.

 

While the Ottomans bombarded the fortress constantly during the siege, the effect on the walls was minimal: Even reducing the stonework to rubble (which took an inordinate amount of time) still leaves a massive hill of difficult terrain for attacking infantry to clamber over, and there are always still positions on top of that hill for defenders to fire from in relative safety. Additionally, the Knights were able to resupply and reinforce St. Elmo from Birgu via ferries across the bay.

 

The Ottomans had their one stroke of luck fairly early in the siege, on the 2nd of June, a week after the bombardment started (already a longer siege than anticipated). Turkish engineers in forward positions observing the effect of cannon hits on the walls noticed that they were receiving no defending fire. So they moved up further. Still no defending fire. In fact, they managed to get all the way to the walls of the fort’s ravelin (a lower, forward bastion that protects the main walls from direct fire) without being noticed: the defenders had failed to set a proper watch on the approach to the ravelin.

 

The Ottoman Janissary Corps

The Janissaries were the first standing army in the early modern period, and the only one in existence in Europe at this time. Young boys taken as slaves from Christian families under Ottoman rule, they were trained and indoctrinated from that point on to serve as soldiers to the sultan. The Janissaries were the elite core of the Ottoman armies, dramatically better trained, equipped, motivated, and disciplined than any other unit.

 

So, when the engineers called for a direct assault by the Janissaries, they responded quickly, effectively, and ferociously. The few defenders in the ravelin were taken completely by surprise and did not get a chance to fire on their attackers before being engaged in hand to hand combat, and retreated in disarray into the ditch and back into the main fortress.

 

However, as mentioned above, bastion fortresses are designed with the loss of their outworks in mind. The Janissaries took the lip of the ditch and descended in pursuit, but were met by reinforcements from the main fortress and found themselves caught out in the open, exposed to fire from above and hand to hand combat in front. They lost around 500 irreplaceable elite troops in the engagement.

 

In the end the Ottomans were victorious, and managed to establish themselves in the ditch. This was a bigger problem than it should have been, as the fortress lacked an overlooking battery on the Marsamxett side, meaning there was almost nothing the defenders could now do to prevent the Ottomans from undermining the walls.

 

Holding out to the last

Even though the Ottomans were now entrenched in a forward enough position to threaten and damage the ferry lifeline to St Elmo, the fort continued receiving reinforcements and supplies.

 

In the following two weeks the Ottomans bombarded the fort continuously, directly attacked and damaged the walls twice, and made at least one all-out assault, which was repulsed with heavy casualties (reportedly even the galley slaves and paid oarsmen housed in St Elmo participated in the defense on that occasion).

 

Disaster came for the Ottomans on the 18th of June when either a miraculous cannonball fired from across the bay in St Angelo or a misfire by one of the Turks’ own cannons (sources differ) struck and killed Turgut Reis, the overall commander of the siege. This left the command even more divided than before, and robbed the Ottomans of the leadership of an excellent general by all accounts.

 

Finally, on the 23rd of June, after almost a month of continuous bombardment and heavy fighting, the Ottomans overran the exhausted fortress. Nine knights captured by the corsairs and a handful of strong swimmers who made it across the bay were the only survivors on the defending side – the Knights lost some 1500 men. The Ottomans, on the other hand, had lost at least 6000, of which at least 3000 were Janissaries – more than half of the army’s elite soldiers.

 

The Ottomans were finally able to shift their fleet to Marsamxett, but the cost in manpower, officers, and time had been far higher than they’d imagined. The decision not to take Mdina first had also taken a heavy toll, as the Knights’ cavalry stationed there had made full use of the time and opportunity to raid the stretched-out supply lines between Xiberras and Marsaxlokk.

 

The final overrun of Fort St. Elmo.

 

The sieges of Birgu and Senglea

With their fleet in Marsamxett at last, it became easy and safe for the Ottomans to supply their guns on Xiberras, and the march between Marsamxett and the Grand harbour was far shorter than the march from Marsaxlokk.

 

They now turned their attention to the remaining strongholds of the Knights in the harbour: Birgu and Senglea. These had been under fire for just as long as St Elmo (especially Fort St Angelo, at the tip of the Birgu peninsula), but now the guns previously used against St Elmo could be repositioned to intensify the bombardment.

 

Double attack on Senglea

The first major action of the siege was a daring simultaneous attack on Senglea by land and sea on the 15th of July, 3 weeks after the fall of St. Elmo. Looking at the map, you may be wondering how on earth the Ottomans would be able to attack Senglea by sea: they’d have to sail right past St. Angelo, a heavily-armed fortress designed specifically to destroy fleets trying to do so.

 

In preparation for the attack, Mustafa had had 100 small boats ferried on land over the Xiberras peninsula from Marsamxett, and put back to sea at the southwest corner of the Grand Harbour. In these he loaded up approximately 1000 Janissaries, whose task would be to land on the relatively weakly protected seaward side of Senglea and storm the peninsula from the rear. Meanwhile, the forces of the Corsairs would assault the landward defenses, to divide the defenders and prevent them from responding properly to both threats.

 

As had already happened a few times in the siege, the Ottomans’ plan was spoiled by a defector, giving the Knights enough time to build a palisade along the Senglea peninsula to help deny landing sites to the Janissaries.

 

What really ruined the attack though was that the flotilla had to pass by a newly constructed (and previously unknown to the Ottomans) 5-cannon battery at the foot of the walls of St. Angelo, built with the specific intention of stopping the exact kind of naval assault that the Ottomans were attempting.

 

The battery inflicted catastrophic losses on the seaborne force well before it could attempt a landing. Not only did it fail to seize Senglea, but the defenders didn’t even need to commit men to fight it off. In addition, the defenders had constructed a floating bridge in the protected waters between the two peninsulas, allowing them to rapidly bring reinforcements across from Birgu to help repulse the land assault.

 

The Ottomans had essentially gambled a third of their remaining elite troops on ending the siege quickly: if they’d managed to storm Senglea, Birgu would be left extremely exposed. However, they lost the gamble, and their Janissaries with it.

 

The great bombardment

It’s worth pointing out here that the cannons firing at Birgu and Senglea had not let up since the 27th of May, and that in the intervening time the Turkish artillery had dug in all around the beleaguered defenders, bringing the total number of cannons firing on the defenders to around 65. That’s almost two months of constant cannonfire from all directions, by what at the time would be a nearly unheard-of number of cannons.

 

This bombardment would continue for the entire remainder of the siege.

 

Overrun at Birgu

Eventually, the Turkish artillery had more or less destroyed one of the more crucial bastions of the town of Birgu, prompting the Ottomans to attempt another massive assault on the 7th of August (this time without the naval component, having learned their lesson).

 

They attacked Fort St Michael, at the base of Senglea, and the town of Birgu simultaneously to prevent the defenders from redistributing men from one peninsula to the other.

 

Fort St Michael held strong against the assault, but couldn’t spare any of its garrison for the defense of Birgu.

 

At the walls of Birgu, the ruin of the bastion made the defense extremely difficult. The Ottomans, through well-constructed trenches and sheer numbers, were able to force their way to the bastion and force the defenders out of its ruins, effectively breaching the town walls. The defenders were unable to push them back, and despite the efforts of the surviving bastions, Ottoman soldiers were surging into the town.

 

Birgu was lost. While the Knights could still withdraw to their primary keep of Fort St Angelo, and even independently defend St Michael, Ottoman victory would now be a matter of when, not if.

 

That is, until the Ottoman troops suddenly withdrew from the town and ceased their assault, both on Birgu and St Michael.

 

Remember the cavalry raids from Mdina I mentioned before? They were still happening, on the daily. This time, with the besiegers’ camps almost emptied out to feed the assault, the cavalry commander had taken the opportunity to storm the rear of the attacking army, killing dozens of soldiers (including some 60 beheadings, apparently) as well as an entire Ottoman field hospital.

 

This led to a general panic among the Turkish soldiers, who believed that the Christian relief force, which everyone knew had been massing in Sicily for months, had finally arrived. The Ottomans ended the assault to fight off this new threat, which as it happened, did not exist.

 

Mines, panic, heroism?

The next major episode of the siege is a source of disagreement from all primary sources. The Ottomans had contented themselves with simply resuming the greatest bombardment the world had ever seen after their last failed assault, but began another, sustained assault against Birgu (presumably with better rearguards this time) on the 19th of August. The fighting was incredibly fierce, and lasted multiple days.

 

The disagreement comes with what ended these days of brutal combat. One source claims that a massive mine was successfully detonated beneath the city walls by the Turks, causing a similarly massive breach in the walls and filling the ditch with rubble. In this account, Grandmaster de Valette and a small battalion of brave defenders hold the breach until the Turks finally give up the assault.

 

Another account says basically the same thing, but makes no mention of an enormous explosion.

 

A third account has it that, rather than a feat of heroics, what happened was that there was a general panic among the townspeople of Birgu, which led to the Grandmaster rushing around vainly looking for Turks, and a friendly fire incident.

 

Regardless, the assault was once again repulsed, the Ottoman forces and their allies having suffered a serious defeat.

 

Siege engines

The Ottomans, starting to get desperate, soon made an attempt at taking St Michael, this time using a large, mobile wooden frame covered in shields to shelter troops – basically the same as a Roman testudo. Defending engineers dug a tunnel out to the approaching siege engine, ported a cannon through, and blew the pseudo-testudo away with chain shot at point blank range. For those who don’t know, chain shot is alternate ammunition for a cannon, with two much smaller balls connected by a strong chain – excellent at ripping wooden stuff to shreds.

 

The Ottomans, now very desperate, built a full-scale siege tower in late August and again attempted to take St. Michael. Incredibly, it was blown away by chain shot at point blank range out of a hastily-dug tunnel. Again.

 

Ottoman morale fades

The Ottoman and Corsair army had endured an unusually and swelteringly hot Maltese summer (almost twice as long as a regular summer) camped outside the seemingly-impenetrable walls of the Hospitallers.

 

Practically all the Janissaries and other elite troops were dead by this point, leaving only the less disciplined and less motivated common soldiers. Thousands of these men’s comrades had died in a seemingly endless series of failed assaults and thousands more had died of an array of diseases contracted and spread in the sweaty, fly-ridden tented camps as they waited for the victory and loot they were promised months ago. A great many of them were currently injured, or sick with the same diseases that had been killing their friends. Food had been short almost the entire duration of the siege, and water had been limited to a scant handful of still-drinkable springs by the scorched-earth tactics of the Knights.

 

The men were miserable.

 

March on Mdina

With the army close to mutiny, the weather turning to winter, and with it becoming clear that neither Senglea or Birgu would fall to the Ottomans before the deadly cold really set in, the situation was becoming dire for the attackers. St. Elmo was far too small to house even a portion of the troops, winter camped in the open would be nearly a death sentence for the exhausted army, and living on the boats would not be much better.

 

The decision was made at the start of September to storm the city of Mdina with all possible haste, and use the city and its supplies to survive the coming winter.

 

A grand bluff

The city of Mdina had not been entirely spared in the fighting. While the vast majority of Ottoman attention had been focused on the Grand Harbour, the city had been home to more than its usual population for months, with next to none of its usual goods coming in – constant Turkish and Corsair presence in the countryside made it unsafe for anyone but the small cavalry force to leave the city.

 

Its garrison, cannons, and supplies had been drained to ensure the defense of the vital Grand Harbour, and its fortifications had not received the massive modernisation that the forts there had – it was a mostly-obsolete walled city with a single modern bastion on one side. In addition, it had had to expend a trickle of resources and soldiers almost continuously to ensure that it didn’t fall to an idle raid.

 

In early September when the Ottomans began moving towards the city, there were no or next to no cannonballs left inside it.

 

Nonetheless, as soon as the Ottomans were close enough to see them doing it, the city started firing its cannons, at a range where it would have been impossible to inflict any damage even if they did have cannonballs.

 

What the horribly demoralised Ottoman army saw though, was a city so well supplied and so confident that it would willingly waste ammunition on a pointless fireworks display.

 

This was the straw that broke the Ottoman army’s will to fight. The Great Siege of Malta essentially ended with this bluff.

 

The retreat

The Ottomans called off the attack on Mdina, and instead headed for their ships with the intention of abandoning the island, burning every village they came across. They managed to get all their artillery shipboard by the 8th of September. But they would not manage to withdraw so easily.

 

Help arrives at last

The Christian relief army, which had been massing in Sicily since before the siege officially began, arrived on Malta on the 13th of September. Composed of soldiers sent by Spain, Florence, Savoy, the Papal States, and Genoa, they were about 8000 fresh, well equipped, and enthusiastic soldiers.

 

Expecting to be under attack almost as soon as they landed in a bay to the northwest of the Grand Harbour, they slowly advanced and took up a position on a high ridge. Instead of a fearsome army, they saw a retreating mob, burning all in its wake.

 

Some among the relief force charged immediately, and without orders. The rest followed, with orders.

 

A total rout

The Ottomans were taken completely off-guard, and their men were in no shape to fight an open battle. There was no battle – the Ottoman army’s morale had broken days ago, and what followed was nothing short of a massive rout. The siege and disease had killed about a third of the attacking force, but only about a quarter would leave the island. The only survivors were those who managed to get aboard a ship on or before the 13th of September.

 

Malta had withstood the siege.

 

The 1565 Siege of Malta’s aftermath

The island of Malta had been worse than decimated in the conflict – a full third of the population had been killed, as had a third of the Knights. But the much more important thing to the world at large – Christian and Muslim – is that the previously invincible and unstoppable Ottomans had assembled 40 000 men to take a tiny island held by 6100 soldiers, failed to take the island, lost approximately 30 000 men, and retreated in disarray and disgrace.

 

The Great Siege of Malta had indeed been great – both in scale and in the public attention. The belief in Turkish invincibility was soundly shaken by this extremely high profile defeat, and Christian interest in a coalition against the Turks was reinvigorated. Indeed, the pivotal battle of Lepanto, and the beginning of the decline of the Ottoman Empire, happened a mere 6 years later.

 

The public and undeniably heroic nature of the defense meant that large gifts to the Knights of Malta became very fashionable for states, monarchs, and wealthy individuals, allowing them to massively develop the island, and further increase the strength of its defenses, if you can believe it. The fortified city of Valletta (named after the now-legendary Grandmaster) was built on Mt Xiberras to prevent future attackers from using the position against the Knights, and the city remains the capital of Malta to this day.

 

The fortified city of Valletta, named after the triumphant Grandmaster, with Fort St Elmo at its seaward tip.

 

This was a difficult one to write, as the event still has national and, to an extent, religious significance today – sources online conflict a lot about the exact details, and there is vigorous debate about the numbers involved. The Wikipedia article has been changing weekly since it was first written! Nonetheless, I hope I’ve presented a mostly fair, interesting, and entertaining assessment of the event.

 

If there’s anything you feel is wrong with what I’ve written here, or if there’s some interesting tidbit that I’ve overlooked, please let me know!

 

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