After nine Crusades spanning nearly 200 years, the successful Muslim Siege of Acre finally expelled the Christian armies from the Middle Eastern coast in 1291. Over time, Turkish armies spread westward, intent on spreading their religion throughout Europe. In 1453, Turks captured the mighty Byzantine city of Constantinople, opening a gateway to the west. In 1523, the Ottoman Empire under 28-year-old Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent besieged the island of Rhodes, at the time defended by order of the Knights Hospitaller, off the southwest coast of Asia Minor. Despite a valiant stand, the Knights eventually ran out of supplies and were forced to withdraw, first to Crete, and then to island of Malta, just south of Sicily. In the years that followed, the Christian Mediterranean kingdoms were under near-constant assault by the Ottoman forces, most notably by ships commanded by the infamous corsair Turgut Reis. In 1551, Reis invaded Malta, but after only a few days, he abandoned the attempt and seized and ravaged the neighboring island of Gozo instead.
Jean de Valette, the commander of the Knights Hospitaller on the island of Malta, had witnessed the effectiveness of the Ottoman military first-hand; 42 years earlier, he was a young soldier who escaped the conquest of Rhodes, and in more recent years he had spent a year as a prisoner of Reis before being released as the result of a prisoner exchange. The descendent of a family of Crusade knights and a reputation as a severe but pious commander, the Knights Hospitaller chose him to be the leader of their order specifically to prepare for what was seen as the inevitable Ottoman assault on the island.
As the Grand Master of the Order of Saint John in charge of the Knights Hospitaller, de Valette ordered the defenses of the city of Birgu, a walled city on a rock promontory on the southern side of Malta's Grand Harbor, to be strengthened. De Valette's orders supported the established Fort St. Angelo with the construction of Fort St. Michael on an adjacent outcropping, and Fort St. Elmo across the harbor. To his 600 knights, he added about 1,200 hired soldiers, received about 1,000 in assistance from Italy, and mobilized a little over 6,000 militia men and galley slaves.
On May 18, 1565, over 180 ships ferried about 30,000 Ottoman troops to the shores of Malta, 20% of which were the justifiably-feared Janissaries, elite Ottoman arquebusiers (that is, medieval gunmen) representing the personal investiture of the Sultan himself. The Ottomans were known for the effectiveness of their artillery; they set up 13 cannons a short distance from Fort St. Elmo, including two culverins hurling 60-pound balls, 10 cannons hurling 80-pound balls, and one Basilisk, a multiton monstrosity that hurled 160 pound cannonballs. Mustafa Pasha, the overall commander of the Ottomans, expected that Fort St. Elmo would be overrun and siezed within days, but due to an error in deployment where a sub-commander placed some of their arillery within range of the Christian batteries from Fort St. Angelo, and the stalwart defense of the 200 Knights assigned to defend St. Elmo, the siege of even this first fort lasted for more than a month. Fort St. Elmo eventually fell, but at substantial cost to the Ottoman forces; more than 2,000 of the invaders perished, including the pirate Reis.
Mustafa now turned his army's attention to Forts St. Angelo and St. Michael, and the town of Birgu. The Ottoman cannons were of less use, especially as Mustafa feared Maltese reinforcements and therefore attempted to siege the island with more haste than usual. Meanwhile, De Valette and his defenders posed a staunch resistance; Ottoman ships sent to attack from the sea were targeted and sunk by Maltese cannons, and Ottoman siege towers, forty feet high and filled with assault soldiers, toppled when de Valette ordered some ground-level wall blocks removed in order to allow cannons to blow the legs off of the structures at point blank range. The Ottomans appeared to gain an advantage when one of Mustafa's lieutenants found a way to ignite a barrel of black powder within a crevice in the otherwise smooth rock face supporting the fortress walls; but de Valette himself, 70 years old at the time, grabbed a spear and personally led his men to defend the breach, driving the Turks back and securing the hole.
De Valette and the Maltese knights developed incendiary weapons to terrify the Ottoman invaders. Maltese inventors developed an early form of hand grenades, clay pots filled with napalm-like Greek Fire and hurled at their opponents; the shards of clay exploded as shrapnel, and the Maltese threw them in waves, causing havoc among their tormentors. They also built fire hoops, wooden rings about the size of a modern hula hoop, wrapped in layers of burnable material such as brandy, gunpowder, turpentine, and heavy cloth, then ignited and rolled down the hills towards attackers by the hundreds. For closer range, they developed the Trump, a hollow metal tube filled with flammable sulfur resin and linseed oil; when lit, a gout of flame several yards long would issue forth from the snout for as long as a half hour. The defenders stationed these primitive hand-held flamethrowers at doorways, portcullises, breaches, and other choke points to deter any approach; as the attacking Turks typically wore long, flowing robes, the effects of being set on fire were particularly devastating to them. One account of the battle records a lone Maltese knight in Fort St. Elmo, visible from across the harbor as he held off many Ottoman assaulters while armed with only a single trump.
The attack, which Mustafa had originally estimated would take only days, lasted for three months. The Ottoman soldiers, seeing soldier after soldier meet grisly, sudden, or incendiary deaths, lost heart, and morale among the attackers plummeted. Finally, in September, word reached Mustafa that Sicilian reinforcements were heading for the island, and he made the decision to withdraw. By that time, only about 600 defenders remained, and about 1/3 of the entire population of the island of Malta had been killed in the fighting. The Turkish commitment, including periodic reinforcements, totaled about 40,000 men, and the battle had cost them about 25,000 lives.
Immediately following the Ottoman retreat, the Knights decided to build a city where Fort St. Elmo had once stood. De Valette himself laid the first cornerstone in the city which bore his name. Today, Valetta is the capital city of the sovereign state of Malta.
Links and Sources:
The Siege of Malta, 1565 by Francesco Balbi, Boydell Press, 1965.
The Great Siege: Malta 1565 by Ernie Bradford, E-Reads/E-Rights, 2010.
Campaign 50: Malta 1565, Last Battle of the Crusades by Tim Pickles, Osprey Publishing, 1998. The image of the cannon crippling the tower is by Christa Hook, and appeared in this book.
Drawing "The Great Siege of Malta" is by Andrew Howat from Illustration Art Gallery.
"The Last Crusaders", episode of Warriors, The History Channel, 2009.
"Malta 1565" © 2015 by James Husband.