Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Malta 1565


Jean de Valette

After nine Crusades spanning nearly 200 years, the Christian armies were finally expelled from the Middle Eastern coast by the successful Muslim Siege of Acre 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, and their gateway to the west was opened.  In 1523, the order of Knights Hospitaller were defending the island of Rhodes, off the southwest coast of Asia Minor, when the Ottomans - under 28-year-old Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent - besieged it as well.  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.  One of those retreating was a French Knight named Jean de Valette. 

In the years that followed, the Christian Mediterranean kingdoms were under near-constant assault by the Ottoman forces, most notably by the ships commanded by the famed corsair Turgut Reis.  In 1551, Reis invaded Malta, but abandoned the attempt after only a few days.  De Valette - who in the meantime had spent a year in slavery under Reis, but who escaped and was by then the commander of the Knights - ordered the defenses of the city of Birgu to be strengthened.  De Valette was a severe but pious commander, the descendent of a family of Crusade knights and specially chosen to prepare for what was seen as the inevitable Ottoman assault on the island.  The walled city of Birgu sat on a rock promontory on the southern side of the Grand Harbor, and was already protected by Fort St. Angelo, jutting out over the Harbor; to this was added Fort St. Michael on an adjacent outcropping, and Fort St. Elmo across the harbor.    

De Valette had roughly 600 knights under his command.  He also hired about 1,200 men, received about 1,000 in assistance from Italy, and there were a little over 6,000 militia men and galley slaves.  On May 18, 1565, over 30,000 Ottoman troops began to land on Maltese shores from 180 ships; roughly 20% of the Ottoman foot troops were the justifiably-feared Janissaries, elite Ottoman arquebusiers (that is, medieval gunmen) representing the personal investiture of the Sultan himself, who held the customary Janissary rank of Private.  The Ottomans were known for the effectiveness of their artillery, and to that they did not disappoint; 13 cannons were set up only a short distance from Fort St. Elmo, their first target, 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 artillery placement (his sub-commander had placed it within range of the Christian artillery 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, and cost the Ottomans more than 2,000 men - one of which was the pirate Reis. 

Mustafa now turned his army's attentions 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.  Siege towers, forty feet high and filled with assault soldiers, approached the gates but were hobbled when de Valette ordered some ground-level wall blocks removed and had cannons blow the legs off of the structures at point blank range.  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; in response, de Valette himself - at the time about 70 or 71 years old - grabbed a spear and led his men to defend the breach, driving the Turks back and securing the hole. 

Probably the most terrifying weapons developed by de Valette and the Maltese Knights were their incendiary devices.  They developed an early form of hand grenades, clay pots filled with napalm-like Greek Fire and hurled at their opponents; the shards of clay would explode as shrapnel, and the Maltese kept piles of these to throw at their tormentors.  They also invented fire hoops, which were 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.  Perhaps most terrifying was 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 Turks, including periodic reinforcements, had totalled about 40,000 men, and the battle had cost them about 25,000.  Immediately following the Ottoman retreat, the Knights decided to build a city where Fort St. Elmo 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.

Fort St. Angelo today
Links and Sources:
Balbi, Francesco, The Siege of Malta, 1565, Boydell Press, 1965.
Bradford, Ernle, The Great Siege: Malta 1565, E-Reads/E-Rights, 2010.
Pickles, Tim, Campaign 50: Malta 1565, Last Battle of the Crusades, Osprey Publishing, 1998.  The image of the cannon crippling the tower is by Christa Hook, and appeared in this book.
"The Last Crusaders", episode of Warriors, The History Channel, 2009.


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