The Grand Siege of Malta 1565 – Part 2

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Jean Parisot de Valette
Hamelin de Guettelet [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Opposing Forces – The Muslims

The army of Suliman the Magnificent was an impressive force that was both hated and feared throughout Europe. Unusually for the time the infantry were the elite, the Janissaries who had been formed as a bodyguard for the first Sultans and who were so effective during the siege and fall of Constantinople the previous century. While all of the Christian subjects were obliged to serve in the Ottoman army, the Janissaries were conscripted for life and forcibly converted to Islam. They would be tutored by the most devout imams and became fanatical soldiers of Mohammed. These soldiers occupied a privileged position in Muslim society and could rise to high office both in the army and the empire at large. They were some of the first troops to adopt firearms and the tactical doctrine for their use. The Janissaries made up about a quarter of the army and some 6,000 of them were involved in the Malta campaign.

The Layalars were irregular troops and religious fanatics, who would take hashish before battle and under the instruction of the imams would perform berserker-like charges heedless of casualties. There were about 4,000 of these Layalars or “religious servants” in the invasion force. The main body of the force were the Spahis and they numbered around 9,000. The Saphis were chiefly known as cavalry, which would have been of limited use in the siege campaign, but they were armed with bows, crossbows and matchlocks. The rest of the force was made up of levies and soldiers of fortune, Christian and Jewish renegades that came mainly from Greece and the Levant.

The Muslims were extremely skilled in their use of artillery and some of the guns were massive. They could be disassembled for loading on ships and transportation, and assembled once on the siege lines. It isn’t known how many guns were used during the Grand Siege, but records show they used 80,000 rounds of shot and 15,000 quintals of powder.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The Dardanelles Gun is a siege gun dating from soon after the fall of Constantinople in 1453
Gaius Cornelius [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Turkish and other forces were dressed in flowing robes, well-suited for keeping the wearer cool on the East. They wore little armour and most of this was made of leather. The light troops carried metal shields and wore helmets, while the large turbans worn by officers and the Jannasaries were sturdy enough to deflect a sword blow. The total force sent to Malta was around 40,000.

The Christians

The core of the defensive force was still the armoured knight, or men-at-arms. In many ways they shared the same values as the Janissaries, but to a different interpretation of God. They were proud, brave and unswervingly loyal to the Order and under the pope’s protection. They had sworn an oath of chastity and obedience and were some of the finest soldiers in Europe.

They may have been sailors more than landsmen, but they still wore plate armour. This was a necessity during the boarding phase of a sea battle, when swing swords on the closely packed decks of the ships. By the latter half of the 16th Century armour development was at its optimum. It was fully articulated, protected the wearer and weighed in at around 100 lbs. Many of the Knights wore Teutonic or Maximillian armour because the Italian armouries were producing rather foppish, parade-wear armour, highly decorated and embossed with fripperies. The disadvantage, particularly in the Maltese climate was that the necessary, padded garments worn under the armour caused overheating. There was only one English knight present at the siege, Sir Oliver Starkey, who preserved the memory of the most famous branch of the Order that had been destroyed by Henry VIII. In total there was some 500 Knights to defend Malta.

The Sergeants were part of the order if not technically in it. They served as junior officers as they did not have the social standing to be within the order, however, they were indistinguishable from the Knights in battle. The native Maltese population provided around 3,000 troops and there were Spanish, Italian, Greek soldiers and sailors from the ships. As in the Muslim army the matchlock musket was becoming more widespread and the wearing of armour allowed the firer to expose themselves. The firearms were expensive to produce but the operator needed less training than a bowman. The Christian firearms were shorter than those used by Muslim troops and not as accurate, although they could be reloaded more quickly. In total there were around 6,100 Christian troops to defend Malta.

The Knights Hospitaller The Ottomans
500 Knights Hospitaller 6,000 Spahis (cavalry)
400 Spanish soldiers 500 Spahis from Karamania
800 Italian soldiers 6,000 Janissaries
500 soldiers from the galleys (Spanish Empire) 400 adventurers from Mytiline
200 Greek and Sicilian soldiers 2,500 Spahis from Rumelia
100 soldiers of the garrison of Fort St. Elmo 3,500 adventurers from Rumelia
100 servants of the Knights 4,000 “religious servants”
500 galley slaves 6,000 other volunteers
3,000 soldiers drawn from the Maltese population Various corsairs from Tripoli and Algiers
Total: 6,100 Total: 28,500 from the East, 40,000 in all

The Turkish Fleet is Sighted

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Arrival of the Turkish Fleet – Power Point slide

On the 18th May 1565 lookouts on the forts of St Elmo and St Angelo spotted galleys on the horizon to the east and the Chevalier Romegas was ordered by the Grand Master to conduct a reconnaissance with four ships. His orders were specific that under no circumstances should he attempt to engage the enemy, even stragglers. It would have been foolhardy in any case as there was over 200 Muslim vessels. The enemy fleet turned south to skirt south of Malta, then north-west to find temporary anchor in Ghain Tuffeha Bay. Members of the Order’s cavalry shadowed the Turkish fleet from the coast of the island, then galloped back to inform the Grand Master. La Valette sent a message to Sicily by fast boat: “The siege has begun. The Turkish fleet numbers around 200 vessels. We await your help.”

Help for the beleaguered Knights would come from the Muslims themselves by showing indecision at the crucial opening of the campaign. The Turkish fleet decided that the anchorage they had chosen on the west coast was a bad choice and it relocated to Marasirocco, the South Wing Harbour. It took the Turks several days to disembark and their movements were constantly monitored by the Knights, who made no attempt to hamper the landings. They were considerably outnumbered and any attack would have been counterproductive, by squandering their precious resources, manpower. The Hospitallars would use the same tactics they had used on Rhodes, retire into their fortifications and allow the Turks to expend time, effort and manpower against the walls of the forts.

As far as their fortifications went, the walls of the capital at Mdina looked more impressive than they actually were. They were old, crumbling, Mdina could not be re-supplied and was used to base the Order’s cavalry. However the cavalry were useful to the Grand Master as they could mount raids of Turkish positions and were the only main means of communication with the different position, although Maltese swimmers were also used to carry messages. The forts of St Michael and St Angelo were only half-a-mile apart and were therefore mutually supporting. Mdina was in the middle of the island’s fertile and limited food production area, but for some reason the Turks decided to start elsewhere.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Map of the harbour and defensive forts at the time of the siege
© Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

The Ottomans set up their main camp in Marsa, which was close to the Knights’ fortifications. In the following days, the Ottomans set up camps and batteries on Santa Margherita Hill and the Sciberras Peninsula. The attacks on Birgu began on 21 May, while Senglea was first attacked a day later. During one of Knights’ cavalry raids, one of the Order, Adrien de la Riviere of the French Langue was captured by the Turks and tortured. He blurted out that Fort St Angelo’s Pose of Castille was the weak spot of the fort. In fact because of its vulnerability it was particularly well defended. In the subsequent attack the Christians lost 21 dead and 150 wounded. The Muslims lost over 300 dead. When Mustapha returned to his camp, he had de la Riviere tortured to death, by a prolonged beating with thin steel rods that caused internal haemorrhage. Both sides now recognised that this would be a fight to the death.

Mustapha’s next battle was with his admiral Piali. Mustapha wanted to capture the central area of Mdina, occupy the north of the island and then move on Senglia and Birgu, while part of the Turkish fleet blockaded the Grand Harbour to prevent reinforcement. This was a perfectly sound plan as he could dominate the whole island and strike anywhere. In an acrimonious council, he was overruled by Piali who wanted to move the fleet from Marasirocco to Marsamuschetto, which he considered a safer anchorage. The problem was the entrance to Marsamuschetto was defended by Fort St Elmo, which would have to be captured first.

© Blown Periphery 2019

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