The Grand Siege of Malta 1565 – Part 3

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Fort St Elmo. The towers on top of the bastions are concrete coastal defences built in World War II
Juliana da Costa José [CC BY-SA 2.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons

The Attack on Fort St Elmo

The Grand Master assumed that the Turks would continue to attack the forts of St Angelo and St Michael, but two Christian renegades who had become Muslims to save their hides defected to the Knights. One of them had been in Mustapha’s bodyguard and had been present and the stormy conference between Mustapha and his admiral Paili. The Grand Master learned that the primary objective would be Fort St Elmo, which gave the Knights more time to strengthen the defences of the southern forts. News was sent to St Elmo’s bailiff, Luigi Broglia that he would have the honour of receiving the first assault. Chevalier Pierre de Massuez had recently arrived from Messina with 400 men, who were fed into St Elmo’s garrison along with 64 knights who requested the honour of being in the vanguard of the fight. The Grand Master’s message to the garrison was simple: “St Elmo is the key to Malta.”

The main problem the Turks faced was the nature of the ground over which they were fighting. It was solid rock that prevented mining and there was no cover as siege lines could not be dug. Instead they used Gabions (baskets filled with stones) and it took several days to position the siege guns. These guns were huge and included 80 pounders and a 160 pound Basilisk. On the 24th May the bombardment began. Within hours the outer walls of St Elmo began to crack and Turkish snipers picked off any of the defenders who were careless in exposing themselves. By late May Mustapha repositioned some of his guns to fire on St Angelo, which was somewhat premature.

On the day the siege started La Valette heard from the viceroy of Messina that help from the rest of Europe would take some time. The Viceroy wanted to gather together a large relief force rather than feed small forces piecemeal into Malta for them to be slaughtered. The Knights were for the time being, on their own. Every fort had to be bitterly contested and the Grand Master was less than delighted when a delegation from St Elmo arrived telling him that the trench work and outer defences were crumbling and the fort was doomed. La Valette offered to go to St Elmo with a band of hand-picked Knights, but shame got the better of the delegation and they begged to be allowed to return. However, volunteers went to St Elmo on the boats every night to bolster the defenders. The Turks pushed their siege lines ever closer to the fort and the sniping intensified, from cover provided by cut vegetation. Admiral Piali was wounded when a Christian cannon ball sent up a shard of rock and then there was an unexpected sea battle.

Chevalier St Aubin had been on patrol off the African coast and he was one of the Hospitallier’s most able sea captains. The Grand Master had warned him that battle would already have been joined by the time he returned. St Aubin instead of turning away when he arrived off Malta and saw the Turkish blockade, sailed straight at the enemy ships. Piali sent out six ships to deal with this evident lunatic, but St Aubin engaged them with his bow chaser guns. It became obvious he couldn’t run the blockade and the ship turned away. Only one Turkish ship followed and St Aubin performed the classic move of turning his galley in its own length by stopping one side of oars and pulling hard with the other. The Turkish ship ran and St Aubin headed for Sicily. All of this had been witnessed by Piali who was beside himself with rage, because a single Christian ship had humiliated his fleet. He had been wounded twice in one day.

At dawn on 29th May, a sortie from St Elmo raided the Turkish siege trenches and sent into flight the Muslim vanguard and the engineers. Mustapha knew he must act quickly and he ordered the Janissaries forward into the attack and they went in vast numbers, driving the Knights back to the fort. When the dust and smoke cleared, the Janissary banners were seen on the outer defences of the fort, overlooking St Elmo’s inner walls. The next day the Turkish fleet was seen to manoeuvre close to the walls, each ship firing its guns at the fort’s harbour walls. It was a ceremonial rather than a tactical move as the guns of the ships were ineffective against the seaward outer walls and at least one of the Turkish ships ran aground. Also on that day, Dragut arrived from North Africa.

Although he was never officially appointed as such, Dragut was effectively Suliman’s de facto commander-in-chief and he was most displeased at what he found on his arrival. He believed that Mustapha’s original plan of capturing Mdina and the north of the island first, before moving on the Grand Harbour had been a good one. But the Muslim forces were where they were and the campaign was too far developed to change strategy at this point. He realised the reason St Elmo hadn’t fallen was the nightly re-supply boats from Fort St Angelo. He wanted to position ships off St Elmo to attack the boats coming across the harbour, but Paili would not countenance putting his ships in the harbour until St Elmo fell. Dragut’s final instructions were that the fort’s outer defences must be totally cleared and occupied, then he went and set up his camp in the siege lines. Dragut was 80, but he was still a fighting soldier and used to the privations of campaign life.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The Turkish positions during the siege. Note that the town of Valetta and the mole didn’t exist in 1565 – Power Point slide

The Knights watched in trepidation the setting up of Dragut’s guns on Gallows Point, where they would join the bombardment and enfilade the fort. The renewed bombardment began on 3rd June, St Elmo’s Day and the Order’s cavalry sallied out of Mdina and attacked the Turkish supply train, gun teams and put one of Dragut’s new batteries out of action. In the greater scheme of things this action would have no lasting effect, but it did tie down resources to protect the Turk’s vulnerable rear echelons.

Just before dawn on 6th June, a party of Turkish engineers were reconnoitring the area around St Elmo’s ravelins and saw no movement or sign of life. They were astonished to find the guards were asleep and they slipped away to make a report. The Janissaries were formed up silently and they advanced with scaling ladders. He silently climbed up on top of the ravelin and then an Iman shouted: “Lions of Islam! Now let the swords of the Lord separate their souls from their bodies, their trunks from their heads! Liberate spirit from matter!”

The white robed Janissaries surged forward. The ravelin was connected to the fort with a plank bridge and the survivors dashed back across it, while a cannon pice over the portcullis kept the Turks back. However the Janissaries surged up to the portcullis and began to fire on the defenders through it. The Knights had prepared for such an occasion and the brought their secret weapon into action, Greek fire. It was deployed in thin, ceramic containers, hurled up to 30 yards like a Molotov cocktail. They also had the Trump, a form of flamethrower fed by sulphur, resin and linseed oil, as well as hoops of wood, soaked in brandy and wrapped with wool impregnated with oil and black powder. The flowing Turkish robes caught fire and screaming human flares blundered around under the walls, setting their brothers on fire.

Seeing the carnage Mustapha called off the attack. The Turks had 2,000 dead and severely wounded against 10 Knights and 70 soldiers, but the Turks could afford to take so many casualties. That night the Knights went to offer prayer in the fort’s chapel and found one of their number, a mortally wounded knight had dragged himself in there and died in front of the alter. It was a grim reminder of the fate that awaited all of them and a touching reminder of the faith and heroism of Malta’s defenders. Where are our Knights Hospitallar today? I often ask myself?

The Fall of St Elmo

The commanders of St Elmo had come to the conclusion that the fort was no longer defensible. They sent Chevalier de Medran, a well-respected Knight to the council. Because he had been in the thick of the fighting since the outset, his views were listened to. In the meeting de Medran explained that the fort could no longer be defended, that all who garrisoned it would die and be unavailable to continue the defence of Malta elsewhere. Either way, the fort would fall. Some agreed with this assessment but the Grand Master did not. He pointed out that the Viceroy of Sicily would not risk his relief fleet if the harbour was occupied by the Turks and pointed out: “We swore obedience when we joined the Order. We swore on the vows of chivalry that our lives would be sacrificed for the faith, wherever and whenever the call might come. Our brethren in St Elmo must now accept this sacrifice.”

They all knew this was a death sentence, as did the 15 Knights and 50 soldiers from the Mdina garrison who volunteered to go back to St Elmo with de Medran. When he returned some of the younger Knights were less than delighted at the prospect of waiting for their fate in a crumbling fort. The begged to be allowed to sally out of the fort and meet their deaths taking on the Muslims in close combat, and sent a messenger to the Grand Master. His reply was curt and to the point: “The laws of honour cannot necessarily be satisfied by throwing away one’s life when it seems convenient.”

The Grand Master did however, commission a second report from three Knights from separate Langues. Two were of the opinion that the fort could hold out for perhaps two more days while the third, Chevalier Castriota was of the opinion that St Elmo could be held indefinitely with fresh men and a fresh approach. His views caused consternation, but the Grand master gave him leave to raise a force and 600 men volunteered to go into St Elmo. On his arrival Castriota read out a proclamation to those who had been conducting the defence: “A volunteer force has been raised… Your petition to leave is now granted… Return… to the convent… where you will be in more security… I shall feel more confident when I know that the fort… is being held by men I can trust implicitly.” After the letter was read out, nobody would have dreamed of leaving their post and a swimmer was sent across to the Grand Master, begging him not to relieve them. In the final event only 15 knights and 100 soldiers were sent to reinforce St Elmo, but the disquiet was settled and the defenders awaited their fate.

On the Turkish side Dragut was becoming frustrated. Despite the attacks the fort had still not fallen and he repositioned some of his guns to fire at the fort’s harbour walls. Mustapha decided on a night attack on 10th June so the bombardment was kept going all of that day. As night fell the attack came. The Turks also had flame weapons and these turned the night into day. Wave after wave of Turks crashed against the forts walls and they were forced back with cannons, sword, pike and fire. St Elmo’s defenders were wearing armour rather than silk robes and they had positioned vats of water to jump into if the Turkish flame weapons enveloped them. The Turks didn’t and once again human torches were dying under the walls in screaming agony. By the end of the attack the Turks lost 1.500 to the Knights’ 60.

The Turks had other worries as well. Two Christian galleys had been spotted to the north of the islands as some of the reinforcements being gathered in Sicily were becoming bored with the Viceroy’s tardiness and decided to make their own landing. They were pursued by Turkish ships, but they were much faster and easily outran them, returning to Sicily. Admiral Piali was once again thrown into a rage, realising how vulnerable his ships were until he could get them into the harbour.

This battle was very personal to Dragut as his brother had been killed on Gozo and he had a premonition that he too would die in the territory of the Knights. Both he and Mustapha were extremely brave in battel, right in the thick of the action, directing and leading the Turkish troops. They wore sumptuous garments, encrusted with gold and jewels, as did their staff officers. On the 18th June one of St Elmo’s master gunners noticed this clump of finery on the battlefield and took careful aim. The solid ball failed to hit anyone, but as it hit the rocky ground it blew up shards and splinters of rock. One of these pierced Dragut’s turban and entered his skull just above the right ear. Dragut fell to the ground with blood pouring from his ears and nose. Mustapha remained calm and believing Dragut to be dead, had him covered with a cloak and carried to his tent, so not to harm the morale of his troops. He lingered on for a few days but played no further role in the planning or conduct of the campaign. This was a disaster for the Muslim forces.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Death of Dragut by Giuseppe Calì.
National Museum of Fine Arts [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

They had more luck the following day when the powder mill in Fort St Angelo blew up killing six men. Fort St Elmo was now surrounded by batteries to the north, south and west, as well as the guns on the ships to the east. A message was sent to the Grand Master that said that the fort was likely to fall within hours and that no reinforcements were to be sent to die there. The council suggested an evacuation, but it was now too late as the Turkish guns covered every approach.

The 21st June is the Feast of Corpus Christi, which the Knights celebrated every year and 1565 was no exception. The Grand Master and all available Knights donned their ceremonial robes of red with a white cross and walked through the town in procession. In the Order’s church they offered prayers to St Elmo’s defenders and while they were there the Turks captured the outer defences of the fort. The Turks positioned snipers in such numbers they could not be dislodged and the Christian guns could not fire because of the risk of hitting their own confreres. The garrison was now under musket fire from the rear, indicating that the cavalier had fallen. The Turkish troops were on the walls which collapsed and the Janissaries made a rush towards the breach.

As the defenders fell back, St Elmo’s governor Chevalier Melchior de Montserrat had a cannon brought to bear on the cavalier to sweep it of the snipers. It was cleared bur de Montserrat was killed by a musket ball. The battle continued to rage for 6 hours until Mustapha sounded the recall. The Knights had held on but they lost over 200 defenders that could not be replaced. The Grand Master did attempt to send in five boats of reinforcements, but these were driven off by the Turkish guns. The defenders knew that their time had come and the best they could hope for was a swift death in battle the next day. They gathered in the chapel under the slow tolling of a single bell and their last confessions were heard. They burned all of the holy objects so they could not be desecrated by the Muslims.

At dawn the following day they saw Piali’s ships heading towards the fort. They fired their bow chasers and peeled off to head back out to sea. It was the signal for the final assault by the entire Turkish forces. The Knights stood to and waited for death. Even the aircrews of Bomber Command could console themselves that they had a chance of survival and it would be someone else who got the chop. Many did survive their tour of ops, some more than one tour and thank God they did, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this. All the Knights had to console them was their unswerving faith in God and the guarantee of eternal life after death.

De Guras and De Miranda were too badly wounded to stand, so they ordered the Knights to put them in chairs at the breach. When the attack surged through the breach De Guras was cut down but he fought back with a pike before he was decapitated. Colonel Mas was torn to pieces and the few left of the Knights made a last stand in the chapel. Five Maltese soldiers jumped from the rocks and swam across to Birgu. Nine Knights were taken prisoner, 5 Spaniards, 3 Italians and one Frenchman. The Muslim losses were horrendous, 8,000 men against 1,500 Christians. Mustapha sent word to the dying Dragut that St Elmo had been captured.

The Muslims wreaked a horrible revenge on the captured Knights and other troops. Some were flayed alive, some sawn in half, suspended by the ankles and the rest were impaled to die slowly. The following morning across the water in Fort St Angelo, the defenders saw a gruesome sight as the light improved. The heads of St Elmo’s defenders stared across at them from poles lining the fort’s walls. The incoming tide brought across crosses to which the bodies of the naked and decapitated Knights and defenders had been nailed.

There now followed what the appeasers of Islamic atrocities and the re-writing of history would call the siege’s most “controversial” act, conveniently omitting what had led up to it. The Knights Hospitallar followed a rather “muscular” version of Catholicism and they had been fighting Islam since the end of the First Crusade. They didn’t go in for shrines, tea lights, meaningless cards pinned to railings, cuddly meerkats or piles of cheap flowers. The Grand Master went to survey the desecrated bodies on the crosses for himself accompanied by the only English Knight present at the siege, Sir Oliver Starkey. La Valette would show the Muslims that they weren’t intimidated by sending a message of his own. This was a fight to the death with no quarter being given. He ordered that the Muslim prisoners being held for ransom were to be decapitated. His guns then fired across at Fort St Elmo, not with stone or shot, but with the heads of the executed Muslim prisoners.

The Grand Master then addressed his council: “What could a true Knight more ardently desire than to die in arms? And what could be more fitting for a member of the Order of St John, than to lay down his life in the defence of his faith? We should not be dismayed that the Muslim has at last succeeded in planting his accursed standard on the ruined battlement of St Elmo. Our brothers – who have died for us – have taught him a lesson which must strike dismay through his whole army. If poor, weak, insignificant St Elmo was able to withstand his most powerful efforts for upwards of a month, how can he expect to succeed against the stronger and more numerous garrison at Birgu? With us must be the victory.”

He then addressed his troops and townspeople: “We are all soldiers of Our Lord, like you my brothers. I am quite sure that you will not fight with any less resolution.”

© Blown Periphery 2019

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