The Grand Siege of Malta 1565 – Part 4

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The siege of St Michael, showing the Christian Knights cut off from the sea and surrounded in their remaining fortresses of Birgu, St Angelo and St Michael.
Royal Museums Greenwich [Public domain]

Senglea and Birgu

On the day St Elmo fell La Valette received news that a relief force had landed in the north of the island. Under pressure from the Order, the Viceroy had sent two of his galleys to accompany two ships of the order. The relief force was under the command of Chevalier de Robels and consisted of 42 Knights, 20 Italian gentlemen volunteers, three Germans, two English soldiers of fortune who had been forced to flee England because of their Catholic beliefs and 600 Spanish troops. Upon landing they learned that St Elmo had fallen and decided to attempt to slip through Turkish lines to Birgu at night. The force skirted the Turkish camp in an unseasonal mist Boats were waiting to ferry them across to Burgu and they arrived without losing a single man. They had been extremely lucky. To wild cheering, the next morning their banners were displayed in the town so that the Turks could clearly see them.

Mustapha blinked. A few weeks ago he had wanted to slaughter every Christian on the island, but his losses at St Elmo led him to the decision to offer the Knights the same terms that they had been offered at Rhodes. He sent an old Christian slave from his household to offer these terms. The old man was led blindfolded through the city and stood before La Valette. The Grand Master listened passively while the slave outlined Mustapha’s terms and then said, “Hang him.” The old man fell down and begged for his life, which was what La Valette had wanted. He then showed the slave the defences, the ditch and his cannon and gave him a message to send back to his master: “Tell your master this is the only territory I will give him. There lies the land he may have for his own, providing he fills it with the bodies of his Janissaries.”

The old man was sent back to the Turkish lines where Mustapha flew into a rage at the way his terms had been rejected. All of the Knights would die. On 15 July, Mustafa ordered a double attack against the Senglea peninsula. He had transported 100 small vessels across Mt. Sciberras to the Grand Harbour, thus avoiding the strong cannons of Fort St. Angelo, in order to launch a sea attack against the promontory using about 1,000 Janissaries, while the Corsairs attacked Fort St. Michael on the landward end. Luckily a defector warned La Valette about the impending strategy and the Grand Master had time to construct a palisade along the Senglea promontory, which successfully helped to deflect the attack. Nevertheless, the assault probably would have succeeded had not the Turkish boats come into point-blank range (less than 200 yards) of a sea-level battery of five cannons that had been constructed by Commander Chevalier de Guiral at the base of Fort St. Angelo with the sole purpose of stopping such an amphibious attack. Just two salvos sank all but one of the vessels, killing or drowning over 800 of the attackers. The land attack failed simultaneously when relief forces were able to cross to Ft. St. Michael across a floating bridge, with the result that Malta was saved for the day.

Mustapha moved up 65 siege guns to ring Birgu and Senglea and subjected the two peninsulas to what would be the most sustained bombardment of that time that could be heard 100 miles away. Having largely destroyed one of the town’s crucial bastions, Mustafa ordered another massive double assault on 7 August, this time against Fort St. Michael and Birgu itself. Despite being 70 he personally led his Janissaries into action, his sword drawn. On this occasion, the Turks breached the town walls and it seemed that the siege was over, but unexpectedly the invaders retreated. Mustapha had received a message that a large force of Christians were attacking his rear echelon.

Destruction of the Turkish Camp

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The latter part of the siege – Google Map on Power Point slide

With their attention focused on Fort St Angelo on Birgu and Fort St Michael on Senglea, the Turks had only a few guards on their camp. Mdina was able thus far to operate unhindered, which would not have been the case if the Turks had followed their original plan. Hearing the huge bombardment from Birgu and Senglea, Mdina’s governor made an inspired decision and ordered Chevalier de Lugny to attack the Turkish camp with his cavalry. The mounted force skirted well down to the south and formed up to attack. The cavalry wrought havoc in the camp, cutting away tent ropes and slaughtering all in the Turkish field hospital. Horses were captured and those than couldn’t be taken were hamstrung. When Mustapha surveyed the carnage for himself he grimly said: “By the bones of my fathers I swear that when I take these citadels, I will spare no man. All will be put to the sword. Only their Grand Master will I take alive. Him alone I will lead in chains to kneel at the feet of the Sultan.”

A few days later La Valette and Sir Oliver Starkey were reading the latest dispatch from Don Garcia de Toledo, which promised a force of 16,000 troops before the month’s end. The Grand Master was sceptical and observed: “We can rely no more on his promises.” That night he addressed his council with these words: “I will tell you now, openly my brethren, that there is no hope to be looked for except in the succour of Almighty God, the one only true help. He who has up to now looked after us, will not forsake us, nor will he deliver us into the hands of the enemies of the Holy Faith. My brothers, we are all servants of Our Lord and I know well that if I and all those in command should fall, you will still fight of for liberty, for the honour of our order and for the Holy Church. We are soldiers and we shall die fighting. And if by any evil chance the enemy should prevail we can expect no better treatment than our brethren who were in St Elmo. Let no man think that there can be any question of receiving honourable treatment, or of any escaping with his life. If we are beaten we shall all be killed. It would be better to die in battle than terribly and ignominiously at the hands of a conqueror.”

In fact the Viceroy’s view was that Malta would fall and he was reluctant to throw the empire’s troops into what was a lost cause. Sicily and Southern Italy would be next and these troops would be better served defending their homelands. However, the islands had been King Phillip’s gift under feudal law and the Knights had always acknowledge their obligations under this law. The Viceroy seemed to finally understand his responsibility, but time was running out.

The Endgame

Mustapha now undertook a more conventional approach to siege warfare and begun mining operations and built siege towers. The mine would extend under the walls, propped up by timbers, which could be pulled away, packed with explosives or burned to collapse the walls above. Egyptian engineers toiled below in the darkness while the defenders listened avidly for the sounds of mining. Even with the bombardment the faint sounds of mining could be heard. Mustapha’s mistake was in concentrating his bombardment of Senglea in the one place the mining and siege tower would attack.

The Turks were hoping that an attack on Senglea would drew Christian troops across from Fort St Michael, where Paili waited with his troops to attack. Mustapha’s forces made a mass attack on Senglea but La Valette did not summon reinforcements from Birgu. In frustration Mustapha ordered the mine to be exploded and a vast portion of the defensive walls heaved and crumbled. Panic spread and the Christian troops began to fall back. La Valette was in his forward position in the town square but he was not wearing armour. He grasped a pike from one of his guards and ordered his entourage to follow him to the breach. This inspiring act of leadership prevented a rout.

Other Knights fell in with him as well as townspeople and they hacked their way into the breach. La Valette was wounded by splinters from a grenade and was advised to withdraw. The Grand Master knew this could reverse the situation and he carried on in the thick of it with his men. The Turks fell back and their banners were captured to hang in the church of the Order. At dusk the bombardment resumed as did the constant attacks. The hospital became choked with casualties and there was no concept of “walking wounded.” If one could walk one was not wounded. The Grand Master had his wounds dressed and remained in the breach, while all through the night attackers and defenders were doused by flame weapons. An attempt was made to destroy the siege tower, during which La Valette’s nephew, a knight in the Order was killed. The siege tower couldn’t be destroyed by fire as it was covered with water soaked leather and by now it was positioned so that the Turkish snipers could fire down at the defenders on the walls. La Valette ordered a hole to be made, low on the wall near the base of the tower with the outer stone remaining in situ until the attack. The wall was breached for a cannon, which raked the base of the tower, the entire structure crashing down on the Turkish attackers. The hole in the wall was immediately repaired to prevent a counter-attack.

By now the Turks were having problems. Their troops were becoming more reluctant to attack and face almost certain death. Their supply ships were being picked off by the increasing numbers of Christian galleys and their food supplies were running low. If Mustapha did not leave in the next few months, the winds would hamper him making the trip back to Constantinople. Piali’s concern for his ships looked like the Muslim forces would fail in the campaign. However, the Christian defenders were still having to stave off attacks, with 8,000 Turks attacking St Michael. A second tower was constructed at Birgu, this time with a reinforced base and it was ran up against the walls. La Valette ordered the base of the wall to be dug away again and this time, a body of knights climbed up the outside of the tower and hewed their way through the snipers at the top, moving down to clear it. This time it was occupied by the Christians and became part of the defences.

On the 23rd August the Grand Council met and every Knight was asked for his assessment of the situation. It was generally felt that the walls of Birgu were so weakened by shot and mining that the town should be abandoned with the forces moving into St Angelo. La Valette disagreed, pointing out that the fort was too small to take the population of Birgu and he would not abandon the Maltese to their fate with the Turks. He would leave only sufficient men in St Angelo to man the guns and had the drawbridge that connected the fort to the town destroyed. On the walls of Birgu they would be either victorious or fight to the death. No abandonment, no retreat, no surrender.

The Turks had arrived with sufficient supplies to support a siege lasting four weeks. The defenders had gathered all of the harvest and moved all the livestock into the defences. The Turkish troops had to move in supplies from North Africa and they were short of powder. Some of the guns were wearing out and the short bombardments preceded an attack. Mustapha had expected a large supply ship from North Africa, but he learned Christian galleys had captured it. They now had barely enough rations to make it home. At the beginning of September, the weather was turning and Mustafa ordered a march on Mdina, intending to winter there.

Mdina was believed to be poorly defended and ready to fall like a ripe plum, however the attack failed to occur. It looked impressive but the walls were old and crumbling and apart from the cavalry, the garrison was tiny. But Chaveliar don Mesquita was a clever man as demonstrated by the destruction of the Turkish camp. The poorly-defended and supplied city deliberately started firing its cannon at the approaching Turks at pointlessly long range; this bluff scared them away by fooling the already demoralised Turks into thinking the city had ammunition to spare.

The End of the Siege

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Lifting of the Siege of Malta by Charles-Philippe Larivière (1798–1876). Hall of the Crusades, Palace of Versailles.
Charles-Philippe Larivière [CC BY-SA]
In Sicily the Knights of the Order were becoming angry at the Viceroy’s prevarication and demanded to be sailed to Malta On 25th August a relief force of 25 galleys and 9,000 men headed for Malta, but were turned back twice by storms. Meanwhile, La Valette concocted a plan to further undermine Turkish morale. He had a Muslim slave working in the counter-mines overhear officers discussing a relief force of 16,000 troops, that was landing in the north of the island. He then arranged for the slave to escape and reach Turkish lines, where he duly repeated the overheard conversation to Mustapha, who dolefully ordered an evacuation of the island.

By 8 September, the Turks had embarked their artillery and were preparing to leave the island, having lost perhaps a third of their men to fighting and disease.

On 22nd August the relief force under the naval command of Don Garcia, finally set sail. Bad weather again split the fleet, but Admiral Paili failed to act and attack the advance guard of the Christian ships, which would have been heavily outnumbered. The vanguard of some 4,000 Christian troops were landed on the north of the island and they immediately advanced to Mdina. After making contact with the garrison, they marched east towards a deserted St Elmo, finding no sign of the Turks. One of the Knights ran up the colours of the Order and Fort St Elmo was re-occupied by the Hospitallars. Everything the Turks had gained in two months was lot in 24 hours.

Even while loading the Turks learned of the relief force and Mustapha reasoned that defeating this small number would put new heart into the Turks. The forces met south of Mdina and the Knights of the Order charged downhill, supported by the Order’s cavalry, which hit the Turkish forces in the flank. The Turks who had thought that they were going home after an easy skirmish with the infidel, broke in panic. The Janissaries made a fighting withdrawal back to the ships, constantly harried and cut down by the smaller Christian force. The fighting continued into the water and several Knights died of heat exhaustion in their armour, while the Order’s gunners poured fire down on the boats and crews of the ships. There was carnage and confusion in the bay, as the Turks struggled to reach their ships. Mustapha was in the last boat to leave and the Turks left the shores of Malta, never to return.

Mustapha sent a dispatch by fast ship to inform Sultan Suliman what had happened, hoping his anger would have subsided by the time they reached Constantinople. The Sultan vowed to personally lead an attack on Malta the next year, but he died on a campaign in Hungary. The Turkish commanders slid into obscurity and the decline of the Ottoman Empire began, something that the world can be profoundly grateful for, but it didn’t come soon enough for the Armenians.

The pope offered to personally present La Valette a “red hat,” but as he was already a cardinal, the Grand Master declined. He had no wish for he, nor the members of the Order to become embroiled in Vatican politics. During the remaining three years of his life La Valette strengthened Malta’s defences and built the town of Valetta. He died in 1586 and the Order laid the last of the Crusader Knights in the newly-built cathedral of St John. Sir Oliver Starkey wrote the following epitaph:

Here lies La Valette, worthy of eternal honour. He was once the scourge of Africa and Asia and the shield of Europe, whence he expelled the barbarians, the first to be buried in this beloved city, whose founder he was.

Queen Elizabeth I expressed her views on the siege and wrote while it was underway:

If the Turks should prevail against the Isle of Malta, it is uncertain what further peril might follow to the rest of Christendom.

On news of the victory she ordered the Archbishop of Canterbury to give thanks in special services, three times a week for six weeks. Somewhat ironic given that Sir Oliver Starkey and the other two Englishmen present at the siege could have been put to death in their homeland for their faith.

In 2003, of the estimated 3,000 Muslims in Malta, approximately 2,250 were foreigners, approximately 600 were naturalised citizens, and approximately 150 were native-born Maltese. That was sixteen years ago so what is the demographics of the population now? Malta created its Office of the Refugee Commissioner (ORC) in 2001 and it began functioning in 2002. Since then, the country has received more than 15,000 asylum seekers, primarily from the Middle East and Africa. Malta ranked 10th out of the countries with the most refugees per capita, with 14 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants, according to a UNHCR report. Malta’s fertility rate is below the EU average. However, the population has continued to grow in the last few years because of a large number of refugees and other immigrants. Only 9.2 percent of asylum seekers in Malta receive refugee status. The majority, 62.1 percent, receive subsidiary protection status. This allows them some, though not all, of the rights given to refugees. In 2005 the foreign population was 12,112 at 3.0% of the population. In 2019 it was 98,918 at 21.0%. That is not sustainable for a small island or any country for that matter.

Clearly Europe is facing an uncannily similar threat from a rapacious, invading horde, constantly sweeping in from the continent’s southern flanks. Europe has taken its eyes off the ball and is united under a new, “one true faith” the cult of environmentalism and its messiah, an unpleasant, deeply troubled, exploited and manipulated little girl. Children always have, and always will, play an important role in revolutionary history. Often seen as the future success, rising powers will devote a large portion of propaganda to training children. In Orwell’s 1984, all children take part in a group called the Spies. George Orwell’s ideas are based on some revolutionary powers of the 20th century, particularly Hitler Youth, and youth groups like the Spies have arisen since then (for example, North Korea’s Young Pioneers).

Even if Britain had the will to defend itself from this threat, which it doesn’t, it lacks the resources which are being ploughed into a socialist nirvana, the National Health Service. It’s pointless trying to stop the hordes because a stupid German woman wanted to expunge the legacy of National Socialism and prove to a world that the Huns are really quite nice. Because of her and the EU’s madness, they are already here.

Wargaming the Siege

For those one or two wargamers out there, the Siege of Malta has everything for an interesting campaign: a naval element with raids on the supply ships, the attrition of siege warfare on the forts and cavalry raids behind the lines. The book Malta 1565, published by Osprey ISBN 978 1 85532 603 3, has sensible additional rules to reflect firing, morale and close combat. It also has instructions in constructing the defensive walls and ditches in plaster of Paris, although expanding foam in a cardboard former is lighter and easier to work. For rules, try: George Gush’s Wargames Rules for Fifteenth to Seventeenth Centuries (1420 – 1700), ISBN 978-1-326-62827-7.

© Blown Periphery 2020

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