Great Siege of Malta 1565

Great Siege of Malta 1565. Although the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I fought countless foes across Europe, Asia, and Africa, his reign is symbolically bookended by the struggle against the Knights Hospitaller. One of the most successful reigns in the history of the Ottoman Empire began with the taking of Rhodes in 1522. And the end of it would see Suleiman and his admirals taking on the Knights Hospitaller in their new home of Malta in 1565.

The last naval action in the Ottoman Empire wars we covered was the battle of Preveza and the siege of Castelnuovo, and after these engagements, Ottoman dominance in the Mediterranean, spearheaded by Hayreddin Barbarossa, was nearly undisputed. Barbarossa captured a few more cities in modern-day Montenegro, capping off the campaign of 1539 by conquering Christian strongholds in the Ionian and Aegean seas.

Sicily, Spain, and Corsica in 1540

The admiral then returned to the Ottoman Empire capital, sending his chief lieutenant, a veteran of Preveza, Turgut Reis, known to the Christians as “Dragut”, to the Western Mediterranean seas to raid and harass the Holy League members. Initially, Dragut’s raids were successful, and he managed to sack coastal areas in Sicily, Spain, and Corsica in 1540. However, in June he was ambushed by the allied Genoese-Spanish navy at Girolata. His entire fleet was captured, while Dragut was taken hostage and brought to Genoa.

Meanwhile, Venice, reeling from its losses, signed a separate peace with the Ottomans, and that somewhat weakened the position of the emperor Charles V. According to some sources, in September of 1540 he sent a secret letter to Barbarossa offering him a chance to change sides, but this was refused. This prompted the emperor to become more active in his naval dealings.

The Beylerbeylik of Algeria

To that end, in October another Ottoman corsair navy under Ali Hamet, which was raiding off the coast of Spain, was destroyed near Alboran. It was becoming clear that the Ottoman holdings in North Africa would remain an easy staging ground for the invasions of Spain and Italy. The Algiers expedition of 1541 was led by Charles himself, with the likes of Andrea Doria, the Duke of Alba, and the conqueror of the Aztec empire Hernan Cortez, commanding his 40 thousand-strong army.

The Beylerbeylik of Algeria was at that point ruled by another lieutenant of Barbarossa – Hasan agha, who had just around 1000 soldiers. Unfortunately for the Christian troops, the weather conditions were unusually cold for October, with rains and storms damaging their fleet. Still, Charles’ army managed to disembark and besiege Algiers. Almost immediately the Christians were attacked by the Ottoman Berber allies.

The Great Siege

All this made the siege untenable and in November, Charles ordered a retreat. He had lost almost half of his army to the Berbers and the sea during this expedition. As the French king Francis I, who was an Ottoman Empire ally since 1536, started another Italian war against his archrival Charles V, Suleiman sent Barbarossa’s fleet to assist the French in the Ligurian and Tyrrhenian seas. In 1543 he raided his way along the west coast of Italy, landing near Rome by the end of June.

With the Holy City threatened, the Pope called for Francis I to reign in his allies, and the king asked Barbarossa to join his troops at Marseille. The allied forces besieged and sacked the city of Nice in August 1543. Barbarossa would winter in Toulon, sending his ships to raid the Spanish coast during the end of the year. In the beginning of 1544, he resumed raiding Italy, and then anchored his fleet near Genoa, threatening to attack it.

Death of Hayreddin Barbarossa

We don’t know all the details, but Barbarossa and his old foe Andrea Doria negotiated the release of Dragut for a sizeable sum, and that ended the hostilities between the Ottomans and Genoa. As Suleiman and Charles also signed a truce in 1544, Barbarossa was recalled back to the capital. Still, on his way home, he sacked and looted numerous Italian cities. Hayreddin Barbarossa died in 1546, and Dragut, who had been raiding the coasts of Italy and Spain since his release, was appointed the commander of the Ottoman navy by Suleiman.

Previously, we have covered the endless slogging match between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs in Hungary. Since no tangible progress was made on that front, the Ottoman Empire Sultan was looking for other ways to continue his conquests, and since he dominated the seas, Malta seemed to be a good springboard for that. Charles, who also understood the importance of the island, gave it to the Knights Hospitaller in 1530, alongside Gozo and Tripoli.

Ottoman Empire

From here the Hospitallers restarted their corsair activity against Ottoman Empire interests, and by 1550 they once more had become profound nuisances to Suleiman. So, it is not a surprise that Dragut was tasked with eradicating the Hospitaller presence in the region. In 1551 he struck the knights at their doorstep, ravaging the Island of Gozo and enslaving nearly its entire population, however,r, he was repelled by the Knights after trying to take the much more heavily fortified Malta.

Following up, Dragut seized the knight’s garrison in Tripoli and used it to launch raids. Over the next few years, Dragut managed to occupy parts of the Balearic Islands and Corsica, which prompted a Christian counter-attack. In 1560, the Knights joined the Spanish Crown, Venice, Genoa, and others, in an alliance to retake Tripoli from the Ottomans. However, their fleet was attacked by Dragut at the Battle of Djerba and was decisively defeated.

The Knights of Malta

The alliance lost dozens of ships and at least 15,000 troops, which meant that there was now a power vacuum that the Ottomans could exploit. It was obvious that Dragut would soon strike at Malta. The Knights knew better than anyone that an attack was coming, and began diligently preparing their defenses. Back in 1557, the knights had elected a crafty Frenchman to be their Grandmaster, Jean Parisot de La Valette. Under La Valette, the Knights replenished their fleet that had been devastated at Djerba.

They began bolstering the defenses of Malta’s three principal forts Saint Angelo, Saint Elmo, and Saint Michael. Most importantly, the Knights embarked upon a renewed spree of piracy. Their boldness at sea dealt many humiliating blows to the Turks, as the Knights managed to capture the Ottoman Empire Governors of Alexandria and Cairo. These strikes only expedited Suleiman’s resolve to obliterate the Knights of Malta.

History of Sultan Suleiman

To spearhead the assault on Malta, Sultan Suleiman appointed his trusted vizier Mustafa Pasha as the commander of his armies. Alongside him were Admiral Piali Pasha and Dragut. Most sources put the total strength of the Ottoman Empire army at around 40,000 men. Among them, there were 9000 Sipahis and 6300 elite Jannisaries, with the rest made up of the North African troops and Dragut’s corsairs. Grand Master La Valette continued to rigorously prepare his defenses in anticipation of the Turkish arrival.

All the buildings outside the walled citadels in the island’s great harbor were destroyed to eliminate cover for sharpshooters. The local peasants were ordered to harvest all their crops and bring them within the fortress walls, leaving the land barren for the invaders, while additional supplies were brought in from nearby Sicily. Believing the Ottomans would attempt to land at Birgu first, La Valette had its citizens evacuated to the inland town of Mdina.

Siege of Malta

Only around 500 Knights defended Malta. Supplementing their ranks were 3,000 Maltese militia. The native Islanders had no love for the knights, who they saw as foreign oppressors, but they were devout Catholics nevertheless, and would fervently defend their ancestral home against an Islamic foe. On April 9th, help arrived in the form of 1,000 professional Spanish and Italian Habsburg soldiers, sent by Don Garcia de Toledo, Viceroy of Sicily.

Don Garcia informed La Valette he was rallying more reinforcements, but they were months away, during which time Malta would have to stand alone. The great Turkish fleet came within view of the islands on the 18th of May, 1565, and sailed up the southern coast. There the Ottoman Empire armada landed their galleys seven miles south of the Knight’s Great Harbour, establishing a beachhead. From their newly established position, the Turkish army pushed inland towards Birgu.

Spanish Soldiers

During this time they were harried by the Knights fighting a guerilla-style tyle struggle. Nevertheless, the invaders reached the inland walls of the great harbor citadels. They had established their great cannons on Santa Margherita and Mt. Scriberras, strategic hills that looked down upon the great Harbour. On May 21st, Piali Pasha ordered an assault upon Birgu; this was repelled by a regiment of Spanish soldiers.

The next day saw the Turkish host throw themselves upon Senglea, once again making little headway into the ardently defended citadel. Following this, the Turkish leadership argued over their forward course. Mustafa wished to strike inland and take poorly fortified Mdina, thereby dealing a blow to Christian morale, while Piali Pasha insisted that taking Fort St. Elmo was crucial to victory.

Great Malta 1565

In the end, the latter path was chosen, and the Ottoman garrison at Mount Scribberas began wheeling their artillery towards the landward wall of the coastal Fortress, guarded by the lion’s share of the Jannisary Corp. La Valette’s spies informed him where the Ottomans intended to strike. He dispatched 150 Knights to bolster the defenders there. Emboldened by the sluggish movement of the Ottoman Empire artillery, the Knights within St. Elmo sallied out and engaged the convoy in a skirmish.

Both sides took losses, but the Ottoman advance was not slowed. By May 24th, the Turkish diggers had established trenches a mere 600 paces from the fortress walls, with three rows of artillery behind them, comprised of light cannon and culverins in the front, and great Basilisk bombards in the rear. Thus, the shelling began. Ottoman Empire cannons pulverized the walls of St. Elmo with shattering force, pinning the defenders within and leaving them helpless to strike back at their assailants.

Ottoman Empire Army

La Valette watched the proceedings from his perch in St. Angelo and ordered his gunners to fire across the harbor at the Ottoman Empire cannon. This had a devastating effect, causing chaos amongst Turkish ranks, even causing a loose rock to strike Piali Pasha unconscious, leading many of his men to believe he was dead. This symphony of gunfire continued throughout the day. When night fell, it became clear that the Ottomans would inevitably breach the fortress walls.

The commander of St. Elmo begged La Valette to allow his men to abandon their post and fall back to St. Angelo. The Grandmaster refused, knowing that he had to buy as much time as possible until reinforcements arrived – he declared that St. Elmo must hold, for as long as possible. The following days saw fighting renew once more. By now, Ottoman Empire Sharpshooters trained their sights on the gunners in St. Angelo, keeping them pinned down and providing cover for their cannoneers.

History of Ottoman Sultan

By May 29th, Ottoman sappers had begun digging covered trenches towards St. Elmo’s walls, seeking to undermine them at their foundations. That evening, two companies of Spanish Soldiers sallied out of the fort under cover of darkness and launched a surprise raid upon the undefended Ottomans who had been digging through the night. Many trench diggers were massacred, but the Janissaries quickly arose from their sleeping tents and rallied themselves with professional speed.

The Sultan’s elite soldiers drove the Spaniards back behind their pulverized walls. They were close enough to the walls to look their enemies right in the eyes. On June 2nd, Dragut finally arrived with his fleet of 13 galleys and 1500 fighting men. Up until this point, the Knights had been sailing nimble ferries across the harbor under the cover of night to provide St. Elmo with fresh supplies from Sicily. Dragut’s first course of action was to establish new artillery batteries on Gallows Point.

The Knights

And across from Marsamxett harbor, putting him in a position to fire upon any supply ships, further isolating St. Elmo from the rest of the Island. However, On June 9th, a detachment of Knightly cavalry from Mdina launched an ambush upon the Ottoman Empire gunners at Gallows Point, temporarily scattering them and allowing supply ferries to relieve St. Elmo once more. On June 3rd, a Janissary offensive managed to surmount the fortress’s triangular Ravelin.

From there, they built ramps of wood and hide to ascend into St. Elmo’s inner walls. The Knights, Spaniards, and Maltese would hold the breach, dealing upon the Ottomans hundreds of casualties. Ottoman infantry threw themselves upon the rubble on June 10th, 15th and 16th, but were repelled all three times- with contemporary reports claiming that the Native Maltese fought with “nearly as much bravery as the Knights themselves.”

St. Angelo and St. Michael

Each day the fortress held out bought infinitely valuable time for the defenders in St. Angelo and St. Michael, enabling them to further shore up their defenses, and wait for the ever-closer arrival of Don Garcia and his relief force. In many ways, St. Elmo and the lives within were willingly sacrificed so the rest of Malta could be saved. On June 17th, Dragut was mortally wounded in the Turkish trenches.

Sources do not agree if it was friendly fire from Ottoman cannonball shrapnel or a Maltese Sharpshooter from St. Angelo, but in any case, the legendary corsair was taken out of action. By June 22nd, the Janissaries had completed a bridge across the fortress ditch, allowing the bulk of the Ottoman Empire troops to directly assault the walls from all sides. The defenders held out for one final night, but on June the 23rd, they were finally overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

Struggles and Hardships

The Knights of St. Elmo and their allies died fighting almost to a man. That same day, Dragut succumbed to his injuries and passed away. The capture of St. Elmo was ultimately a Pyrrhic victory for the Ottomans. They had lost over 6,000 men, and over half of their Janissary Corp, compared to the 1,500 defenders slain. The siege had taken three weeks, and Don Garcia’s relief force grew ever closer. By June 4th, Piali Pasha had ordered the cannons surrounding St. Elmo to be dragged before the walls of Senglea.

A new wave of bombardment ensued, focused upon Fort St. Michael. Meanwhile, the Turks had run their smaller vessels ashore, and carried them inland across the base of Mt. Scribberas and into the creek on the westward side of Senglea, bypassing the canons of St. Angelo. On June 15th, the Ottomans commenced a two-pronged attack. 1500 Corsairs attacked Senglea from land, while 1,000 Janissaries attempted an amphibious assault.

Senglea and Birgu

Luckily, a Greek deserter had warned La Valette of Mustafa’s plan, and the Knights had built a palisade of spikes across the inlet to prevent an Ottoman sea landing. They had also set up a battery on the seaward wall, which rained fire upon the Turkish landing craft, drowning hundreds. Concurrently, the landward assault was repelled as well, and still, Malta refused to fall. Cannonfire continued to be exchanged by both sides in the following days, but the next big engagement came on August 7th, when Mustafa Pasha ordered a full-scale invasion.

12,000 men charged the walls of Senglea and Birgu, with the full brunt of Turkish artillery pummeling the defenders into submission. The situation soon grew dire. Birgu’s walls were soon reduced to rubble, and Ottoman Empire soldiers found themselves able to charge over the debris. Heavy fighting ensued within the city streets, and as the Turks pushed deeper, it seemed that the harbor would finally fall. And yet, Malta was once more saved by sheer luck.

Piali Pasha and Mustafa

A contingent of 100 Spanish and Knightly Cavalrymen sallying out of Mdina happened to catch the Ottoman camp unguarded. They swept down upon it, slaughtering the sick, incinerating tents, and destroying supplies. When news of this spread to the Ottomans in Birgu, they panicked. Believing a much larger relief force had finally arrived, they retreated from the city walls back to their camp. The day was won for the Knights. By now, morale amongst the Ottoman ranks was at an all-time low.

Furthermore, the death of Dragut had thrown their leadership off-kilt, as Piali Pasha and Mustafa were now at constant loggerheads with one another, causing further schisms in the army. Back in Constantinople, the Sultan had become very displeased with the siege’s sluggish pace and sent multiple letters to Mustafa demanding a progress report. The Ottomans’ will to keep up the fight had quickly waned.

The Great Siege of Malta

At the turn of the month, Mustafa ordered a march upon Mdina, only to have cannonballs fired at him from out of range. To the Turks, it appeared that Mdina had plenty of ammunition to spare; in reality, it was a desperate bluff performed by a highly unprepared city. Nevertheless, it worked. Mustafa lost his nerve and ordered a retreat. On September 7th, Malta’s salvation finally arrived. After months of delay, Don Garcia had landed at St. Paul’s Bay with a relief force of 8,000 men.

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On seeing this force, the Ottomans finally lost their resolve and retreated to their ships. Some zealous knights, emboldened by their reinforcements, forced the relief force to join them in a general charge that saw hundreds of fleeing soldiers massacred. By September 13th, the Ottoman Empire army had fully departed from Malta. The defenders had lost 2,500 soldiers and a third of the islands’ population, while the Ottomans had suffered at least 10,000 casualties, with some sources estimating them as high as 30,000.

Ultimately, the Knights of St. John had emerged as the final victor. The importance of the Great Siege of Malta can not be understated. It is impossible to know what would have happened should the island have fallen, but it is very possible that the Ottoman Empire could have expanded into Italy, and then deeper into western Europe. The Ottomans had lost battles before, but even their famous defeats at Vienna and Eger had come at the tail-end of a spree of conquests.

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