Siege of Malta
In 1522 following a six-month siege of Rhodes in the Dodecanese Islands, the Christian Knights of St. John of Jerusalem (Hospitallers) were forced to surrender to the Ottomans. Sustaining heavy casualties himself and impressed by the knights’ valor, Ottoman emperor Suleiman I (Süleyman I) spared the defenders’ lives, a decision he would have cause to regret. In 1530 Holy Roman Emperor Charles V gave the knights his possession of Malta. This island, strategically located in the narrows of the central Mediterranean, controlled east-west access and allowed the knights to raid to the east. At the same time, the Ottomans were conquering much of the North African coast and even raiding out into the Atlantic. Malta was the only barrier to Ottoman control of the entire Mediterranean.
Apparently Suleiman’s influential daughter Mihrimah encouraged him to undertake the campaign on religious grounds. Suleiman’s trusted military adviser and commander of his galleys, Dragut Torghoud, agreed. A competent artillerist, Dragut had taken Tripoli from the knights for the sultan and became its governor. There was popular support for an operation against Malta, particularly after the knights captured a large Ottoman merchant ship on its way from Venice to Istanbul.
Suleiman was then 70 years old and did not attempt to lead the expedition in person. He appointed Piale Pasha to command the naval force and his old general Mustafa Pasha to head land operations. Suleiman also sent along as advisers Dragut and Uluj Ali, insisting that his two commanders consult with them. The Ottoman naval force consisted of some 150 galleys, while the land force numbered 28,000 men, including 7,000 Janissaries.
About 5,000 men, most of them Spaniards, defended Malta. They were led by the grand master of the Knights of St. John, Jean Parisot la Valette. La Valette had been born in the same year as Suleiman and fought against him in the siege of Rhodes. La Valette combined effective military leadership with Christian fanaticism. Aware of Ottoman preparations, he sent out a call for assistance from all the knights in other countries, and a number responded. The people of Malta remembered what had happened at the hands of the Ottomans in 1551. The Ottomans had invaded with 10,000 men but then withdrew after only several days to move on to the neighboring island of Gozo. Its citadel surrendered after several days
of bombardment, whereupon the Ottomans sacked Gozo and made slaves of
virtually its entire population of 5,000 people. Now in 1565, the people of Malta were determined to resist the invaders. Galleys from Malta also ferried in supplies from Sicily.
Two main forts, St. Angelo and St. Michael, guarded the city of Malta. A brief raid by Dragut convinced the defenders to add a new fort, St. Elmo, to protect the entrance to the Grand Harbor and a parallel inlet, the Middle Harbor or Marsa Muscet, north of it. Just before the Ottomans arrived, the knights also placed a great chain across the Grand Harbor of the city of Malta.
The great Ottoman force appeared off Malta on May 18, 1565. The Ottomans were confident of an easy victory. The Ottoman naval and land commanders had decidedly different views on how to proceed, however. Ultimately Piale Pasha’s views prevailed, and the Ottomans decided to first take the Marsa Muscet as a fleet anchorage. To accomplish this they would have to reduce Fort St. Elmo.
The Ottomans were well equipped with artillery, including three cannon especially cast for this undertaking. One gun reputedly weighed 40 tons and fired 200pound round shot, and the other two guns weighed 20 tons each and fired 90-pound shot. After coming ashore, the Ottomans opened a bombardment of Fort St. Elmo, where the knights were heavily outnumbered. In heavy fighting the Ottomans captured the ravelin, or outer earthworks, but the knights used their own artillery to good advantage and repulsed successive attacks, inflicting heavy losses. Dragut then supervised erection of an additional siege works but was mortally wounded by rock splinter from a shell burst. He lived long enough to learn, in mid-June, that the Ottomans had taken the fort. Only nine knights were taken alive in the remains of the fortress.
Forts St. Angelo and St. Michael were the next Ottoman targets. Mustafa, with Rhodes as precedent, offered the remaining knights the chance to surrender, but La Vallette refused. The Ottomans attempted to destroy the boom but were met by Maltese swimmers, who were armed to the teeth and prevented the Ottomans from carrying out their design. For two months the Ottomans made land assaults on the Maltese forts without success. Both sides were now exhausted. Christian corsairs had taken a heavy toll of Ottoman supply ships, and the attackers were short of supplies. Many of their men were also sick with fever and dysentery.
In early September with the defenders down to as few as several hundred men and about to be overwhelmed, a relief force of some 10,000 Spaniards under Don Garcia de Toledo arrived from Syracuse and made landfall on the northern part of the island. This reinforcement, the threat of additional Spanish aid, low morale (some 24,000 Ottomans had been casualties thus far), and the approach of winter without a fleet anchorage all led the Ottomans to raise the siege on September 8 and return home. Little more than a quarter of the Ottoman force had survived. The defenders suffered more than 5,000 dead, including 240 knights. The rebuff at Malta ended Suleiman’s efforts to control the Mediterranean.
Bradford, Ernie. The Cruel Siege: Malta, 1565. London: Wordsworth Editions, 1999.
Ellul, Joseph. The Great Siege of Malta. Siggiewi, Malta: Ellul, 1992.
Kinross, Lord [John Patrick]. The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire. New York: William Morrow, 1977.
Prata, Nicholas C. Angels in Iron. Huntingdon Valley, PA: Arx Publishing, 1997.
Sire, H. J. A. The Knights of Malta. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.