Zach – Welcome back to Part 2 of our three part series on the Great Siege of Malta. When last we left our intrepid Knights of St. John, their island of Malta was being invaded by the Ottoman Turks. There were three major fortresses protecting the island and the smallest one, the one that guarded the harbors was being surrounded by the Turks. The odds were overwhelmingly against the defenders. The Knights needed time to wait the siege out so winter would come and drive the Turks home or for help to arrive. (Though there was a slim chance of that.) The strategy was to cost the Turks every inch of ground and hold them for as long as possible. The key to this first part of the battle was to hold the Turk at this small, poorly constructed fort for as long as they could while costing them as dearly as they could. Simple strategy but as we shall see, it will not be easy.
Anna – Thank you for the re-cap. Now, let us introduce our panelists. Today we have Hua Mulan, woman warrior of ancient China. Next we have Matilda of Tuscany, leader of her personal army for the Pope! Next we have Buffalo Calf Road, woman warrior of the Cheyenne. Then we have “historian” and conquistador, Gaspar Correia. Then we have the first Russian saint and expert in fiery vengance, St. Olga of Kiev. And last and not least we have Casimir Pulaski, Polish hero of the American War of Independence. Glad you could all be here today.
Olga – Dah, you ask nicely so little Olga come.
Pulaski – How could I resist talking about a hopeless fight?
Gaspar – This is the part of the battle where the Turks bring out they cybernetic raptors that fight against the Crusaders’…
Zach – AND we have little time to waste, so let’s begin.
Anna – Before the attack, the Turkish leaders were divided on what plan of action to take. General Mustapha was for taking the northern island of Gozo which would thus cut Malta off from reinforcements from Sicily and bypassing the mostly useless fort of St. Elmo. This was the plan the Knights feared most. But Admiral Piali, a close relative of the Sultan, over ruled Mustapha and made the plan to attack Fort Elmo first to secure a safe port from the storms that weren’t due until fall.
Buffalo – Wait…he wanted to attack a useless fort to protect his ships from a storm that wasn’t coming for several months?
Anna – That is correct.
Buffalo – Am I missing something?
Anna – I’m afraid not. It doesn’t make sense but he over ruled Mustapha so the Knights rejoiced as they watched the Turks ignore the north (their route of resupply and communication) and go after the small fort. While the Turks wasted time with Ft. Elmo, they’d spend the time reinforcing the actually important fortresses.
Pulaski – The Turks brought in mounds of dirt and began placing their artillery. The Turks had made the use of artillery into an art form and as poetic as that might sound, the fact was, they brought a lot of really big guns. There are few problems that excessive firepower won’t solve. The power of the Turks’ cannons would crack the limestone walls of the fort and turn it into powder. As the opening barrage wore on, a pale cloud of limestone dust began to form around the fort, making it difficult to see into and out of. On top of that, the Turks had placed sniper on the hill looking over the fort. These snipers were some of the best in Europe and made it all but impossible for the Knights to man the walls properly. Me and General Washington used snipers to great effect during the American Revolution.
Mulan – The Grand Master of the Knights send a message north to the Pope, other Knights of St. John and to the Viceroy of Sicily, asking for help. The Viceroy promised help in June, but no sooner. Also, he made it conditional if they sent two of their galleys north to help transport the soldiers. But there was a problem with this. Even with a skeleton crew, the two galleys would take almost a thousand men to man and with only 7,000 men in total, it was simply impossible.
Buffalo – But, didn’t the Viceroy know that?
Mulan – Of course. The Viceroy was a veteran soldier himself. He only wished for an excuse to not send help.
Buffalo – I’d skin him for that.
Mulan – I would not be happy myself, but like me, these men were soldiers and went on with what must be done. They constantly sent out their cavalry and local partisans to harass the Turks. This would become a slow and draining wound to the Turkish army. Every casualty counted. But the Turks had brought thousands of slaves with them and these slaves were used to dig the trenches in barren rock. The Knight’s sharp shooters killed them by the hundreds and the bodies were pushed into piles to act as cover. At the end of the first day, Ft. Elmo sent word to La Valette that the fort could only continue on with a steady supply of reinforcements. As long as men could continue to enter the fort, it would hold. This was a simple fact that eluded the Turks. If they had one Chinese officer with them, this whole battle would have ended within days.
Pulaski – Grand Master La Valette called a meeting of his officers. He explained how the fort was doomed and it was only a matter of time before the fort fell. The question was: how much time. Every day the fort could hold out was essential. Also, he made it clear to his men that there would be no surrender. There was no where for their order to go. Either they hold out and win or they would die.
Zach – Then something unexpected happened. One of the Knights’ ships returned from a long range patrol. They saw the island was surrounded by tried to break through. Piali, the Turkish admiral was enraged by the idea of a lone ship trying to break through his navy. So he sent out six ships to intercept this “Lunatic Christian.”
Olga – I have been called this thing before. Lunatic means “beautiful,” dah?
Zach – Um, yes, of course. So the ship, seeing that it’s really hopeless, breaks off and turns north to Sicily. Five of the Turkish ships turn back but one keeps going. When the captain of the Knight’s ship sees they’re down to one pursuer, and having been well practiced in the fine arts of piracy, he immediately orders an abrupt turn around with one side of the ship peddling backwards with the other side pushes forward as hard as they can, turning the ship in its own radius. The Knight’s ship does a complete 180 like they were in a high speed car chase and attacks the lone Turkish ship. Seeing this lunatic Knight ship coming at them, they turn around and run back to the Turkish navy. Everyone saw this. The Knights broke out in cheering and the Turks were rather embarrassed.
Olga – Oh! Oh! I read this part! Olga do homework, see? This is…um…five days, dah? Five days when fighting started.
Zach – That’s right. Very good Olga.
Olga – Yes, Turks think they take fort in five days. NOT! In early morning, when dark, Knights sneak out of fort and attack Turk trenches. They fight a lot and take many trenches, killing many peoples. This make Knights happy. But then Turk…um, how you say?
Zach – Jannissaries.
Olga – Yes! That it. Jannissaries. Turk Jannissaries, special forces, move in and fight Knights back into fort.
Buffalo – Bad news for the Knights! They were pushed back into their fort. But then worse news arrived. The next morning, Dragut, the famous Turkish pirate and admiral showed up. This man was over seventy years old. Seventy years of kicking butt across the Mediterranean and taking no names. This was a big problem for the Knights because Dragut actually knew what he was doing. And he also brought fifteen ships full of North African fighters. The first thing Dragut asked was “Why the heck didn’t you seal off the north part of the island?” I imagine they responded with “Um…um….um…” And then Dragut asked, “Why the heck didn’t you seal off Fort Elmo?! If they keep reinforcing the fort with fresh men, it’ll never fall! Blockheads!” I imagine they responded with “Oh, well….um…you see….um…”
Pulaski – Yes, Dragut’s arrival was very bad news. He began to position cannons near the harbor where the Knights ferried men and equipment. Once those guns were in place it became very difficult to send anyone back and forth and they could only do so at night now. The fate of the fortress was sealed as soon as those cannons went up. By the following day of Dragut’s arrival, the firepower leveled at the fortress nearly doubled. The coordination of the Turkish army was more efficient and the plan to strangle the fort was in place. A Spanish knight described the fort as “a volcano in eruption” due to the fire and smoke constantly surrounding it. An average of 6,000 to 7,000 artillery shells were fired at the fort every day. (They kept count.)
Zach – During my own little siege experience at Abu Garhaib, there were only a few hundred incoming projectiles of different kinds.
Gaspar – Dragut, the famous corsair had learned from the best. Barbarossa, the famous Turkish pirate, not to be confused with the German emperor, was the terror of the seas. At his command Dragut was able to call upon the powers of the Deep Ones and the Dread Cthulhu. He summoned these terrifying monstrosities out of their slumber at the bottom of the ocean to fight their battles. The Knights were saved only by the help of an elite core of werewolves that had taken the Knightly vows. These werewolves fought to the last man…er…wolf against these unholy abominations!
Buffalo – Besides the fact that that wasn’t true, the Knights were kinda in a predicament. It had been a week and the fort was filled with wounded men. Even the wounded manned their posts and men went around delivering bread soaked in wine as food. The moral of the fort wasn’t looking too good.
Mulan – Indeed not. They were doomed and they knew it. Then more bad news arrived.
Olga – More? Is that possible?
Mulan – Apparently. News that the Viceroy of Sicily would not send a large army any time soon was not good for the moral. On top of that, Fort Elmo suffered a disaster. An outer fortification was being scouted out by two Turkish engineers and they found that the few defenders there were all asleep. They rushed back to Dragut who then sent his Jannissaries in. They went quietly and fell upon the outer fortification, slaughtering everyone inside. The few survivors rushed across the drawbridge to the fort. Now the Turks had the outer defenses of Fort Elmo. In civilian terms that’s called “Not good.” It was a sloppy as a soup sandwich of the Knights to let the fortification fall like that.
Zach – The Jannissaries rushed to the walls and gate of the fort and began bringing up their ladders. But the Knights had tricks of their own. They used “Wild Fire” that…
Anna – Hey! Call it what it is! Greek fire! Invented by my people in Constantinople.
Zach – Yes, Greek fire. It’s basically primative napalm in either handgrenades (clay jars with wicks) or in a clever flame thrower.
Gaspar – Wait, the Knights had grenades and flamethrowers?
Zach – Sure did.
Gaspar – Wow. I didn’t even have to make that u….um…make that more accurate than I usually do.
Zach – Yes, the flamethrowers, hand grenades and burning hoops set the Jannissaries loose robes on fire and killed hundreds of them.
Olga – I like these knights! They fight how I like to fight! They burn everything! (Laughs hysterically.)
Anna – They estimate that over 2,000 Jannisaries died that day. A 2 to 1 ration for the knights. Not a bad day’s work.
Zach – Another letter arrived from the Viceroy of Sicily. He said that he’d send troops on the 20th of June if they still held Fort Elmo. It was only June 4th.
Mulan – On the 7th of June, the Turks unleashed a bombardment so powerful that it was said the entire fort shook like a ship in a storm. Walls were leveled and by the end of the day the fort looked more like an ancient ruin than a defensible position. Before dusk the Turks looked out over the fort and wondered if anything could possibly still be living. So they sent in their Jannissaries and were surprised to meet a well disciplined wall of musket fire. The defenders were somehow still alive and were putting up such a fight that it was impossible to take the fort by storm.
Pulaski – Hussah! Then Fort Elmo sent over one of their knights to report to La Vallette. They reported that the fort would fall soon and the men were better used fortifying other positions. Now, this is where the leadership of La Vallette comes into play. This man, after considering the message, ordered that the fort was to be held at all cost. They must hold the Turks there as long as possible. Every moment was precious. The Turks had to exhaust themselves on this useless fort before turning their attention to the two main forts that actually controlled the island. He said, “We swore also on the vows of chivalry that our lives would be sacrificed for the Faith whenever, and wherever, the call might come. our brethren in St. Elmo must now accept that sacrifice.” Basically he said, “They are going to fight and die there.” These were men, that took their noble obligation seriously. For their wealth and status, the price was risking their lives for the cause. And these men knew that the bill was coming and they’d have to pay.
Buffalo – On the 10th of June there was the largest night battle…as in a battle at night…you know what I mean. I know all about night raids, they should have had some of us Cheyenne there. We’d show them how to do it! The Turks lost 1,500 men that night. The defenders lost 60. By the 14th, the Turks were growing furious. The stupid fort should have fallen a week ago! They sent an emissary requesting their surrender and offering safe passage. The Knights looked at the piles of Turkish bodies and laughed. The Imams in the army preached “Jihad” against the Knights of St. John. But then the Knights had some good luck! One of the artillery commanders saw a group of Turkish officers. Obvious due to their bright silk clothing, they were a great target. He fired cannons at the cluster of officers. By luck, Dragut was mortally wounded in the head. He’d die days later but he played no further part in this story. He’d lay semi-concious for days without saying anything. With that one cannon shot, the intelligence driving the Turkish army was gone in an instant.
Olga – ‘Bout time they got some luck, dah?
Gaspar – The cannoneer was a psychic and knew where to aim his cannon.
Zach – And the following day, a cannon ball killed the commander of the Jannissaries. Two blows against the Turkish horde. But by the 19th the situation was clear. The fort could fall any hour. La Vallette sat in his fort, waiting for the inevitable news. There was nothing he could do. He couldn’t evacuate it and he couldn’t support it. All that was left to do was pray they bought a few more hours.
Anna – The situation in the fort was dire. Everyone had multiple wounds, Turkish snipers were firing on them with no restraint and cannons pounded their position constantly. They could barely move for fear of being blown up. All they could do was wait for the end. Yet, over the course of the next few days the Turks assaulted and were constantly surprised that the Knights continued to hold the fort. The knights positioned themselves in the holes in the walls, wearing full plate and carrying giant two handed swords that they wielded like quarter staffs, they formed a wall of flesh and steel.
Two priests stayed in the fort to issue last rights and even they took up swords to defend the fort. The two priests hid the sacred relics of the fort’s church under the floor and burned to rest to prevent them from falling into Turkish hands. Then they rang the bell one last time. The Turks thought they were requesting aid from their brethren, but in reality they were preparing themselves to die. On the 23rd of June, (yeah, no surprise that the date for Sicily’s help came and gone) the entire Turkish army fell on the fort. This was no well timed attack by elite Jannissaries, this was “everyone at once.” Still the few hundred survivors in the fort held on for several hours. Two Spanish knights, so wounded they couldn’t stand, sat in chairs at the breaches and fought sitting down. La Vallette and the rest of the order could only watch as the Turks swarmed through the walls and filled the fort like a broken levy. From the other side of the harbor they saw the flag of St. John torn down and a Turkish one rise in its place. They lasted from May 19th to June 23rd, over a month: three weeks longer than anyone had any right to suspect. It was a heroic last stand and they died to the man. The Turks, upon taking the fort realized that they had payed a high price for a pile of rubble. The Knights had lost about 1,500 men with Fort Elmo. The Turks however had lost over 10,000, a quarter of their army. They turned to see the other two forts, more heavily defended and better built than tiny Fort Elmo. But General Mustapha was said to have cried “Allah! If so small a son has cost us so dear, what price shall we have to pay for so large a father?”
Mulan – By anyone standards, it was a military disaster for the Turks. Wasting so much time and so many men on one fort was too high a price. The Turks took no prisoners and mutilated the bodies of the defenders. In payment La Vallette killed all the Turkish prisoners he was keeping and fired their severed heads from his cannons. This was a signal that the Knights would likewise take no prisoners.
Anna – How barbaric!
Mulan – (shrugs)
Zach – Now the Turkish army and the Turkish guns turn toward Fort Angelo where the main bulk of the Knights waited. The conclusion to the siege awaits next week in Part 3 of this epic trilogy. Who will win? Who will die? What will be the cost and for what? Stay tuned!