Siege of Malta: Part 3

Zach – And now we have the conclusion to the epic three part series of the Great Siege of Malta. When last we left our intrepid heroes, the fort of St. Elmo had just fallen to the Turks after a month long siege. the tiny fort had been expected to last a week at most. It lasted four, buying precious time for the other two forts of Angelo and St. Micheal, on the peninsulas of Senglea and Birgu respectively. Wait, I have a map somewhere…

Here it is.  You can see St. Elmo and Gallows Hill where the Turks set up an artillery battery.  The water between the two peninsulas was chained off and fortified.

Here it is. You can see St. Elmo and Gallows Hill where the Turks set up an artillery battery. The water between the two peninsulas was chained off and fortified.

Anna – But before we get into the conclusion of this amazing story, let us introduce our panel of expert historical figures. First we have Boudica, Barbarian woman that rebelled against Rome. Then we have Scipio Africanus, Roman general who defeated Hannibal. (Aren’t they supposed to be separated?) Next we have Hua Mulan, woman soldier of ancient China. Then we have Gaspar Correia, Portuguese conquistador and “historian.” And saved the best for last…because she’d burn my book collection if I didn’t say so, St. Olga of Kiev, first Russian saint and expert in the art of revenge.
Africanus – Let us get to it then.
Boudica – Of course the Roman thinks he’s in charge.
Zach – So, after the Turks took St. Elmo, they turned to the other two forts on Senglea and Birgu. During the time Ft. Elmo purchased them with their lives, La Valette bought food from the locals at market price instead of just taking it like every other nobleman would have done, and fortified his positions. He put tubs of water for defenders who got burned by their incendiary weapons and food and water at every post so no one would have to leave their post to eat. These among other countless preparations would prove to make a difference in the coming battle.
Mulan – As a soldier I must second the art of preparation. You can’t prepare for everything, but you can prepare for DEALING with almost everything. But Valette’s preparations did not end there. He also prepared his men and the citizens of Malta for what lay ahead. When they had been kicked out of Rhodes by the Turks, much of it was due to turncoats. He would not let that happen here. He gathered everyone for a meeting and told them that the Turks were dying of disease, were in poor spirits, running low on food and ammo and reminded them of what terrible things would happen if the Turks won. They would be killed or enslaved.
Africanus – Meanwhile, the Turks had taken several days to get their batteries in place. All their artillery was now being aimed at the two forts. Trenches were being dug in and preparations were being made for a difficult siege.

Here are the cannons firing at Ft. Angelo from across the harbor.

Here are the cannons firing at Ft. Angelo from across the harbor.

Anna – While the Turks were regrouping for the coming battle, a small relief force of 700 knights, “gentlemen volunteers” from Italy and men-at-arms came ashore from Sicily. The Sicilian captain of the small fleet had orders by the Viceroy of Sicily (Yes, the man that stalled and stalled about sending aid) to not land troops if Ft. Elmo had fallen. Some Knights of the Order went out on a reconnaissance mission and saw that the fort had fallen. They returned to the captain and told him the fort still stood so the captain let them disembark. They had snuck past the Turkish blockade at night and arrived in Birgu to much applause. That was the night of June 29th.
Olga – Me guess that General Mustapha not happy with news, dah?
Zach – Safe assumption.
Olga – Mustapha then sends messenger person to Knights, saying “Hey, we let you go, comrades and we take island. No more killing, dah?” La Valette say…I have quote here…
Anna – Olga did her homework?
Zach – We’ll make a historian out of her yet!
Olga – I has quote here! (Holds up paper.) He say, “Tell your master that this is the only territory that I will give him. (point to ditch in front of fortress walls) There lies the land which he may have for his own – provided only that he fills it with the bodies of his Janissaries.” The little messenger saw many men in armor staring him down, tall fort walls and lots and lots of guns that he peed his pants. Poor little man.
Zach – That’s a hardcore answer from a man that refused to surrender. You will see this time and time again. Valette’s indomitable will is what kept the Knights together. He kept to his strategy with a determination to win that is very rare in history. Most men had breaking points. Apparently Valette was the exception.

"Never tell me the odds!" Yes, their manner of dress may seem odd, but these were not guys with whom to mess with. F

“Never tell me the odds!” Yes, their manner of dress may seem odd, but these were not guys with whom to mess with.

Zach – Mustapha, however, tried something the Turks were good at, pulling their ships over land. The corsair Drugat had done it a few years ago and the Turks had done it at the siege of Constantinople.
Anna – Oh, don’t remind me!
Zach – Look back up to the map. See the large peninsula in the middle? Well, the Turks couldn’t get their ships past Ft. Angelo, so they dragged their ships over that peninsula and got behind the fort. Now they could land troops there and bombard the forts from both sides. This was not good news for the Knights.
Anna – But then an officer of the Turkish army deserted. He was a Greek that had several ancestors that were Roman (Byzantine if you must) emperors and felt shamed that he was fighting for the people that destroyed his home. He escaped and fled to the Knights and told them everything about the Turkish plans and where they planned to attack. Over the course of the siege his continual advice would prove invaluable.
Gaspar – A bit of luck! This was also when the Knights brought out their experimental teleportation device. Using Unified Field theory, they managed to teleport a small, but elite squad of commandos with magically blessed armor. This small group managed to cut their way to Mustapha’s tent before being stopped by a Turkish golem of brass and iron.

The battle lasted through the night, but in the end, the few remaining commandos were forced to teleport back to Ft. Angelo.

The battle lasted through the night, but in the end, the few remaining commandos were forced to teleport back to Ft. Angelo.

Mulan – (Shakes head in disgust.) The attack started in the first week of July. The cannons surrounding the forts on all sides opened up. There were also wooden palisades in the water along the shore to prevent landings and the Turks sent swimmers out to destroy the obstacles. Now, at this time, few people knew how to swim, even sailors. But the native Maltese people were practically born in the water and a group of native swimmer volunteered and swam out to stop the Turks. There was a fight in the water and the Maltese civilians massacred the Turkish saboteurs. Normally, being commoners, their names would not be recorded, but in this case, their heroism earned them a place in history. Pedro Bola, Martin, Juan del Pont and Francisco Saltaron. Now the Maltese civilians would play a vital part in the siege. They would act as medics, repair fortifications, carry wounded, bring supplies, drop rocks from the walls, throw boiling oil and fight. Even the women and children fought along the walls. The fort on Birgu had a town around it and the town had barricades thrown up in the streets so when the Turks would breach the walls, they’d find a whole town of defenses awaiting them. Once again, Valette’s preparations.
Boudica – The Turks then got some good news. A son-in-law of Dragut and reinforcements from Algiers showed up. The Algerians were proud warriors and couldn’t believe that these Knights were so tough, so they asked to attack first. The following day the Turks launched an all out assault on the forts. This was July 15. The assault was against both forts at the same time. This is how the Turks would continue this battle, attacking both forts so the defenders would have to split their manpower. Not bad but it also meant the Turkish artillery was split. Through constant musket fire the Turks stormed the beaches and came up to the walls. Ladders were thrown up and the fighting became fierce and desperate. Meanwhile the Algerians were attacking Senglea from the landward side. The Algerians rushed forward without fear for their lives. Unfortunately, bravery can only do so much with cannons and point-blank range. The cannons loaded with metal balls and chains tore through the Algerian ranks, decimating their force. Even with horrible casualties, the Algerians managed to get up onto the walls.
Africanus – Things did indeed look desperate for the Knights. But then the situation grew worse. A powder magazine in the fort exploded, blowing a large hole in the wall. The Turks immediately rushed the gap and for a moment the Knights fell back. But then one Knight and a priest (carrying a sword) urged the men to counter attack and their bravery saved the fort from being overrun right then and there.
Mulan – Again, Valette’s preparations came into play. A bridge of boats from one fort to the other allowed quick redeployment so a fort in trouble could receive reinforcements. Valette sent more men into Dirgu to stop the breaches.
Anna – Has this man thought of everything?
Zach – I don’t know. We shall see!
Anna – Don’t be stupid. Of course you know.
Zach – Check this before you wreck this: Mustapha had a cunning plan. While this pitched battle was going back and forth, Mustapha played his ace. Hidden away, he had ten boats of 1,000 Jannisaries awaiting the order to attack. Now he sent them to attack the northern shore of Senglea while they were distracted. Mustapha watched his elite Jannisaries sail out of sight around the peninsula and knew that victory was in reach.
Mulan – BUT!
Anna – Oh, oh.
Mulan – But, once again, Valette’s preparations would save the day. Valette thought, “If I were the Turks, I’d try to attack the northern part of the fort while everyone was distracted at the southern land walls. So, I better put a hidden gun battery there in case they try something.” As the ten boats pulled up to point-blank range, the cannons opened fire. Instantly ships were shredded by shot and chain. Nine ships were sunk outright and the damaged tenth one managed to limp away. In the space of two minutes 900 Jannisaries were killed. The few Turkish survivors that managed to swim ashore were killed by the locals that were waiting there. The Maltese natives coined the term “St. Elmo’s Pay” which meant “no mercy.”

Gaspar's photo of the Turkish captain of the doomed ships.

Gaspar’s photo of the Turkish captain of the doomed ships.

Olga – Did Valette think of everything?
Gaspar – Yes.
Zach – The battle went on for five hours. When the Turks finally called the attack off, they had lost 3,000 and the Knights had lost 250. Now, how can these Knights fight for hours in the hot Maltese summer? Historians have wondered this over the years. The Crusaders in the Holy Land wore heavy armor in temperatures that made touching metal painful. Here’s where my limited combat experience comes in. In the Army we had body armor that was basically a helmet and breastplate. They were heavy. They were hot. In Iraq the summer got to over 125 degrees and it was torture just to step outside. But we did with “full battle rattle,” all our gear. How did I do it? I honestly don’t know. Just got “used” to it I suppose. It always sucked. The level of suckitude was shockingly high, but somehow we coped and just did it. I imagine these Maltese Knights got used to it and carried on kicking butt.

Here is what some knights wore, Maxamillian armor.  It's lighter weight than other plate armor but just as strong due to the fluting; the ridged surfaces.

Here is what some knights wore, Maxamillian armor. It’s lighter weight than other plate armor but just as strong due to the fluting; the ridged surfaces.

Soldiers and gunners wore armor more like this.  Heavy breastplate and helmet.  Hey, didn't I just talk about that?  Hmmm...I wonder.

Soldiers and gunners wore armor more like this. Heavy breastplate and helmet. Hey, didn’t I just talk about that? Hmmm…I wonder.

Anna – Mustapha thinking that perhaps the forts needed a little softening up, began to bombard the forts none stop. On the 2nd of August he unleashed a bombardment that was so fierce viewers said that the very hills were on fire. Every cannon in his army unleashed their fury on the embattled forts. The firepower was so fierce that the bombardment could be heard in Catania 100 miles away and in Sicily. For six hours the Turks bombarded the forts, launched assaults and bombarded again. Nothing seemed to phase the Knights.
Africanus – These Knights are putting up a most Roman of defense.
Boudica – These Knights aren’t laying down and crying like little babies.
Zach – (clears throat) So, anyway, on the 7th of August the Turks launch another massive assault and this time they breach the walls but…
Mulan – Again, Valette’s planning saved the day.
Olga – How many time we going to hear that?
Mulan – A lot. Once the Turks pored through the breach in the wall, they found a second wall awaiting them and their victorious breach turned into a death trap. The Turks were slaughtered and the Knights took the opportunity to actually charge out and attack the Turkish trenches.
Zach – Well played, La Valette. I don’t even know what I’m having for dinner tonight and this guy’s thought of everything.
Africanus – However over at Senglea at this time was going very well for the Turks. The walls were breached and Turks were swarming over the ramparts. The Knights were falling back and it looked like Ft. Angelo was about to be lost. Turkish flags were being flown on the fort’s walls and the Jannisaries were moving in to make the final charge that would take the fort. Everyone, including Valette knew that it was over. The fort was doomed.
Gaspar – And Valette had prepared for this as well, I suppose.
Mulan – Actually, no. At the very friggin’ moment that the Turks were about to win, they suddenly heard the horns and drums of retreat. For a moment the Jannisaries, ever obedient stopped and wondered, “What the hebbie Jebbies?” But they followed orders and the Turkish army withdrew.
Olga – I don’t get it. Why turn back when they about to win?
Anna – The Knights scratched their heads and wondered what just happened. Valette figured that the relief force from Sicily had finally arrived. That was the only logical explanation. In fact, that was exactly what Mustapha thought as well. But it turned out both were wrong.
Olga – Tell Olga what happened or I send burning cars through you window.
Zach – There was a town, Mdina, the capital of Malta. It had a tiny garrison. While the Turks launched their all-out assault on the forts, they sallied out and attacked the Turkish camp which had only a handful of guards. They killed the guards and the wounded and everyone else they found. The Turks, thinking the relief force from Sicily had arrived, sent word to Mustapha. When Mustapha heard that it wasn’t an enormous force of Christian reinforcements, he was a little peeved.
Anna – The next day the Knights received word from the Viceroy of Sicily that he would send help “before the end of August.” He had already promised help “before June 20th” so the Knights figured that the Viceroy was just being a little coward and was pulling their leg. Valette knew that no help would be coming. They were on their own. He sent word to all his troops and Maltese defenders that they had no one to rely on but themselves. No help was coming so they either defeated the Turks or died. No middle ground. The town around the forts was in utter ruins. No one, not even women and children were without wounds. There was no rest from constant bombardments or attacks. Food and water were growing thin as was ammo. Starvation was out of the question due to Valette’s preparations, but still, it wasn’t a vacation. Like my father, Alexios Komemnos, they knew how to make do with what little they had.
Boudica – On the 18th of August, the Turks undermined the fort’s walls and blew a big hole in the Knights’ defenses.

Gaspar's photo of the destruction of the fort's wall.

Gaspar’s photo of the destruction of the fort’s wall.

The Turks pored through the hole and the defenders fell back. Their defenses were crumbling and Valette saw that this was the moment of battle, the moment where everything sat in a balance. So, he grabbed up a helmet, snatched a spear from a nearby soldier and with his officers, charged into the breach to stop the Turks. When his men saw their commander leading the counter attack they cried out that their master was in danger and surged toward the Turks in a counter attack. Unlike the cowardly Roman Generals, Valette was not afraid to do his own fighting. His own bravery encouraged his men and they pushed the Turks back. A hand grenade went off and wounded Valette in the leg but he refused medical attention until he saw that the walls were all secure again. Now THAT is how you fight like a barbarian!
Africanus – Hogwash!
Mulan – The next day, Valette’s nephew was killed. His body and the body of another young knight were brought to him. The other knights tried to console Valette but he scolded them and said “All the Knights are equally dear to me. I look upon all of them as my children. The Death of Polastron moves me as much as that of my nephew. These two young men have only gone before the rest of us by but a few days. For, if the relief from Sicily does not come, and we cannot save Malta, we must all die. To the very last man – we must bury ourselves beneath these ruins.” It was the only time he showed a hint of discouragement.
Gaspar – Hardcore, man.
Olga – Very Russian of him.
Zach – Valette had reason to despair. Their dead were increasing, their walls were crumbling by the day and the Turks now had a siege tower filled with snipers that could shoot down at the defenders. Then Valette told everyone it was time to cowboy up and take out that freaking siege tower. They couldn’t take it down with fire because it was fireproofed and if they tried to shoot it the snipers would take them out first. So, Valette had his engineers cut a hole in the wall way down low where the siege tower was. He then stuck a cannon through the hole, loaded with chain shot which was two iron balls with a long chain attached between them. When fired the balls would spread out and whip around like a buzz saw. The chain shot tore through the base of the tower sending it crashing to the ground.
Anna – I’m afraid their victory was short lived. The poor Knights at the other fort had their own problems. AsValette took out the siege tower, Mustapha had built what he called “the Infernal Machine.” It was basically a large pipebomb loaded with enough explosives, chains, spikes and nails to blow up the fort. The giant tube of death was rolled up the ramp of rubble that used to the wall and shoved into the Knights’ position. However they had made the fuze painfully slow and the Knights simply rolled it back into the enemy position where it exploded in the middle of the Turks that were awaiting to assault. Seeing an opportunity, the Knights charged out and massacred the shocked Turks.

Gaspar - The Knights rode out with the explosion in their "battle cart" and fired pistols from both hands while jumping through the air.  True Knights don't look at explosions.

Gaspar – The Knights rode out with the explosion in their “battle cart” and fired pistols from both hands while jumping through the air. True Knights don’t look at explosions.

Mulan – As a soldier I understand the importance of morale. At this point the Turkish morale was very low. They had just seen their two super weapons fail completely. Sickness was spreading through their army like gossip at a church meeting. They were running out of men, ammo, powder, food, water and their sense of “give a crap.” It was late August and weather in the Mediterranean was unsalable in the Fall. By early September they either had to win, leave Malta or set up camp for the winter. Mustapha was in favor of starving the Knights out and waiting out the winter, but Admiral Piali wouldn’t have it. He said the safety of his fleet was the priority and refused to stay. He would leave for Constantinople with or without the army.
Zach – The Knights were facing their own crisis. The forts were rapidly becoming indefensible. All of the senior Knights urged Valette to abandon Birgu and pull all forces back to Senglea with the fortress of St. Angelo. Everyone urged this.
Everyone except Valette.
He said, “I respect your advice, my brethren, but I shall not take it. And these are my reasons. If we abandon Birgu we lose Senglea, for the garrison there cannot hold out on its own. The fortress of St. Angelo is too small to hold all the population as well as ourselves and our men. And I have no intention of abandoning the loyal Maltese, their wives and their children, to the enemy. St Angelo’s water supply, even supposing that we can get all the people within its walls, will not be adequate. With the Turks masters of Senglea, and occupying the ruins of Birgu, it will only be a matter of time before even the strong walls of St. Angelo will fall before their concentrated fire. At the moment, they are forced to divert their energies and fire-power. Such will not be the case if we and all our men are locked within St. Angelo. No, my brothers, this and this only is the place where we must stand and fight. Here we must all perish together, or finally, with the help of God, succeed in driving off our enemy.” And to make sure there was no thought of retreat, he burned his remaining boats and destroyed the bridge that connected the two forts. That way, everyone must stand where they were and win or die.
Mulan – The Turks know what the destruction of the bridge meant. They knew then that the Knights intended to die to the last man. On the 20th, the Turks brought in another siege tower and this time instead of a cannon, which the Turks were expecting, they cut a hole and a bunch of highly motivated knights pored out and captured the towers. Then they used the tower for their own defenses. The Turks weapon was again turned against them.
Africanus – I’m afraid the Turks received more bad news. Their supply ships had been captured by ships from Sicily. They would not be getting more food or ammunition any time soon. The Roman secret of victory was logistics. If you can’t feed your army, you can’t fight. Their ammunition for their cannons was starting to run low and they were forced to slow down their rate of fire. The Knights saw this and rejoiced. They knew the end was approaching one way or another.
Boudica – I thought the Roman secret of success was no ruthlessness and not having souls. But then Mustapha made yet another mistake. Instead of putting more pressure on the two forts, he took a large group of his men and turned around to attack Mdina, the small city. Mdina had walls that wouldn’t stop a well trained ox and a tiny garrison that wouldn’t be able to slow the Turks down let alone stop them. Mustapha thought that since he couldn’t take the two forts, he could at least take the city so he wouldn’t go back to the Sultan empty handed. Don Mesquita, the Portuguese governor of Mdina saw the Turks coming and knew he couldn’t fight.
Gaspar – But, we Portuguese are made of win and we don’t like to lose. So, Don Mesquita quickly came up with a plan. He dressed all his civilians, women and children like guards and had everyone go out and stand on the walls to make it look like they had far more troops than they really had. He also had what few cannon and guns brought up. As the Turks marched up they saw the walls were covered in fresh soldiers that were taking random shots at them showing that they had plenty of ammo and powder to spare. It was all a lie. The Turks saw this and the soldiers began saying “It’ll be another St. Elmo!” and the thought of another impossible siege made them lose what little courage they had left. The Turks then turned around and went back without firing a single shot.
Olga – No way that true.
Zach – No, Gaspar’s right. That really happened. I guess the Portuguese are good at making stuff up.

A depiction of Turkish moral at this time.

A depiction of Turkish morale at this time.

Gaspar – Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?
Anna – The complete failure to even fight demoralized the Turks to a dangerous level. Officers were complaining that they couldn’t get their troops to attack and that even when they did, they had little to attack with. This incident had the opposite effect on the Knights. For the first time they began to have a faint hope of victory. It now seemed possible that they could beat the Turks. All during this, Valette walked among his men, fought beside them and was an inspiration to them all. Knights didn’t suffer sickness and plague like the Turks did. Remember what the Knights first occupations were? Doctors. They weren’t called “Hospitllars” for nothing. They understood basic sanitation and kept wounds and food clean. This saved them from the deadly sicknesses that always accompanied long sieges.
Olga – Yay for medical peoples!
Zach – All the way into September the Turks continued to half heartedly bombard the forts but didn’t launch any major attacks.

But then….

Suddenly on the night of the 6th of September, Don Garcia, the Viceroy of Sicily appeared with a fleet of 28 ships and around 9,000 men. For some unexplained reason the Turks didn’t even try to stop them. The fleet landed and on the morning of the 7th, the relief force came ashore and went to Mdina to find out what the situation was. News reached Mustapha and Valette at about the same time. I imagine that Mustapha threw his hands in the air and said, “Well that’s just great! Game over man, game over!” The relief force however, was about half the size it was supposed to be. No need to let the Turks know that, so they let one of their prisoners escape after “overhearing” that the relief force was over 16,000 men. The slave rushed to Turkish lines and told Mustapha. Mustapha nodded sagely, stood up and ordered an immediate retreat. They packed up as quickly as they could and hurried to their boats during the night. In the morning, the knights saw that the trenches were empty, no Turks in sight and their fleet slowly sailing away. They let out a great cheer and opened the gates. The defenders pored out and gave thanks to their God. The Maltese began plundering what the Turks had left behind in their haste. The Knights gathered what arms and ammo they could find just in case the Turks came back.
Anna – As they sailed away, Mustapha saw that the relief force was much smaller than he’d been told and urge Piali to turn back so they could attack the relief force. They landed on a sandy bay and the fresh relief force, eager to avenge their fallen comrades of Malta, surged out and immediately attacked the Turks. I don’t know what Mustapha was thinking. None of his troops had the heart to fight anymore and upon seeing this fresh army charging at them like maniacs, they broke and fled back to their ships. The relief force fell upon the stragglers and cut them down. They felt quite good about themselves until they arrived at Birgu and Senglea and saw the mountains of corpses. Then they began to saw how little they had done. The Knights of St. John had done all the work for them and they had nothing to boast about.
Zach – The siege was over. Against all odds the Knights had held out and won. The Turks had lost around 30,000 men, three quarters of their army. When the crippled fleet returned to Constantinople, the Sultan ordered that they come in at night so the people wouldn’t see the shattered remains of the great fleet. Ottoman dominance in the Mediterranean was over. Never again would they attack Malta, the stepping stone to Italy. A few years later would be the Battle of Lepanto where the Christian League, with some survivors from Malta, would destroy the Turkish navy. The Knights of Malta were now heroes in Europe and church bells rang all across the many countries, even Protestant England declared eight days of Thanksgiving. La Valette was an instant celebrity and hero and donations to rebuild Malta pored in from all over Europe. They rebuilt the forts even greater than before and founded a new city named after Valette. This was to be the new headquarters of the Knights of St. John. They had saved Europe and everyone knew it.
Gaspar – I couldn’t make up a story that epic…not that I would make anything up.

Gaspar - The former Masters of the Order came to congratulate Valette at what was the Order's finest hour.

Gaspar – The former Masters of the Order came to congratulate Valette at what was the Order’s finest hour.

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4 comments on “Siege of Malta: Part 3

  1. paulgenesse says:

    That was so awesome, Zack. Thanks for writing all of this. So epic.

  2. steve says:

    Wow.

    Just…. wow.

  3. steve says:

    Zach, you’ve a rare gift for making history come alive.

  4. Jake Bono says:

    This is how history should be presented. Thank you, Zach.

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