How great was the Great Siege
of 1565 ?
The decision by the Sublime Porte to attack Malta was taken in October, 1564. By the early months of 1565, De Valette’s spies in Constantinope were sending information that an attack on the Maltese islands was imminent. The casus belli for such an attack has never properly been defined. Historians belief however, that there were two main reasons – one being a punitive attack – the Sultan was intent on punishing and annihilating the Order of St John if possible, as it never ceased to harass and maraud Turkish vessels, both military and mercantile. Secondly, were the Sultan to conquer Malta the Ottomans would gain a highly strategic position in the Mediterranean for a possible grander scheme in controlling the Mediterranean.
Preparations for the Great Siege
By the beginning of May 1565, the Order of St John could count a modest 9,000 men at arms, between paid troops, individual volunteers and Maltese folk that had been enlisted as part of the Order’s militia. Some 600 knights, brethren of the Order had gathered in response to De Valette’s orders to help the Order stand its ground. By the beginning of May, De Valette had initiated numerous defensive preparations to withstand the expected attack.
Landing of the Turkish Forces – May 18, 1565
On May 18, the Ottoman fleet, appeared on the horizon, consisting of several hundred vessels of all shapes and sizes, carrying some 30,000 men. The exact number is still debatable as some chroniclers claim that they were more and others claim that these were less. On board these vessels were as many as 6,000 Janissaries, the Ottoman elite fighting unit, 6,000 Siphahis, thousands of sappers and other auxiliaries. Many vessels were loaded with the military arsenal required for the siege, including dozens of canons and four heavy 160-pound basilisks. This outstanding armada was headed by Mustafa Pasha, who commanded the army and Piali Pasha, admiral of the fleet.
Attack on Fort St Elmo
Once the Turkish troops landed in Marsaxlokk, they took position in various places, such as Santa Margarita Heights, on the periphery of Bormla and on the heights of Monte Sciberras, where Valletta stands today. The bulk of the Turkish forces set up their tents in Marsa.
By May 27, some 24 cannon and one very powerful basilisk were set on Mount Sciberras all aimed at Fort St Elmo, the latter situated at the tip of the peninsula. The strategy was to neutralise the Fort first, in order to gain command of the headland of Valletta. This would allow access for the Turkish vessels to enter Marsamxett harbour for a safe achorage.
Already after the first few days of bombardments and assaults by the Janissaries, things turned for the worse for defenders of the fort. On the night of June 3, a unit of Janissaries stealthily gained access onto the ravelin, situated a short distance away from the main fort. Such an early achievement did not augur well for the defenders. Now the enemy was able to maintain a very close and commanding firing position at the Christian troops inside the Fort.
Also on that same day, the reputed corsair Turgut Rais, landed in Malta with his own troops. Even though Turgut had no formal acknowledgement by the Turkish Sultan as an appointed leader, he was immediately given full rein by the two commanders, Piali Pasha and Mustafa Pasha as his past achievements and his intimate knowledge of Malta spoke volumes.
Throughout the days that followed, bombardments alternated with tenacious assaults by hundreds of Janissaries and Siphahis that stormed the fort, some with ladders in hand, to scale up the fortifications. Their bravery verged on the manic as they rushed forward into battle, shouting and screaming to the accompaniment of sounds from drums, horns and cymbals. Some maintain that these foot soldiers must have been acting under the influence of hashish and opium. Yet, their sheer numbers were no match for the Christian defenders, protected as they were by the crenellated walls. Consequently the Turks’ death toll was exhorbitant as compared to that of the defenders.
On June 18, during one of the bombardments, Turgut Rais was felled by a stray splinter, chipped off a rock, that had struck him in the head. The 80 year old was left for dead, dying on the same day when Fort St Elmo was conquered which was on June 23.
In the early hours of this day, the Turks made one huge and final assault on the Fort; scrambling atop the rubble that had accumulated from the fall debris inside the moat and soon gained access inside. They easily overwhelmed the handful of defenders that were left standing. These were either slaughtered or taken prisoners and later sold as slaves.
The siege had cost the Turks some 6,000 men, including half of their Janissary force. Some 1,500 defenders that included 89 knights of the Order had also been killed. On the following day, Ochali Fartas, an intrepid North African corsair sailed to Tripoli with numerous galleys to procure fresh ammunition, and to bury the corpse of Turgut Rais.
Now that the white crescent moon was flying atop Fort St Elmo, and the Ottoman galleons had anchored safely inside Marsamxett, the Turkish commanders could focus on their next objective, the assault on Fort St Michael in Senglea, and the town of Birgu.
The Piccolo Soccorso
While the Turkish commanders were planning their first attacks on their next objectives, on July 2, a long awaited relief force from Sicily landed in St Paul’s Bay. This was however, a modest, unit, made up of some 700 men at arms, led by the Spanish knight, Colonel Melchior De Robles. On landing at St Paul’s Bay, the Christian troops headed towards Mdina where they rested. Then, by nightfall they marched stealthily soutward and eastwards to reach the fortifications of Birgu without being detected by the Turks.
The massive assault on Senglea begins
By the end of June, the Turks had dug out trenches on Corradino Hill, just a couple of hundred metres afar, West of Senglea, across French Creek. Other batteries were positioned on the higher grounds, on the south-western periphery of Bormla. Inside the inner part of the Grand Harbour, some 100 large barges, were assembled in order to transport hundreds of Janissaries across the sea to storm Senglea from its western side.
De Valette had delegated the Italian knights with the defence of Fort St Michael and Senglea. These and hundreds of soldiers aiding them were under the command of Pietro del Monte, who, after the Siege, when De Vallette passed away, became the next Grand Master. In order to reinforce the defences on the shoreline, a palisade consisting of jutting poles and a chain running across the palisade were immersed in the shallow waters to deter the troops from disembarking from the boats onto dry land.
The grand assault finally came on July 15. Some 3,000 soldiers boarded the boats from Marsa and headed towards Senglea while Turkish gunners opened fire from both the Corradino plateau as well as from the higher grounds of Bormla. The defenders fired cannon shots at the approaching boats, sinking most of them and killing hundreds of soldiers before these could reach shore. Other Turkish troops approached Fort St Michael from the landward side, mostly as a diversionary ploy. In response to this perilous attack, De Valette sent a relief force from Birgu across the floating bridge that connected to Senglea.
Attacks on Senglea and Birgu
Following this major attack on Senglea, the heavy bombardments by the Turks on Senglea as well as the town of Birgu never ceased, more so, between July 21 and July 27. The huge hard stone balls shot from the four basilisks shook the fortifications to their core. On August 2 and on August 7, the Turks launched another massive attack on both Birgu and Fort St Michael. During this assault, some 12,000 troops were employed to effect to attempt an incursion into the two towns simultaneously. On this day De Valette was compelled to intervene in person together with a small unit to save the Post of Castille, overlooking Kalkara, as this had just about been overrun by the invading Janissaries. The fighting continued uninterruptedly for nine hours.
Suddenly and without warning the Turkish troops made a hasty retreat. Unbeknown to all, a cavalry unit from Mdina had descended onto the poorly guarded Turkish camp at Marsa and assaulted and killed many soldiers, mostly those convalescing from their wounds sustained in previous battles. The Mdina cavalry also set the Turkish camp on fire. The rising smoke was noticed by the Turkish troops battling it out at Senglea and Birgu. False rumours quickly spread that a powerful Christian army had landed in Malta to the aid of the Knights. In the panic that ensued the Turkish troops abandoned their advanced positions and so the momentum gained was immediately lost.
The whole month of August saw more bombardments and further assaults on all sides. De Valette and his knights all hung desperately to their hopes in another timely arrival of a more powerful military force from Sicily. This however, did not materialise, at least not in August. However, during the last days of August the Christian defenders began to notice that the bombardments from the Turkish side became less intense. It was as if the fighting spirit of the Turkish soldiers was now waning and that the Turks were losing their verve to fight.
Nevertheless, on August 30, Mustafa Pasha ordered a massive attack on Senglea. This did nothing to change the situation and the knights defended themselves and waited passively for the next attack. It was as if both sides had by now come to a stalemate. True enough by the end of August the morale of the Turks was taking a downward turn. Some of the generals were no longer seeing any hope of success. Indeed, some 60 Turkish galleys were seen abandoning Malta. Nevertheless, Mustafa continued undeterred, throughout the first days of September to press his assaults. But his troops were now getting short discipline, food supplies, firing power, and were also suffering from exhaustion due to the oppressive heat of August.
Arrival of the Gran Soccorso – Lifting of the Siege
Finally on September 7, Don Garcia de Toledo’s armada, some 10,000 soldiers in all, arrived from Sicily and landed at Mellieħa Bay. Like the previous relief force, the troops made their way to Mdina. Once all troops disembarked, the empty Christian galleys headed towards the entrance of the Grand Harbour to signal to De Valette that aid had reached Malta’s shores; this move also served to dishearten the enemy. The ship’s captains then sailed back to Sicily.
This show of force worked well. On 9th September the Turkish generals ordered their troops to break camp and head towards the upper heights of Monte Sciberras, seemingly in preparation to board their ships that were moored in the port of Marsamxett. The siege had thus been lifted.
Yet, soon there seems to have been a change of plan. On September 11, the Turkish vessels departed from Marsamxett without the troops, and sailed up the north-western coast towards St Paul’s Bay. This meant that the commanders were afraid that the troops and galleys could soon come under fire, possibly from the Sliema and Gzira side. The Turkish troops also abandoned Monte Sciberras and marched in the same north-westerly direction. It seems that the Turkish commanders opted for more open ground while they headed closer to their embarkation point at St Paul’s Bay.
From the ramparts of Mdina, the Sicilian commanders were observing these movements and decided to press forth their own initiative to destabilise the Turkish troops. A sizeable military contingent marched down from Mdina and headed across the plains of Mosta and climbed the hilly ground to reach Naxxar where the Turkish troops awaited them. A final military confrontation ensued in which the exhausted Turks were no match for the fresh foreign troops. Soon the Turks made a hasty and disorderly retreat, scrambling across fields and country lanes down towards St Paul’s Bay where their ships awaited them.
That same evening, after nightfall, the Turkish armada, now heavily depleted, furtively set sail across the Mediterranean in the direction of Istanbul. Other vessels took a southern route and headed towards the North African coast.
How Great was the Great Siege
The siege of 1565 came to be known to all Maltese as, L-Assedju l-Kbir – the Great Siege. In the Maltese verncular kbir refers to both ‘big’ and ‘great’ in the metaphorical sense. The term distinguishes the siege of 1565 from so many other minor Ottoman incursions that Malta sustained throughout history. In English, the ‘Great Siege’ became synonymous with a great and heroic military confrontation analogous with the Biblical duel between a David and a Goliath, that resulted in the puny David emerging victorious.
The heroic narrative was recounted throughout Europe for centuries long, thus adding to the epic prestige of the the Order of St John. But, beyond this image of bravery, rightfully won by the Order – and the Maltese, one may say – one must objectively seek to know, whether the victory won by the Order over the Turks served to bring about any temporary or permanent check to the Ottoman expanionist ambitions. After all, history is all about change.
Did this victory cause a decline to the Ottoman military might? Apparently not. Six years after the Great Siege had ended, on October 7, 1571, the Sultanate was still able to muster all the necessary assets to challenge the might of the Christian fleet – the so called Papal League, at the battle of Lepanto. Admittedly the Ottomans lost this sea battle, but a few years later the Turkish fleet was once more challenging the Christian powers in the Mediterranean. In 1683, more than a hundred years later, the Turkish army was still one to be reckoned with as it marched into Central Europe to besiege Vienna. On this occasion, the Turkish generals also gave up the siege after a while.
The Great Siege of Malta does not seem to have been a history-changer. However, If nothing else, it had made up the minds of the Grand Master De Valette and his retinue of Gran Croce brethren to forget about their nostalgic dreams of some day going back to Rhodes, and thus make Malta their permanent residence. It also made the Order decide to build Valletta as a fortified city to become Malta’s administrative and commercial capital.
One wonders what might have happened had the Order lost the siege and Malta to the Ottomans. Would the Sultan have relished his newly acquired outpost as a means to gain a solid foothold right in the middle of the Mediterranean where from, one might hypothesise, he would unleash an assault onto the Christian powers by attacking the underbelly of Western Europe?
Hyothetical scenarios, as reasonably accurate as they seem to be, can never allow us to deviate from the actual outcome as penned on historical documents in black on white.
8th September 2021
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