Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Great Siege: Malta 1565

On my church's weekend away our guest speaker was Ray Galea. As part of a thank you present for being our speaker my minister bought Ray this book. My minster has said, after the Bible this was the best book he has read. As it turns out, Ray being a good Maltese guy, had already read this book. Since I was the next Maltese guy my minister knew, I was given this book. Some would argue this was racial profiling, but I got a free book out of it so I'm not complaining.

Voltaire once said “Nothing is better known than the siege of Malta.” This may have been true in his time, but 450 years after the event, I had to say I knew nothing about this so called Great Siege. Turns out this was a great story (and a real one at that). Everything was stacked against the Kinghts and the Maltese and yet everything they did work, with some luck thrown in as well.

The Knights of St John (or Knights Hospitaller) were really the last of the crusades. By 1565 the Knights Templars and the Teutonic Order has all ceased to exist. The primary tasks of the Knights of St John was really to provide hospitals for fallen Christians, and then secondary to protect the sick from outside attacks. They had vowed never to fight against Christians, which didn't make them very helpful in their political day as the European leaders were becoming more interested in their own nations than the Church. England also had become protestant so didn't care much for the Knights (although when they won, Elizabeth I did celebrate their victory as thanksgiving services were held in their honour in England). 

After a losing a siege in Rhodes in 1522 the Knights settled in Malta. Malta is pretty much a rock sticking out of the sea. The soil is not that deep, so there isn't much trees and so is quite barren. This proved to be useful when the invading Turks arrived, it mean they had to bring their own supplies and not rely on any food or wood on the ground. The Grand Master Knight, Valette was 70 years old when the Ottoman Empire invaded Malta. His previous military experienced helped win the battle, it seems that almost all of his strategic decisions went well, where as the Turks were plagued with bad decisions, misfortunes and sickness. Valette set about building forts on Malta knowing that one day they will be attacked again. This day came in 1565 and even after years of preparation the Turkish spy's anticipated that Malta could be conquered in about five days.

The Turks came out in a force of about 40,000 fighting men with a vast number of ships. This was to go against the 700 Knights and 8,000 to 9,000 other fighting men. There was requests for more men to be bough from Europe, but these reinforcements were late in coming. There was another 700 men who came later in the fight, just when the first fort fell (a day later they these men wouldn't of disembarked off their ships due to the first fort being taken), and then the war ended when the 8,000 to 12,000 men in the relief group came, some three and half months after the battle began.

The battle in Malta was a series of siege battles. The first fort to be attacked was St Elmo. This was at the entrance of the Grand Harbour. Its weakness was that cannons could be placed on the land and attacked from higher points. Someone counted that in one day between 6,000 - 7,000 cannon balls were fired on this fort. The fort was able to be resupplied with more people as under the cover of darkness they would ship in reinforcements from St Angelo and ship out the wounded. Before the fort fell, the Ottomans had positioned cannons and guns along the water front to stop this infusion of new men into the fort. After being cut off the men knowing that no more help was going to come still lasted three more days under fierce attack.

It was pretty much a miracle that this fort withstood constant attack for 31 days. The Maltese lost around 1,400 men and 120 Knights. The Turks had lost around 8,000 men, of which a good number were their elite Janissaries. Twice they lost about 2,000 people in one day as they tried to breach the walls. The length and severity of taking this fort demoralized the Turks, they also experienced sickness and disease in their camps.

The battle than moved to two forts at Senglea and Birgu. These two were joined together by a chain across the bay (to stop ships from entering) and a wooden bridge so men to could between the forts for assistance where needed. Later, near the end of the battle, instead of consolidated all the forces into Birgu, the stronger fort, Valette burnt the wooden bridge. The thinking behind this move was that with two forts the attacks are split. If everyone hunkered down in one location, then entire army then only has one target. When the bridge was burnt, everyone in the forts realised, like those of St Elmo, that there was no escaping, they would all probably die at their posts. Before the relief force turned up, the Maltese and Knights were down to only 600 men who were still capable of fighting.

The author of this book praises the Maltese people. Their ability fight (and swim and die) along side the Knights was impression. Not a single Maltese person is recorded of surrendering or defecting to the other side. They once said something like they would rather be servants of the Knights than friends of the Turks. The author also tries to be as balanced as possible when describing both sides actions. Both the Muslims and the Christians are painted as fanatical. They each had their religious cause to fight and die for and they each had their promise of heaven or paradise to go to when they died. They both showed their enemies no mercy. It was a cruel time back then but it also made people legends. Although, there are not many Maltese recorded names in the battles.

I did love this book. I could go on and on about what happened. It was well written, with lots of detail on the people involved, their strategies and even their conversions they had (in the appendix the author claims to have not fabricated any of the conversations in the book). I found that after reading a few short chapters I had to tell someone about what the Knights were up to in the face of overwhelming odds. I'm now lending this book out to my wife's grandpa and I also bought a copy of this book for my Dad as I know he will love it.


  1. Interesting! Malta held out exceptionally well in WWII as well. Maybe they are a stubborn people? A people with much to be proud of anyway!