The Fall of Fort St. Elmo

For more than a month, the 1500 Knights of St John, Spanish and Italian knights, and Maltese militia held the exposed Fort St. Elmo across the harbor from the Maltese Knights’ main defenses at Fort St. Michael, Fort St Angelo, and the towns of Birgu and Senglea. Ft St Elmo was an anchor point for the great chain that blocked the harbor’s entrance and the Turks had to take it.

Forty great siege guns pounded the fort but the Knights were able to repair and reinforce St Elmo by boat at night from across the harbor. On 3 June 1565, Dragut Reis, the greatest of the Turkish commanders, managed to get trenches and guns to cover the water approach. Furthermore, he lashed galleys together and built a platform on the great chain over which he could pass small galliots packed with archers. This completely cut off the fort and made any resupply a major operation using resources the Knights could no longer afford. On 9 June, its commander said it would fall within days and asked that the position be evacuated. Jean Parisot La Vallette, the indomitable commander of the Order, knew that every day Fort St Elmo held was another day closer to the Spanish relief, wrote back, “If you cannot find it in yourself to die for Jesus Christ and St John, then I will send men who will.” The Fort of St. Elmo held strong for another two weeks.

The constant bombardment reduced Fort St Elmo to rubble, and repeated Turkish assaults captured its entirety except for buildings of the inner courtyard and church. On 23 June 1565, Pasha Mustapha, who replaced Dragut Reis when he was mortally wounded by a cannonball, ordered the final assault. The Janissaries assembled within yards of the Knights, just out of pike range, because the Knights had long been out of powder for their harquebuses. The Knights sold themselves dearly as La Vallette watched from St Angelo. The last thing La Vallette saw through his telescope, was the Italian knight Francesco Lanfreducci laying about with a massive two handed sword underneath the banner of St. John. Lanfreducci managed to light the fire signaling the imminent fall of the fort before being swarmed by Turks, and the banner was quickly replaced by the Ottoman standard.

That night, the Turks mutilated and killed any survivors, less several knights for interrogation, and only a few Maltese militiamen escaped by swimming across the harbor. Mustapha ordered 1000 bodies nailed to makeshift crosses in a grim parody of the Crucifixion, and floated them across the harbor to demoralize the remaining defenders. On the morning of 24 June, the feast day of the Order’s patron, St John the Baptist, the bodies came ashore near St Angelo. But it did not have the promised effect. The infuriated La Vallette ordered all Turkish prisoners marched to the walls and beheaded in full view of the Turkish siege lines. And then their heads were fired out of cannons into the Turkish trenches.

The Great Siege of Malta would not be a repeat of the relatively chivalrous and “civilized” Siege of Rhodes. Both sides knew the stakes involved and there would be no quarter.

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