The Great Siege of Malta: The Assaults

After the fall of Fort Saint Elmo at the end of June 1565, the Turks maintained a constant bombardment and launched a series of joint landward and seaward attacks against the Maltese Knights’ main defenses of the town of Birgu, Fort St. Michel, and Fort St. Angelo.

The attacks were devastating but uncoordinated due to the death of the most competent leader, the Ottoman corsair admiral Dragut Reis who was killed by an errant cannonball during the final assault on Fort St. Elmo. The other two Ottoman commanders, Mustapha Pasha and Piali Pasha, despised each other, and their various schemes undermined the efficient and effective use of the Ottomans’ remaining resources, after losing 1/4th their force at St. Elmo. Nonetheless, they still had 30,000 troops and complete command of the harbor.

The Knights held through these attacks, but only by the slimmest of margins. Many of La Vallette’s subordinates wanted to trade fortifications for time, but La Vallette disagreed. He knew the only wany to defeat the Turks will to fight was to fight for every inch of the defense. Every Turkish assault that was thrown back degraded the Turkish will to continue, and more importantly, delayed the next Turkish assault, as they reorganized.

In the beginning of July, the Turks launched a surprise amphibious attack against the seaward side of the Senglea Peninsula, combined with a landward attack on Fort St. Michel. St Michel was exposed on its harbor side due to the fall of St Elmo, but an enterprising older French knight, Chevalier de Gurial, on his own volition, ordered a battery from the wall of St. Angelo to the shore. The battery waited until the Turks were within 200m before firing and their grapeshot and chainshot killed almost a thousand elite Janissaries. Fort St. Michel would have almost certainly fallen without the actions of de Gurial’s battery, and it allowed the Knights the time to build a palisade along the shore to protect against future attacks.

At the beginning of August, Fort St. Michel was again the focal point of a massive Turkish assault after a mine was exploded underneath one of the bastions creating a breach. The Turks stormed the fort and through sheer numbers forced the remaining defenders back to the chapel. As they were about to be overwhelmed, the Turks inexplicably (to the chapel defenders) fell back in disarray. A raid from the small outpost of Maltese Knights at Mdina, in the center of the island, which was never captured by the Turks, attacked the undefended Turkish camp and gave the impression that the relief army from Sicily had arrived, prompting the Turkish retreat. The Knights and Maltese engineers and citizens immediately repaired the breach and filled the mine. In mid-August, another mine detonated opening a breach in the Birgu wall and the Turks flooded into the town. La Vallette ordered the guns of St Angelo to fire on the town while the 70 year old commander personally led the counterattack to the breach. Despite fierce fighting and many irreplaceable defenders lost to both the Turks and “friendly” cannon, La Vallette and his body guard fought their way to and held the breach as the citizens of Birgu filled it in. An Italian mercenary wrote of La Vallette,

“de Valette was told the Turks were within the walls; the Grand Master ran to the threatened post where his presence worked wonders. Sword in hand, he remained at the most dangerous place until the Turks retired”.

After the failure of the mines, Mustapha placed his faith in two giant siege towers. On 18 August, he attacked the wall of Birgu again but this time with a great siege tower filled snipers which cleared the top of the wall. But as the tower slowly lumbered forward, La Vallette ordered the base of the wall hollowed out. As the tower neared, laborers removed the few remaining stone blocks, and two cannon were pushed forward. They fired chain shot point blank into the base of the tower, toppling it. The second tower’s base was hastily reinforced against the repeat of the same tactic but as it approached the Maltese removed the blocks and instead of cannon, Knights streamed out and stormed the tower, eventually capturing it.

The tower attacks were Mustapha’s last serious attempts to seize the forts. La Vallette maintained that the Turks were losing will after the repeated failed even though the cost to the defenders was dear. La Vallette was right. On 28 August he moved his army to the small outpost of Mdina, where there was a water source so they could winter there. But as they approached, the few knights and Maltese citizens fired all of their cannon recklessly, using up all of their powder. Mustapha thought this meant they had powder to spare, and having none of his own, fell back to his camp near the harbor. Out of gunpowder, and nowhere to winter on the island, the Turks launched one final assault on 1 September, which was beaten back with heavy losses.

On 7 September Don Garcia of Sicliy landed in St Paul’s Bay on the north side of the island with a relief army. Mustapha took the Turkish army to the southern shore and boarded his galleys the next day. The Siege of Malta was over and the fragmented and petty kingdoms of the “soft underbelly of Europe” were safe from Islamic conquest. The Maltese would rebuild the capital of their island and name it Valletta, after the indomitable Jean Pairsot de Vallette, Grand Master of the Order of St John and Defender of Malta.

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