457 years ago today in 1565, the island of Malta celebrates the turning point of a 3 month long siege as 7000 Spaniards land on the island and attack the Ottoman army.
Malta had been the target of previous Ottoman invasions. As the seafaring Knights Hospitaller, the last surviving crusade military order, controlled the island and were a thorn in the side of Ottoman naval hegemony. On May 18th 1565, the Ottomans showed up to the island with over 30,000 soldiers, 200 ships, 50 pieces of heavy artillery, and over 100,000 cannon balls. The defenders had around 7000 men and only a small fraction of them professional soldiers.
The focus of the siege was around a peninsula with several fortifications and harbors. St. Elmo was a fortress that sat at the tip of the peninsula and was garrisoned by 1500 men throughout the siege. Across the bay were the fortresses of St. Michael and Birgu which were able to support St. Elmo with supplies and reinforcements. After 28 days of fighting the garrison of St. Elmo was wiped out, but they managed to inflict around 8000 causalities on the invasion force. The garrison’s sacrifice was monumental in delaying the besiegers.
Jean de La Valetta was a French nobleman who joined the Order of Knights Hospitaller when he was 20 years old. When Valette was a young man, he fought against the Ottomans during the Siege of Rhodes in 1522. On that small island, the Knights had fought hard for 6 months and inflicted 10,000’s of casualties. Impatient and impressed with their defense, the Ottoman Sultan would let them peacefully leave with their weapons and valuables and impose a soft occupation on the island. Also present for that siege was the current Ottoman commander he was facing and who would offer Valette the same generous terms towards the end of the siege. Generous terms that Valette refused.
The Ottomans then brought their focus on the fortresses St. Michael and Birgu with heavy naval bombardment and frequent frontal assaults on the walls. Eventually the Ottomans detonated a mine and brought down a wall in the fortress where the Grand Master was commanding. The Ottomans were now in the fortress and the defenders were in the direst situation of the siege so far. The 70-year-old Grand Master rallied his men, and held the position until the line was stable.
Valette’s leadership during the siege was invaluable as he continually rejected offers to retreat and give up territory. Making the Ottomans pay dearly everywhere they went. He correctly insisted that the besiegers were losing their will and becoming more desperate each day. He encouraged his men to remain hopeful even when it wasn’t sure that a relief force was coming.
Fortunately for Malta, a Spanish relief force of around 7000 soldiers would arrive a couple weeks later on September 7th and draw the Ottoman forces from their siege lines. The Spanish soldiers were so eager to fight the Ottomans that they charged them without orders from their commanders. Already demoralized by the slow progress and heavy casualties from months of siege, the Ottoman soldiers broke. After the fighting finished on September 7th, the garrison of Malta celebrated their salvation on the 8th. The Ottomans stopped fighting and fled to their ships and left the island on September 11th.
September 8th still remains a public holiday in Malta, known as “il-Vitorja”(Victory Day). And The Siege of Malta became one of the most celebrated Christian victories for the next 3 centuries and would inspire many future European garrisons against Ottoman sieges.[Online References]
The Great Siege Malta 1565
By: Ernle Bradford
Artwork: Lifting of the Siege of Malta by Charles-Philippe Larivière
Authored by R.E. Foy