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The Siege of Malta

Posted May 4th, 2017 at 06:46 AM by AlpinLuke

PART I - the scenario


From the diary of Francesco Baldi da Correggio [Spanish troops garrison. St. Michele fortified point, 1565, Isle of Malta].

- my translation –

“It 'pleased God that this year, when the Order of St John was under the governance of the brave and devoted Grand Master Jean de La Valette, the Sultan Suleiman felt useful to attack the Order. Being furious because of the great damage inflicted on land and sea by the galleys of the Knights of the Order, the Sultan raised an immense army against them.”

May 18th – September 7th


The Siege of Malta

The decision of the Sultan, Suleiman the magnificent, to attack the island of Malta was determined not only by the incessant hostile activities of the Knights with their fast galleys against Muslim ships, but also by the exceptional strategic position of the Maltese archipelago located in the center of the Mediterranean , only 50 miles from Sicily. Conquering Malta and its ports, may be also relying on the rivalry between the Christian princes [a well known context in the Ottoman establishment], the Sultan would have created an excellent springboard for the invasion of the Italian peninsula and the conquest of the "Red Apple" [the city of Rome] . During the Great Council [or Diwan, to use the original term], held in October 1564, the decision to attack the island had taken.

From that moment on, feverish preparations for the expedition began. Historians disagree on the size of the Turkish forces, however, even the most cautious estimate indicates a dimension not less than 30,000 men and most of the chroniclers of the time report estimates of around 40,000 men except the sailors, slaves and other non-combatant personnel. To these, we would add the pirates of the northern coasts of Africa, especially from Tripoli and Algiers. The core of the forces consisted of 9,000 Spahis from Anatolia, Karamania and Romania. There were also 4,000 yaya, members of a special corp composed by religious fanatics used to throw in the breccias heedless of death, also because of the effect of substances [but about this we need to be careful and to keep this aspect in its context], 4,000 irregular soldiers and 5,000 “levent” [substantially Marines]. But the most important corp, the real spearhead of the army of Suleiman, consisted of 6,500 Janissaries, the "favorite sons" of the Sultan.


The term Janissary, derives from the Turkish word "yeni - cheri" [new militia]. This special force, the true elite of the Turkish army, had two characteristics: it was almost made ​​by the children of Christian families collected in the provinces annexed to the empire, mainly Balkan, and its members were all servants of the Sultan. In that time for the Turks to be servant of the Sultan was a title of honor. Every five years was declared the “devshirme” or "tribute of children" and teams of recruiters traveled all around the provinces and examined, according to the records of parishes, all children aged seven and up. The strongest and most intelligent ones had brought to Constantinople and, after a hard training period [cultural and military] that lasted several years, they were trained further for careers in the civil administration or the military system. To these elements was not precluded any office nor the highest. Therefore, after the initial trauma, just those Christian families, especially the rural poor ones, were who insisted that their children were enrolled [this is an important point of this phenomenon from a historical perspective]. It was not alleged or imposed conversion to Islam but, of course, the psychological pressure was so great that virtually all of them became Muslims. There is evidence that many Janissaries, however, maintained relationships with their families of origin.


The Janissaries, used the Kilic [Ottoman saber-wide, non-tapered, slightly curved], the gaddara [a knife straight, slightly curved, similar to the "Bowie" from North American lands] and the famous Yatagan with opposed double curvature. As weapons of auction: the Turpan, Ottoman evolution, derived from the Italian “falcione”, the hooked Zipkin and the balta [halberd]. Then there were the arquebus and the Janissaries had become the real masters in using these firearms. The typical Ottoman matchlock guns were longer and had a larger caliber than the Western, the largest, from Algiers, shot a massive ball of 80 g., The lightest, from Greece, a ball from 22 g. The Turkish weapons allowed a longer range and a more precise aim than the European counterpart, but they were more awkward to reload and needed more time.

With the troops, the ships of the expedition transported 80,000 charges for arquebus, 15,000 pounds of gunpowder for cannons and other siege weapons and 25,000 tons of equipment, and other smaller weapons as well as large quantities of rations, necessary because of the inhospitable island. There was obviously the artillery in the use of which the Turks had reached the state of the art. In total, the Turkish fleet counted almost 200 ships.



A mistake?

Severeal historians wonder about the following decision taken by the Sultan:

In fact, he put at the head of the fleet the thirty-five Piali Pasha, a Serb who had married the niece of Suleiman, and as army chief Mustafa Pasha, an old general, a veteran of the Persian wars and Hungarian. This decision would ultimately compromise the success of the company [according to some scholars].

The defense of the isles

The two harbors, Grand Harbour and Marsamxett are separated by a long peninsula (where today stands Valletta) formed by Mount Sciberras; its foothill slopes gently toward the sea. In south-east side of Grand Harbour there are two other small peninsulas separated by a strait. Further north, existed the village of Birgu and a small fort. There were improved and strong defenses, called St. Angelo, separated from the village by a moat with a drawbridge. On the peninsula to the south, the predecessor of La Valette, the Grand Master Claude de la Sengle, had founded a new town, so called Senglea, which had also been fortified; on the land side there was a star bastion which was called St. Michele. This bastion during the siege was the place of Italy, and was garrisoned by the Italian Knights.

On the Sciberras peninsula, where it slopes towards the sea, they built a little star fort, which was called St. Elmo. The fortress with high walls of sandstone and limestone, resting on solid rock, was a good stronghold because the attackers could not dig. Unfortunately, having been built in a hurry, the stone used was not the best quality, and there hadn’t been time to erect mounds and stringers inside to protect the defenders once the enemy had managed to pull in the walls. However, around the fort it had been dug a deep moat and on the land from the sea side outer defenses were raised, respectively, a ravelin and a rider, designed to keep the enemy away from the body of the fort as long as possible. S. Elmo dominated the mouths of the two ports, but unfortunately it was dominated by the heights of Mount Sciberras.

The fourth point in which the defenders would have gathered was the city of Mdina, the ancient capital of Malta, which stood in the interior, on a plateau dominating the whole island.
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  1. Old Comment
    AlpinLuke's Avatar
    Part II – the Knights


    The Order of Malta had gathered on the Isles the following forces:

    541 Knights of the Order as follows:
    Language of Provence: 61 15 Knights and Sergeants;
    Language of Auvergne: 25 Knights and 14 Sergeants;
    Language in France: 57 24 Knights and Sergeants;
    Language of Italy: 164 5 Knights and Sergeants;
    Language of England: 1 Knight;
    Language of Germany: 13 Knights and 1 Sergeant;
    Language of Castile: 68 Knights and 6 Sergeants;
    Language of Aragon: 85 Knights and 1 Sergeant.

    Balbi in his diary makes also a list of the other forces available [not Knights]

    400 Spaniards under the command of Andres de Miranda and Juan de la Cerda, sent by the Viceroy of Sicily;
    200 Italians under the command of Hasdrubal de 'Medici;
    400 Italians under the command of Provencal Massuez Pierre de Vercoyran, said: "Colonel Mas" which was also sent by the Viceroy of Sicily;
    200 Italians under La Motte;
    100 soldiers of the garrison of St. Elmo;
    500 soldiers of the galleys;
    100 attendants of the Grand Master of the Knights;
    200 Greeks and Sicilians resident in Malta;
    500 slaves on galleys and paddlers in the contract (all volunteers);
    3,000 Maltese from all over the island.

    La Valette had been informed of the intentions of the Turks since the fall of 1564 and from that moment he began to storm Europe with requests for help and to take all measures necessary to sustain a long siege. Among the others he had arranged to realize a bridge of boats that connected Birgu Senglea through the arm of the sea [today Dockyard Creek].

    In command of Fort St. Elmo La Valette placed Luigi Broglia, from Piedmont, a Knight over seventy assisted by Giangiacomo Parpalla and as deputy commander the Spanish knight Juan de Guaras. He also reinforced the garrison with 200 foot soldiers under Juan de La Cerda and on several occasions during the siege, with the Italians of Colonel Mas, the knight was guarded by the brothers led by Geronimo Festival.

    As for Mdina La Valette sent there almost all the cavalry of the Order, knowing how important it was to maintain communications with the north island, with Gozo and, through it, with Sicily. The command of the fortress was given to Pedro Mezquita, a Portuguese. S. Michele, as mentioned, the place was garrisoned by the Knights of Italy, including Asdrubal de 'Medici and Anthony Hammer, assisted by the Maltese troops.

    Governor of St. Angelo was Galceran Ros, a Catalan knight, while Juan de Acuña was in command of a reserve consisting of 50 men. Each language was given a part of the walls of Birgu and Senglea. The most sought after, as we shall see, will be the places of Castile, Provence, Aragon and Auvergne.

    The strategic plan was simple: to resist until the arrival of renforcements from the continent or to hope that the Turks, because of the inhospitality of the island in the cold season and the approach of autumn and winter season for navigation, decide to retire. If the Knights had lost Malta there would have been no more place to go. The surrender was not an option.
    Posted May 4th, 2017 at 06:51 AM by AlpinLuke AlpinLuke is offline
  2. Old Comment
    AlpinLuke's Avatar
    It begins ...

    The first Turkish ships were sighted by the lookouts of S. Elmo and S. Angel on May 18, 1565, a Friday. The fleet veered south-east and began to land troops in the deep bay of Marsascirocco. At this point contrasts rose immediately between Mustafa and Piali. The first one wanted to occupy the north of the island, to take the weak Mdina cutting communications with Sicily, then he would have besieged Birgu and Senglea. S. Elmo was possible to be safely ignored. It was an intelligent and rational plan but Piali didn't agree; he argued that the first duty was to ensure a good anchorage for the fleet and the only safe haven was Marsamxett watched only by the small fort. The engineers had assured the Turks they would have been able to conquer the stronghold in a few days. At the end of the discussions Mustafa accepted the point of view of Piali, considering the close relationship of the family of the Admiral with the Sultan. It was therefore decided to attack first S. Elmo.

    The army, therefore, went up north, leaving on its left an undisturbed Mdina, and put his camp in Marsa where the water met the land of the Grand Harbour. After having occupied the highest points of the Sciberras and having built the parapets, the Turkish sappers and artillerymen immediately began to put the guns in battery. On the morning of May 24th Mustafa ordered to open fire on S. Elmo. The bombardment went on for six days while the Musketeers from advanced trenches killed anyone exposing on the walls of the fort. On May 29th, however, the defenders carried out a sortie, which came as a surprise for advanced Turkish lines and that allowed the besieged knights to conquer the height parts of the Sciberras. But here, waiting for them, there were the Janissaries. With their high white caps [Bork] adorned with feathers of the heron , the "favorite sons of the Sultan" advanced Orta [regiment] after orta and, in a 'fierce struggle”, forced the men of St. Elmo to return to the fort. The intense bombardment went on for days, but every night La Valette sent reinforcements and ammunitions from Birgu and retired wounded and dying in the hospital to recover them in the village.

    Saturday, June 2nd Dragut arrived with his men. Dragut Rais, or Torghoud in turkish, was eighty years old and was the most famous and respected Muslim corsair. Among his achievements there had been an attack to Naples with the looting of Castellammare and the conquest of Reggio Calabria, where he had carried off into slavery the entire population. Dragut of Tripoli was carrying 1,500 pikemen and 15 ships with siege guns and ammunitions. The old pirate was quickly aware of the strategic error made by the Turkish Army, but unable to do anything, he simply organized new batteries and he fixed the existing ones more efficiently.
    Posted May 5th, 2017 at 07:38 AM by AlpinLuke AlpinLuke is offline
 

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