This edited article about Malta originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 977 published on 29 November 1980.
On the morning of May 18th, AD 1565, sentries on the walls of Fort St. Elmo and Fort St. Angelo guarding the Grand Harbour of Malta watched the dawn haze slowly clear. Suddenly one of them uttered a cry of warning. Slowly emerging from the mist a daunting armada of almost 200 Turkish men-o’-war appeared, together with numerous small support vessels.
The ships, carrying upwards of 30,000 troops, were the invading army of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, the 71-year-old leader of the Ottoman Empire. His war galleys had conquered most of the countries bordering the Eastern Mediterranean, and he was determined to destroy for ever the Knights of the Order of St. John in their refuge on Malta.
For more than two centuries Christian soldiers fighting as Crusaders had tried to establish their religion in the East and release Jerusalem from the control of the Moslem “infidels”, but gradually the many expeditions, or crusades, had been beaten back by the followers of Islam.
Almost 40 years before the attack on Malta, the Knights of St. John, then under the leadership of Grand Master de L’Isle Adam, had been driven out of the Mediterranean island of Rhodes and forced to find a new base on Malta. They turned their new haven into a strong fortress from which their own galleys could range far and wide to harass and attack Turkish merchant ships.
These galleys were not unlike those depicted in the fictional story of Ben Hur, the hero being himself a galley slave. Typical galleys, whether Turkish or Maltese, were similar in many respects to the Roman fighting ships of many centuries earlier.
They were usually up to 60 metres long with a beam of about six metres. In the shallow hold the galley slaves were chained six to a bench. Officers in charge of the slaves had a long whip with which they flogged the naked bodies of the seated oarsmen. On a galley with 26 rows of benches, 280 oarsmen worked to thrust the vessel through the water as fast as possible so that the great ram on the bows could crash into the sides of any enemy vessel.
It was because of these often successful forays by the Knight’s galleys, culminating in the capture of a Turkish merchantman loaded with a rich cargo destined for the Sultan himself, that the Turkish battle fleet was now preparing to land a powerful force on Malta and wipe out this last Christian stronghold. Once Malta had been subjugated there would be nothing to prevent the great Ottoman Empire extending its influence to Sicily and eventually North Africa.
The Turks had already made two earlier attempts to capture the rocky island, but had been forced to withdraw, although they did invade the neighbouring island of Gozo, where they took prisoner almost the entire population of unarmed civilians.
The Grand Master was now John de la Valette, whose name has been given to the island’s capital of Valetta. He had been expecting a further major attack and had done a great deal of work strengthening the already redoubtable defences.
Ranged against the far superior Turkish force, the Knights had 592 of their own Order of St. John, and about 8,500 trained fighting men, including 6,000 Maltese. The defenders were under no illusions as to how they would be treated if the Turks succeeded in taking them prisoner. They were gruesomely reminded of this when at one point of the battle they saw the bodies of the garrison of Fort St. Elmo drifting past them in the water tied to wooden poles.
It is said that the Grand Master was so angered by what he saw that he ordered some Turkish slaves to be executed, and had their heads fired from the canons over the battlements.
After a bloody battle, the Turkish ships forced their way into the Grand Harbour and set about pounding the defences with their siege guns. After 30 days, the ceaseless bombardment the battered garrison of Fort St. Elmo finally had to surrender. The Turks paid a high price – 8,000 of their men died, besides many wounded, compared with 1,200 of the defenders.
Because the rest of the island was virtually undefended, the Turks had no difficulty in landing thousands of their troops, including 6,000 of their fanatical janissaries – hand-picked assault troops of the Sultan. For weeks the battle swayed to and fro, with the Turks trying to take the old walled city of M’dina on the southern heights of the island, and making constant assaults on the forts of St. Angelo and St. Michael.
At St. Michael’s, which the Turks over-ran at one point in the battle, even women and children took part in the fighting until the Knights sent reinforcements and recaptured the fort. The Great Siege, as it was later called, lasted four months in all, and the Turks finally retired when help was sent to the Knights from the Viceroy of Sicily, the only Christian country to send aid.
Though the Knights, and Malta, had other storms to weather, the threat from the Ottoman Empire was never to be renewed.
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