Malta: A Tale of Two Sieges IV
The Great Siege: The Final Stand and Aftermath
We now continue our chronicle of the 1565 Great Siege of Malta with the gruelling desperate last stand to what is undoubtedly one of the most epic battles in the history of warfare and a story which reads like an adventure novel.
The first two assaults on the bulk of the fortresses of St Michael and St Angelo had cost the Ottomans dearly. The exact number of losses in these attacks cannot be determined but in the first attack alone, 3,000 are believed to have been killed. Following these assaults, the eye witness, Francisco Balbi described the forts thus: “It seemed as if the two peninsulas had risen from the sea like two new smoking volcanoes, the one a Vesuvius, the other an Aetna”
The 7th of August 1565, saw the assault was renewed after another 5 days of relentless bombardment. The defenders must have trembled as from whichever bastion or embrasure that they looked they could see nothing but the standards of the Grande Turke. From every point of the compass they were under fire and no lull would they be offered until the very moment of the attack which fell simultaneously on Birgu and Senglea. Like an ant swarm Piala’s troops swept over the ditch in front of the ramparts of Castille and into a wide breach that the pounding of cannon fire had created. Impatient of victory they surged forward into the gap only to find another wall blocking their way. La Valette had this second wall built so that if the enemy found their way past the main bastion, they would find themselves trapped in the narrow space between the walls. This is exactly what happened to the attackers now. The bewildered Turkish troops now came under devastating fire from the garrison on the walls and they were slaughtered in their hundreds. There was no rapid withdrawal for them as their vast numbers pressed in from behind and by the time full realization of what was going the attackers began to waiver and the Knights and the other defenders took the initiative and swords in hand turned the Turkish indecision into a rout.
All the while, Mustapha’s forces were storming Fort St Michael, taking a foothold in the citadel. Gradually the weight of Ottoman numbers began to tell and they had the clear ascendency in the battle. The Turkish Commander in Chief, like Valette and Dragut was a master military strategist and he knew when to take decisive action and the thus the seventy-year-old war veteran came down at the head of his body guard, sword in hand, cheering on his followers with promises of booty. At this point the Janissaries were at the final onslaught. The garrison of St Michael were rapidly forced backward. They looked hopelessly toward Birgu to see if any reinforcements would come from their brothers, but the garrison at Birgu had their own battle to fight. Victory for Mustapha seemed imminent.
Then, the unbelievable happened. Clear, above the sound of battle the Turks heard the sound to retreat. Senglea within their grasp the Janissaries were as hard to call off as a pack of wolves. The walls where the Turkish flags had recently waived were now almost deserted. The defenders were as baffled as were the attackers. They couldn’t imagine any reason for this retreat except that the unthinkable had happened and a relief force had finally come from Sicily. This is what Mustapha Pasha also believed must have been the justification which robbed him of an imminent victory. The truth was remarkable. That morning, the Chevalier Mesquita, Governor of Mdina, knowing that that a major assault on the two harbour forts was under way suspected that the Ottoman camp in the Marsa would be left lightly defended. He therefore sent his entire cavalry unit to attack the Ottoman camp, taking out the sentries and then they were among the sick and wounded and the slaves that had tended them. The ropes to the tents were cut and the silk and canvas material set ablaze. The stores and provisions were destroyed and the horses killed or taken back to Mdina. The invaders, who lay defenceless in their tents, were massacred. As his troops streamed back to retake their positions, Mustapha swore vengence’. “By the bones of my fathers….I swear that when I take these citadels, I will spare no man. All, shall be put to the sword. Only their Grandmaster will I take alive. Him alone will I lead in chains- to kneel at the feet of the Sultan.”
The assault on the beleaguered towns and fortresses was renewed, sappers tunnelled under the massive walls. On the morning of the 18th, with a deafening bombardment continuing, all was ready for the next coordinated attack. Mustapha’s engineers reported to him that the mine under the Bastion of Castille was ready and that it’s explosion would be sufficient to bring the wall down. An excessively strong bombardment on Senglea warned them that an attack was imminent. Mustapha planned to have Piala hold his men back from attacking St Angelo while he assaulted Senglea hoping to lure La Valette into sending aid to Senglea and at the same time detonating the mine under Castille. The blow, when it fell, though not unexpected, was devastating in its effect. When the mine went up it brought down a massive portion of the wall with it. The instant it fell, the crazed Iayalars and the disciplined Janissaries were through the breach-even before the dust and smoke had cleared. For a while panic ensued among the defenders. They staggered back and it seemed certain that the fort would be lost.
Indecision by Valette now, would have meant disaster, but the Grand Master did not waiver a moment. The intrepid old man, without even placing on his full armour, and rushed to meet the enemy. Seizing a pike from a nearby soldier, he called his staff to follow and headed towards the breach in Castille. Seeing the Grand Master rushing with knights following into the point of danger. Those that were wavering were heartened to hear that the Grand Master himself went to battle and so bold a charge did the Grand Master make with his knights the tide was turned. A grenade exploded near La Valette and he was wounded in the leg. Knights and soldiers from everywhere came rushing to the attack to defend their Grand Master and the Turkish forces began to yield.
The following day another attack came and it was the worst so far in the siege of St Angelo. La Valette felt at times that the end was near. Many lost their lives this day, including La Valette’s nephew, Henri de la Valette. The state of Birgu was now as bad as Senglea, since the two forts had sustained more than two months of constant bombardment. Nearly every house was in ruins and the walls were crumbling. No amount of work would repair the breach in Castille and the breach and the fort itself seemed to be on fire. Many of the senior knights had counselled La Valette to withdraw everyone from Birgu to St Angelo. He wisely declined this advice, knowing that to have done so would have had St Angelo draw the full force of the Ottoman artillery and also leave the villages of Birgu to their own devices. This he would not do.
By the end of August, the state of the defences and the defenders was desperate. Hardly a person did not suffer a wound and the attackers will still many thousands despite their heavy losses, while the defenders numbered only a few hundred. ‘Yet it was the invincible morale of the Christians, animated by the superb example of the Grand Master which gave them the superiority. Several further attacks followed over the following two weeks, before the long waited for relief force finally came, notably one on 1st September. Rendered desperate by the lateness of the year and the fear of the fleet in the waters around Malta in the expected storms that would likely soon come as well as the lack of stores, the Ottomans threw everything at the knights and their supporters. It was as though, with this last throw, they wanted to make good all their previous losses. This too met with high losses and failure.
In the final chapter in this chronicle will look at the long-awaited arrival of the relief force and final victory and the aftermath.