2007 September/monastic military orders

Historians generally concur in the estimation that result of the siege of Malta by Suleiman the Magnificent, decisively determined the history of Europe. Had Malta fallen, the progress of the Ottoman Empire through Italy and southern Europe would have been a foregone conclusion.

If the Siege of Malta can then be considered as a hinge upon which the history of Europe was to turn, then in the same way the campaign to take Fort St Elmo can be considered as the hinge upon which the fate of the 1565 campaign turned.

As mentioned in an earlier issue, the inclement weather that sweeps the island of Malta was the first major consideration in the Ottoman scheme. Without a suitable harbour to provide refuge from sudden storms, the Turkish fleet would have to hazard the Sultan’s navy off the exposed coastline of Malta. This factor determined the choice of Mustapha Pasha’s and Admiral Piali’s decision to obtain a secure refuge for the fleet as a precursor to the rest of the campaign. The most tenable site was that of the harbour of Marscumuscetto. From the pictures in this issue you can see that the harbour would have provided the Turks with the perfect haven for the fleet but the one obstacle to their aim was the presence of an antiquated starshaped fort named, St Elmo. St Elmo stood on the seaward shore of the Sciberras Peninsula that divides Marscumescetto Harbour from Grand Harbour, and commands the entrances to both harbours.You can see from the pictures that St Elmo overlooked the natural anchorage of Marscumescetto and that any attempt to succour the Sultan’s fleet within its precincts would expose the ships to bombardments from cannons that could be effortlessly trained on them from the fort. Piali and Mustapha Pasha decided, therefore, that the capture of Fort St Elmo was to be effected immediately. Engineers were dispatched to view the fortifications. They soon reported that the antiquated star-shaped fort would fall to the heavy bombardments that the siege guns of the Turks could effect, and that the fort could be overwhelmed in a matter of days. The Turks were the greatest masters of siege tactics of the age and the two commanders had little doubt that the eight pointed knight’s cross that swayed over puny Fort St Elmo would soon be replaced by the crescent moon of the Turk.

Fort Saint Elmo was to become the scene of some of the most intense fighting of the siege. From Mount Scriberras and from batteries on the north arm of Marsamuscetto Harbour the Turks commenced a bombardment such as to defy the imagination. All the experience garnered from years of siege warfare by theTurks reached its apogee at the siege of Rhodes and at Malta. At Rhodes the Grand Turk had been succesful. Now Fort St Elmo was to defy his fury. The initial garrison of the fort consisted of one hundred knights and seven hundred soldiers, including around four hundred Italian soldiers. During the siege the garrison was constantly reinforced by boat from the forts across Grand Harbour that braved the fire of the Turks to withdraw the severely wounded and to reinforce the garrison with men and materials. Despite their superiority in manpower and weapons the Turkish siege of St Elmo did not produce the immediate desired results. With the arrival on Malta of the legendary corsair, Dragut, a new impetus was given to the assaults. Dragut, whose formidable history cloaked him in an aura of authority that brooked no defiance, was the only man able to reconcile the opposing interests of the navy and army. With his arrival the outlook for the harrased defenders of St Elmo looked grim. Concentrated fire power tore away the at the sandstone fortifications of St Elmo. Huge gaps appeared in the walls and after the cannonades the Iayalrs, the Dervishes, the Spahi’s and the Algerians launched their fanatical assaults. Not only did the small garrison repulse wave after wave of attacks but incredibly they even took the initiative against the 40 000 strong army of the Turk. Leaving the safety of the fort, the Knights and their auxilliaries swept across the strip of land between St Elmo and the enemy camp, and soon came to grips with their foes. Unbelievably the great Muslim horde began to give way as panic set in amongst the Ottoman soldiers. To the watchers upon Castle St Angelo it looked as if this small corps of men would throw the entire Turkish host into the sea. But this was not to be. Mustapha Pasha realised that the impossible situation had to be reversed. To the front of the army he now summoned the Janisseries, the Yeni Cheri, the elite of the Sultan’s elite forces. With their white heron plumes waving behind them and their scimitars and short shield before them these ultimate warriors ran at the Christan ranks with the cry of ‘Allah’ upon their lips. Neither the bravery or skill of that small band of Catholic soldiers that had started an engagement that had seemed so full of promise, nor the withering fire of the guns of St Angelo could stay the assault of the Jannesieries. Into the Christian ranks they plunged. Soon the Soldiers of Christ were overwhelmed or flying for the safety of Fort St Elmo. Once again the men who claimed that the body of a Janessery was merely a steppingstone into the breach had made good their claims to be of the finest soldiers that the world had ever produced.

The position of the garrison of St Elmo was now even more vulnerable. The Janneseries last assault had carried them across a strategically important ravelin from whose eminence the Ottomans could now pour cannon and musket fire at an even closer range onto the besieged. The courage of the Knights and their auxuillary troops during this time was nothing short of heroic. They faced constant bombardment, at the ending of which they had to confront the waves of Ottoman soldiers that were hurled at them. To some it must have seemed that only a merciless comamnder could keep them at their posts instead of withdrawing them to Castle St Angelo, Birgu or Senglea. La Valette was not such a man but he knew that every day that he could contain the Turkish advance before the walls of Fort St Emo meant a greater chance for the survival of the island. La Valette’s hopes for the arrival of a relief force lay with Don Garcia De Toledo, the Spanish governor of Sicily. Despite the growing fury of the Knights of St John who were arriving in Sicily to join the relief force, Don Garcia was recalcitrant. It may be that Garcia did not wish to to hazard all of his forces in attempting to relieve the Knights of St John for he knew, as did La Valette, that nothing stood between the Turk and southern Europe except for the island of Malta. If Malta was to be relieved, the force brought to bear against Mustapha Pasha must be such as to offer at the very least a chance of equitable combat. To send small groups of soldiers out in a few galleys was to invite their destruction by Piali’s navy. As time wore on the relief force grew and in time Don Garcia would feel confident enoug to hazard a crossing to Malta. At present however he would not hear of it. While the Knights of St John complained bitterly to the tardy Spanish governor their brethren were fighting and dying in the runs of St Elmo.