On a map of the Mediterranean, Malta is a dot of an island in the Strait of Sicily, between Europe and Africa. This position, plus Malta’s natural harbors, made it a naval prize for many conquerors over thousands of years. The Wikipedia article on the subject mentions, in chronological order, the Phoenicians, Romans, Fatimids, Sicilians, Knights of St. John, French and British. Malta achieved its indepenence from Great Britain in 1964.
I visited Malta recently, which led to reading The Great Siege: Malta 1565 by Ernle Bradford. My father-in-law suggested it, saying it told an incredible story. He was right. The book deserves its five-star rating on Amazon across 23 reviews. At a few hundred paperback pages, it is a concentrated dose of military conflict in extremis.
In 1565 Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Empire at its peak, sent a force of 200 ships and at least 30,000 men against 9,000 men at Malta. The goal was to take Malta and destroy the island’s rulers, the Knights of St. John, a Christian religious order that was the sworn enemy of Suleiman’s Islam. The Knights themselves only totaled 600 on the island and, for purposes of this battle, had no naval counterforce. Thus, their only option was to dig into fortresses and repel the Turkish hordes as they came.
The Turks expected Malta to fall in less than a week. But the Knights’ leader, Jean Parisot de la Valette, correctly anticipated most of the Turkish moves, including the bad ones, and exploited them. Most critically, the Turks went straight for the kill, failing to first sever the Knights’ communication and reinforcement lines, both within the island and to the outside world. This mistake allowed the Knights to hold Fort St. Elmo, a weaker fort at the first line of defense, for a month through nighttime reinforcement. In the last days of Fort St. Elmo, the nightly reinforcements knew the goal was not to win but rather to die in the process of prolonging the enemy’s advance. Hundreds of volunteers went willingly.
Here we have a key feature of the conflict. On both sides were holy warriors whose highest purpose was to die in service of the faith. The Turks had the Janissaries, which were something like today’s Special Forces except they were conscripted and trained for this elite role from the age of seven, when they were taken from Christian families living in the Ottoman Empire. Janissaries were subject to the harshest training and discipline, denied marriage or any familial connections, and were singularly forged for war. On the other side, the Knights were elite fighters drawn from the aristocracy of many nations, with hundreds of years of warfare lessons and lore. The Knights had the added fervor of those fighting for their order’s very existence. With these ingredients in the mix, the chance of a limited, gentlemen’s war was nil.
For example, after Fort St. Elmo was conquered, the Turk leaders floated the mutilated bodies of several Knights across the harbor as a calling card. In response, la Valette had Turk prisoners decapitated, then fired their heads from canons back at the Turks. Bradford neither spares such details nor glorifies them, yet he uses them to substantial effect in illustrating the conflict’s brutality.
The book was published in 1961, and Bradford’s battle descriptions have an appropriately old-school, epic quality:
For six hours the Turks attacked, hurling themselves regardless of losses against the thin line of defenders. For six hours the battle swayed back and forth, trembling sometimes in the balance, but always—as the smoke and dust clouds cleared away—revealing the besieged still active with arquebus, cold steel, or artificial fire.
At several key junctures, the Knights could have lost. But through a combination of luck, crafty deceit, and superhuman effort, they withstood months of continuous bombardment, plus regular all-out assaults aimed at delivering the final blow.
The most dramatic turning point was when the Turks burrowed underground and mined one of the last walls protecting the Knights. The explosion breached the wall and surprised the Knights. Seeing the chaos that ensued as the Turks charged the breach, the seventy-year-old la Valette grabbed a pike and personally led the counterstrike, rallying his men to drive the Turks out.
While one might question whether such heroics were exaggerated over the years, the siege was documented in detail at the time, as it happened. Bradford draws from those primary sources. He adds insightful analysis about the strategies pursued, as well as missed, by the various players.
After nearly four months under siege, the Knights prevailed. The Turks had been taking losses on the wrong side of a 4 to 1 ratio. Demoralized, depleted, and increasingly infested with disease, the Turks gave up when they saw Spanish reinforcements for the Knights arrive.
The vastly outnumbered Knights—along with allied soldiers and, near the end, seemingly every man, woman, and child of Malta at the barricades—had beat back one of the most powerful military machines of the time. Although long ago disbanded as a military force, the Knights of St. John are now better known by history as the Knights of Malta.
If it was fiction, the story of the 1565 siege would be a gripping enough tale. As fact, it is a true legend, well told by Bradford’s The Great Siege: Malta 1565.
[Update, 9/7/2009: I didn’t notice that Amazon, where I usually point book links, does not stock the book. The third-party sellers on Amazon start at $57 used, although there is another paperback edition at Amazon starting at $29 used; there is no Kindle edition. Also, Alibris has some used listings starting around $20. Of course, that’s all as of 9/7/2009. If you’ve wandered to this page at a much later date, the prices will be different.]