Ernle Bradford has put together the history of Malta’s 1565 siege when the island was held by the Knights of St John (Hospitallers). Originally based on Rhodes, the Knights had been divested of their home where they were both hospitallers and a mixture of religious corsairs and soldiers. Their members were made up of many national origins, “the most remarkable body of religious warriors that the world has ever seen…” Many of the Knights were French, but there were other European members, the serving brothers whose main business was military and the Magistral Knights who were nominated by the Grand Master. As the order declined in morale and power many abuses crept in, but in the 16th century when Malta came under threat they were ruled by Jean Parisot de la Valette of France. The Knights of St John had been domiciled on the island of Malta for twenty-seven years, when they came under threat from the Moslem forces led on the ground by the army of Mustapha, and at sea by Admiral Piali. Sultan Soleyman the First, also sent the corsair Dragut, a man who had laid waste of much of the Italian coastline and carried off thousands of slaves.
The attack began in May and the first objective was to destroy the castle of St Elmo. Unfortunately when Admiral Piali, in order to impress Dragut had tried to arrange an attack on St Elmo, only a few shots hit the seaward walls. Most of the cannon balls passed over the fort to fall among the Turkish forces on the other side. Nevertheless “From the moment that Dragut arrived it was clear that a coordinating brain had taken charge of the Turkish forces.”
The Turkish losses were heavy for the defenders made use of wildfire, and the firework hoop. The impact on the Moslems in their loose-flowing light robes was devastating, though it did not stop the capture of the ravelin (a counterscarp or outwork of fortifications located in front of the innerworks of a fortress). On 10 June the first great night attack of the siege took place. The Historian of the Order, Bosio commented: “During the great siege, some there were from almost every Nation who fled over to the Infidels. But of the native-born Maltese there was never a single one.”
Unfortunately names have not been passed down on paper, but the folklore exists. Men such as Toni Bajada, swimmer, horseman and something of a Mediterranean Robin Hood. The Knights were the “steel spine” of the defence, but it was on the five or six thousand Maltese men of military age, that the main defence of Malta rested.
St Elmo fell on 23 June. This small fort, which logically should have been stormed or forced to surrender within a week, was a disaster for the Turkish army. The Knights lost about 1,500 men, and most historians put the losses of the Turks at around 8,000. The Turkish forces had vastly overrated their military skills and the Knights and Maltese used a number of subterfuges to continue their defence as the battles for other Maltese strongholds continued.
Ultimately, the Turkish forces were defeated. But at what awful cost? The island was devastated. Thousands had died. It is hard to imagine the feelings of the Knights and their soldiers as they looked at what was left to them. A barren place littered with corpses. They slowly began the task of rebuilding the island. Perhaps at some point they began to rebuild their shattered lives.