1565: The Great Siege of Malta
There is a reason that the Mediterranean has been home to countless powerful empires, it’s the sea itself. Controlling the sea meant controlling trade, and though we tend to remember history through conquests, access to trade has moved history along as well. Soon after the taking of Constantinople, the Ottomans focused on picking off some of the prominent islands of the Mediterranean.
Rhodes was among the first, just off the coast of modern Turkey. The Rhodians had a valiant and victorious defense under the Knights Hospitaller in 1480, but the island was taken by overwhelming force 42 years later. The Knights moved their headquarters westward to Malta.
Malta was great for sailing with many naturally protected harbors but had little else, so the Knights became raiders and pirates. This was not seen as so dishonorable because the Knights targeted the Ottomans. Eventually, after a 1564 raid that captured dozens of high-ranking Ottomans, the Turks had enough and sent a massive fleet of about 200 ships with 40,000 infantry to the small island.
Spies in Istanbul gave the Grandmaster, Jean Parisot de Valette almost a year to prepare as the fleet assembled. Impressive forts sprung up between the harbors and the defenders looked ready, but the Ottomans had a not-so-secret weapon, Dragut. Dragut was an admiral who gained fame for victories in naval battles and coastal raids and assaults. He had raided as far as the coast of Spain and captured fortified cities in Dalmatia and Libya. Though just one part of the fleet, the Christians feared him greatly; he was known as “the drawn sword of Islam” and “the uncrowned king of the Mediterranean”.
In 1565 the Ottomans arrived to find the impressive stone forts well defended. There were about 9,000 defenders but the majority were well-trained and disciplined Knights Hospitaller. The attack began at Fort St. Elmo which occupied a peninsula dividing two important harbors.
Some of the best knights led the defense as Turkish cannons practically leveled the fort before assaults began. During the assault, a stray cannonball sent lethal shrapnel into Dragut, who soon perished. The most feared piece of the Ottoman forces was killed only a few weeks into the siege.
Over 1,500 defenders were killed as the fort was taken, but 6,000 Ottomans lost their lives in the assault, including a huge proportion of the elite Janissaries. In anger, the Ottoman commander floated the headless bodies of the knights down the harbor to the other defenders. Soon the Turkish troops were bombarded by severed heads as de Valette decapitated his Turkish prisoners and had the heads shot from the cannons, again illustrating the lack of humanity present throughout these wars.
Fighting raged for months and the other Christian nations realized the peril they would be in if the Ottomans took Malta, the gateway to the Western Mediterranean. A small 600-man relief force greatly raised the spirits of the defenders and a raid and massacre at a Turkish field hospital caused the retreat of one of the more successful Turkish assaults to that point.
Eventually, a 6,000-man relief army arrived just as the Turks were thinking about leaving anyway; they had already lost over a quarter of their men to fighting and disease. As the Turks retreated the overzealous relief force charged and caused a massacre of the retreating Turks. As many as 35,000 Ottomans were killed, including sailors, and the small 9,000-man garrison withstood the might of the Ottomans, though many of their fortifications were destroyed.
Over 125,000 cannonballs were reportedly fired into Maltese fortifications, killing up to a third of the civilian population. This victory coupled with the death of the most feared naval leader, Dragut, gave the Christians hope that they could challenge Ottoman naval superiority in the Mediterranean, something they did a few years later at Lepanto.