Malta hardly ever grabs world headlines and rarely plays a pivotal role on the world stage. It wasn’t always so but when it has happened the island normally came out with flying colours.
450 years ago on the 18th of May 1565 an ominous sight appeared on the horizon outside Marsaxlokk Bay in Malta - the formidable Turkish armada made up of some 193 ships, by all accounts one of the largest battle fleets assembled since antiquity. The objective was simple – to rid the Mediterranean once and for all of the Knights Hospitallers and their successful harassment and piratical acts on Ottoman shipping. The Great Siege of Malta was about to start, a veritable David and Goliath contest with the Ottoman troops numbering some 28,000 ranked against a motley Knights’ army of 6000, including some 3,000 soldiers drawn from the Maltese population.
The Turks immediately started their bombardment on Fort St. Elmo – at the time the only building on the promontory of Mount Sceberras where Valletta would later be built. The fort was practically reduced to rubble within a week but de Valette ignored its defenders’ pleas to surrender, instead replenishing the fort nightly with fresh men and artillery in order to hold out for as long as possible. The fort finally fell on 23rd June and its 1,500 defenders were all killed. The Turks could now secure the heights of Sceberras and thus have Birgu and Senglea well in their crosshairs. But St. Elmo had cost them dearly with the loss of 6,000 men, including half of their elite Janissary troops.
July and August saw a relentless blitz on Senglea and Birgu with further heavy loss of life on both sides. The Turks had by now ringed both towns with some 65 siege guns and subjected them to what was probably the most sustained bombardment in history up to that time. Various tales of heroism have come down to us – most notably de Valette’s personal and courageous presence in the thick of the action at Birgu.
By this time word of the siege had reached Europe and a Christian relief force started being assembled in Sicily. England’s Queen Elizabeth I wrote at the time “If the Turks should prevail against the Isle of Malta, it is uncertain what further peril might follow to the rest of Christendom”.
By early September the weather fortunately took a turn for the worse and the Turks mounted a march on Mdina, intending to winter there. Poorly defended Mdina fired its guns, a ruse which surprisingly succeeded in scaring away the now demoralised invaders. News of the much awaited relief force making land at Saint Paul’s Bay on 7th September appeared to be the last straw and on the morrow the siege was lifted and the Turks started embarking their artillery and fled the island a few days later.
The casualties were high - 10,000 on the Turkish side and around 3,000 militiamen on the side of the Knights plus some 7,000 Maltese civilians. Thus ended in ignominy one of the Ottoman Empire’s greatest misadventures – further compounded a few years later when their fleet was all but obliterated at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
The Maltese still commemorate the 8th of September as Il-Vitorja – the victory.