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Empires of the Sea
The contest for the central Mediterranean hinged on the tiny island of Malta, held for Philip II of Spain by the military order of the Knights of St John, under their grand master, Jean de La Valette. In 1565 Sultan Suleiman dispatched a huge invasion force to seize the island. Its first and key objective was the tiny fort of St Elmo, held by just five hundred men. The Ottoman engineers calculated that it would fall in five days. Seventeen days later it was still resisting. Now increasingly frustrated, the Ottoman commander, Mustapha Pasha, decided on a final, all-out attack.
Mustapha began what he hoped would be the final preparations with the time-honoured Ottoman tactics: continuous bombardment day and night, skirmishes, localized attacks and innumerable false alarms – all designed to leave the defenders sleepless and exhausted ahead of the last push. Labour corps worked incessantly, trying to fill in the ditches with earth and bundles of brushwood, while arquebus fire rattled the parapets. The defenders hampered these attempts as best they could They set fire to the brushwood and shot dead the brilliantly attired Aga of the janissaries, which caused great disturbance in the Ottoman camp. The night of 15 June saw another thumping artillery barrage under a moon. Then silence.
In the pre-dawn of 16 June, a lone voice broke the stillness. The mullahs summoned the men to prayers; for two hours the priests called and the men responded in a gathering rhythmic crescendo to psych them up to fight and die. The defenders crouched behind their makeshift barricades, listening to the eerie chants rising and falling in the darkness beyond. La Valette had sent further reinforcements across and the defenders, if already weary, were well ordered. Each man had his duty and his post. They were grouped in threes: one arquebusier to two pikemen. There were men assigned to drag away the dead and three mobile troops to reinforce wherever the need was greatest. Large quantities of fire weapons had been stock piled, rocks gathered, and quantities of bread soaked in wine. Barrels of water stood behind the parapets into which men torched by adhesive fire could hurl themselves.
As the sun rose, there was a further searching barrage of fire ‘so that the earth and the air shook’, and then Mustapha signalled the advance along a huge crescent. Suleiman’s imperial standard was unfurled; a turban was hoisted on a spear; farther down the line there was an answering puff of smoke. An extraordinary array of banners and shields were visible surging forward, ‘painted with extraordinary designs; some with devices of different birds, some with scorpions and with Arab lettering’. In the front rank men dressed in leopard skins with eagle headdresses ran wildly towards the walls, calling out the name of Allah in a crescendo of shouts. From the battlements came the Christian countercalls: Jesus, Mary, St Michael, St James and St George – ‘according to the devotion of each man’. There was a furious push towards the bridge; scaling ladders were put to the walls and battle was joined. The whole front was a struggling mass of humanity fighting hand to hand. Men were thrown back from the ladders and hurled off the bridge. In the tumult men shot their own side and the enemy simultaneously. The westerly wind blew the smoke from their guns back into the defenders’ faces so that they were temporarily blinded; then a stock of unstable incendiaries caught light and burned many men to death.
On Birgu they watched the unfolding battle, ‘with our minds split, wondering how we could help our men in such grave peril’. Individual details stood out. Balbi glimpsed an individual soldier silhouetted against the skyline, ‘fighting like one inspired, with a flame thrower in his hands’. They could also make out a small colourful band of Turks hurling themselves forward in a mass; in the competition between the army and navy, thirty leading galley captains had sworn ‘to enter the fort or die together’. With scaling ladders they climbed up onto the cavalier at the rear of the fort. La Valette ordered his gunners at St Angelo to aim at the intruders. The shot was misdirected and killed eight defenders. Calmly the others on the cavalier signalled to the gunners across the water to redirect their fire. The second attempt landed in the middle of the raiding party, killing twenty of them: ‘those who remained were dispatched with fire and steel and their bodies thrown below; not one of them escaped,’ recorded Balbi. Mustapha and Turgut were plainly visible in their brilliant robes, urging the men on, but the furious assault on the cavalier failed. Fire hoops tore through the Ottoman ranks, ‘so that the enemy seemed to be crowned and encircled with fire’; men were pitched off the wall; the ditch started to fill with dead. The brightly coloured Ottoman banners planted on the parapets were ripped down. Captain Medrano seized one; a moment later he was shot through the head, but two of the iconic standards were torn to pieces. The sultan’s personal banner was captured. Miranda was wounded but had himself hauled into a chair by the parapet with his sword in his hands. After seven hours of heavy fighting, the attack started to falter; the Ottomans withdrew their men. Triumphant shouting carried across the water: ‘Victory and the Christian faith!’ The day belonged to the exhausted garrison. Hardly able to stand they watched as the enemy withdrew. It was a victory of sorts, though at a high price: 150 men dead, a third of the garrison. And the final riposte to their triumphant cries was a voice calling out in Italian: ‘Keep quiet. If not today, tomorrow will be your last.’
The Italian renegade who had instigated this attack did not live to enjoy his escape. A few days later, wearing Turkish dress, he was caught in the countryside by Maltese from Mdina, tied to a horse’s tail and beaten to death by children with sticks. Each day made the conflict more ugly.