Zach – Welcome back to Minimum Wage Historian and we have a special presentation for you today. We are going to embark on an adventure so epic, so unbelievably bone crunchingly awesome that it could only be found in history books and not Hollywood.
Anna – For once Zach isn’t exaggerating. This story is a more desperate stand than Rourke’s Drift, Bastogne and Helm’s Deep combined.
Zach – The topic is: The 1565 Siege of Malta. The full force of the Ottoman Turks smashes against a tiny island fortress guarded by the Knights of St. John.
Anna – But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with introducing our panelists.
Zach – Of course. First we have Tomoe Gozen, woman samurai and head taker. Then we have Matilda of Tuscany, Medieval countess who fought the Germans. Then we have Scipio Africanus, Roman general and conqueror of Carthage. Next is…oh boy, Boudica, woman warrior that fought Rome. Then we have Napoleon Bonaparte who wasn’t as short as they say. Then Gaspar Correia, Portuguese conquistador and historian. And last and not least because she’d burn my house down, Olga of Kiev, Russian saint that specialized in blood soaked rampages of vengeance.
Napoleon – Your introductions stink!
Olga – You said there would be milk and cookies, dah?
Boudica – I’m not sitting next to a Roman dog.
Scipio – Would today’s topic be about slaughtering barbarians by any chance?
Zach – (laughs nervously) Aren’t we all full of energy today. Please, no one kill anyone. We have too much to discuss.
Matilda – Yes, so let us get to it then. I shall start by giving a history and description of the Knights of Malta: the Knights of St. John.
They were one of many knightly orders that began in the Crusades. The Knights of St. John, or the Knights Hospitallers started off as a group of monks trying to set up some hospitals for pilgrims and wounded crusaders. But as time passed, the need to protect the pilgrim routes grew and the Knights of St. John grew more militant. They soon became a powerful fighting force answerable only to the Pope.
Scipio – But every fighting force needs a good leader. Let me tell you of the man who led these knights during this Great Siege. His name was Jean Parisot de la Valette, a French knight with a long history of crusading in his family.
Napoleon – Ha! Of course he’s French.
Scipio – indeed. This was a man with one purpose in life, to destroy the enemies of Christendom. He joined the Order at the age of twenty and never looked back. He was a very strict man that was stern with discipline and didn’t let emotion get in the way of his thinking. He would have made a fine Roman! He spoke many languages including Italian, Greek, Arabic and Turkish. He also spent a year as a galley slave when he was captured by the Turks. Only the toughest of men survived below decks. This was a tradition that dated back to my time fighting the Carthaginians and before that with the Greeks at Salamis. In fact, the ships were nearly the same as well. La Valette was a hard man. These were not times that awarded the weak. One had to be strong to survive and La Valette was one of the strongest. He rose through the order’s ranks and became its Grand Master. Everyone that met him respected him. A natural leader and a man that could give everything for a cause.
Boudica – But he was an anarchistic throw back to the Medieval Crusades. (Didn’t think a barbarian like me knew that word, right?) The Knights were viewed as backwards zealots and old fashioned. Which was one of the reasons they received so little support from the rest of Europe.
Tomoe – His rival was the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. The Ottoman Empire saw its golden age and peak of power under this powerful ruler. He controlled an Empire that stretched from Austria to Persia. He had conquered most of Eastern Europe and the Mid-East. He now wanted Italy. To accomplish this, he needed Malta as a staging ground for invasion. Here are some of his titles:
“Sultan of the Ottomans, Allah’s Deputy on Earth, Lord of the Lords of this world, Possessor of Men’s necks, King of Believers and unbelievers, Emperor of the East and the West,” and so on and so on. This man controlled the most powerful empire of its time.
Anna – Barbarians! They expanded at the cost of the Roman Empire. I shall never forgive them.
Boudica – But you’re not Roman, you’re Byzantine.
(Room falls silent.)
Napoleon – Did she just…?
Zach – She did.
Boudica – What?
(Anna rises to her feet.)
Anna – You take that back, heathen barbarian.
Boudica – What did I say?
(Zach whispers in Boudica’s ear.)
Boudica – Oh..l get it. She’s overly sensitive about not being considered Roman. Gotcha.
Zach – Let it go, Anna.
Scipio – Let us discuss the armies involved in this war.
Napoleon – Agreed! I will start with the Turkish Janissaries. These were the elite, creme de la creme of the Turkish army. These men were recruited at a young age from the non-Muslim populations under the Empire’s control. They were trained in harsh and rigid conditions to make the ultimate, unbreakable soldier. Obviously they were nothing compared my personal bodyguard of cavalry, but they would do. They were shock troops and excellent snipers. They were the spear point.
Matilda – “Spear point?” Isn’t that a German term?
Napoleon – I would never stoop so low as to use a German term or German anything! I don’t even eat sauerkraut on my hot dogs.
Gaspar – The Janissaries were genetically engineered super soldiers that were programmed for nothing but killing. They had the best training and equipment time travelers could buy.
Boudica – They also had elite units of fanatics that would care nothing for death and charge fearlessly into the enemy. They were not trained like the Jannissaries but were good shock troops to charge into places other men would hesitate to go.
Zach – Also, the Turks were famous for their artillery. They had brought artillery from a science to an art. No one could match the power of Turkish guns.
Olga – Except the Russians. We Russians can blow up anybody.
Zach – Of course. I meant “besides the Russians.”
Olga – Good.
Matilda – Now let’s talk about what the Knights had on their side. The knights themselves were monastic warriors trained in all the arts of chivalry and Western warfare. However, having spent the last two hundred years on islands, (Rhodes was their home before Malta) they had adapted to the sea like few others. They had galleys like the Ancient Greeks, but bigger and now with cannons. They were 280 ft long with a hundred or so slaves working the oars. About 200 fighting men with a main bow cannon, several smaller cannon and several more anti-personal weapons; think of giant shotguns. They couldn’t operate in bad weather because they were so low to the water so winter sailing wasn’t going to happen.
Boudica – Don’t forget the peasants!
Matilda – Of course not. I’ll get to them. Aside from about 800 fully armored and armed knights, they also had about 1,200 men at arms, infantry from Spain and Italy and a few thousand Maltese militia. Normally militia aren’t worth the mud they live in, but these Maltese men and women would prove that the rocky little island produces stout, courageous people. One thing to note, every nationality helping the knights had defectors that wanted to save their lives by running to the Turks. All except the Maltese natives. Not one of them defected. Though Phoenician by heritage, they prided themselves on being one of the earliest Christian communities, dating back to one of St. Paul’s voyages. They spoke an Arabic dialect but hated the Turks.
Zach – Okay, we now know the sides. Time to set this off.
Scipio – The Knights of St. John were dedicated enemies of the Muslims. They had vowed never to wage war on other Christians and viewed themselves as protectors of Christianity. Malta had one advantage. It wasn’t good for farming, mining, livestock or much of anything. But it did have several natural harbors. The Knights used these harbors to launch their ships against Turkish trading lanes. Now, the Sultan was already planning on eventually taking Malta as his next step in invading Italy, but things were sped along with the Knights captured a ship that women of his harem had invested heavily in. This angered his harem. As they say, “a happy man is one with a happy wife.” Now image dozens of unhappy wives. Also, having his shipping lanes constantly attacked by these Christian “pirates” was a problem as well. He thus decided to launch an invasion of Malta.
Olga – I see, I think I read this. Sultan not very happy with Crusader peoples. So he say, “Comrade General, Comrade Admiral, you two go over to Malta and blow it up! Now, get along and don’t argue. To make sure you good boys, I send Turgut Reis to help you.
Zach – Turgut Reis was a pirate captain of the highest order. he was so awesome as a pirate that the Turks made him an admiral of their navy. The guy knew his business. He had raided Malta twenty times in the past forty years and took Tripoli from the Knights a few years earlier.
Anna – La Valette had spies in Constantinople and knew the Ottomans were preparing a massive fleet to send against them. He prepared his fortifications and sent civilian women and children to Sicily. The native men he kept for a fighting force. Once word arrived that the Ottoman fleet was inbound, all food and animals were to be brought into the fortresses to deny the Turks anything to live off of.
Zach – And they Turks did indeed come. They came with an estimated force of 40,000 fighting men including 4,000 of the elite Jannissaries. When the Knights of St. John saw this enormous fleet of over two hundred ships coming at them, they had to have felt fear. Their tiny garrison was grossly outnumbered and more importantly, out gunned. They had a slim hope that help would arrive from Sicily, but La Valette wouldn’t base his plans around it. He would conduct the defense of Malta as if they were on their own. And guess what? They were.
Matilda – As mentioned previously, La Valette was a tough man. he immediately made a plan of defense that required that they don’t surrender an inch of ground. They would defend every fort to the last man and give the Turks nothing that didn’t cost them dearly.
Scipio – As the Turks surrounded the island, they began to land their troops. Wisely, La Valette didn’t oppose them.
Tomoe – My fellow Japanese would do the same in World War II. They would allow them to come ashore while they stayed in their defensive positions. If they tried to defend on the beach, they would have success at first, but then they would be overwhelmed and surrounded. Valette chose to let the forts defend them where they can fight off enemy forces much larger than themselves. This is wise move.
Anna – The only hope the garrison had was help from Europe. This could only come in through the north which the Turks, for some reason, didn’t bother blockading. Instead of going against the more vital forts, they went after Fortress St. Elmo. This tiny fortress was barely noticed by the Turks and they thought it wouldn’t last five days. The entire might of the Turkish invasion turned on this one fort and its few hundred defenders. In order to win the Knights had to hold the Turks at Ft. Elmo for as long as possible. Their hope was to last until the fall when the Turks would have to sail back to Turkey because of the winter seas. It was vital that they hold the fort for as long as possible. The entire war centered on this one small fortress.
Stay tuned for next week when the defense of Ft. Elmo starts. Helms Deep has nothing on Elmo.