The enormous Ottoman fleet has just been sighted on the horizon of Malta, 'The Greatest Siege Of All Time' has begun!
As Dragut, 'The Drawn Sword Of Islam' wrestles command from his underlings, the isolated Fort St Elmo endures one of the largest artillery barrages in history.
But once the Ottoman Janissaries begin to scale the walls, Valette reveals his secret weapon...
Atop an island fortress in the Mediterranean Sea, an old man watches as a gigantic naval
blockade begins to encircle his island.
Breathing deeply, he takes in the salty sea air, the sounds of seagulls cawing, and the
waves crashing against the shore.
He knew this would be one of his last moments to enjoy the peace and serenity.
Sitting with him were a handful of grizzled knights, all that remained of the once mighty
The time of crusades, plate armor, and codes of chivalry had long since passed, but a determined
few still clung zealously to this lost age.
In their glory days, the Hospitallers held territory all across the Holy Land.
From Antioch to Gaza, they were a true force to be reckoned with, but that was almost four
By now, they had been reduced to a tiny spit of land off the coast of Italy, the island
A few hundred knights, bound by oath to retake Jerusalem from Islam, and this man was their
He was 70 years old, but his body gave no signs of his age.
Decked from head to toe in heavy plate armor and clad in a red tabard with a white cross,
he was Jean de la Valette, a man of unbreakable fortitude, burning with religious fervor.
As he studied the Ottoman warships, the scars on his back began to chafe him.
As a young man, he had been captured and forced into servitude on these very ships.
While others had begged for death or converted to Islam, his servitude had only hardened
As he gazed out into the horizon, he ran the calculation through his head.
He had at most 500 knights, and going on the number of ships, the enemy must have had at
least 30,000 men.
If this was to be his final trial from the Lord, then so be it.
You're listening to Anthology of Heroes, and this is part two of Valette, the thorn
in the heel of Allah.
Hi everyone, just to catch you up.
In part one we covered the history of the Crusades, as well as the backstory of how
a group of crusading knights originally based around Jerusalem came to find themselves on
a tiny island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.
We covered the backstory of Valette, the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller, and also
that of Dragut, the pirate warlord known as the Drawn Sword of Islam.
I think the brutal and unforgiving life of these men helps you understand their personalities
and the decisions they made during the siege, so I would implore you to go back and check
out part one if you haven't already.
But if you'd rather dive right in, then here we are in Malta on the 18th of May, 1565,
the large Ottoman fleet that the knights had been expecting had just been sighted.
When the sun set on that Sunday evening, a plethora of boats bobbed gently in the harbour,
filling the horizon from east to west.
Even for someone like Valette, it was near impossible not to acknowledge the jaw-dropping
power of Islam.
As the workers began to set up camp, the deserted island looked more like the surface of Mars
than any Mediterranean island.
The barren and hard landscape, which the knights had so hated upon their arrival, now worked
to the detriment of the enemy, who had to bring all their own materials and keep their
supply lines secure back to mainland Europe.
Just a reminder that I'll be providing a map of Malta and the siege on our Instagram page.
It shows where the attacks took place and it might help you visualise the siege a little
The first few probing attacks came quickly, designed more to scout for weaknesses than
to start anything serious.
And it was during this time that a problem that would plague the Ottomans for the rest
of the siege appeared for the first time.
You see, Sultan Suleiman was a gifted commander, and in his greatest victories he commanded
from the front, or at least somewhere on the battlefield.
But he was 70 years old now, and riddled with gout he feared his body would not hold up
to the journey, let alone the siege itself.
In his place he decided on a confusing three-directional chain of command.
Mustafa Pasha was to lead the army, Piali Pasha was to lead the navy, and in the event
of a disagreement, Dragud, the drawn sword of Islam, would have the final word.
The three men bickered like heads on a hydra, ego, ego, and ego.
This stood in polar opposite of Valette's clear and simple omnidirectional command structure.
Their first point of contention was where to attack.
A small raiding party had captured two knights who, under torture, confessed that the weakest
parts of the defensive walls were a tower known as the Bastion of Castile.
Mustafa pushed for this to be the first target, instead of the agreed upon Fort St Elmo.
Fort St Elmo had always been the original first target, as it was impressively defended,
but very isolated on the other side of the harbour.
Piali, the naval commander, maintained that the original plan was still the best one,
and the two men argued openly, but eventually Mustafa got his way.
After all, he was a blood relation to the Sultan.
Whether or not the prisoners they had captured lied about the Bastion being vulnerable, or
whether they had just said anything to stop the torture, the information they were given
was incorrect, and the Ottomans came up hard against some of the best defences on the whole
The knights atop the Bastion begged to be able to charge out and meet the enemy.
This was too easy, they complained, and eventually the Grandmaster relented.
Using his own hotheadedness from his youth, he allowed some of his younger knights to
ride out against their first onslaught.
As the racket of the Janissary military band snaked its way up toward the walls, two squadrons
of knights and a hail of musket fire rained down on them from above.
The Janissaries pressed on, and the two sides became bogged down in hand to hand fighting,
until finally the sound was given for the attackers to retreat.
The skirmish was undoubtedly a victory for the knights.
They even returned with an enemy battle standard which was proudly hung in the main church.
While the Ottomans had lost around 100 men compared to the knights' 20, Valette could
not afford trade-offs like this, and he cursed himself for being talked into such a reckless
There would be no more of that going forward.
Once Sebastian of Castile proved easily able to withstand the first attack, the Grandmaster
correctly guessed that Fort Sedelmo would be next.
While the skirmish took place and the enemy was preoccupied, he ordered more gunpowder,
food, and men ferried across the harbour in preparation for the next attack.
As mentioned earlier, Fort Sedelmo was isolated from the rest of the defences, jutting out
from the front of the peninsula to guard the entrance to the harbour.
Its isolation made it difficult to supply and access, but like always, Valette would
find a way.
Back at the Ottoman camp, the discussion turned towards their next moves.
After the disappointing results at the bastion, both commanders now agreed that Fort Sedelmo
should be taken first.
But the plan to how they would do this differed, and Mustafa once again found himself at odds
with the young admiral.
The troops had initially planned to counter-mine the walls, digging underneath them to plant
This was how they had beaten the knights back at Rhodes, so why change a good thing?
But Valette was not going to be caught out by that again, and had specially built the
fortress atop hard stone with this in mind.
So that option was off the table.
That left them with really one option left, cannons.
Lots and lots of cannons.
So from the coast, the army lugged up two 60 pound cannons, ten 80 pound cannons and
one humongous 160 pounder known as the Basilisk.
This beast of a thing was very similar to the one that broke the timeless walls of Constantinople
a century ago.
Creating a device capable of firing a ball this size was incredibly difficult and very
expensive, and it makes clear the level of investment Suleiman was willing to make in
The bombardment commenced with gusto.
The cannons were slow but relentless, boom, boom, boom.
And when the Basilisk fired, the noise was so loud that the knights were concerned the
vibrations would actually crack their water reservoirs.
As the cannons pounded throughout the day, Ottoman snipers picked off any man who was
unfortunate enough to raise his head above the ramparts.
That knew that if his men could not even fight back, their spirit would be broken quickly.
So on his side of the harbour, the Grand Master had his own quicker and smaller cannons placed
to harass the larger enemy ones, forcing them to either move or fortify their positions.
Meanwhile he set the Maltese militia loose on the countryside, attacking any Ottoman
foraging parties that had strayed from their camp.
Though the people of Malta are almost never mentioned by name, the sources make it clear
that any time they were involved in combat, they fought like lions with just as much tenacity
and bravery as the knight.
With every passing day, Valette waited until nightfall.
To save ammunition, the Turkish guns usually quietened down during the night.
So under the cover of darkness, a convoy of wooden rowboats ferried across food, powder
and medical supplies to the defenders of St. Elmo.
And after dark, the real work began.
The knights, who had endured endless fire during the day, spent the night repairing
the wall as best they could.
Whatever they could use to plug the holes the cannons had made that day was hastily
Stones, wood, heavy sacks, anything, ready for the next bombardment at first light.
But this simply couldn't last, and after a few days, the outer walls looked more like
a stockade rather than a castle.
And even with the delivery of supplies and ammunition, there was little to fix the psychological
trauma the men were subjected to.
Ducking from cannon fire all day and laboriously rebuilding their slowly crumbling home by
night, all while snipers picked off anyone who stuck their head above the walls.
The torment was unending.
Occasionally, fresh soldiers were ferried across to replace the ones that had died that
day, but as you can imagine, there weren't exactly many volunteers.
One night, one of the captains returned with the supply convoy, a man named Juan de la
He was surprised to see him and asked him for a general report on the conditions of
He asked him how many men had perished, did they have enough powder, how far had the Turks
In response, de la Cerda agonized over the state of the men, who he claimed could endure
Unmoved, Valettete repeated his question, what losses have been suffered?
De la Cerda, frustrated with the lack of compassion he was being shown, snapped back, quote,
Senelmo, senor, is like a sick man, worn out at the end of his strength.
He cannot survive without a doctor's aid and help.
Raising his voice, Valettete shot back, quote, then I myself will be the doctor and I will
bring others with me.
If we cannot cure your fear, then we will make sure the fortress did not fall into the
hands of the enemy, end quote.
La Cerda grimaced.
Instead of providing a military report like he was asked to do, he had bleated and moaned
about the psychological state of the men, and it had just been checked by a man over
twice his age.
As the old Grand Master dramatically strapped on his breastplate, many knights came forward
to volunteer, insisting they go before him.
The Grand Master could not possibly put himself in such danger.
In under a minute of tailored theatrics, Valettete had galvanized all the new reinforcements
While the actions of him may come off as callous or even cruel, he needed to maintain a stoic
and unemotional façade.
If his men's lives were to be spent, he wanted them to be spent as slowly as possible.
Sinalma was hell on earth for the men inside, but from a purely statistical view, every
day it held out was another day the siege dragged on for the enemy.
As soon as La Cerda left, Valettete called his war council.
He told the men bluntly that the fall of Sinalma was inevitable at some point, but the men
must continue to hold the line if the rest of Malta had any chance at salvation.
As the cannonade ground the walls of the fort down more and more, the Ottomans still found
themselves unable to break through.
A witness describes the citadel looking something like a tree stump in the middle of a clearing.
Everything around it had been leveled.
But yet with each attempt, the attackers were met with an enormous resistance that continually
Like an old injured lion, Sinalma slumbered quietly, taking any punishment that was thrown
its way, but if anyone came close enough its bite was ferocious.
Frustrated with the way things were going with his two lackeys, Dragut finally stepped
in and under him the sporadic and uncoordinated attacks took on a fiendishly efficient equilibrium.
The thunder and boom of the cannons became unending when one finished another began.
The Janissaries were more motivated to fight under a central command of a man with such
esteem and their charges now advanced with a rediscovered vigour.
A surprise attack was planned for the very next day and in the early hours of the morning
the Janissaries took the outer wall of Sinalma.
It's not clear how exactly either the sentry was asleep or he'd been hit by a sniper.
While it was easy to think, hey what an idiot, he just fell asleep, these men were operating
on adrenaline alone.
They were running on fumes, never sleeping for more than a few hours at a time.
They were emotionally and physically done, as I certainly would be too in their position.
As the first few Janissaries charged up the walls the alarm was raised but it was too
Many of the knights held the line, sacrificing themselves in order to ensure the safety of
the inner walls as the connecting gate was sealed shut behind them.
Emboldened by their easy victory, the Janissaries made a quick dash for the inner wall.
In mass groups they moved forward, their shimmering white robes a spectacle unto itself.
And as they did, the knights unleashed their secret weapon.
It's a weapon that needs no introduction for any Byzantine history fan, Greek fire.
Light wooden hoops dipped in napalm were set alight and flung from behind the walls into
the tightly packed men.
Remember that scene in the first Lord of the Rings where Aragon hurls a flame and tortured
While the flowing silken robes that had just helped them nimbly scale the walls now served
only to immolate them even faster.
As they would panic and flounder, the fire would spread from one man to the next and
Some attribute this low-tech ingenuity to Velat himself, but whoever came up with it
its effect was devastating, taking the advancing army completely by surprise.
When the call to retreat was finally given, around 2,000 Janissaries lay dead and smaltering,
the sickening smell of burnt flesh wafting back into the fort.
While the Janissaries had been pushed back, they'd begun constructing a tower on the
And once they completed it, they'd be able to shoot directly at the defenders within
the inner wall.
The knights would be completely exposed.
They also would start to fill the ditches between the inner and outer wall, and once
this was done, an attack could come at any point of the wall at any time.
The end was near.
Still, Velat insisted the fortress must hold.
New men were ferried in, with whoever had survived the last attack being given a precious
few days of respite from the noise, heat and cold.
Those who returned were not the same men that had left.
Covered in soot, blood and dirt, they limped back into Bergu.
Many of them emaciated from improper nutrition.
Some men nursed broken arms, shattered legs, others a dislocated shoulder or shrapnel wounds.
If the scout's report left any doubt about the state of Fort St. Elmo, these men confirmed
But all were immediately expected to return to duty.
If a man could stand, he was not counted as injured.
And if one was not participating in combat, there was always something else that needed
to be done.
By all accounts, the quote unquote fortress of St. Elmo was now a teetering stack of broken
masonry, wood, concrete and earth.
Just as soon as the new defenders had arrived, the gong of the Janissary marching band sounded.
Dragut's cannons unleashed another devastating barrage.
The knights roared into action and as the very walls they stood on began to collapse
underneath them, they still managed to stop the enemy's relentless push.
After a few hours of mounting losses, the horns to signal retreat was blown.
The knights once again had held.
Surely the next attack would have to be the final blow.
The breaches in the wall were now too big to fill.
The tower on the outer wall was almost complete and the ditches were almost full.
When the current was too strong, or when it was too dangerous for a boat to be sent across,
expert Maltese swimmers risked their lives many times swimming in the pitch black across
the harbour to deliver a message and then returning, all while evading Turkish patrols.
Throughout this siege there are a couple of instances of knights defecting to the Ottomans,
but no recorded instances of the Maltese natives ever doing so.
Why the loyalty?
Well, perhaps it was less their loyalty to the knights and more their hatred of the enemy,
eagerly taking their first opportunity for revenge after being on the receiving end of
Ottoman raids for so long.
As we'll come to see, the Maltese people were very much the unsung heroes of this story.
As the latest Maltese swimmer delivered his reports from Fort St Elmo, Valette called
his council. All agreed that the fortress would fall, and soon, but what was to be done?
Many suggested to blow it up rather than leave anything to the Turks, but Valette insisted
the men of the fortress must not give in. He told his council that he had received word
from Don Garcia that a relief force would be sent by the 20th of June. Tonight being
the night of the 7th, that meant they only needed to hold out for two more weeks. Although
we didn't express it to them, Valette was very skeptical of this relief force on this
Garcia was a bit of a slippery character. Being the governor of southern Italy, he had
a vested interest in keeping Malta held, true, but he was not about to throw away his forces
on a cause that was already lost. Many suspected that if Malta was to fall, then Suleiman would
immediately follow up with an invasion of southern Italy. And if that was true, and
if Malta was already doomed, sending men to defend it was wasteful and pointless. Valette
reckoned on Garcia assuming all of Malta was lost if Sinalmo fell, and for that reason
it must be held down to the very last night left inside.
What I need to remind myself of is just how close Valette and the knights were to Sinalmo.
This isn't some king on the other side of Europe, casually condemning his subjects to
their doom. From Valette's headquarters in Fort San Angelo to Fort Sinalmo, the distance
was the equivalent of a street or two. The sound of the cannon tearing apart the walls,
the shrieks of his dying men, and the gong of the approaching military band. All were
easily heard by the grandmaster, and as much as possible felt by him also. The burden of
being these men's jailer and executioner must have weighed particularly heavy on his
seventy year old shoulders.
The very next day, as he watched Sinalmo endure another shelling, a messenger burst through
his council doors. He had a letter with him which said, quote,
Most illustrious and very reverend monsieur. When the Turks landed here, Your Highness
ordered all of us knights here present to come and defend this fortress. This we did
with the greatest of good heart, and up to now all that could be done has been done.
Your Highness knows this, and that we never spared ourselves fatigue or danger, but now
the enemy has reduced us to such a state that we can neither make any effect on them, nor
can we defend ourselves, since they hold the ravelin, that's the outer wall, and the
ditch. They have also made a bridge and steps up to our ramparts, and they have mined under
the wall so that hourly we expect to be blown up. The ravelin itself has been enlarged so
much that one cannot stand at one's post without being killed. One cannot place sentries
to keep an eye on the enemy, since within minutes of them being posted they are shot
dead by snipers. We are in such straits that we can no longer use the open space in the
centre of the fort. Several of our men have already been killed already there, and we
have no shelter except the chapel itself. Our troops are down at heart, and even their
officers cannot make them anymore take up their station on the walls. Convinced that
the fort is sure to fall, they are preparing to save themselves by swimming for safety.
Since we can no longer efficiently carry out our duties of our order, we are determined,
if your highness does not send us boats tonight so that we can withdraw, to sally forth and
die as knights should. Do not send further reinforcements, since they are no more than
dead men. This is the most determined resolution of all whose signatures your most illustrious
highness can read below." These men were past breaking point, and Valette needed to
act now. Three senior knights were sent to Fort Sonoma to truly assess if the situation
was as hopeless as the letter said. When the men arrived, they found the fort in utter
disarray. Military order had broken down. Men rushed around, chaotically burning weapons
and food so that they could not fall into the hands of the Turks. The majority of them
seemed to be younger knights who were just at their wits end and wanted it all to stop.
The senior officers removed emotion and psychology from the assessment and concluded, based on
the remaining supplies and the integrity of the walls, they believed St elmo could still
be held for a few more days. Gathering all the frenzied young men, they read a letter
aloud that a Valette had sent to them. Quote,
A volunteer force has been raised under the command of Chevalier Constantino Castriota.
Your petition to leave Fort St elmo for the safety of Burgu is now granted. This evening,
as soon as the relieving forces landed, you may take the boats back. Return, my brethren,
to the convent and to Burgu, where you will be in more security. For my part, I shall
feel more confident when I know that the fort, upon which the safety of the island so greatly
depends, is held by men who I can trust implicitly. End quote.
In other words, sorry that being a knight is so hard for you. Come back to safety and
I'll find men who have the balls to do your job. You can imagine a room full of young
knights looking at their feet shuffling awkwardly as this was read out. The burning sarcasm
and shame Valette had injected into this letter had the exact effect he desired and the men
snapped back to reality. Order was quickly restored and the same knights now vowed to
stick to their post. It kind of felt good guilting his men into
not leaving their doomed post, but the siege of Malta was a chessboard and every man was
a piece that had to play their part. As Valette used every trick he could think
of to keep the morale up inside Fort St Elmo, his old rival Dragut was doing the same outside.
Attack after attack had failed. They had taken the outer wall of the accursed fort, but still
these men refused to go down quietly despite the inevitability of their cause.
At the camp, as water supplies dwindled, many men were forced to try and sterilize the poison
pills. While some men had strong enough stomachs to endure the water, others did not. Dysentery
and other nasty diseases had begun to spread. Dragut could see the heavy toll this was taking
on his men. Though they still had the numbers, the men's spirits were in the dumps. Fort
St Elmo had to go. But rather than throwing another wave of demoralized
souls into the moor, he turned his attention to the reinforcements that Valette sent nightly.
If this lifeline was cut out, it would mean no new men, powder, or food for the beleaguered
fort. A new set of cannons were to be pointed directly at the coastline. Reinforcements
for St Elmo would now have to run through a barrage of hellfire and, if they managed
that, drag their injured comrades back through it. An impossibility, especially while carrying
supplies. As usual, Dragut was never far from the action.
Though warned of the dangers of being in the front lines, he knew that Mustafa Pasha had
screwed up enough of this siege and the placements of these cannons were key. He needed to direct
pointed the men to where each gun would need to be positioned and which calibre would go
where. In that moment, atop Fort St Elmo, across the other side of the harbour, one
of the knights noticed the brilliant flair of Dragut's clothing. Though not knowing
who, it was clear that someone of importance was on the scene.
Horridly, the knight swung around the cannon, lit it, and fired. Heart beating rapidly,
he peered into the smoke and as it cleared, he saw the brightly coloured man swagger for
a moment before collapsing. The shot had fallen short, but the explosion had kicked up a large
stone which had torn through Dragut. Blood gushed from the nose and ears of the old corsair
and he was quickly rushed away before too many men noticed. The drawn sword of Islam
was blunted. Dragut was dead. The old pirate's lifelong expertise, popularity
and unquestionable seniority had smoothed the rivalry between Piali and Mustafa Pasha.
His combined assault of the army and navy had brought the siege into a new phase and
almost before his body was cold, things began to revert. But in his final act, Dragut had
sealed the fate of St Elmo. A Maltese swimmer managed to brave the harbour
and run the artillery barrage to give a report. As he explained the situation to Verlatin
his senior officers, there was barely a dry eye in the room. All men still alive were
badly wounded. The three most senior knights left were Daguerre, La Masse and Miranda.
All three had broken bones, severe burns and two could no longer stand. They were out of
gunpowder and food. They had gutted the chapel. All religious icons that could not be buried
or hidden were thrown into a bonfire. The Turks were to have nothing.
The swimmer concluded that, despite all this, the men were in good spirits, knowing soon
that they would be in the embrace of their creator, having done their final duty.
Valet, not one to let emotions get the better of him, was moved to tears and immediately
prepared to evacuate his soldiers. But there was no chance. As soon as the boats hit the
water, they were noticed by Dragut's expertly placed artillery. A few blasts made it clear
that escape was impossible. Moments like this give a rare glimpse into
the psyche of the man. Despite keeping a brave face and apparently void of feeling, obviously
the continual sacrifice of his fellow knights was taking its toll.
Valet and his men listened in silence as the long, mournful gong of the chapel bell rang
for the last time as their brothers held their last communion.
From across the harbour, against the night sky, the jagged and rickety silhouette of
Fort St Elmo stood defiantly in a sea of Ottoman ships, tents, cannons and men.
As the morning rays peeked over the horizon on the 23rd of June, a tide of men washed
over St Elmo. Atop the crumbling stump of a fortress, less than one hundred knights
pummelled the enemy below with stones, spears, rocks and whatever was left, even forcing
to pull back once to regroup. Dagueras and Miranda, who could no longer stand, placed
themselves in a chair at the breach, and as the stockade collapsed in front of them and
a horde of men flooded through, they summoned up the last of their strength, cutting down
as many of the invaders as they could before falling.
From Burgo, Valet watched the final sounds of resistance die out, and at midday the flag
of St. John that had flew defiantly in the face of overwhelming odds was torn down and
replaced by Suleiman's standard. The siege of St Elmo had lasted thirty-seven days.
It had cost the Ottomans around eight thousand men and half of their janissaries. All this
for a siege that the Sultan was told would only take a few days.
To be continued in part three.
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