“Great Siege: Malta 1565 ;” by Ernle Bradford; Wordsworth Military Library(June 1999); ISBN-13: 978-1840222067
Most contemporary Americans, if they have heard of the Knights of Malta at all, know them only from the brief mention of the Knightly Order made by Sidney Greenstreet in the movie, “The Maltese Falcon.” But the Knights of Saint John, the Hospitalers of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, were far more important to European history than might be inferred from a snippet of colorful dialog in a ’40s Bogart film noir. For centuries, in fact, they were one of the great bulwarks of Christendom against Moslem expansion into the western Mediterranean.
The true story of the Knights of Malta, if it were not so hard to believe, would make an excellent movie in its own right. In the “Great Siege: Malta 1565,” Ernle Bradford narrates that improbable story in wonderful detail. The Order of the Knights of Saint John, the author explains, had been established in Jerusalem in 1113 as a hospitaler (nursing) order dedicated to ministering to those Christian pilgrims who were halt, lame, or who had fallen ill while on their way to visit the many Christian shrines in the Midle East. Unlike the Knights Templar, which was exclusively an order of warrior monks, the Hospitalers aided the sick and provided hospitals and other shelter to Christians throughout the Holy Land. Only secondarily did they bear arms — like the other religious knightly orders — to protect traveling Christian pilgrims, and to make war against the main rival to Christian influence in the Middle East, the increasingly assertive military and political power of Islam.
In 1291, Islam finally prevailed in the long struggle between Christians and Moslems for control of the Holy Land, and the Order of Hospitalers, like the other crusader orders, was finally driven from the last Christian fortresses in Palestine. The Knights of Saint John took temporary refuge on the island of Cyprus. In 1310, the order moved its headquarters and its base of operations to the eastern Mediterranean island of Rhodes. From this island stronghold, the one-time ministers to the sick turned their discipline, religious fervor, and energy towards mastering seamanship, and within a few short years, the “hospitalers” had become the most feared Christian corsairs in the Mediterranean. They had also become, the author explains, the most dedicated and fanatical of the Christian military orders in their implacable opposition to Islam. For over two hundred years the pirate galleys of the Knights of Saint John raided Moslem shipping between Constantinople and Alexandria, and between the ports along the west coast of Turkey. In 1522, the young Sultan of the Ottomans, Suleiman the First, invaded Rhodes with a Turkish army and, after a bitter fight, succeeded in driving the Knights from their island base. But this victory, gratifying though it may have seemed at the time to the young Moslem ruler, was not the end of the Sultan’s problems with the Knights of Saint John.
Siege of Malta: Siege and Bombardment of Saint Elmo, 27 May 1565. Oil by Matteo Perez d'Aleccio
In 1530, Emperor Charles Vth of Spain presented the recently displaced religious order with the barren collection of islands that form the Maltese archipelago of Malta and Gozo in the central Mediterranean Sea. These islands, lying only fifty miles south of Sicily, represented a natural chokepoint for commerce passing along the North African coast or moving between the eastern and western ports of the Mediterranean. The Knights of Saint John, the author points out, were quick to capitalize on the strategic position of their new base. From Malta and Gozo, the Christian corsairs now raided over the length and breadth of the Ottoman sea lanes, and the same Sultan who had driven their knightly order from Rhodes in 1522, and who had then marched his Moslem armies to the gates of Vienna in 1529, found he was powerless to stop them. Finally, in 1564, after the seizure by the Maltese pirates of a merchantman full of goods belonging to Suleiman’s head eunuch and many of the women in the Sultan’s own harem, Suleiman the Magnificent had had enough. Calling his council together in October 1564, the Sultan declared his intention to invade Malta and permanently put an end to the naval power of the Knights of Saint John. With his mind finally made up, the Sultan quickly saw to it that the appropriate orders were issued, but because of the extensive preparations required, the attack could not be mounted until the following spring.
Siege of Malta: Capture of St Elmo, 23 June 1565. Oil by Matteo Perez d'Aleccio
On 29 March 1565, Suleiman the First’s vast fleet — an armada of some 200 galleys — rowed out of the Bosporus and towards the ports from whence they would embark the 6,300 Janissaries and 33,000 other troops that would form the Sultan’s invading army. The supplies necessary to support the Turkish undertaking were enormous. Tons of gunpowder, holds full of canon, cloth, wood, and virtually everything else that an army would need to survive in a desert was loaded aboard the galleys to supply the expedition. The expedition’s leaders knew that the seventy-year old Grand Master of the Knights of Saint John, Jean Parisot de la Valette, would leave nothing outside the walls of Malta’s several fortresses for use by an invading army. And surprise, the Moslem commanders knew, was out of the question.
The Sultan's men were correct in their assessment; Grand mMster de la Valette had been alerted by spies about the Sultan’s plans just as soon as preparations for the invasion began in Constantinople and the other Turkish staging ports. De la Velette was no fool; there could be no other target for such a large Ottoman seaborne attack but the Christian stronghold on Malta. Thus, the Grand Master and his 9,600 knights and soldiers set about feverishly preparing the island’s defenses for the attack they knew was certain to come. On 18 May 1565 the sails of the Turkish fleet were at last sighted from the Maltese forts of St. Elmo and St. Angelo. Suleiman the First’s great assault on the pirates of Malta had finally begun.
Siege of Malta: Assault on the Post of the Castilian Knights, 21 August 1565. Oil by Matteo Perez d'Aleccio
The great siege, which was expected by the Sultan and his commanders, Mustapha Pasha and Piale to only last a few weeks, continued without letup from 19 May, to 11 September 1565. The Ottoman forces were finally compelled to abandon their attack when a relieving fleet bearing some 8,000 fresh volunteers from all over Europe at last arrived off the coast of Malta on September 8. The story of the suffering, courage, and determination, both of the beleaguered defenders, and of their fearless and fanatical attackers, is almost the stuff of legend. The defense of the small fortress of St. Elmo, and its fall after a month of bitter fighting that left virtually every one of its 1,500 defenders and over 8,000 of the attackers dead, is representative of the resolve of both sides to prevail in this bloody struggle. The costs in both Christian and Moslem lives from this protracted campaign were nothing short of staggering. By the end of the siege, it is estimated that the Ottomans had probably lost as many as twenty thousand men, while the Knights of Saint John suffered approximately 5,000 dead. It is an amazing and stirring story, and the author tells it extremely well.
Siege of Malta: Composite of the Varioius Stages of the 1565 Siege. Engraving by Matteo Perez d'Aleccio
The “Great Siege”, however, is more than a study of a single battle; it is also a fascinating look at some of the great historical characters of the time. Perhaps, even more importantly, Bradford's book is also an excellent account, brought alive by clear and graceful writing, of a pivotal moment in the clash between Christendom and Islam that is seldom revisited by most contemporary students of history. Yet the defense of Malta, along with the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, decisively blocked Moslem expansion into the western Mediterranean and quite probably preserved Christian control of Sicily and southern Italy. Suleiman the Magnificent, it is clear from Bradford’s research, intended to use Malta, once captured, as a safe haven and base for both Moslem naval operations and for further military expansion into Christian Europe.
I bought my own copy of this book — the Harcourt, Brace & World, first edition — in 1962, when I was still in high school. It was, I am pretty sure, the first military history book that I had purchased up to that point; however, its clear and exciting prose, and the book’s engrossing subject hooked me on the “military history” genre from there on out. I should also note that besides being an excellent read, the “Great Siege” shows a great deal of careful scholarship. The author relies heavily on primary sources and, as he notes in the book’s foreword, any dialog that is presented is based on actual historical records. The main shortcoming, at least in my copy, is that the only reference maps appear on the inside of the book’s covers and fly leaves; there are no maps or diagrams included with the text. Needless to say, more detail would have been very helpful. None the less, I strongly recommend this book both for the casual reader, and for those interested in military history. This book allows the reader to look back on a historical period about which most of us know far too little.
For those who enjoy videos, this DVD chronicles the thousand plus year history of the Knights of Malta.
Posted by JCB III at 9:16 AM
Helpful Wargame Blogs and Links
1812 1815 1815 THE WATERLOO CAMPAIGN 1870 1914 1939-45 1940 1942 1944 3W A HOUSE DIVIDED A Study in Command A Time for Trumpets Aachen Acre ACROSS SUEZ ADVANCED THIRD REICH advice AFRIKA KORPS After Action Reports AFTER THE HOLOCAUST AGINCOURT ALESIA Allied Allies ALMA alternate strategy American American Anniversary American Army American Civil War American Revolutionary War analysis anniversary ANZIO Arab Israeli War ARABIAN NIGHTMARE The Kuwait War ARMADA Armistice Day Army of Northern Virginia articles ATLANTIC WALL atlas ATTACK IN THE ARDENNES AUSTERLITZ Australia Austria Avalanche Axis AXIS and ALLIES: EUROPE BALACLAVA Barbarossa basic resource points BASTOGNE BATTLE FOR GERMANY BATTLE FOR MIDWAY BATTLE OF BRITAIN Battle of Nations BATTLE OF THE BULGE 91 battlegroup Birthday board economic game board political game board simulation board simulations board war game Boardgame Players Association boardsimulations Boer War bomb disposal book BORODINO BPA BREAKOUT and PURSUIT BREAKOUT: NORMANDY British BULGE '65 Burma CAESAR CAESAR'S LEGIONS Cambrai Carnage and Culture CASE WHITE CASSINO CAULDRON Central Powers CG Charles S Roberts CHINESE FARM Christmas Churchill's Generals CIVILIZATION classics COAG Coalition COBRA Cold War combat results Command Game Series comment components Computer problems confederate ConsimWorld Continental Congress convention counters Crimea D-Day DAGC Danny S. Parker DARK DECEMBER Darwin air raid David Chandler Decision Games Declaration of Independence description DESERT STORM UPDATE design DG Don Greenwood DRESDEN DRIVE ON STALINGRAD DUNE EAST FRONT Eastern Front eBay auctions Eisenborn Ridge Eisenhower EL ALAMEIN EMPIRES AT WAR EMPIRES IN ARMS Entente ERIC GOLDERG'S KURSK errata Europa European Excel EYLAU Fall Gelb fantasy Father's Day Festung Europa Finland Finnish FIRE IN THE EAST FIREFIGHT Flag Day FORTRESS AMERICA FORTRESS EUROPA founder FRANCE 1940 Frank Chadwick FREDERICK THE GREAT French FULDA GAP game analysis game design game system GDW General Ger German GETTYSBURG '64 GETTYSBURG '77 GLOBAL WAR GMT GOLAN Great Siege GRENADIER grognards Guadalcanal guest post GULF STRIKE Gulf War HANNIBAL HBO history holidays hypothetical Independence Day INDIAN OCEAN ADVENTURE INKERMAN interpretation Into the Storm INVASION SICILY inventor Iraqi Italy Japanese Jean Lartéguy JENA JENA-AUERSTADT John Churchill John Keegan July 4th June 14th kampfgruppen Karl-Heinz Frieser KHARKOV KOREA Korean War KORSUN POCKET KURSK LA GRANDE ARMEE LEE MOVES NORTH LEE vs. MEADE LEE'S LIEUTENANTS LEIPZIG LEIPZIG REVISED Lille links LOST BATTLES Lost Command magazine MAHARAJA Malta MANASSAS Mans' Best Friend Manstein Plan map Map and Counters MARENGO Marine Corps Birthday Marlborough as Military Commander MBC Memorial Day MIDWAY MISSLE BOAT MODERN BATTLES monster game MonsterGame.Con Moscow Mother's Day movie MUKDEN MUSKET and PIKE NAPOLEON AT LEIPZIG NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO NAPOLEON'S LAST CAMPAIGNS Napoleonic NAPOLEONS ART OF WAR NATO naval Near Eastern New Year Normandy Normandy Landings North Africa North Vietnam notebook OBJECTIVE MOSCOW OMAHA BEACH Operation Bagration Operation Cobra OPERATION CRUSADER OPERATION TYPHOON optional rules OSG Overlord Pacific Theater PANZER ARMEE AFRIKA PANZER BATTLES PANZER LEADER PANZERBLITZ PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN PANZERKRIEG PBeM PBM Pearl Harbor Personal Notes Personal Notes. WWII play aide play balance production Prussia PWG quadrigame railroad repair rules Rand Game Associates reader comments Recent Break in Blogging RED SUN RISING remembrance review RGA RICHTHFEN'S WAR RIFLE AND SABER ROAD TO THE RHINE Robert Cressman Roman rules Russian RUSSIAN CIVIL WAR S and T SAMURAI SARATOGA: 1777 Saxony science fiction SEA LION SEELOWE September 11th 2001 Series 120 set-up Sevastopol Seven Years War Sicily siege SIEGE OF CONSTANTINOPLE SINAI SOLDIER KING SOLDIERS SOLOMONS CAMPAIGN SOUTH AFRICA South Vietnam Soviet SPI spreadsheet SQUAD LEADER ST #49 Stalingrad Strategy and Tactics tactical TAHGC TANNENBERG TCHERNAYA RIVER template TGI Thanksgiving THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION THE ARDENNES OFFENSIVE THE ART OF SIEGE THE BATTLE FOR MOSCOW THE BATTLE OF LOBOSITZ THE BATTLE OF MOSCOW THE BATTLE OF NATIONS THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE The Blitzkrieg Legend The Centurions THE CIVIL WAR THE CRIMEAN WAR The Face of Battle The Fall of France THE FALL OF TOBRUK THE FAST CARRIERS THE FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR THE GREAT WAR IN THE EAST THE GUNS OF AUGUST THE MARNE The Mask of Command THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN THE NEXT WAR The Pacific The Praetorians THE RUSSIAN CAMPAIGN THE RUSSO-JAPANESE WAR THE WAR IN EUROPE MODULE1: THE FIRST WORLD WAR The War in the West THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN THE WINTER WAR THEIR FINEST HOUR THIRD REICH TO THE GREEN FIELDS BEYOND TOBRUK Toland Torgau tournament Tradition TSR turn record chart TURNING POINT TURNING POINT STALINGRAD TYPHOON Tyre union US Constitution USMC USN variant Velikiye Luki VERACRUZ Veterans Day VG Victor Davis Hanson Victory Games Vietnam VON MANSTEIN WACHT AM RHEIN WAGRAM WAR AND PEACE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES war game War in Europe War in the East WAR IN THE EAST 1ST EDITION WAR IN THE EAST 2ND EDITION WAR IN THE WEST War of the Spanish Succession Wargame Conventions wargaming Wargaming Events and Tournaments Warsaw Pact WATERLOO WBC WBC Convention WBC Tournament Results WBTS WELLINGTON'S VICTORY Western Front WHITE DEATH WOODEN SHIPS IRON MEN WORLD WAR 1 WORLD WAR II WORLD WAR II: European Theater of Operations WURZBURG WWI WWII YEAR OF THE RAT Yom Kippur Zitadelle ZunTsu