The flight of the Turkish forces, 8th September 1565
La Valette remained wary to the bitter end, refusing to permit anyone to leave the fortifications. Within Birgu there were celebrations in the streets. All the church bells were rung to celebrate the eve of the feast of the Virgin; trumpets, drums, and flags provided a welcome gaiety in the forlorn streets of the ruined city. There were extraordinary displays of mass emotion. People fell to their knees and raised their hands to heaven, thanking God. Others leaped and cried “Relief, relief! Victory! Victory!” running about wildly. And Vespasiano Malaspina, a knight “of the most holy reputation,” climbed up onto the ramparts with a palm leaf in his hands and sang the Te Deum. He had just got to the end of the first verse when Ottoman snipers shot him dead. It must have been a grimly satisfying Parthian shot.
Night fell on Birgu and Senglea with an extraordinary, amplified silence after months of continuous bombardment; only the distant rumble of wheels grinding on the stony ground disturbed the hot night air, as the Ottomans dragged their guns back to the ships.
All day, while the Ottomans had been withdrawing to their ships, the relief force had been slogging across country the seven miles from the landing spot to Mdina. The men were wearing steel helmets and breastplates, carrying weapons and heavy loads of food. The day was oppressively hot and they were exhausted by their weeklong ordeal in the boats. Strung out across the parched landscape, the force was highly vulnerable. Some started to drop their supplies to make the march more bearable, and had to be sent back to collect them. As they struggled uphill to Mdina, Ascanio della Corgna and Anastagi rode down to meet them, and the local population brought pack animals to carry away the supplies. Ascanio, fearful of ambush, urged the men mercilessly on; by the end of the day all ten thousand had been safely garrisoned in and around Mdina.
As the Ottoman expedition anticipated ignominious departure, there came a sudden twist of fate. On Sunday, September 9, a soldier from the relief force defected to the Ottoman camp. He was a Morisco, a Spanish Muslim converted under duress to Christianity, prompted by the Islamic banners still fluttering on the shoreline to return to the faith of his fathers. He put a new slant on the arrival of the relief force: there were not ten thousand men, the true number was nearer six thousand; they were exhausted from the traumatic maritime maneuvers and were so short of food they could scarcely stand on their feet; moreover, their different leaders were jostling for authority. This was one fact that was almost certainly correct: The Spaniard Alvare and the Italian Ascanio did not get on; it was a split command structure replicated in the Ottoman camp.
To Mustapha, still unable to confront the possibility of defeat, this information offered a chance to salvage something from the wreckage. He decided on one last throw of the dice. Before daybreak on Tuesday, September 11, he disembarked ten thousand men from the galleys in the dark, so that his intentions could not be detected, and started to march north in battle formation with the aim of defeating the relief force before it could recover from the voyage. At the same time Piyale’s fleet put out from the harbor and sailed north, to stand off Saint Paul’s Bay. From Birgu and Senglea the defenders watched the Turks go, then climbed Mount Sciberras and planted the red-and-white flag of the Knights of Saint John on the battered ruins of Saint Elmo. The Ottomans could now be seen on the march, setting fire to the countryside as they went.
In fact, Mustapha’s plan had been very quickly leaked back to the Christians by a Sardinian renegade who had switched sides, and Maltese scouts were monitoring the Ottomans’ movements closely. La Valette had sent urgent messages up to Mdina to prepare the troops. In the early morning, the ten thousand men of the relief force were drawn up on the high ground beyond Mdina. They had had two days of rest and something more than ship’s biscuit to eat: each company had been given a cow or an ox. Many of the men were Spanish veterans from Philip’s Italian possessions, pikemen and arquebusiers, accustomed to open field warfare and experienced in fighting in organized formations. The troops were drawn up for battle. The Spanish banners were unfurled, and the kettledrums beat a battering tattoo. The bristling squares of steel-helmeted men waited for the Ottoman charge.
As the Turks approached, the Spanish and Italian commanders found their men increasingly difficult to control: “Not even at the point of the sword could they restrain their men, so great was the desire of all to come to blows with the Turks.” Both sides realized the advantage of the high ground and rushed to command a hillock beyond Mdina surmounted by a tower. The Spanish won the race, raised their banners, and started to force the enemy down the hill. The Ottomans tried to stand and fight but were driven back; the fighting was fierce—men were shot down by arquebuses or by arrows—and the sun, now at its zenith, was intensely hot, “so great that I maintain I never knew it so hot in all the siege as on that day,” wrote Balbi. “Christians and Turks alike could hardly stand from exhaustion, heat and thirst, and many died.” Mustapha’s decision to attack was now shown to be a terrible error of judgment. The Christian force was larger than the Morisco had claimed—and they were far fresher than the Muslims, who had been in the field for four months. The Ottomans started to waver. Mustapha’s arquebusiers held the line for a short while, but the onward momentum of the Christians proved unstoppable. The impact of the Spanish pikemen led to a rout. Mustapha, brave to the last, tried to halt his men’s flight. He killed his horse to demonstrate there would be no retreat and ran forward to place himself in the front line. It was to no avail; his men were fleeing in disorder down to the sea before the rapidly advancing enemy, flags flying, drums beating, the knights in their red-and-white tunics, the Spanish levies stabbing and jabbing with their pikes. Ascanio was wounded; Don Alvare had his horse shot from under him, but the forward momentum of the Christians was now irresistible. The Ottoman officers were unable to control the men at all; they turned in disorderly flight. Mustapha dispatched an urgent order to the fleet to bring their ships in close to the shore, prows forward with their guns ready to cover the retreat. The arid plains leading down to the sea became a scene of slaughter. It was so hot that men from both sides collapsed under the weight of their armor and died; but the Spanish relief force was stronger and fresher. Shouting “Kill them!” they swept forward with the force of vengeance. With the memory of Saint Elmo still vivid, the order was given to take none alive. Some of the Turks fell to the ground and could not, or would not, get up. They were killed where they lay.
The final ghastly moments of the battle for Malta were played out on the shores of Saint Paul’s Bay, the site of the legendary shipwreck of Saint Paul and a place of intense Christian significance to the Maltese. For the retreating Muslims it was now just a matter of personal survival. While the scores of galleys stood off from the shore, a throng of smaller rowing boats surged into the bay to take the men away. The retreating soldiers were driven onto the beach and the sandstone ledges that surrounded the bay, then into the sea. The young Maltese and the Spanish troops splashed into the lagoon, slashing and hacking at the floundering Turks. Men tried to scrabble into the boats and overturned them. Bodies floated in the blue water, trailing ribbons of blood. Eventually the last survivors scrambled onto the ships. The galleys then turned their guns on the shore, and Don Alvaro and Ascanio ordered the men to withdraw. They stood in the hot sun, exhausted and drained, watching the fleet go. The beach and the water were littered with turbans, scimitars, shields, and an unknown number of dead. “We could not estimate exactly the number of their dead at that time, but two or three days afterwards the bodies of the drowned floated to the surface,” wrote Balbi. “So great was the stench in the bay, that no man could go near it.”
After dark, the galleys returned to the shore, took on water, and sailed away—the Barbary corsairs back to North Africa, the imperial fleet to make the long voyage home to face the sultan’s displeasure, leaving perhaps half its army, some ten thousand men, dead in the barren landscape. Behind them a shattered island, “arid, ransacked, and ruined” in the words of Giacomo Bosio; of the eight thousand defenders, only six hundred were still fit to carry arms, and two hundred fifty of the five hundred knights were dead. Malta stank of death. The Christian survivors rang their bells and gave thanks to God; there were bonfires in the streets of Rome and prayers of thanksgiving all the way to London. For the first time in forty years, Suleiman had received a major check in the White Sea. In the face of all previous experience, the ravelin of Europe had held, shielding the Christian shore from certain depredation. Malta had survived through a combination of religious zeal, irreducible willpower—and luck. In the process La Valette had fired up all Europe.