Malta Saved – Part II


The arrival of the relief forces the “Gran Soccorso”, 7th September 1565
In the early days of September it became apparent to the defenders that although the attacks continued, their tenor was changing. “They continued to bombard Saint Michael’s and the Post of Castile with equal fury,” wrote Balbi on September 5, “but with all their brave bombardment we saw them daily embarking their goods and withdrawing their guns. This afforded us great satisfaction.” The Ottomans were dragging their precious cannon away against the threat of a landing on the island. This was a long and laborious process that caused much trouble. Two giant bombards caused particular difficulty; one had come off its wheels and had to be abandoned. The other fell into the sea. Increasingly encouraging news leaked out to the defenders. They learned that some of the corsairs had taken their ships and sailed away; a boom had been placed over the mouth of the harbor to prevent further defections. At the same time a Maltese captive escaped back to Birgu. In the main square he publicly proclaimed that the Turks were so weakened they were leaving. Later, two more Maltese arrived with news that the enemy would give one more major attack then depart. On the night of September 6, hearing nothing from the enemy lines, a number of men crept into the Ottoman trenches. The trenches were completely deserted; they found just some shovels and a few cloaks. The whole force had been temporarily withdrawn to man the galleys against the possibility of attack.

Yet Mustapha had still not given up hope that victory might be snatched from impending failure. The untrustworthy Christian sources are the only record that we have of the final agonized debates in the pasha’s tent on the night of Thursday, September 6. Mustapha apparently reread a letter from Suleiman brought by a eunuch of the palace, of which we have no trace, stating that the fleet must not return from Malta without victory. What followed was an intense discussion about the sultan’s likely reaction. Mustapha was of the opinion that the nature of his master was so terrible that their end would be “miserable and horrible” if they returned from Malta without victory. Perhaps he recalled the execution of the cartographer, Piri Reis, killed on the sultan’s orders ten years earlier for a failed campaign in the Red Sea, at the age of ninety. Piyale, supported by one of the army commanders, demurred: Suleiman was the wisest and most reasonable of sultans; they had made superhuman efforts to capture the island; the weather had broken; it was most important to save the fleet; risking it now would hasten the destruction of the whole force. Mustapha declared himself ready to die in one more assault the following morning. If this failed, they would withdraw.

Mustapha had already given a specific order that suggested he was preparing himself for the inevitable. The chief eunuch’s huge galleon, taken by Romegas before the start of the siege, had been an ostensible cause of the whole campaign. It had rocked gently at anchor in the inner harbor the whole summer; Mustapha had sworn at the outset that it would be sailed back in triumph to Istanbul as proof of victory. Now on September 6 he ordered it to be sunk by gunfire. As the first shots came whistling across the water, La Valette had the galleon strapped to the quay with hawsers. It was holed but remained afloat.

Dawn on Friday, September 7, brought a fine day. Like every other point in the year, the date was a marker in the Christian calendar; it was the eve of the feast of the Virgin Mary. The weather had reverted to intensely stifling equatorial heat. The nights became so unbearable that no one could sleep. The Ottoman troops were again in the trenches waiting for the order to attack. In order to add weight to the attempt, the galley squadron of Uluch Ali had just been ordered down from its lookout station at Saint Paul’s Bay. It was Mustapha’s final piece of bad luck. Two hours later, Don Garcia’s rescue force swept into the adjacent bay at Mellieha, disembarked ten thousand men on the sandy beach in an hour and a half, and put to sea again. They had landed unopposed. It was a complete fluke.

Ten miles away, the defenders on Birgu and Senglea, already sweltering in their plate armor, crouched in the dust of their ruined defenses and braced themselves for another day of fury. As they waited, an unfamiliar noise reached them from the Ottoman trenches: a murmuring of discordant voices like the buzzing of angry bees. It transpired that the janissaries and sipahis were arguing among themselves, each wanting the other to be the first into the breach. From the walls the defenders watched in open-mouthed astonishment as the enemy spontaneously abandoned their trenches and withdrew. While they wondered what this might mean, they heard gunfire from Saint Elmo—an evident signal to the Ottoman camp. Around the point came a small boat, rowing hard for the shore. A turbaned figure hurried ashore, “who by his clothing and bearing was evidently a man of authority,” jumped onto a waiting horse, and galloped toward Mustapha’s tent. So great was his haste that the horse stumbled and fell; in fury the man drew his scimitar and cut off the horse’s legs. “And having done that, he continued at a run toward Piyale Pasha’s tent. And toward Corradino and the front line at Saint Margaret could be seen three or four other Turks on horseback, with scimitars in hand; who, hurrying there, set the whole camp into uproar and commotion. And as a result, they ordered the army to hurry and embark with all the provisions of the fleet.” Word of Don Garcia’s landing had stirred the Ottomans into a fury of activity. They regrouped on Mount Sciberras and started to re-embark their provisions and equipment with miraculous speed and efficiency; but Mustapha left behind an ambush of arquebusiers to massacre the defenders should they venture forth.

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