Fort St. Elmo 1565 Part III

The threat of a general assault, following on the heels of the day’s fighting and the hard line taken by Valette, proved too much for the defenders. Despite the greater number of Muslim casualties, the exhausted Christians doubted they could take another fight like today’s and saw little point in trying. Not that they feared dying; or at least, so they said. Among those who most wanted to abandon the fort was the “recently accused (poco tacciato) . . . Captain Juan de la Cerda: who nevertheless resolved to die valorously and honorably while fighting for Birgu.” The Spanish soldiers already had petitioned to abandon the place. Now for the first time, they were openly joined by fifty-three of the Knights of St. John. The members of the Order came together in the fort’s small chapel and by candlelight drafted a letter for the grand master and the council:

Most Illustrious and Very Reverend Monseigneur:

When the Turks first landed on Malta, Your Highness ordered the present knights to repair to this fortress and defend it. We have done this with fullness of spirit and to the best of our abilities and with some good outcome, as we believe Your Highness is aware. In the doing we have shirked neither fatigue nor danger. Now, however, the enemy has brought us down to such a state that we can neither injure them nor defend ourselves. They now hold the counterscarp and the ditch. They have carved steps into the very ramparts. They have built a bridge by which they can come and go at will. They have tunneled beneath the walls, leaving us to expect an explosion at any moment. They have raised the ravelin so high that it overlooks the entire fort. In consequence, our sentries are killed as quickly as they take up their positions. We are reduced to such an extent that we are no longer able to use the piazza at the center of the fort. We have lost several men there, and only the chapel provides any measure of safety at all. The soldiers are dispirited, and their officer can no longer get them to man the walls. Perfectly aware that the fort is doomed, they prepare themselves to swim for safety. We likewise see ourselves as at the end of our rope, and because we can no longer execute the obligations of the Order, we are determined, absent Your Highness’s sending us boats tonight in which we can withdraw, to rush out and die like proper knights.

Do not send further reinforcements, as they must surely die as well. This is the determined resolution of us the undersigned. We also point out to Your Highness that [Turkish] galleots have been cruising past the end of the point. Accordingly, thus resolved, we kiss your hand and keep a copy of this letter.

—Dated from St. Elmo, June 8, 1565

Fra Vitellino Vitelleschi of Corneto (modern-day Tarquinia) had the thankless task of crossing to Fort St. Angelo and delivering the letter. Balbi, ever tactful, says only that Valette was “deeply troubled” by the letter, largely because of the number of knights who signed it. Well he might have been. These were not outsiders, but brothers in faith, men sworn to obedience, and their letter was tantamount to insubordination bordering on mutiny. The threat of a quick suicidal attack might have been bluff, or might not. The signatories had no leverage (other than surrender) but the threat to cut the siege of St. Elmo short, which to Valette was unthinkable. If it was true that the Spanish soldiers were no longer willing to stand their ground, then St. Elmo might well be a lost cause.

How to respond?

The grand master had Vitalleschi wait as he wrote out his answer. First he chastised the petitioners for questioning his lawful orders and declared dishonorable the very thought of an unauthorized suicide attack on the enemy. The knights, he reminded them, were bound by vows of obedience, and he, as their superior, had determined that they would best serve the Order and their God on Fort St. Elmo.

He then softened, if only a little. Proud men, after all, can be pushed only so far, and if even his own knights had reached this extreme, how much worse must it be for the others? Valette was willing to demonstrate good faith and hoped that it would buy him at least a little more time. He determined to send over three senior knights—from Spain, Don Francisco Ruys de Medina; from France, Antoine de la Roche; and from Italy, Costantino Castriota—and have them make a full and impartial evaluation of the situation. Any further decisions, whether to remain or to retreat, would follow from their reports, which he expected before sunrise. It was one more delay, which is the least Valette wanted, and by calling their judgment into question, he might cause the knights to reconsider whether things were quite as bad as they thought.

At three that morning, the boat carrying the trio of knights bumped up against the rocks below St. Elmo, and Vitalleschi led the way up the steps to the fort. What they found was a low-rimmed crater filled with a confusion of unexpected activity. The signatories had been so confident of their case that they were already shutting down their operation. Despite the disapproval of Colonel Mas (whose alleged feelings did not seem to translate into any effective action), the defenders of St. Elmo were breaking swords and arquebuses, and tipping cannon shot into the sea. All leftover gunpowder they planned on using, as La Cerda had long ago suggested, to blow up what remained of the fort, preferably while a large number of Turks were inside it.

The soldiers stopped long enough to hear Valette’s short message. They were not pleased. Filthy, tired, wounded, insulted, and clearly sensing prevarication, they said no, there was nothing to discuss. Repeated requests, from the most blunt to the most reserved, had failed to move Valette and his council, yet a blind man could see that the fort was beyond hope. Let the envoys discover what the defenders of Fort St. Elmo had endured these past weeks and see for themselves if the demands were reasonable.

The three knights were then led past the dust-covered, truculent men who defended scarcely maintainable posts. By starlight, these envoys saw the broken walls, the shattered cavalier, and peered at the lost ravelin; from over the wall they heard the sounds of Ottoman spades thudding into the hard ground, pushing the enemy ominously closer. The three knights quickly came to their conclusions. The Spaniard agreed that there was no hope and that immediate withdrawal was the best course. The Provençal gave it a few more days, but in essence agreed.

Castriota, the Italian who on an earlier trip to St. Elmo had declared the ravelin hopelessly lost, was made of sterner stuff. A middle-aged, collateral descendent of the Albanian hero Skanderbeg, he had probably seen more action than any other man present, serving and suffering wounds in the Italian wars of Charles V (Capodorso, Turin, and Naples). He had come late to the Order (1561), “hounded by the court, a stranger to my family, abandoned by my friends,” after a multifaceted career as a soldier, diplomat, and perhaps a spy. Under the pen name of Filonico Alicarnasseo, he had also made a name for himself as a noted literary scholar (his treatise De Cavaglieria, coincidentally was dedicated to Don Pedro de Toledo, father of Don Garcia de Toledo). Given his background and his possession of a “robust and ferocious mind,” it was logical that he should have been chosen as one of this small party. He was the last to speak, and it would have been better if he had kept silent.

Things were not, he said, nearly so bad as some had claimed. True, the outer defense works were lost and the main walls were in terrible shape, and the men were tired and clearly strained. But there was all around them an abundance of stone and masonry. The soldiers might build a secondary wall behind the breaches, a curtain from which they could continue the fight for a good while longer. Abandoning the fort just now would be unnecessary, even foolish, and he could not in good conscience advise the council otherwise. He went further. He said that, should Valette put him in charge, he would be able to hold out at the very least until Don Garcia himself arrived.

It took a brave or foolish man to say such things in such circumstances, and if Castriota’s summing up was an insult to the foot soldiers, it was a slap at the commanders as well. The mood turned ugly, and the men began to shout. Had this interloper not seen how small the fort actually was, how useless the materials he expected them to use? Had he experienced the terror of Ottoman guns, of Janissary arquebusiers, of a wild-eyed Iayalar assault? The more hard-hearted, or just sarcastic, suggested that Castriota should spend a full day there to get a true sense of just how things stood. “Since you claim it possible, you can stay and show us the means and together we can defend [the fort] to the death.”

Castriota claimed obedience to his warrant and said that Valette had ordered him back that same night. In response, an angry Colonel Mas ordered the gate that led to the water’s edge be closed. Ruys de Medina and Antoine de la Roche, the two dissenting knights, pointed out that it was only Castriota who proposed holding on, and the Council must surely favor the opinions of two men against the one.

The impasse was suddenly broken when the chapel bells began to ring, the signal for all men to report to their stations. Remarkably, like trained border collies, they all did so. Soldiers ran into the far dark corners of the outer walls, alert to whatever might be coming, and in an instant the parade ground was entirely cleared.

It was d’Eguaras who had sounded the alarm, not because there was an actual attack, but because he saw the distraction as the only way to break the standoff. The last thing he wanted was a knock-down, drag-out fight between his men and a trio of de facto diplomats. Having scattered the mob, he came from the chapel and urged the envoys to go down the steps to their long boat immediately and return to Valette to describe all they had seen.

One more time, the council met to hear testimony and debate the destiny of Fort St. Elmo. Valette was unmoving. The fort would be defended. He would use shame, anger, guile, ridicule, and whatever else he could to keep men there and fighting. In this instance, he was backed up by Castriota, who took the occasion to do a little grandstanding. The Italian repeated his belief that the fort could be maintained, and further requested that he and his company be allowed to return to the peninsula to fight, even if others would not.

Dawn brought new surprises. A swimmer arrived from Fort St. Elmo, carrying a cow horn sealed with wax, inside which was mail. The letter was from the rebellious knights, their demands for pulling out now replaced by demands for more men and more equipment.

The explanation for this turnabout was simple. On hearing about the knights’ petition the night before, senior members of the various langues had dispatched letters of their own to their countrymen at Fort St. Elmo, chastising the rebels for the shame they brought to the individual langue and to their fellow knights. If knights of the Order of St. John could not be counted on for obedience and bravery up to death if required, what could be expected of other men? What did this kind of disobedience say to the outsiders, the Spanish and Italian soldiers who had volunteered to join them in defense of an island and an Order not their own?

If the point needed to be underscored, the senior men also had informed the defenders of St. Elmo of Castriota’s offer to return to St. Elmo with five hundred men. They added that his was not simply an offer to fight to the end, but to do so as the overall commander of all forces within the fort, an offer that the grand master could all too easily be expected to accept. For the knights, the dishonor was too great. They would as soon stay alone and die as the brave men that they were.

But Valette, having regained the upper hand over the men on St. Elmo, was not going to let go easily. In a communiqué laced with regret, he informed the knights still at St. Elmo that he was relieving them of their post. That such once-brave men should have lost heart was unfortunate, the more so as this was in violation of their vows. If, however, any knight on St. Elmo wished to leave, Valette would not stand in his way. Indeed, he would prefer not to have anyone there on whom he could not rely, and as there were four or more eager volunteers for every soldier currently at the besieged fort, it would be no great hardship to fill the gaps. He announced that he was granting Castriota his request, and that the gentleman had already raised his banner, sounded his drum, and inducted volunteers. The bishop of Malta had promised another two thousand ducats to encourage new recruits. It seemed that Castriota’s common soldiers would do for money, the bishop’s money, what certain knights of St. John would not do for honor.

The letter was delivered by Don Melchior de Monserrat, who had been making trips back and forth between the forts for some time now, and who had some credibility with these men that Castriota did not. He and Miranda—who had received a separate letter from Valette reminding him of the confidence the grand master had in him—both exhorted the defenders to remain, and the spoken and written words, combined, had their intended effect. Word of their capitulation spread throughout Fort St. Angelo and Birgu. The men had come back into line, discipline and determination had been restored. Valette had won. More supplies and a hundred more soldiers were now readied and could come across; Castriota, clearly unwelcome at Fort St. Elmo, was reassigned, no longer expected to defend St. Elmo. The wounded Broglio needed replacing, however, and Valette asked Monserrat to take command of the fort, to which Monserrat, who had repeatedly said that the fort should not be abandoned, agreed.

To help consolidate the soldiers’ new determination to stay and fight, Monserrat took along the Capuchin monk Friar Robert of Eboli, a man with a talent for fire-breathing rhetoric. This peculiar cleric, for nearly ten years a slave in Tripoli after being kidnapped by a nephew of Turgut, had been living in Malta only a year, but seems to have become an institution. On the second day of the siege, he had taken it upon himself to embark on a forty-hours’ adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, a first on Malta, and greatly comforting to the island’s inhabitants.

He now stood before the half-dead men in the dust of the ruins and, with the power of the truly inspired, made his sermon “uplift, confirm, and renew the spirits of the said knights with spiritual consolation.” His rhetoric had moved two newly converted Jews (Valette had recently allowed Jews back on the island) to come “to die in the faith of Christ.” For his work during the siege, his presence was considered as providential. He stayed on at St. Elmo, going from man to man at each station, crucifix in hand, encouraging, comforting, as needed until the night of June 13, at which time the friar accompanied the exhausted Broglio back to Birgu. Fort St. Elmo would endure for a little while longer.

At least one modern scholar suggests that there is an element of wishful thinking in this story. He notes that the men on St. Elmo were in no position to get back to Birgu without Valette’s cooperation, and that the grand master’s dispatching fresh volunteers was simply a means of defusing the situation. Men will, of course, volunteer to join their comrades in hopeless causes if the emotional draw is sufficient.

On June 10, the sixteenth day of the siege, Mustapha had scheduled a night assault on St. Elmo. Surprise was not part of the plan—rather, he intended to stretch the enemy both physically and emotionally before the men attacked. Bombardments lasted into the third night watch, at which point Mustapha judged the Christians sufficiently exhausted. He halted the cannon and sent his men forward into the darkness with scaling ladders.

The downside of his plan was that the defenders were all wide awake and clearly prepared for the attack. Here Balbi mentions fire hoops for the first time. These were wooden rings curved to a diameter large enough to encircle three men. A length of cloth infused with pitch and other accelerants was wrapped around the wood. More cotton, more pitch, and so on until the item was about as thick as a man’s leg. When a heavy press of soldiers appeared on the far side of the wall, the hoops were set alight and tossed horizontally in a murderous game of ring toss. The Turks and their allies were in the habit of wearing loose cotton, which, in the torrid heat of a Maltese summer, was far more comfortable than the leather jerkins and steel plate armor that the Christians wore, but which burned readily. Balbi attributes the greatest number of Muslim casualties to this device.

Whatever advantage Mustapha might have had by timing his assault at night was obviated by the extensive use of fire on both sides. Indeed, the gunners in St. Angelo and the other positions were able to lay their guns by the light of the enemy’s fires. It was not just the hoops that turned night into day. The defenders lit torches, while the Janissaries hurled sachetti, friable clay pots filled with Greek fire that were intended to break on Christian armor and roast the enemy alive. In preparation for these, the defenders had filled a number of deep tubs with water.

By dawn the fight was over. More than fifteen hundred Ottomans were dead, and only sixty Christians. The only activity that morning was a massive cannonade that lasted from dawn till noon.

Turgut had been kept busy as well. Some time earlier, cavalry under Coppier had managed to disrupt his gun battery at Point Tigné. Within a day, he replaced four heavy guns on that point and manned them with enough soldiers to ward off any further attack. Valette countered with new gun emplacements at Fort St. Angelo, and he was able to take out a number of enemy batteries on Mt. Sciberras before they were removed to less vulnerable positions. He also sent over another one hundred and fifty soldiers to St. Elmo, and more ammunition, baskets, mattresses, and rope.

The situation inside the Turkish camps was becoming grim. A Janissary was captured outside the capital city. The man reported that casualties were unexpectedly high and had included Curtogli, aga of the Janissaries, killed by cannon fire while observing St. Elmo from the forward trenches. Six vessels carried Ottoman casualties to Tripoli, and it was common knowledge that the wounded were not recovering as they should. Illness, most likely dysentery, was rampant, and biscuit rations for the laborers were now down to ten ounces a day. There was more talk of friction between the pashas and the Janissaries, a notably independent sort, who could not have been pleased with the loss of their commander. For their part, the pashas could only note that in over two weeks these elite troops had failed to take a fort in a siege that was supposed to have required no more than five days.

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