Birgu and the ‘Great Siege’
On the evening of Friday 19th May, FAA members gathered at the Birgu War Museum entrance for a guided tour of the city of Birgu led by experienced tour guide, Vincent Zammit, to relive the history of one of the greatest sieges of all time and mark its anniversary. The Ottoman Turkish armada arrived in Malta on the 18th of May, 1565 and the first battle took place on the 19th of May.
As an introduction to the walking tour, Mr. Zammit first outlined the history of Birgu and the period leading up to the Great Siege of 1565, informing FAA members that the Knights of St. John arrived in Malta on the 26th October 1530. He explained that at that time there was only a small fort called Castrum Maris (a remnant from medieval times) with one cannon to protect the Birgu peninsula. After taking possession of the capital city Mdina, the Knights decided to establish themselves in Birgu. Castrum Maris (renamed fort St. Angelo by the Knights) at the tip of the Birgu peninsula was used to house their headquarters serving as the Order’s main stronghold and also as the seat and residence of the Grand Master and his retinue.
At the start of the Great Siege there was just one fortification in Senglea and Birgu and these two peninsulas were joined by boats with planks of wood to enable soldiers to cross from one place to the other. Just before the Ottomans arrived, a chain, tied on capstans on either side, was placed across the mouth of the Creek to impede an attack from the Grand Harbour side. The chain was lowered for boats to pass, and raised to just below the surface of the sea as the means of defense, thus Fort St. Angelo became a chain and water level battery. During the Great Siege, Birgu had two bastions – St John and St James on the land-front and the Post of Castille. Mr. Zammit added that Birgu fortifications seen today were built in the 1720’s, and comprised outside lines and three gates.
Mr. Zammit led the group on an anti-clockwise walk around the northern coastline of Birgu past St. James Cavalier and the defensive walls, returning through the narrow streets via the square to the waterfront. Various stops were made on the walk to hear different stories of events during the Great Siege, told in chronological order as follows. After the Ottomans carried out an audacious raid in 1551, which saw most of Gozo’s population captured and taken into slavery, the Grand Master ordered the strengthening of Fort St. Angelo, as well as the construction of two new forts, Fort St. Michael on the Senglea promontory and Fort St. Elmo at the seaward end of Mount Sciberras (now Valletta) as the Knights knew that Malta was still vulnerable to attacks. All three forts proved crucial during the Great Siege. Before the Turks arrived, Grand Master La Valette ordered the harvesting of all crops, including unripened grain, to deprive the enemy of any local food supplies, and the poisoning of all wells with bitter herbs and dead animals. He also requested extra forces from the Emperor Charles V, the Pope and the Viceroy of Sicily, but no help came.
On the 18th May, 1565, a vast Turkish Ottoman fleet arrived at dawn with some 40,000 men to lay siege to the Islands but did not land until the next day at Marsaxlokk. The Maltese cavalry were stationed in Mdina. Although the Grand Master ordered his men not to engage the enemy, two French Knights rushed to capture a Turk (to torture for information). The French Knights were captured and tortured and told the Turks that the Post of Castille in Birgu was the weakest point in their local defence. In fact the truth was that Post of Castille was the strongest. After realising that the information given by the captured Knights was wrong, Mustapha killed them both. Then, the Ottoman forces turned their attention towards attacking Fort St Elmo, the keeper to the entrance of Marsamxett Harbour.
The Turks thought that Marsaxlokk was not a good refuge for their fleet, so opted to base their fleet at Marsamxett, which they thought was a safer harbour and much closer to attack isolated Fort St. Elmo by sea, and by land from Marsa where they built many tents and camps. The first fighting broke out on 19th May, with an attack on Fort St. Elmo on the Sciberras peninsula because of its commanding position between the two harbours. This marked the start of the Great Siege. All attacks on Fort St. Elmo were planned before trying to besiege Birgu. Repeated assaults were launched, but the small garrison of Knights in Fort St. Elmo held on to the fort for far longer than the Ottomans anticipated. During the siege, the Maltese crossed by boat at night to evacuate injured soldiers to Birgu and replace the injured by fresh soldiers from Birgu. At one point in the battle, the Ottomans floated the headless corpses of captured Knights nailed on crosses across the Grand Harbour from Fort St. Elmo. In return the Knights were ordered to behead Ottoman prisoners and use their decapitated heads as ‘cannon balls’ to catapult back from Fort St. Angelo to Fort St Elmo. On the 23rd June, the Turks finally overran Fort St. Elmo but at a heavy price, the loss of 8,000 men including their commander Dragut.
Mr. Zammit then recounted the siege on Fort St. Angelo and Birgu saying that the Ottoman attackers fired their cannons under the most sustained bombardment in history up to that time, trying to penetrate the defenders thick-walled landward fortifications. It is thought that the Ottomans fired 130,000 cannonballs during the course of the siege. The Ottomans attacked for several days and, having largely destroyed one of the town’s crucial bastions, made a massive double assault on the 7th August and breached the town walls. Meanwhile, 700 soldiers had landed from Sicily and made their way to Mdina and then to Birgu entering via It-Toqba (the hole) to assist the local force there. Later, on the 18th August, the Ottoman Turkish army started another attack using explosives with the hope to penetrate the strongholds of fortified Birgu. But after heavy bombardment causing considerable damage to the mighty Post of Castille, they never succeeded in penetrating beyond. However, they did succeed in entering after they created a breach by means of explosives through a bastion overlooking the village of Kalkara. The Knights and the Maltese fought a battle that is never forgotten in history; blood was shed all over the place, and the encouraged Knights and Maltese forced back the Ottoman Turks to return to their camps. During the fighting, Grand Master Vallette was wounded by a hand-grenade, which injured his leg, but he kept going, refusing treatment and continued leading his men into battle. Mr. Zammit described one of the Ottoman attacker’s strategies, whereby they would dig tunnels on the landward side away from the fortifications and fighting. However, the Knights discovered the tunnels and dug counter tunnels to block the enemy exploiting the Knights defence by fighting the Ottoman attackers in the tunnels, which was another bloody episode of this Holy War. Meanwhile, the defenders in Fort St Angelo resisted the repeated Ottoman attacks from the Grand harbour side, so the Fort was never captured or defeated.
Mr. Zammit continued by saying that at the beginning of September the Ottomans were concerned about having to remain in Malta during the winter, and their morale began to ebb. The weather was turning and Mustafa ordered a march on Mdina, intending to winter there. However, the attack failed to occur. The poorly-defended city fired its cannon at the approaching Turks; this bluff scared them away by fooling the already demoralised Ottomans into thinking the city had ammunition to spare. Then, on the 7th of September, Valette’s long-awaited relief forces arrived at Mellieħa Bay with 4000 men to help defend the Knights. They took control of high ground inland in Mdina from where they charged and fought at Burmarrad, resulting in the massacre of the retreating Turkish force. With this re-enforcement the leaders of the Ottoman Turkish armies feared that their galleys and soldiers were going to be trapped in the Grand Harbour, so the Ottoman troops retreated. They destroyed their camps in Marsa, embarked their artillery on their galleys and prepared to leave the island to return to their homeland, but not before losing thousands more men, having lost perhaps a third of their men to fighting and disease. This led to the end of the ‘Great Siege’ on the 8th September 1565, the day now known as ‘Victory Day’. In recognition of this event of their part in the Great Siege, the historic city of Birgu was re-named “Vittoriosa”, the victorious city. Malta had survived the Turkish assault, and throughout Europe people celebrated what would turn out to be the last epic battle involving Crusader Knights. The Turks fled from the islands on the 13th September.
The well-entertained and informed group then walked back through the narrow streets to Birgu Waterfront via the main square, where there was a 1705 monument built to commemorate the Victory of the Great Siege. At the end of the event, Maura Marlow, on behalf of the FAA, thanked Mr. Zammit for yet another highly informative guided tour.