In 1453, the great walls of Constantinople fell to the armies of the Ottoman Turks and the remaining remnant of the Roman Empire was erased. The balance of power in Europe shifted dramatically with the rise of the Ottoman Empire. Still reeling from their defeat in the Holy Land, the Christian armies of Europe faced a foe of not unlike the steppe warriors of centuries past. To expand their gains in Europe and the Mediterranean, the Ottoman’s continued to look west against the Christian defenders. In the summer of 1565, the great fleet of the Ottoman Empire descended on the tiny Christian outpost of Malta. What erupted on this small island in the Mediterranean would go down in history as one of the great “David versus Goliath” triumphs, and would reinvigorate the Christian armies of Europe and prove that the Ottoman’s could be defeated.
Defense of the tiny outpost on Malta fell to the Knights Hospitaller, also known as the Order of St. John. The Hospitallers were a relic of the Crusades, formed during the First Crusade. The order was initially founded to provide medical aid to pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land but like other monastic orders of the day took on military roles. With the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1291, the Knights Hospitaller retreated from the Holy Land and settled on the island of Rhodes. Following the Ottoman victory against the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the Ottoman’s made the Hospitallers their next target to destroy. Two attacks were launched against the Hospitallers fortress on Rhodes, with an unsuccessful campaign in 1480 and the successful victory in 1522. With the loss of Rhodes, the Hospitallers were once again forced to relocate, this time on the small island of Malta.
Malta is strategically located between the coast of North Africa and the island of Sicily. Seizing this strategic location would allow the Ottoman navy to control significant parts of the Mediterranean Sea, allowing a jumping-off point for operations against Western Europe. The island was sparsely populated, and the military force of the order numbered 500, with a supporting coalition of troops from Spain, Italy, and Greece. With the inclusion of local defense force, the army on Malta numbered less than 8,000 soldiers. When the Ottoman’s descended on the tiny island, they brought with them nearly 50,000 troops. Resistance looked futile to the inhabitants of Malta, but the Knights Hospitallers were not going to give up the island without a fight. For three long months, the Ottoman’s threw everything they had at them. It has been estimated that over 130,000 cannonballs were fired by the Ottoman’s during the siege against the defenders. Despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered, the Knights Hospitallers held their ground and by 11 September 1565 the Ottomans were forced to abandon their plan of taking the island.
Look for more information regarding the history of the Ottoman wars in Europe in the upcoming Strategy & Tactics issue #295 with the article “The Gates of Vienna” and join the conversation on Facebook!