The fifth anniversary of September 11th 2001 is upon us. It is fitting that the day should see both a solemn remembrance of the dead and the renewal of a cold-hearted resolve to win the war that was declared on us.
There is however, another September 11th that we should also remember, and from which we can take heart in our own struggle. It is September 11th 1565; the scene was different and so were the actors too, but the nature of the battle was all too familiar. On that day, a small force of European knights and the entire population of Malta dealt Ottoman Turkey a decisive defeat, and in doing so probably saved western civilization.
In May of that year, a Turkish invasion force landed on the island of Malta, held only by a combined force of knights, their hired soldiers, and the mobilized population of the island. The Turkish aim was to seize the strategically located island and clear the way for the expansion of the crescent flag of Islam into the western Mediterranean and western Europe. The Turks, under Sultan Suleiman the Great, also sought to exterminate the last vestige of a crusading order that was still proving to be a dangerous foe.
Those old crusaders were the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John, of Jerusalem of Rhodes, and of Malta. Originally founded in the eleventh century as a hospital order to provide relief to Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land, they quickly grew into a formidable military force that also protected those Christian pilgrims. (They still exist as hospitallers, but if they existed today in the same form as in 1565, they would surely be the strangest NGO in the world. Imagine a merger of Catholic Charities and Blackwater; imagine Mother Teresa with a .45 and the will and skill to use it.)
The Knights of St John were by 1565 already living anachronisms. (Today, wouldn’t they be called warmongers and the religious right?) The crusades from they derived were old history even then; the Order had been expelled first from the Holy Land and then from the fertile island of Rhodes. They were given the rock of Malta as much to keep them away from Europe as to allow them to get at the Turks, who they saw as mortal enemies. They waged ceaseless war against the Sultan in the form of commerce raiding and other operations.
The Knights knew their enemy well. The Order’s intelligence network gave early warning of the Turkish Sultan’s preparations for a massive attack to crush the Knights for good. Under the Grand Master, Jean de la Vallette, they prepared their defenses and called in their brethren from estates across Europe.
The Knights and the Maltese were virtually on their own in the fight for Malta. The Europe they sought to defend was going to provide little help. The Protestant powers of northern Europe were content to let the Catholic knights fight this battle. Imperial Spain, technically the order’s patron, would prove dilatory at best in sending aid. France had signed a treaty with Turkey some years before, and although much of the Order was of French descent, that country was neither able nor inclined to ride to its rescue.
The siege was brutal. After weeks of attack and counterattack under the hot Mediterranean sun, the Turks took a small position, Fort St Elmo, which guarded the approaches to the main citadels of Fort St Angelo and Fort St Michael. Despite having taken enormous losses, they then hurled their forces against the twin defenses around the grand harbor. More than once their fanatical assaults nearly overwhelmed the defenders; at one point the Turkish assault on St Michael was about to succeed when a surprise attack on the Turkish rear area by the Order’s cavalry caused them to retreat. In June a small relief force of about 700, sent from Sicily, arrived and crept into the fortress under the cover of a fog, and the reinforcement proved just enough to bolster the tired defenders at a critical point.
By the end of summer it was clear that the Turks had shot their bolt, despite their having come very close to victory more than once and having inflicted severe losses on the Knights and the Maltese. The Order had made them pay a very heavy price for their gains, and they could not sustain the campaign. The defenders likewise were on their last legs, but their faith and the leadership and iron resolve of the Grand Master held them firm.
On September 8th, when at last a relief force from Sicily appeared bearing 8,000 Knights and soldiers from across Europe, the Turks began to withdraw. But they left a force ashore, hoping to draw the Knights and their soldiers into an ambush that would secure them the victory in the open that they could not gain in the siege. Their fleet was still mostly intact, and even with the arrival of a relief force the issue was still in doubt. The Grand Master recognized what was afoot but was determined to finish them off; he gave orders to sortie a force to meet the Turks and push them into the sea.
One of the soldiers in that force, Francisco Balbi di Correggio, who left a first-hand account of the siege, tells us about that last battle. The force was made of defenders, nearly worn out by months of combat and privation, and the soldiers of the relief, who sought action after months of waiting in Sicily. Tthey advanced on the Turks and seized a commanding height. With an officer shouting, “Santiago, and at them!” they fought a pitched battle but finally beat the enemy down, stopping only when the guns of the Turkish fleet covered the withdrawal. Yet not all Turks made it off. Balbi tells us that hundreds were left on the island; no quarter was shown to them, save one Turk who was sold into slavery.
And so it was that on Tuesday, September 11th 1565, the Ottoman Turks were driven from the Malta by the stalwart defense of a small group of living anachronisms and the island’s own brave inhabitants. The greatest military force in the Mediterranean was broken on the walls of the island’s fortresses, and the swords, spears and shields of the islanders and the Knights.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the battle. In modern terms, it was not only a great victory in and of itself, it was also a critical shaping operation. In 1571, the Turkish fleet met the combined fleet of the now-mobilized European powers under the Venetian Andrea Doria at Lepanto. The Turks were crushed, and their naval power never again threatened Europe.
The lessons for us today, almost five centuries hence, are equally important. The same enemy exists today. Instead of galleys he uses airliners, and instead of Janissaries he uses suicide bombers. He hates and fears western civilization, and seeks to convert or enslave us. We have to meet him and engage him everywhere he is, just as the Knights did. What it will take to win against him is what it took to win at Malta: preparation, skill at arms, leadership, and above all faith and an iron will.
While I remember our dead, I’ll also remember the Knights of St John.