The Great Siege
Malta 1565
by Ernle Bradford

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1961
256 pages; maps & period illustrations

Harcourt, Brace & World: New York, 1962
244 pages; maps & period illustrations

September 2012

The long perspective

Ernle Bradford introduces his history of The Great Siege of Malta by the Ottoman Empire in 1565 with a personal note and a glimpse of the long perspective:

I first came to Malta in 1942, at a time when the island was enduring the second great siege in its history. I was then a naval officer, the navigator of a destroyer, and too busy to care about the island's past, or that other great siege which had preceded the one in which I was involved, by nearly four centuries. In 1943 I revisited Malta during the invasion of Sicily. It was then that I saw the island fulfilling the role which Soleyman the Magnificent had envisaged for it in 1565. From Malta, the Allied Forces stormed and captured Sicily and Italy.

The island of Malta, sitting astride the Mediterranean sea lanes south of Sicily on a line between Syracuse and Tripoli, in World War II blocked much of the Axis Powers' attempts to resupply German and Italian forces in North Africa. The Axis tried hard to take or destroy or neutralize Malta, and failed. This critical air and naval base then provided a springboard for the Allied Powers' attack northward. Bradford writes about the World War II events in Siege: Malta 1940-1943 (1986).

Malta; Grand Master La Vallette; the Knights

Some years after the Knights of St. John were forced out of their Eastern Mediterranean fortress at Rhodes by Ottoman sea and land forces under Soleyman, they were granted possession of Malta by the King of Spain. About the only good feature they appreciated of their new home was its sandstone rock, easily quarry-able for fortifications. La Valette, the head of this Order of Christian Knights, well remembered the loss of Rhodes and was determined that they would defend Malta to the death.

Malta itself becomes a character to an extent in The Great Siege, as do its principal strong points, the fortress of St. Angelo and the Knights' town of Birgu on one harbor peninsula, Senglea on its neighbor, and their just-built fortress of St. Elmo on an opposite peninsula. The fighting is on land, as the Turkish army attacks these determinedly.

La Valette, the hero of the siege, is well characterized by Bradford, along with his Order in general; and to a lesser extent, many of the Knights and some native Maltese who are named along with their exploits. These are real people, smart and tough, strong in courage and in their faith.

Sultan Soleyman; General Mustapha & Admiral Piali; the corsair Dragut; Janissaries

Soleyman's initial and perhaps biggest mistake probably was the divided command of the army and fleet he sent from Constantinople to reduce Malta. Bradford's analysis of Mustapha's strategic mistakes and Pialii's unwillingness to risk his fleet, explains how their wrong start could not be entirely made up for by the arrival of Dragut, the pirate commander who held the confidence of the Sultan. The admiral and general ceded direction of the siege to Dragut, but by then the key error had been made: committing the army to assaulting the new fortress of St. Elmo without even securing the Maltese hinterland. Bradford nicely characterizes these leading Ottoman figures; and of their army, the elite Janissaries are singled out for attention as they were hurled at the Christian walls and fighters:

Christian by birth, Spartan by upbringing, and fanatical Moslems by conversion, the Janissaries were one of the most amazing military corps in history. It was as if the Turks, remembering over centuries the nature of the men who had defeated their ancestors at Thermopylae, were determined to raise a type of soldier who should combine the most arrogant militarism of the West with the religious fanaticism of the East. These were the men, armed with scimitar, arquebus, and round shield, whom Mustapha Pasha had now sent forward to check the Christian onrush. ...
Balance and location allow a siege

Simply, what makes a siege happen over time, rather than a short battle or a swift-moving campaign, is (1) balanced forces and (2) a strategic location. The balance means that neither side easily can prevail. The invaluable location I've mentioned briefly above.

What, then, about the balance of forces at Malta? The defending Christian Knights held the advantages of prepared fortifications, stored supplies, interior lines, plate armor (for the Knights), varieties of Greek fire weapons. The attacking Ottoman Moslems held the advantages of freedom of movement, control of the sea, better firearms, much more artillery, many more soldiers. Both had faith and courage.

The Turks optimistically hoped that Malta might fall within a week. The defenders held, and kept holding under extreme pressure; but at a number of points and times it was very close. Anyone wounded who could walk was rated fit to man the defenses; and some who could not walk had themselves carried there. Only as the siege dragged on did the European Powers begin to realize that the loss of Malta would extend Ottoman naval power into Western Mediterranean waters, with long-term dire consequences for the West. But none of them sent help in time to be useful, except for pirating a few Turkish resupply ships. The Knights and Maltese held their island on their own.

In conclusion

The Great Siege is quite a good book. Ernle Bradford's clear historical narrative reads as smoothly of scope and detail as a novel, with brave people you learn to care about locked in life-or-death battle. Even knowing the outcome of the siege, and despite having read the book before, I still find it quite suspenseful. There are many turns and surprises, sharp thinking in tight spots, ingrained faith on both sides, endurance under devastating bombardment, bravery beyond what one could demand or scarcely hope for.

La Vallette and Dragut, earlier in their lives, each had been for a time a galley slave for the other side. They understood warfare from top to bottom, on land and sea. They were not young men, but they were clear hard leaders who stood in the breach themselves when necessary. They were not "chateau generals" directing from afar via a telegraph wire. Hector and Achilles would have understood them well.


© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson

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