Technology And Tactics That Helped Malta Win The Great Siege
In it to win it
Malta's Great Siege is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, especially locally, after centuries of being overlooked. But in the 16th Century, at a time when Europe was so proudly Christian, the tale of brave, outnumbered Christian knights emerging victorious against an un-Christian invader was nothing short of electrifying.
The siege was such an integral part of the European psyche then that the French philosopher Voltaire remarked that "nothing is better known than the siege of Malta". Some aspects of the war however seem to have been victim to the old adage that "history is written by the victor".
Contemporary historians seem to dispute earlier claims of just how outnumbered the Knights were for instance, and Mdina might have of been subject to 'greater sieges'. The defeat also was relatively undetrimental to the Ottomans - their empire continued to endure for another three and a half centuries.
The siege's participants and it's outcomes is relatively well known, but some of the tactics detailing exactly how the war was waged are less known. Here are a few of the technology and tactics deployed during that bloody summer in 1565:
1. Biological Warfare
Prior to retreating to their defensive positions, the Knights threw dead animals into most of the wells across the island, infecting the water supply. The systemic lack of water was a continuous thorn for the Ottoman Army, who landed here in May and spent the summer laying the siege.
Grand master de Valette also ordered the harvesting of any planted crops, even if they were still not yet ripe, in an effort to deny the invaders food.
Arquebuses were some of the earliest manifestations of what subsequently evolved into the musket. Although mostly noisy, unreliable, and largely inaccurate, they supplanted archers for the simple reason that while a lifetime of training was needed to consistently achieve a lethal result with a bow, an arquebus could be learned in a day.
Arquebuses were used by both sides in the siege, although Ottoman shooting tactics were more renowned: they were among the first to develop volley fire for instance.
3. Greek Fire
One of the Knight's arquebusiers was a knight from Reggio Emilia named Francisco Balbi di Correggio. He kept a journal during the siege, which he subsequently published. Correggio wrote that the Hospitallers had rediscovered the lost secret of Greek fire - a legendary incendiary weapon used by the Byzantines.
While the exact composition of the weapon remains unknown, most academic debate places it as being a combination of sticky pine resin and flammable naphtha or pitch, combined with compounds like phosphide to make it burn hotter.
Correggio was adamant that the Hospitallers had deployed the authentic Byzantine Greek fire, which according to him, they learned from the Byzantines during the the first crusades, however it was common at the time to call any sort of incendiary weapon "Greek Fire". Regardless of what exactly the Knights shot out, being on the receiving end of it probably wasn't pretty.
This might seem like an odd one to include on a list like this, but at the time the Hospitalliers were at the cutting edge of medicine. Besides a hospital in Birgu, they also set up a number of field hospitals.Most of the casualties in war aren't killed by the enemy: disease and infection claim a far greater toll.
5. Psychological Warfare
Popular lore holds that de Valette only resorted to using Ottoman heads as cannonballs after a number of decapitated Knights were set adrift in Grand Harbour crucified. Regardless of who started it, the psychological effects on the men must have of been tremendous.