Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The Fall of Fort St Elmo

The Fall of Fort St. Elmo

On this the 450th anniversary of the fall of Fort St. Elmo I am re-posting an article from 2009.

What these few knights, soldiers and civilians withstood for a horrifying month is nothing short of miraculous. Below is an excerpt of a talk given by Michael Davies in 2002 that was part of a conference given at the Dietrich von Hildebrand Institute 2002 Summer Symposia entitled “The 1st Through 8th Crusades; Military Orders; Catharist Crusade; and the Siege of Malta.” The full article can be read here, it describes some of what they went through during that month.

Mustapha finally acknowledged that St. Elmo could not be taken within that day and ordered the recall. St. Angelo's suddenly heard a burst of cheering from their brothers in St. Elmo. They had lost 200 men in the battle, in comparison to 2,000 Turks. But they knew the end was near, for there would be no more reinforcements.

St. Elmo's men readied themselves for a fight to the death. The two chaplains who had stayed with the defenders throughout the siege confessed the remaining knights and soldiers. Determined that the Mohammedans would not have the opportunity to mock or desecrate their holy relics, the knights and the chaplains hid the precious objects of the Faith beneath the stone floors of the chapel, and dragged the tapestries, pictures and wooden furniture outside and set them on fire
. They then tolled the bell of the small chapel to announce to their brethren in the nearby forts that they were ready for the end.

In the gray pre-dawn light of the 23rd of June, Piali's ships closed in for the kill. The galleys, pointing their lean bows at the ruined fort, opened up their bow chasers in unison with the first charge made by the entire Turkish army. To the astonishment of Mustapha and his council, Fort St. Elmo held for over an hour. Less than 100 men remained after that first onslaught, yet the Ottoman army was forced to draw back and re-form. The knights who were too wounded to stand placed themselves in chairs in the breach with swords in their hands.

There was something about the next attack that told the garrisons looking on from Birgu and Senglea that all was over. The white-robed troops poured down the slopes, hesitated like a curling roller above the wall, and then burst across the fort, spreading like an ocean over St. Elmo. One by one the defenders perished, some quickly and mercifully, others dying of wounds among the bodies of their friends.

The Italian Knight Francisco Lanfreducci, acting on orders received before the battle began, crossed to the wall opposite Bighi Bay and lit the signal fire. As the smoke curled up and eddied in the clear blue sky, La Valette knew that the heroic garrison and the fort they had defended to the end were lost.

It was now that Mustapha Pasha impatiently strode to view his conquest. A standard-bearer carrying the banner of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent stepped through the breach into St. Elmo. Standing victorious on the ruins of St. Elmo's walls, with the flag of St. John in the dust at his feet, Mustapha gazed at the massive bulk of Fort St. Angelo on the horizon. “Allah!” he cried. “If so small a son has cost us so dear, what price shall we have to pay for so large a father?”

In an offensive act of cruelty, he ordered the bodies of the knights to be set apart from the common soldiers. Their heads were struck from their bodies and fixed on stakes overlooking Grand Harbor. The beheaded corpses were then stripped of their mail, nailed to crossbeams of wood in mockery of the crucifixion, and launched onto the waters of Grand Harbor that night.

It was the eve of the Feast of St. John, the patron saint of the Order. Despite the loss of St. Elmo, the Grand Master had given orders for the normal celebrations to take place. Bonfires were lit and church bells were rung throughout Birgu and Senglea. The next morning the headless bodies of the knights washed up at the base of Fort St. Angelo.

Image: THE CAPTURE OF FORT ST. ELMO by Mateo Perez d’Aleccio

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