In 1565, during the rule of the Knights of Malta, Turkish Corsairs led by Turgut (or Dragut) Reis invaded Malta. At the time there was an ongoing battle for supremacy in the Mediterranean and the invasion of Malta was a culmination of the bloody fight between Christians and the Ottoman Empire. In 1522, The Knights were driven out of their base in Rhodes by the Turks, and relocated the Order to Malta. Once again, the Turkish forces decided to take on The Knights and therefore gain control of Malta which was strategically placed in the centre of the busy shipping lanes of the Mediterranean.
The Turkish Fleet saw landfall at Malta on 18th May, but didn’t immediately disembark, sailing around the southern coastline before anchoring at Marsaxlokk. Intelligence that had filtered back to Malta over preceding weeks suggested that Turgut Reis’ forces were planning an attack, which will be remembered as The Great Siege of Malta. In preparation, Grand Master Jean de la Valette commanded that all crops should be harvested immediately, and water supplies contaminated with the carcasses of dead animals and poisonous plants.
Landing at the large natural harbour of Marsaxlokk, south of The Knight’s strongholds around The Grand Harbour, Turkish forces – reportedly numbering around 48,000 – quickly overran the Maltese population in the southern villages, and those villagers remaining retreated to the island’s fortifications. There were four main defensive fortresses in Malta, three around The Grand Harbour – Fort St Elmo, Fort St Angelo, and Fort St Michael, and the other at Mdina. The main seat of the Knights was at the fortified city of Birgu (Vittoriosa) with Fort St Angelo jutting out defensively at the head of the promontory.
In order to obtain an all-weather, sheltered haven for their fleet , on May 26th the invaders attacked Fort St Elmo which stood watch over the entrances to both Marsamxett and Grand harbours. St Elmo was the scene of many blood-thirsty battles and the Ottomans eventually succeeded in overpowering the fort, but at a great cost; over 8,000 Turkish troops lost their lives in the battle. Once St Elmo fell, the Turks turned their might on St Michael and Birgu but despite relentless attacks over the following months, the fortresses held. On 7th August, the Ottoman attackers almost managed to break through the defences , but were taken by surprise when a garrison from Mdina attacked them from behind. Once relief supplies and forces arrived in Malta in early September, the siege was over and the Turks turned tail and sailed away.
Reports after the siege suggest that there were up to 35,000 Ottoman casualties and 2,500 soldiers fighting for the Knights lost their lives. Up to 7,000 Maltese women and children died during the Great Siege of Malta, and 500 galley slaves were seriously wounded or killed.