No army in the world could match the Ottomans for their grasp of siege craft, their practical engineering skills, their deployment of huge quantities of human labor for precise objectives, their ability to plan meticulously but to improvise ingeniously. Armies that had reduced castles in Persia and frontier forts on the plains of Hungary, who had dug trenches at Rhodes with such astonishing speed, who had, their enemies acknowledged, “no equal in the world at earthworks,” went about their task with dreadful skill. From the fort itself, and from across the water on Birgu and Senglea, the defenders watched with awe. The rocky terrain and the lack of topsoil and wood made trench cutting difficult, but the sappers pushed forward their spidery network of trenches “with marvelous diligence and speed.” Careful angles of approach shielded the work from the fort for a considerable time. Earth was transported from a mile away to construct gun platforms. Hundreds of men marched in long columns up the slopes of the hill with sacks of earth and planks of wood. The deep planning of this operation was astonishing; they had brought the materials and components for their gun batteries ready-made from Istanbul. The trenches advanced with sinister intent. Within a couple of days the Ottomans were entrenched at little more than six hundred paces from Saint Elmo’s ditch. Soon the Turks’ front lines had reached the edge of the ditch itself. They created two lines of raised earth platforms to mount their guns, and protected them with triangular wooden battlements filled with earth. Flags fluttered brightly from their forward positions; the guns were hauled painstakingly up the bare hill to their emplacements at the summit; other positions were established to bombard Birgu across the water. At night, transport barges rowed silently into the harbor of Marsamxett below Saint Elmo with bundles of brushwood for filling up the castle ditch. Across the water La Valette watched this activity with alarm and dispatched urgent messages to Don Garcia in Sicily.
By Monday, May 28, the Ottoman guns were starting to bombard Saint Elmo from the heights; by Thursday, Ascension Day in the Christian calendar, the Turks had twenty-four guns positioned in two tiers, wheeled guns that fired penetrating iron balls, and giant bombards, one a veteran of Rhodes, firing enormous stone ones. The initial bombardment was preceded by a rattling barrage of musket fire to prevent any defender from showing his head over the parapet, then the cannon opened up. The Ottomans started to pulverize the two star points facing outward toward the ditch and the weak flank toward the ravelin. From Birgu, La Valette did his best to disrupt this cannonade by mounting four cannon of his own on the end of Saint Angelo and pummeling the platforms that were visible on the ridge across the water. He was not without success; as early as May 27, Piyale was slightly wounded by a stone splinter; but the cost in gunpowder was too great to be sustained.
From the start the omens were not good for the defense. The men could hardly raise their heads over the parapet without being ready targets, clear against the summer sky. The janissary snipers with their long-barreled arquebuses waited in the trenches below for any sign of life. Their patience was extraordinary; they watched, concealed and motionless, for five, six hours at a time, sighting down the barrel, finger on the trigger, waiting like hunters for the prey. They shot thirty men dead in a single day. The defenders did their best to erect makeshift protecting parapets; at the same time they worked to reconstruct crumbling walls out of earth and whatever other materials came to hand. Within a few days, morale started to collapse: whenever the defenders risked a sighter at the Ottoman guns looming on the hill above, they were in danger of being picked off. The proximity of the trenches, the crash of cannonballs, and the patent shortcomings of the fort made it obvious that their position was not sustainable. As early as May 26 the defenders slipped a man across the harbor in the dark. Juan de la Cerda was one of Philip’s Spanish commanders and owed no allegiance to the knights. He gave La Valette and his council a blunt, uncomfortable, and public assessment of what the grand master already knew: the fort was weak, small, and without flanking defenses, “a consumptive body in continuous need of medicine to keep it alive.” It could hold out without reinforcements for eight days at the most. More resources must be committed.
This was not what the grand master wanted to hear. Everything in his calculations depended on Saint Elmo buying time for Birgu and Senglea to strengthen their defenses and for Don Garcia, thirty miles away in Sicily, to send a relief fleet. He ironically thanked the Spaniard for his advice and appealed to the defenders’ honor. At the same time he promised to send what was required: one hundred twenty men were ferried across under the command of Captain Medrano, who was now to be in charge of all the rebellious Spanish troops, as well as extra food and munitions. Wounded men made the journey back to the knights’ hospital at Birgu. The defenders’ morale was bolstered by these prompt actions but their underlying predicament remained unchanged. Smoldering dissatisfaction would soon break out again.
A regular interchange of small boats, apparently able to break the Ottoman naval blockade with impunity, carried messages to and fro between La Valette and Don Garcia in Sicily. The viceroy’s news was profoundly discouraging. There were innumerable delays in gathering ships and men. The logistics of assembling a task force were proving immensely complicated. Some galleys were still being fitted out in Barcelona; in Genoa, Gian’Andrea Doria had been waiting for soldiers from Lombardy; then it rained heavily and the sea was too rough to risk moving his ships. In Sicily, Don Garcia had five thousand men but only thirty galleys, and the Ottomans knew this. They could afford to disarm many of their own galleys and send the crews ashore to work, leaving seventy to patrol the coast. They pressed forward with the bombardment. La Valette confined this information to his small council.
The days were heating up; nights were lit by brilliant moons, but the Ottoman sappers worked around the clock, snaking their trenches closer and closer to the walls, building protective embankments from earth carried up the stony slopes of Sciberras. “In truth it was a remarkable thing,” declared Giacomo Bosio, “to see, in a barren landscape, the speed with which the Turks could make mountains of earth appear almost in a flash, from which they created bastions and platforms to bombard Saint Elmo, and the urgency with which they advanced their trenches and covered ways.” Medrano mounted unexpected sorties to disrupt the work and kill the laborers; but during one of these sallies on May 29, the janissaries counterattacked and planted their flags on the counterscarp, hard up against the outer defenses and close to the ravelin. On Ascension Day, May 31, the Ottoman gunners opened up again on an even larger scale with twenty-four cannon, determined to blast Saint Elmo’s fortifications back to the living rock. The bombardment continued unabated all night; so unceasing was the firing that the defenders calculated that the guns were not being cleaned out or allowed to cool between rounds—a highly risky practice for guns and gunners alike. The following morning at dawn, a shot knocked down Saint Elmo’s flagstaff and flag. A great cry went up from the Turkish troops; it was taken as a sign of impending victory.
However, across the water in Birgu and Senglea, the time being bought by the small fort was put to good use. The soldiers and inhabitants worked feverishly, raising walls, building parapets and fighting positions for the day when Saint Elmo would fall and the guns would be turned on their fortifications. At night the sound of gunfire set the dogs in the towns barking; La Valette had them all killed—including his own hunting dogs—and dispatched a continuous stream of small boats to the fort. By now, however, the Turks were starting to think about this loophole. They set up two small artillery pieces and some arquebusiers on the shore to try to disrupt the lifeline to Birgu.
On the morning of June 2, it all took a further turn for the worse. At daybreak, lookouts on the cavalier of Saint Elmo spotted sails to the southeast. There were brief hopes that these were the outriders of Don Garcia’s rescue fleet, but the truth was grimmer. It was Turgut, coming up from Algiers with his corsairs—some thirteen galleys and thirty other vessels, fifteen hundred Islamic fighters under the most experienced and resourceful commander in the whole sea. The circumstances of his welcome perhaps highlighted the gulf in ability between Turgut and the commanders already in place. Piyale, determined to make an impression, sailed his own galleys out “in superb order” to greet the newcomer. Passing Saint Elmo, they fired off a volley of gunfire at the fort. Their shots whistled overhead and killed some of their own men in the trenches, while return fire from the fort holed one galley amidships, so that it had to be towed quickly off to prevent its total loss.
Suleiman had perhaps placed his ultimate confidence in Turgut, “a wise and experienced warrior”—and Mustapha and Piyale were aware of this. “The Drawn Sword of Islam” knew Malta better than anyone; he was not only an expert seaman, but also a highly experienced gunner and siege specialist. Once ashore, the old corsair was quickly apprised of the situation. He pursed his lips with displeasure. He probably disliked the whole venture and would have preferred an easy attempt on the Spanish enclave at La Goletta, an irritant to his own personal North African fiefdom. He may or may not have disagreed about the decision to go for Saint Elmo first—all Christian accounts of the matter have the ring of invention—but since the siege was under way, it would be best if it were concluded as quickly as possible. He wasted no time in going up to the front line to reanalyze the terrain and the disposition of the artillery. He saw that speed was essential: more guns must be brought up and they must be brought nearer. A second heavy bombard was hauled forward, and four cannon were placed on the northern shore to bombard Saint Elmo’s weakest flank. He was determined to pulverize the fort as heavily as possible. To this end he set up a battery of guns on a point across the Marsamxett harbor that could rain shot onto the ravelin and cavalier; in due course he established another battery on the opposite headland. Saint Elmo was now under fire from a hundred and eighty degrees; so heavy was the shot, Bosio declared, “that it was extraordinary that the tiny, straightened fort was not reduced to ashes.”
Turgut’s final suggestion was to take the ravelin as quickly as possible, “even at the cost of many good soldiers.”