We were taken back to early summer, on the island of Malta in the year 1565, by our Speaker Mr Richard Pawson. Richard spent many years serving in the military and continues to have a keen interest in logistics and the remit of the Corps of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) of ‘Live, Move, Fight’. His fact-packed talk gave us an insight into the Great Siege of Malta sometimes called ‘The Last Crusade’. He described how a small army conquered a much larger one, how knowledge of terrain and sea gave advantage and how the support of the island population stopped the threat of the Ottoman Empire in its bid to conquer Europe and Christianity. The siege was the climax of an escalating contest between a Christian alliance and the Islamic Ottoman Empire for control of the Mediterranean. Names from long ago history lessons were recalled: Suleiman the Great – Leader of the Ottoman Empire, Mustapha Pasha, Jean Parisote de Valette and Don Garcia de Toledo. Sir Oliver Starkey, the only known English knight, was there fighting alongside the Knights Hospitaller. It was a cruel battle fought by over 40,000 Ottomans, comprising engineers, artillery, sailors, pirates, slaves, nurses and servants. In contrast the Christians had just 8,000 men, women and children which included the Maltese militia and all the townspeople. A large contingent of the Spanish cavalry was included in this number together with just 700 knights. The weapons were primitive – scimitars, crossbows, longbows, spears, swords, axes and huge cannon balls. Although some of the Christian side wore armour it was heavy, hot and not impenetrable to shards of flying metal. However, the Turks and Ottomans wore long flowing garments which often caught fire. Food was limited and people existed on bread, fruit and wine. It was discovered that rounded castle walls deflected cannon balls and caused less damage than flat surfaces and some castles in England built after this period reflect this. Battles raged at St Elmo, Birgu and Mdina amongst others but eventually the Christians succeeded in holding the island. It took just three months and the Ottomans conceded Malta in September 1565. But, unlikely as it now seems, bearing in mind the imbalance of armies, the Ottoman Empire was defeated and Malta was saved by the Christian forces. It is one of the most celebrated events in European and military history and Richard gave us a fascinating insight into how battles are won and lost.
The Great Siege of Malta