Defenders of Fort St Elmo, Malta 1565 by Ivan Cocker

Defenders of Fort St Elmo, Malta 1565 – PRELUDE

So I had approached Ivan to write an article for the site which he duly agreed to and then suggested that I could also publish one that he had previously written to act as a stop gap whilst he worked on the other one. Ivan is a figure painter of the historical and military genres, hailing from Marsaskala (Malta) and with a passion for history and Art in general. He is an award winning Artist that is regularly published in international modelling magazines, so it is a great honour that he has taken time out to do something for us and I am sure is another sign that our site grows and grows! 2015 saw the 450th anniversary of this heroic defence and here we present Ivans’ revised article, hope you like it (Ed.).


The Great Siege of 1565 is an event that has been celebrated in Malta not only for the victory over the Ottoman empire but also as a cultural memory, a powerful force in the development of Maltese consciousness and identity. Many battles and heroic deeds from both sides were made but nothing is more legendary then the stubborn defence of Fort St Elmo during the Great Siege of Malta, an epic tale of violence, religion and heroism.

Since the corsair Dragut had succeeded to enter the Grand Harbour and threaten the city of Birgu in his razzia of 1551, the Hospital Order decided that it was wise to create protection for the natural harbour and repel any further attacks from the entrance and not from the inside. Therefore after this attack Fort St Elmo was planned, the key to Christian victory during the 1565 siege.

graphic showing construction of the fort

Planned on the design of Pietro Padro along with three other Italian designers in 1552, Fort St Elmo was built at the tip of Sceberras Peninsula (nowadays Valletta) in 6 months. Strategically placed at the centre of the Grand Harbour and protecting Marsamxett Harbour and the cities around. Shaped as a four-pointed star, with a massive fortified bastion protecting it from the seaward side and another wall together with a surrounding ditch offered protection from land. A cavalier and a small ravelin were also added for more protection and the fort was armed with culverins and cannons.

The Ottoman army had landed in Marsaxlokk and as soon as the Ottoman vanguard and scouting parties had fully reconnoitred the island and its fortifications, the priority of gaining a foothold in the Grand Harbour to protect the great fleet was felt a necessity.

Grandmaster Jean de la Valette

The main peninsulas, the cities of Birgu and Isla, were already heavily defended and prepared for a long siege. Between them a gigantic chain was laid across the sea surface making it impossible to penetrate. The other side of the harbour was a safer haven for Suleiman’s armada but there was Fort St Elmo at the entrance to hinder their plans. From the beginning the Ottoman command was split in decisions.

The army, commanded by Lala Mustafa Pasha (1500-1580), later to become the Grand Visier of the Ottoman Empire, felt ideal to start invasion of the island from the North and cutting all the supplies to the main towns in the harbour, whilst simultaneously Piali Pasha (1515-1578), Ottoman Admirial of the navy, felt that the safety of the navy was a priority as the siege was looking to be a long one.

Friday, 25 May the Turks started transporting their siege artillery and engineers to Mount Sceberras and immediately laid gun platforms and trenches for their men. The Turkish engineers were over optimistic that this small fort shall fall in a matter of days and gathered on Mount Scibberas a massive arsenal of culverins, cannons and large basilisks capable of firing massive stone shot with the intention of razing the walls to the ground.

Though the fort was small and originally planned for a garrison of less then 60 men, Grandmaster Jean de La Valette immediately sent more troops, ammunition and material for defence. He also planned a supply line from Castel Sant Angelo to Fort St Elmo using boats and under cover of darkness the wounded and fresh troops were ferried in and out, hence they managed to keep the fort alive longer than expected.

Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent

The Ottomans started their bombardment and continued day and night, soon the first breaches were apparent. Though it all looked that everything was in favour of the enemy, the defenders made an unexpected attack and to the surprise of the Turks the first trenches were pushed back, they were only regained when Mustapha sent his elites, the Janissaries (elite infantry).

The bombardment continued, and walls were crumbling. Many assaults from the Turks were made each time repulsed by the defenders but both sides were losing valuable lives but still the fort had the Knights colours flying high and the Ottoman command failed to notice the supply lines that kept it alive.

Only the arrival of the infamous corsair Dragut Reis sent by Suleiman himself to assist the siege, made the Ottoman command realise the mistake of first attacking this fort and not noticing the supply line from Castel Sant Angelo. Until now the fort had cost them many hundreds of lives of their finest men, including the elite jannisaries and sipahis.

Barbary corsair Dragut Reis

He immediately created a diversion and erected new gun emplacements to cut the Hospitallers line but it cost him his life as during one of his routine inspections on the front, a Christian gunner noticed the entourage of officers and fired. Though the shot fell short from the group, Dragut was mortally wounded by a splinter, he died some days after and was the greatest single disaster that befell the Turks in the siege.

The advent of black powder, cannon and firearms had changed the art of siege warfare to a modern strategy. The Hospitaller Order did not stay behind in modernising their army and way of defence. A number of cannons, arquebuses (portable gun supported on tripod or forked rest), grenades and swivel guns helped to ensure Fort St Elmo was prepared for the advent of a long siege.

A number of large barrels, fascines, piles of ropes, mattresses and sails were made ready for when the walls were breached. As soon as a breach occurred a new curtain was erected made with barrels filled with stones, doors, mattresses and piles of rope, acting as a counter cover and also as a defence for the men at arms and arquebusiers. When close quarters combat was called upon the pike, the rapier, the sword and incendiaries were used to match the scimitar, arrows and spear of the Ottoman foe.

Though the advent of firearms was taking the field of the time, Knights and officers still wore rich armour, personally commissioned from the best Italian, French and German master craftsmen. The uniform in fashion at the period was the half armour style, with morions (helmet with no beaver or visor) or burgonet (visored helm). In fact according to Balbi de Corragio (1505-1589), who wrote a diary with the everyday account of the siege, the Janissary sharpshooter easily spotted officers and Knights from their rich armour. Many coming from Europe’s elite noble families and were eager to boast their ego with the modern equipment of the time. Over the breast plate the Hospitallers had to wear a tight ‘sopravest’ with the Orders colour, a red field with a white cross. Their sergeants and troops were allowed to do the same or had breast plates with the colours painted on.

de corragio diary of the siege

The reserves and sailors were given mail and brigantines too outdated for the time but still found use for. The Maltese militias troopers wore a native padded surcoat made from cotton dating from pre-Hospitaller times and provided good protection from the Turkish arrows according to Balbi. The main Christian force consisted of officers and troopers from the Tercios of the Spanish Kingdom, most coming from the Viceroy of Sicily. A good number of mercenaries were also employed by the Order.

The end of Fort St Elmo came Saturday 13 June, the eve of the Feast of St John the Baptist – the Saint and Protector of the Order. With the supplies cut the few defenders consisting of a few Knights, Tercio troopers, Maltese militia and two monks all badly wounded, made their last stand to the final furious Ottoman all out assault. The sacrifice of Fort St Elmo and her men was the turning point of the siege.


Always in love with anything related to the Order of St John and the siege, I always had at the back of my mind the desire to recreate the scene from Fort St Elmo with her defenders. It is a big pity that 16th century figures are few in the market, and the ideal candidates for this scene mostly had to be converted to one extent or another.

I think it was Euromilitaire three ago when I purchased a wooden plinth that would be the mastermind of all this scene. Lately it has become like a fashion to see wooden bases with a corner or half showing the raw bark. As usual this base ended up in my stash to see the light many moons later.

finished groundworks – note the Ottoman Bork in the foreground

For this diorama I had in mind a compact scene, capturing the drama of a breach defended by the men. I had in mind to incorporate the base with the scene to create a larger effect and a sense of a breach still in a confined space. So digging in my stash the base came to light again but back to the men now.

When planning dioramas I always like to work in odd numbers, not a fast rule but to please the eye an odd group looks better. However, my idea started on a different note, four figures and covering all the main warriors involved in the defence of the fort, a Knight and a pikeman from the Order, a Maltese Militia and a Tercio Officer. The focal point was to be a Hospitaller Knight with a two handed sword defending his brothers and covering the breach, behind him a Maltese militia helping a wounded officer and a pikeman close to his Knight and calling for more support to repulse the imminent assault. Still I had in my mind the idea of creating an odd group, first I was planning to add another figure but felt the space was too crammed, then I devised a small optical illusion, one of the figures would be carrying another looking almost like one figure, the idea of an odd group will please my eye better.


figure conversion

The Knight started from an EMI conquistadore but was dressed up with a ‘sopravest’ made out of thin Magic Sculpt and a new arms with mail holding a two handed sword. The head was changed with one from the sparebox and given a goatee beard and a new half morion-burgonet. The headgear started off as a blob of Magic Sculpt then carved and sanded to get the almond shape, with visor and check guards added afterwards, again made from very thin Duro and Magic Sculpt mix. Rivets were done from plastic card with a punch and dye set.

The pikeman started of from a Portuguese arquebusier by Variatus, very well cast but I had other plans than a figure straight from the box. The torso was turned sideways and new hands were sculpted. The head was moved to the side and neck resculpted to get the effect desired of a shouting pikeman and still holding his ground with his position.

The arms were scratchbuilt and the pike was done from a brass rod and the head donated again from the Pandora’s box (the spares box).

carrying the wounded

The most complex project were the duo, inspired by an illustration in the Border Reviers by the late Angus McBride. I started to develop the idea of a man carrying a wounded comrade to safety over his shoulder. The only commercial items were the legs of the carrier and heads, the other parts were built up from Magic Sculpt. I planned to make the rescuer a Maltese militia, dressed in the typical padded cotton surcoat.

The quilting effect was done with the help of a surgical blade while the putty was setting then adding the folds. In my stash I found a conquistadore figure by EMI that had the ideal head for my project. Wearing a ‘morion al antica’ the head was ideal but the beard and hair was re-sculpted from Duro.

The half armoured Tercio officer body was completely scratch, done with the usual stick man approach but built directly on top of the militia man. The helmet for the officer is a Spanish morion, done in a similar approach as the Knight’s, the head was detailed with new closed eye sockets and a raff (managed after my third go on this and sincere thanks goes to my clubmate David Grech for his guidance on the implement of this element).


For this project the base was going to be an important aspect to depict the whole story. The base helped as well, with one side still rough and with the bark showing was very ideal to fill that dead space area with the debris of the fort’s wall.

My first plan was to start building the breach, debris and fortification. The stone work was done from ceramic gypsum board used for interior projects. The messiest part of the job started here as after I drew the gypsum slab I started sawing long strips and trimmed these to small stones, working in scale from measurements I took from the stonework of the Fort itself. I ended up with small blocks to the delight of my young kid for him looking more like Lego blocks.

the composition utilising the form of the plinth

I kept aside the best right angled blocks and starting smashing the rough ones to get some sharp angles. Fort St Elmo was built from Globegerina Limestone and this stone can be pretty worked out as it is soft but very brittle. With the help of a small hammer I was like a kid again, happy smashing these blocks to get the ideal effects. Keeping aside the best I started the modular work on the breach.

Taking one of the angles of the base I began building up the debris in a stairway perspective effect. White glue was used to hold the blocks together. A small part to depict the wall was erected, again working in perspective and sawing the blocks to achieve the angle. In the middle small stones were inserted like a rubble wall effect. The Hospitallers were specialised fortification engineers and this was the way of creating massive, strong walls.

The stone work and angles were ready, so now my attention was on the wall of barrels that was erected for protection. The barrels were Historex plastic items, detailed with a sharp craft knife to get better grain and also create splinter effects on the wood. Preparation and planning on the base was done beforehand and here and there some drilling and cutting of the wood was needed to get the desired effect of a wall.

another angle showing the barrels filled with rubble for defence

The items were set in place, filled with small stones and white glue to bond. The terrain was built from Milliput, textured with a rough stone and here and there small debris was strategically placed. My club mate Ray Caruana who is into aquahobbies as well, once gave me some fine river sand originally meant for aquariums. The sand is very fine and was ideal to create fine debris.

The scene focuses on the defenders and I made a point of not showing the enemy but the position of the Knight and the pikeman calling for help I believe gave the scene that the enemy were close and in conflict with the defenders. So I added just a small implement, a börk ( hat, with cloth covering that went down beyond the shoulders), the headgear of the jannisaries, the most feared of their foes. Happy with the end result I put the base aside to start working on the figures.

This diorama was planned to be ready in a short period due to some expos I was attending, so as usual I took ages to finish the construction and started being pressed by time to have the project ready.

Personally I feel more confident working with oils but as I needed to have the results much faster I started this project with acrylics. My clubmate from IPMS Malta, Ray Farrugia, introduced me to the acrylic range Maimeri, their properties and colour range are very rich and dry to a matt finish but above all gives you time to work with glazes like oils. Most of the work was done with acrylics but here and there glazes and filters with oils were used to create deep shadows and weathering.

the finished piece

As this is a diorama you cannot really plan each figure as an individual but you have to look at the whole visual as one. The colour combination needed some thoughts and planning, studying D’Aleccio’s frescoes I choose a set of colours that calibrated with each other.

The Order of St John colour is a white cross on a red field so I gave each figure a touch of red, keeping into consideration to use different tonalities and mixtures to achieve different hues, for example the sopravest of the Knight as it was textile and the painted on breast plate of the pikeman.

The scratches were done with the hairspray technique used in AFV modelling, basecoating with water-based hairspray and painting on with acrylics and creating scratches by stippling with an old wet flat brush. A needle also helped to create smaller scratches and blemishes.


Though working long hours on this project it started to look like completion was going to take an eternity and the deadline for presenting it was looming closer and closer. I still had plenty of work so to ease me up and to help me concentrate on the groundwork, Ray Farrugia came again to the rescue. All the faces and flesh areas were done by him, taking care to create different flesh tones, bronzed flesh for the Maltese, fair for the Knight and pikeman and a sick greenish fleshtone for the wounded officer. I just added the weathering and blood stains. Thanks for the help Ray!

a close up

The groundwork was airbrushed and I used the modulation technique in fashion with tanks nowadays. The idea is to create an over head lighting effect, when happy the next implements were the barrels and the other small implements. Finally to tie everything together MIG filters were used and some deep washes with Sepia to create depths. The final touch was MIG pigments, an asset for creating diverse weathering effects and voila the base was ready to receive the figures.


Placing the figures in an already painted diorama sometimes is a do or die job. The efforts during construction, the number of tests and drill holes benefit in less headaches and curses during the last drama. Finally all the characters were placed, just the final weathering touches done to tie them all together and the job is ready. My little vignette is finally done, apart from the challenge and the long hours of planning, construction and painting this project meant something much different than previous projects, in it I hope that I expressed the sacrifice and heroism of my ancestors and surely this would be just a start of a series of works related to my local history.

I hope you enjoyed this little write up of mine, thanks for reading and a thankyou to Jay too for the opportunity to share my work on this site.