The Grand Master of the Knights of Malta in 1565 was Jean Parisot de la Valette. Born in 1494 of a noble family in Quercy, he had been a Knight of St. John all his life, and forty-three years before had distinguished himself at the siege of Rhodes. He had never left his post at the "Convent" except to go on his "caravans,"[1] as the cruises in the galleys were named. As a commander of the galleys of the "Religion," as the Order called itself, he had won a name that stood conspicuous in that age of great sea captains; and in 1557, on the death of the Grand Master de la Sangle, the Knights, mindful of the attack that was sure to come, elected La Valette to the vacant office. No better man could be found even in the ranks of the Order. Passionately religious, devoted body and soul to his Order and faith, Jean de la Valette was prepared to suffer all to the death rather than yield a foot to the hated infidel. Unsparing of himself, he demanded utter sacrifice from his subordinates, and his cold, unflinching severity would brook no hesitation.

Both sides spent the winter and spring of 1565 in preparations for the great attack. The Grand Master sent a message to all the Powers of Europe; but Philip II., who sent him some troops, and the Pope, who sent him 10,000 crowns, alone responded to his appeal. The message sent to the various commanderies[2] throughout Europe brought the Knights in haste to the defence of their beloved Convent. The Maltese Militia was organised and drilled and proved of great value in the siege, and even 500 galley slaves were released on promise of faithful service. Altogether La Valette seems to have had at his disposal about 9,000 men (though the authorities differ slightly as to the exact figures). Of these over 600 were Knights with their attendants, about 1,200 were hired troops, about 1,000 were volunteers, chiefly from Italy, and the remainder Maltese Militia and galley slaves.

The Turkish fleet at the beginning consisted of 180 vessels, of which 130 were galleys; and the troops on board consisted of about 30,000 men, of whom 6,000 belonged to the select troops of the Janissaries. Twice during the siege the Ottomans received reinforcements: first, Dragut himself with 13 galleys and 1,600 men, and later, Hassan, Viceroy of Algiers and son of Khair-ed-Din Barbarossa, with 2,500 Corsairs. Altogether the Ottoman forces at the maximum, inclusive of sailors, must have exceeded 40,000 men. A small reinforcement of 700 men, of whom 42 were Knights, contrived to steal through the Turkish lines on June 29; but that was all the help the garrison received before September.

The Turkish army was under the command of Mustapha Pasha, and the fleet under that of Piali. Both had received orders not to take any steps without the advice of Dragut. It would have been far better for the Turkish cause had the Corsair been in supreme command, for his skill as an artilleryman was famous. But there had always been trouble in the Ottoman fleet when a Corsair was in command. The proud Turkish generals were unwilling to be under the orders of men who were of doubtful antecedents, and whom they despised in their hearts as low-born robbers. Even Barbarossa, acknowledged by all to be the greatest seaman in the Turkish Empire, could not enforce strict obedience in the campaign of Prevesa in 1538. The Grand Vizier Ibrahim had seen the folly of putting generals in command of fleets, and had therefore secured the promotion of Barbarossa: but Ibrahim was now dead, and Solyman, bereft of his wise counsel, made a compromise.

On May 18 the Turkish fleet was sighted off the island, and almost immediately the army disembarked, partly at Marsa Scirocco, and partly at St. Thomas's Bay. The first misfortune was the non-appearance of Dragut at the rendezvous, and in his absence Mustapha and Piali decided to attack St. Elmo and to leave to Dragut the responsibility of sanctioning the operations or breaking them off. Batteries were erected on Mount Sceberras, in which ten 80-pounders were brought into action, besides a huge basilisk throwing balls of 160 pounds, and two 60-pounder coulevrines. The Turks at the height of their power put great faith in novel and massive artillery, which, though clumsy, and at times more dangerous to their own gunners than the enemy, was terribly effective at the short distance it was placed from St. Elmo. The walls of the fortress soon began to crumble under the continuous bombardment, and the garrison, which had been increased to 120 Knights and two companies of Spanish infantry, soon felt the position untenable without reinforcements. As an attack had not yet been delivered La Valette was incensed at the appeal for help and offered to go himself to hold the fort; his council dissuaded him from doing so, and he permitted 50 Knights and 200 Spanish troops to cross to St. Elmo. It was of the utmost importance that St. Elmo should be held to the last minute. Not only did it delay the attack on the main forts, but Don Garcia de Toledo, the Viceroy of Sicily, had made it a condition in his arrangements with the Grand Master, before the siege, that St. Elmo must be held if the reinforcements from Sicily were to be sent.

At this point - June 2 - Dragut arrived with his galleys and expressed nothing but disapproval for the Turkish operations. He pointed out that the besiegers should have isolated the fortifications from the rest of the island before proceeding to attack St. Elmo; but, as the siege had started, he insisted on continuing it as vigorously as possible. He erected a powerful battery on the summit of Mount Sceberras, which swept both Fort St. Angelo and Fort St. Elmo, and erected another on the headland opposite St. Elmo on the other side of the Marsa Muscetto, which was henceforth known as Point Dragut.