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On the 21st of August 1541, Fra Luigi de Talavera arrived in Malta bearing letters from Pope Paul 3rd , Emperor Charles V, Prince Andrea Doria and Vicere Don Ferrante Gonzaga requesting the assistance of the Order of St John in Charles V's intended attack on Algiers.
Seizing the chance to deal a fatal blow to the infamous corsair's nest and to gain further glory and renown for the Order, the Grand Master immediately agreed and within three days, four galleys and 500 men were ready to depart on this mission. Fra Giorgio Schilingh, the Grand Bailiff of the house of Germany , led this envoy from the flagship, the San Giovanni Battista . She was accompanied by a frigate and 3 other galleys of the Order, the Catarinetta , captained by Fra Pons de Balaguer (also known as Savignac); the Santa Petronilla , captained by Fra Luis du Pont and the Santa Croce captained by Fra Francesco d'Azevedo. They left Malta on that fateful mission on the 26th August 1541.

Their first misfortune occurred not long after leaving when the winds became dangerously strong and the galleys were obliged to take shelter in Cape Passaro . While they were anchored there, the weather worsened so they decided to cross to a more sheltered part of the bay. While making this crossing, the Catarinetta was taken by the strong seas and winds and driven across the path of the Santa Croce , forcing the latter to raise her own oars to avoid a collision. This left her to sail and the wind started to drive the ship towards the shore, but the sailors managed to avoid this looming disaster by lowering two anchors that stopped her from being dashed to pieces. However, she had struck a rock and stuck there so the other three galleys had to pull her free. From Cape Passaro the galleys made a brief stop-over at Saragosa from where they continued their journey around Sicily to Calabria , arriving there on the 4th of September.

Here, the Knights came across 3 galliots that were in the process of disembarking a large number of Turks. These had been camping close to main road ambushing and taking any travellers that crossed their path into slavery. Two of the ships were surprised by the galleys of the Order and taken immediately. The first of these belonged to Mustafa Rais, a Sicilian renegade, and the second belonged to Mufsa Rais of Turkish origin. Fearing for his life, Mufsa Rais betrayed the whereabouts of the Turkish camp to the Knights who spared him. This enabled Schilingh to send in a number of Knights against this base and all of the Turks found were themselves taken as slaves.

However, the third vessel, belonging to Cara Memi, got out between the Catarinetta and the Santa Croce . She was a light and fast craft so she had already covered some distance before they could follow her. The pursuit was followed with great excitement by the people on land who had hurried down to the sea. They ran along the coast shouting and waving the galleys on, following the two ships. Aboard the Santa Croce, all the sailors and soldiers had rushed to help the oarsmen and bit by bit, she started to gain on the galliot. Finally, helped along by a breeze that was coming from a nearby valley, she started to draw level and finally took her over. When the Knights boarded the enemy vessel, they freed a large number of Christian slaves, friends and relatives of the people waiting on land.

The following day, the galleys of the Order of St John sailed into the Bay of Naples . Here they got news that another six big galliots had been seen crossing over to the island of Ponza . It was thought that these six ships could have been only a part of a much larger and dangerous squadron of Corsairs, any engagement with whom would be likely to lead to a bloody battle and a delay on the route to Algiers.
A council was quickly held and despite the dangers, it was decided that the galleys of the Order were sufficiently well manned and armed to be able to either capture the ships or retreat with honour after doing them as much damage as possible. The decision to pursue having been taken, the Knights sailed towards Ponza in the dark of night. A fast frigate went 50 paces ahead of the galleys acting as a scout. If the enemy was spotted, she would light a signal that would only be visible to the galleys behind her.

However, with the coming of dawn, the enemy ships were nowhere to be seen. So, the Knights sailed on to a small island one mile to the north of Ponza where some went ashore and climbed to the top of the highest point. The corsair vessels were spotted far out at sea but, despite there being little hope of catching them the knights gave chase for two hours before returning to Naples .


Turkish Galiote

From there, Schilingh went on to Genoa where he fully supplied all his ships while Charles V and the Pope held council. It was October by the time a definite decision had been taken to delay the attack on Algiers no longer and the emperor left Italy on the 22nd of October 1541. He did so against the advice of Andrea Doria who had serious misgivings about the safety of such a big fleet in the unprotected Bay of Algiers.
Unfortunately, these fears were justified as bad weather constantly plagued the Christian fleet.

The main rendez-vous of the mission was to be in Majorca but Schilingh and his galleys were to join Charles V and some of his ships before in the Gulf of La Spezia.
However, they arrived there only to discover that the Emperor had already sailed for Corsica on account of approaching bad weather. Rather than wait, the Knights followed immediately and only reached Cape Corso after a dangerous passage through a storm. Here a total of 40 vessels eventually gathered from different bays around the island where they had been forced to shelter. From there they sailed down the east coast of Corsica to the Port of Bonifacio and on to Alghero in the west of Sardinia .

There, the Emperor was presented with an extraordinary gift, a lamb with two heads. The sight of this poor, unnatural creature caused quite a stir among the Christian army as it was taken to be an ill omen that boded no good for their mission against the Infidel. After a brief stop in Mahon in Minorca, the fleet sailed on to Majorca where many other ships carrying the Italian, German and some Spanish soldiers had been waiting along with Don Ferrante Gonzaga, the Viceroy of Sicily, with 10 of his galleys. Shortly after, their numbers were swollen by the welcome arrival of another 150 ships from Italy . It only needed the arrival of Don Bernardino de Mendoza with the Spanish ships for the Armada to be complete. However, unwilling to wait any longer, Charles V sent a message telling them to sail straight to Algiers to join him there. Two days later, the Emperor and his huge fleet sailed into the Bay of Algiers.

On arrival, Charles V sent an ambassador to Assan Aga, the Governor of Algiers at the time, demanding that the city and all the land be handed over to him. Despite the enormous army that was anchored close by in the bay, not only did Assan Aga refuse, but he sent a reply saying that, on the contrary, that it was his intention to not only gloriously defend his city but to totally destroy the Christian enemy. With this, both parties were fully committed to war.

The landing of the Christian army had to be delayed for a full three days due to high seas. But, as soon as they had calmed enough, soldiers started to be taken ashore, under orders to carry nothing but their weapons, so that they could better resist the enemy cavalry that was already waiting for them. The disembarkation of soldiers did not finish until the afternoon of the second day, but by the end of the first day, the 500 Knights had landed, bringing the initial number of soldiers on land to 25,000.

The Knights were led by Schilingh himself, seconded by Fra Pons de Balaguer (Savignac), leaving Fra Luis du Pont, Captain of the Petronilla , in charge of the galleys. The whole army was led by Charles V with Don Ferrante Gonzaga of Sicily acting as his second in command, Andrea Doria being responsible for the fleet. The army was divided into three squadrons; the first, marching in front, was that of the Spanish veterans and soldiers from Naples , Milan and Sicily ; the second squadron that marched in the centre with the Emperor was made up of the Italians and the Knights, and the third was that of the Germans that formed the rearguard. Charles V ordered the soldiers to be spread out in such a way that there would be three Knights of the Order at the head of every row of the main battle section in the centre, facing the enemy cavalry.

Once all the soldiers had reached land, the army marched along the coast towards the city of Algiers beating their drums and under constant fire from the enemy artillery. That first day, the Spanish won and set up camp on a hill outside the city on which Assan Aga had posted some men as a first defence. The Germans also set up camp on another high point just outside the city but the Italians and Knights based themselves on the coastal plain at a point that was close to the city gate but sheltered from enemy fire. Just outside the gate there was a stone bridge where three companies of Italian soldiers were stationed.

However, that night, the weather worsened yet again and it started to rain very heavily. The Christian army, not yet having unloaded much material from the ships, could take very little shelter from the torrent. The Turks and Moors took advantage of this situation and rode out of the citadel at the break of dawn the following morning. They drove straight through the Italians on the bridge who were so cold that they could offer very little resistance. In fact, they managed to get dangerously close to the Emperor's camp since the Knights and other soldiers stiff from the wet and cold, knee deep in mud and with weapons made useless by wet gunpowder and sodden bowstrings could do little to stop this initial thrust into their ranks. However, it is said that Fra Nicolas de Villegagnon managed to unseat a horseman that had wounded him and kill him with his dagger. Noticing that many of the horses were also held back by the deep mud, many other soldiers followed his example and disaster was averted.

The tables began to turn when Don Ferrante Gonzaga, Schilingh and Savignac urged the soldiers to gain glory by storming the citadel before the enemy could take full advantage of their uncomfortable conditions and the bad weather. So, the Knights of the Order of St John marched on the city bearing standards with the white cross and with a battle cry of ‘Viva San Giovanni' . They fought their way through the Turks and Moors and managed to reach one of the gates of the city. However the wily Assan Aga had closed it just in time, leaving many of his horsemen outside to the mercy of the Knights. Unable to gain entry into the city, the Knights and other soldiers had started to retreat when Assan Aga himself rode out against them.

The Christian army was thrown into great confusion and the knights were caught in the rearguard directly in front of the enemy. Things were going very badly for them against Aga's men, who were attacking with renewed vigour. But, Charles V and Schilingh had also ridden out to fight with their men. The sight of their two leaders urging them to overcome the mud and chaos, gave the exhausted soldiers new heart. The Turks eventually returned to the citadel but not before wounding many men and nearly all of the Knights. Many Christian soldiers were lost that day, amongst them Fra Pons de Balaguer, captain of the Catarinetta and standard bearer for the Order of St John, who was helped out of the fray by soldiers from his galley, still clutching the flag in his hands.

In the words of Bosio: “Terribile, e per semprre a Christiani dolorosa e memorabile fu quella mattina, che cadde a ventotto d'Ottobre...” as not only were things very difficult on land, but that day a terrible disaster also struck the fleet. Strong winds were blowing from the north and northwest, the sky was covered in black clouds and the sea had become a churning mass of enormous waves. The ships were constantly flooded by these mountains of water, washing over them from bow to stern. In the face of such fury, and with frozen hands, there was little that any of the sailors could do. Many jumped overboard in a desperate attempt to save their lives. Many drowned, but those that did make it ashore were cut to pieces by the waiting Arab horsemen. Others, fearing that if the ships survived the day they would break their moorings in the dark of night when nobody could see and prevent this, raised the sails and deliberately let the winds drive them ashore, hoping in this way, to escape the terrible fate that awaited them at sea. Many galleys chose this desperate and dangerous recourse and the sailors of the Santa Croce wanted to follow suit as she had already been in service for eighteen years.
However, her captain, Fra Francesco d'Azevedo, was so enraged by this that brandishing his sword, he threatened to take the life of anybody that attempted this, vowing that he would rather drown with his ship than deliberately destroy a vessel of the Order to save his own life. In fact, this heroic act did indeed save the galley from destruction, but not without having fifty men bailing the water out of her.

On that fateful day, the sea took a terrible toll, in all 15 galleys, all the Spanish “scorciapini”, 3 large “navi”, 100 frigates and 50 vessels were lost, as were hundreds if not thousands of men along with all the arms and supplies that they carried. The tragedy was on such a large scale that dead men and horses and broken wood littered the coast of Algiers as far as Cherchell.

The rain continued and the wounded soldiers on land were left with no shelter, food or any hope of medication as all had gone down with the ships. Sobered by the enormous magnitude of this disaster, Prince Doria sent his page into the rough sea to deliver a letter to Charles V entreating him to leave Algiers as soon as possible as there was no longer any possibility of taking the city. In light of the wounded, weary and starving soldiers and the loss of a large part of his fleet, the emperor had no choice but to agree. The ships sailed to the shelter of Cap Matifou, the east cape of the Bay of Algiers , where they were to wait to take the army on board.

The march to Cap Matifou took three days and it was a difficult one. The Christian army was under constant attack from the Turkish cavalry and the Knights along with the best musketeers and archers formed part of the rearguard that protected the wounded soldiers. The lack of food was so acute that Charles V ordered all the horses that had been brought to pull the heavy field artillery, killed so that the soldiers could regain some of their strength. Eventually, he also had to kill the war horses as well.


Five miles to the east of Algiers , the retreating army came to the Alcaraz (modern El Harrach) river. This had become so swollen with rainwater and the sea that was being driven into it by the wind that it was impossible to cross. The daring few that tried never returned. The army was forced to a temporary stop so they set up camp, bordered by the river on one side and by the sea on another, leaving only one section open to the enemy. In order to cross the river, they had to build a bridge across it using the wood from the shattered ships that littered the shore. Once past this obstacle, they came across another smaller river which they managed to cross on foot, with the water coming up to their belts. When they eventually reached Cap Matifou they set up base among the ruins of Tamentfoust1, taking shelter among the walls of this ancient city. It took two whole days to get everybody on board the ships and during this time, they were defended by the brave Spanish archers who were that last to leave.

However, departure was delayed once again by the weather as westerly and north-westerly winds that would make it difficult to round the cape, had started to blow. While they were at anchor, waiting for the winds to change, the San Giovanni Battista unexpectedly broke free of her mooring ropes which had been frayed by the sharp rocks beneath the surface. The winds started to drive her onto the cape and to avoid shipwreck, Schilingh decided to raise the sails and head for the port of Bugia despite the bad winds.
The other three galleys of the Order followed, and when the Emperor heard what had happened, he also decided to follow the flagship of the Knights, being unwilling to spend any more time in the ill-fated Bay of Algiers . But, the tragedy was not yet over as one of the big ships did not manage to manoeuvre against the winds and she struck a rock close to shore and sank with 400 men on board.

On the journey to Bugia, the Catarinetta also ran into trouble when her rudder was ripped off by the strong seas. Left rudderless, she would have certainly been lost but two sailors, with ropes tied around their waists braved the weather and actually succeeded in attaching another rudder under water. This was not the end of the run of bad luck for the Catarinetta , as while in Bugia, she lost 30 oars. Here, the fleet also lost another Genoese ship.

From Bugia, the fleet made its way home via Porto Farina where they got much need supplies from Mulej Assim the king of Tunisia . From here, the Knights sailed on to Trapani and around Sicily to Messina . From here they finally headed for Malta.

1 In his text, Bosio calls this place Tipasa. However Tipasa, an ancient Roman city, lies to the west of Algiers not to the East. The ruins to the east, and therefore on Cap Matifus are those of Tamentfoust

Author – Elaine Azzopardi from Bosio, Giacomo, Dell'Historia della Sacra Religione et Illustrissima Militia di San Giovanni Gerosolimitano , première édition, Libro X, Rome, 1602, pp. 200-211.

Author : Elaine Azzopardi     © GRAN 2005