Mohammed II, son of Sultan Amurath II, and known as "The Vanquisher," was one of the most distinguished, successful and despotic rulers in Turkish history. Highly educated, intelligent, cruel and ambitious, he set as his goal the conquest of an area equal to that conquered by Alexander the Great. However, the Knights of Saint John stood in his way. Their Grand Master was a 57 year old French knight from the Langue of Auvergne, Pierre d’Aubusson. He was a Knight of immense talent and achievement, an effective ambassador and statesman, a tested commander, and an expert engineer. He had been made Grand Master by unanimous vote. Prior to his election d’Aubusson held the post of Captain General, and had personally supervised the building of the defenses of Rhodes. Some of the walls of the fortifications were 24 feet thick.
Necessary to the survival of the Order which was nearly isolated in hostile territory, was an intelligence system brought to such perfection under d’Aubusson that the Order’s spies were within the very walls of Mohammed’s palaces. Consequently the coming invasion was no surprise. As the powerful Turkish armada was being prepared, the Grand Master ordered the houses and beautiful villas demolished and the orchards cut down, so as not to shelter the Turks from the Order’s cannon. All the corn and other crops were cut down and brought into the fortifications or burned, so that nothing would remain to feed the Turk invaders or provide forage for their horses.
On May 23, 1480 the Turkish armada numbering some 160 ships, including more than 50 warships plus many supply ships, anchored off the coast of Rhodes, and put ashore an army of 80,000 crack troops. The invasion was under the direction of the Pasha Mischa Palaeologus, a Greek renegade and kinsmen of the last Christian Emperor of Constanti-nople. Bombardment of the city began the following morning. Hundreds of cannons of various sizes were brought to bear some with barrels as long as 26 feet, and canon balls weighing hundreds of pounds. More than a thousand cannon balls per day pummeled the city’s defenses. Ali Pasha, brother-in-law of the Sultan, would later arrive with another 100,000 men to join in the siege.
Defending Rhodes and Christendom itself were a total of 600 members of the Order of Saint John. This included servants at arms, therefore probably no more than 400 were Knights. In addition there were fewer than 2,000 paid foreign troops and several thousand Rhodian militia.
As the huge Muslim Army rowed to land, the Knights and their soldiers met them at the water’s edge. The water became red with blood as thousands of Turks were cut down. Nevertheless, the number of invaders was so great, that the Knights had to retreat to their fortifications.
During sixty days of intense bombardment, several attempts to take various portions of the fortifications were repelled with staggering Turk losses. Then, on July 27, the all-out attack began. Thousands of Turks came screaming up the battered walls. The Grand Master himself, already wounded in the leg, was the first on the wall accompanied by about a dozen Knights. A few more Knights soon came to their aid, but most would have to man the fortifications in other areas of the city so that they would not be over-run.
The fight that day was terrible the Turks were so numerous and pressed against each other so tightly that only those in front could fight. The Knights in gleaming armor, swinging their two-handed broad swords, were invincible. The Grand Master, leading the fight, had no fewer than three sword wounds before he took a spear through his chest; yet the battle raged for hours. The Order’s expert marksmen, up and down the walls, took a heavy toll of the Turks scrambling to get onto the escarpment.
Finally, the violent and predatory Bashi-Bazouks in the first wave, and the highly trained and feared Janissaries behind them panicked. Was it the fearless Knights in glittering mail, each of whom fought with the fury of a hundred great warriors, that put terror in the hearts of these battle seasoned Muslim fighters? Yes and more! The Knights would claim that a cross of gold appeared in the sky that day. The Turks would claim that they saw above the Knights, three glorious figures: Saint John the Bap-tist, patron of the Order, clad in goat skins; Saint Michael the Archangel with his sword; and the Blessed Virgin Mary clothed in armor! From that day forward she would be called Our Lady of Victory the patroness of the Sovereign Order.
With this heavenly assistance, who could not prevail against any odds. In their retreat the Turks were cut down unmercifully by the pursuing Knights, and by the intense crossfire from the sharpshooters in other positions. The Turks were engaged all the way back to their main position. More than 5,000 of their crack troops perished in this engagement the Grand Master and his dozen Knights accounting for hundreds if not thousands. A few days later Mischa Pasha and his invasion force left Rhodes in disgrace. They carried away 15,000 wounded, and left nearly 10,000 slain. The siege, lasting 89 days, had failed. The Islamic conquest of Europe had been stopped. Christendom and the Church had been defended. The Order had survived, although 231 Knights died in the siege. Grand Master d’Aubusson would survive his wounds and go down in history as "The Buckler of Christendom." Pope Innocent VIII would make him a Cardinal of the Church, and would give to the Order of Saint John two papal orders — the Order of The Holy Sepulchre and the Order of Saint Lazarus. The Order would be venerated throughout Christendom as never before. And Sultan Mohammed would vow to return with the fury of all the forces of Islam.
One year later the Sultan was leading his huge army through Asia Minor, determined to do what his Pashas had failed — destroy the Knights and their "damnable Religion." This time he would command the siege himself. However, while enroute he contracted dysentery and died. The Order was once again preserved by Divine Providence.