Fort St.Elmo stood as a lone bastion on a peninsula jutting out into Grand Harbor at Malta. When the Turks lay siege to the island bastions of the Knights of St. John in 1565 they chose to destroy For St. Elmo first; exposed and cut off from the rest of the Order it had some strategic significance in that it overlooked the northern branch of the harbor, a perfect refuge for the Turkish fleet.
The Turks attacked, expecting a quick victory. What followed was a 31 day battle that may be one of the most brutal in history. Every day for 30 days the fort was bombarded with canon and musket fire; the Turks attacked in mass a half dozen times and were thrown from the walls time and again. Their losses, especially amongst the crack troops of the Jannisaries, were enormous. Even after they seized the outer Ravelin of the fort, which allowed the Turks to fire into the courtyards of the fort, the Christians held on. Pummeled and battered, shot at, pinned down, living in a constant haze of dust and smoke the Knights, the Spanish mercenaries, and the Maltese fought on; within insane heroism the Turks attacked time and again, only to be thrown from the walls and breaches, until their bodies filled the defensive ditches.
In the end only about 100 knights and soldiery could muster out to hold the outer walls. These held for a short time but at last were thrown down and slain. The Turks exploded into the Fort and slew all the wounded, but for 7 who were captured (who vanished from history). The dead Knights they beheaded and their bodies were strapped to crosses and thrown in the harbor. All the defenders died.
The battle wore on, but at one point as the Turks crossed the harbor and attacked the other bastion. They charged onto the narrow beaches and began scaling the walls. A brutal battle ensued and a breach made it wall. At day's end the Turks were thrown back, leaving many of the dead and wounded upon the shores and around the breach. The Maltese civilians entered the shallows and slew them in the water, cutting throats and drowning them, showing no mercy in their revenge for the battle of St. Elmo where so many of their people died. Thus came to the saying "St. Elmo's Pay."