Battle of Lepanto

The Battle of Lepanto was the most important naval battle of the 16th century and last major naval battle fought solely between rowing vessels, saving Europe militarily and economically. The Holy League fleet decisively defeated the main fleet of the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean Sea on October 7, 1571. The Holy League was a coalition of nations which had been organized by the Spanish king Philip II to put a check on the Muslim encroachments upon the Italian and Spanish coasts. Signed on May 25, 1571, the Holy League was made up of Spain, the Republic of Venice, the Papal States, the Republic of Genoa, and the Hospitaller Knights of Malta. Half of its budget was funded by Spain, and the other half by Venice and the Pope.

The battle was fought at the northern edge of the Gulf of Patras, off western Greece, where the Ottoman forces sailing westwards from their naval station in Lepanto met the Holy League forces, which had come from Messina. The Holy League fleet was under the command of Don Juan of Austria, Philip II’s half brother, and consisted of 210 galleys and 6 galleasses manned by 13,000 sailors, carrying 28,000 fighting troops; 10,000 Spanish regular infantry of excellent quality, 7,000 German and 6,000 Italian mercenaries, and 5,000 Venetian soldiers. Among the Spanish infantry soldier was a man who was to become famous in the world’s literature, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Under the command of Ali Pasha, the Ottoman Empire fleet was made up of 223 galleys plus 50 galliots, manned by 14,000 sailors and carried 34,000 soldiers.

The Christian fleet was drawn up in four divisions in a North-South line. At the northern end, closest to the coast, was the Left Division of 54 galleys, mainly Venetian, led by Agostino Barbarigo. The Centre Division consisted of 64 galleys under Don Juan of Austria himself in his Real and Alvaro de Bazan. The Right Division to the south consisted of another 54 galleys under the Genoese Giovanni Andrea Doria. Two galleasses, which had side-mounted cannon, were positioned in front of each main division, for the purpose, according to Miguel de Cervantes, who served on the galleass Marquesa during the battle, of preventing the Turks from sneaking in small boats and sapping, sabotaging or boarding the Christian vessels. A Reserve Division was stationed behind the main fleet, to lend support wherever it might be needed. This reserve division consisted of 38 galleys, 30 behind the Centre Division commanded by Alvaro de Bazan, and four behind each wing. A scouting group was formed, from two Right Wing and six Reserve Division galleys. As the Christian fleet was slowly turning around Point Scropha, Doria’s Right Division, at the off-shore side, was delayed at the start of the battle and the Right’s galleasses did not get into position.

The Turkish fleet had of 54 galleys and 2 galliots on its Right under Chulouk Bey, 61 galleys and 32 galliots in the Centre under Ali Pasha in the Sultana, and about 63 galleys and 30 galliots in the South off-shore under Uluj Ali. A small reserve existed of 8 galleys and 22 galliots, behind the Centre body.

The centre and left galleasses had been towed half a mile ahead of the Christian line, and were able to sink two Turkish galleys, and damage some more, before the Turkish fleet left them behind. Their attacks also disrupted the Ottoman formations. As the battle started, Doria found that Uluj Ali’s galleys extended further to the south than his own, and so headed south to avoid being out-flanked. This meant he was even later coming into action. He ended up being outmanœuvered by Uluj Ali, who turned back and attacked the southern end of the Centre Division, taking advantage of the big gap that Doria had left. When the battle started, the Turks mistook the Galeasses to be merchant supply vessels and set out to attack them. This proved to be disastrous, the galeasses, with their many guns, alone were said to have sunk up to 70 Turkish galleys.

Chulouk Bey had managed to get between the shore and the Christian North Division in the north, with six galleys in an outflanking move, and initially the Christian fleet suffered as Barbarigo was killed by an arrow, but the Venetians, turning to face the threat, held their line. The return of a galleass saved the Christian North Division. The Christian Centre also held the line with the help of the Reserve, after taking a great deal of damage, and caused great damage to the Muslim Centre. In the south, off-shore side, Doria was engaged in a melee with Uluj Ali’s ships, taking the worse part. Meanwhile Uluj Ali himself commanded 16 galleys in a fast attack on the Christian Centre, taking six galleys. The intervention of the Spaniards Alvaro de Bazan and Juan de Cardona with the reserve turned the battle in favor of the Holy League, both in the Centre and in Doria’s South Wing, forcing Uluj Ali to flee with 16 galleys and 24 galliots.

During the course of the battle, the Ottoman Commander’s ship was boarded and the Spanish tercios from 3 galleys and the Turkish janissaries from seven galleys fought on the deck of the Sultana. Twice the Spanish were repelled with great loss, but at the third attempt, with reinforcements from Alvaro de Bazan’s galley, they prevailed. Müezzenzade Ali Pasha was killed and beheaded, against the wishes of Don Juan. However, when his head was displayed on a pike from the Spanish flagship, it contributed greatly to the destruction of Turkish morale. Even after the battle had clearly turned against the Turks, groups of Janissaries still kept fighting with all they had until their resistence was crushed.

When the Battle of Lepanto concluded, the Turkish fleet had suffered the loss of about 210 ships. On the Christian side 20 galleys were destroyed and 30 were damaged so seriously that they had to be scuttled. The Holy League had suffered around 7,500 soldiers, sailors and rowers dead, but freed about as many Christian prisoners. Among the Christian wounded was Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, who fought bravely, receiving three gunshot wounds – two in the chest and one which rendered his left arm useless, resulting in amputation; later he would say in one of his books that he "had lost the movement of the left hand for the glory of the right". Turkish casualties were around 25,000, and at least 3,500 were captured.

Ottoman’s losses proved in fact of strategic importance in the Battle of Lepanto. While the ships were relatively easily replaced, it proved much harder to man them, since so many experienced sailors, oarsmen and soldiers had been lost. Especially critical was the loss of most of the Empire’s composite bowmen, which, far beyond ship rams and early firearms, were the Ottoman’s main embarked weapon.