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The Turkish Threat

The Battle of Lepanto on 7 October 1571 was one of the most critical naval battles in history. The Christian League forces were led by John of Austria, half brother of King Philip II. The island of Cyprus had fallen to Turkish invasion.

Turkish Treachery

The Turks had treacherously violated their agreement with the Greek and Italian defenders. After all supplies were exhausted and guarantees of safe conduct were offered, the Venetian garrison of Famagusta surrendered. The Turks then treacherously had all Venetian prisoners executed, the rest enslaved and the courageous Christian General Marco Antonio Bragadino, had his nose and ears cut off, his teeth broken and was flayed with whips until dead.

The Christian Coalition

As the Turks were planning further invasion of Europe, a coalition of Christian forces under John of Austria included 206 galleys and 6 galleasses. The Christian fleet consisted of 109 galleys and 6 galleasses from the Republic of Venice, 80 galleys from Spain, 12 Tuscan galleys of the order of St. Stephen, 3 galleys each from the Republic of Genoa, the Knights of Malta and the Duke of Suvoy, as well as some privately owned galleys. The fleet was manned by almost 13,000 sailors, 43,000 rowers and 28,000 soldiers, including 10,000 Spanish, 7,000 German, 6,000 Italian and 5,000 Venetian soldiers. Most of the 43,000 rowers were free oarsmen.

The Turkish Fleet

The Christian League was outnumbered by the larger Turkish fleet of 230 galleys and 60 galliots. Under the command of Ali Pasha, the 13,000 experienced sailors were drawn from all the maritime nations of the Ottoman Empire: Egyptians, Syrians, Greeks and Berbers. The Turkish fleet included 34,000 soldiers.

Comparing the Opposing Forces

While the Christians were outnumbered in every other way, the Christian League had two significant advantages. Their infantry were definitely superior, and the Christians had 1,815 canons, compared to 750 among the Turkish vessels. The Christians also had more advanced muskets, while the Ottomans trusted in their greatly feared composite bowmen. Unlike the Christian fleet, the Turkish fleet was powered entirely by Christian slaves and prisoners of war forced to row in chains.

Confrontation

The five hour battle was fought at the edge of the Gulf of Patras, off Western Greece, near Corinth. The Ottoman forces were sailing westwards from their naval base in Lepanto, when they were confronted by the Christian League fleet which had sailed from Messina. The battle started when the Turks mistook the large galleasses to be merchant supply vessels and set out to pirate them. This proved to be disastrous because the galleasses were a new Venetian innovation, carrying a tremendous battery of artillery.

Devastating

The 6 Venetian galleasses sank up to 70 Turkish galleys before the rest of the fleet could engage. The galleasses succeeded in breaking up the Ottoman formations. Commander Barbarigo who led the left division, of mainly Venetian galleys, was killed by a Turkish arrow, but the Venetians turned to face the threat and held the line. Commander Pietro Giustiniani, of the Knights of St. John was severely wounded by five arrows.

Clash of Flagships

The flagships of John of Austria and Ali Pasha directly engaged and Austrian soldiers overwhelmed the Turkish janissaries seizing the Sultana. Ali Pasha was killed and beheaded. When his severed head was displayed on a pike from the Austrian flagship, it had a devastating effect on Turkish morale.

Hand to Hand Combat

Spanish and German infantry flowed onto the Turkish vessels and in ferocious hand to hand combat, overwhelmed the Turks.

Decisive Victory

Over 210 Turkish ships were lost. Of these, 117 galleys and 10 galliots were captured in good enough condition to be used by the Christian forces in future. The only prize captured by the Turks was one Venetian galley. On the Christian side, 20 galleys were destroyed and 30 damaged so seriously that they had to be scuttled. The Turkish losses were estimated at 30,000 dead and wounded and 15,000 prisoners. On the Christian side, 7,500 soldiers, sailors and rowers were dead, but twice as many Christian prisoners were freed from Turkish galleys.

Turning the Turkish Tide

Lepanto was a crushing defeat for the Turks, who lost all but 50 of their ships. The Battle of Lepanto, following the Turkish defeat at the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, restricted Ottoman expansionism in the Mediterranean. It broke the threat of Muslim dominance at sea.

A Turning Point

Lepanto was one of the great turning points in history. It ended the fear of the Turks that had threatened to overwhelm all of Europe. It stopped the Turkish advance. Lepanto was the last major naval battle between rowing vessels. Some Western historians have held Lepanto to be the most decisive naval battle anywhere on the globe since the Battle of Actium of 31BC. It certainly was a turning point in history. The Turkish Empire had lost so many experienced sailors, oarsmen, and soldiers that the fighting effectiveness of the Ottoman Empire was never able to recover. It is a fact that the Ottoman navy avoided major confrontations with Christian navies thereafter. The newly rebuilt Turkish navy rotted in their harbours. Historian Paul Davis wrote: This Turkish defeat stopped Turkeys expansion into the Mediterranean, thus maintaining Western dominance. Confidence grew in the West that the Turks, previously unstoppable, could be beaten. Lepanto heralded the end of Turkish naval supremacy in the Mediterranean.

The Intervention of God

As historian Otto Scott observed: Only God could have saved so divided a Europe against so determined and savage, rich and heavily armed a foe. After Lepanto the Turks remained a menace, but not an unconquerable one. Church bells tolled throughout Europe as many prayers of thanksgiving were offered by millions of grateful Europeans.

Dr. Peter Hammond
The Reformation Society
P.O. Box 74 Newlands 7725
Cape Town South Africa
Tel: 021-689-4480
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Website: www.ReformationSA.org

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