THE BATTLE OF LEPANTO

'A GOOD DAY TO DIE'

by Paul Fregosi

LUCKILY for Admiral Ali Pasha, he did not have to be a witness to the sadistic death of Bragadino. 1 With his fleet of 222 war galleys and 60 other vessels he was at anchor in the bay of Lepanto, that long, narrow gulf in south-western Greece, above the peninsula of Morea just west of Athens, waiting for a Christian fleet that he knew would soon be looking for him. That naval force was the weapon of the Holy League, Christendom's newest answer to the Jihad, founded that year by Pope Pius V who for years had been striving to unite Europe against the Muslim invaders.


The Christian Fleet

The Holy League had formally come into being in May 1571. Its fleet flew a huge flag of Christ crucified, and consisted of 316 ships, including 208 galleys and 6 galleasses, a cross between a galley and a galleon, with between 30 and 40 heavy guns instead of the usual four or five of a galley. The Venetian fleet was under the command of a 75-year-old fire-brand, Sebastiano Veniero, with the redoubtable Agostino Barbarigo as his second-in-command. The bearer of a famous name, the Genoese Gianandrea Doria, commanded a squadron in the service of Spain. A shipowner in his native city, Doria had hired out more than 20 of his own galleys to the King of Spain. Anxious to keep his ships intact, he was the most cautious of all the Holy League's commanders. The quiet and competent Marcantonio Colonna, of an old Roman aristocratic family, was in charge of the Papal squadron and two Spanish admirals Don Alavaro de Bazan and Don Juan de Cardona with their squadrons were also among the pillars of the Christian force.

In 1565 the forces of the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent were repulsed at Malta after a lengthy and bloody siege. Had the Turks taken the island, their way into the ill-defended western Mediterranean world would have been fully opened. Aware of the peril which still faced Europe, Pope Pius V rallied the Christian realms of southern Europe - principally Spain, Venice, Rome and the Italian republics - into a Holy League in 1570 with a powerful fleet of some 200 galleys. The entire fleet was placed under the command of the Spanish prince Don John of Austria. They met an equally powerful Ottoman fleet in battle off Greece at Lepanto in October 1572. Paul Fregosi tells the story of this encounter - in terms of human lives the most costly naval battle in history - in this extract from his recently completed book 'Jihad in the West'. More than 32,000 Christian and Muslim sailors and soldiers were killed or drowned. By comparison, 3,000 British, French and Spanish sailors died at Trafalgar, the most famous of all naval battles.

Don John of Austria was the Commander-in-Chief.

Universally accepted, at the suggestion of Pope Pius V, Don John, aged 25, was less than half as old of most of these seasoned sea fighters. There were no dissenting voices to his appointment. The young warrior had the respect of all. "If I had but a little better health I would ship myself as a soldier or sailor under Don John", Don Garcia of Toledo, who had waited so long to go to the relief of Malta 2, wrote to a friend.

The bastard son of the Spanish Emperor and of the German entertainer, Barbara Blomberg, after fighting the local Alpujarras Muslim rebels in Granada, was now fulfilling the destiny he had sought 'in a war that concerned all Christendom'. The fleet he was to lead into battle consisted not only of vessels commanded by the highest officers in the Holy League - Spain, Venice and the Papacy - but many other Italian cities had joined it, contributing men and sometimes ships: Genoa, Florence, Turin, Parma, Lucca, Ferrara and little Urbino.

The knights of St John were, of course there, as always present in every affray against the Infidels, with their own flotilla and some of their members were scattered on the other ships of the fleet. There were also volunteers from the rest of Europe, including from recalcitrant France and Protestant England.

The Provencal Romegas, hero of the siege of Malta, commanded one of the Papal galleys. Another famous Provencal, Crillon, one of France's most famous fighting men, from the French Riviera town of Murs, great friend of the future Henry IV, was also among the men of the European provincial nobility who placed their sword in Christianity's cause. So were at least a dozen Englishmen. One of them was another hero from the Malta siege. Sir Thomas Stukeley, Henry VIII's reported bastard son, fighting the Turk once again with the same courage as he had shown at St Angelo.

The mainstay of the international force that were to meet the Turks in battle were Spaniards and Italians. Seventy two of the Christian galleys flew the Spanish banner, 140 were Venetian, 8 belonged to the Knights of Malta, the Papacy had 12.


Rendezvous at Messina

The port selected as meeting point for all the Holy League ships was Messina, in Sicily, where Don John of Austria arrived on August 23, barely a week after the martyrdom of Bragadino, of which no one in Christendom yet knew anything. News travelled slowly in the days of sails and oars. It took a galley six weeks to cross the Mediterranean, from Constantinople to Tangiers. The fall of Famagusta and the atrocious death of the island's governor were still unknown in Christian ranks. In Lepanto, Ali Pasha heard of the gathering of the ships against him from Ochiali, the foremost Algerian corsair. He did not believe the Christians would sail until next spring, he told Ali Pasha. But he was wrong. Ali Pasha and Don John would soon meet, for the first and last time in the Gulf of Lepanto, for the biggest naval battle of all times since Actium in 31 BC.


A Battle of Giants

Actium was fought just north of Lepanto and, like Lepanto, it was a battle between West and East. One side was under the command of the Roman Emperor Octavian, the future Augustus, with a fleet of 400 galleys, the other side consisted of a Roman-Egyptian fleet of 480 ships led by Mark Anthony and Cleopatra. The two lovers lost the battle and committed suicide a few months later. Under Mark Anthony's infatuation with Cleopatra, the centre of power in the Roman Empire had been gradually slipping east and might well have become established in Alexandria. Under Augustus it returned to Rome and remained there for several more centuries, until Constantine finally established it east in the 4th century A.D.

But, more than 1600 years later, the battle of Actium was certainly not in Don John's mind as the fleet he commanded gradually gathered around him. Galley warfare was a naval rendition of land warfare. Ramming and boarding were the essential tactic and all the vessels carried a large number of troops, with swords, pikes, muskets, arquebuses and bows and arrows, whose main purpose was to board and capture the enemy vessels in usually savage hand-to-hand fighting.

In his 208 galleys Don John of Austria commanded 30,000 soldiers and nearly 13,000 sailors. Two thirds of the soldiers were on the Spanish payroll, one of them was Miguel Cervantes and, surviving the battle, he was to become Spain's most famous writer, author of 'Don Quixote'. The Muslim force was about of equal strength. The Ottoman galleys carried 34,000 soldiers, and 13,000 sailors. But neither side knew the strength of the other. A battle of giants was under preparation, and neither had feet of clay.

Don John sent out a French Knight of St John, with four galleys to discover where Ali Pasha's fleet was. The Frenchman found they had been recently in one of the Ionian islands and reported back on September 28 that they had returned to Lepanto for the winter. The time for counsel is past, the time to fight is now' Don John replied to the cautious Doria who suggested the leaders of the Christian fleet should meet in counsel to decide what action to take.

In Lepanto Ali, who was wondering whether he should seek battle or avoid it, received firm orders from the Sultan: 'if the Christian fleet comes anywhere near yours, fight it.' The determination on both sides was unmistakable. Battle was the order of the day, both for Muslims and Christians.


News of fate of Bragadino reaches the Christians

On October 5, at Viscando, not far from Actium, a Venetian vessel brought the news to the anchored Holy League fleet that Famagusta had fallen and that Bragadino had been flayed alive. The news rapidly spread all around the ships and a mood of rage and fury and hate and an over-whelming desire to avenge the martyred Bragadino seized every man, and not only the Venetians, in the fleet. Tough soldiers beat their heads with clenched fists in helpless rage and anguish sobbing at the torment of the Venetian and the cruelty of the Turk. No enemy who fell in Christian hands could expect mercy.

On October 7 the Christian fleet entered the bay of Lepanto. Don John knew he would fight the Turkish fleet that day. The soldiers and sailors all went to mass. Every galley had a chaplain, sometimes two, usually Jesuits or Dominicans or Franciscans. This was a holy war for the Christians, certainly as much as for the Muslims. A banner of Christ crucified flew from the mast of Don John's flagship the 'Real'.

A lockout shouted that he had spotted the first Turkish ships. Over the Muslim flagship, the Prophet's banner also flew high, bearing the name of Allah inscribed on it 28,900 times. On the 'Sultana' - Ali Pasha knew that victory or defeat that day could depend on the tiniest of circumstances, the two fleets were so evenly matched. He had to secure the cooperation of his rowers, most of them Christian captives chained to their posts. He was a humane man and he had always treated them well. He walked down to the lower deck amongst the oarsmen. They all listened to him, because they respected him, but in complete silence. "Amigos" he said to them in Spanish, 'I expect you today to do your duty by me in return for what I have done for you. If I win the battle I promise you your liberty; if the days is yours, Allah has given it to you.'

Over among the Christian vessels, Don John of Austria, holding aloft a crucifix in his hand, moved in a launch along the line of his ships: 'My children, we are here to conquer or die. In death or in victory, you will win immortality,' he shouted to them across the water. This was a religious occasion for them as much as a martial one. When he sailed in front of the Venetian ships he called on them to avenge the death of Bragadino. The men cheered, or wept, some knelt and made the sign of the cross.


A Good Day to Die

galippo1

Statue of a Turkish soldier carrying a wounded Australian soldier. The statue is a feature of the Gallipoli battle-field where Turkish, Australian and New Zealand forces confronted one another in 1917. It symbolises the world's need to rise above politics and nationalism in order to re-discover our common human heritage.

Front Page "Annals Australia"
Issue #3 - April/May 1998

Don John shouted a few respectful pleasantries across to old Sebastiano Veniero, who commanded the Venetian squadron and who was 50 years older than his commander. 'This would be a good day to die,' Veniero told one of his officers. He held in his hand a blunderbus and a young and strong sailor stood by him, with another blunderbus, to load them for him as the old man no longer had the strength to do so and wanted to personally fire, and keep on firing, at the Turks. He had known Bragadino and served with him in the old days.

The Holy League Christian fleet was divided into four squadrons. The centre was commanded by Don John in person from his flagship the 'Real', surrounded by Veniero and Colonna, and the small flotilla of the Knights of St John, about 60 galleys altogether. The galleasses, floating batteries that were to cause havoc in the Muslim ships, kept up their positions just ahead of the rest of the Christian fleet. The Christian right wing was commanded by Gianandrea Doria, some 60 ships also, and the left wing, numerically about the same, was under the command of Barbarigo. The reserve flotillas, under Don Alvaro de Bazan and Don Juan de Cardono, sailed a little behind, with orders to go where they would be most needed during the fighting.


32,000 combatants died

Sailing towards them, in the vague form of a crescent, the Muslim fleet was also split into four squadrons, the centre led by Ali heading straight for Don John, the right wing, commanded by Mehmed Suluk was lined up opposite Barbarigo's squadron, Uluch Ali however was heading straight south with the obvious intention of outflanking Giandrea Doria's squadron and attacking the Christians from the rear. The Turkish reserve stood massed behind Ali's battlefleet, about 90 galleys in three lines. The centre was, obviously, going to be the main point of contact as, at about 11, the two fleets sailed towards each other, each armada presenting a battleline of about 3 miles across, at the entrance to the narrow gulf of Lepanto. Don John ordered the captain of the 'Real' to lay his galley right alongside the approaching 'Sultana' when the time came. Don John of Austria and Admiral Ali Pasha headed straight for each other. The two young warriors were at last to meet.

As the two galleys ground into each other with the splintering, smashing sound of pulverised oars, Don John danced a little jig of joy on the 'Sultana's' gun platform. The 300 Janissary arquebusiers and 100 archers on the Muslim galley fired into the mass of Spanish soldiers, knights and gentlemen volunteers who crammed the 'Real's' decks. Four hundred arquebusiers on the 'Real' fired back. The Christian oarsmen on the League ships had all been unchained and armed and they fought against the Turks with as much fury as the soldiers and sailors on the Christian galleys. Very soon the whole battle zone turned into a floating battlefield with the galleys all crammed together and ramming into each other, so that the naval battle was soon a melee of infantrymen killing each other with fierce intensity and without mercy, most of the killed dying on each others' decks, but with some also slipping into the sea and drowning. The sea literally turned from blue to red. It was a ferocious brawl Christians and Muslims all fighting with one purpose in mind: to kill each other.

Don Juan, his sword held straight before him, led the boarding party that clambered onto the 'Sultana'. Colonna, coming up alongside the 'Real' crashed his vessel into the poop of the 'Sultana'. By 2 o'clock in the afternoon the Muslim flagship was overwhelmed. Nearby, the septuagenarian Veniero clambered with the awkwardness of his age on to an Ottoman galley, was wounded by an arrow in the leg, left his crew to capture the enemy vessel, went back to his own galley, and attacked and sank two more ships.

Barbiero, on the left wing, was hit by an arrow that went through his eye, into his brain but he died knowing the Christian fleet was victorious. In three hours of frantic and unceasing hand-to-hand fighting 32,500 soldiers and sailors, Christian and Muslim, were killed. In sheer numbers of casualties there has never been a more costly naval battle than Lepanto. Trafalgar, the most famous battle than Lepanto. Trafalgar, the most famous battle in history, cost the lives of some 3,000 French, Spanish and British sailors, not even a tenth of the casualties at Lepanto.

The meeting between Don John and Ali Pasha was both macabre and grotesque. Lepanto was their first and last encounter. Ali Pasha, hit by an arquebus shot, fell wounded to the deck. A Spanish soldier, one of the boarding party fighting on the deck of the Turkish flagship, saw him fall, pounced upon him, pulled out his knife and cut his head off. The Spaniard then rushed over to Don John to present him with the trophy and, hopefully, earn a big reward. But Don John, an aristocrat although conceived on the wrong side of the blanket, had a delicate nature. "What can I do with that head?" he said with distaste. "Throw it into the sea," he ordered the soldier. Another soldier recovered the head, spiked it to the top of a lance and the whole of the Turkish fleet soon knew that their admiral was dead.


Instinct for gallantry

By 3 p.m. the battle was over. Only Uluch Ali made it back to Constantinople with most of his flotilla. The Turks lost 210 ships, of which 130 were captured and 80 were sunk. Twenty five thousand Muslims were killed and some 7,500 Christians. Uncounted among the dead must have been at least 8,000 to 10,000 Christian slaves chained to the oars of the Turkish galleys. However, 15,000 of them survived the battle and were freed from the captured Turkish vessels. The Christians lost 12 galleys, which on sinking must have taken close to 1,500 Muslim galley slaves to a watery grave. All in all, it was a great victory, but for the Ottomans it was less of a defeat than they might have feared.

Don John of Austria wanted to follow up his victory with an attack through the Dardanelles on the heartland of the Moslemah: Constantinople. But bad weather and jealousies and quarrels between Venetian and Spaniards stymied his efforts. Bragadino too was to remain unavenged with Cyprus remaining un attacked. Instead Don Juan led a dead-end expedition to Tunis, which the Turks took back in 1574. The Jihad and Don Juan then parted. He was never to fight against Islam again.

Right to the end of his life Don Juan's instinct for gallantry never left him. Sent to govern the Netherlands, he tried to defend the interests of the local peasants and, reported a local English spy by the name of Fenton, 'he maketh deep impression in the heart of the people.' Radcliffe, another English secret agent, sent by Walsingham the English secretary of state, to kill Don John was arrested in the prince's audience chamber, instead of having his would-be killer hanged, Don John pardoned him and had him sent back to England. Walsingham, who met Don John a short time later reported that he had never seen before a gentleman 'for personage, speech, wit and entertainment comparable' to the Spanish prince. But, Walsingham, a shrewd judge of human nature, also noted a great conflict underway in Don John, a man always torn between 'honour and necessity'.

If this conflict did exist within Don John, it was not honour that lost. He died suddenly on October 1 1578, of typhoid fever - some say of poison in a pigeon cote in Namur, Belgium, to which he had been urgently rushed to shelter him from the rain. Selim, nicknamed the Sot, had died 4 years earlier, after falling down in his bathroom and fracturing his skull. Appropriately enough, he was drunk, having just swigged down a whole bottle of that fine Cyprus wine which a few years previously had inspired him enough to launch a Jihad across the seas.

  1. Bragadino, a Venetian nobleman governor of Famagusta in Cyprus was flayed to death when he surrendered to the Turks.

  2. Unsuccessfully besieged by the Turks in 1565.

  3. Selim the Sot was the Sultan in Constantinople. A great tippler.

From "Annals Australia" April/May 1998




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