With arquebus, sword, and the typical courage of a military man from the Iberian Peninsula. This is how the Spanish soldiers fought who, on October 7, 1571, spilled their blood on the deck of dozens of ships to stop, in the Gulf of Lepanto, the Turkish expansionist pretensions. However, what all those soldiers did not know is that they had not only crushed the great Ottoman fleet that threatened the Mediterranean but that they had also earned, with a cannon shot and a greatsword, a place in the history books. Thus, after the smoke from the artillery pieces dissipated, the sea was left as a witness to one of the greatest Spanish naval victories.Thus, after the smoke from the artillery pieces dissipated, the sea was left as a witness to one of the greatest Spanish naval victories.
Piracy and slavery, the prelude to Lepanto
To reach this great victory it is necessary to travel a few years ago, a time when blood stained the Mediterranean coasts almost daily. “It is hard to believe today that the calm waters of the Mediterranean Sea were once the scene of sieges, battles, and wars and that thousands of people suffered the drama of captivity and slavery. And yet, that’s the way it was “, the journalist and expert in Spanish military history Miguel Renuncio determines in exclusive statements to Press. At the most decisive moment, a harquebus shot killed Ali Pacha In the middle of the 16th century, two powers disputed control of the Mare Nostrum: Spain (owner of Sicily, Sardinia, and Naples) and the Ottoman Empire (whose dominions stretched from the Balkans to Egypt). The opposing interests of Madrid and Istanbul had led to a continuous war, which was included in the general effort of the European Christian states to stop the unstoppable Turkish advance, adds the expert.
At this time, the Spaniards found strong enemies in the pirates, who mercilessly looted dozens of Christian cities. “While the troops of Sultan Suleiman I conquered Hungary and even besieged Vienna, the Berber States of North Africa (vassals of the Ottoman Empire) lived by piracy, looting the ports of Spain and Italy and raiding their ships on the high seas. Ultimately, the situation became so critical that it was expected that, sooner or later, the Turks would try to invade Italy, “says Renuncio.
In this climate of tension, the Turks, a few years later, put the icing on this set of insults against Christians. In May 1565, the Ottoman army reached the shores of Malta and began the siege of the island, defended by the knights of the Order of Saint John or Order of Malta. The siege was very tough and it was fought inch by inch “, determines the journalist. Luckily, this great attack was stopped by the thousands of soldiers sent by Spain to help the besieged, since the strategic importance of this territory was known in the Iberian Peninsula, as Renuncio explains, If it had fallen into the hands of the Ottoman Empire, Malta would have become the perfect springboard to storm Italy.
The last straw for Christian patience
However, what finally made the Christians into a rage were the demands made by the new Sultan Suleiman I (who succeeded his father to the Istanbul throne). Specifically, in 1570 the new president requested the delivery of Cyprus – contrary to the Turks – to his empire. Christians saw this request as the last straw. “In anticipation of an attack on the island, Pope Pius V asked Spain and Venice to create a military alliance with the Papal States to stop the Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean”, determines Renuncio.
In 1571, Madrid, Venice, and Rome created the Holy League. ”In this way, and although it was difficult due to the diversity of opinions between both countries, Pius V ended up“ convincing ”both empires to stop the spread of Islam in Europe. “In May 1571, Madrid, Venice, and Rome created the Holy League (the alliance desired by Pius V),” explains the expert, who also adds that it would have been impossible to defeat the immense Turkish fleet had it not been by joining forces.
This did not stop the Turks who, boldly and without fear of consequences, began the siege of Cyprus. Faced with this affront, the fleet of the brand new “Santa Liga” decided to start preparations to put an end to their enemies from the east once and for all. “Although the Ottoman army had already finished with the last stronghold of the Venetian resistance in Cyprus (Famagusta), it was decided to search for and destroy the Sultan’s army, led by Ali Pachá or Ali Pasha”, the journalist completes.
Preparing for war
To confront Islam, the “Holy League” assembled one of the largest fleets that have crossed the seas throughout history. «They had 228 galleys, 6 galleasses, 26 ships, and 76 minors. (234 of them combat) ”, explains Captain Jose Maria Blanco Nunez, Advisor to the Institute of Naval History and Culture. “For their part, the Turks had 210 galleys, 42 galleys, and 21 whips (252 combat),” completes the military. In turn, and in addition to the number of ships, the “Holy League” had technology in its favor, since its troops had a multitude of arquebusiers. They had an advantage over the Ottoman archers since the gunpowder had more range and caused more damage than arrows, which used to bounce off thick Christian armor. Besides, among the troops of the Holy League, the famous Spanish Tercios stood out. Felipe II had ordered the shipment of some 40 companies from four different Thirds, commanded by Lope de Figueroa, Pedro de Padilla, Diego Enriquez and Miguel de Moncada, “Renuncio determined. Despite everything, the number of combatants was not very unequal, according to the journalist. In total, the Holy League numbered about 90,000 men, including soldiers, sailors, and rowers. As for the army of the Ottoman Empire, the number of men was very similar, and among its soldiers stood out the dreaded Janissaries (Christians who, after being captured as children, converted to Islam and were educated for war).
That the number of soldiers was similar was very significant, because, in the 16th century, naval combat was not like the one that the Hollywood factory sells us now. The ships acted as platforms for combat. In those years, the galley, the most widely used ship, was a long, narrow vessel, fitted with one or two huge lateen sails. Its dimensions were around 40 meters in length and five in the beam, and it barely raised one meter from sea level. The artillery consisted, almost exclusively, of three or five fixed guns located in the bow. Therefore, it was a ship whose main function was to serve as a platform for hand-to-hand combat, “adds the expert.
The use of the Galleasses was decisive for the Christians In fact, and according to Renuncio, the cannons of the galleys -which were located in the bow and stern- were not used so much to attack their enemies from a distance as to kill enemy soldiers when hand-to-hand combat was engaged. Thus, the most usual thing was that a boat rammed another, both then fired their artillery, and the infantry then entered the fight. However, to make up for this low rate of fire, Venice also contributed its grain of sand to the “Holy League” with one of its most innovative projects. The galley was a veritable floating fortress. It was a Venetian invention, consisting of a larger galley and, above all, equipped with much more powerful artillery, with mobile cannons located on the sides. However, these ships were difficult to move, so many times they had to be towed, “concludes the Spanish journalist. Positions for combat
Thus, with the troops prepared to deliver the final blow to the Turks, the fleet of the “Holy League” left for Greece. The group, made up mostly of Spanish ships, was generally led by Don Juan de Austria. However, each nation also provided a captain for their faction. Just a few days after leaving, on October 7, both navies met near the Gulf of Lepanto, leading to what would be one of the bloodiest battles in history. During the morning, and with the strange calm that usually precedes the bitter battle, both squads finished their deployment. On the Spanish side, the center was ruled by “La Real”, the ship of Don Juan de Austria. On the left flank, the Venetian Agostino Barbarigo stood threateningly, who was given orders to prevent the enemy from enveloping them. Finally, the right-wing was ruled by Juan Andrea Doria, a Genoese at the service of Spain, Finally, the Spanish Alvaro de Bazan was responsible for the galleys of the reserve, which had to help one front or another depending on how the combat was developing,” Renuncio concludes. However, what none of the leaders knew was that, in one of the Christian galleys, there was, sword in hand, a young man of letters who did not exceed 24 years, Miguel de Cervantes.
In front of the navy of the Holy League, the imposing Turkish fleet stood defiantly. At the center of it, aboard “La Sultana” was the terror of the Christians: Ali Pacha. To his right, facing Barbarigo, were the forces of Scirocco, bey of Alexandria. Finally, and to face Andrea Doria, the Turkish leader selected Uluch Ali, bey from Algiers. The battle begins There was no more waiting. After the crucifixes and banners were raised and the priests absolved the soldiers in case they died in combat, the rowers began to draw their shovels. From “La Real”, a cry, that of Don Juan de Austria, drove away from the fear of the sailors: “Children, we have come to die, or to win if heaven so wishes.
With speed, the Turkish ships, as if moved by a single force, began their inexorable advance towards the ships of the “Holy League.” Luckily, the Christians had decided that the galleasses, the Venetian floating fortresses, would move ahead of the allied fleet to target the Ottomans. The plan worked perfectly because, with a great roar, these ships opened fire with their innumerable cannons on Ali Pacha’s troops, sending several of his galleys to the bottom of the sea. The strong onslaught caught the Ottomans by surprise, who were forced to break their formation and try to close the distance between them from the Christian ships as quickly as possible. They had no choice, as the firepower of the galleasses could be deadly to their aspirations of conquest.
Once the first line of Christian galleasses was overcome, the real battle began. “After this, the galleys of both sides locked with each other, sweeping the enemy with the fire of their cannons, charging with their spurs, and launching their men to board”, determines Renuncio. Soon, and almost led by a strange force, “La Sultana” and “La Real” collided and engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat that would claim the lives of hundreds of soldiers. “The men of both ships began a fight without quarter, in which” La Real “and” La Sultana “were rescued by other galleys, who made their soldiers pass aboard the two captains” explains the expert. Both fleets knew that they could not afford to lose their command ships, as it would be disastrous for the morale of their respective fleets.
Meanwhile, on the Christian left flank, Barbarigo experienced a moment of tension when Sirocco’s troops entered a gap left by the Venetian’s troops. He saw in a few moments how his ship was besieged by half a dozen enemy ships. The fighting was so bloody that, finally, the Christian died when the shot of a Turkish archer hit him in the eye. Despite everything, and with the help of several galleys that came to the aid of their deceased leader, they managed to resist the Turkish onslaught.