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Famous Battles in History The Turks and Christians at Lepanto

About the famous battle of Lepanto between the Turks and the Christian armies fought at sea, history and account of the battle.

MORE FAMOUS BATTLES--ON LAND AND AT SEA

LEPANTO, 1571

In 1570 the Turks invaded Cyprus, a Venetian territory. The Venetians pleaded for aid from the other Mediterranean Christian states. Although most other kingdoms were reluctant to aid the hated republic of Venice, Pope Pius V seized this opportunity to forge a Holy League to crusade against the Turks. In 1571 a combined fleet of ships from Spain, Venice, and the pope's dominions was placed under the command of Don John of Austria.

The allied fleet sailed to the Greek coast, where it met the Turks. Don John commanded 200 galleys and 6 galleasses (ships twice the size of a galley, with much heavier armament). Don John made a tactical change in his galleys' weaponry by removing the heavy iron beaks and placing five guns in the stable bows. The Turkish fleet was numerically larger--290 ships--but many of these were galliots, swift raiding vessels half the size of a galley. The Turkish ships retained their beaks and mounted only three guns in the bows. The Christian fleet also had a total strength of 84,000 men to the Turks' 88,000.

The two fleets faced each other in the classic crescent formation. Don John improvised by having his powerful galleasses towed out in front of his three squadrons. This upset the Turkish commander, Ali Pasha, but the Turks continued closing with their three squadrons. The superior gunfire of the Christian fleet swept the advancing Turkish ships, but finally they reached the allies and engaged in a fierce hand-to-hand struggle.

Three separate actions took place. First, after a seesaw struggle, the Christian left drove the Turks opposing it ashore, annihilating them. The disputed center revolved around a titanic duel between the two flagships. The superior firepower of Don John's ships finally decided the battle, and the Turkish flagship was captured. On the Turkish left, the heavier Turkish squadron won the exchange and captured several galleys. But it was too little too late. The collapse of the center caused a retreat, which turned into a rout as the Christians sank or captured additional vessels. The Turks lost 80 ships and 30,000 men (not including 12,000 Christian galley slaves, who were freed). The allies lost 7,500 men and 17 galleys, but won a victory which heralded the end of Turkish supremacy in the Mediterranean. The most notable figure in the battle was Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes, who lost his left hand in the fighting.

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