Lepanto: Turkish might buckles in the grandest naval battle of History
The Turkish fleet came on imposing and terrible, all sails set, impelled by a fair wind, and it was only half a mile from the line of galliasses and another mile from the line of the Christian ships.
D. John waited no longer; he humbly crossed himself, and ordered that the cannon of challenge should be fired on the “Real,” and the blue flag of the League should be hoisted at the stern, which unfurled itself like a piece of the sky on which stood out an image of the Crucified. A moment later the galley of Ali replied, accepting the challenge by firing another cannon, and hoisting at the stern the standard of the Prophet, guarded in Mecca, white and of large size, with a wide green “cenefa,” and in the center verses from the Koran embroidered in gold.
At the same moment a strange thing happened, a very simple one at any other time, but for good reason then considered a miracle: the wind fell suddenly to a calm, and then began to blow favorably for the Christians and against the Turks. It seemed as if the Voice had said to the sea, “Be calm,” and to the wind, “Be still.” The silence was profound, and nothing was heard but the waves breaking on the prows of the galleys, and the noise of the chains of the Christian galley slaves as they rowed.
Fr. Miguel Servia blessed from the quarter-deck all those of the fleet, and gave them absolution in the hour of death. It was then a quarter to twelve.
The first shot was fired by the galleass “Capitana,” commanded by Francisco Duodo, and it smashed the biggest of the five lanterns which crowned the stern of Ali Pasha’s galley; the second injured the castle of a neighboring galley; and the third sunk a small vessel which was hurrying to transmit orders. Then there was a retrograde movement through the Turkish fleet, which the bravery of Ali Pasha at once checked. He rushed to the tiller and made the “Sultana” pass between the galliasses with the rapidity of an arrow, without firing a shot; all the fleet followed him, their line already broken, but prepared to form up again when they had passed the obstacle, as the water of a river reunites after it has passed the posts of a bridge which has impeded and divided it. The left Christian wing and the Turkish right one were the first to engage. Mahomet Scirocco attacked with such force in front, and with such tumult of shouts and savage cries, according to the Turkish custom when fighting, that all attention was drawn to one point; meanwhile some of his light galleys slipped past on the land side and attacked the stern of Barbarigo’s flagship, who saw himself sorely pressed as the crew of Mahomet Scirocco’s galley had boarded his by the prow, and the Turks were already up to the mizzen mast.
The Christians defended themselves like wild beasts, gathered in the stern, and Barbarigo himself was directing them and cheering them on from the castle. He had lifted the visor of his helmet, and was using his shield against the storm of arrows that flew through the air. To give an order, he uncovered himself for a moment, and an arrow entered by the right eye and pierced his brain. He died the next day. Then there was grave risk of the Turks overcoming the Venetian flagship, destroying the left wing, and then attacking the center division on the flank and from the rear, making victory easy. Barbarigo’s nephew Marino Contarini overcame the danger. He boarded his uncle’s ship on the larboard side with all his people, and fought on board perhaps the fiercest combat of all on that memorable day. All was madness, fury, carnage and terror, until Mahomet Scirocco was expelled from the Venetian flagship and penned, in his turn, in his own ship, where he at last succumbed to his wounds. Clinging to the side, they beheaded him there and threw him into the water. Terror then spread among the Turks, and the few galleys at liberty turned their prows towards the shore. There they ran aground, the decimated crews saving themselves by swimming.
D. John had no time to reflect either on this danger, or that catastrophe, or that victory, for he was also hard pressed. Five minutes after Mahomet Scirocco had fallen on Barbarigo, Ali Pasha fell on him with all the weight of his hatred, fury and desire for glory. He could be seen proudly standing on the castle of the stern, a magnificent scimitar in his hand, dressed in a caftan of white brocade woven with silk and silver, with a helmet of dark steel under his turban, with inscriptions in gold and precious stones, turquoises, rubies, and diamonds, which flashed in the sunlight. Slowly the two divisions came on, unheeding what happened on the right or left, and in the midst were the galleys of the two Generalissimos, not firing a shot, and only moving forward silently.
When the length of half a galley separated the two ships, the “Sultana” of Ali Pasha suddenly fired three guns; the first destroyed some of the ironwork of the “Real” and killed several rowers; the second traversed the boat; and the third passed over the cook’s galley without harming anyone. The “Real” replied by sweeping with her shots the stern and gangway of the “Sultana,” and a thick, black smoke at once enveloped Turks and Christians, ships and combatants. From this black cloud, which appeared to be vomited from Hell, could be heard a dreadful grinding noise, and horrible cries, and through the smoke of the powder could be seen splinters of wood and iron, broken oars, weapons, human limbs and dead bodies flying through the air and falling in the bloodstained sea. It was the galley of Ali which had struck that of D. John by the prow with such a tremendous shock that the peak of the “Sultana” entered the “Real” as far as the fourth bench of rowers; the violence of the shock had naturally made each ship recoil; but they could not draw apart. The yards and rigging had become entangled, and they heaved first to one side and then to the other with dreadful grinding and movement, striving to get free without succeeding, like two gladiators, whose bodies are separated, who grasp each other tightly, and then seize each other by the hair. From the captain’s place where he was, at the foot of the standard of the League, D. John ordered grappling-irons to be thrown from the prow, holding the ships close together, and making them into one field of battle. Like lions the Christians flung themselves on board the ship, destroying all in their path, and twice they reached the mainmast of the “Sultana,” and as often had to retire, foot by foot and inch by inch, fighting over these frail boards, from which there was neither escape, nor help, nor hope of compassion, nor other outlet than death.
The “Sultana” was reinforced with reserves from the galleys, and to encourage them, Ali, in his turn, threw himself on board the ship. The “Sultana” rode higher out of the water than the “Real,” and the men poured down into her like a cataract from on high; the shock was so tremendous that the Field-Marshals Figueroa and Moncada fell back with their men, and the Turks succeeded in reaching the foremast. All the men at the prow hastened there, and D. John jumped from the captain’s post, sword in hand, fighting like a soldier to make them retire. This was the critical moment of the battle. There was neither line, nor formation, nor right, nor left, nor center; only could be seen, as far as the eye could reach, fire, smoke and groups of galleys in the midst, fighting with each other, vomiting fire and death, with masts and hulls bristling with arrows, like an enormous porcupine, who puts out its quills to defend itself and to fight; wounding, killing, capturing, cheering, burning were seen and heard on all sides, and dead bodies and bodies of the living falling into the water, and spars, yards, rigging, torn-off heads, turbans, quivers, shields, swords, scimitars, arquebuses, cannon, arms, everything that was then within the grasp of barbarism or civilization for dealing death and destruction.
At this critical moment, by a superhuman effort, a galley freed itself from that chaos of horrors, and threw itself, like a missile from a catapult, hurled by Titans, against the stern of Ali’s galley, forcing the peak as far as the third bench of rowers.
It was Marco Antonio Colonna who had come to the assistance of D. John of Austria; at the same time the Marqués de Santa Cruz executed a similar maneuver on one of the flanks. The help was great and opportune; still, the Turks succeeded in retiring in good order to their galley; but here, pressed hardly by the followers of Colonna and Santa Cruz, they tumbled over the sides, dead and living, into the water, Turks and Christians fighting to the last with nails and teeth, and destroying each other until engulfed in the gory waves.
Among this mass of desperate people Ali perished beside the tiller; some say that he cut his throat and threw himself into the sea; others that his head was cut off and put on a pike. Then D. John ordered the standard of the Prophet to be lowered, and amidst shouts of victory, the flag of the League was hoisted in its place.
D. John had been wounded in the leg, but without limping at all he mounted the castle of the vanquished galley to survey from there the state of the battle. On the left wing the few galleys left to Mahomet Scirocco were flying towards the land, and could be seen running violently aground in the bays, the crews throwing themselves into the water to swim ashore.
But, unluckily, the same was not happening on the right. Doria, deceived by the tactics of Aluch Ali, had followed him out to sea, making a wide space between the right wing and the center division; D. John’s orders to him to come back did not arrive in time. Meanwhile, Aluch Ali contented himself by watching Doria’s maneuvers, keeping up with him, but not attacking; until suddenly, judging no doubt, that the space was wide enough, he veered to the right with marvelous rapidity, and sent all his fleet through the dangerous breach, literally annihilating the two ends which remained uncovered; the disaster was terrible and the carnage awful; on the flagship of Malta only three men remained alive, the Prior of Messina, Fr. Pietro Giustiniani, pierced by five arrows, a Spanish gentleman with both legs broken, and an Italian with an arm cut off by a blow from an axe. In the flagship of Sicily D. Juan de Cardona lay wounded, and of his 500 men only fifty remained. The “Fierenza,” the Pope’s “San Giovanni,” and the “Piamontesa” of Savoy succumbed without yielding; ten galleys had gone to the bottom; one was on fire, and twelve drifted like buoys, without masts, full of corpses, waiting until the conqueror, Aluch Ali, should take them in tow as trophies and spoils of war. Doria, horrified at the disaster, in all haste returned to the scene of the catastrophe, but D. John was already there before him. Without waiting a moment, the Generalissimo ordered that the towing ropes which already attached twelve galleys to their conquerors should be cut, and although wounded, and without taking any rest after his own struggle, he flew to the assistance of those who were being overcome. “Ah! Brave Generalissimo,” exclaims Admiral Jurien de la Graviere, in his valuable study of the battle of Lepanto, “to him the armada owed its victory, to him the right wing its preservation.” The Marqués de Santa Cruz followed with his whole reserve, and seeing this help, the already victorious Aluch Ali understood that the prey would be torn from his claws.
The cunning renegade then thought only of saving his life, which he did by a means that no one else would have employed; he placed his son in a galley, and followed by thirteen other ones, passed like a vapor in front of the prows of the enemy, before they could surround him, and fled incontinently to Santa Maura, all sails set, he at the tiller, the unfortunate rowers with a scimitar at their throats, so that they should not flag or draw breath for a second, and should die rather than give in.
The first moment of astonishment over, the Marqués de Santa Cruz and D. John of Austria hastened in pursuit; but the advantage Aluch Ali had obtained increased each minute, night began to fall, and the storm which had threatened since two o’clock began to blow, and the first claps of thunder were heard. So the famous renegade escaped on the wings of the storm, as if the wrath of God were protecting him and preserving him to be the scourge of other people.
This was the last act of the battle of Lepanto, the greatest day that the ages have seen…
It was five o’clock on the evening of the 7th of October, 1571.
Rev. Fr. Luis Coloma, The Story of Don John of Austria, trans. Lady Moreton, (New York: John Lane Company, 1912), pp. 265-271.
Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 14
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