Today, we’re going to go even further back in naval history and look at a battle from the time of rowed galleys and the introduction of naval artillery, the Battle of Lepanto on 7-Oct-1571.(1, 2) The battle was fought between the Christian Holy League alliance and the Ottoman Empire and occurred just west of Lepanto, Greece.
As we go further back in history, drawing lessons is a challenge due to the lack of detailed knowledge about the battle. For example, without some understanding of the battle plans of the commanders (their intent) and a detailed accounting of the battle itself, it’s very difficult to draw conclusions and formulate lessons. Still, we’ll take a look and see what, if anything, we can learn.
The Holy League fleet, under the Spanish Don John of Austria, had been assembled to confront the Ottoman threat to the eastern Mediterranean and had sailed eastward from Sicily. The fleet consisted of 206 galleys and 6 galleasses (large galleys with substantial artillery). Manpower consisted of 40,000 sailors and oarsmen with 20,000 combat troops.
The Holy League fleet was an alliance/assembly of several countries/factions including the Spanish Empire, the Republic of Venice, the Genoese fleet, the Papal States, the Order of Saint Stephen and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchy of Savoy, and the Knights of Malta. Don John’s control was less than ironclad and required a great deal of negotiation and cumbersome consensus to act.
The Ottoman fleet, under Ali Pasha, had sailed west from Lepanto to intercept the Holy League fleet. The fleet consisted of 222 war galleys and 56 galliots (a small, half oar/half sail vessel with several small caliber cannons). Manpower consisted of 13,000 sailors and 37,000 oarsmen, mostly slaves (many captured Christians) with 34,000 combat troops including 10,000 Janissaries.
|Example Of A Galley|
While both sides intended to confront the other, the location and timing of the engagement was somewhat of an accident in the sense that the two fleets stumbled across each other rather than engaging in a scouted and planned meeting. The Ottoman fleet had a potential initial advantage in that the Christians were spotted by black-painted ‘stealth’ spy ships from the Ottoman fleet who reported that the Christian fleet would be no match for the Ottoman fleet. So, the Ottoman’s secured an initial advantage through scouting but wasted it by incorrectly interpreting the ‘data’.
At the onset of the battle, both fleets were arrayed in mirror formations of three groups across, a center, right, and left. As they advanced and met, the Ottoman right tried to turn the Christian left flank but were pinned against the nearby shore with many ships being abandoned. Thus, the Christian left group secured its localized victory.
|Lepanto Battle Formations|
The opposing fleet commanders, in the center, met in a battle of pure attrition which the Christians eventually won. There is some suggestion that shipboard artillery played a major role but the reports are far from definitive on the point.
On the Christian right, commanded by Genoese Admiral Giovanni Andrea Doria, who had been a reluctant participant and vocal critic of the decision to engage, the Christian group was slow to take position and wound up moving far to the right, away from battle, which allowed the Ottoman left group to flank the Christian center for a time. Doria eventually returned which solidified the Christian center. Doria’s actions and reluctance to engage were heavily questioned after the battle and many of his ship captains were angered by his actions.
The final result was a major victory for the Christians with the Ottoman fleet losing 170 ships, 33,000 dead, and 10,000 captured along with 10,000 Christian slaves freed against 7,500 dead for the Christians. Although clearly a major defeat for the Ottoman Empire, the Empire was able to quickly rebuild its fleet. Within six months, 250 new ships were built including 150 galleys and 8 galleasses and the new fleet resumed action. Further, the Holy League failed to capitalize on their victory and regained no territory.
|Painting of the Battle of Lepanto|
So, what lessons can we learn from an engagement between rowed vessels that amounted to a land battle carried out on floating platforms?
Scouting. The Christians stumbled into the battle while the Ottoman fleet secured an initial advantage but badly misinterpreted their scouting ‘data’. Even the Ottoman scout ships, while attaining the initial contact, were so close to the main fleet – due to communication distance limitations – that there was little time for pre-battle maneuvering or preparation even if they had correctly assessed the Christian fleet.
The lack of warning (scouting) meant that one side or the other could have been at a potential huge disadvantage, numerically. As it turned out, the sides were evenly matched but if either side had been somewhat understrength compared to their opponent, it could have been a disaster - well, it was anyway but at least they began the battle on pretty even terms. The importance of scouting and knowledge of the enemy’s location and strength is a timeless lesson.
Closely related to scouting is communications. It does no good to scout but be unable to communicate the findings back to command. This is what limited the ‘reach’ of the Ottoman scout ships. While ancient scouting was hindered by the lack of communications distance, modern scouting is likely to be equally challenged to communicate their findings due to the electronic warfare impact – jamming, disruption, cyber attacks, loss of satellite relays, etc. It will do no good to penetrate into enemy territory, spot the enemy, and then be unable to successfully transmit the data.
Scouting is not just limited by communication range but also by accurate interpretation of what is seen/sensed. Inaccurate scouting reports have been a constant throughout the history of warfare on land or sea. The use of electronic sensors is not going to magically solve the problem. There will always be conflicting reports, incomplete reports, inaccurate reports, and ambiguous reports. A frustrated police officer once remarked to me that the only thing worse than no eye witness to a crime was an eye witness because their reports are invariably wrong and send the police off on many wild goose chases. So it goes with scouting. Inaccurate scouting reports can lead a commander to draw the wrong conclusions and make wrong decisions.
‘Maneuver Warfare’. Lepanto was a land battle fought on water - no deception and little maneuver. Both sides simply merged and engaged in pure attrition combat. Beyond rudimentary flanking attempts, there was no effort to employ maneuver to attain localized superiority and the results showed it in the casualty figures. It was pure attrition warfare.
This is an area that modern navies seem to have forgotten or ignored. I’m aware of no exercises or wargames involving naval maneuver warfare. Some of the classic Guadalcanal naval battles should be intently studied by modern commanders to understand squadron and fleet level maneuver and the guiding principles must be practiced. Exercises such as RIMPAC are nearly worthless as far as exercising and maneuvering on squadron and fleet levels.
Allies. The Christian fleet was an impressive coalition but was hampered and hamstrung by allies with differing agendas. The Christian fleet was betrayed by their right flank which refused to engage because the commander of that group had a different agenda, priorities, and objectives. This phenomenon of unreliable allies has repeated itself throughout history. Recall the extensive efforts and disagreements among the allies in WWII? This same weakness applies today. We’ve repeatedly seen supposed allies deny us overflight and basing use during operations because of differing agendas. We’ve seen ships we’ve trained and integrated into a carrier group pull out when the time for action came because their country had a different agenda. And so on.
Production. One of the most striking aspects of the Battle of Lepanto was the fact that despite losing 170 ships out of 280 or so, the Ottoman fleet was rebuilt, and a bit more, within six months. The value of cheap, easily produced vessels is glaringly obvious. Attrition will occur in naval battles and the ability to rebuild in a timely manner is critical. The US Navy lost many ships during the first year or so of WWII but we were able to rebuild and replace those losses within a very short time. We have completely forgotten that lesson today. Modern ships are so complex that build times even for smaller ships require several years. While we might speed that up a bit in a war, there is no way to build a modern ship in any useful time frame to deal with attrition. We absolutely must change our approach to ship design and ship construction.
Unity of Command. The Holy League was a barely held-together assembly of countries/factions, each with their own commander, motivations, and objectives. The fleet required a consensus to act. We saw this just recently when the Spanish frigate left the Lincoln carrier group at a moment of heightened tension with Iran. The lesson is obvious. Once put to sea, there can be only one commander and his authority must be absolute. It is better to not have allies than to have allies that are unreliable.
Well, how about that? Even for a battle between fleets of rowed galleys we can identify lessons that are applicable today. Apparently, there are lessons that are timeless and independent of the level of technology. We ignore these lessons at our own peril.
(1)Wiki, “Battle of Lepanto”,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Lepanto