Top 5 Decisive Naval battles!

Decisive Naval battles that would easily make into the all time top 5 chart

Photo story (Clockwise from top left): (1) 16thcentury oil painting of Battle of Lepanto at the Greenwich Maritime Museum (2) Illustration of Ottoman naval forces during the battle of Lepanto (3) Park in Guangdong, commemorating the Battle of Yamen (4) In 1812, Nicholas Pocock oil painted and illustrated the Battle of Quiberon Bay, at Greenwich Maritime Museum (5) An English soldier who fought in the Battle against Spanish Armada, illustrated the naval warfare in 1588 (6) Routes of the Spanish Armada in 1588. (7) Greeks used Triremes in the Battle of Salamis; a Trireme named Olympias reconstructed in 1987 is a commissioned vessel in the Greek navy.

Published in 1851, ‘the fifteen decisive battles of the world-from Marathon to Waterloo’ written by Sir Edward Creasy had set the standard for battle rankings. A decisive battle refers to a military victory in war that conclusively resolves the objectives being fought over. Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian-German trooper and military theorist of the early 19th century, defined decisive battles as one that directly leads to peace. For example the Battle of Trafalgar can be considered as decisive. The naval battle fought by Royal Navy in 1805 against the combined French and Spanish fleets sealed the fate of the war as the Franco-Spanish fleet lost 22 out of its total 33 ships while the British fleet did not lose a single one and ensured peace for some period of time. There were five decisive naval battles that would make into the all time top 5 chart as these decided the fates of empires, civilizations or great nations, he reports.


(5) Battle of Lepanto (1571):

The Ottoman Empire was prevented by the Holy League, coalition of the south European Catholic states organized by Pope Saint Pius V, from expanding further west and along the European side of Mediterranean Sea. The Holy League consisted of Spanish Empire, Papal States, Republic of Venice, Republic of Genoa, Grand Duchy of Tuscany, Duchy of Urbino, Duchy of Savoy and Knights of Malta. After occupying Nicosia and other Venetian colonies in 1570, the Turks besieged Famagusta, the Venetian colony on the Cyprus Island, in 1571.  On 14th August, 1571, blessed by the pope, the Holy League fleet started its journey from Naples, Southern Italy, to rescue Famagusta. The fleet was lead by John of Austria, son of Roman Emperor Charles V.

The fleet moved to Sicily and received the news that the Venetians of Famagusta surrendered to the Turks on 1st August 1571. Though Ottoman commander Lala Mustafa Pasha earlier assured Venetians that they would be allowed to leave Cyprus freely, he broke his word as he had lost 52,000 Ottoman soldiers including his son in the siege. Pasha imprisoned the Venetians and on 17th August Venetian commander Antonio Bragadin was flayed alive. Venetian commanders’ heads along with Bragadin’s corpse was hung on Mustafa Pasha’s galley that day. Holy League fleet sailed to the Gulf of Patras, a branch of the Ionian Sea, where they confronted the Ottoman fleet on 7th October, 1571. Holy League fleet had 212 ships including 206 galleys and 6 galleasses equipped with 28,500 soldiers, 1,815 guns, 40,000 oarsmen and sailors. The Ottoman fleet had 251 ships including 206 galleys and 45 galliots equipped with 31,490 soldiers, 741 guns, 50,000 sailors and oarsmen. In five hours battle on the Gulf of Corinth near western coast of Greece, the Holy League fleet defeated the main Ottoman fleet.

At the beginning of the battle the heavily armed galleasses of the League fleet were mistaken as merchant supply vessels by the Turks and they set out to attack them. But those 6 galleasses sunk about 70 Ottoman galleys and it rattled the Ottoman fleet formations. The Holy League fleet lost 7,500 men, 17 ships; they also managed to free 10,000 Christian prisoners. The Ottoman fleet suffered 20,000 dead, captured or wounded, 50 ships lost and their 137 ships got captured. Despite the decisive defeat the Ottomans built total 250 ships including 150 galleys and 8 galleasses and the Ottoman possession of Cyprus and Famagusta was recognized by the Venetians by a treaty on 7th March, 1573. But the loss of many experienced men at the Battle of Lepanto made the Ottoman Navy avoid major confrontations with the Christian fleet and after 1580 the dispirited Ottomans left the fleet to rot at the Golden Horn of Istanbul Strait.



(4) Battle of Mount Ya or Yamen (1279):

The Fuzhou fell to Mongols in 1277 and the exiled Song Dynasty escaped to Quanzhou, southern Fujian. After Emperor Gong got captured, his 9 year old brother Zhao Shi was declared emperor. General of Song, Zhang Shijie planned to borrow boats to move Song army and the court from place to place and wage battles with the Mongols. But Fu Shougeng, a Muslim merchant turned down General Shijie’s request. Shijie seized Fu’s properties end escaped with the Song court on stolen boats. Fu then attacked and slaughtered many imperial soldiers and clans in Quanzhou and joined with the Mongol controlled Yuan Dynasty. While fleeing to Lantau Island emperor Zhao Shi died of illness and his 7 years old brother Zhao Bing became the emperor.

General Shijie brought Emperor Bing to Yamen, Guangdong and prepared a defense against the Yuan. On 19th March, 1279 the Yuan led by Zhang Hongfan attacked the Song fleet in Yamen. Some soldiers of the Song forces advised to conquer the mouth of the bay first to open the way to retreat westward. But General Shijie disagreed and to prevent troops from fleeing the battle he ordered to burn all palaces, forts and houses on the land and chained 1000 warships together placing the Emperor Bing’s boat at the center of the fleet. The Yuan navy was outnumbered 10 to 1. Song Dynasty had 200,000 people mostly civilians, more than 1,000 war ships mostly type of transport ships. The Mongol Yuan Dynasty had 20,000 soldiers and more than 50 warships. The Yuan fleet first attacked with the fire ships, but the Song ships were prepared for this and were covered with fire resistant mud. Yuan army cut off wood and fresh water sources of Song’s forces and the Yuan navy blockaded the bay. Shijie’s forces were forced to drink sea water causing sever sickness.

Shijie’s nephew was even kidnapped by Hongfan and the Yuan forces asked Shijie to surrender on three different times, but Shijie continued to fight. Hongfan split Yuan fleet into 4 parts and implemented the ‘Trojan horse’ type of strategy. Over 100,000 Song people died from fighting or drowning including Emperor Bing. Then Mongol Yuan Dynasty lead by Kublai Khan and his descendants controlled all of China. Mongols ruled China until the rise of Ming Dynasty in 1376.


(3) Battle of Quiberon Bay (1759):

For Britain 1759 has been called year of miracles during Seven Years’ War. British General Wolfe defeated the Montcalm’s French troops in Quebec and Montreal in September. On 20th November, 1759 a decisive British victory came at the battle of Quiberon Bay, Bay of Biscay. The British had 24 ships of the line and 5 frigates led by Sir Edward Hawke. And the French had 21 ships of the line and 6 frigates led by Marshal de Conflans. Hawke tricked the French fleet into chasing few British ships here and there and completely scattered & defeated them. The British fleet had 2 ships of the line wrecked and lost 400 soldiers. The French fleet had 6 ships of the line wrecked or destroyed, 1 ship captured and lost 2,500 men. After this battle the British fleets got the ample freedom to act against the French colonies.


(2) The Spanish Armada (1588):

The powerful Spanish fleet also called the Invincible Fleet sailed to cross the English Channel to land in England in 1588. The plan of Spanish King Philip II failed miserably as their so called invincible fleet suffered a decisive defeat accomplishing nothing. England and their Dutch Ally had 34 warships, 163 armed merchant vessels and 30 flyboats. On the other hand, Spanish crown consisting of Castile, Naples and Portugal had 22 galleons and 108 armed merchant vessels in their fleet. King Philip II wanted to unseat British Queen Elizabath I and end English support for Dutch revolt in Spanish Netherlands. Though Spanish fleet was outnumbered by the English fleet, the English fleet was outgunned by the Spanish. Spanish had 50% more firepower than the English fleet.

The bad weather conspired along with the English fleet as the Spanish Armada was delayed. On 21 July, 1588 the English fleet met the Armada near Plymouth. The English and Dutch fleet split up into two groups and attacked the Armada. On 23rd July the English and Dutch fleet broke into four groups and did not allow the Spanish fleet to establish anchorage in Solent. The Armada was anticipating a large army support from the Duke of Parma in Solent but were scattered by an English fire ship attack. The Spanish fleet then withdrew north and decided to return to Spain around Ireland and Scotland. But the severe storm while retreating sunk one third of their fleet. The English lost 50-100 soldiers in the battle, 6,000-8,000 soldiers died by diseases, 400 wounded and 8 of their fire ships were burnt. The Spanish Armada lost 600 soldiers, 800 were wounded, 397 captured, 5 ships sunk or captured. Later while returning to Spain, their 51 ships sunk in the storm, 10 ships were scuttled and 20,000 soldiers died by diseases. This decisive battle ensured foundation of the British Empire.


(1) Battle of Salamis (480 BC):

The Battle of Salamis was fought between the Persian Empire and the Greek alliance states in the straits between Salamis and Athens during the intense point of the 2nd Persian Invasion of Greece in September, 480 BC. The outnumbered Greek fleet which had 371 ships were led by General Themistocles. King Xerxes’ Persian armada had around 600 ships. Losing Boeotica and Attica to the Persians in the previous battles at Artemisium and Thermopylae, the Greek forces were heavily depleted but were determined to defend Salamis while withdrawn to Isthmus of Corinth. Persian Navy tried to block both entrances of the Straits of Salamis but their fleet got disorganized in the process and struggled to maneuver in the cramped condition. The Greek fleet backed their ships to get a better position and was ready to attack them in lined up organized formation. Greek fleet split the Persian fleet in two by pushing through Persian lines. The Greek Triremes had a large ram at the front that could sink or disable enemy ships. Persians suffered lot more casualties than the Greeks as most Persian soldiers did not know how to swim. While trying to retreat towards Asia, the Persian fleet was also ambushed near Phalerum. The Greeks lost 40 ships. On the contrary, the Persians lost 200-300 ships. The Battle of Salamis was the turning point in the Greco Persian wars. The Greek turned offensive from this point of time and Ancient Greece and western civilizations developed making the Battle of Salamis one of the most significant in human history.


Mohammad Rafi Saad

Mohammad Rafi Saad is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE