In the north near the island, the numbers were relatively matched, but it was the Venetians who were at a disadvantage: the smaller Turkish galleys and galliots of Mehmet Scirroco’s corsairs could traverse the shallower water closer to shore and get around the Ventian left flank. Only brilliant seamanship prevented a Turkish attack into the vulnerable galley sides. Like Chamberlain at Little Round Top, Agostino Barbarigo refused his line, and when that wasn’t enough he counterattacked with his own galley. Barbarigo was killed when he opened his visor to call out a command in the din battle, and was shot through the eye with an arrow. Only the timely arrival of Alvar de Bazan with galleys from the reserve prevented the destruction of the Christian left.
In the center, Ali Pasha on the Sultana rowed directly at Don Juan on the Real. The two ships were easily discernable to both sides. The Sultana flew the great green banner of the Caliph, inscribed Allah Akbar 28,000 times in gold, while the Real flew the great blue banner of the Crucifix presented to Don Juan by Pope Pius V. The two ships crashed into each other. Legend has it that the only woman of the battle, “Maria the Dancer” disguised in armor to accompany her Spanish lover, was the first Christian to board the Sultana. The two ships locked in a death struggle and became the focus of the battle as galleys on both sides poured troops onto them for the next three hours. Makeshift fortifications appeared on both decks as Christian knights and Turkish Janissaries charged, held, and countercharged in what was essentially a land battle, as more and more ships lashed on.
In the south and furthest away, the galleasses never got into position, leaving Uluch Ali at full strength. Furthermore, he outnumbered Andrea Doria’s squadron significantly and used the open sea to try and outflank the Christian line. This led to a series of maneuvers by Doria to the west that opened a gap between his division and the center division. Uluch Ali, seizing the moment reversed his southern and westward push to outflank Doria and charged into the gap. In it were some Venetian ships that thought Doria was retreating from battle, and were making their way to the center division, and the ships of Maltese Knights whom correctly anticipated Ali’s maneuver. All were overwhelmed and destroyed. The melee in the Center lay exposed to a flank attack.
Despite the severe disadvantages and greater losses than the Christians, the Turks were a hair’s breadth away from victory.
This however was not to be the case, as events in the north would directly affect those in the south, which allowed Don Juan’s advantages discussed previously, his weight of numbers (his rowers could fight unlike the slaves of the Turkish galleys), his firepower and better armor decide the center.
After the arrival of de Bazar to stabilize the north, the fight devolved into a melee as it did in the center. But two factors quickly decided it in the Christians’ favor. First, three separate slave revolts sent confusion into the Turkish line, which led to the second – the shore. The failed flanking maneuver by the lighter Turkish galliots and galleys along the shallows eventually caused the Turkish line to be pinned against the shore, which isn’t in itself bad. But it does confer a psychological disadvantage: there is now a way to escape the battle. Every Turk from that point on had a choice: continue fighting among chained but restless slaves and against heavily armed and armored adversaries in what was increasingly a losing battle, or swim the short distance to safety. The Turkish line collapsed.
This freed Alvar de Bazan and his Spanish reserve to sail south to engage Uluch Ali in the gap opened by Andrea Doria’s maneuvers. His 25 galleys slowed Ali long enough for Don Juan to finally overwhelm Ali Pasha, who simply ran out of men to throw onto the Sultana. Once Uluch Ali was informed that Ali Pasha’s head was seen on a pike, he disengaged and escaped. His 33 galleys were the only Turkish ships to survive the battle.
The ships could be replaced, and were, but the loss of tens of thousands of elite Janissaries, bowmen, and sailors, each of whom took years of training to reach proficiency, much less mastery, meant that never again would the Ottoman Turks seriously threaten maritime invasion in the Mediterranean.
After a 3500 year run, the Battle of Lepanto was the last major navel battle in which galleys played a significant role. The loss of the rams, the success of the galleasses, in particular the broadsides and high decks, were the future. The galleons that ruled the Atlantic were soon adapted to the Mediterranean.