As the sun rose over the Gulf of Patras off of western Greece on Sunday, 7 October 1571, the Ottoman Grand Fleet poured in from the Gulf of Corinth to the east, as the fleet of the Holy League flowed in from the northwest through the Ionian Islands. About twenty miles apart they spotted each other. The Christian knights in their bright plate and men at arms in their steel helmets and chest pieces held their swords, polearms and harquebuses aloft as the monks and priests held up their golden crucifixes to create a dazzling spectacle in the morning sun for the Ottomans. The Turks amidst their colorful banners, responded in kind by beating their massive drums, stomping on the decks, and chanting the Koran as the two enormous fleets inexorably rowed toward each other at a strength saving leisurely walking pace.
The respective commanders, Ali Pasha and Don Juan of Austria, were surprised at the fleets opposite them. Both had “good” intelligence that they greatly outnumbered their enemy. It was the reason both chose to do battle today. Don Juan had his from Christian spies and Cretan fishermen whom seemed always one step ahead of the Turkish fleet, and Ali Pasha from Kara Hodje, a former Franciscan friar whom was captured, converted and became one of the most feared, cruel, and cunning corsairs in the Mediterranean (recent converts are always the most fanatical). One month prior, the daring Hodje sailed into Messina harbor at night and personally counted each Christian galley.
But the Cretans didn’t count Hodje and his squadron while he was on his scouting missions, nor the 45 Turkish galliots, small maneuverable corsair ships about 2/3s the size of a normal galley. Don Juan only wanted to know about galley strength so the Cretans never mentioned the considerable number of smaller ships. And Kara Hodje didn’t know of the 60 Venetian galleys recently completed by the Arsenal, nor the six massive ships that dotted the Christian line, whose size and use confounded the Turkish observers.
These six enormous ships could only move under their own power with great difficulty and at the moment were being towed by other galleys ahead of the Christian line. They had great wooden superstructures at the bow and stern, and dwarfed the other galleys. As they got closer, the Turks were horrified to see they were bristling with cannon, fourteen massive cannon in the bow, four more down each side, and six in the stern. These new ships were more gun platforms than sailing vessels and could fire in all 360 degrees. Moreover, these Leviathans were too high to be boarded, except by grappling hook and climbing. The Turkish commanders decided they needed to be bypassed, their fire weathered, and they would be dealt with after the Christian line was broken.
These “galleasses” were Don Juan’s secret weapon, and they were constructed in great secrecy by Venice, whose entrepreneurial captains knew that cannon and sail, not oars and rams, were the future. They were twice as long and twice as high as a normal galley, with twenty times the firepower when, along with the many cannon, the hundreds of additional harquebusiers that packed the decks were taken into account. The galleasses were impenetrable floating fortresses, around which the immense Muslim wave must flow to reach the Christian line.
For five hours the two gargantuan fleets crawled toward each other. Never before in history had so many men and ships faced off against each in other in so small a place: 30,000 soldiers and 40,000 sailors on 208 galleys and six galleasses of the Holy League, and 32,000 warriors and 50,000 rowers on 211 galleys, and 45 galliots of the Ottoman Empire. Both commanders took to small ships to visit each contingent prior to battle, and exhort them and confirm battle plans. When Don Juan returned to his flagship, the Real, it is said that in his youthful exuberance, he danced a jig with his pet marmoset to break the tension.
Just after 10 am, the right wing of the Turkish fleet came within 400 yards of the far left Venetian galleass, and its commander gave to the order to fire.
The Battle of Lepanto had begun, and over the next six hours the fate of Italy, Rome, and Western Civilization would be decided.