Ottoman Naval Tactics


During the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the invading Turks faced a major challenge. The Byzantines had erected a giant chain across the Golden Horn, a stretch of water that connected Constantinople to the sea. This chain effectively blocked the Ottoman navy from making their way to the enemy capital.
In order to overcome the chain, the Ottomans moved their navy overland using log rollers. This allowed the Ottomans to bypass the chain and attack the Byzantines from multiple fronts, ultimately aiding in the capture of the city that’s now called Istanbul.


An Ottoman galley. Using sails and oars, the galley could keep moving regardless of weather. The banners with the downward crossed swords at the bow and stern are the colors of Barbarossa while the one depicting three crescent moons is the Ottomans’ imperial flag.

The pattern of Ottoman, and indeed all Mediterranean naval warfare, was very similar to the pattern of war on land. The most typical form of combat was not the major fleet engagement, but rather a continuous kleinkrieg of attacks on enemy coasts and shipping. This was the form of warfare which Ottoman fleets engaged in between the late fourteenth and the mid-fifteenth centuries. It was plunder from Christian shipping and settlements that sustained the Ottoman provinces in North Africa, and in particular provided a source of wealth for the Ottoman outpost of Algiers. The Knights of St John played a similar role in the Christian Mediterranean, and it was against these and other Christian predators that the admiral made his annual tours, even during years of formal peace.

When the Ottoman imperial fleet engaged in an action, it was typically an amphibious assault on a coastal or insular fortress, rather than a battle in the open sea. Almost all Ottoman naval victories, from the conquest of Mitylene in 1462 to the capture of Chania in 1645, were of this sort. Engagements between fleets on the open sea, like major field battles on land, were infrequent and, unlike field battles, rarely decisive in determining the course of events. The Venetian naval victory in 1416 was perhaps a factor in delaying the creation of an effective Ottoman war fleet until after 1450. The more famous victory at Lepanto did not, however, prevent the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus or the conquest of Tunis three years later. The Venetian victory outside the Dardanelles in 1656 caused severe problems for the Ottomans, but did not bring to an end the invasion of Crete. From the mid-fifteenth century, therefore, the most typical functions of the Ottoman fleet were sieges and raids on enemy shores. The fleet also served to protect Ottoman shipping and coastlines, and sometimes to restore the sultan’s authority in outlying provinces.

The nature of the galley limited the Ottoman fleet’s range of action. Galleys were long vessels, low in the water, with a shallow draught. They were not able to withstand heavy seas, and could not, therefore, put to sea in the winter, setting out in principle, if not often in practice, at the vernal equinox, and returning in October or early November. It was possible to risk keeping small flotillas or single vessels at sea during the winter, but not whole fleets. During the first half of the seventeenth century, Ottoman shipwrights started to build galleys broader and longer, with `melon sterns’ in order to withstand storms better, but this did not prolong the campaigning season. The limited sailing season in turn limited the operational range of the fleet. The other constraint on the range of a galley was the size of its crew.

In 1656, Katib Chelebi estimated that a galley carried 330 men, including 196 oarsmen and 100 warriors. An Ottoman galeass, he says, carried a crew of 600, and a heavy galley a crew of 800. In the previous century, numbers had been smaller, since galleys had three rather than four oarsmen to each bench, and 50 rather than 100 warriors, but numbers were still very large. At the same time, storage space on a galley was limited. It was not possible, therefore, to store on board more than about ten days’ supply of food and water. Water was available from springs and rivers ashore, and knowledge of their location was presumably traditional within the Ottoman navy. In addition, the Mediterranean map of Piri Reis, completed in 1526, but still in use in the mid-seventeenth century, identifies water sources around the shores of the Mediterranean. Food supplies were a greater problem.

Since a galley could not carry victuals for a whole season, it was necessary to supply the fleet from prearranged points on the shore or, as at Malta in 1565, or Crete in 1651, to transport food by ship. This required careful planning in advance. The basic, and probably the only food that the government supplied, was biscuit and the fleet’s requirements were enormous. For example, the treasury accounts record 2305 tonnes of biscuit for the fleet which recaptured Herceg Novi in 1539. To purchase the wheat, mill it, bake it into biscuit and transport it to the shore was therefore a major operation and a major expense. The Treasury raised the money locally, and distributed the work over a wide area. In 1566, for example, it ordered biscuit for the fleet from Arta, Patras, Navplion, Farsala, Trikkala and Gjirokaster in Albania and central and southern Greece, and from Thessaloniki in the north. 85 In the seventeenth century before 1645, when the size of the fleets was more predictable, Istanbul and Gallipoli were the major centres for baking, but the sixteenth-century practice of distributing the work around the provinces also continued. In this respect, Volos was particularly important. It served not only as the quay for the export of grain from central Greece, but also as a centre for the preparation of biscuit for the fleet. For example, in his tour of the Archipelago in 1618, Chelebi Ali took on a consignment of biscuit which had been baked at Volos and transported to Evvoia for collection by the fleet.

A consequence of this need to take on food at frequent intervals was that galley fleets could not operate safely if they were far from their own shores or if the sea lanes were insecure. This, combined with the short campaigning season, limited their range. For this reason, the Ottoman fleet could not dominate the western Mediterranean without a base for the winter and a supply of provisions. This was possible only briefly when, in cooperation with the King of France, the Ottoman fleet, in 1543-4, was able to overwinter in Toulon. For the same reason, Christian galley fleets could not gain command of the eastern Mediterranean. Even after the great victory at Lepanto, the fleet of the Holy League had no choice but to return to its home bases before the onset of winter.

The galley determined the nature of Mediterranean warfare as much as it did the operating range of the fleets. As an oared vessel with a shallow draught, it did not rely on the wind and could operate close to the shore. For caulking, oiling or carrying out repairs, it was easy to pull ashore on a sandy beach. These characteristics made it especially useful as a pirate vessel, particularly on a windless day, when its prey might lie becalmed. Its ability to come close to the shore was also useful when bombarding coastal fortresses, one of the major functions of a galley fleet. Equally, if an enemy attacked such a fortress, an inshore squadron of galleys could provide a line of defence against the attacking fleet, while itself finding shelter beneath the guns of the fort.

Before the introduction, some time in the late fifteenth century, of artillery, the basic method of galley warfare was ramming and boarding. Artillery did not change this practice. A galley carried cannon on its prow and approached the enemy head on, hoping to fire at least one salvo before the men on the forward fighting platform attempted to board. It was important not to allow the enemy to attack the sides of the vessel, where he could inflict the greatest damage. The vulnerability of the galley’s flanks and the disposition of the guns gave commanders no choice but to adopt a line abreast formation, with all the ships’ prows facing forward at the enemy fleet or fortress. Success depended on maintaining this formation and, when facing the enemy fleet, outflanking it and breaking its ranks. In 1656, Katib Chelebi described the ideal Ottoman battleline: `In battle, the galleys should be arranged in rows. The Admiral’s ship should be in the rear, with five vessels to accompany it, three in the rear and two in front.’

The Ottoman fleet, therefore, from the late fourteenth century onwards, adopted the prevailing techniques of Mediterranean warfare. It seems, however, that Ottoman shipbuilders and seamen tended to be less competent than their western European rivals, notably the Venetians. In the fifteenth century, the fleets of Mehmed II, particularly the one which attacked Negroponte in 1470, relied on overwhelming superiority in numbers of ships, not on superior tactical skills. Even at the height of Ottoman naval power in the mid-sixteenth century, observers sometimes commented on the inadequacies of the Ottoman fleet. In 1558, for example, the Venetian bailo noticed a lack of skill, evidently by comparison with Venetian shipwrights, among the craftsmen in the Imperial Arsenal, and described the galleys themselves as `not lasting more than a year, and when they come to disarm, it is pitiful to see them in a state of disrepair.’ Some Ottomans, too, were aware of shortcomings. Writing after 1541, Lutfi Pasha comments on the importance of maritime affairs, but also notes that `in the organisation of naval expeditions, the Infidel is superior to us’.

In the seventeenth century, too, Katib Chelebi mentions further problems, albeit ones that were probably common to all Mediterranean fleets. He warns in particular about the use of prisoners- of-war and convicts as oarsmen. These, he says, are liable to mutiny, and `countless ships have been lost in this way’. The skippers should always mix prisoners with `more reliable Turks’ from the annual levy. In this respect, he commends Jigalazade Sinan Pasha, who was twice Admiral between 1591 and 1605, for placing every three prisoners with three `Turks’, so that the ships were safe. He also gives advice on how to attack the enemy. A sea battle, he warns, is a `death trap’, and if the fleet attacks when it is inshore off the Ottoman coast, the troops on the galleys will swim ashore to escape the combat. The fleet should never give battle in these circumstances. If, on the other hand, the enemy is inshore off the Ottoman coast, then it is safe to attack, as the men cannot escape. The only way to save their lives was to stand and fight.

The advantage which the Ottomans enjoyed in naval warfare was not, therefore, in shipbuilding, seamanship or fighting ability, but rather in the abundance of materials, money and men, which allowed the rapid construction of new fleets. It was perhaps, too, the ease with which they could replace ships that explains the apparently forlorn appearance of their galleys on their return from sea. It was an advantage which they enjoyed from the fourteenth to the late seventeenth centuries.

During the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Ottoman fleet had adopted the standard galley tactics of the Mediterranean. After 1600, it faced two new strategic problems. The first of these was temporary. The other was to render galley warfare obsolete.

The first problem was the appearance of Cossack raiders on the Black Sea, from which the Ottomans had excluded foreign fleets since the conquest of Caffa in 1475. From the late sixteenth century, the Cossacks on the Dniepr and the Don began to make frequent and destructive raids on coastal settlements and, to counter these, the Ottoman government fortified towns and villages along the coast, sent forces overland to engage the raiders, and sent the imperial fleet, or detachments of it, to encounter them at sea. In naval warfare, however, the Cossacks enjoyed an advantage. On their raids they used shaykas; that is, portable rowing boats with flat bottoms and no keel, which they could use in shallow waters and reed-beds. The Ottoman galleys also had a shallow draught, but far less so than the shaykas, and the Cossacks used this difference to their advantage. In 1614, ships of the imperial fleet pursued the Cossacks after these had attacked Sinop, but were unable to follow them down the Dniepr. In the following year, when the Admiral, Jigalazade Mahmud Pasha, attacked the shaykas, the Cossacks lured him towards the shore until his galleys ran aground. For this reason, Katib Chelebi advised that a galley fleet, in an encounter with the Cossacks, should always drive the shaykas out to sea, and should not attack close to the shore. In this case, the galleys would run aground. In the open sea, however, shaykas were no match for galleys. The ability of shaykas to hide in reed beds also presented problems. The galleys could stand in deeper water and besiege them, but their bombardments were useless against an invisible enemy that could slip away in the darkness. To counter these tactics, from the 1630s, Ottoman fleets themselves began to use flat-bottomed rowing boats, carrying troops and artillery to send into the reeds. This was the tactic that the Warden of the Arsenal, Piyale, used in 1639 in his fight with the Cossacks in the Strait of Kerch. This tactic, together with the recapture of Azov in 1642 and the refortification of Ochakov at the mouth of the Dniepr eventually brought the Cossacks under control.

In the long term, the more significant problem for the Ottoman fleet was the changing nature of naval warfare. For the first forty-five years of the seventeenth century, there had been no major wars in the Mediterranean, and the function of the Ottoman fleet had been to keep the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean free of predators and occasionally to suppress rebellions. A galley fleet had been adequate for this task. It was during this period, however, that northern European ships began to appear in the Mediterranean in increasing numbers, and although their purpose was trade, they carried heavy armaments. The technique of casting iron cannon, which were cheaper than the bronze ordnance that they displaced, had made this possible. These vessels, with their high sides and the ability to fire heavy broadsides were superior in combat to the Mediterranean war galley.

The Venetians, but not the Ottomans, had mastered the techniques of building and manning war galleons, with the result that when war broke out with Venice in 1645, the Venetian fleet enjoyed a clear advantage in battle. The only galleons in the Ottoman fleet came from Algiers which, in 1645, provided a squadron of 20 vessels. Apart from these, the Ottoman government also rented sailing vessels from the Dutch and, in the late 1640s, began to build their own. Katib Chelebi tells how the grand vizier took the decision after discussions with `certain people’ who told him that the enemy galleons could use the wind to run down the Ottoman fleet, forcing it to scatter. Equally, they could anchor outside the Dardanelles, preventing the exit of the Ottoman galleys. The galleons’ firepower was clearly overwhelming. Katib Chelebi also records how, when discussions were in progress, the Chief Mufti Abdurrahim, had summoned him and asked him if the Ottoman fleet had used galleons in past naval wars. He had replied that, in large scale campaigns, it had used galleons for transport, but only galleys for combat. He added that building galleons was not a problem: the difficulty was to find skilled crews and gunners. Katib Chelebi reinforces his scepticism about the introduction of galleons by giving instructions on how a galley should fight a galleon, giving examples of successful engagements in the past. A galley, he writes, should not immediately engage a galleon, but should first immobilise it by destroying its rudder and rigging, taking advantage of the fact that the broadside guns on a galleon had a shorter range than the artillery on a galley.

Events were to prove Katib Chelebi right. The adoption of the galleon by the Ottoman fleet was not a success. The galleons in the fleet of 1656 could not prevent an overwhelming Ottoman defeat and, in 1662, the grand vizier brought the experiment to an end. In 1669, the Cretan war ended in victory for the Ottomans, but the inadequacy of the fleet had been a major factor in its prolongation.


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