The galleass, which was also known affectionately by the playful nickname “The Bastard.” Combining characteristics from both sailing ships and galleys, these ships, a type yet to be seen in other countries, were the latest weapons dreamt up by the late-sixteenth-century Venetian navy.
At forty meters long, they seemed small compared to the flagships. Yet they were close to ten meters wide and could function as sailing ships since they rose ten meters high from the surface of the sea.
Sailing ships primarily used triangular sails, but the galleasses were also equipped with square sails. While most ships had three main masts, the galleasses had a fourth on the stern. As a hybrid sailing ship and galley, oars were naturally part of the design to ensure free movement regardless of whether or not winds were favorable. Unlike those on war galleys, however, oarsmen on these ships were stationed directly below, rather than atop, the deck. Galleasses fired on the enemy from a distance; they didn’t engage in close-quarter combat like the galera sottile warships, thus obviating the need for oarsmen to double as soldiers. Placing oarsmen below deck also protected them from enemy fire.
The bulkier galleasses generated more water and wind resistance than the low-lying galera sottile and thus maneuvered less easily. They were conceived, however, as floating batteries. Artillery positioned on the bridge used the entirety of the ship’s circular bow, which was divided into three levels to allow ten cannons to fire across a 270- degree range. The left and right flanks were both equipped with four cannons, and ten to twelve small cannons were attached to the stern bridge: calling the ship a “battery” is thus no exaggeration. Including muskets, these ships were theoretically capable of firing sixty rounds simultaneously.
The number of sailors on board had to increase accordingly: each galleass required four to five hundred men. Venice had a limited population and it was out of the question for it to fight by using the kinds of “human waves” that the Ottoman Empire was able to muster. Mobilizing cannons at sea was the most economical and effective use of its limited resources.
That said, Venice couldn’t fight naval battles with galleasses alone. The Turks often attacked using small galleys, which rendered the hulking vessels’ lack of mobility a major drawback. Venice’s strategy was thus to use both galleasses and galera sottile. They couldn’t rely too much on sails when fighting on the Mediterranean, where winds shifted rapidly.
By early 1570, Venice’s shipyard was launching one war galley per day. It continued at this pace over several months and produced a hundred and fifty war galleys, twelve galleasses, and over thirty large sailboats. Although the sailing ships played no direct role in battle, they ferried food and ammunition. In the late sixteenth century, only Venice could build ships in such numbers.
But victory in war is not determined by technical prowess alone. This was particularly true in the sixteenth century, which saw the rise of large nations possessing far more territory than a mere city-state like Venice. And Venice’s opponent in this case was the Ottoman Empire, which controlled more territory than any other state at the time.
While many of the Venetian ships were compelled to take on Spanish soldiers, those vessels that would play a decisive role in the battle fought fiercely to maintain a Venetian-only crew. There wasn’t a single foreign soldier on any of the six galleasses. Capitano Generale de Mare Veniero’s ship and that of Barbarigo, Provveditore Generale, along with those of Provveditore Quirini and Provveditore Canale, also faithfully upheld this policy.
The six galleasses followed the vanguard out of the harbor. There was no wind early that morning, so they were towed out by scout ships. These six “floating batteries” were to move to the frontmost line as soon as they encountered the enemy. By wreaking havoc on the enemy with their cannon fire, they would create the perfect opening for the war galleys, which were in fact the backbone of the force.
The six galleasses had been stationed in pairs on the front line directly ahead of the left flank, main force, and right flank. The two that had been in front of the right flank were no longer in proper position. Galleasses couldn’t maneuver as well as the galleys, so these two were now positioned in the gap between the right flank and the main force.
To occupy the middle part of a bow formation, the main force of sixty-two ships assumed positions recessed behind the left flank and right flanks.
Don Juan’s flagship was in the center, with Veniero and his Venetian flagship on his left, and Colonna and his papal flagship on his right. The flagships of Savoy, Florence, and various other contingents filled out the core of flagships that secured Don Juan’s flanks. The leader of the Maltese Knights of the Order of St. John commanded the flagship on the far right of the main force and the far left was held by the flagship of the Republic of Genoa.
Like the Muslim fleet, the Christian fleet had braced the extreme left and right positions with experienced sea captains, but they were not able to place similarly experienced naval officers everywhere along the tripartite battle formation.
The two ships containing the palace guard of the Spanish king had their prows virtually attached to the stern of Don Juan’s ship. Additionally, the reserve flotilla led by the Marquis de Santa Cruz held its position directly behind the main force, the reinforcement of which was its main priority. In truth, as retainer of the King of Spain, the Marquis de Santa Cruz had no concern other than protecting Don Juan’s ship.
Two galleasses had positioned themselves in front of the main force. Francesco Duodo, the overall commander of the six galleasses, was in one of them. The remaining galleass captains were from the Venetian aristocracy, but in actuality the power displayed by the galleasses owed to the Venetian middle class, its engineers and master shipbuilders.
It was a little past noon when the cannon sounded from Ali Pasha’s flagship. Don Juan’s ship immediately answered with its own cannon.
The cannons of the six galleasses on the front line belched fire almost simultaneously in a thunderous signal for battle. They made several direct hits on the Turkish warships, which were advancing with their oars. After this initial round, the “floating batteries” of the Christian forces continued the bombardment. They made direct hits again and again on a number of ships, some of which caught fire and listed in the water. The Turks’ crescent-shaped battle formation was broken in several places as they attempted to advance. Seeing the Turkish formation break up like this greatly lifted the spirits of the alliance fighters waiting behind the galleasses.
The Turkish ships seemed to be trying to get past the galleasses as quickly as possible. Christian slaves were chained to the decks, and the slave drivers whipped them like madmen to make the ships move at top speed. The Turkish ships started to surge past the galleasses. The gun ports on both the left and right gunwales of the “floating batteries,” however, were open, and they certainly weren’t silent.
The battle formation of the Turkish fleet was in complete disarray, but the relatively small size of their ships saved them from falling prey to the large cannons. The ships that did make it through the galleasses plunged ahead toward the allied fleet, which was also advancing.
It would take time for the galleasses that had been bypassed to change position. Now the galleys were the main players.
The galleasses, now in a supporting role, provided cannon fire to assist the galleys in their close-quarter combat. The barrage coming from the far left galleass commanded by Ambrosio Bragadino was particularly intense and amply demonstrated the awesome power of the “floating batteries.” Ambrosio was a relative of Marcantonio Bragadino, the commander on Cyprus who had been flayed alive. Ambrosio Bragadino had repositioned his massive ship faster than any of the other galleass captains and was showering the enemy’s right flank with artillery fire.
Doria moved his fleet far to the south at the beginning of the battle in an attempt to block Uluch Ali’s mobility by circling to his right. Because of this, Doria’s right flank didn’t benefit from the artillery support from the galleasses enjoyed by the left flank and the main force. The lumbering galleasses couldn’t keep up with Doria’s sudden change in tactics and thus simply remained in their predetermined locations, turning their attention to the enemy’s main force instead. In other words, Uluch Ali’s fleet didn’t sustain much damage at all from the galleass bombardment.
In fact, all of this had been Uluch Ali’s plan from the very beginning. He intended first to go around the left side of Doria’s fleet and then to strike Don Juan’s main fleet from behind. Doria had sensed this and moved his ships to prevent him from outflanking him. Uluch Ali wasn’t foolish enough to face Doria’s fleet head-on, quickly and skillfully turning the prow of his ship towards the northwest. Doria’s movement towards the south had opened up a gap between his fleet and Don Juan’s main force. Uluch Ali now focused on this gap, which presented an opening for him to attack Don Juan’s fleet from the rear-his intention all along.
Even at sea, a “battleground” of sorts was formed when war galleys locked oars. Hand-to-hand combat became the only possible way of engaging the enemy, which rendered the galleasses essentially ineffective. They could still knock down enemy masts with their cannons, but there was also a real possibility that the falling masts and yardarms would kill friendly forces fighting beneath them. The galleasses thus inevitably became mere observation posts after the middle stage of the battle. Francesco Duodo, the commander in charge of the six galleasses, gave the following official report when he returned to Venice after the battle:
“The Christians and the Muslims were like hunters in a forest. Though a lot was happening in other parts of the forest, the hunters remained focused on their own quarry, not paying any attention to what was happening elsewhere. This was the case at Lepanto, time and again.”