Pre-Midway Operation

The long range of the big four-engine Kawanishi H8K Type 2 seaplanes, called “Emilys” by the Allies, encouraged Japanese planners to consider long-range raids against American bases.

Pre-Midway Operation, nearly everything had gone wrong, starting with the fact that the Japanese had failed to determine whether the American carriers they hoped to lure out to their destruction were even present in Pearl Harbor. They did have a plan to find out. Nearly three months earlier, well before the fateful conference in Tokyo at which Nagano and Fukudome had capitulated to Yamamoto’s blackmail and approved the Midway plan, the Japanese had conducted a long-range reconnaissance of Pearl Harbor using two giant Kawanishi flying boats. These remarkable four-engine seaplanes, called “Emilys” by the Allies, were 92 feet long (30 feet longer than the American Catalinas) and had an astonishing range of over 4,500 miles, which meant that, theoretically at least, they could fly from the Marshall Islands to Pearl Harbor and back without stopping. Such a flight would leave no margin for error, however, and so Commander Miyo (who a month later would strenuously oppose Yamamoto’s Midway plan) suggested that their range could be extended even further by refueling them at sea from submarines. This notion hinted at using them to bomb American cities along the continental West Coast. More immediately, it provoked discussions about a second attack on Pearl Harbor, a scheme that was code-named Operation K.

Americans were very much aware of the possibility of long-range air strikes by seaplanes refueled at sea. Three months before Pearl Harbor, Hypo analyst Jasper Holmes, writing under the pen name “Alec Hudson,” had published a story in the Saturday Evening Post about American seaplanes refueled by submarines striking enemy bases three thousand miles away. In Holmes’s fictional tale, “twelve big bombers” attacked an enemy base “with machinelike precision,” wrecking an invasion convoy. Edwin Layton later speculated that Holmes’s story might have given the Japanese the idea for Operation K, but in fact the Japanese had begun experimenting with a seaplane-submarine partnership as early as 1939. After the war began, the Japanese planned to conduct a whole series of seaplane raids against Pearl Harbor—to keep track of the comings and goings of American warships, as well as to keep the Americans on edge and off balance by bombing them periodically. In the end, however, this dual objective undermined Japanese ambitions, for it focused American attention on the program and therefore compromised it.

The first (and, as it turned out, only) seaplane attack on Pearl Harbor occurred in the first week of March 1942, before Yamamoto even submitted his Midway plan to the Naval General Staff. Two Kawanishis, each of them armed with four 500-pound bombs, took off from Wotje Island in the Marshalls on March 2 and in thirteen and a half hours flew 1,605 miles to an unoccupied atoll called French Frigate Shoals, halfway between Pearl Harbor and Midway. There they refueled from two prepositioned submarines, then flew on to Oahu, another 560 miles to the southeast, arriving just past midnight on the morning of March 4. By then the weather had thickened, and visibility over the American naval base was virtually zero. The pilot of the lead plane, Lieutenant Hashizume Hisao, could see a slight glow through the cloud layer, but not much else. Thinking that he had glimpsed the outline of Ford Island in Pearl Harbor through a gap in the clouds, he dropped his bombs. His consort did the same. Then both planes headed back for the Marshall Islands, another two thousand miles and fifteen nonstop hours away.

For all the effort and expended fuel, the raid did no damage whatever. Hashizume’s four bombs fell on the forested slopes of Mount Tantalus behind Honolulu, and the four from the other plane fell into the water near the entrance to Pearl Harbor. Moreover, the heavy cloud cover meant that Hashizume could not report with much certainty about what ships were or were not in the harbor, though he claimed to have seen at least one carrier.

The most important consequence of this raid was that it drew Nimitz’s attention to the threat. Nimitz asked Layton how the Japanese had managed to drop four bombs on Oahu (the four that fell into the harbor had disappeared altogether, and no one was even aware of them until after the war). Layton was fairly sure that they had done it with seaplanes refueled from submarines, and he told Nimitz about Jasper Holmes’s story in the Saturday Evening Post. Layton also speculated that the Japanese had used French Frigate Shoals to refuel. As a result, Nimitz stationed an American seaplane at French Frigate Shoals, sending the USS Ballard, a destroyer recently converted to a seaplane tender, there in late March.

For a variety of reasons, the Japanese did not continue their planned series of raids on Hawaii, but when Yamamoto sought reassurance that the American carriers were still in Pearl Harbor on the eve of the Battle of Midway, his staff suggested a reprise of Operation K. Again Hypo was able to alert Nimitz to the Japanese plan. On May 10, Layton informed Nimitz about an intercepted message that referred to the “K campaign” involving both aircraft and submarines, and three days later he reported that “the K campaign [was] underway.”

The Japanese committed six submarines to the project: two filled with aviation fuel, two as radio beacons, one as a plane guard, and one as a command boat. The first of them, the I-123 commanded by Lieutenant Commander Ueno Toshitake, arrived at French Frigate Shoals on May 26. When Ueno approached the atoll and peered into the lagoon through his periscope, he saw a U.S. Navy warship anchored there. When the two fuel-laden submarines showed up the next day, the American warship was still there. In fact, another converted seaplane tender, the Thornton, had joined her. The submarines were in no position to challenge them—the Type KRS submarine had been designed as a minelayer and did not have torpedoes or torpedo tubes. A surface attack would be suicidal, since each of the American surface ships boasted four 4-inch guns. Besides, the whole point of Operation K was stealth. The Japanese could only hope that the Americans would simply go away. Ueno radioed the circumstances back to his superior in the Marshalls and received orders to wait one more day. On May 31, several Catalina PBYs landed in the lagoon to join the tenders. Informed of this, Vice Admiral Tsukahara Nishizo cancelled Operation K. There would be no reconnaissance of Pearl Harbor before the Battle of Midway; the Japanese would simply have to trust that the American carriers were still there. Of course, the day before that, on May 30, the Yorktown had left Pearl Harbor to join Task Force 16 at Point Luck.

The second thing that went wrong that week was that the Japanese were tardy in establishing the submarine cordons that were supposed to track the American carriers as they left Pearl Harbor in response to an attack on Midway. Seven submarines, constituting Cordon A, were to occupy a north-south line west of Pearl Harbor. Six more would constitute Cordon B north and east of French Frigate Shoals. Another six would occupy a line near Midway. The subs were to report the carriers’ movements and then inflict whatever damage they could as a prologue to the main event. All three cordons were to be established by June 2. They got a late start out of Japan, however, and also lingered a day in Kwajalein, so that they were late in arriving. In addition, several subs were delayed by their involvement with the aborted Operation K. As a result of all this, only one sub made it into position by June 2; the others did not arrive until June 4. By then, the American carriers were nearly a thousand miles to the north. Watanabe Yosuji, Yamamoto’s loyal logistics officer, blamed the submarine commander Captain Kuroshima Kameto. Watanabe insisted that Kuroshima was simply not energetic in pursuit of his duties. Whatever the merits of that assertion, Yamamoto and Nagumo steamed eastward unaware that the American carriers—their principal quarry—had already flown the coop.

On June 2, Yamamoto’s battleships and Nagumo’s carriers, fighting their way eastward through rough seas, were blanketed by a fog so thick that the ships had to use searchlights to find one another in the formation. On the one hand this was a stroke of luck, for it hid them from the prying eyes of American long-range search planes from Midway. On the other it also prevented Nagumo from sending out search planes of his own, and it was stressful for the entire formation to execute the required zigzag course (to confuse American submarines) while maneuvering through a fog. A witness on board Akagi recalled seeing Nagumo and members of his staff on the bridge staring “silently at the impenetrable curtain surrounding the ship, … each face tense with anxiety.” Nagumo may indeed have been anxious. He had heard nothing from the submarines other than one report from I-168 off Midway, which relayed the information that, although the Americans were conducting intensive air search operations, the only vessel in sight was a picket submarine off Sand Island. Nagumo had to assume that no news was good news.


British Fortunes, North America 1814

Rear-Admiral George Cockburn (1772-1853) The burning of Washington forms the background to this portrait of Rear Admiral George Cockburn. At background right is the burning of the US Treasury Building and the Capitol Building

On assuming the North American command, Admiral Cochrane had wasted no time declaring his intention to wage a more uncompromising brand of warfare than his predecessor had pursued. Cochrane had arrived in Bermuda on March 6, 1814, but Admiral Sir John Warren, C-in-C Royal Navy, Northern American Hemisphere, had brusquely rebuffed Cochrane’s proposal that he take charge at once; perhaps still thinking of the prize money that was due him as long as he retained the position of commander in chief, Warren icily informed his successor that he “must decline entering into any discussion” of an early transfer and would “strictly conform to the Orders of my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, as to the delivering over to you the Command of His Majesty’s Ships upon this Station … and therefore am to inform you that I shall not be prepared to place you in the Command thereof until April 1.”

So Cochrane bided his time but was clearly chafing to get into the fight. The day after taking charge, he issued a proclamation opening a new front in the reinvigorated campaign he was preparing to launch along the Chesapeake with the return of summer, and the expected arrival of considerable reinforcements in men and ships.

WHEREAS it has been represented to me, that many Persons now resident in the UNITED STATES, have expressed a desire to withdraw therefrom,…

This is therefore to Give Notice,

That all those who may be disposed to emigrate from the UNITED STATES will, with their Families, be received on board of His Majesty’s Ships and Vessels of War, or at the Military Posts that may be established, upon or near the Coast of the UNITED STATES, when they will have their choice of either entering into His Majesty’s Sea or Land Forces, or of being sent as FREE Settlers to the British Possessions in North America or the West Indies, where they will meet with all due encouragement.

The notice nowhere specifically mentioned “slaves,” but it did not need to: everyone knew who it was aimed at. Cochrane had a thousand copies printed up and sent them to Cockburn, who had returned to Lynnhaven Bay a few weeks earlier to begin reconnoitering and prepare a base of operations for the summer campaign. Cochrane optimistically thought he might be getting as many as fifteen thousand troops from France plus several regiments from England and Ireland. In the meantime, Cockburn established a base at Tangier Island, located almost in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, to receive runaway slaves and begin training them for the several companies of “Colonial Marines” he planned to organize. Cochrane also sent him £2,000 for “contingent expenses”: both to buy information and to try to kidnap “Persons of Political Interest” connected to the Republican party, to be held as hostages.

While awaiting the promised reinforcements, Cockburn began looking for likely targets he could raid with the 1,500 or so men he currently had available. “You are at perfect liberty as soon as you can muster a Sufficient force, to act with the utmost Hostility against the shores of the United States,” Cochrane had instructed him, pointing to American actions as justification for harsh retaliation:

Their Government authorizes & directs a most destructive War to be carried on against our Commerce & we have no means of retaliating but on shore, where they must be made to feel in their Property, what our Merchants do in having their Ships destroyed at Sea; & taught to know that they are at the mercy of an invading foe.… Their Sea Port Towns laid in Ashes & the Country wasted will be some sort of a retaliation for their savage Conduct in Canada.

Cochrane specifically suggested that he choose targets that would best facilitate the exodus of more slaves: “Let the Landings you may make be more for the protection of the desertion of the Black Population than with a view to any other advantage, the force you have is too Small to accomplish an object of magnitude—the great point to be attained is the cordial Support of the Black population with them properly armed & backed with 20,000 British Troops, Mr. Maddison will be hurled from his Throne.”

Hundreds of slaves flocked to Tangier through the spring and summer of 1814. Although they had had time to receive only a few weeks’ training in firearms, Cockburn reported they fought extremely well in several small skirmishes. Unlike the regular troops, there was scarcely any worry of them deserting; they knew the country well; and the fear that armed black men had already induced among the Virginia and Maryland militia units had significant shock value in itself: “They expect Blacky will have no mercy on them and they know that he understands bush fighting and the locality of the Woods as well as themselves.” In one well-publicized incident that sent tremors through slaveholders along the Chesapeake, an escaped slave led a British force to his former master’s home, and while the troops looted the plantation, the ex-slave, armed with a pistol and sword, sat up through the night verbally tormenting his former master. At dawn the troops withdrew, taking the rest of the plantation’s slaves with them.

Cockburn reported after one early raid by his black marines, “They have induced me to alter the bad opinion I had of the whole of their Race & I now really believe these we are training, will neither shew want of Zeal or Courage when employed by us in attacking their old Masters.” In late May 1814 the Colonial Marines had displayed notable courage during an attack on a militia battery at Pungoteague, near Tangier Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore: one of the black soldiers was shot and died instantly, but, Cockburn said, “it did not daunt or check the others in the least but on the contrary animated them to seek revenge.”

Cochrane’s plans for revenge were on a grander scale, however. In July 1814 he wrote Lord Melville laying out options for the destruction of one of “the principal Towns of America,” Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Annapolis, Richmond, and Norfolk among them. He issued sterner and sterner public directives to his commanders to “destroy & lay waste such Towns and Districts upon the Coast as you may find assailable.” While doing so, he added, they should “take every opportunity of explaining to the people” that they would have to look to their own government for compensation, since the British actions were merely “retributory justice” for the “wanton & unjustifiable outrages on the unoffending Inhabitants” of Upper Canada. Yet Cochrane vacillated for weeks over where the brunt of the British sword should fall. He still had received no official word on how many troops would arrive or when. Croker had warily distanced himself from any responsibility for the direction of the land campaign, telling Cochrane, “Their Lordships entrust to your judgment the choice of the objects on which you may employ this Force,” and advising only that he not advance too far inland as to risk having his line of retreat cut, and to give preference to “crippling the Enemy’s naval Force” should such an opportunity present itself.

Only in mid-July did the first even semi-official word reach Cochrane in Bermuda about the size of the army. After months of buildup in British newspapers, which had been reporting that a vast invasion force was assembling, it must have scarcely seemed believable that only a few thousand troops in the end were on the way. But the news was confirmed the last week of July when two convoys arrived in Bermuda carrying four thousand British infantry. They and a few hundred marines would be all the force available.

Cochrane still hesitated, even toying with the idea of abandoning a campaign on the Chesapeake altogether given the approach of the “sickly season.” He considered instead striking New Hampshire to destroy the ship of the line under construction at Portsmouth, or perhaps Rhode Island. But Cockburn was strongly urging an attack on Washington, and a letter from him that arrived in Bermuda on July 25 aboard a schooner bearing dispatches finally persuaded the commander in chief. On August 1 Cochrane sailed for the Chesapeake with his invasion force: Washington it would be.

On August 18, 1814, a huge British flotilla entered the Patuxent River: four ships of the line, seven frigates, seven transports, and several brigs or schooners. The next day the British force of 4,500 men, led by Major General Robert Ross, a veteran of the Peninsula campaign, accompanied by Admiral Cockburn, landed at Benedict, Maryland. It was thirty-five miles from Washington on a good road, and as one of Cockburn’s captains had predicted a few weeks earlier, the troops met virtually no opposition for the first twenty miles. “Jonathan is so confounded,” Captain Joseph Nourse had written Cockburn, “that he does not know when or where to look for us, and I do believe it would require little force to burn Washington.” He added: “I hope soon to put the first torch to it myself.”

Despite weeks of warning, the defense of the capital city was in utter disarray. Another one of the many inexperienced political generals who were the bane of the United States army was in charge: Brigadier General William Winder put on an air of being knowledgeable about military matters but in fact his major qualification for office was being the nephew of the Federalist governor of Maryland, whose cooperation President James Madison desperately needed. Winder had spent weeks conducting a personal reconnaissance of the approaches to Washington while scarcely more than a few hundred state militia answered a summons Madison had issued on July 1 for 100,000 troops to defend the city. For much of the summer the flotilla of rowed barges that Joshua Barney had organized had kept up a harassing campaign against British naval forces in the lower Patuxent, to the point that it had become a major thorn in Cockburn’s side. But on August 20 Secretary of the Navy William Jones sent an urgent order to Barney to fall back, destroy his boats, and dispatch his 400 flotillamen for the defense of Washington. As the British troops marched toward Upper Marlboro on August 22, they heard the booms in the distance of Barney’s flotilla boats blowing up. Barney’s men arrived at the navy yard in southeast Washington soon afterward.

Winder at last made a decision to organize a stand at Bladensburg, just northeast of Washington, with the Eastern Branch forming a natural barrier ahead of him. He placed the defenders in three lines, but the disposition was all wrong; even a Maryland militia lieutenant saw at a glance that the troops were far too scattered. On the morning of August 24, Barney received orders from Winder to deploy his flotillamen to defend the bridge in Washington across the Eastern Branch and blow it up if the British attempted to cross there; but Jones and Madison soon arrived at the scene, and as Jones noted, it was a ridiculous misallocation of force: the task of blowing up the bridge “could as well be done by half a dozen men, as by five hundred.” Madison personally ordered Barney’s force to head for Bladensburg and join the defense there. Barney’s flotillamen, plus 120 marines from the Washington barracks, took off “in a trot,” hauling three 12-pounder and two 18-pounder naval guns that Jones had earlier ordered mounted on carriages as part of the preparations to defend the yard.

Arriving at Bladensburg, they were placed in the third line, but the position Winder had chosen was too far back to effectively support the second line. Secretary of State Monroe, who chose that unfortunate moment to play general, having first volunteered his services as a cavalry scout and galloping about the countryside, showed up at Bladensburg just in time to make matters worse by repositioning the second line, on his own orders, so that it was incapable of supporting the first. Some seven thousand militia had arrived at last, but most had been marching without rest or food.

At 1:00 p.m. on August 24 the first British troops appeared on the other side of the river, and by 4:00 p.m. the battle was over and the British were marching on to Washington and the American forces were in headlong flight. Only Barney’s men had held their line, pouring a murderous fire of grape and canister into the oncoming redcoats until the British were already completely in their rear. Barney was shot in the thigh and was pouring blood. His horse was killed. Cockburn, learning who the wounded man was, personally came up to him and spoke a few polite words and ordered a British surgeon to tend to his wounds at once.

When word had arrived of the British invasion force entering the Patuxent, William Jones had ordered Rodgers and Porter from New York to head south to assist in the defense of Baltimore and Washington, but events followed far too swiftly. At the Washington Navy Yard, the chief clerk, Mordecai Booth, had spent days frantically scouring the city trying to commandeer wagons to remove the gunpowder from the yard, but there were hardly any to be found amid the mass exodus of government officers and citizens fleeing with public records and personal belongings. On the evening of the twenty-fourth Booth had been stricken by the sight of the thousands of American troops in full retreat past the yard: “Oh! my Country—And I blush Sir! to tell you—I saw the Commons Covered with the fugitive Soldiery of our Army—running, hobbling, Creaping & appearently panick struck.” With all of the navy yard’s seamen, marines, and even mechanics and laborers pressed into service in Winder’s army, the yard was defenseless. Jones solemnly approved the commandant’s order to set fire to the naval stores—and, with even greater pain, the newly completed sloop of war Argus and the nearly completed frigate Columbia. Shops, timber, casks of provisions, small arms, cordage, paint, tar all went up in the flames. The total loss was more than a half million dollars.

Jones found his family in northwest Washington, then joined Madison across the Potomac in Virginia, where he had fled with other government officials. Cockburn, arriving on the streets of the city not long after, conspicuous astride a white horse with his sunburned face and rusty gold-laced hat, made joking inquiries of the townspeople about President Madison’s whereabouts and personally supervised troops pulling down the building that housed the offices of the National Intelligencer newspaper, telling them to “destroy all the C’s so they can’t abuse my name.” Cockburn then led a detachment into the White House, picked up a few souvenirs, and set the building ablaze. Other troops burned the war and navy department offices, the Treasury, and the Capitol before the British forces withdrew the way they had come and reembarked on their ships to return down the Patuxent to the Chesapeake Bay.

Another squadron of British ships had meanwhile ascended the Potomac, and Jones, who had returned to Washington on August 27 with the rest of the cabinet in the wake of the British departure, was furious when he saw the abject terms of surrender the town of Alexandria had agreed to. Offering no resistance, town officials had meekly acceded to a huge demand for tribute, including all the produce and merchandise in the town. Rodgers, Porter, and Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry had now arrived in Washington, and Jones ordered them to attack the British naval force as it sailed back down the Potomac; with fire ships and artillery erected on the heights, they succeeded in delaying, though not stopping, the British force’s escape.

Jones was sending out a constant stream of orders to the naval detachments in the region, receiving and answering two or three express dispatches in the middle of each night. Eleanor had gone on to Baltimore, and on the way she passed through Bladensburg and was deeply affected by the scene of the battleground. On September 1 she wrote her husband of her safe arrival and her continuing fears for his safety—and for his honor, as the backlash of public opinion turned on the administration over the humiliation of the British attack.

My Dear Husband,

We have separated under such distressing circumstances that I know not what evil awaits me—Now I can indulge a hope of being soon relieved from the most awful apprehensions of your safety.

… A view of the ground where the Battle was fought, and the Graves of the fallen Men, The cannon near which Come Barney lost his horse and where they buried it excited the most painful sensations, particularly on seeing the foot of one above the earth. Passing the hospitals in Bladensburgh we saw the wounded, Americans, and British, and preparations to bury an English soldier just expired—On the Road we met our heroes of the Navy with their crews, the Marines, Cavalry, and 800 regulars …

May the Almighty guard you

in the hour of danger prays

your Affte Wife

Eleanor Jones

Admiral Cochrane wrote Melville full of high spirits over “the brilliant success” of the raid on the enemy capital, though he expressed concern that General Ross did not fully share his view that Baltimore, as “the most democratic town … ought to be laid in Ashes” next. Ross, he feared, was inclined to be too lenient on the Americans: “When he is better acquainted with the American Character he will possibly see as I do that like Spaniels they must be treated with great severity before you ever make them tractable.”

The American navy’s delaying action on the Potomac bought some valuable days to prepare the defenses of Baltimore, where all signs pointed the British would indeed strike next. Here the American forces acquitted themselves far better, making amends for the debacle at Bladensburg by inflicting heavy British casualties even as they fell back behind the city’s prepared defensive works in the attack that began September 12. During the initial assault an American sharpshooter killed Ross: after that the British gave no quarter to any American snipers. But the attack failed, as did the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor by mortars and Congreve rockets on the night of September 13–14, an event witnessed by Francis Scott Key and immortalized in the words he began to set down the following morning in a poem titled “Defence of Fort McHenry,” subsequently published under the title of its most memorable phrase: “The Star-Spangled Banner.” William Jones sent Eleanor, two weeks later, a copy of the “beautiful little effusion written by Mr F. Key a respectable young lawyer of talents residing in Georgetown … He is a Federalist but with such Federalists I can have but a common feeling.”

The British forces again withdrew to the Chesapeake, their next target a matter of intense speculation and anxiety. In the midst of everything else Jones was working “from day dawn to midnight” on a proposal for a reorganization of the Navy Department to leave to his successor and trying to wrap up his personal affairs in Washington. He had told only four congressmen of his final decision to leave office by December 1, but “people however begin ‘to smell a mouse’ as my home is given up,” he wrote Eleanor. “May God preserve all things right at least till after the 1st of December,” Jones continued. “Though all is well and my reputation high I feel as if I was standing upon gun powder with a slow match near it. Public expectation is so extravagant, opinion so capricious, and prejudice and ignorance so predominant, that millions would not tempt me to stay one year longer.… Though I am labouring to smooth the way for my successor I commiserate him with all my heart whoever he may be I predict his ruin if the war continues.”

Admiral Cochrane afterward tried to claim that the attack on Baltimore had been intended all along only as a “demonstration” and then blamed Ross, who was no longer around to defend himself, for having persuaded him against his better judgment to approve the failed operation.

There was a lot of blame-shifting going on among the British leadership over the direction the war was taking. The new American sloops of war Peacock and Wasp had been on a rampage through the North Atlantic since setting out in the spring, leaving British merchants sputtering with outrage they directed almost entirely against their own government. On July 8, 1814, the Wasp arrived at the French port of L’Orient, having burned or scuttled seven prizes from the Irish coast to the mouth of the English Channel; the American ship had also destroyed the British navy brig Reindeer in a brief but furious action on June 28 that left the British captain’s clerk the only surviving officer available to give the surrender to the American boarders that came swarming over her bloody decks nineteen minutes after the shooting began.

After refitting in L’Orient—over the indignant protests of the British government and the undisguised pleasure of the local French populace—the Wasp took seven more prizes while defeating another Royal Navy brig, the Avon, on September 1, before disappearing forever under unknown circumstances after last being seen near the Cape Verde Islands on October 9.

While the Wasp was refitting, the Peacock arrived to maraud through British home waters in July and August, taking fourteen prizes along the coasts of Ireland and the Shetlands. The summer of 1814 also brought a number of larger and more daring American privateers into British home waters; the largest of them were ship-rigged vessels almost as well armed and well manned as sloops of war like the American navy’s Wasp and Peacock, and they too set to plundering with an impunity that astonished the British merchants. The Chasseur of Baltimore carried sixteen long twelve-pounders and a crew of one hundred and haunted the English Channel for months, taking at least fifteen prizes while eluding the frigates and brigs sent after her.


Kikusui “Floating Chrysanthemums”

In Japan the chrysanthemum is probably the most beloved of all flowers, woven into wreaths for weddings and funerals alike, decorating graves or dropped by grieving pilots onto waters in which their dearest comrades had plunged to their death. Thus, in conformance with this custom among the flower-loving Nipponese, Admiral Matome Ugaki decided to give the scheduled Ten-Go aerial attacks on American shipping the name of kikusui, or “Floating Chrysanthemums.”

Although Ugaki’s aerial strength on Kyushu had been seriously weakened by Halsey’s strikes of mid-October 1944, and especially by Spruance’s sweeps of March 18-19, 1945, he still had well over three thousand planes—both conventional and suiciders—in his command after the Americans landed on Okinawa.

Ugaki had few reservations about his ability to shatter the enemy fleet and so delay or even prevent the invasion of Japan proper, but he did occasionally despair about the absence of coordination and cooperation among the Army and Navy subordinate air commanders on both Formosa and Kyushu. Though the Japanese command structure was probably better unified for Okinawa than for any other operation thus far, it was still a most casual chain of command in which the last thing a subordinate commander in, say, the Army, would think of doing was to obey an order from a superior in the Navy. At best to them an order was no better than a suggestion. Thus Army and Navy commanders on those two great island fortresses neither Cooperated with each other nor followed directives from the Combined Fleet or Imperial Army Headquarters in Tokyo. Although there was indeed intense and divisive rivalry between the American Army and Navy in the Pacific, orders from superiors were never—or at least seldom—ignored. If Fleet Admiral Nimitz issued orders to Admiral Turner off Okinawa, he transmitted them to General Buckner, who obeyed them without question.

Admiral Ugaki enjoyed no such luxury. If he wanted Lieutenant General Michio Sugahara, commander of the Sixth Air Army on Kyushu, to take some action, he would not issue an order but rather send a diplomatic officer to Sugahara’s headquarters to explain in the least offensive language what was being required of him. Such deference, of course, did not forge the Japanese chain of command with iron links, and it also wasted valuable time, for Ugaki was based at Kanoya and Sugahara at Chiran. Nor could he ask Admiral Toyoda’s fleet to issue an order binding on both of them. All that Ugaki could do was to send orders to a pair of Army air divisions that made most of the Okinawa attacks, although even here they were sometimes ignored. It is possible that this deference by senior officers to their subordinates was the result of Japanese misunderstanding of the character of Western military officers. When Japan decided to build the Imperial Navy, the model was the British Royal Navy, and the innate courtesy of its officers was mistaken for reticence. Thus an admiral might hesitate to insist that a commander give unbending obedience to his orders lest it be considered rude.

Ugaki had a second problem in organizing his forthcoming kikusui attacks: how to strike a balance between under-training and over-training his kamikaze. Overtraining a pilot in the sense of turning him into a skillful combat flyer would be a wasted effort when all that was needed was to guide an obsolete aircraft to its target and then crash-dive it. But suicide attacking wasn’t that simple, especially in the North Pacific springtime when the weather was so variable, with conflicting wind currents, poor visibility, and low ceilings. In such weather even an experienced pilot could become lost. For a rookie pilot to keep a bomb-loaded crate on a direct course was not enough, for he still might not find his target. In such unreliable planes, engine trouble was frequent, and the student pilot needed to be trained enough to return successfully to base. But a new recruit would not emerge as a qualified suicider until months later. This requirement put an unbearable burden on Ugaki’s attempt to build up a powerful air armada; the suicide tactic for which this force was being formed was not only innately self-destructive but also time-consuming. Japan in the spring of 1945 could not afford to lose more months of what had become a fast-vanishing resource. Finally, the American seaborne aerial attacks on Kyushu and Formosa, as well as the Mariana-based B-29 strikes on Kyushu and to a lesser degree of MacArthur’s Fifth Air Force on Formosa, along with the willingness of the suicide-saviors to take their own lives, had left Ugaki with nothing like the minimal four thousand aircraft he needed to destroy or cripple Spruance’s Fifth Fleet. That was one reason why Ugaki’s airplanes did not immediately strike the Americans the day the invasion began, and it was not until that very day that Admiral Toyoda in Tokyo ordered Kikusui 1 to be launched on April 6.

That morning dawned overcast, with northeast winds whipping a mackerel sea into a white-crested gray mass, pushing layers of smutty clouds scudding along at altitudes of three thousand to seven thousand feet. It was good kamikaze weather, providing them with excellent cover. Yet Rear Admiral Toshiyuki Yokoi, whom Ugaki had placed in charge of the kikusui attacks, waited until around noon before sending his squadrons aloft, hoping thereby to catch patrolling American fighters at that most dangerous moment of refueling—either on carrier decks or the aprons of Yontan and Kadena Airfields. It was a good idea that may have come to Yokoi by his recollection of how Yamamoto’s carriers at Midway were struck at exactly that moment. But there would be no such surprise, for Spruance’s task force commanders had long since installed the routine of keeping defensive fighter patrols aloft from sunup till sundown. Nor did Yokoi’s ruse of dropping “window”—aluminum strips to create false blips on radar screens to lure American fighters away from the impact area—for radar operators picked them up almost as soon as they were dropped.

Both Spruance and Turner were aware that a massive enemy aerial strike would arrive that day, not only from warnings from intelligence officers reading messages in the broken Japanese code, but through combat instincts sharpened by years of experience: once the enemy had collected enough planes, he would strike. To thwart him, Turner had deployed a wide circle of sixteen radar picket destroyers like irregular-length spokes in a wheel winding around Okinawa and some of its surrounding islands. These spokes extended from “Point Bolo,” a reference point on that Zampa Cape he had so ardently desired, and which had been presented to him by the Sixth Marine Division. Each radar picket could give early warning of an enemy attack, and also carried a five-member radar direction team trained in vectoring patrolling fighters onto “bogies,” unidentified targets. As might be expected, the pickets would become prime targets of the attacking enemy, especially Radar Picket Stations 1 through 4, on duty on an arc about thirty miles north of Okinawa—the point over which enemy planes from Kyushu were most likely to fly.

On that morning of April 6 all was quiet in the skies above the Great Loo Choo, although Japanese scout planes in the northern Ryukyus had discovered TF 58’s Fast Carrier Forces and brought hundreds of fighters and bombers down on them. Half of them missed their target and flew on to Okinawa while the other half zeroed in on Rear Admiral Joseph “Jocko” Clark’s Task Group 58.1. They hit the carrier Hancock and two destroyers, and a kamikaze Judy bomber almost sent the big flattop Bennington to a watery grave. Plunging at the American’s stern, the suicider was shot to bits by all of Bennington’s ack-ack that could be brought to bear. When the Judy exploded astern, parts of her engine fragments fell in a shower on the carrier, temporarily disabling her rudder.

Later in the day Yokoi’s fighters arrived off Okinawa’s airfields and were intercepted by American fighters on patrol above them. At three o’clock, with the Yankee fighters presumably driven from the area, the suiciders struck. They dove on the pickets of the radar screen and that forest of masts in Hagushi Anchorage. Some 200 of them came plummeting down for five hours until darkness veiled the sea or magnified the funeral pyres of stricken American ships.

Destroyers Bush and Colhoun were sunk, Colhoun hit and staggered so frequently that she had to be abandoned and sunk by friendly fire. The ammunition ships Logan Victory and Hobbs Victory also went down, creating a temporary ordnance shortage for the Tenth Army. Nine other destroyers were damaged, as were four destroyer-escorts and five mine vessels.

It was an impressive day’s work for the first sally of the kikusui even though they had lost 135 planes. But the kamikaze reports were as usual exaggerated, rivaling even those of the Thirty-second Army, claiming thirty American ships sunk and twenty more burning. Such bloated estimates so encouraged Admirals Ugaki and Toyoda that the Navy chief began to think that perhaps the world’s first suicide battleship—great Yamato—might really stagger the Americans during its one-way voyage to Okinawa and eternal glory.



A galley which Ottoman Sultans used at inshore waters. Built at the end of the 16th century. Length: 40 m; Width: 5.70 m. It is reportedly the only original galley in the world. (Maritime Museum, Istanbul).

On August 14, 1571, a gigantic ship’s pennant of silk damask passed through the congested streets of Naples. Embroidered to the pope’s commission, it was the standard of Christendom, to fly from the tallest mast in the fleet of the Holy League as it sailed into battle. The pope’s banner with a huge golden figure of Christ nailed to the cross loomed over the stocky Spanish soldiers who carried it in procession from the steps of the Church of Santa Clara. As the blue flag moved through the Neapolitan crowds, an unnatural stillness gripped all who watched it go by. An hour before, inside the church, the assembled nobles, officers, monks, and priests had stood silent and unmoving, all their eyes on the admiral of the Holy League, Don John of Austria. Arrayed in cloth of gold, scarlet satin, and white velvet, the young admiral knelt before the altar as the pope’s representative, Cardinal Granvelle, handed him his staff of office and pointed to the great banner behind him. “Take these emblems,” the cardinal exhorted, “of the Word made flesh, these symbols of the true faith, and may they give thee a glorious victory over our impious enemy and by thy hand may his pride be laid low.”

Below the cross of Christ were the emblems of the king of Spain and of the Holy Father, Pope Pius V, with the badge of the Republic of Venice, all linked by a great golden chain, symbolizing the power of faith that bound them together. From that chain, in slightly smaller scale, hung the pendant crest of Don John. The emblems marked a brief moment of unity. For the first time in more than a century, Christendom had combined in force to do battle with the power of “Islam.” The war was sanctified, waged under the protection of the golden figure of Christ. The pope had declared that those who fought in this struggle were to be granted the same plenary indulgences as earlier Crusaders fighting to secure the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. All who died in the shadow of this battle flag would be spared the worst rigors of purgatory.

Eight hundred miles to the east a similar, if less public, ceremony had already taken place. From the treasury of the imperial palace in Constantinople, a bulky bundle wrapped in silk had been brought from Sultan Selim II to Ali Pasha, admiral of the Ottoman fleet. It also contained a flag, but one colored a vivid green instead of the lambent Christian blue. Even larger than the banner that Pope Pius V had entrusted to his commander, this was one of the most potent emblems of Islam. Upon its surface the ninety-nine names and attributes of God had been embroidered in gold. It was reputed that these were repeated no less than 28,900 times. The giant Kufic characters were surrounded and interlaced with endless reiteration of those same names, in a smaller script, so that from a distance the whole surface of the pennant appeared a shimmering network of golden filigree.

The two commanders were opposites—in rank, status, and experience of life. Don John was the acknowledged natural brother of the king of Spain, Philip II, and the by-blow from a few months Emperor Charles V had spent with a young widow called Barbara Blomberg in the imperial city of Regensburg. Don John had come to Naples from fighting a savage war in the mountains of southern Spain, to command the largest fleet ever assembled by Christian Europe. He had never fought at sea before. By contrast, Ali, the Kapudan Pasha of the Ottoman fleet, was a veteran of galley warfare, feared throughout the Aegean and into the far west of the Mediterranean. His origins were more humble, as the son of a muezzin, a mosque servant who called the faithful to prayer. But the two leaders, for all their differences, had much in common. They were like twin paladins from an epic poem: yearning for battle, chivalrous, and honorable. Fate decreed divergent destinies for them. One would die with a musket ball through the skull, his head then hacked off and stuck on the point of a pike. The other would return in triumph, honored and feted, his victory celebrated with paintings, engravings, poems, coins and medals, essays and learned disquisitions through more than four centuries.

Stories of their encounter abound, some closely following facts, others embellished to make a better tale. Quite where history ends and legends begin is still unsure. The battle they fought in the Gulf of Lepanto has a double character: the event itself and its burgeoning afterlife. This afterlife, the mythic Lepanto, came to stand as a synecdoche for the contest between the Islamic and the Christian worlds. In deciphering the meaning of Lepanto, we may find a point of entry into those deeper mysteries. The greater struggle had deep roots. For almost a thousand years the Christian world had felt threatened by the power in the East. Sometimes, with the Crusades in the Levant, for example, in Sicily and in Spain, Christian Europe had taken war to the enemy. Over the centuries a brooding sense of Muslim threat came to mesmerize Christendom. By the sixteenth century conflict was accepted as the natural and inevitable relationship between East and West. Like a child’s seesaw, the rise of the East required the fall of the West. In 1571, the two adversaries sat roughly in balance.

Scholars reinforced a common belief in the danger and evil of “Islam.” The Muslims, according to the Venerable Bede, who wrote in the eighth century, were descended from Hagar, the prophet Abraham’s concubine. Many Muslims believed that she and her son, Ishmael, lay buried under the Kaaba, the great black stone in Mecca, which was the focal point of the Islamic faith. Christians, however, were descended from Abraham’s lawful offspring, Isaac. Worse still than the stain of bastardy, an even darker curse hung over the people of the East. Christians inferred that while all men traced their line back to Adam and Eve, the Muslims were the lineal descendants of Cain, thrust from the presence of God for murdering his brother Abel. For his crime, Cain bemoaned that he would “be a fugitive and a wanderer upon earth … and everyone who finds me will slay me.” They had been forced to dwell “east of Eden.” Between the children of Cain and the other descendants of Adam, there could be only mutual slaughter and revenge for the primordial crime of fratricide. So this struggle grew from a long tradition of atavistic hatred between the peoples of the West and East.

What this meant in practice it is hard to say. Naturally, Christians in battle routinely insulted their enemies as the “sons of Cain,” as “misbegotten,” or “Antichrist.” Muslims decried their enemies with equal vehemence. Conflict between East and West seemed permanent, inevitable, preordained, as much for the Christians as for the Muslims. Yet it did not destroy the skein of mutual economic and political interests that dominated the Mediterranean and the Balkans, the border and boundary between the two worlds. Trade and commercial interests were constantly in play, especially in the case of Venice and the other city-states of the Adriatic, which preferred to negotiate with Muslim power rather than fight it.

The Christian powers in the Mediterranean had much to fear from an Ottoman Empire intent on expansion. The desire for a great victory went beyond political calculations, and not only for the pope, the architect of the grand alliance. After the capture of Constantinople in 1453, many Christians were convinced that the triumphant advance of Islam could only be part of God’s plan. The Islamic scourge was a means to chasten mankind to a better sense of its faults and flaws. Were Christians being punished for the sins of declining faith and, latterly, schism? For more than a century Christian Europe had resisted the Islamic onslaught, but had won few decisive victories. What better sign of renewed divine favor could there be than a great and annihilating victory over the forces of darkness?

Victory was also much in the minds of Sultan Selim II and his advisers in Constantinople. Although the armies of “Islam” had continued to press forward against the infidel, the pace of advance had slowed. Selim’s grandfather and namesake had brought vast territories in Egypt, Arabia, and the Levant into the Ottoman domain. His father, Suleiman the Lawgiver, had captured the fortress island of Rhodes, Belgrade, and Budapest, and held the Hungarian plain almost to the walls of Vienna. Suleiman had destroyed the Kingdom of Hungary in a single day on the battlefield of Mohacs in 1526. Yet Suleiman too had his setbacks. He twice failed to capture Vienna—in 1529 and 1566—and the island of Malta had withstood all the Turkish efforts at storm and siege. In the Mediterranean, the great naval battle in 1538 at Prevesa, just off the Greek mainland north of the Gulf of Lepanto, produced no decisive result.

The Ottoman state was built upon a theory of infinite expansion, and annual war to advance its frontiers. Without conquest it would decay. Moreover, all good Muslims were duty bound to extend the Domain of Peace, and that burden weighed heaviest upon the sultan. Selim II had committed himself to advance the boundaries of righteousness by seizing the island of Cyprus, which was under the rule of Venice. He used the pretext that privateers had sailed from the island to harry his shipping and the coastal towns of Anatolia. By late 1570, it seemed likely that the island would fall to his armies. Even so, he desired much more than the capture of an island. The sultan demanded a dramatic victory from his commanders, another Mohacs. Thus, his admiral, Ali Pasha, knew that he had to achieve the complete destruction of the Christian fleet, and return laden with trophies, slaves, and booty.

The two adversaries gathered their forces from far distant points in the Mediterranean. Throughout the summer of 1571, little clusters of ships moved toward the designated meeting points: Messina for the Christians commanded by Don John, the Aegean for the sultan’s war fleet under Ali Pasha. They were galleys, a type of ship built for the specific conditions of the Mediterranean. Galley warfare occupied its own universe, utterly different from battles fought between the sailing ships of the Atlantic. Long, sitting low on the water, frail by comparison with their solid northern counterparts, war galleys appeared to be able to move regardless of the force or direction of the wind. Although these slender craft carried two or three large triangular sails, their main motive power was banks of oars that extended out forty feet or more from either side of the ship, both banks pulling in unison so that the boat moved forward swiftly in what seemed a series of rhythmic spasms. In their element, with a calm sea and a following wind, they resembled gigantic water beetles skittering on their long legs over the surface of the water. Although the galleys were faster under sail than when they depended on their oars alone, their power of maneuver came from the rowers. It meant that a galley never risked being blown ashore onto a rocky coast, which was a constant danger for the clumsy deep-hulled merchant sailing ships. A galley could move almost as fast backward as it did forward and, with its shallow draft, could negotiate shoals that would strand other sailing vessels.

Over the centuries galleys had developed many forms, some designed to carry cargo, but by the mid–sixteenth century they were evolving for a single purpose: war. The Mediterranean war galley had been adapted over many generations, from the Greek triremes that destroyed the Persian fleet at the battle of Salamis, almost two thousand years before. After 1500, some galleys acquired superstructures at bow and stern, to house guns and fighting men. But the essence of the galley remained the same. As in classical times, galleys were merely a floating platform from which men could board and overcome the crews of other ships, an insubstantial shell for carrying the oarsmen and men-at-arms. Originally, as in the rowing skiffs and caïques to be found in every Mediterranean port, each man had pulled his own oar, but this became a costly option since oars had to be made from expensive well-seasoned timber, much of it imported from northern Europe. From the mid–sixteenth century a new style of rowing appeared that reduced the number of oars. Three or four men, sometimes as many as five, would sit side by side on benches, all pulling in unison on a single massive sweep. It was easy thereafter to add more men to increase the force behind the oars.

The power of a war galley lay in its personnel. Aboard each one would be a number of well-equipped professional fighting men, a battle crew. On Muslim and Venetian ships, many among the rowing crew were also armed and would join the melee. Of the Venetian oarsmen, who were volunteers, those on the end of each bench had a sword and short pike close at hand, while the second man had a bow and a quiver of arrows. As the ships closed, they would leave their oars to the third man and gather, ready to swarm across onto the deck of their victim. No merchant vessel loaded with cargo could hope to outrun a galley pursuing at full speed. Most tried, because the alternative was dire. The galley attack resembled that of a hawk swooping to snatch its prey. The sharp beak of the galley would come closer and closer to the fleeing ship, so close that the crew of the doomed vessel could see its nemesis preparing to board. At that point, many ships yielded; any that continued to run would be showered with arrows or musket fire and the crew killed. For reasons of economy the great bow guns of the attacking galley were rarely used.

Galleys were raptors, living off weaker and less well armed vessels.

Like the carnivorous dinosaur the war galley dominated its environment. But like the dinosaur, it grew progressively larger and more powerful to compete with its own kind until, like the dinosaur, it became increasingly immobile. The tactical power of the Mediterranean war galley, with the teeth and jaws of Tyrannosaurus Rex, depended on a continuous supply of flesh and blood.

Unless a galley could keep its rowing benches filled it could not survive. Much of the ceaseless raiding and predation was to seize not cargo but manpower. When a Muslim vessel took a Christian ship, all non-Muslims aboard would be immediately enslaved. Often the crew and any passengers would be the most valued prize. Some could be ransomed, and others sold for a good profit in the markets of North Africa or Constantinople.

If a Christian galley intercepted a Muslim ship, exactly the same transactions would take place. All non-Christians would be made prisoner and put to work at the oars. But Spanish, French, and Venetian ships preyed as frequently on the ships of other Christian nations. There were many excuses that would permit a war galley to seize a merchant vessel. They might search a Christian ship for “contraband,” claiming that the crew was trading with an enemy. The Knights of St. John, sailing from their fortress island of Malta, were feared by all, Christian and Muslim alike. If they stopped a Christian ship in eastern waters, they would examine the cargo minutely for anything that could be termed illicit. When lacking anything more obvious, they were in the habit of uncovering “Jewish clothing” during a search, indicating that the ship was trading with the Jewish population of Muslim ports. This justified the expropriation of the whole cargo, and the enslavement of the crew.



A floating fortress, the galleass was the ultimate and unwieldy result of an effort to combine both oars and broadside, taxing human muscle to the limit. Heavy cannon and high bulwarks made them dangerous attackers – and also impossible targets, for if they could not run down an enemy, they had little need to run away from one.

Galley fleets became larger during the sixteenth century as trade grew along the shore, and the predators prospered. Mostly these were ships exclusively engaged in raiding, from ports such as Muslim Algiers, the greatest port on the Barbary (North African) shore, or from Christian Fiume, at the head of the Adriatic. Increasingly, the economy of the galley came to depend on slaves rather than freemen for the crews. By midcentury, almost every fleet, except that of Venice, which continued almost exclusively to recruit freemen, was rowed by slaves, prisoners of war, or convicts. On each ship, there would be more than 100 men, most chained to their rowing station, with sometimes a few oarsmen free to move within the constraints of the narrow deck. Most lived out their lives within the two feet allotted to them. They slept, ate, defecated, bled, suppurated, and often died at the same bench. Rats and cockroaches thrived in the decaying piles of food scraps mixed with ordure and urine that built up beneath their feet. A wise galley captain, knowing how rapidly epidemic disease would spread under such conditions, would regularly wash down the rowing decks of his vessel. When the rats and lice had bred uncontrollably, the ultimate solution was to put the crew ashore under guard, unship the masts, fill the galley with stones, and sink it in the shallows until the deck and superstructure were wholly underwater. The vermin that could not, or would not, “desert the sinking ship” drowned.

At dead of night, in fog, or in the half-light of dawn, the presence of a galley was evident long before it became visible. The rank smell of the rowing deck could be detected at up to two miles’ distance. It was said that you could tell a former galley slave or sea soldier in later life by the excessively strong perfume he wore, as if to blot out the olfactory memory of earlier evil days. On a galley, rarely more than 150 feet in length, all the gradations and nuances of society were obscured by the miasma of filth and decay. The soldiers in half armor, the musket men and gunners, even the officers and commanders, were never out of contact with the degraded humanity that pulled the ship toward its destination.

However, for the chained men, whether slaves on the ships of the Ottoman sultan and the corsair captains of North Africa, or condemned prisoners on the galleys of the Most Catholic King of Spain or the Most Christian King of France, to serve at the oars was a form of living death. Their end might come in many ways. They were unlikely to starve, for it was not in the interests of any galley captain to lose his skilled rowers needlessly. Beans, corn, and a little meat, with wine on the Christian ships, were the staples, while buckets of freshwater were always available at each bench to slake the thirst of the rowers. Each man would drink about two liters a day at the height of the summer sailing season. Once a rower had become conditioned to the life, and survived the first few months, his whole body adapted to the rhythm of the oars. Some oarsmen lasted for thirty years or more. Disease was the most likely end to their suffering, for cuts and wounds inevitably festered in such conditions. The weak, sickly, or moribund would simply be unchained and tossed overboard. Only the strokes could expect better treatment: strong and reliable pacesetters could bring a ship up to maximum speed more reliably than the whip of the boatswain.

In times of war especially the demand for rowers was insatiable, and there were never enough men to fill the benches. Many of the galley slaves were the victims of countless raids along the shores of the sea, where the great prize was human flesh. An imperial Ottoman galley would stand off the coast out of sight and the commander would order spies to scout the local settlements. Then at night a party would be sent ashore, to burn the villages, kill the old and very young, and round up as many of the able-bodied men as could be found. The galley would be gone by first light, or sometimes a flotilla would descend on a region and stay for longer periods, spreading depredation for many miles around.

The men who filled the benches on most Christian warships were either Muslim villagers or prisoners of war. But they also included many Christians ground out through the machinery of the law. In Spain, debt, sedition, even petty crime could bring a sentence to the galleys. As the demand for oarsmen rose, so the flow of criminals through the courts who were condemned to the galleys increased. Often those who had served their time at the oars and were due for release were held back. These forzados, or pressed men, were technically free but in every other respect were treated as harshly as they had been before. In France, the Catholic authorities sent a steady stream of Protestants to serve in the galleys, while the papal prisons were regularly emptied to fill the rowing benches. Yet others freely chose the life of the oarsman. The corsairs of the Barbary Coast were, in effect, the shareholders of a business enterprise, where they supplied their muscle power and risked their lives for part of the profits of their raids. The Slav Uskoks of Dalmatia were freemen under the protection of the Holy Roman Empire. They followed an old profession: banditry by sea had been a part of Mediterranean life for millennia. Thus, on the same rowing bench there might be a free sailor, a prisoner of war, a slave, and a criminal serving a sentence of years of labor at the oars.

Skilled sailing masters regarded their crews like trained animals, knew their individual capacities and limitations. Each rowing bench would be balanced, for the fundamental skill of galley warfare lay in mixing new blood with experienced oarsmen. Men were chosen by their size, weight, and strength to produce the maximum power, and with this aim, though the conditions of life were harsh and degrading, few captains deliberately mistreated their crews. A naval gun in the mid–sixteenth century was deadly to around 200 yards, but a galley rowed at maximum speed could cover that distance in half a minute, much less time than it took to reload. No galley crew could, however, sustain top speed for more than about twenty minutes, and exhausted or demoralized oarsmen for much less. It was well known among captains that Venetian and North African galleys were considerably faster and more agile than those of Spain and France. In part it was a matter of design and the heavy deadweight of the large fighting crews the latter carried. But there was also a factor of spirit and morale. The Spanish ships, rowed exclusively by captives and convicts, consumed men as remorselessly as the silver mines at Potosi, which provided the money that built so many of the galleys. Neither the ships nor the mines were designed as a form of punishment and social control, but that is what they became. In Venice and the Muslim lands, a free oarsman could become a rich man from prize money. In Algiers or Constantinople, a Christian galley slave who “turned Turk” could end up as a galley captain or even as the admiral of the sultan’s navy.

Each imperial Ottoman vessel carried a complement of highly trained janissary infantry, some armed with sword or yataghan and others with the famous Turkish bow, which could penetrate almost any armor at 100 yards’ distance. A skilled archer could fire up to six arrows a minute, with great accuracy. It took years of training to bend the bow and use it, and increasingly janissaries adopted the harquebus or musket used by their enemies. Janissaries did not normally expect to fight on board enemy ships. The galley served as their transport and usually they would be put ashore to fight a land battle or besiege a fortress. Some wore chain mail armor, but they scorned the plate cuirasses, greaves, and steel morion helmets worn by the Spanish soldiers. In any depiction of a battle of the period, there was no doubt as to which were the Christian forces and which the Muslim. Steel helmets, breastplates, and shields on one side, and turbans and flowing robes on the other. These differences developed not just from distinct tactical and strategic demands, but from divergent attitudes to war.

The Christians possessed a wonder weapon, as potent as the Greek fire of earlier centuries. In the fleet that was slowly assembling at Messina were six galleys quite unlike any in the Ottoman flotillas. From her long experience of Mediterranean warfare Venice had by inspired improvisation created the weapon that would prove decisive. Standing out above all the other vessels at anchor were six tall heavy ships, quite different to the low sleek war galleys that surrounded them. These were galleasses, heavy broad-beamed sluggards propelled partly by sail and partly by huge oars, each pulled by seven men or more. The galleasses were a hybrid between the Mediterranean type of warship and the sailing vessels of the Atlantic. Above the rowing deck, all along each side, was a range of heavy cannon which could deliver a broadside of shot that could shatter a more lightly built galley. These were to be floating fortresses, weapons unique to Venice.

The galleasses had not yet been tried in battle. Yet one galleass had the firepower of five ordinary galleys, and Don John was convinced that the six in his fleet would, under the right conditions, give him the edge over the Ottomans. When, finally, the great armada sailed from Messina, he ordered that all the ships should proceed at the lumbering pace of the galleasses so that he would not come to battle without the advantage of this secret weapon. Why only the Venetians had developed a ship that could devastate the most powerful galley afloat will never be known. Perhaps it was simply that the materials were to hand. Laid up in the Arsenal were ten large merchant galleys, which were no longer in use for trade with the East. The Venetians also had an abundance of bronze cannon and, putting the two together, created the galleass.

It is unlikely that the Ottomans would have developed the galleass on their own, although they were quick to build them once they had seen their power in battle. It was not through lack of skill and knowledge—Turkish gunners and siege artillery were of high quality. Rather, it was that they knew their way of war was superior. It was bound up with codes of honor that equated only very imprecisely with European notions of chivalry. In the West, honor was a concept that pertained only to the topmost layer of society; most of mankind stood outside the codes of chivalric conduct. It was considered absurd for anyone not bound by noble origins to adopt knightly graces. So Miguel de Cervantes, who was one of the thousands waiting for Don John in Messina harbor (and who was to lose his arm in battle at Lepanto), would make his eponymous hero, Don Quixote, a madman in his neighbors’ eyes. His insanity lay in living by the ancient rules of knighthood that did not apply to him. But in the fleet of Ali Pasha, even the most humble Muslim fighting man was a Quixote, trapped in the spider’s web of honor: loyalty to family, to tribe, to God constrained his every move. The Christian fleet gathered at Messina had been made holy warriors only by papal decree, an event notable for its extreme rarity. For the most part war, even in a good cause, did not carry that weight of divine sanction. But every Muslim soldier and sailor was, lifelong, bound to struggle in God’s cause. Nor was it just a matter of ends, but also of means. The Holy Qur’an, which many had learned by heart, told them clearly: “Surely Allah loves those who fight in His Way in ranks as if they were a firm and compact wall.” The lowliest foot soldier was honored and remembered for how he had fought and not merely because he had been victorious.

The battle at Lepanto would mark a defining moment in the struggle between Christendom and Islam: on the Christian side, war was fast becoming secularized. Where once the pope had decreed (ineffectually) that the crossbow was not to be used in conflicts between Christians, now no barriers were placed on any engine of war, however frightful. The galleass was remarkable not for its technology, but for the ease with which it was created, adopted, and immediately used in battle. In the Muslim ranks, by contrast, every innovation could become a matter for argument and even resistance. Honorable war was still fought with the weapons known to the Qur’an—swords, spears, lances, bows and arrows. The good Muslim soldier was the man who leaped into the breach or onto the deck of an enemy vessel without armor and only the strength of his arms to protect him. Guns and artillery were necessary, but carried no mark of courage. Perhaps for this reason few of the developments and innovations in gun technology emerged in the Islamic world. Implicit if unstated was the general belief that it was better to fight in the right way and lose a battle than to fight without honor. Europeans might talk about traditions, caste, and honor, but quietly discarded them in practice—occasions such as when officers courteously invited their enemy to fire first became legendary precisely because they were so rare. In contrast, the armies of “Islam” might adopt new weapons but were increasingly hobbled by their ancient ethic.



It took more than three weeks for Don John to get his unwieldy armada under way. He crossed from Naples to the port of Messina on August 23, 1571, and his arrival was the excuse for elaborate ceremonies and extended celebrations. Sicily was determined not to be outdone by the cities on the mainland. A huge building of marbled stucco, ornate with suggestively symbolic pictures of Victory and Divine Favor, was quickly built, occupying most of the open ground at the landing place. Tethered under its arches was a warhorse with saddle and stirrups chased in silver, and reins of silver chain. Mounted on this lavish gift from the city, Don John rode into Messina, past huge cheering crowds, to the Cathedral of La Nunziatella, followed at a distance by his entourage. At intervals along the streets were towering triumphal arches, and his procession was showered with flower petals from the balconies above, which made a sweet-smelling slime on the ground below. Then, the festivities over, he waited with increasing frustration for the last of his command to arrive. Little had been done to put the fleet on a war footing. Don John found that no one knew where the Turkish fleet had gathered, so he dispatched a squadron of galleys under a trusted Spanish captain to discover its location. It was thought that the enemy had assembled somewhere off the long eastern coast of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, but no one was sure precisely where, or how many ships would confront the fleet of the Holy League.

As the young commander tried to unify the Spanish flotillas with the papal contingent under Marc Antonio Colonna and with the Venetian ships of the veteran Sebastiano Veniero, he soon recognized that the fragile alliance might not survive the strain of too much delay. There were daily street fights between the holy warriors from different cities or nations. Moreover, with some 80,000 men confined in the harbor and city, there was always the danger that epidemic disease could ravage the ranks. Yet he dared not depart until his fleet was at full strength, and every day new ships continued to arrive: the Venetian contingent from Crete rowed into Messina, as did more Spanish ships filled with troops recruited in Germany. Among the last to appear were the twenty-two galleys hired by the king of Spain from Genoa, commanded by Gian Andrea Doria, and the three great galleys of the Knights of Malta.

In the weeks at Messina, Don John quickly discovered that the Venetians loathed the Genoese, mistrusted the Spaniards, and resented the Knights of Malta. Every appointment he made immediately caused feelings of slight and anger among those not chosen. There were mutterings that he inevitably favored the Spaniards, that he was delaying the advance, thereby allowing the Ottomans to ravage Venetian possessions. Each further day of delay caused partisan feelings to fester more strongly, and it was with relief that on September 16, with the scout ships returned and the weather fine, he gave the order to set sail. He wrote to his mentor and adviser, the veteran soldier Don Garcia de Toledo, that the enemy

is stronger than we in the number of his vessels, but not so, I believe, in quality of either men or vessels. So, I sail, please God, tonight for Corfu and thence according to what I shall hear. I have with me two hundred and eight galleys, twenty-six thousand troops, six galleasses and twenty-four [supply] ships. I trust our God will give us victory if we meet the enemy.

The pope had sent Bishop Odescalchi to Messina to bid his ships Godspeed. The bishop brought with him spiritual fortification for the holy warriors in the form of an Agnus Dei “of great size and beauty.” This was a wafer or biscuit mixed with balm and consecrated oil. A pope blessed only a certain number of these in the first year of his pontificate, and thereafter only once every seven years. It was stamped with the image of a lamb “reclining upon a book, bearing a banner with the sign of the Cross and surrounded by a border with the words ‘Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.’ ” It was a powerful Christian talisman, giving its possessor protection from storms at sea, earthquakes, lightning, the plague, the falling sickness, sudden death, and devils. The nuncio also carried documents containing various auspicious prophecies, written by the seventh-century Bishop Isidore of Seville, that a Holy League would be formed under a Spanish leader, who would defeat and scatter the enemies of Spain and Christ. He also brought with him the pope’s private assurance that the young commander would undoubtedly gain his own kingdom as a reward for victory. But despite these assurances of divine support and protection, Don John had some doubts about the prospects of the fleet.

As each contingent arrived he inspected it, and despite his assertion to Don Garcia de Toledo, he discovered that not all his ships were of the best quality, nor were the fighting crews as strong as their numbers suggested. His best fighting ships were the Spanish galleys, which were a little larger, heavier, and more solidly built from well-seasoned timber than the Venetian and papal vessels. Their decks were crowded with well-trained and heavily armored Spanish and German infantry. The Venetian ships looked impressive, with their sleek lines and the speed to take on even the fastest of the Ottoman galleys. But Venice’s reputation was not wholly merited. In her Arsenal she indeed had the capacity to build the hull of a galley in a single day, but the Queen of the Sea was rarely in possession of a stock of spars, oars, and sailcloth sufficient to run at full strength. Venetian galleys were too often built quickly of second-rate timber and inadequately fitted out. Much more perilous under battle conditions was the lack of volunteers, which had made it difficult for Venice (which would not use Muslim galley slaves) to crew her ships, or to provide a full contingent of soldiers. Fortunately, Don John had seasoned Spanish troops in excess of his own needs, and he persuaded Veniero to take them aboard his ships. Accepting a Spanish battle crew in the days before Lepanto was regarded as an ignominious admission of weakness for a Venetian commander, and Veniero acquiesced only with the greatest reluctance.

Finally, in the early morning of September 16, 1571, the fleet began to move out of Messina. As the ships of the Holy League rowed out, dressed overall with war banners, flags, and pennants, their crews saluted the papal nuncio and the little knot of clergy standing at the edge of the harbor wall. As each ship passed, the church dignitaries made the sign of the cross, blessing the enterprise; in response the crew cheered. Like bees emerging from a hive, the line of ships seemed never-ending, until, standing out a little from the land, the greatest array ever assembled in the name of Christendom finally formed up for the journey east. As it headed south to round the little Cape of Porto Salvio, to anchor on the second night off Cape Spartivento, the fleet received the first definite news of the Turks.

A small ship, sailing from the village of Gallipoli in the narrow Brindisi peninsula, at the heel of Italy, came alongside Don John’s flagship and reported that twenty-four Muslim galleys had occupied the harbor of Santa Maria on the Adriatic coast, south of Otranto on the Italian side, while a larger contingent had raided Corfu. But the location of the main body of the Ottoman ships was still a mystery. Had it retired to its principal harbor at Prevesa, just south of the narrows on the eastern side of the Adriatic? Or separated into raiding squadrons to harry the Balkan ports, or Crete, or the Spanish islands and coast, all now denuded of protection? The Christian fleet moved farther east, mindful that it might be attacked at any moment by some, or all, of the Muslim ships. On September 21, it halted at Cape Colonne: the ships were advancing at about fifty nautical miles a day, hampered by the need to keep the slower supply vessels and the galleasses with the main body. There the commanders learned that the bulk of the Ottoman fleet was still moored at Prevesa, waiting for instructions from the sultan on where to attack.

With his enemy only a few days’ sail away, Don John wanted to press forward as fast as he could across the Adriatic to Corfu. But as the weather worsened, every attempt to negotiate the Strait of Otranto was thwarted. Some ships were blown onto the rocks and holed, others lost masts and rigging. Although galleys could row into an adverse wind, this sapped the rowers’ strength, and the last thing a commander wanted was to arrive at the point of battle with a dispirited and exhausted complement of oarsmen. It was not until September 27 that the fleet finally crossed the narrow sea lane to moor in the channel between Corfu and the mainland. It found the town in ruins.

A Turkish squadron raiding up the Adriatic almost to the outer islands of Venice had ravaged Corfu on its return south. It ransacked the island’s main town, destroyed churches, hacked heads off saints’ statues. But the Turks had made no impression on the citadel, which the Venetians had built up over two centuries. After several fruitless attacks, and the loss of three galleys, they sailed on. However, while their houses were being destroyed, the islanders learned that the whole Turkish fleet was not in the lagoon of Prevesa, but farther south in the more open waters of the Gulf of Lepanto. Don John immediately dispatched Gil de Andrade with his scout ships to ascertain whether the Ottoman fleet was still at anchor and how large it was. Then he called a council of war on board his flagship, the Real. His inclination was to push forward and risk all in an immediate battle with the Ottoman fleet, but the council of war was divided. Some members were unwilling to hazard everything in the lottery of a battle, and favored laying siege to some major Turkish fortress. Others suggested trying to draw out the enemy fleet from the protection of the harbor at Lepanto into more open waters. While the council was still in session, news came from de Andrade that the Turkish fleet was riddled with sickness, and not at full strength. Don John put it to the vote and all agreed that the whole Christian armada should attack at once and destroy the enemy in the Gulf of Lepanto.




Battle of Lepanto.

In the curious parallelism that surrounds the events of 1571, at that moment the Ottoman commander, Ali Pasha, was also holding a council of war with his captains, and their opinions were divided in a roughly similar manner. Hassan Pasha, a bey of Algiers, spoke for the overwhelming majority. He acknowledged that the scouts had told them that this was the largest fleet they had ever seen. But he recalled how at Prevesa (in 1538) and at the island of Jerbi, off Tripoli (in 1560), the infidels had faded under Turkish attack. He believed that they were cowards, without spirit, and would flee here, as they had done in the past. The opposite view was presented by Hamet Bey, who suggested it would be a mistake to underestimate the power or unity of the Christians, and that Don John, although young and inexperienced, had proved himself in the war against the Moriscos (Muslims forcibly converted to Christianity) in the Alpujarras mountain range of southern Spain. The Ottoman fleet had everything to gain by playing a waiting game, under the protection of the guns of the Lepanto fortress.

Ali Pasha himself favored an immediate attack, and his resolve was hardened by the long-awaited orders from the sultan. Selim ordered the fleet to capture the Christian ships and to bring them immediately as trophies of war to line the waters of the Golden Horn, below his palace of the New Seraglio in. The order admitted no dissent, and all doubters were silenced Constantinople. The council came to a precipitate end, and the captains returned to their ships to prepare for battle. The efficient Ottoman commissary quickly stocked the hundreds of ships with food and water, and with large quantities of powder and shot, while Ali summoned more troops from neighboring garrisons. He speedily added 10,000 janissaries and 4,000 other troops to his fighting crews.

Meanwhile, the fleet of the Holy League moved south. By October 3, it was off Prevesa, but its advance was halted by high seas and adverse winds from the south. October 4 and 5 were spent battened down, riding out the storm. While the fleet was at anchor, a small vessel heading north from the island of Crete to Venice brought terrible and unexpected news.

Every Venetian in the fleet knew that the Ottomans were besieging the town of Famagusta in Cyprus. The island’s capital, Nicosia, had fallen a few months after the invasion of July 1570. Twenty thousand inhabitants had been slaughtered when the Turkish troops broke into the city, and the rest of the islanders submitted to avoid the same fate. Only the small port city of Famagusta refused to surrender and held out in the hope of relief from the sea. Within hours of the fall of Nicosia, Turkish horsemen were riding around the walls of Famagusta, taunting the inhabitants with the heads of the leading citizens of Nicosia impaled on their lance points. However, Marcantonio Bragadino, the governor in Famagusta, had prepared his command to withstand a long siege and it was clear that the city would resist, despite the frightful example of Nicosia’s fate. By the early spring of 1571 more than 100,000 Turks had gathered around Famagusta. It seemed that it could not hold out for long. But for four months the 4,000 defenders beat back every assault until attacks in July 1571 breached the walls in six places, and the troops in the garrison were reduced to their last barrels of gunpowder. Faced with certain defeat, Bragadino sought an honorable surrender. The terms agreed on August 1 with the Ottoman commander, Lala Mustafa, were unusually favorable: the Venetians secured protection for the remaining citizens, while the garrison would be evacuated to the Venetian island of Crete.

The Turks had lost more than 50,000 men in the capture of Nicosia and Famagusta. The terms granted were remarkable, especially after the massacres at Nicosia. On August 4, Lala Mustafa summoned Bragadino and his staff to his camp. The Venetian commander, wearing the purple robe of a senator, rode out from Famagusta under an ornate parasol (against the searing heat) at the head of his officers and with a bodyguard of forty harquebusiers. He was, according to the records, “serene … without fear or pride.” At the meeting, the Ottoman commander accused him of breaching the agreement for the city’s surrender and demanded hostages. Bragadino responded that this did not form part of the terms. Then, at a prearranged signal, janissaries rushed into the tent and overpowered the Venetians. Outside, the senator’s escort had already been disarmed.

The subsequent events were played out for the benefit of the Ottoman army gathered in a huge mass around Lala Mustafa’s encampment. It seems unlikely that Bragadino expected to survive the surrender, or to see the treaty honored. The Ottomans usually repaid resistance with death, and to allow the defenders to retire with their arms in hand and flags flying was almost without parallel. On previous occasions the Ottomans had invariably slaughtered or enslaved the bulk of their captives, sparing only a few for ransom, or to take the news back to their enemies. After the battle of Mohacs, Sultan Suleiman had “sat on a golden throne” while his soldiers decapitated thousands of prisoners. The Venetians were playing a grim but well-understood role in a gory traditional drama. The performance was designed to be exemplary, and to satisfy the sultan in Constantinople that the long and costly siege had not been in vain. Bragadino’s officers and staff were beheaded in front of him, so that a rivulet of blood flowed across the hard dry ground and washed over his feet.

This was the news brought to the fleet of the Holy League waiting fogbound between the islands of Cephalonia and Ithaca. It stilled any remaining doubts about the need for a battle, which would now, additionally, revenge the death of Bragadino and repay his humiliation many times over. As soon as the fog lifted sufficiently for the fleet to move safely, in the early hours of Sunday, October 7, the whole armada advanced into the open sea, in the mouth of the Gulf of Patras, and some forty miles from the entrance to the well-protected harbor of Lepanto. With the mainland coast in sight, Don John sent two fast ships forward down the gulf to discover if the Ottoman fleet was still at anchor. If it was, it would not slip past the mass of Christian ships rowing down the narrowing gulf toward the straits before Lepanto.

To the north, as the Christian galleys pushed into a stiff breeze, lay the high mountains of Acarnia; to the south, the lowlands of the Morea. The winds came off the high ground, veering back and forth, so the sails on the galleasses could not be used, and the whole fleet slowed to the rowing pace of these ungainly vessels. Shortly after dawn the fleet halted, and moved into the battle formations designated by Don John. He also gave orders that the rams, or spurs, mounted on the prow of each war galley should be cut away. These stout wooden structures were designed to hook into the side of an enemy ship, providing a platform along which boarders could advance. But the spur made it difficult to maneuver the bow guns, which alone had the capacity to cripple an enemy vessel. Don John’s strategy was not to capture the Ottoman fleet but to destroy it. He intended to use his heavy guns to smash the lighter hulls of the Ottoman vessels, boarding where necessary, but first sending as many ships and crews as possible to the bottom of the sea. But the order gave a deeper message to his men: cutting away the spurs was equivalent to throwing away the scabbard of his sword, signifying that it would not again be sheathed unbloodied.

No one had any prior experience of marshaling so large a fleet into battle. Moreover the six galleasses were new and wholly untried weapons. The forthcoming conflict would be like no other at sea, but Don John planned to fight in the open waters of the Gulf of Patras much as he would have fought a cavalry battle on land. However, the scale was vast: the fleet extended in a line for almost four miles end to end. Don John divided the hundreds of galleys into four divisions: the center, which he oversaw in person; two wings; and behind this line the reserve, commanded by a trusted Spaniard, and intended to staunch any breach made by the enemy. The battle tactics were simple: in front would be the six galleasses, and the galleys of the Holy League would row forward at a steadily increasing pace behind them. Once the firefight began, the rowing rate would rise until the galleys covered the last few hundred yards in less than a minute, until they smashed into the enemy, also advancing at full speed. Then all semblance of strategy would vanish in the melee of hand-to-hand fighting. The great danger was that the fast and maneuverable Ottoman galleys would break through the line and swarm around the Christian ships on every side, rather in the way that on land Turkish horsemen would pull down armored Christian knights by weight of numbers.

Although he had never fought at sea, Don John knew his enemy. The war in the Alpujarras, from house to house, from village to village, had taught him that even Muslim peasants would die rather than yield or retreat. The lesson of innumerable galley battles was that once the hardy Muslim fighters gained a foothold on the opponent’s decks, then the chances of survival were small. As a last act before the fray, he ordered that all his ships should be rigged with boarding nets, to act as a fence all along the sides above the rowing decks. The nets would not stop boarders, but they would slow them down, giving the defending crew time to rally. The only effective protection against the rush of the janissaries was firepower. On the Real he trained a force of 300 men, armed with the heavy Spanish harquebuses and muskets, to fire in volley if the enemy did succeed in boarding. But ultimately Don John could not control the flow of the fight on his ships. Success would depend on the spirit and morale of his men. In the early morning light, in a fast small fregata he traversed the line of stationary ships back and forth, shouting encouragement to the crews and soldiers, telling them that God was with them, and reminding them of the fate of Bragadino, for whom they would wreak revenge upon the bodies of their enemy. Cheers rose as he passed each ship. He had ordered that every Christian convict oarsman should be freed so that they could join the Crusade, while Muslim rowers were double-chained, by both hand and foot, to the oars.

Only the best of his soldiers were equal to the Ottomans, and the advantage lay with Ali Pasha, with fresh troops rested, well fed, and eager for battle. Don John’s victory at Lepanto was due to the supremacy of the gun. He had placed the six galleasses in front of his line at intervals, confident that their firepower would disrupt the Ottoman line of battle. As well as the heavy guns, he crammed them full of marksmen with muskets. Later pictures of the battle show the ships bristling with gun barrels, like the spines on a hedgehog. Success would depend on Ottoman willingness to be drawn into the killing zone around these floating fortresses. But if the Ottomans retreated, drawing Don John’s ships farther down the gulf toward the guns of the Lepanto fortress, then the dynamics would alter. There was already a stiff breeze and the sea was running against the Christian ships. The more his oarsmen exhausted themselves, the greater chance that the advantage would slip to the Turks. As in all battles, chance and providence were in command.