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The Galley in Combat

by John F. Guilmartin

Galley warfare was far more than a maritime brawl. In fact, it demanded tactical acumen of the highest order.

Clashes between Mediterranean war galleys of the early modern period have all too often been dismissed as unsophisticated donnybrooks, "land battles at sea." A related notion holds that galley tactics were relatively unchanging, based on the observation that, like steam-powered warships, galleys could maneuver independently of the wind. In fact, oarsmen—unlike steam engines—tire rapidly and require food and water. They also require motivation, and the nature of the motivation was important: Galleys rowed by freemen were very different from those rowed by convicts or slaves. To understand the changing nature of galley tactics, we must return to antiquity and the classical trireme. Of a fundamentally different design than its early modern successor, the classical trireme was a thin wooden shell encasing 170 oarsmen, working on three superimposed levels, whose job it was to drive a bronze underwater ram into the hull of an enemy ship.

The ram was effectively the trireme's only weapon, and the vessel's sides were horribly vulnerable to attack. Everything depended on speed and agility, and non-propulsive crew members were limited to a few sailors and helmsmen, plus a handful of marines to throw off grappling hooks and shoot an occasional arrow. These characteristics gave classical galley tactics, of which the Athenians were masters, an explosive, all-or-nothing character. Pivoting and darting to the attack, a well-handled, well-rowed trireme could penetrate the enemy line, strike from the side, sink its opponent, and disengage with impunity.

But not all galleys were triremes, and not all triremes were single-purpose ramming vessels, for the excellent reason that few polities could muster adequate numbers of oarsmen with the skill and stamina essential to ramming tactics. Boarding was thus a constant feature of galley warfare, rising to dominance in the First Punic War (264-241 B.C.) when Roman legionaries bested the Carthaginian ram. Torsion artillery pieces such as catapults were mounted on galleys, and in Hellenistic times, very large galleys seem to have functioned mainly as artillery platforms. Still, the ram was dominant as late as Actium (31 B.C.), the last great galley fight of antiquity.

The fall of Rome produced fundamental changes. In the shrunken economies of the Dark Ages, warships doubled as trading vessels and earned their keep by capturing their prey. The underwater Ram was replaced by a raised beak or spur, in essence a boarding bridge. So far as we know, this first appeared on the Byzantine dromon, a development perhaps associated with the invention of Greek fire, which rendered the underwater ram superfluous and enjoyed a brief career as a decisive incendiary weapon in the late seventh and eighth centuries. Vertically superimposed banks of oars gave way to a single, open rowing deck. Missile weapons became more important, particularly with the development of powerful crossbows from the eleventh century on.

Still, the galley was an inherently offensive weapon, long, slender, and low in the water to pack the maximum number of oarsmen, enjoying the best mechanical advantage, into a suitably-sized hull. By about 1300, the quest for speed yielded an optimal design, the trireme alla senzile (literally, "in the simple manner") in which oarsmen were seated three to a bench, each pulling his own, individual oar. The typical trireme alla senzile had a hull 136 feet long and seventeen to eighteen feet wide, commonly with twenty-four banks of oars—that is, twenty-four pairs of rowing benches armed with oars—though it might have as many as twenty-five and as few as seventeen (the figures cited are representative of the time of the battle of Lepanto, in 1571).

Like the classical trireme, early modern galleys were highly vulnerable to attack from the side, but for different reasons. Like the classical trireme, their tactical power was concentrated at the bow, but in the form of fighting men and, later, cannon.

Early modern galleys were heavier than their classical precursors, and the later vessels were not as fast (with a maximum dash speed of some seven knots to the classical trireme's ten) nor as maneuverable. As a result, the line-abreast formation, in which each galley protected its neighbor's flanks, became tactically dominant. If appropriate intervals were maintained, full-sized galleys could not slip through, and smaller vessels that could generally lacked the height and numbers of men for successful boarding attacks. Where the classical galley captain used maneuver to protect the sides of his vessel from attack, the sides of early modern galleys were ordinarily protected by their neighbors in formation. The tactical imperatives of line-abreast formations were more compelling for the more heavily manned and armed Western galleys, because in a melee the quicker and more maneuverable Muslim vessels could overwhelm them individually from the sides. But the basic principle applied generally: Galleys advancing in an ordered line abreast could defeat a disordered foe by maneuvering slightly within the line to bring superior numbers on each individual opponent in turn.

Two additional factors strengthened the dominance of the line abreast. The first was gunpowder weaponry, which dramatically increased the war galley's destructive potential—particularly straight ahead, for the heaviest ordnance could not traverse but was aimed by the helmsman. Heavy cannon became common on the bows of galleys late in the fifteenth century, and by Lepanto, main centerline bow guns firing balls of thirty to fifty pounds (or, far more lethal in a galley fight, the same weight of scatter shot) were common. On the galleys of Spain and her Western allies, the centerline bow gun was commonly flanked by one, two, or even three pairs of smaller forward-firing cannon. In addition, Western galleys had a raised fighting platform, the arrumbada, atop the bow for breech-loading swivel guns, musketeers, and harquebusiers (Venetian galleys had slightly lower fighting platforms and were nearly as heavily armed). In a head-on encounter, the ideal was to approach the bow of the opponent's galley at a slight angle, so that his fixed forward-firing ordnance missed while yours swept his decks. Unleashed as the galleys' beaks crossed, the ensuing blast of fire could reduce decks and rowing benches to a bloody shambles, toppling oarsmen and fighting men like so many human pins in a gory bowling alley. The Turks, without raised fighting structures and with less ordnance, suffered accordingly in a head-on clash.

The second factor was the sixteenth-century price revolution, which put the wages of free oarsmen beyond the reach of Western states from the 1550s. Since alla senzile rowing demanded skills that slaves and convicts could not master—years of practice were required—there followed a rapid shift in the western Mediterranean to a scaloccio galleys, in which five or more oarsmen pulled a single, large oar. This preserved tactical dash speed and permitted larger and more heavily armed galleys—Don John's Real at Lepanto had no fewer than thirty-five banks and seven men to an oar—but the number of oarsmen increased geometrically, reducing radius of action because of the need for more frequent (and far more massive) provisioning.

Mediterranean commanders adjusted to the developments noted above with remarkable facility, as several examples show. When confronted by superior force, a skillful commander would pull his galleys up on the beach stern first, with the heavy guns pointing seaward and the bulk of the oarsmen sent ashore for safety. Using the defensive strength of this formation as a fall-back position, Khair ed Din (Barbarossa) boldly attacked a superior force under Andrea Doria at Prevesa in 1538, inflicting a stinging defeat. In 1552, when Doria's squadron of thirty-nine galleys was surprised in the Bay of Naples by a force of 103 under Turgut Re'is and Sinan Pasha, Doria used the advantage of a friendly shore to get off with a loss of only seven galleys. At Jerba in 1560, Piali Pasha achieved a signal victory by violating one of the most basic tenets of galley warfare, attacking without lowering his sails and yards—normally an imperative since one of the massive lateen yards, brought down by gunfire, could crush dozens of men.

At Lepanto, Don John, recognizing that the Muslim galleys' shallower draft would enable them to slip around his inshore flank, assigned a preponderance of Venetian galleys to the left wing—lighter and rowed by freemen, they were faster and more maneuverable than Western galleys, though less heavily manned. Moreover, Agostino Barbarigo, the left wing's Venetian commander, posted almost all of his heavier Western galleys toward the offshore end of his line. When, as anticipated, the Turks tried to turn the Christian left, Barbarigo used superior Venetian maneuverability to pivot his squadron counterclockwise around its right, like a door, to frustrate the attack, the galleys closest to shore backing water to accomplish the maneuver.

In addition, Don John ordered the beaks of his galleys cut off so that the main centerline bow guns could bear on the lower-lying Muslim craft at the shortest possible distance, permitting his gunners to hold their fire until they were at—literally—clothing-burning range for maximum carnage. The vicious battle of attrition in the center that ensued remained unresolved until Ali Pasha was felled by a musket ball and his galley taken.

By then, Uluj Ali had outmaneuvered Andrea Doria on the offshore flank to fall onto the exhausted Christian center with brutal effect, creating a melee in which the advantage lay with the lighter Turkish galleys. But it was too late, for Uluj Ali found himself, with his free oarsmen tiring, facing Santa Cruz's reserve. Had Uluj Ali arrived a bit earlier, or had Ali Pasha hung on a bit longer, the outcome might have been quite different. Thus ended a remarkably even and well-fought battle that, beyond its strategic effect, provides ample evidence of the remarkable tactical sophistication of early modern galley warfare.


JOHN F. GUILMARTIN is a member of the history faculty at Ohio State University. He recently authored A Very Short War: The Mayaguez and the Battle of Koh Tang (Texas A&M Press).

This article appeared in:

MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Winter 1997, Volume 9, Number 2, pp 20-21