Two experts reveal what made the Tuca nightmare of the Spanish Tercios: “They filled Lepanto with blood”


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«Gentlemen, it is no longer time for deliberation, but for combat». The phrase was as lapidary as it was foreboding. That day, immersed in a meeting with his generals in the Royal Galley, Don Juan of Austria he was bent on meeting the Turks in Lepanto at once. The bastard son of Carlos I more than a duel was played at dawn with Ali Pasha. Winning was the equivalent of taking control of the Mediterranean and demonstrating the true power of Christendom and of the Holy League. On October 7, the dance of the pikes, the arquebuses and the rodelas began after the boss gave encouragement to his men: «Children, do not give the enemy a chance, with impious arrogance, to ask you where is your God».

There was no chance. A few hours later, the Christian galleys gave a good account of the enemy after trimming their spurs to get the artillery to wreak havoc among the Turks. That was one of the secrets, although, according to the historian Magdalena de Pazzis Pi Corrales (author of ‘
Thirds of the sea
‘) and his colleague, Juan Victor Carboneras (‘
Spain my nature: Life, honor and glory in the Tercios
‘) there was another factor that was much more key: the courage shown by the soldiers of the Spanish Tercios during the battle of Lepanto. There they began to enlarge their legend about the waters, as they had done before on dry land. «They were very disciplined people and they fought with great esprit de corps. They were able to demonstrate their effectiveness in combat both in boarding and combat ”, reveals, in this case, the expert.

Magdalena de Pazzis Pi Corrales

Professor of Modern History at the Complutense University, director of the Complutense Extraordinary Chair of Military History and author of the work ‘Tercios del mar’

What differences existed between the combat style of the embarked Thirds and the terrestrial Thirds?

Basically they fought in the same way, relying on the joint action of arquebuses and pizza. But the way to use them depended on whether they were fighting in ships or on land, where, being a larger scenario, it allowed to form and use the different tactical formations. In naval combat, in addition to the thirds, other resources were used that were not common in land, such as incendiary bombs and the constant use of falconets from the sides of the ships.

What was galley-to-galley combat like in the Mediterranean? What were its distinguishing characteristics?

The galleys were propelled by the force of the rowers who rowed to the sound of the commitre that imposed speed. When an enemy galley was sighted, the rhythm of the rowing increased, since the objective was to attack with the bow spur, open a hole in the side of the rival ship and proceed to boarding. In this way, a kind of floating platform was created where the soldiers fought as on land. In Lepanto, the spurs of Christian ships were trimmed so that the bow artillery pieces had a greater range against the enemy, in order to weaken their strength for when the collision and the hand-to-hand combat occurred.

Were the Ottomans ready to face the embarked Thirds?

Since the failed siege of Malta in 1565, the Turks were worn out after almost six months of maritime operations and some allies (especially the Arráeces or Berber Arab caudillos) had returned to their bases, so the Ottoman army had to reorganize and rebuild, recruiting soldiers and rowers. However, given the great war activity of the Turks in the Mediterranean since the time of Soleiman the Magnificent, the Ottomans were in a position to rival any Christian force.

Battle of Lepanto
Battle of Lepanto

Why did they become one of the deadliest units in Lepanto? What made them so fearsome?

Because they were very disciplined people and they fought with great esprit de corps. Their effectiveness in combat could be demonstrated both in the collisions – where they were unstoppable – and in combat, once locked. Those characteristics allowed them to stand out in Lepanto. In addition, they had a great capacity to adapt to all circumstances. For example, in Lepanto, the pikes were shortened to three meters, they were trained to be able to use them better and they put a kind of crosshead on the shaft in order to prevent the skewered enemy, penetrating his body, from being able to reach the pikeman and this could remove the pike more easily when it is tucked.

Juan Victor Carboneras

Historian, author of ‘Spain my nature: Life, honor and glory in the Tercios’ and president of the Association January 31 Tercios

What was the combat between galleys like? It gives the impression that it consisted of a land fight on a kind of ‘floating platforms’

The combat between galleys was based on an artillery fight and another infantry fight, each with different means and processes. The cavalry ceased to make sense in naval combat and the objective was to break the enemy’s defense supported by ships and men. In a first phase, the fight was always understood around the artillery that fired, without ceasing, a blast of gunpowder and cannon shots that tried to finish off the enemy galleys.

Of course, the troops of the Hispanic Monarchy They were soon looking for an approach to the opposing ships, where the infantry had the leading role and where the ships became seas of people going from one side to the other. Therein lay the success of the power of the Embarked thirds, at the time when their companies could unfold their potential, where the close combat, or at least much closer, had its most important moment. The galleys became the scene of a battle that moved from the land to the sea.

What were the main differences between the arms of the embarked Tercios and those of the land Tercios?

The difference in practice, at least in the typology of weapons, was very small. Those of fire continued to be used as the fundamental axis of the contest: arquebuses and muskets. The pike still had its presence, though perhaps of shorter dimensions. The sword gained greater prominence when facing the enemy at point-blank range. What changed, undoubtedly, was the way of organizing some men who lacked space to form the squares of pikes accompanied by the sleeves of arquebuses. This adaptation of the boats to the terrain was of brilliant and special importance in Lepanto.

Can we consider the Marines Tercios in the most classical sense?

It is a frankly complex issue. The thirds moved out of necessity and were framed wherever they were sent. In my opinion, we can use the term of embarked thirds, since this situation is specific for the different thirds that had a point of action in the boats. It is true that they could spend long periods at sea, but they did not constitute a practical sense of staying permanently in the galleys. The Tercios, therefore, should be considered as a unit of framing of the Spanish infantry, whose model was exported to other nations, such as the Italian, and that were used for different functions and means, although due to their organization and structure they could not form permanently in the galleys and fight with a long trajectory.

What Thirds embarked participated in Lepanto?

In the battle of Lepanto participated the Lope de Figueroa’s Tercio with 14 companies, the Third of Naples led by the Field Master Pedro de Padilla, the Tercio by Miguel de Moncada and finally the Sicilian Third, with 10 companies led by Diego Enriquez. A total of 8,160 Spaniards, who joined the 5,208 Italian soldiers in the pay of Spain, 4,987 German soldiers in the pay of Philip II and 1,876 adventurers. A total of 20,231 infantrymen, a real outrage that explains the importance of Lepanto and its consideration as the quintessential naval battle in world history.

Cervantes at the Battle of Lepanto
Cervantes at the Battle of Lepanto – Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau

How was the match for ‘La Real’?

The combat between ‘La Real’ and ‘La Sultana’ represent an extraordinary clash from a military point of view, but also from a strategic and contextual perspective. At the center of the conflict, surrounded by the companion ships, the boats of Don Juan de Austria and Alí Pachá, they faced each other and, with them, two antagonistic worlds. In the clash, both ships were stranded after the attack by ‘La Real’, a moment that was used by the gunners to fire incessantly against both sides. Later the arquebusiers of the Hispanic Monarchy and the arrows of the Turks intervened.

The distances were very scarce and this was a fundamental factor that led to the advance of the arquebuses, which had greater effectiveness, compared to the greater precision of the bow, at least at long distances. The support of the Tercio de Lope de Figueroa and that of Moncada, accompanied by Luis de Requesens were decisive for the advance of ‘La Real’. Until Don Álvaro de Bazán arrived, who dealt the final blow and decided the balance for the Holy League and, therefore, for the Hispanic Monarchy. Ali Pasha was mortally wounded and the Turkish withdrawal arrives. The Gulf of Lepanto was filled with blood.

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