Special Report

The Biggest Naval Battles of All Time

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

1. The Battle of Salamis, Sept. 26-27, 480 B.C.
> Casualties: 300 ships lost for the Persians, 40 lost for the Greeks
> Location: Saronic Gulf, Greece
> Conflict: Persian invasion of Greece

The Battle of Salamis is sometimes known as the first great naval battle in history. The Persian Empire had overtaken much of Greece by 480 B.C. after about a decade of fighting. Persian King Xerxes apparently hoped to finish off the badly outnumbered Greek fleet when he launched his ships into the strait between the island of Salamis and the city of Piraeus.

The history of this battle is murky, but according to many ancient sources, the large, tightly bunched Persian ships struggled to maneuver in the strait, while smaller Greek boats could ram and sink their opponents. The Persians lost hundreds of ships, compared to dozens of losses from the Greeks. The stinging defeat scattered the Persian ships, giving Greek troops time to reorganize. The next year, Greek forces defeated the Persians at Plataea, finally ending all conquest attempts and allowing Greece to flourish as one of the great world powers of history.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

2. The Battle of Red Cliffs, Winter, 208-209
> Casualties: Unknown, 850,000 estimated troops involved
> Location: Yangtze River, China
> Conflict: Cao Cao invasion of Southern China

Early in the third century, a warlord named Cao Cao took over the north of China after poor leadership from the Han Dynasty’s emperors led to a power vacuum. In the year 208, he turned his attention south, hoping to conquer the land south of the Yangtze River and unify China. Southern allies Liu Bei and Sun Quan partnered to fend off Cao Cao, though they were still badly outnumbered – 800,000 to 50,000 by some estimates.

The two sides met at the Battle of Red Cliffs at the port city of Jiangling on the Yangtze River. Cao Cao’s troops won the first skirmish with southern forces and received word a southern general wanted to defect. In actuality, the general sent a boat full of flammable materials careening into the tightly-packed northern fleet, setting it ablaze. Cao Cao retreated to rule the north, leaving Lui Bei and Sun Quan to control southern China. The Battle of Red Cliffs spelled the end of the Han Dynasty and determined how China would be divided among the three rulers during the Three Kingdoms period.

Source: 101561334@N08 / Flickr

3. The Battle of Yamen, March 19, 1279
> Casualties: 100,000 Chinese casualties, a few thousand casualties for the Yuan Mongols
> Location: Yamen, South China Sea
> Conflict: Mongol invasion of China

The Mongol empire and the Song Dynasty partnered up to overthrow China’s Jin Dynasty in 1234. Shortly after, however, they became enemies, when the Mongols invaded in the hopes of taking over the country. The Mongols, buoyed by consistent success on the battlefield, established the Yuan Dynasty in 1271.

The Mongols conquered much of China throughout the 1270s, taking the capital in 1276 and pushing the Song forces to Yamen in southern China. Song forces prepared for a final battle in 1279. Though the Mongols were outnumbered, their superior fighting skill quickly overwhelmed the Song fleet. Nearly 100,000 Song troops were killed in the battle, with relatively few Mongol deaths. When defeat was imminent, Emperor Bing leapt into the sea – ending the Song Dynasty and beginning the reign of the Yuan Dynasty.

Source: Photos.com / PHOTOS.com>> via Getty Images

4. The Battle of Lepanto, Oct. 7, 1571
> Casualties: Around 8,000 casualties for each side
> Location: Gulf of Patras, Greece
> Conflict: Ottoman invasion of Cyprus

The Battle of Lepanto in 1571 marked a major turning point in the ongoing wars between the Ottoman Empire and allied fleets from Christian nations. The Ottomans expanded their land holdings into the Mediterranean throughout the 1500s, invading the Venetian outpost of Famagusta on the island of Cyprus.

The Venetians appealed to Pope Pius V for help from Christian nations, and he convinced Spain, Genoa, Malta, and others to enter the fray. The so-called Holy Fleet engaged the Ottoman Navy in the Gulf of Patras. After heavy fighting, the Ottomans were repelled, and some 15,000 Christian slaves were liberated. The battle marked the first time Christian forces were able to stop the Ottomans from advancing into the Mediterranean.

Source: Wittayayut / iStock Editorial via Getty Images

5. The Battle of Trafalgar, Oct. 21, 1805
> Casualties: 1,587 British casualties, 16,000 French and Spanish estimated killed or wounded
> Location: Cape Trafalgar, Spain
> Conflict: Napoleonic Wars

The Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 established the British Navy as the preeminent aquatic fighting force in the world. At this point, Napoleon Bonaparte and his forces had captured much of mainland Europe in the Napoleonic Wars and had tried to invade Britain the year before.

Napoleon’s combined French and Spanish fleet sailed from Cadiz in southern Spain to support Napoleon’s attempts to expand his empire east by taking Austria. The British, led by Admiral Horatio Nelson, attacked the Franco-Spanish fleet after it set sail to prevent any future attacks on Britain. Though the British were hobbled and outgunned, they split into two columns and attacked the front and the back. Nelson was killed in the fighting, but the British won a decisive victory, thwarting any further attempts by Napoleon to take Britain.

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