An Ocean of Danger: 5 of History’s Most Epic Naval Battles

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A life on the ocean waves, a world of adventure awaited many a young man who got dead drunk on gin in the port towns of England. Wandering from tavern to tavern accidentally bumping into a gentleman, who would knock him unconscious, steal his money, and shanghai him, the young lad would then wake up on a ship bound for some tropical paradise, where diseases and danger would await him.

The danger could come in many forms, more often than not a sailor would die of disease, but occasionally the sailor would be unlucky enough to be involved in an epic sea battle. Here are the top five sea battles of the early modern period.

Map of the Battle of Myeongnyang. WordPress

1597 – Battle of Myeongnyang

The Miracle of Myeongnyang. This legendary aquatic offensive happened during the Joseon dynasty in Korea, a golden age for Korean culture. The battle took place during the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592-98). This battle had everything, insurmountable odds, a hero who had been arrested for treason, turtle ships, and kimchi. This battle cemented Admiral Yi as a true Korean hero and the greatest naval commander of all time.

By the time of the battle, the Korean military had suffered devastating defeats at the hands of the Japanese. Admiral Won had led a disastrous campaign against the Japanese navy. After the Battle of Chilcheollyang, only 12 of 134 Korean ships were left, the battle also brought about the death of Admiral Won and the hope of Korea controlling the sea was all but lost. In a time of emergency, Admiral Yi was reinstated as Head Admiral of a navy that could boast only 12 ships against a Japanese navy with vastly more ships. The odds and educated opinion were against Admiral Yi. The King and his court urged Yi to concentrate on the ground forces, Yi made a spirited and passionate argument for a naval force.

The King gave Yi the go-ahead to continue fighting at sea, and this is where the real problem began. The Japanese navy numbered 330 ships, Korea had 13, yes 13 ships. The veteran Admiral used all his naval know how to try and turn the odds in his favour. He picked a location to confront the Japanese that would lure the enemy into a long narrow strait with a very fast current. The location was the Myeongnyang Strait, near Jindo Island. At its narrowest point, the strait is about 293 metres (961 feet) across. The small area meant only a small number of ships could enter the strait and fight at the same time.

Admiral Yi’s preparation for the battle was methodical, he set underwater traps of iron ropes to be used as a blockade, the ropes would catch the Japanese ships and smash them into one another in the narrow strait. Admiral Yi believed wholeheartedly in the words he spoke to his officers the day before the battle;

‘If one defender stands watch by a strong gateway, he may drive terror deep into the heart of an enemy coming up by the ten thousand.’

When the battle commenced, Yi used a one line formation, with only 13 ships, that was his only option. Morale was low amongst his men, also due to the fact they only had 13 ships against 330, but the first miracle of the battle raised the morale. The dead body of a Japanese general was spotted floating in the water, Yi ordered the body to be shown to the enemy, Japanese morale dropped, and the Korean morale skyrocketed.

The currents changed direction (something Yi expected to happen) this meant the Japanese had to retreat right into the traps. The Japanese ships collided and smashed into each other. By the end of the battle, 31 Japanese ships were sunk and 90 were severely damaged. No Korean ships were lost.

And where does the kimchi come in? The reason why Korean sailors did not suffer from the same diseases (scurvy) as their western counterparts was due to the fermented cabbage which is rich in vitamin C.

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  • svlemur

    Trafalgar? Actium? Midway? Most epic Naval Battles no one has heard of? Except for The Spanish Armada, which was destroyed more by storms, starvation and disease than the efforts of Howard and Drake at Gravelines..

    • Robert, not Bob

      I’d have said the article was about more obscure battles most people would be unfamiliar with, except for the Spanish Armada.

    • Mark Walker

      And let’s also not forget Leyte Gulf.

    • Christopher Shelley

      Nor Salamis, 480 BC.

      • Davesandbrook

        Or Coral Sea? The first naval battle in history where ships did not fire on each other — the first sea battle that was fought exclusively by carrier launched aircraft by both sides.

  • lawguy

    Lepanto, Salamis, Actium? Probably need more than just 5.

  • Dodge Ram 10

    Jutland, Midway, Leyte gulf, Phillipine sea, This article is lightweight on being complete.

    • Robert McIntire

      The author didn’t claim to include the top five, just five. Jutland and Midway certainly turned the tide (so to speak) of their conflicts but Leyte Gulf and the Phillipine Sea really would only have slowed the inevitable American victory had they turned out differently.