The Largest Naval Battles of All Time

The Battle of the Philippine Sea, from June 19 to June 21, 1944, between the Japanese and US navy fleets.
The Battle of the Philippine Sea, from June 19 to June 21, 1944, between the Japanese and US navy fleets.

Since the early days of civilization, various naval battles have been fought up until the early 20th century. In each of these naval battles, technological advances have been a factor in victories and defeats. Also, the sheer scale of these naval battles have made a select few achieve the distinction of being the largest naval battles of all time.

9. Battle of Salamis

On September 480 BC, the naval Battle of Salamis was fought between the Greek City states and the Persian Empire ruled by the brutal King Xerxes. It was fought in the straits in the middle of Piraeus and Salamis Island in the Saronic Gulf that borders Athens, Greece. The Battle of Salamis was triggered by Persians who had occupied the city of Athens city burned it. This caused the Athenians to flee to Salamis after the Battle of Thermopylae in August 480 BC that pitted Persian King Xerxes versus King Leonidas of Sparta. The Athenians were joined in Salamis by the Greeks after the 480 BC August-September Battle of Artemisium between the Greek and the Persian army. The Greeks and their allies at Salamis began to ready themselves to retake their territory from the Persians who had 1207 navy ships. These ships were more than those of the Greeks and their allies. King Xerxes decided to attack at dawn after receiving false intelligence that the Athenians were turning against their allies. But the Greeks and their allies attacked the flanks of the Persian naval fleet on the narrow Salamis strait. The Greeks defeated them and sunk at least 200 Persian battle ships. By midnight, the soldiers of the navy of Xerxes stationed at Psyttaleia had also been killed by the Greeks and their allies. The Battle of Salamis saved Greece from being forcefully incorporated into the Persian Empire, and ushered the first emergence of Western Civilization into the world.

8. Battle of Cape Ecnomus

Fought in 256 BCE, the Battle of Cape Ecnomus was a series of three First Punic war battles fought between the Roman Republic and the Carthaginian Empire. It is also one of the largest battles in ancient history. The Battle of Cape Ecnomus was fought at Cape Ecnomus, the modern day Poggio di Sant'Angelo in Licata, Sicily Italy. It began when the Romans dispatched a fleet of over 330 battle ships from Sicily to Africa to strike the Carthaginian homeland, today called the Tunis Governorate in Tunisia. Before the Roman Navy fleet crossed the Mediterranean, they faced 350 Cathaginian navy ships near the modern day Licata in Sicily. Both sides each had an army of over 140,000 at their front lines but the experienced Romans prevailed, and continued onto Africa. The Romans' aim was to shift their battle with the Carthaginians into their own territory rather than fight in Sicily, their territory. The Roman navy fleet was commanded by consuls Marcus Atilius Regulus and Lucius Manlius, and the Carthaginian were commanded by Hanno the elder. Although the Roman navy was inexperienced, they came up with a plan to defeat the well drilled Carthaginian navy. The Roman fleet divided itself into four squadrons and they began by attacking the Carthaginian navy at the center. The Carthaginian had formulated its front line in a line. This tactic made them vulnerable and they got surrounded and overrun by four Roman navy squadrons. At the end of the battle of Cape Ecnomus, the Romans captured 64 Carthaginians ships plus their crews, without any of their ships falling into Carthaginians hands.

7. Battle of Red Cliffs

The naval Battle of Red Cliffs, also called the Battle of Chibi, was fought at the end of the Han dynasty, and twelve years before the start of the Three Chinese Kingdoms. This battle was fought during the AD 208/9 AD winter at Chibi in Hubei Province. The Battle of the Red Cliffs was between the armies of Liu Bei and Sun Huan, both southern warlords, against the armies of Cao Cao, the northern warlord who controlled the unified northern China and North China plain. Armies of Liu Bei and Sun Quan were able to repel Cao Cao's plans to conquer land to the south of Yangtze River. As a result, Liu Ben and Sun Quan reunited the Eastern Han Dynasty and gained control of Yangtze. Controlling the Yangtze gave them a defense line which caused the creation of Shu Han and Eastern Wu which were both southern states. As a way to discourage the southern warlords, Cao Cao first sent a letter to Sun Huan bragging he had an army numbering up to 800,000 men. In reality, his troop numbers were only close to 230,000, while the Liu Bei and San Huan led southern naval fleet of about 50,000 well trained marines. During the Battle of the Red Cliffs, Cao Cao’s men who had little naval battle experience became seasick and demoralized. In order to try gain an upper hand, Cao Cao ordered the ships he commanded to be tied together. In the meantime, Sun Huan ordered some of his army men led by Huang Gai to feign defection to Cao Cao’s side. The ruse worked and Cao Cao allowed them to sail near his ships at Yangtze River without his army attacking them. It was then that Huang Gai’s men lit their ships on fire and they became floating fireballs which lit and burned up Cao Cao's ships which were bound together. Huang Gai’s men managed to escape with small boats, however the Cao Cao naval army drowned while attempting to escape their burning ships while others remained trapped in the burning flames. These losses were immense for Cao Cao and he escaped through the swamps around Red Cliff towards his northern China base.

6. Battle of the Masts

The naval Battle of the Masts, fought in 655 AD, pitted Muslim Arabs who were led by General Abu L-Awar against the Orthodox Christian Byzantines commanded by Emperor Constans II. This battle was fought in Constantinople, which is known today as Istanbul. It was the then capital of Roman/Byzantine empires. The Battle of Masts was triggered by Arabs who desired to conquer Constantinople like they had to provinces in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and parts of the Middle East. They planned to attack through the Sea of Marmara. To repel the attack, Emperor Constans II with his naval fleet of 500 ships pursued and caught up with the 200 naval Arab ships at the Turkish Port of Finike. The over-confident Constans II navy attacked the Arabs navy hastily, without planning an attack formation, expecting to crush them with one assault. Against all odds, the outnumbered Arab navy destroyed the Byzantine navy to shreds. The defeated Byzantines fled and left their fleet to be destroyed by a storm. Their emperor Constans II disguised himself as a seaman to escape. The Sea of Marmara was stained with blood, and bodies from the Battle of the Masts were piled at the shores. Since the battle was fought by the navy ships in up-close style, it got the name the Battle of the Masts.

5. Battle of Yamen

On March 19th, 1279, the naval Battle of Yamen took place in Yamen, China. This is one of the four naval battles fought during the Song and Yuan dynasties reigns in China. The Battle of Yamen was between the Song’s dynasty versus the invading Mongol’s Yuan dynasty. Yet it was won by the Mongol’s Yuan dynasty that was outnumbered 10:1 by the Song’s Dynasty’s navy. The defeat marked the final fall of the Song Dynasty. During the battle of Yamen, the Yuan naval forces led by Zhang Hongfan attacked the Song’s naval fleet in Yamen led by General Zhang Shijie. Though some soldiers commanded by General Shijie called for an attack to conquer the bay mouth and open the way for retreating westwards, the general disagreed. Instead he had the 1000 naval warships chained together with Emperor Bing’s boat positioned at the center of the fleet. The Yuan ships attacked Song’s ship with fire ships but Song’s troops repelled their attacks using fire resistant mud ships. The Yuan army also stopped wood and fresh water supplies to Song’s forces and their navy by blockading the bay. As a result, the General Shijie led Song’s forces had to drink seawater and they fell ill. His nephew was also kidnapped by the Yuan forces and they urged Shijie to surrender three times but he continued to fight on. The Yuan forces also ran a Trojan attack strategy on the Song’s naval forces which resulted in over 100,000 of Song’s forces dead from drowning or fighting. The dead also included the Emperor Bing of the Song Dynasty.

4. Battle of Lake Poyang

The Battle of Lake Poyang was fought between the naval forces of two Chinese rebel leaders, Chen Youliang and Zhu Yuanzhang. It occurred on August 30th 1363, and was among the final battles fought as the Mongol led Yuan dynasty fell. The battle of Lake Poyang was fought to determine which rebel group would lead the Chinese empire since the Mongol led Yuan dynasty had began disintegrating from the mid 14th Century. Zhu Yuanzhang led the Ming group, while Chen Youliang led the Han group. Each dynasty was from a different part of China. Their battle was fought in China’s largest freshwater, Lake Poyang. During the Battle of Lake Poyang, new warfare technology was used like firearms, gunpowder, and floating fortresses called tower ships. This battle had a fleet of over 100 Han group tower vessels and a smaller Ming Chinese flotilla boats. To win the Battle of Lake Poyang, the Ming group used fires ships “captained” by dummies. They filled the fishing boats with straw and set them alight. Once the floating fire ships reached the Han ships, they ignited and burned them, forcing the Han group to retreat. Almost a million soldiers and sailors were involved in the Battle of Lake Poyang which ended on October 4th, 1363. The Han leader, Chen Youliang, died after being shot through the head with an arrow and the Han battalion collapsed. After the Ming group won the battle, they ruled China for 276 years until 1644. Their leader Zhu Yuanzhang also became the powerful Ming Dynasty’s first emperor.

3. Battle of Jutland

The Battle of Jutland was World War I’s largest naval battle. It took place from May 31st to June 1st 1916 on Denmark’s North Sea coast. This bloody battle involved 250 naval battle ships and about 100,000 men. The battle started after the German high seas fleet attempted to weaken the British Royal Navy by ambushing their fleet at the North Sea. German Admiral, Reinhard Scheer wanted to bait Admiral Sir David Beatty’s battle cruiser force and Admiral Sir John Jellicoe’s Grand fleet in order to destroy them. Scheer wanted to attack and destroy Beatty’s force before Jellicoe arrived, but the British were warned by code breakers, and they stationed their forces early into the sea. Nonetheless, the Germans used their shells to destroy HMS Lion and sink HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary under Beatty’s command. As a result Beatty retreated until Jellicoe's main fleet arrived. The arrival of Jellicoe's fleet caused the Germans to be outgunned and they retreated. In the Battle of Jutland, the British lost 14 ships and over 6000 men, while the Germans lost 11 ships and over 2500 men. Afterwards, the Germans could never challenge the British control of the North Sea. As a result, the British assumed naval dominance over the North Sea shipping lanes and their blockade caused the Germans to be defeated in 1918.

2. Battle of the Philippine Sea

The Battle of the Philippine Sea was fought during World War II. This two day naval battle was fought from June 19th to June 20th 1944, between the Japanese and US navy fleets. The battle of the Philippine Sea pitted nine Japanese carriers against fifteen American navy carriers in Task Force 58. It was triggered by the US invasion of Saipan, a Japanese base in Mariana Islands, on June 15th 1944. As a result, the Japanese naval force under Admiral Soemu Toyoda sent planes to fight the US naval warships commanded by Admiral Raymond Spruance. The intention was to halt the US naval warships advancing in the Pacific Sea and secure Saipan so that the Japanese could station their troops there. However, the US conducted large scale attacks on the Japanese supply chain ships that supplied its fleets. During the battle of the Philippine Sea, the Japanese lost three aircraft carriers, two oilers, and 600 planes while the US lost 120 planes. With his air warplanes significantly destroyed, Admiral Toyoda ordered his navy fleet to retreat at night. These losses was a significant cause in the Japanese Imperial Navy’s lack of ability in conducting large scale aircraft carrier operations against Allied Powers.

1. Battle of Leyte Gulf

The Battle of Leyte Gulf was an air and naval battle that began on October 23 1944, on the Island of Leyte in the Philippines. It started after Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita of the Imperial Japanese Navy led his fleet to the Island of Leyte in Philippines to fight US troops during World War II. The Japanese naval fleet had intended to maintain their dominance over the Philippines. In the four days of heavy fighting, the US troops led by General Douglas MacArthur decimated the Japanese navy using their submarines. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Musashi, Japan’s most powerful and superior battleship was sunk by US warplanes on October 24 1944. On October 26 what remained of the Japanese navy fleet retreated and left the US and her allies controlling the Pacific Ocean, and the Battle of Leyte Gulf ended. This battle saw General MacArthur honor the promise that he had made in 1942 to return to the Philippines. It is considered the greatest battle in naval warfare history due to the sheer scale of the battle.


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