20 October 1827

An illustration by William Overend (1851–98) for Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, published in 1874, shows the British ship Asia engaging two Turkish ships during the Battle of Navarino Bay on 20 October 1827. The vessels were only a few metres apart during the bombardment.

The modern states of Greece and Egypt both owe their path to independence to a battle fought at an inlet in the western Peloponnese between a small squadron of British, French and Russian ships and the fleet of the Ottoman sultan. The battle had not been planned by either side, nor was it clearly directed at the independence or otherwise of either of its eventual beneficiaries, but it helped to end centuries of Turkish domination in the Balkans and did so in the most dangerous of circumstances. The battle in Navarino Bay was fought at close quarters after a mixed squadron, commanded by Vice Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, had sailed into the midst of the enemy fleet to frighten the Ottoman leaders into abandoning a savage campaign against the local Greek population. Crews on both sides bravely kept their place when they suddenly found themselves subjected to point-blank fire. Although at an immediate tactical disadvantage, the European ships stuck to their task with a grim and courageous determination and won an unexpected conflict.

The Greek struggle against Ottoman rule had begun in 1821. By 1827, a ferocious campaign of repression waged by the Turks and their Egyptian vassals had left only a few areas of Greece in nationalist hands. Despite public sympathy in Christian Europe for the Greek cause, concern that the balance of power would be upset by an Ottoman defeat prevented any formal commitment to the Greeks. The atrocities in Greece nevertheless called for a response and in July 1827, Britain, France and Russia signed the Treaty of London, in which they agreed to pressure both sides in the war to accept mediation and end the violence. A small fleet set off from Russia commanded by Admiral Count Lodewijk van Heiden, while the British and French Mediterranean squadrons were instructed to engage in a ‘friendly demonstration of force’ to make sure an armistice was observed. Codrington found the expression puzzling, since force could seldom be friendly, while the Sultan in Constantinople and the Egyptian commander in Greece, the shrewd and ruthless Ibrahim Pasha, rejected out of hand any idea that the European powers had the right to intervene in their efforts to crush Greek insurrection. Instead, they assembled a large fleet in Alexandria and sent it to the Peloponnese to help finish the task of suppression. The fleet entered the small bay at Navarino on the western coast of Greece.

The orders sent to the three European naval squadrons were never very precise and Codrington arrived off the coast at Navarino uncertain how to proceed. He was joined by the French ships under command of Admiral Henri de Rigny, while Heiden’s force was still on its way through the Mediterranean. The British and French commanders met Ibrahim Pasha on 25 September in an attempt to persuade him to accept the armistice, which the Greek nationalists had already done. Ibrahim refused, and a few days later he slipped out of Navarino Bay with part of his fleet to sail for Patras and drive out the nationalist garrison there. Codrington, though outnumbered, forced him to return. Ibrahim defiantly set off by land and began a campaign of renewed savagery against the local Greek population. This proved too much for Codrington and his allies, who were all pro-Greek, and on 18 October they decided to sail into the bay at Navarino, under the shadow of Turkish guns, to intimidate the Ottoman forces into abandoning the repression and dispersing their hostile fleet. Codrington later insisted that this move was not meant as a precursor to battle, but it is difficult not to see the entry of the European ships as a direct and humiliating challenge to which the Turkish–Egyptian fleet was honour-bound to respond.

On paper, the balance of forces favoured the Turkish–Egyptian fleet commanded by Tahir Pasha and the Egyptian admiral, Moharrem Bey. Their combined fleet had 65 ships with 2,000 guns, with a small number of fire ships. The European fleet comprised 12 British, 8 Russian and 7 French ships, mounting between them 1,298 guns. The Turkish vessels were drawn up in a horseshoe formation around the bay as if already expecting battle, with the major fighting ships at the front, and the fire ships and smaller sloops behind. At 1.30 p.m. on 20 October, Codrington led his Royal Navy squadron into the bay, followed at a distance by the French under de Rigny, and finally by the Russians. Arguments have raged ever since about who started the fight, but Codrington had been keen to avoid it if possible. Both sides had itchy trigger-fingers; the guns were primed and the fire ships ready to go. When a red flag was raised as an apparent signal to the Turkish vessels, activity could be seen on the first of the fire ships. A small British boat was sent to order the crew of the fire ship to cease their preparations, but the sailors were fired on and the officer killed. A few minutes later a Turkish ship fired on de Rigny’s flagship Sirène and a general battle started almost at once, with the ships from both sides firing from only a few metres’ distance apart – point-blank cannonades backed by rifle fire from the marines.

What followed was an extraordinary mêlée as the ships, mostly at anchor, tried to shift away from the worst of the broadsides while inflicting as much damage as possible on the enemy. European guns and gunnery were generally superior, but the Turkish sailors stuck to their task with exceptional bravery, as British accounts later confirmed, even while their ships caught fire, or, in some cases, exploded with a deafening roar. Codrington’s flagship Asia destroyed the Turkish flagship of Tahir Pasha before turning to wreck the Warrior, flagship of the Egyptian commander, who had been reluctant to enter the fray at all. The water was soon filled with wreckage, struggling sailors and mutilated corpses; many Turkish sailors were chained to their posts and unable to escape into the sea. The only tactic, one British sailor later wrote, was ‘burn, sink and destroy’. When Heiden’s squadron finally sailed into position, firing with great effect, the battle had already been decided. Heiden’s flagship Azov sank three frigates, one corvette and a sixty-gun ship of the line, which blew up after half an hour of bombardment.

After more than three hours of fighting, the Turkish fleet abandoned the contest with most of its ships destroyed or incapable. Not a single European ship was lost, while only 174 Europeans were killed; the Turkish fleet lost 60 ships and an estimated 6,000 dead. A number of the ships still afloat were deliberately blown up by the defeated Turks during the night. The battle made extraordinary demands on the crews, who found themselves in a situation from which they could not escape and which exposed them to direct and crippling fire. When Codrington visited the dying commander of Genoa, Captain Walter Bathurst, he told him, with some justice, ‘you die gloriously’. Yet little of this sacrifice was appreciated once it had been made. Codrington was summoned back to England and made to explain to a hostile parliament why he had allowed the battle to happen at all, while Ibrahim Pasha continued his depredations until compelled, under the terms of the Treaty of Adrianople two years later, to withdraw. The battle was, nevertheless, a turning point. Egypt finally rejected Turkish rule; Ottoman Turkey began its long decline as the ‘sick man of Europe’, and Greece recovered its independence after centuries of servitude.