The 10 Largest Naval Battles in History

Disclosure: International Relations Careers may be compensated by course providers.

Throughout the annals of human history, pivotal naval battles have left an indelible mark on the fate of nations, altering the course of wars and shaping the world as we know it. From the clash of mighty armadas to the daring feats of naval strategy, these moments of maritime conflict have resonated through time, their impact rippling far beyond the ocean’s expanse. In this article, we delve into the realm of naval warfare and present ten historic battles that not only tipped the scales of victory but also left an enduring legacy.

#1 Battle of the Red Cliffs (The greatest naval battle in history)

Towards the end of China’s Han dynasty, two southern warlords faced a numerically superior opponent from the north. This battle is cited as the greatest naval battle in history. The northern warlord Cao Cao claimed to have sent 800,000 warriors to occupy the regions south of the Yangtze River. However, these were only engagements with a much smaller army of approximately 50,000 soldiers. Southern generals Sun Quan and Liu Bei led this army at the Battle of the Red Cliffs. Cao Cao’s commanders questioned whether his reinforcements numbered 800,000. In any case, the southern generals were vastly outnumbered but kept their northern rival at bay due to superior naval expertise. This confrontation helped form the two southern dynasties, beginning the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history.

#2 Battle of Lepanto (The biggest clash of galleys in history)

The Battle of Lepanto is the biggest clash of galleys in history and one of the most famous naval battles. Almost five hundred galleys, with transport ships and over sixty thousand people, participated in it. The Battle was part of a military conflict called the War of Cyprus (1570 – 1573). The Battle of Lepanto was a battle at an ancient fortress between Ottoman naval forces on the one hand and the combined Christian fleets of Spain, the Republic of Venice, the Italian city-states, and the Vatican on the other. United in the Holy League, fought on October 7, 1571, in which the Christian forces won a convincing victory and ended the Ottoman hegemony at sea. The Battle lasted five hours and was fought at the entrance to the Gulf of Patras, 14 kilometers from the city of Lepanto. The Holy League achieved victory thanks to several factors. Mostly, it was due to supremacy in artillery and firearms in general.

#3 The Battle of Jutland (The largest battle in WWI)

The Battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle of the First World War, and the only one in which battleships fought each other, began on May 31, 1916. The battle took place north of the Danish peninsula of Jutland, in the North Sea, effectively lasting only a few hours. The High Seas Fleet of the Imperial German Navy under the command of Vice Admiral Scheer and the Grand Fleet of the British Royal Navy under Admiral Jellicoe were engaged. Two large fleets with a total of 250 ships entered the conflict. Fourteen British and eleven German ships were sunk, with a great loss of manpower. After the battle, both sides claimed victory, but the outcome was essentially indecisive. The British lost more ships and twice as many sailors, but Scheer’s plan to destroy a significant part of the British fleet failed. Since then, the Germans concentrated exclusively on submarine warfare, and the High Seas Fleet was not active in combat until the end of the war.

#4 The Battle of Actium (The largest Civil War Battle)

The Battle of Actium was a civil war naval battle between Mark Antony and Octavian held on September 2, 31 BC, not far from the present-day city of Preveza, in the Ionian Sea. Octavian’s fleet was commanded by Marcus Vipsania Agrippa. Antony’s fleet was assisted by Cleopatra, queen of Egypt. Octavian’s victory brought him the titles of princeps and August, the first Roman emperor. For this reason, the date of the battle is often used to mark the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire. Octavian’s fleet contained about 250 warships, mostly smaller vessels of the Liburnian type. Mark Antony’s fleet was more numerous and consisted of typical Roman quadriremes and quinqueremes (ships with 4 or 5 rows of oars) and large war galleys, most of which had as many as ten rows of oars. Although very resilient and powerful, Antony’s ships could not manoeuvre well. Their crews were decimated by disease, while Octavian’s sailors were healthy and experienced. Furthermore, one of Antony’s commanders defected to Octavian and revealed Antony’s war plans to him.

#5 The Battle of Leyte Gulf (Largest naval battle in history of modern warfare)

On October 23, 1944, by many standards, the largest naval battle in the history of warfare – the Battle of Leyte Gulf began. It took place on the Pacific front in World War II and pitted the Japanese against the combined American and Australian forces. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the Battle of Leyte Gulf is the largest naval battle in history by the number of ships and aircraft.

Leyte Gulf is located in the Philippine Islands and opens to the Philippine Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The battle involved as many as 34 American aircraft carriers. The Japanese had significantly fewer carriers in that battle – only four, which put them in a bad position. As many as 44 cruisers and 21 battleships were involved on both sides.

In the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the famous battleships Yamato and Musashi (the world’s largest ever built battleships) participated on the Japanese side. The giant Musashi was sunk in that battle, despite its metal armour being up to 65 centimetres thick (it was hit by as many as 19 torpedoes and 17 bombs during that battle).

#6 The Battle of Yamen (One of the most significant naval battles)

The Mongol victory in the Battle of Yamen in 1279 ended the Song dynasty in imperial China. With more than 1,000 ships and around 230,000 participants, the battle is considered one of the most significant naval battles in history. The Mongols, who defeated the massive Chinese army with slightly more than 50 ships and 20,000 sailors after the victory, founded the Yuan dynasty, which ruled China for the next century. Although the Mongols had ten times fewer ships than the Song dynasty, with skillful tactics they inflicted a catastrophic defeat in which not only the fleet of the Song dynasty was destroyed, but all members of the dynasty were liquidated, after which all of China fell under Mongol rule.

#7 The Battle at Cape Ecnomus (The greatest naval battle of the ancient era)

In the spring of 256 BC, the two consuls Gaius Atilius Regulus and Lucius Manlius Vulso Longus, with 330 warships and 39,000 soldiers loaded on transport ships to undertake an expedition to Carthage. However, the Carthaginian fleet noticed this in time, so 350 Carthaginian warships under the command of commander Hamilcar Barcas were sent to meet the Roman fleet. Both fleets will meet and battle at Cape Ecnomus in the south of Sicily. It will be another magnificent naval battle, which will be characterized by unusual ways of conducting and a kind of operation, very strange, but logical battle formations of ships. This battle happened during the First Punic War and is considered the greatest naval battle of the ancient era and one of the greatest in history.

#8 The Battle of Salamis (One of the largest naval battles in antiquity)

Among the important Greek victories over the Persians, the one at Salamis certainly counts the most. On that island, not far from Piraeus, it took place at the beginning of October 480 BC. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Battle of Salamis was decisive between Asia and Europe. The Athenian statesman and strategist Themistocles, after the victory of the Persians over the Greek land army at Thermopylae, evacuated Athens and gathered the Allied Greek fleet. It was almost two-thirds smaller than the Persian fleet, which had around 1,200 ships. The Greeks were also helped by a storm in their victory over the Persians, which, according to some sources, destroyed a good part of the fleet. However, Themistocles’ strategy was decisive, with the help of which he separated the Persian forces by deception. As a battlefield, he chose a shallow and narrow bay where all the Persian forces could not be engaged immediately. An important role also belonged to triremes, ancient Greek warships with three rows of oars, a sail and two sharp beaks that pierced bulky Persian ships (biremes).

#9 The Battle of Trafalgar (One of the most significant naval battles on the high seas)

The Battle of Trafalgar stands as an epochal event in the annals of naval warfare, etching its place in history as one of the most significant clashes ever fought on the high seas. Unfolding on October 21, 1805, this monumental confrontation witnessed the triumphant British fleet vanquish the combined forces of France and Spain. In an audacious bid to prepare for the invasion of England, the combined fleets of France and Spain meticulously assembled their formidable armada of 33 ships of the line and five frigates at the port of Cadiz. News of this gathering reached the brilliant tactician, Admiral Nelson, who swiftly maneuvered his fleet of 27 ships of the line and four frigates to confront the imminent threat.

The French-Spanish fleet boasted a numerical advantage, with superior ships, weaponry, and manpower. Yet, the British forces, under the indomitable leadership of Admiral Nelson, were driven by an unwavering determination to protect their homeland and ensure the sovereignty of their nation. Tragically, during the heat of battle, Admiral Nelson sustained a mortal wound, sacrificing his life for the cause he held dear. However, his leadership and tactical brilliance had already left an indelible mark on the outcome of the battle.

#10 The Battle of Midway (The most significant naval Battle of WWII)

The battle took place in the Pacific during World War II. It started on June 4, 1942, and lasted until June 7. Historians agree that this was the most important naval battle of the war. It happened between the United States of America and Japan. The USA stopped the Japanese attack on the coral island of Midway, and in that attack, they were left without one aircraft carrier and a destroyer, but they still managed to sink 4 Japanese aircraft carriers. This Battle of Midway permanently disabled the Imperial Japanese Navy, and the Americans won a decisive victory. Both opposing forces lost a lot in the battle. Following the destructive encounter, Japan found itself facing significant challenges in rebuilding its naval forces, hampered by the loss of key resources and infrastructure. Meanwhile, the United States had already embarked on a robust shipbuilding program and had diligently trained a new generation of pilots, enabling them to swiftly recover and regroup. As the dust settled, the staggering toll of the battle became apparent—322 Japanese planes lay in ruins, contrasting with the comparatively lower count of 150 aircraft lost by the United States.