Saturday, 25 July 2020

Otranto 1480

It is a fact well known among wargamers, particularly of the early modern persuasion, that the Ottoman Empire menaced Europe from roughly 1453 to 1683, that is from the fall of Constantinople to the failure of the Siege of Vienna.

Many wargamers will also have in mind the strategic problems encountered from both sides. The sheer distance involved in moving troops from Constantinople to Vienna, for example, leading to a significant lead time and hence a shorter campaigning season in south-eastern Europe. There is also the distance from one end of the Mediterranean Sea to the other – about 300 days sailing according to Braudel. Furthermore, and largely ignored by European commentators, is the fact that the Ottomans had to face both the Europeans in south east Europe, the Spanish and Italians in the Mediterranean, the Egyptians (until 1520 or so) and the Persians in the East, not to mention the Portuguese in East Africa, the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.

It is probably less well known that the Ottomans did in fact land in the obvious place, on the boot of Italy, in the late fifteenth century. This even is often ignored or relegated to, at best, a footnote. So far as I can tell, Oman’s History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages ignores it. Rhoades Murphy mentions it, although to be fair it is a little before the time frame of his book (Murphey, R., Ottoman Warfare 1500 - 1700 (London: UCL, 1999) p. 6).

The most extensive text-book discussion of the event I have found is in Thomas Arnold’s chapter in one of Black’s edited books (Black, J., ed. European Warfare 1453 - 1815 (London: Macmillan, 1999) p. 23-44), where it gets half a paragraph. Arnold argues that while the invasion was successful, it was contained by an Italian army using earthworks and withdrawn after the death of Sultan Mehmed II in 1481.

Nevertheless, as a wargamer with an idle (although rebased)Ottoman army and a number of options for the Italian Wars, an Ottoman invasion of Italy seemed like an interesting idea. I also have a renaissance galley fleet or two awaiting repair, restoration and rebasing which I have not persuaded myself to undertake as yet. Still, the question has been asked – what actually happened?

In my perusal of ResearchGate I ran across a highly appropriate article:

Giakoumis, K., 'The Ottoman Campaign to Otranto and Apulia (1480-1481)', in Güzel, H. C., Oğuz, C. C. and Karatay, O. (eds.), The Turks (Ankara, 2002), 3 (Ottomans), 279 - 309.

It is amazing what you can find if you look for it. Now, this is a scan (uploaded, as it happens in 2019) of the article, and it seems a page or two are missing, but it does give a lot of detail for the budding campaigner.

On 28th July 1480 the Ottoman army landed in Apulia and besieged the city of Otranto. Otranto is, of course, right on the boot bit of Italy, opposite the now Ottoman controlled Albanian coast. The Ottomans were, in fact, powerful enough to undertake both this operation and the siege of Rhodes at the same time. Not only that, but the Italian states were, inevitably, fighting among themselves in the north, and this included that army of King Ferdinand I of Naples.

The number of invaders is, of course, unknown and somewhat contested – 15,000 men in 100 ships is one suggestion from a chronicle. Other estimates range from under 10,000 to 18,000. Giakoumis suggests about 15,000 including oarsmen from the ships.

This force, whatever its size, besieged and captured Otranto by the 14th August 1480, captured some surrounding fortresses and raided widely, hitting Taranto and Brisindi. The commander, Gedik Ahmed Pasha left a garrison of 8,000 and returned to his base of Vlore to prepare to exploit the success in the next year.

Of course, Ferdinand I did react to the invasion, and recalled his army from the north on 2nd August. However, by the time they arrived near Otranto the city had fallen and the Italians only had 3,000 troops, so they were heavily outnumbered. Although appeals were sent to the rest of Europe for aid, no one seemed that interested in helping. The most significant response was by the Pope, who sent some money to Ferdinand, but also sent 50,000 ducats to the Hungarian king, Matthias Corvus to attack the northern borders of the Ottomans.

The absence of the Ottoman fleet enabled pirates to raid near Vlore, and the local population of Epiros and Albania incited by members of the Albanian nobility rebelled, threatening supplies line between Istanbul and Vlore. In spring 1481 Gedik Ahmed Pasha was forced to send some of the troops he had been gathering for Italy to suppress the rebels; they were defeated.

On 3rd May 1481 Mehmed II died, leading to a civil war in the empire between Bayezid and Jem, his sons. Gedik Ahmed Pasha left Albania on 1st June for Constantinople, having sided with Bayezid, and defeated Jem on 20th June. Bayezid appointed Suleyman Pasha as beylerbey of Rumelia, but Suleyman had plenty of problems on his plate with the rebellion of Epiros cutting communications with Otranto and Vlore having insufficient troops to garrison the place and protect the fleet.

In August 1481 the Neapolitans transported John Castriota and a small army to Albania where after a failed attempt he defeated an Ottoman force. Suleyman Pasha recognised that his fortresses at Himarre and Sopot were at serious risk of falling to the rebels, and would be used as posts to attack Ottoman costal shipping and Vlore. His attempt to relieve Himarre was ambushed and he was captured. Sopot and Himarre fell to the rebels and, without support, Otranto surrendered on 10th September 1481.

The Ottomans returned to Albania in 1482 and put down the rebels, but did not attempt to cross the Adriatic again. Italy had survived, but not really through its own force, more by encouraging rebellion on the opposite shore.

So, there you are an interesting idea for a battle or campaign. I am planning to have a go at it myself soon, so I will see how I get on. As a plus point, the Ottomans and Neapolitans do not seem to have fought at sea, so the galleys can remain a future rebasing project.


  1. Most interesting post,what rules will you use to fight this battle?

    1. Thank you. My own (see the rules page on the right), or DBA would work. It does rather depend on what you want and how much besieging goes on.