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Lake Garda at War, Part Two
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
August 2008

In a previous installment, we looked at the Austrian and Italian gunboat flotillas on Lake Garda, the large Alpine lake that in 1866 formed part of the border between the Kingdom of Italy and the Austrian Empire. Austrian flotilla commander Corvetten-Capitän Moriz Manfroni von Montfort enjoyed overwhelming superiority, and used this sea control to patrol aggressively and deny the use of the lake to the Italians. In Part One, we saw the actions of the first month of war. The action picks up again in the second half of July.

Austrian Lake Dogs

On the night of 19 July, Linienschiffslieutenant Julius Joly and the Wildfang spotted the Italian steamer Benaco slipping out of Salò. The paddle steamer, towing a sailing bark (described as a "barge" in the Austrian official history, but Joly's report clearly indicates a large sailboat), made its way up the western shore of the lake, closely hugging the bank. Both vessles carried Garibaldini who probably hoped to land along the quay at the lakeside town of Gargnano, site of Wildfang's firefight two weeks earlier. The Austrian gunboat crept up the eastern side of the lake under cover of the darkening twilight, following the Italian steamer. As the lake narrowed, the two craft drew ever closer. When it became obvious that the steamer was headed for Gargnano, Joly's gunboat poured on the coal and by 8:30 p.m. had caught up with the Italians.

For ninety minutes Wildfang exchanged fire with the guns at Gargnano. Once again the Austrian gunboat lobbed shells into the town fairly indiscriminately. A strong wind blew up from the north, causing rough water conditions and making it very difficult for the tiny Italian gunboats to come out to help Benaco.


The Austrian Garda flotilla.

The gunboat Scharfschütze joined Wildfang soon afterwards and Manfroni sent the steamer Hess to keep watch on the Italian gunboats remaining at Salò, with orders to slow down any attempt to rescue Benaco. The Italian steamer and its companion sought shelter as close to the lakeshore as possible, where the Garibaldini along the bank could offer at least some protection. At some point during the night the volunteers abandoned the steamer and the sailboat, slipping ashore to join their comrades while a large force of Red Shirts gathered in the town. The two Austrian gunboats, fearing an Italian night attack, pulled away from the town under the cover of the moonless night.

At dawn on the next day the two Austrian gunboats opened fire on their trapped prey. The Garibaldini and the shore batteries replied with what Joly called "a lively fire." Another homemade armor-piercing projectile shattered itself against Wildfang's improvised armor, while much of the gunboat's rigging was carried away by Italian fire.

The Austrians then manned the small boat carried by each gunboat for a "cutting out" expedition of the type English sea dogs like Drake or Cochrane would have instantly recognized. Linienschiffs-Lieutenant Friedrich Freiherr von Haan, commander of Scharfschütze, led the boat attack on the steamer. Red Shirts poured into the town's streets and the lemon groves, blazing away at the Austrian sailors and marines in the boats. When the boats drew near Benaco, Joly reported, "They ceased fire for the most part and so we suffered no losses during this manuever." The Austrians did not apparently board the steamer immediately, but instead Haan attached a tow line from his gunboat to the Italian steamer.

Under heavy rifle fire, Scharfschütze towed away the prize. As the gunboat pulled the steamer away, Benaco's side-mounted paddle wheels began to turn, pulling Wildfang's boat under. Led by Linienschiffsfähnrich Otto Burian, Wildfang's first officer, the Austrians climbed aboard Benaco and began to brawl with the steamer's crew, who only now realized that something was wrong. Wildfang, meanwhile, stopped to pick up the capsized boat. Two sailors were hit by Red Shirt snipers during the operation, so Joly ordered the boat abandoned. Seaman Second Class Franz Fischer, already standing on the overturned hull when Joly gave the order, made fast a tow line before leaping back to the gunboat and the boat was saved anyway. After the brief skirmish with Burian's boarding party, the Italian crew of Benaco leaped overboard and swam for shore. None were taken prisoner by the Austrians, but Joly believed that several were killed and wounded by "friendly" Red Shirt rifle fire.


Peschiera and Lake Garda, seen form the south.

The two Austrian gunboats shepherded their prize into Peschiera's harbor. The Austrians found a small cannon with ammunition and some rifle ammunition in the steamer's holds. Manfroni in his report declared that the Benaco was "armed with one cannon" (making her a warship, not a transport, and her seizure thus far more prestigious) but this is an exaggeration; Joly clearly considered the weapon cargo, not armament. The only Austrian losses in the operation were three sailors wounded by rifle fire.

The Italian gunboat flotilla at Salò, the Austrian official history noted with some sarcasm, "made no attempt to rescue the ships." This was not entirely true. The next morning, all five Italian gunboats shot out of Salò's harbor to attack the gunboat Raufbold, then cruising off Point San Vigilio. The Italian gunboats and the Maderno battery fired about 100 shots at Raufbold without effect, Manfroni reported.

On the next afternoon the Italian squadron did leave Salò, escorting a large sailboat toward Gargnano. The Italians turned back when the Austrian gunboat Uskoke spotted the convoy and Speiteufel and Wespe came up in support.

Last Stand at Riva

The Italian squadron left Salò again on the night of 24 July. This time the Italian gunboats remained close to the protective shore batteries and came out just far enough to open fire on Scharfschütze, then cruising offshore. Once again the Austrian gunboat signalled for support, and Speiteufel and Uskoke came down from the upper end of the lake to join in the skirmish. The three Austrian gunboats then charged directly at the Italian squadron, without opening fire. The Italian gunboats quickly withdrew into the harbor of Salò, with Scharfschütze pursuing them well into the range of the shore batteries, though no hits were recorded by either side.

That evening Wespe arrived to join her three sisters, bringing word that the Austrian ground forces had abandoned Riva that morning. Garibaldi's volunteers were expected to enter the town at any moment. This alarmed Manfroni, since his flotilla had been drawing its coal supplies from Riva. The commander immediately headed northward with Speiteufel, Wespe and Uskoke, but stormy weather delayed their arrival at the northern end of the lake until after midnight.

At daybreak Manfroni sent his adjutant, Linienschiffsfahnrich (Ensign) Anton Heinze, into the town to see if the enemy had taken over. Heinze found the town mostly empty, with many civilians having fled. A detachment of Austrian marines led by Linienschiffsfahnrich Sembach had moved into the forts outside of town to try to delay the Red Shirt advance. The retreating army units had spiked the guns in the batteries around Riva and tossed the cannon barrels into the lake.

With no Garibaldini in sight, Manfroni ordered the supplies left behind by the retreating army troops loaded aboard his squadron. Kuhn's troops had carried off just about everything of use. Heinze located a large stockpile of army blankets and bed linen; more importantly, he found about 100 tons of naval-quality hard coal. The retreating soldiers had destroyed all of the small craft left in the town, so Manfroni ordered the steamer Franz Josef, with a barge in tow, to be used to bring the coal out to the gunboats waiting offshore. While only finance ministry accountants in Vienna might be interested in saving the blankets from Garibaldi, Manfroni's gunboats could not operate for long without coal.


Riva di Garda, looking south across the lake. Only Anakin is missing. And that's a good thing.

 

Manfroni then, as he put it, "requisitioned labor from the Comune Facchini." Manfroni did not specify their age or gender, but with the "last reserve" of the local militia called out to defend Trent these workers could not have included many young or even middle-aged adult men. With what workers and sailors were not required to move the coal, Manfroni ordered a line of trenches dug in front of the Rocca Caserne, where the materials were held.

At about 10 a.m. a column of Italian volunteers entered the town, only to meet heavy fire from the squadron's gunboats. Each gunboat was carefully stationed at the lake end of one of Riva's narrow streets, which the Austrian gunners then swept with a barrage of shellfire. The Red Shirts pressed their way forward, levering up paving stones from the streets to erect temporary shelter from the Austrian guns. At about 2 p.m. the Garibaldini pulled back from their forward positions. Shortly afterwards Heinze led a detachment of sailors and marines which drove the Red Shirts back from the low wall surrounding the town. The volunteers did not renew their assault, and as darkness fell Manfroni moved his gunboats about 100 meters offshore and ordered his gunners to greet any sign of movement with canister fire.

At 10 p.m. the steamer Hess arrived with a telegram confirming the cease-fire between Austria and Italy. Manfroni took no chances, sending armed sailors to occupy the fortifications around Riva. The Italian 7th Volunteer Regiment, led by Lt. Col. Luigi da Porta, made no attempt to seize the forts or the town, Manfroni reported.

The following morning, Manfroni dispatched Uskoke to Salò to inform the Italians of the armistice. The gunboat approached slowly under a flag of truce, and one of the harbor batteries fired a single warning shot to stop her. Uskoke then lowered her boat and a marine ensign, Carl Freiherr Codelli, was rowed into the inner harbor to deliver a copy of the armistice telegram. Codelli reported about two battalions of Garibaldini present, with two batteries of 16-pounder cannon guarding the harbor - one manned by Red Shirts, the other by regular troops. "Of the giant floating battery with 80-pounder (guns)," Manfroni related, "of which the Italian newspapers had spoken so much, there was nothing to be seen." Only after Codelli's boat had reached shore did the Italian gunboat crews finally turn out to man their vessels.

Codelli delivered his message to the Italian commandant, Col. Candido Augusto Vecchi, a Red Shirt officer. Vecchi had not received word of an armistice, but accepted the Austrian message as genuine.

On the northern front, another marine officer took the telegram to La Porta's outposts and asked the Red Shirt colonel to send an officer on the morning of 2 August to help set the demarcation line between the Austrian and Italian forces. The Red Shirt officer, a staff captain named Nociti, arrived punctually, bearing a large white flag emblazoned with the slogan "Evviva la pace, andiamo a casa" ("Long live peace, let's go home"). The Austrian sailors and marines — missing their generous naval rations after a week of bread and cheese — cheered him loudly. Manfroni, together with Nociti and two Austrian army officers, artillery Capt. Andreas Krones, commander of the Riva garrison, and staff Capt. Michael Trapscha, Baltin's chief of staff at the Peschiera garrison, then quickly agreed on each side's outpost lines and the neutral ground to lie between them. The campaign on Lake Garda was over,

Conclusions

Manfroni's squadron had completely dominated Lake Garda, making the high mountain lake a key to the Austrian defenses of the Quadrilateral. Peschiera could be re-supplied at will from Riva di Garda, and the Italians were not able to cross the lake to threaten the Austrian Tirol division from the rear or to strike at the vulnerable supply lines leading southward from Trent to the Quadrilateral. The pristine blue waters presented an impenetrable barrier to the Italians.

The lake campaign may have been forgotten by history, but Manfroni clearly believed the stakes to be enormous, as his shocking order to slaughter Red Shirt survivors in the water proves. Garibaldi's decision to move by land prevented a stain on the new navy's honor, but Austrian intelligence regarding Italian intentions usually proved reliable and it is only mere chance that saved the gunboat captains from this terrible decision.

If the army looked to the past for its inspiration, the new steam-powered navy represented the future: a technology-oriented age in which honor would be served only after the needs of the moment. Manfroni's order would be surprising enough coming from a 20th-century commander, but it is impossible to imagine such a directive from a man like Radetzky or Albrecht, or even the rough-edged Maroicic.

The Austrian military showed justifiable pride in the Garda Flotilla's performance. Lake Garda presented a barrier to Italian ambitions, rather than the highway it could have become with a less powerful or aggressive Austrian presence. Yet the Austrian army commanders in the theater did little or nothing to take advantage of the successes on the lake. Albrecht did not include the flotilla in his planning, while Maroicic seems totally unaware the unit even existed. While the Tirol corps sent troops along the lakeshore, they did not cooperate with the flotilla. A coordinated effort could have proved devastating to Garibaldi. And when the Austrian command in Tirol called for a final, desperate house-to-house defense of Trent in the last days of the war, one or two battalions of grenzers ferried up from Peschiera plus Manfroni's marine company would have proven highly useful and perhaps even decisive. The surviving records of the flotilla's communications — which seem rather complete, if jumbled since Manfroni did not employ a professional secretary — include no messages sent to or from the Tirol command. Manfroni and his captains report sighting troops and even speaking with them, but the two forces did not communicate on any official level.


Gargnano, shelled by Austrian gunboats in 1866. The locals are still angry.

The most important reason for Austrian dominance on the lake was the flotilla's overwhelming material superiority. Its gunboats were far larger and better armed than their Italian counterparts, and except for their comparatively shallow draft — necessary for lake craft, but making them unstable in heavy seas — they could have taken their place in the battle line at Helgoland or Lissa. Though the flotilla represented a considerable investment of military resources, in this particular case it was money well-spent. The rear of the Quadrilateral fortress zone was secured, and communications to the north made easy by the squadron's presence. As a miniature "fleet-in-being," it paralyzed Italian attempts to repeat the amphibious assaults launched in 1848.

The five smaller Italian gunboats probably were no match for the larger Austrian vessels, which each sported four cannon to the total of five on all of the Italian gunboats put together. The Austrian gunboats' greater size also gave them greater stability, aiding the accuracy of their gunnery. The added armor was yet another advantage over the Italians, though it is not clear whether the Italian leaders were aware of this (the Red Shirts, with their home-made steel-capped shells, seem to have known they needed something more than roundshot to penetrate the gunboats' defenses). On the Italian side, about the only advantages their squadron possessed was the small size of the gunboats, making them difficult to hit, their greater speed, and the fact that the Austrians would have to engage multiple targets to knock out the Italian guns. These few minor points did not justify risking the squadron and its crews.

If the Austrians had a decided advantage in firepower, they also benefitted from Manfroni's aggressive leadership. Seizing control of the situation, he sought every opportunity to bring Elia's flotilla to battle, just as Tegetthoff did on the larger canvas of the Adriatic. Manfroni certainly deserved the medals pinned on his chest at war's end, even if his record was exaggerated to justify them.

The Austrian Garda flotilla did not outlast the war by much. After Venetia had been ceded to Italy by way of France, both shores of Lake Garda lay in Italian hands. Austria now held only Riva di Garda and a small area around the resort town, and had no wish to maintain a large squadron there. The Italians, for their part, could not tolerate a powerful foreign fleet operating so deeply into what were now Italian inland waters. The Austrians turned the squadron over to the Italians in the fall of 1866 in exchange for one million florins (of the 35 million florins paid in total by Italy), a substantial sum compared to the 7.1 million florins which comprised the entire Austrian naval budget for 1865. The Habsburg flotilla not only defended the lake — it ultimately turned a profit for the monarchy.

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