Austria's Destroyers, Part One
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Although Austria-Hungary had pioneered the self-propelled torpedo, the Imperial and Royal Navy lagged behind other nations in developing delivery systems for it. Starting in the late 1870s, the Austrians built a series of small torpedo boats, much like those of other nations. Between 1887 and 1896 the navy ordered seven destroyers to six different designs, failing to settle on any of them for series production. Austria never officially adopted the classification "destroyer," though it appears often in letters and reports and seems to have been the more common spoken term.
Finally, in 1905 the Austrians bought a new destroyer from an English yard. Yarrow had built a reputation as the world leader in destroyer design, and the new Huszár was to be the prototype for a class of 12 boats. She displaced 390 tons and carried an armament of one 66mm gun and seven 47mm guns, plus two torpedo tubes. She could make 28 knots and was already badly outclassed by the River-class destroyers Yarrow designed at the same time for the Royal Navy.
The "torpedo vessel" Huszár was a near-copy of the Japanese Akatsuki, built by Yarrow in 1899. Akatsuki had been a state of the art warship when the Austrians first viewed her plans, but many rounds of committee meetings and political infighting delayed a decision. Within the Navy, advocates of a high-seas battle fleet argued with those who backed the French-inspired "young school" theories emphasizing large numbers of torpedo boats. Within the political structure, the idea of buying a foreign warship at all rankled some, and beyond that lay questions of where further vessels would be built (in the Austrian or the Hungarian half of the monarchy) and how they would be funded.
British experience showed that small destroyers like Huszár might make high speeds on trials (British boats equipped with turbines hit 33 knots) but these could rarely be achieved in practice. In real sea conditions, their top speeds were much lower yet they had sacrificed robust construction to achieve the impressive "strapped chicken" numbers. With the River class, displacement jumped to 550 tons, with a tougher frame and heavier armament.
Austrian crews brought Huszár and the 200-ton torpedo boat Kaiman from London to the fleet's main base at Pola in 17 days without assistance from other vessels. That justified the smaller size in the eyes of some leading admirals, but others pointed to the report of Huszár's captain. Living conditions were cramped, and the boat's "black gang" suffered from heat exhaustion in the poorly ventilated hull. The Austrians moved the galley to the main deck, just forward of the aft torpedo tubes, to reduce the heat problem but otherwise approved the design for series production.
More wrangling took place over the 11 sister ships to be built in Austria-Hungary, with the odd number proving the sticking point as representatives from both halves of the Dual Monarchy insisted on six boats for their constituents. Finally contracts were let for six boats from the Danubius shipyard in Fiume and five at Stabilimento Technico Triestino — just a few miles apart but on opposite sides of the empire's political boundary. Danubius had gained the contract purely through political lobbying, and as would remain the case in other democracies a century later, this achievement had nothing to do with the yard's ability to deliver. Before commencing construction on the destroyers, Danubius first had to construct slips on which to build them. The first STT destroyers entered service in September 1906, with the last Danubius boat commissioning in December 1909. All 11 were thoroughly obsolete upon launch.
Two more would be built anyway. Huszár became stranded on a reef off Trieste in December 1908, and attempts to salvage her failed when a heavy storm blew up out of the Adriatic. The wreck broke into three parts and sank in about 15 meters of water. A replacement, also named Huszár, was built by Pola Navy Yard. Officially this was not a new destroyer but rather a repair of the old one. Thus the obsolete design had to be repeated to maintain the fiction that the Navy was not building a new, unauthorized ship but just fixing an existing one.
In 1911, the Chinese government ordered a number of warships from foreign yards. Acknowledging the corruption endemic to the last years of the Empire, the Chinese spread the work around, ordering single destroyers in Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary. STT built a repeat of the Huszár design, named Lung Tuan, but financial troubles and revolution in China delayed her completion.
The new Chinese Republic ordered a dozen more in April 1913, for delivery in batches of four each during 1914, 1915 and 1916. The Chinese had to be aware that they were purchasing badly obsolescent craft, as their agents signed a contract on the same day with the German yard of Vulkan, Stettin for six much more capable destroyers armed with Skoda weapons. However, the Austrians were offering a price of just 16,500 pounds sterling per boat, while the modern destroyers cost 200,000 pounds sterling apiece.
When the First World War broke out, Lung Tuan had not been delivered, and the Austrians seized her and incorporated her in to the Imperial and Royal Navy as Warasdiner. The dozen follow-on boats never began construction.
Despite their outdated design, all 13 boats saw heavy service during the Great War. With only a half-dozen modern destroyers in the Austrian inventory, the Huszár class remained front-line units until the war's end, serving as convoy escorts and accompanying the battle fleet on its rare missions. Scharfschütze entered Austrian naval lore by slipping up the narrow channel into Porto Corsini on the Italian east coast to attack the shipping there in April 1915.
Wildfang sank in June 1917 after striking a mine, while Streiter was rammed by a freighter while escorting a coastal convoy in April 1918. The other 11 survived to be seized by the victorious Allies. Ulan became the Greek Smyrni and served until 1932, while the other 10 went to Italy and to be promptly scrapped.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.