The Battle of Lissa, 20 July 1866
By Mike Bennighof, PhD
The Austrian Navy went to war in the summer of 1866 without
the long and proud tradition on which the Army depended for
both inspiration and operational guidance. A questionable
victory at Helgoland in 1864, some skirmishes with Muslim
pirates in the 1840's and limited operations in the 1848 and
1849 Italian wars represented the sum of the fleet's history.
In one afternoon, that would change. The Battle of Lissa
came to represent the fighting spirit Austrian admirals hoped
their fleet would show in the future. This did not come to
pass in the early years of the First World War, but the aggressive
Capt. Nicholas Horthy showed himself a worthy heir to Wilhelm
von Tegetthoff first as commander of the fleet's cruiser squadron
and then as battle fleet commander - at least in spirit if
not in results.
Tegetthoff kept his plans simple - find the enemy and attack
them. At this he succeeded admirably, helped by his hard-fighting
officers and crews, Italian command incompetence, and a healthy
dose of good luck. Austria and Italy had been arming for war
since the spring of 1866, on 19 June the Austrian War Ministry
declared the main naval base at Pola in a state of siege.
On the next day, as their fleet steamed out of Taranto on
its way to the Adriatic Sea, the Italians sent word that hostilities
would commence on the 23rd. Archduke Albrecht, commander of
Austrian forces in the theater, promptly forwarded the text
of what he called "an insolent note directed to my person"
to his subordinates and the emperor.
The note proved both insolent and unwise - the Italian squadron
did not arrive at its war station until after the declaration
of war had already taken effect. The late arrival of Admiral
Carlo Persano and the fleet in Ancona left his ships short
of coal and crewmen. Tegetthoff gathered all available ships
- the two newest ironclads as well as the ship of the line
Kaiser and screw frigate Novara had still not completed their
repairs - and on the 27th appeared outside Ancona's harbor,
daring Persano to come out and fight. Coal fires aboard two
ironclads and machinery problems on another kept the Italian
fleet under the guns of Ancona's coastal batteries. Tegetthoff
reported 11 armored ships, four frigates and two small paddle
steamers present, but only three of larger ironclads had steam
up. The Austrians cruised slowly off the port before heading
back to Pola. The Austrian paddle steamer Elisabeth fought
a brief skirmish with the Italian Esploratore, and Tegetthoff
reported a hit on the enemy ship's paddle wheel.
Persano showed great energy in preparing his fleet for action,
but the Austrians retreated quickly after gaining their moral
victory. The Italians also not want to risk battle without
their most powerful warship, the armored ram Affondatore (literally,
"The Sinker"), still in route from her English builders.
Angelo Iachino, the definitive authority on the Italian navy
during the campaign and the last admiral to command an Italian
fleet in a major surface battle, found Persano's lack of action
understandable. "It is not enough by itself," Iachino
wrote a century later, "to take away an admiral's command
because, due to the fleet's condition, he did not pursue the
The king, prime minister and naval minister saw things differently,
and heaped abuse on the admiral. "Would you tell the
people," wrote Navy Minister Agostino Depretis, "the
people, who in their mad vanity believe their sailors to be
the best in the world, that in spite of the £12 million
that we have added to the debt the squadron we have collected
is incapable of facing the enemy? We would be stoned. And
who has ever heard the Austrian fleet mentioned except with
Stung by the rebukes, Persano put to sea on 8 July. The fleet
cruised in the central Adriatic for five days in search of
the Austrians. Austrian observers spotted the fleet twice
on the 10th. Tegetthoff claimed he did not learn of the sortie
until the 15th, when he obtained a copy of the Italian newspaper
Giornale della Marina. The paper "spewed the most bitter
invective against us," he wrote to his mistress Emma
Ludderoth, wife of his close friend the Prussian consul in
Trieste. "What could be more childish?"
"How cowardly these Austrians are!" read some of
the Giornale's tirade, written by Italian parliamentarian
Pier Carlo Boggio, who accompanied Persano as a volunteer
lieutenant. "They will not give us a chance, they flee
At least two of Persano's subordinates, Giovanni Vacca and
Giovanni Batista Albini, used the lack of combat to intrigue
for the fleet commander's job. Depretis gave Persano a direct
order: fight a battle with the Austrians immediately or be
dismissed from the service in disgrace. The Austrians would
probably fight, he suggested, if the Italian fleet attacked
the island fortress of Lissa in the central Adriatic. Persano
gathered all the troops he could - 600 marines - and set sail
within hours of receiving the order, leaving harbor on the
An Italian corvette flying a British ensign scouted the island
on the 17th, and the next morning Persano's fleet bombarded
Lissa's fortifications. The garrison of Austrian marines numbered
1,833 men and 88 cannon, led by Maj. Anton Hiltl, a military
engineer by trade. The Italians neglected to cut the cable leading
to the mainland or to interfere with Austrian observers on the
mainland, and soon telegrams detailing the attack poured into
naval headquarters in Pola.
The Italian fleet flung thousands of shells at the island;
the flagship Re d'Italia alone fired 1,300 rounds.
The fortifications suffered badly, and the supply ship Gargano
sank at her moorings. On the next day Affondatore joined the
fleet along with transports bearing more ammunition and another
600 marines. Persano sent the ironclad corvette Formidable
into Porto San Giorgio, the island's main harbor, to shell
the gun emplacements at point-blank range while the Italian
wooden warships landed the marines.
The garrison had only 15 cannon still serviceable, but they
poured a murderous fire into the Italian ironclad. Burning
and nearly out of control, the ironclad staggered away from
the harbor, 112 of her 371 crewmen killed or wounded.
Waiting to make sure the Italians really were on the move, Tegetthoff
wired Southern Army headquarters for permission to attack. On
the afternoon of the 19th every Austrian warship steamed out
of Pola for Lissa. An hour later, a telegram arrived from Southern
Army rather laconically telling the admiral to act as he thought
best - Albrecht apparently had never informed his successor,
Feldmarschall Leutnant Josef Maroicic, that the fleet was actually
under army command.
The paddle steamer Stadion sighted the Italians
about 0700 the next morning. Eight of the Italian ironclads
cruised in a broken line north of the island, with a rainbow
overhead and Affondatore standing to nearby. Formidable had
headed back to Ancona, and two other Italian ironclads had
become separated from the main force. Persano signaled Albini,
commanding his wooden squadron, to attack the Austrian wooden
ships while his ironclads dealt with the Austrian armored
ships. Albini feigned ignorance of the signal, and the Italian
unarmored ships played no part in the battle.
Aboard his flagship Ferdinand Max, Tegetthoff dashed
off a quick note to his mistress Emma. He did not fear taking
his fleet into battle against the larger, better-armed Italian
ships, he wrote. "Behind wooden walls beat hearts of
Rain hid the two fleets from each other until about 1000,
when Tegetthoff ordered his fleet to full speed - about 10
knots. Already he had instructed his captains to "ram
anything painted gray." Hoping to add a stirring final
message before his ships entered battle, Tegetthoff called
over a young ensign. "Run up this signal," he directed.
"Victory at Lissa must be ours." The ensign ran
up the first flag just as the first Italian shells began to
fall around the flagship. Apparently overcome by the excitement,
the young officer raced back to his station before completing
the signal. The Austrian fleet steamed into battle behind
the puzzling signal "Must."
Italian gunners opened fire at very long range, with immediate
and deadly effect. Capt. Heinrich Freiherr von Moll of the
armored frigate Drache turned to his first officer, Lt. Karl
Weyprecht, studied his eyeglasses and drawled in thick Austrian
dialect, "Now I guess we'll see a little ramming."
Before Weyprecht could answer, a shell from the Italian ironclad
Principe di Carignano carried away Moll's head. Another
round killed Capt. Eric of Klint of the screw frigate Novara
Aboard the Italian flagship Re d'Italia, Persano
turned to the ironclad's captain, Emilio Faà di Bruno,
and snorted "Here come the fishermen." Persano stopped
the Re d'Italia, in the center of the Italian ironclad
line, to transfer his flag to Affondatore, but did not tell
his captains. When the flagship stopped, a large gap opened
up between her and the three ironclads ahead of her, and the
Austrians shot into the opening.
The Austrians formed a large wedge, the traditional attack formation
for Austrian cavalry. Ferdinand Max - one of the new
ironclads equipped for ramming - took the point of the wedge,
with the other ironclads arrayed behind her. A second wedge,
of the larger wooden ships, formed up on Kaiser. Seven screw-powered
gunboats formed a third wedge behind them.
The Austrian ironclads passed through the Italian line and
then peeled off to attack. The second wedge headed directly
for the second division of Italian ironclads, which concentrated
their fire on Kaiser. The big Italian ironclad Re
di Portogallo concentrated on the much smaller Austrian
screw corvette Erzherzog Friedrich. Erzherzog Friedrich
took a hit below the waterline from a heavy Italian shell,
reported her captain, Fregattenkapitän Marcus Florio.
The shell blew a hole almost three feet across in the corvette's
hull, smashed her iron scantlings and demolished an oaken
frame. The ship began to take on more water than her pumps
could handle, and as Florio headed for Lissa and safety the
Italian ironclad pursued.
To protect the stricken corvette, Capt. Anton Petz's Kaiser
intercepted the Italian ship. Kaiser rammed the ironclad
and her foremast and figurehead of Kaiser Franz Josef came
crashing down on Re di Portogallo's deck. Kaiser
backed away from the Italian ship as the ironclad unloaded
a devastating point-blank broadside into her. The wooden emperor
became an Italian war trophy, still displayed in the Admiralty
With fires raging aboard Kaiser, Affondatore moved
through the smoke and mist to finish off the crippled ship.
Petz ordered his volunteer marine boarding parties aloft into
the ship's rigging as the ram approached. Each marine carried
a large sack of gunpowder to throw into the Italian ironclad's
funnel as she came alongside. Several times the ram missed
the ship of the line, while the five Austrian screw frigates
blazed away at her.
Kaiser turned for San Giorgio harbor, and Affondatore
made one last attempt. The tiny Austrian screw gunboat Reka
darted in front of the ram, firing her full broadside of two
small guns at the Italian bridge. The Italian ship veered off,
and the Austrian frigates shepherded the wounded Kaiser
into port before returning to the fray, which now became a disorganized
Amid the confusion, Tegetthoff's flagship rammed the Italian
armored gunboat Palestro to little effect, though
the Italian warship's colors fell on the flagship's deck.
"Who's going to get that flag?" Tegetthoff shouted.
A Croat helmsman named Karcovich sprang onto the deck, where
dozens of Italian rifle bullets struck around him. He brought
the flag back to Tegetthoff, who wrapped it around a belaying
clamp. Soon afterwards Ferdinand Max struck the Italian
flagship Re d'Italia, carrying away the Italian ironclad's
A few minutes later, Ferdinand Max's captain, Max
von Sterneck, climbed his ship's foremast to obtain a better
view over the clouds of gunsmoke. Directly ahead he saw
Re d'Italia. Sterneck ordered up full speed. At about
the same time, Re d'Italia's captain Faà di
Bruno spotted the Austrian ship bearing down on him. He tried
to evade, but with his rudder smashed could not turn. Instead
Faá di Bruno ordered full reverse, which brought his
ship to a dead stop. Just then, Ferdinand Max struck
her squarely amidships.
The Italian ship's green timber sprang inward for much of
her port side and a wall of water poured into her hull. At
a range of mere yards the two crews emptied rifles and pistols
at each other. Pier Carlo Boggio, the journalist/deputy who
had penned the mocking editorial in the Giornale a few days
earlier, ran to fire his pistol at the Austrians, and fell
dead from an Austrian marine sniper's bullet.
As the Italian ironclad sank, a marine named Razzetto leapt
to the flagstaff to strike her colors and attempt to save
the crew. Faá di Bruno knocked Razzetto away, refusing
to allow the flag to fall. When his bridge crew had safely
left the ship, Faá di Bruno supposedly saluted Ferdinand
Max's bridge and his own colors, then calmly shot himself
in the temple. While the ironclad's chief gunner and several
officers supported the story, Persano's chief of staff Andrea
Carlo Agostino del Santo, another officer and a marine all
claimed Faá di Bruno remained on the bridge to the
last moment, when he was pulled under the waves by the suction
action of the sinking ironclad.
The sinking ironclad became the focal point of the battle as
the other Italian ships rushed to the scene to try to save her.
The Italian ironclad Ancona tried to ram Ferdinand
Max, and loosed a broadside at the Austrian flagship. The
shots had no effect; in the excitement of the moment Ancona's
chief gunner gave the order to fire before shot had been rammed
into her cannon. For a brief moment the gunfire ceased as awe-struck
crews from both sides watched the big ship disappear. Lt. Tobias
Österreicher steered his paddle steamer Kaiserin Elisabeth
into the thick of the fight to rescue survivors, but as
his crewmen plucked swimmers from the water the Italian ironclads
Palestro and San Martino opened fire. Four
large shells struck the paddle steamer and wrecked much of her
upperworks, killing of number of the just-rescued Re d'Italia
Veering away from the crippled Austrian steamer, Palestro
found herself caught between three Austrian ironclads, which
mercilessly pounded the small ship. The Italian gunboat came
alongside the Austrian armored frigate Drache.
The battle's first shot had killed Drache's captain,
a popular officer well-known to most of his crew - Drache
had been the only Austrian ironclad with a full complement
before mobilization and most of her sailors were long-service
Venetian professionals. When an Italian officer tried to lead
Palestro's crew in a cheer of "Evviva il Re!"
as the two ironclads closed, Drache's men took up
a mocking chant of "Evviva Imperatore!" and worked
their guns at top speed.
The two ships traded broadsides for several rounds, but the
Austrian ship carried 14 guns on her broadside against only
two on the Palestro. Drache's gunners kept up a tremendous
rate of fire, and though they achieved few penetrations of
Palestro's armor, the barrage devastated her unarmored
areas. The Italian ship began burning fiercely and dropped
out of the fight. Drache turned to pursue her, but
Affondatore interposed herself and attempted to ram
the Austrian ironclad.
By noon Persano had finally convinced his captains that he had
not gone down with Re d'Italia and they followed Affondatore
away from the battle zone. Palestro signaled that she
could not follow, and at about 2:30 p.m. she disappeared in
a tremendous explosion. The two fleets, their crews and ammunition
exhausted, now drew apart. The Italians headed for Ancona and
the Austrians joined Kaiser in San Giorgio harbor.
Two Austrian gunboats remained on the scene, checking the flotsam
for survivors. Except for the crippled Kaiser, all
Austrian ships reported themselves ready for action. Two Italian
ironclads had gone down and several more were damaged. Affondatore
had not suffered any penetrations, but her plates had taken
so many hits that two weeks later they separated and she sank
in shallow water at Ancona. Thirty-two Austrian sailors died,
most of them on Kaiser, and 612 Italian seamen perished,
most of them lost with Re d'Italia and Palestro.
On his return to Ancona, Persano claimed victory. The lie
soon became apparent, and Persano was convicted of incompetence,
negligence and disobedience, but acquitted on charges of cowardice
and treason. He and Albini were dismissed from the service
in disgrace. Albini claimed that he could not be expected
to obey signals from Affondatore, which was not the
flagship - but Persano's signal to engage came from Re
d'Italia and this lie only made things worse for Albini.
Tegetthoff became a national hero, promoted to vice-admiral
and showered with awards. He successfully retrieved the remains
of his old patron Maximilian from the Mexican nationalists
who had murdered him, and a grateful Franz Josef then named
him commander of the Austrian navy. Five years after his victory
Tegetthoff, untouchable by enemy bullets and shells at Helgoland
or Lissa, could not find a cab to take him home in a driving
rain and walked instead. He contracted pneumonia and died
at the age of 43.
The ironclad fleets of Austria and Italy clash in our Ironclads:
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