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Tactics in
Fading Legions




Deadly Fishermen
The Battle of Lissa, 20 July 1866
By Mike Bennighof, PhD
September 2007

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.

The Battle of Lissa is best known for the sinking of the Italian flagship Re d'Italia by ramming.

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.


"She looked formidable enough to sink the entire Austrian fleet by herself," an English journalist wrote of Affondatore shortly before the battle.

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 retreating enemy."

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 contempt?"

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 before us."

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 15th.

Admiral Carlo Persano had been a hero of the Risorgimento until the Battle of Lissa.

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.

Manufactured tales of maudlin suicide dishonor Emilio Faà di Bruno's real courage.

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 iron."

Tegetthoff actually took his flagship's helm while his flag captain climbed the mast.

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 soon afterwards.

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.


Anton Romako's painting of
Tegetthoff at the Battle of Lissa.


Anton Romako's second painting of Tegethoff at the Battle of Lissa. In a "reverse Lucas," Max von Sterneck, left, has been given a sword in place of a spyglass.

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 in Rome.

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.

Affondatore (lower left) mills about while the ironclads brawl.

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 brawl.

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 unarmored rudder.

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.

Re d'Italia sinks as her crew scrambles to escape; few were successful.

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.

Ferdinand Max engages Ancona (background) while Re d'Italia's survivors wave for help in Alex Kirchner's painting

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 crew.

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.

Palestro explodes.

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: Hearts of Iron game, with scenarios for the early Austrian probes, the Italian attack on Lissa, the Austrian countermoves and even the 1870 Austro-Italian war scare.

Experience your own battles on the high-seas - buy Ironclads: Hearts of Iron TODAY