Cruiser Warfare (Final Edition):
Austria’s East Asia Cruiser Squadron

One of the more unusual assets the Central Powers player commands in our Cruiser Warfare game is the Austrian protected cruiser Kaiserin Elisabeth. She begins the game in the Yellow Sea, adjacent to the German port of Tsingtao and highly vulnerable to Japanese intervention or just about anything else.

Austrian warships had visited the Chinese coast many times during the late 1800s; in 1884, an Austrian mission had even attempted to annex what became British North Borneo and establish an Imperial and Royal presence in eastern waters. This failed, and the navy contented itself with periodic visits to help support Austro-Hungarian business interests in Chinese ports.

When the so-called Boxer Rebellion broke out in 1900, the Austrian navy had one warship in Chinese waters, the new small cruiser Zenta. Three more warships soon joined her: Rear Admiral Rudolf Montecuccoli led the armored cruiser K.u.K. Maria Theresa, the protected cruiser Kaiserin Elisabeth and Zenta’s brand-new sister, Aspern. They brought with them 400 Austrian marines, who joined the march on Peking but arrived too late to participate in the relief of the European delegations besieged there. Only a small detachment from Zenta took part in the fighting, but Montecuccoli’s ships did participate in the bombardments of Chinese coastal forts and established Austria-Hungary as one of the Great Powers with a voice in Chinese affairs.

Kaiserin Elisabeth as originally armed, in Chinese waters.

For several years the Austrians maintained two cruisers on station, dropping at times to one but never abandoning their presence. Though some of the less reality-bound politicians at home demanded that Austria-Hungary seize her own Chinese port, no one took these suggestions very seriously. The Imperial and Royal Navy worked out an agreement to use the new German facilities at Tsingtao, and stockpiled their own supplies of coal, food and ammunition there.

Kaiserin Elisabeth did several tours on the China Station. When laid down in 1888 she was designed as a torpedo ram cruiser, intended to lead a flotilla of torpedo boats into action. She had two 9.4-inch guns in fore and aft barbette mounts, six 5.9-inch guns and a large number of small cannon (for use in the close-in fighting among the torpedo craft).

The Austrian Navy abandoned the torpedo ram concept in 1897 with the retirement of Navy Minister Max von Sterneck, one of the heroes of Lissa. The big guns proved too heavy for the ship’s 4,500-ton displacement at full load, and their Krupp-made hydraulic mounts could only elevate to 13.5 degrees, limiting their range to 10,000 yards.

In 1905-06, after her return from China, Kaiserin Elisabeth and her sister ship Kaiser Franz Josef I went to Pola Navy Yard to have their big guns replaced by Skoda 5.9-inch guns in shields. The other six guns of the same caliber (but different model) were retained, but placed in similar mounts and moved to the main deck level, up from their lower-deck casemate mounts.

In late 1913, Kaiserin Elisabeth returned to Chinese waters, while Kaiser Franz Josef I rotated home. The Navy considered leaving both cruisers at Tsingtao, as the Lloyd shipping line’s Trieste-Shanghai route was steadily growing, but decided one was sufficient to show the flag.

When Serbian terrorists murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand in late June 1914, Kaiserin Elisabeth was at Tschifu in north China, having just completed a long courtesy voyage to Hong Kong and several Japanese ports. She remained there awaiting orders, which came on 21 July. Her commander, Linienschiffskapitan Richard Makoviz, wanted to join Maximilian von Spee’s German cruiser squadron lurking somewhere in the Pacific and take part in commerce raiding. She burned coal at a rapid rate and was very slow, and so his superiors vetoed that idea. Instead, the navy made arrangements with the Chinese to intern the ship in Shanghai and return the crew home.

German Kaiser Wilhelm II, informed of this move, made a personal appeal to the Austrian Kaiser Franz Josef. The cruiser, he insisted, was desperately needed to bolster the defenses of Tsingtao. After some harsh remarks to his aides about the state of German readiness, the old emperor agreed and the navy countermanded Makoviz’s orders. The ship would stay at Tsingtao.

Kaiserin Elisabeth
and the German gunboat Jaguar
shell Japanese positions in this rather fanciful
German magazine illustration (the Austrian ship is seen
with her pre-1906 armament and “Adriatic” paint scheme).

The two newest 5.9-inch guns went ashore as the Elisabeth battery, and fought throughout the siege. Most of her 47mm guns also went ashore, and her marines formed a small company that fought in the front lines. The ship remained in Kiaochou Bay performing shore bombardment in support of the German troops and her own marines until 2 November 1914, when she fired her last shells and the city stood on the brink of surrender. Makoviz took her to the deepest part of the bay, fired her boilers to full capacity and set off four torpedo warheads. The ship blew apart spectacularly; despite a number of attempts the wreckage has never been found.

Since the Central Powers player in Cruiser Warfare is not limited by the needs of base defense (Tsingtao will fall regardless of his or her actions), Kaiserin Elisabeth usually participates in commerce warfare, though rarely with much success. We also included Kaiser Franz Josef I in Cruiser Warfare as a variant piece: she was present in Chinese waters in 1913 and the Navy did consider leaving her there.

Click here to order Cruiser Warfare: Final Edition.

Sign up for our newsletter right here. Your info will never be sold or transferred; we'll just use it to update you on new games and new offers.

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.