Italy's New Ships
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Triple Alliance, our setting book for Great War at Sea: Mediterranean, looks at the naval war that might have resulted had Italy honored her obligations and joined Germany and Austria-Hungary against Britain and France in 1914. It’s a rich topic for investigation through the wargame format, something we did with High Seas Fleet.
Strictly speaking, we didn’t need to add any new pieces to Triple Alliance to craft a good story line for the Triple Alliance naval war. Mediterranean has the full naval orders of battle for all the participants plus a number of ships designed and laid down but never completed. Naval game players love their ships, and they’re always asking for new ones. So it seemed a shame not to include a set of them.
Triple Alliance has 70 “long” ship pieces and 40 square ones (we’ve increased that by 20 “long” ones since the title was first announced, and will be upping the price accordingly). I wanted to blather about Austrian and Italian battleship design, so we have some playing pieces to move that discussion to the game board. And if we have added ships for the Central Powers, we need some for the French as well.
Most scenarios in Triple Alliance come in two versions: one using the fleets pretty much as they stood in August 1914, and a variation that posits a more intense Mediterranean dreadnought race touched off by Italian acceptance of designer Vittorio Cuniberti’s radical design for a fast battleship armed solely with large-caliber weapons plus some small guns to fend off torpedo boats, and nothing in between. The Austrians and the French reply with their own early dreadnought designs (based on actual discussions, if not actually drafted design plans).
Triple Alliance includes four examples of the early Cuniberti design. We looked at this design in a previous Daily Content piece. Outwardly they’re similar to his fast battleship Regina Elena, but a good bit larger. If laid down when Cuniberti wished, the Italians would have commenced construction in 1905 with two ships laid down on the slips vacated by the pre-dreadnoughts Roma and Napoli at the Castellemare Navy Yard in Naples and at La Spezia Navy Yard. Two more would follow on the vacated slips in 1907.
In 1909, when the second pair of Affondatore class ships cleared the slipways, Italy would lay down a pair of dreadnoughts to a completely new design: Dante Alighieri at Castellamare and her sister, Francesco Petracco, at La Spezia.
Note: The bitter rivalry between Ansaldo and Orlando (along with an impression, not totally undeserved, that the naval yards were run much more efficiently than the private concerns) caused the Italian Navy to build most of its heavy ships at naval yards, Castellamare and La Spezia and occasionally Venice. This practice, along with Italy’s finances, usually limited orders to two heavy ships every other year. A fiscal crisis in caused the second dreadnought to be removed from the naval program before it was ever formally proposed. Only after 1910 did orders start to be placed regularly at private yards, with the government shipyards continuing to dominate the business.
The new Affondatore-class battleships would revolutionize battleship design practice around the world, or so some would claim later. Many designers had already had similar notions, which they could now safely show their respective Admiralties: nothing makes a radical idea seem “safe” like the haunting fear that someone else is doing it first. The English naval press would refer to the new battleships as “Dreadnoughts” regardless of the design’s origin.
By August 1914, Italy would have a fleet of eight dreadnought-type battleships with three more under construction. In addition, Italy possessed five big, new armored cruisers of the Pisa and San Giorgio classes to lead her scouting forces.
Note: The 1909 fiscal crises that ended hopes for a sister to Dante Alighieri also caused cancellation of the third ship of the Pisa class, which her builder, Orlando of Livorno, eventually sold to Greece. In Triple Alliance Ancona sails under Italian colors as originally intended. In our modified industrial history of Italy we’ve re-allocated some of the armored cruiser construction, but Italy was capable of building all of these ships without excessive strain on her output.
In the real course of events, the Royal Italian Navy stopped its usual practice of ordering two battleships every other year after Roma and Napoli were laid down in 1903, only resuming battleship construction in 1909 with Dante. In their place, three big armored cruisers (eventually cut to two) were ordered for 1905 and two more for 1907. The three 1905 ships went to private yards, and the two 1907 ships (one of them laid down early, as the yard had only one slip large enough for a battleship or big armored cruiser) to Castellamare Navy Yard.
Similarly to the approach of our High Seas Fleet book, in Triple Alliance we’ve filled in these “missing years” since Italy is posited to have accepted Cuniberti’s design and touched off a dreadnought race in the Mediterranean. The additional battleships would have been well within Italy’s industrial capacity. After decades of sluggish economic growth (state finances were so shaky that coins minted by the old Kingdom of Naples remained legal tender until 1894), Italy underwent a surge in industrial output between 1900 and 1914. Life expectancy and infant mortality improved to match European norms. Absolute poverty remained very high, but emigration provided an outlet as Italy continued to export its Southern poor to the United States. Long-serving Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti’s government subsidized and encouraged most of this performance; building a new type of battleship would have fit the kingdom’s broader economic goals very well.
Much of the investment that fueled this industrialization came from outside Italy, attracted in part by a series of balanced budgets and an unofficial adherence to the gold standard (Italian monetary authorities kept the lire’s exchange rate close to that of gold, but the kingdom never actually adopted it). Pursuit of a balanced budget caused the removal of the second Dante and third Pisa from the naval appropriations.
To pay for all of these additional ships, Italy would have had to either abandon the balanced budget, increase taxation, or take funds from somewhere else, most likely the Army. The stimulus effect of increased payrolls in the shipyards and their suppliers (steel mills, electrical manufacturers and so on) would have eventually brought this money back into government coffers, but in the short term, it had to come from somewhere. Giolitti and his ministers chose not to spend it; our book studies the military-naval situation that could have resulted if they had done so.
An even more powerful Italian fleet could only be aimed at one potential enemy, France. Austria-Hungary reacted to Italian moves by building dreadnoughts, but a future war with Austria would be the Army’s war. A war with France would be a Navy war, with nationalist goals like the conquest of Tunisia and Corsica only achievable by sea. Adopting Cuniberti’s new battleship design would have indirectly pushed Italy closer to the Triple Alliance.
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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.