Triple Alliance:
Early Austrian Dreadnoughts

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
February 2015

Approaching a game supplement as an opportunity to try out some historical questions (a “thesis with counters”) allows some exploration of fairly arcane topics. With our Great War at Sea: Triple Alliance book, the primary theme addresses the naval war that could have resulted if had Italy honored her obligations to Germany and Austria-Hungary.

I know that Great War at Sea players like to add additional ships to their games, and I wanted to include some stuff about early dreadnought designs in Triple Alliance. So the book includes pieces for these ships that never were, and they’re worked into the variant story arc of the Triple Alliance (in sort of an alternative-alternative-history pathway, that actually worked out pretty well). We looked at the extra Italian ships in an earlier Daily Content piece, but most of the additions are Austrian because I wanted them to be.

Austrian warship plans were overseen by the Naval Technical Committee, or MTK from its German acronym. The MTK included both sea officers and engineers, and received proposals from the Navy’s design bureau and from private firms, accepting, rejecting or requesting modifications.

The MTK was well aware of Vittorio Cuniberti’s plans for a big, fast battleship armed only with large guns, and stood ready to request ships of the type for Austria-Hungary should Italy build them. Austria’s leading battleship designer, Siegfried Popper, did not agree with Cuniberti’s layout, but when the Italians went with a smaller new battleship (what became Vittorio Emanuele) the Austrians planned their first class of true high-seas battleships. Discussions began in September 1905.

Popper had designed a ship that was slower than the Italian battleship, armed with four 11-inch guns (the largest carried by an Austrian ship up to that time) and a strong secondary armament of four 9.4-inch guns and eight 7.5-inch guns. Despite the edge in firepower over Vittorio Emanuele, the MTK demurred, wanting a more powerful ship and disliking the mixed secondary battery. Also, testing showed that the 11-inch gun made by Skoda had serious problems with its breech-block, but the firm had a very fine 12-inch gun available.

With word filtering in of new developments in Britain and the United States, the MTK asked what could be done to give the ship a more powerful main armament, preferably only 12-inch guns. Popper replied rather testily that he could not cram much more firepower onto a hull limited to 14,500 tons. Going larger than that would require that the Navy also acquire a new floating dock for the Pola Navy Yard.

The variant sketches produced by Popper for the MTK included a ship with eight 11-inch guns, in two dual turrets fore-and-aft and four single turrets in the “wing” positions. A variant on that ship put the wing guns into dual turrets, one on each beam. With the MTK’s gunnery expert Friedrich Jedliczka unwilling to accept the 11-inch gun and the rest of the members balking at the time needed to produce a new, reliable gun design, Popper turned to the 12-inch gun. One version had dual turrets fore and aft and one single turret on either wing, for a total of six heavy guns (plus sixteen 3.9-inch weapons). Another replaced the wing turrets with dual mounts for eight 7.5-inch guns.

The MTK felt all of these variants lacking in firepower, and Popper then sketched his final version, upping the guns in the wing turrets from 7.5-inch to 9.4-inch weapons. Still unhappy, several of the sea officers on the committee asked Popper what it would take to produce a ship comparable to the British Dreadnought.

Launching Radetzky, 5 June 1910

Popper had a ready answer: if the displacement could be increased from 14,500 to 16,000 tons, he and his design team would give Austria-Hungary a balanced, effective battleship with all big guns. While the MTK agreed on the need for the increase, the Navy Ministry did not believe that the Delegations (the combined committee of the separate Austrian and Hungarian parliaments, that set budgets for the Dual Monarchy’s joint functions like defense) would approve the increased cost for the bigger ships plus the additional floating docks and other port improvements required to accommodate them. When the Delegations met in May 1906, the Navy asked for four 14,500-ton battleships, and received approval for three of them. After wavering between the design with six 12-inch guns and that with four 12-inch and eight 9.4-inch, the MTK chose the latter. The lead ship, Radetzky, was laid down in September 1907, nine months after the British commissioned Dreadnought.

From the speed of Popper’s response regarding a larger all-big-gun ship, it’s likely he was trying to push the MTK toward the 16,000-ton vessel. Popper was a personal friend of Sir William White, who designed HMS Dreadnought, and had toured British shipyards in 1904. He had a good idea of the new battleship’s capabilities, and also had reports of the new American battleship South Carolina. Despite his friendship with White, Popper thought the American design superior. (As an aside, the Austrians apparently had much better intelligence regarding British shipbuilding than did their German allies – and chose not to share it.)

The 16,000-ton battleship proposed by Popper would be outwardly similar to South Carolina: two turrets each bearing a pair of 12-inch guns mounted in pairs fore and aft, with one superfiring (raised on an armored barbette) over the other, for a total of eight guns. This would give the ship the same broadside as Dreadnought, but with one fewer turret. Like Dreadnought but unlike South Carolina, the Austrian ship would be powered by turbines with a designed speed of 20 knots – slightly slower than Dreadnought, but much faster than South Carolina’s 18 knots.

This would have been the ship with which Austria-Hungary answered the Cuniberti dreadnought, and it would have been a very suitable reply. Where other early dreadnoughts adopted inefficient gunnery layouts, the Austrian small dreadnought’s turrets were arranged in what naval historian Siegfried Breyer would later call “the perfect battleship” alignment. Popper’s ship would have been longer than South Carolina, and thanks to that and its turbines, a considerably faster ship. She would have better protection than Dreadnought or the Cuniberti ship. While South Carolina and her sister Michigan would have to serve with the American pre-dreadnoughts thanks to their pitiful speed, the Popper dreadnought would have been a first-line unit in 1914.

Triple Alliance includes a number of new pieces based on this design odyssey: the fourth ship of the Radetzky class is here, under her proposed name (Hess, for Heinrich Hess, the great Radetzky’s chief of staff, Austrian commander at Solferino, and Kaiser Franz Josef’s military tutor). There are four pieces for the actual adopted design, with gunnery ratings better reflecting their actual capabilities than the pieces in Mediterranean (that is, with a primary rating reflecting just the four 12-inch guns, and a high secondary rating for the 9.4-inch guns). Then there are four pieces for the six-gun, 14,500-ton ship almost adopted instead, and four more for the small dreadnought version.

The dreadnought version of Radetzky probably isn’t the equal of a whole squadron of pre-dreadnoughts, as British propagandists claimed for their own Dreadnought. But she’s definitely worth two or three of the old-style battleships, and would have marked a considerable jump forward in Austrian naval power as Austria-Hungary had previously only built battleships armed with nothing more powerful than 9.4-inch guns and little better than coast-defense ships.

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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.