Later Austrian Dreadnoughts
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Austria-Hungary skipped the first generation of dreadnought construction, opting to build the three semi-dreadnoughts of the Radetzky class instead. We looked at the origins of the Radetzky design, and the alternatives considered by the Imperial and Royal Navy’s Naval Technical Committee (MTK) in an earlier Daily Content installment.
In our Great War at Sea: Triple Alliance book, we take a serious look at Austrian battleship design, and use the pieces and scenarios included in the book to form a sort of “thesis with counters.” How might these ships have been used in war, and what difference, if any, would different choices have made on the outcome?
Austria’s chief designer, Siegfried Popper, appears to have preferred a 16,000-ton dreadnought design over the semi-dreadnought version selected for Radetzky. When asked for a true dreadnought design in 1909, the ship that would become the Tegetthoff class, Popper (now retired and working for a private shipbuilding firm, Stabilimento Technico Triestino) produced a 20,000-ton version of his abortive 16,000-ton battleship.
Where the 16,000-ton ship had four double turrets for 12-inch guns, the 20,000-ton version substituted triple turrets for a total of twelve 12-inch guns. Like the proposed design, the new ship would be powered by turbines, but unlike the smaller ship the new battleship would be noticeably short for its displacement and armament. The new dreadnought also shared Radetzky’s double-bottom underwater protection scheme, which would show its fatal flaws in the 1918 sinking of Szent Istvan.
While the MTK approved the design, the parliamentary Delegations (the joint committee of the Austrian and Hungarian parliaments with authority over the Dual Monarchy’s dual functions, like defense) did not. Under pressure from the shipyards, who claimed skilled workers were hopping to border to work on Italian dreadnoughts instead, the Navy placed the contracts for the first two ships anyway. Construction began in secret in 1910, supposedly on Navy commander Rudolf Montecuccoli’s personal line of credit. Actual approval for four ships came in 1911, but many parliamentarians felt they’d been rolled by the Navy and swore not to let it happen again.
Tegetthoff turned out to share another of Radetzky’s major flaws: too much firepower for her size. All four battleships of the class needed their hulls strengthened to bear the weight of the armored barbettes of the superfiring triple turrets, a very expensive undertaking that also appears to have cost them some speed.
As the second pair of battleships neared completion, the yards and suppliers sought new work and the MTK began to study the next class of battleship. To save on costs, the MTK explored the idea of repeating the Tegetthoff design for its second class of dreadnoughts, since no new floating docks or other support would be needed. Franz Pitzinger, Popper’s successor as chief naval constructor, argued strongly against such a step. If the design were to be repeated, he argued, the main armament should be reduced from 12 to 10 guns, with double turrets replacing the superfiring triple turrets. This would rectify Popper’s error and produce a much more stable ship.
Launching Viribus Unitis, democratic rule be damned.
If the new ship had to take a step back in terms of armament, could it be faster, some of the MTK’s sea officers asked. A true fast battleship would be a step forward, even with a lighter main armament. Pitzinger dutifully provided a sketch, but the enlarged ship with its larger turbines now displaced 23,800 tons, the maximum that the Dual Monarchy’s docks could accommodate. If the new battleship had to be larger, then it needed to represent a step forward in armament as well.
Pitzinger then produced a series of designs with 13.8-inch guns, eventually leading to the design chosen for the Ersatz Monarch class. The MTK’s chief, Vice Admiral Gottfried Meyern von Hohenberg, found Pitzinger to be overly cautious and jealous of his younger subordinates’ abilities, but allowed his design to go forward with the support of only a narrow majority on the committee. Dissenters pointed to intelligence reports of Italy’s upcoming 32,000-ton Caracciolo class armed with ten 15-inch guns and a speed of 28 knots, and preferred a greatly enlarged 32,000-ton variant (apparently the work of those despised younger architects) with thirteen 13.8-inch guns and a high speed. But the Navy Ministry, rightly concerned about the political situation (the Hungarian parliament in particular still seethed over Tegetthoff and her sister Viribus Unitis having been laid down without legislative approval), kept to the lower tonnage limit. Four new battleships would be built starting in 1914, to a conservative design with ten 13.8-inch guns and a design speed of 21 knots.
In Triple Alliance, we’ve provided pieces for a couple of these variant designs. There are pieces for the four Tegetthoff class battleships armed with only ten 12-inch guns rather than a dozen. Those are in play when the dreadnought version of the Radetzky class is used; had the smaller dreadnought been built first, the weight problems of the superfiring turrets would have been obvious before Tegetthoff was laid down.
And we also have the “fast” version of Ersatz Monarch, with ten 12-inch guns and a high speed. These ships are pretty much unmatched in the Mediterranean except for the lone British Queen Elizabeth class battleship and the four ships of the Italian Caracciolo class – all of which are much more powerful ships than any others in the theater even without their speed.
Austria-Hungary produced a number of very fine naval architects, who presented the MTK with creative designs for battle cruisers, fast armored cruisers, big destroyers and powerful battleships throughout the war. The Empire had no hope of actually constructing these ships, but by keeping his team fully employed, Pitzinger protected them from the military draft. They would go on to design innovative warships and passenger liners in Italy, Yugoslavia and Poland after the Dual Monarchy disintegrated.
Despite the broad experience of the MTK’s membership and the creative abilities of the naval architects, Austrian warship design was dominated by one man, the chief naval constructor, leading to the approval of flawed battleships. Siegfried Popper’s designs were over-armed, leading to severe structural problems. Franz Pitzinger, apparently out of reflexive dislike for Popper and all his works, went too far in the conservative direction.
The ships built by Austria-Hungary served well for their purpose during the First World War: resting gently at anchor in Pola’s fortified harbor, and sortieing on occasion into the restricted waters of the Adriatic. Harder use in rougher seas would have exposed their weaknesses, and limited Austria-Hungary’s contribution to the Triple Alliance’s naval war in the Mediterranean.
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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.