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Beyond Normandy




Turkish Intervention, 1866
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
September 2009

When the telegram arrived at the headquarters of Austria's Southern Army in the early summer of 1866, none of the staff officers could believe it. Turkish soldiers and sailors — the Habsburg monarchy's sworn enemies for five centuries — were deploying to defend  the empire's southern regions from possible Italian, Serb and Romanian invaders.

"Das hätte Mamula nie erlaubt," snorted Archduke Albrecht, the army commander. "Mamula would never have allowed this." Lazarus Mamula, a highly conservative Croat recently replaced as military governor of Dalmatia, would never have stained Austrian honor by accepting the aid of the infidel Turk. And few at headquarters could truly believe that the Turks would offer such help.

Yet the Sublime Porte had indeed dispatched naval and army units to key points near the Austrian border as a clear warning to the radical nationalists in Florence and Turin. Plans to make the Adriatic an Italian lake and spark similar nationalist movements across the Balkans frightened the Ottoman government no less than Austria's leaders. Like the Austrian Habsburgs, the Porte would fight if necessary to protect its similarly conservative principles of legitimacy and tradition.

The screw frigate Ertugrul, sister of the Turkish flagship.


The rebellion which began on the island of Crete in April had focused Turkish concerns on foreign intrigues in the area. The Greek government had pledged not to aid the Cretan rebels, but individual Greeks were smuggling weapons to the island and the Turks suspected an Italian connection as well. An Egyptian infantry division would eventually have to be called in to help the Turks take firm control of the island. The Porte sought not only to seal off outside help to the Cretan rebels, but also to prevent other movements from gaining a foothold on the mainland. And during an international crisis such as that brewing in Germany, few European eyes would be watching while Turkish troops thoroughly crushed the Cretan rebellion.

During the war scares of early 1866, both Austria and Prussia sought allies, with Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck hoping to divert Austrian troops away from the main theater with attacks from Austria's small Balkan neighbors, semi-independent Serbia and Romania. Nominally Turkish vassal states, both had ejected Turkish garrisons during the preceding decades, with the last Ottoman troops leaving Belgrade in 1862. In April Romania elected Prince Karl von Hohenzollern, son of the former Prussian Prime Minister, as ruling prince. Well-known to Bismarck, Karl was expected to follow the Chancellor's suggestions like the Prussian officer he was.

The Porte quickly made clear the costs of intervention. Turkish troops gathered in Bosnia and in the Turkish coastal enclaves along the Adriatic, discouraging Italian amphibious landings and Serb attempts to invade the Banat region of southern Hungary. A large Turkish army assembled at Rushchuk in Turkish-ruled Bulgaria, across the Danube from Romania. And a Turkish naval squadron entered the Adriatic as well.

The implication was clear to all interested observers: the Ottoman Empire would stand alongside Austria to defend the status quo. In particular, as these movements show, the Porte sought to prevent independent action by and the possible aggrandizement of its vassal states of Serbia and Romania. Even more importantly, the Turks were determined to prevent Italian control of the Adriatic coast, especially the important port of Dubrovnik, historically an Ottoman protectorate.

The understanding between Turkey and Austria stopped short of a formal alliance. But Turkish interests clashed directly with those of both Italy and Prussia. Italian leaders had talked openly for several years of assisting Greek and Slavic rebels in their struggles with the Turks. And Italian designs on Dubrovnik, the main outlet for Bosnian trade, concerned Turkish leaders. The Turkish deployment around Dubrovnik in 1866 represented a level of protection never offered the independent republic.

In mid-May, 1866, the Austrian embassy in Constantinople reported Turkish troop strengths of 12,000 in Bosnia with about the same number in Herzegovina. Albania held 5,000 troops, Thessaly and Macedonia about 10,000 together and 40,000 were concentrated at Rushchuk on the Danube to threaten Romania. Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander von Mensdorff-Pouilly told his diplomats to prod the Turks toward an outright invasion of Romania. In late May another 6,000 Turkish regulars and 2,000 irregulars known as bashi-bazouks (literally "crazy heads") moved into Bosnia, while other Turkish units entered northern Albania.

On June 25, two days after the Italian declaration of war against Austria, the Turkish commander in Bosnia, Farouk Pasha, ordered full-scale mobilization. Sixty thousand men were called to the colors, representing all three classes of Turkish reservists. The third group, the Moustafiz, was only called out for dire emergencies. During the Russo-Turkish War a decade later the Moustafiz did not receive mobilization orders until several weeks after the war began. Thus the mobilization to support Austria in 1866 represented a greater effort and expense than the one to fight Russia in 1877.

The Austrians, meanwhile, took advantage of the Turkish moves to strip Dalmatia of almost all its garrisons, shipping the all regular army battalions from the coast to Trieste.

On May 28 the Austrian consul in Mostar informed the military governor of Dalmatia that a Turkish naval squadron would soon enter the Adriatic to protect the coastal enclaves of Klek and Sutorina, on the Adriatic coast north and south of Dubrovnik respectively. Though Klek was a Turkish port, provisions dating from 1718 required that the Turks obtain Austrian permission for the entry of Ottoman warships there.

The small port, though economically insignificant, would be of enormous strategic importance if seized by Italy. Both Dubrovnik and the Austrian enclave around Cattaro, further south, would be cut off from Austrian reinforcements and easily taken. Turkish warships at Klek would not only prevent an Italian landing there, but also provide indirect protection to Austrian coastal shipping.

The Turkish armored frigate Mahmudiye did not actually enter the Adriatic.


The first Turkish warship, the screw corvette Mansour, arrived on May 29, followed by the kalyon (steam-powered ship of the line) Kossovo. Over the next three weeks they were joined by Vice-Admiral Ethem Pasha and his flagship, the screw frigate Hüdavendigar  ("Sovereign") as well as the ship of the line Peyk-I-Zafer ("Satellite of Victory"), the screw corvette Sinop, the gunboat Beyrut and an unarmed transport. The Austrians expected Peyk-I-Zafer to replace Kossovo, but both ships seem to have remained on station. Soon after her arrival Austrian agents reported that Peyk-I-Zafer left the squadron for a patrol along the Albanian coast. Turkish supply ships continued to arrive as well, the brig Genuz-Dundja delivering hundreds of crates of ammunition each to Salonika, Antivari and Klek on the 15th and 16th of June.

Officially titled the Rumeli Filo, or European Fleet, the stated mission of Ethem Pasha's squadron was to suppress gun-running. He was also ordered to resist with force any Italian landings on Turkish territory. The size of the Turkish squadron seems to have surprised some Austrian officials, but Austrian officers had strict orders not to interfere with Turkish movements and to accommodate any requests for assistance.

The Turkish squadron represented a fair portion of the Ottoman fleet, but omitted its most powerful warships. The four armored frigates of the Osmanieh class, at least two of which should have been available for operations, remained outside the Adriatic. In fact, none of them are listed for any active Turkish squadron at the time, making their battle-worthiness questionable a year after commissioning. On paper at least, these large, modern warships were far larger and more powerful than anything in either the Italian or Austrian squadrons. They could, if competently handled, have made a significant difference in battle, giving the smaller Austrian fleet parity with if not superiority over the Italians.

Steam-powered ships of the line like Kossovo and Peyk-I-Zafer still carried great weight in the minds of diplomats, despite the obvious fighting power of armored frigates. And even after the successes of ironclads in the American Civil War, wooden ships remained in service in most navies, as the great cost of ironclads worked against the quick replacement of wooden warships. The Austrian wooden ships fought well at Lissa in July 1866, especially the ship of the line Kaiser. Kaiser and her consorts had the added protection of railroad iron and heavy chains around their engine rooms and magazines, an additional step neglected by the Italians for their wooden ships and probably by the Turks as well.


Kossovo and Peyk-I-Zafer, converted sailing ships 2/3 the size of the built-for-steam Kaiser and probably much less maneuverable, would have proved easier marks for the Italian armored ships. The Italians considered their very similar Re Galantuomo, once the pride of the Neapolitan fleet, fit only for patrols in the lower Adriatic (and she may have been the ship spotted off the Albanian coast by the Austrians). Thus, with the Turkish ironclads kept out of the war zone and the Adriatic squadron too weak to independently influence events, the Porte probably did not intend its squadron to actually engage the Italians in battle.

The squadron fulfilled its intended role. The feared Italian landing in Dalmatia never took place. The one Italian naval operation, the assault on the island of Lissa, was not a prelude to a landing on the mainland but merely a display intended more to lure the Austrians into battle than to seize a strategic location.

Ethem Pasha's Turkish squadron appears in Ironclads: Hearts of Iron, lining up alongside the Austrians to repel Italian ambitions in a variant scenario. The big new ironclads are in there, too, as well as the rest of the Turkish wooden fleet.

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