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Hearts of Iron:
War Clouds

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
September 2007

The years leading up to the 1866 Austro-Italian war saw an end to the spurt of Austrian naval construction. For three straight years, the budget included no funds for new ships. In Italy, ironclad spending continued, as Piedmont's solid credit rating allowed massive foreign borrowing which could not possibly be repaid.

Austria's financial woes limited spending in other areas as well as hindering new construction, and the fleet's readiness suffered accordingly. In the late winter of 1866, well before the diplomatic and military moves leading to war began, Rear Admiral Julius Ritter von Wissiak, commander of the Austrian naval base at Venice, begged Southern Army commander Ludwig von Benedek to allow him to begin preparations for hostilities. Manpower shortages especially concerned the admiral, and he worried that the fleet would be short of seamen.

Wissiak pointed out the navy's responsibilities in other areas besides the battle fleet — 700 marines had to be found for the inland stations at Peschiera and Mantova, crews had to be supplied for the large flotilla on Lake Garda and the small vessels guarding the lakes around Mantova, and then he had to meet the needs of his own flotilla in the Venetian lagoon. Wissiak could possibly assign some of his marines to serve afloat, he noted, especially aboard troop transports, if Benedek would replace them with army troops.


Armored frigate Drache prepares for war, April 1866. Steam frigate Radetzky is at right.

 
While the Garda flotilla's powerful new steam gunboats were in good shape, Wissiak wrote, the same could not be said for the other flotillas. Mantova's eight small vessels needed minor repairs, which Wissiak estimated would take about three weeks. The steam gunboats at Venice needed between two and five weeks of work.

Wissiak and his men had already discovered one of the key problems in coating wooden warships with iron plates — after any prolonged time, the wood backing of the armor plates began to rot from exposure to the oxidizing iron. To conserve the armored floating battery Feuerspeier, the backbone of the Venice flotilla, the Austrians had removed her armor plates and placed them in storage. Re-fitting them would take at least six weeks.

Benedek responded to this and similar requests from the harbor commandant at Pola by pointing out that until the Kaiser issued a formal mobilization decree to free the necessary cash, all such work had to be funded out of Southern Army's already inadequate peacetime budget. As a stop-gap measure, the marshal suggested laying up the sailing frigate Bellona, then stationed in the Fasana Channel outside Pola as a school ship.

Feeding the war scare, on 22 March the Prussian screw corvette Nymphe entered Trieste's harbor. Trieste's military commandant, Feldmarschallleutnant Ernst Hartung, found the visit suspicious, "since for many years no Prussian warship has rested in Trieste's port." The Prussian captain told Hartung his ship was on a Mediterranean training cruise, and would return to Trieste in the next month. Hartung reported the incident to the War Ministry, which ordered him to treat the Prussians with courtesy, but to make sure Trieste's military installations remained secure from foreign eyes.

Incredibly, command of the Austrian fleet for the 1866 almost went to a personal friend of the hopelessly inept naval inspector, Archduke Leopold, rather than to the battle-tested Wilhelm von Tegetthoff. Leopold soon was too busy mismanaging an army corps in Bohemia to trifle with naval matters, and Archduke Albrecht, the new Southern Army commander, confirmed Tegetthoff as head of the battle fleet.

Though short of cash, Tegetthoff energetically set about making his fleet ready for war. Only a handful of ships had full crews and could be listed as ready for service. The new fleet commander had been preparing his screw frigate Schwarzenberg for a journey to the Far East, loading gifts for the rulers of Siam and Japan. The screw frigate Donau also lay at Pola in ready condition, with the screw corvette Friedrich patrolling in the Adriatic. Four screw gunboats patrolled the Dalmatian coast and the Aegean Sea. "Seven armored ships and about four or five large screw ships have been laid up out of service for a year or more," Tegetthoff wrote to his friend and patron, Vice Admiral Bernhard von Wullerstorf, then serving as trade minister. "As a result, our trade and our coast must be considered completely defenseless."

Even when the mobilization decree came in April, fitting out the fleet's warships proved an accounting nightmare. Bringing just the screw frigate Radetzky and armored frigate Drache into service cost 60,000 florins, requiring Kaiser Franz Josef's personal intervention with the finance minister. Desperate for funds, on 5 May 1866 the navy ministry sold the Danube flotilla's three armed paddle steamers to the Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaft. The DDSG wished to hire the crews as well, but these were transferred to the fleet — denying their commanders the rare chance to snatch the title of Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftkapitän (said to be the longest word in the German language).

Austria's two newest ironclads, just entering service, had been designed to mount very modern rifled breech-loading cannon. But these had been ordered from the Krupp works in Prussia and thus were unlikely to be delivered. The new fleet commander fitted them with smoothbore 48-pounders removed from older sailing ships. The two new ironclads — Erzherzog Ferdinand Max and Habsburg — also lacked part of their armor. Completing this task would take three to four weeks, and Tegetthoff ordered the dockyard workmen to concentrate on completing the plating on the forward parts of the ships.

"With only part of their armor," Tegetthoff wrote to the War Ministry, "I am certain that these ships will give excellent service as rams in an attack on the enemy."

To show his confidence in the incomplete ship, Tegetthoff transferred his flag to her from his beloved Schwarzenberg. If she were called on to ram an enemy warship, the admiral would share her crew's fate.

Every screw-powered ship was overhauled and manned, including the ship of the line Kaiser, recently in use as a floating barracks and considered surplus after plans to convert her to an ironclad foundered on a lack of funding. In a long campaign or in winter time the ship of the line would be useless, Tegetthoff told the War Ministry, "but in the summer months I believe absolutely without reservation that this ship can play an active role."

Both of the incomplete armored frigates and Kaiser's refit were considered marginal projects, so much so that the War Minister sought Franz Josef's personal approval before allowing the work to go forward. The screw frigate Novara, heavily damaged by a suspicious fire earlier in the year, also received emergency repairs. With the arsenal overloaded, Tegetthoff contracted out much of the work to small, private firms.


Novara burns at pierside, from an Italian newspaper. The fire was not quite as extensive as depicted here, but serious nonetheless.

 
Pola's workshops rang with the sounds of blacksmiths pounding hot iron as workmen rushed to fit the Austrian wooden ships with improvised protection. Novara received railroad iron while with other wooden ships made do with heavy iron chains. The Union corvette Kearsarge used such protection to good effect in its battle with the Confederate raider Alabama off Cherbourg in 1863, a development noted by many observers — though not, apparently, anyone from the Royal Italian Navy. The Austrians fitted the ironwork around the machinery spaces and especially over the magazine of their wooden ships rather than as an armor belt in Kearsarge's case. Every Austrian warship received a coat of black paint, to distinguish them from the gray-painted Italians.

The Austrian War Ministry also contracted with the Austrian Lloyd shipping line for four of its fastest paddle steamers — Pluto, Stadium, Ferdinand Max and Carlotta — for use as scouts. Each retained its merchant crew, with 22 marines and four signalmen placed aboard. The steamers quickly began transporting troops along the Dalmatian coast and naval stores from Venice to Pola. Their military utility came into question almost immediately; Tegetthoff pointed out that the navy had already built screw gunboats specifically for scouting. The rental fees would come to 256,500 florins, compared to the estimated total cost of 2.6 million florins to outfit the fleet for war.


Italian armored frigate Regina Maria Pia at Naples, spring 1866.

 
Both fleets had trouble manning their warships, and the Italians especially resorted to press gangs and large cash bonuses. The new sailors responded by deserting; every night, Tegetthoff reported, a small bark slipped across the Adriatic bringing three or four Italian deserters to Austrian territory and taking an equal number of Austrian deserters back on its return trip. Tegetthoff exercised his fleet vigorously, with regular live-fire gunnery practice and squadron maneuvers. As war drew near Tegetthoff reported his crews' gunnery satisfactory and few sailors on the sick list, indicating good morale, but allowed that he would prefer a few more months to work up the fleet.

The Italian fleet concentrated at Taranto before moving to Ancona, a fortified port on the east coast. Carlo di Persano, who had commanded the Piedmontese squadron in operations against the pope and the Kingdom of Naples in 1860, received command of the battle fleet. On 20 June, the day Italian commander in chief Alfonso La Marmora signaled the Austrians that war would begin in three days' time, Persano led the fleet out of Taranto for Ancona. He left the screw-powered ship of the line Re Galantuomo behind; slow and badly constructed, the former pride of the Neapolitan fleet could not keep up with the rest of the squadron and would be a liability in battle. Also on the 20th, Naval Minister Diego Angioletti left Florence to take command of an infantry division in La Marmora's army; his replacement, Agostino Depretis, immediately began to agitate for quick action.


Left behind. The Italian screw-powered ship of the line Re Galantuomo.

 
"The Adriatic is an Italian sea," Depretis urged Persano, "and the Austrian flag must disappear from it." The Austrians expected the Italians to land along the Austrian coast, possibly in Venetia behind the lines of the Southern Army but most likely in the province of Dalmatia. This narrow Austrian strip of territory along the eastern shore of the Adriatic would be difficult to defend in the face of Italian superiority at sea, since troops and supplies could only reach the isolated Austrian garrisons there by sea.

The ironclad fleets of Austria and Italy clash in our Ironclads: Hearts of Iron game, with scenarios for the early Austrian probes, the Italian attack on Lissa, the Austrian countermoves and even the 1870 Austro-Italian war scare.

See the Austrian-Italian conflict for yourself — order Hearts of Iron today.