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Austria's Wooden Walls
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
April 2007

The battle of Lissa is usually mentioned as the first major battle at sea between fleets of ironclad warships, and this is certainly accurate. But the Austrian wooden squadron flung itself into the battle as well, mixing it up with the Italian ironclads without the loss of a single ship.

Habsburg sea power began with the acquisition of Trieste in 1382, but Austria had no navy until the early 18th century, when Charles VI built a squadron in the Adriatic. Financial problems forced the government to abolish the small fleet, and not until 1786 did a permanent Austrian navy come into being.

Austria acquired Venice (including Istria and Dalmatia) in 1797, lost the territory to the French for some years during the Napoleonic Wars, and regained it in 1814. Along with Venice's famed Arsenal, Austria acquired a number of incomplete warships, including several ships of the line. Financial problems prevented the manning of these ships, and the alliance with England and its powerful Royal Navy made them unnecessary.


Power projection: the Austrian squadron battles the Danes off Helgoland, 1864.

The Italian states had a long and proud naval history, led by Venice and Genoa. The naval struggle between Austria and Italy carried on the centuries-long feud between Italy's two great port cities, with most Italian naval leaders coming from Genoa and many Austrian sailors from Venice.

Many of Austria's Venetian sailors defected during the 1848 revolution. Most of the fleet's warships escaped, but the reborn Republic of Venice put together a small squadron, and had the aid of the Piedmontese and Neapolitan fleets until the great Josef Graf Radetzky and his army knocked Piedmont out of the war. The Austrians then blockaded Venice, and their siege grew ever tighter. Desperate for supplies, the Venetian fleet finally sortied on 8 August 1849, led by Achille Bucchia. Though Bucchia's ships skirmished with the Austrians he was reluctant to meet the larger Austrian fleet. Ten days after his sortie Bucchia returned to Venice, where cholera raged through the population and the garrison, and the city surrendered on 22 August.

In the years following the 1848 war, new technologies led to a revolution in sea power. The screw propeller gave a ship the all-weather power of a steam engine while, unlike a paddle wheel, leaving her broadsides clear to mount cannon. The French ordered a screw-powered ship of the line in 1847, after the British had built several screw-propelled frigates and corvettes, and a naval arms race began.


Frigate Schwarzenberg at Pola, late 1866. Ironclad Ferdinand Max in the left background, ship of the line Kaiser further left background, disarmed sailing frigate Bellona in right background.

The United States Navy launched its first screw-powered warship, the sloop Princeton, in 1847. Among the assembled foreign dignitaries was the young Austrian army engineer captain Karl Möring, on a tour of American military facilities. Möring would play a major role in the 1848 revolution as a liberal advocate yet survive the post-war political purge and command a brigade at the battle of Custoza (and rate his own counter in Battles of 1866.) On his return to Austria, he enthusiastically described the new propulsion scheme to Archduke Friedrich, the navy’s titular commander.

The archduke took up the cause, but almost immediately contracted typhus and died. The 1850 Navy Law, intended to create a modern Austrian fleet, specifically called for sailing ships of the line and frigates. But a new fleet commander, army Feldmarschallleutnant Franz Graf von Wimpffen, took over in 1851 and ordered the modern 50-gun screw frigate Radetzky in a British yard (Wigram’s of London), hedging his bet by laying down the big sailing frigate Schwarzenberg, also rated for 50 guns, at the Venice Arsenal.

The navy entered a new phase in October 1854, when Emperor Franz Josef appointed his 22-year-old brother Ferdinand Maximilian to command his fleet. Energetic and intelligent, the young archduke was on hand for Radetzky’s delivery a few weeks later. Rumor had it that the Royal Navy would requisition her for the Crimean War, and Franz Josef agreed with his brother that Austria could not risk losing future warships in the same manner. The emperor bought the Navale Adriatico shipyard in Trieste from the Tonelli brothers, and authorized a building dock for the Pola Arsenal. Ferdinand Maximilian immediately ordered two sister ships of Radetzky built at the Trieste yard and a screw-powered ship of the line at Pola. Two 22-gun screw corvettes were laid down at the Venice Arsenal at the same time.


Novara sails the southern seas.

Austrian seamanship also needed improvement, and the archduke greatly increased the fleet’s operational tempo and training regimen. The sailing frigate Novara left Trieste in April, 1857, carrying seven scientists on a mission to circumnavigate the globe. She remained at sea for 551 days, gaining widespread international recognition. Meanwhile, an Austrian screw-powered squadron of two frigates and a corvette steamed to the North and Baltic Seas on a lengthy training cruise.

The archduke had badly exceeded his budgets every year, but managed to fight off the army’s political offensive aimed at halting his program. By 1858 the Austrian fleet was the strongest it had ever been, with Radetzky and her sisters Donau and Adria in service along with the new screw corvettes Dandolo and Erzherzog Friedrich. The battleship Kaiser, a copy of the British ship of the line Agamemnon, lacked only her English-built engines.

With 90 guns and fine lines, Kaiser impressed her namesake enough that the emperor agreed to replace the sailing ships specified in the 1850 Navy Law with screw-powered equivalents. Five sister ships of Kaiser were now authorized, all of them to be built at Pola. Österreich, an improved Kaiser with more powerful engines, would be laid down in 1859 along with two more screw frigates, Drache and Salamander, at Trieste.


Hearts of iron: Kaiser after the battle of Lissa, July 1866. She took 60 hits and rammed an Italian ironclad, but Captain Anton Pöckh declared her ready for action again less than 24 hours later.

None had been begun when war broke out between Austria and France (allied to Piedmont) in April 1859. During the war, the enormous French fleet dominated the Adriatic Sea. Despite the pleas of the eager Capt. Wilhelm von Tegetthoff to attack an isolated French squadron, the Austrian flotilla remained trapped in Venice throughout the war. The army commanders placed the screw- and sail-powered ships in the channels in and around Venice and at other Adriatic ports, for use as floating batteries. In early June, reports filtered into Austria of two French divisions ready to land at Venice or Pola. A landing at the northern end of the Adriatic could easily break the railroad line leading from the key Quadrilateral fortress district back to Vienna, interrupting the supply line to the front-line armies. In response, the Austrians deployed an entire army in the area, the First Army in the early weeks of the war followed by the Fourth Army when the First moved to the front lines, each with two to four army corps.

With only a series of demonstrations, the French fleet inflicted enormous expense on the Austrians. At Trieste alone the Austrians laid 200,000 sandbags and constructed two floating batteries. Pola received 169 heavy cannon. Trade ground to a halt and tens of thousands of troops marked time awaiting a French invasion that never came. The vast cost of these measures far outweighed any pre-war savings on naval construction, and Ferdinand Maximilian — showing a political acumen that would desert him a few years later when he accepted the imperial Mexican crown — moved quickly to claim that the war’s lessons called for a larger navy, not its abolition as some of the generals grumbled. In the years following the 1859 war, funding for the navy came much more easily, though budgetary battles continued.


Frigate Schwarzenberg, after her conversion to screw power.

Ferdinand Maximilian moved quickly to exploit his political advantage. The fleet’s best sailing ships, the frigates Schwarzenberg and Novara, were to be converted to screw power, Kaiser provided with engines, and the 1859 building program enacted. But while the armies fought for northern Italy, French naval architects had launched another technical revolution. Advances in metallurgy allowed the rolling of hardened iron plates, and better marine engines could provide enough power to move an armored ship at useful speeds. Austria’s modern fleet had been made obsolete again, and the archduke resolved not to waste the empire’s money. He would have ironclads.

In our upcoming Ironclads: Hearts of Iron wooden ships are important in both the 1864 and 1866 scenarios, part of every participant’s battle fleet. Armor had a mystique in 1866, but as later wars would prove, unarmored warships could still fight in the line of battle and iron plates were far from invulnerable. The wooden ships are easier to damage than the ironclads, but neither are they made of paper.

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