By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
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
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.
Power projection: the Austrian squadron
battles the Danes off Helgoland, 1864.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
Novara sails the southern seas.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Frigate Schwarzenberg, after
her conversion to screw power.
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.
here to order Hearts of Iron today!