By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The 19th century saw a wave of technological
changes completely change military practice.
And though the Austrian army would suffer
for failing to adopt the breech-loading rifle
in time, it had its own share of cutting-edge
weaponry, including rocket artillery.
In September 1807, the British Army lobbed
about 300 Congreve rockets into the city
of Copenhagen in Denmark, with the intent
of setting both the city's residential areas
and the Danish fleet on fire. About three-quarters
of the city was destroyed, and 2,000 civilians
killed. The weapons impressed the Danes,
who quickly established a rocket corps of
Austria followed suit, and tested rockets
in 1808 even before the Danes had their weapon
ready. But the Austrian rockets did not impress
the army commander, Archduke Charles, who
suggested the rocketeers study the English
weapons. Though Austria and Britain were
allied, the British offered very little cooperation.
Balked at obtaining British secrets, the
Austrians sent engineer Vincenz Augustin
to Denmark in the spring of 1815 on a secret
mission while foreign minister Klemens Metternich
quietly offered the Danes political aid in
the upcoming Congress of Vienna in exchange
for their rocket knowledge. The Danes agreed,
but their eccentric rocket designer, Andreas
Schumacher, would only brief Augustin verbally
and refused to hand over any drawings.
Assuring Metternich that he had obtained
what he needed, Augustin established a rocket
depot at the Austrian army arsenal in Wiener
Neustadt and within two months he had equipped
a rocket battery with 2,400 projectiles and
their own very stylish dark-green uniforms.
The battery marched to war during the Hundred
Days campaign of 1815, participating in the
siege of Hunigue that summer.
The rocket corps expanded over the decades
that followed, with Augustin overseeing continual
improvements in their weapons. Rocket batteries
served in the 1821 campaign in Naples, and
alongside the Austrian Navy in its actions
against pirates in Morocco and Syria. But
it was the 1848-49 campaigns against the
Italian states and Hungarian rebels that
the rocket men made their mark. Rocket batteries
fought in Radetzky's army in several field
engagements, but the wily old marshal found
them particularly useful in the bombardment
With Radetzky's seal of approval, Augustin
received orders to expand his corps even
more. The Austrian army re-organized into
fifteen corps, each based on a geographical
district and having a standard organization.
Each corps was to have its own dedicated
rocket battery, plus three more for the general
reserve. The 4,000-man Rocketeer Regiment,
as it was styled, dwarfed the rocket establishments
of all other nations combined. Augustin received
a noble title, and was considered the empire's
foremost expert on weapons technology. He
designed the 1841-model percussion musket
that Austrian armies carried until 1857,
and chaired the committee that selected the
Lorenz rifled musket that replaced it. At
those hearings, Augustin's firm opposition
to breech-loading rifles kept those vital
weapons out of Austrian hands in the wars
that followed his death in early 1859.
Rocket manufacture took place in secret,
within the Wiener Neustadt arsenal. Finished
rockets were exported to Switzerland, Sweden,
Bavaria and Wurttemburg and had a good reputation
for quality. Two types of rockets were furnished: "field" rockets
for battlefield use, and "siege" rockets
for targeting fortresses. Field rockets came
in two calibers, 1.9-inch and 2.3-inch. Siege
rockets were labeled by weight, with six-pound,
12-pound, 16-pound and 28-pound models including
high explosive, shrapnel and incendiary warheads.
For the first four decades of their existence,
the rocket batteries deployed "stick" rockets
like those developed by the British. A long
stick attached to the rocket provided stability
in flight, but even so the weapon could at
times veer wildly off course. This was not
necessarily a bad thing, as the rocket's
unpredictable flight added to its value as
a terror weapon.
In 1858, the English inventor William Hale
demonstrated his spin-stabilized stickless
rocket to the Austrian rocketeers. After
several successful tests, the Austrians bought
a license to manufacture them, plus several
of his revolutionary hydraulic presses to
help make them.
The stickless rocket was laid in a tray,
just like the stick version, and ignited.
Special fins directed the gas exhaust to
make the projectile rotate, and impart accuracy
just like a rifle bullet or artillery round
achieved with a grooved barrel. The rocket
batteries that went to war against the French
in 1859 carried both kinds of rockets, but
afterwards the stick rockets were retired
in favor of the more accurate Hale models.
Hale-type spin-stabilized rocket.
After the 1859 war, the Austrian army conducted
a wide-ranging review of its failures and
began a serious — and expensive — overhaul.
The army's war strength actually dropped,
as money went to re-equip the artillery with
rifled cannon and many of the nearly useless
reserve infantry formations were dropped
from the rolls. The rocket regiment slipped
from 18 to 12 batteries, but even then personnel
began to be transferred to the regular artillery.
In 1863, the rocket batteries were tabbed
for conversion to mountain artillery, and
began to receive excellent 3-pounder steel
rifled mountain guns. By the time of the
1866 war most of them were mixed, with one
section of two mountain guns and two rocket
sections each with two launching tubes. But
the new steel guns were proving themselves
in exercises, and as the army could afford
them they steadily replaced the rocket tubes.
The rocket regiment even lost its unique
designation in 1864; it remained as a testing,
training and administrative center in Wiener
Neustadt but its batteries were re-numbered
as sub-units of the artillery. The men lost
their unique uniforms and now drew pay and
followed the promotion paths of the artillery
Only four rocket batteries went along with
the field armies in 1866, though several
more were deployed in Tirol against Garibaldi's
Red Shirts. They saw some action in the initial
battles in Bohemia and fought at Königgrätz,
failing to distinguish themselves on the
field while the artillery performed extremely
well. The one battery assigned to Southern
Army was not present at Custoza, and was
re-equipped with captured Italian cannon
immediately after the battle. Northern Army's
three batteries (one each with I, II and
IV Corps) appear to have lost their rocket
tubes in the general re-organization of the
artillery after Königgrätz, but
the batteries assigned to fortress garrisons
retained them until the end of the war.
Rockets saw their last use under Austrian
colors in 1869, when a small expedition went
to southern Dalmatia to repress mountain
tribes who had refused to register their
firearms. The rockets helped overawe the
rebels, though they seem to have caused no
casualties. When the tubes returned to the
arsenals afterwards, they remained there
until scrapped later in the century.
of 1866: Frontier Battles, rocket batteries
move more quickly than conventional artillery
but otherwise are treated in similar fashion.
They lack the range and firepower of the
standard Austrian artillery batteries with
their new rifled guns, but will be more prominent
and useful if we ever get around to the 1859
version of the game.
See the rockets' red glare
for yourself in Frontier Battles — order now!
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. Leopold fears rockets.