of the The Habsburg Fleet:
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
A few years ago we put out a module for the Second World War at Sea series, titled Imperial & Royal Navy. It consisted of a sheet of very nice die-cut playing pieces and a comb-bound booklet with 10 scenarios. I liked the pieces a lot; the scenarios and the comb-bound booklet, not as much. We retired the booklet with plans to re-make it as part of the comprehensive Second Great War story line crafted by Jim Stear for The Kaiser’s Navy. In this alternative history, Imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary survive the Great War only to face an even more determined onslaught in 1940 from France, Italy, Russia and eventually Britain.
The new book, The Habsburg Fleet, includes the sheet of pieces from the old Imperial & Royal Navy plus a new sheet, for a total of 135 “long” ship pieces and 150 square ones (aircraft, small ships and some markers). Most of these represent the naval and air forces of Austria-Hungary, spared dissolution by the American-mediated peace of December 1916.
Here’s a look at the battleships and cruisers of the Austrian fleet that never was:
The Second Great War at Sea is a battleship war, at least in the Mediterranean, and the navies reflect this. The backbone of Austrian striking power at sea is the fleet’s dozen battleships, ranging from re-conditioned veterans of the First Great War to modern fast battleships.
The four old dreadnoughts of the Tegetthoff class were modernized between 1924 and 1930, and overhauled again in the late 1930’s. Navy planners had a very simple but vital mission in mind: fire support in the northern Adriatic. If Italian armies again advanced on Trieste and the Austrian heartland, their seaward flank would be exposed to constant, heavy shelling by these battleships.
During their initial modernization the ships' internal subdivisions were completely replaced, and their coal-fired boilers gave way to more powerful oil-burning machinery. The short, somewhat squat hull form limited the extra speed that could be gained, and they emerged from the yards in Pola, Fiume and Trieste still only able to make 23 knots at best, well below what current naval thought considered battle speed. They kept their main armament (with improved elevation) despite proposals from the Skoda Works to replace their triple 305mm (12-inch) turrets with dual turrets housing 380mm (13.8-inch) guns.
With the Italians likely to fling waves of attacking aircraft at the bombarding task forces, the ships received a powerful anti-aircraft suite during their rebuilding. They mounted new 100mm dual-purpose guns in turrets, with their old casemate-mounted 150mm guns removed, and had a large array of light anti-aircraft weapons fitted.
The last of the four, Szent Istvan, completed rebuilding in 1930. Inspections found many structural weaknesses not present in her three sisters, probably thanks to her completion during wartime and at an inexperienced shipyard, and the engineers estimated that even a single torpedo hit could have sunk her. She was re-constructed to the same standard as her sisters, with the work taking somewhat longer to complete.
The four ships of the Kaiser Franz Josef class followed them into the yards. These larger ships had a better hull form, which was stretched during rebuilding and provided with a new bow. With their new oil-fired machinery they could make 28 knots, a much more useful speed, and like the older battleships they kept their main armament. The added deck area over the bigger engine rooms allowed a cross-deck catapult to be fitted along with a hangar for two seaplanes. Like the older battleships, their secondary armament was replaced by lighter dual-purpose weapons mounted in turrets, and a powerful array of light anti-aircraft weapons was fitted. All of the rebuilt battleships lost their torpedo rooms as well.
The first ship, Kaiser Franz Josef, went into drydock at Austria Werft in Trieste in 1930, completing in 1934, and Danubius-Fiume finished work on the last, Hunyadi, in 1938. As rebuilt, the ships gave the Imperial and Royal Navy a quartet superior to the reconstructed Italian battleships and only slightly less capable than the rebuilt British Queen Elizabeth class.
New battleship construction resumed in the middle of the 1930’s. The Austrians desired a ship capable of defeating the new Italian fast battleships, knowing that Skoda could provide a more powerful main armament than their Italian counterparts, the Ansaldo Works. Armed with 16.2-inch (410mm) main guns, the Admiral Haus class battleships are slightly in violation of treaty limits in terms of main armament and displacement, though the Navy never admitted to this and the Habsburg bureaucracy kept the secret well protected.
The four ships each carry eight of the big guns, in two triple turrets and one dual turret. They have a powerful anti-aircraft armament, very good armor protection and high speed. The Austrians consider them much superior to the Imperial German Köningin Luise class laid down at about the same time, and better fighting ships than the very fine Italian Littorio class.
However, as with other navies the big ships come with a big price tag, and that makes the naval command loathe to risk them in battle. The older Kaiser Franz Josef class actually saw more action in the war’s first months, with the fast battleships usually limited to a supporting role. But they came out in force during the epic struggle for Crete between the navies of five nations.
Notes: The old Imperial&Royal Navy set included most of these; in The Habsburg Fleet the missing battleship Szent Istvan has been added (since peace came before her sinking). One of the four fast battleships has been renamed (the village of Caporetto having no special significance in a war that ended at the end of 1916) and the ships have been made a little less super than before.
Austrian naval planning saw Italy as the primary future opponent, with a Franco-Italian alliance a distinct possibility. New cruiser construction programs looked to counter these potential enemies, who both emphasized speed in several series of large destroyers and small cruisers.
The Kaunitz class light cruisers are a fairly conventional design, the “maid of all work” seen in many navies. They carry eight 5.9-inch (150mm) guns, and a balanced battery of torpedoes and anti-aircraft guns. They replaced the fleet’s quartet of old, worn-out scout cruisers in the early 1930’s. They’re intended for many duties: convoy escort, supporting destroyers in surface combat, and showing the flag around the world during peacetime.
When the French began building huge, extremely fast destroyers in the later 1930’s and the Italians kept pace with their ultra-fast Capitani Romani-type small cruisers, Austria countered with the Traun class light cruisers. They are very fast and built for surface combat, with a very heavy torpedo battery. Their role is to support the big Tatrá-class destroyers in action; they’re not really suited for much else and may not have been a wise investment. But they are indeed very fast.
The Austrians began building heavy cruisers to treaty limits in the 1920’s along with every other major power. The first set of four cruisers displaced the usual 10,000 tons and were very similar to those of other nations, with eight 8-inch (203mm) guns, a good torpedo armament and a strong anti-aircraft array. Their silhouettes were standardized with those of the big Admiral Haus class battleships, then in the planning stages, to maximize confusion among enemy spotters.
While most nations limited their heavy cruisers to 10,000 tons, this was not a strict limit (in the world of the Second Great War, anyway). The Italian Zara class displaced well over 10,000 tons and the German heavy cruisers were even larger. So for their second class of heavy cruisers, the Austrian designers went with a bigger ship carrying ten 8-inch guns, but otherwise very similar to the Triest class. Unlike the earlier class, these cruisers carry a scout plane, and they sport an even stronger anti-aircraft armament.
Since Italian cruisers carried the names of the cities and towns of Italia Irredenta, the regions the Fascists hoped to conquer, the Austrians taunted them by naming their own heavy cruisers after those very same locations.
And there’s the first segment; we’ll look at the rest of the Austrian fleet in another installment, and also of course the Italian, French, British and Greek (yes, Greek) additions.
Click here to sail with The Habsburg Fleet.
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 noble dog, Leopold.