Monday, June 16, 2014

Austrian Oak against Italian Iron

The Austro-Prussian War of 1866 saw Prussia and its ally Italy in a seven-week struggle against the German Confederation under the leadership of the Austrian Empire. The war left Prussia and its allies as the leading German power, while Austria lost Venice to Italy as well as official influence over the states of the former German Confederation. The Italians had been goaded into an alliance with Prussia with the prize of Venice being dangled before the eyes of fervent Italian nationalists, and Austria was forced to split its forces to safeguard against Italian action, and the Prussians could therefore not be met with full force. The Italians were indeed defeated at Custozza on June 24, but the dilution of Austrian force only made the Prussian victories easier to come by.  The decisive Prussian victory at Kӧniggrätz on July 3 led to the war ending on July 22, 1866.

Although the Austrians were losing the war, Italian nationalistic pride sought a way to avenge the loss at Custozza, and seeking to re-acquire Venice, the Italians decided that a maritime option would be the best to pursue. The Italian Navy also outnumbered the Austrian by a considerable margin, and in mid-July, the Italians ordered Count Carlo di Persano, the 60-year old commander-in-chief of the fleet to assault the Austrian island of Lissa (today’s Vis) on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. The Italians were hoping to take Austrian territory to be used as bargaining chips in the expected future peace negotiations. The Austrian main fleet was located at Pola, at least one day away from Lissa.

 Admiral Persano

The island of Lissa was fortified and it was defended by 84 guns along with a garrison of some 2,000 men, and they put up a vigorous defence, damaging the ram Formidabile and forcing it to return to Ancona. The Austrian Navy was alerted and promptly left Pola. When it reached Lissa on the morning of July 20, there were seven armored and eleven unarmored Austrian ships against twelve armored and seventeen unarmored Italian ships. The Italian force also included the very powerful ram and turret ship Affondatore that had recently been delivered from a shipyard in England. The scene was set for the first major naval engagement with ironclads in European waters not even five years since the building of the Monitor during the American Civil War. However, far from all the vessels were ironclads, and the battle would see Austrian wooden ships-of-the-line furiously engaging Italian ironclads at point-blank range.

Neither fleet was very well prepared, though, and both fleets were lacking in proficiency, training and leadership. The Italian fleet in particular was poorly trained in both maneuvering and fighting, and this had shown during the attack on Lissa. Furthermore, Persano’s plan were both poorly conceived and not well communicated to his subordinates. The Austrian fleet commander, 39-year old Wilhelm von Tegetthoff, on the other hand, was aware of the limitations of his fleet, and he had engaged his fleet in as much training as possible since war was declared. Also, his officers and sailors were filled with great élan, and perhaps most importantly, Tegetthoff intended to keep all plans simple. He briefed all of his captains that he was to form his fleet into three divisions, one of ironclads, one of wooden ships and one of minor vessels. The divisions were to engage in wedge formations, or “double line oblique” and he was personally to lead from his flagship Erzherzog Ferdinand Max in the division of ironclads. Meanwhile, as the Austrian ships were spotted, Admiral Persano received reports of unidentified ships approaching, and he ordered his force to break of support to the landings and form a conventional line of battle with the ironclads spread evenly throughout the line. Most importantly, he also left his flagship Re d’Italia for Affondatore, hoping that he could lead this potent vessel to the critical points of the upcoming battle. However, he failed to notify most of his fleet of his shift of flag, and most of his signals were thereby ignored as the Affondatore took up position starboard of the Italian line of battle. It should also be noted that the Austrian cannon were less powerful than the Italian, since Prussia had cut off Austria from deliveries of modern breech-loaded rifled guns. Thus the Austrian vessels were mainly armed with smoothbore muzzle loaders with little effect on armor.[1]

Von Tegetthoff’s signal of the day was “Ironclads will dash at the enemy and sink him.” As the Austrian fleet approached the Italians with heavy black smoke streaming from the funnels, the Italians had yet to complete forming a line due to the maneuvering necessary to transfer Admiral Persano from Re d’Italia to Affondatore. The Austrian divisions poured through a gap in the Italian line after the third ship, Ancona, and the Re d’Italia. Three Austrians ships turned port to engage the Italian center, while Tegetthoff himself noted that the leading Italian ships also were tuning port to engage the Austrian second division. Tegetthoff turned towards the Italians with his flagship Erzherzog Ferdinand Max as well as Salamander and Habsburg, but after completing his turn, Tegetthoff faced Re d’Italia and Palestro.  It would be up to the Austrian second division to face the Italian onslaught in a chaotic series of close-range encounters in between enormous clouds of smoke from coal and gunpowder. Ships would pass one another continually within pistol-shot, rapidly emerging from banks of smoke and mist and giving gunners little or no time to fire their cannon before targets were obscured again. It was well-nigh impossible to see national ensigns, and target identification was only possible because the Austrian ships were painted black and the Italians grey. Signaling was also difficult if not outright impossible, but the Austrians benefited from having a simple battle plan that really didn’t require additional signaling after the forces were committed.

The second Austrian division was composed of a starbord wing of four wooden ships (Graf Radetzky, Donau, Novara and Kaiser), a port wing of another four wooden ships (Erzherzog Friedrich, Adria, Furst Schwarzenberg, Greif, and from 5PM, Stadium). The division was led from Kaiser sailing in between the two wings, and commanded by Commodore Anton, Freiherr von Petz.

Anton von Petz

Von Petz was born on January 24, 1819, in Untervenitze (today's Veneţia de Jos), which was located in the region of Siebenbürgen in present-day Romania. He joined the Austrian Navy as a cadet in 1837 after finishing the Naval College in Venice, which was part of the Austrian Empire at the time. He was posted to the frigate Guerriera under command of Archduke Friedrich in 1840 and he took part in actions off the coast of Syria as part of a British-Turkish-Austrian expedition against Muhammed Ali Pasha, the ruler of Egypt, who was engaged in a war against the Ottoman Empire.

1842 saw von Petz appointed as the adjutant of the commandant of the Austrian Navy, Archduke Friedrich, on board the frigate Bellona as the Archduke traveled to England for studies. Von Petz then spent three years as professor of mathematics at the Marine College. Anton von Petz was then again to see combat in 1849 as 1st Lieutenant on board the Vulcan, when the Austrian Navy took part in the naval blockade of Venice during the First War of Italian Independence, which mainly was a war between Austria and Sardinia. He was then in command of minor warships until he was made Director of Fitting at the Sea Arsenal of Venice as well as adjutant to the Commander of the Navy.

Von Petz’s ship Kaiser of 5,194 tonnes was launched on October 5, 1858, at the Marinewerke (today’s Uljanik shipyard) at Pola. She was both the last wooden ship-of-the-line built for the Austrian Navy and the only screw-driven ship of this type. Kaiser had a crew of some 900 sailors and officers and she was armed with 90 guns on two decks: sixteen 60-punders, seventy-four 30-pounders and two 24-pounders. She was rigged as a three-masted full rigged ship with an auxiliary 2,000 horsepower steam engine. The ship was 266 feet long with a beam of 56 feet and a draft of 24 feet. Her top speed was 12.5 knots. Following commissioning in 1859, Kaiser became the flagship of the Austrian Navy, but she quickly became obsolete following the introduction of ironclads. Kaiser served in a defensive role during the German-Danish war of 1864 as part of the Austrian squadron in the North Sea. Following the Battle of Lissa, Kaiser was reconstructed as an ironclad and modified to carry ten 23-pounder guns in casemate mountings. She served in this role until 1902, when she was decommissioned, striped and renamed Bellona. She served as a hulk in Pola until 1918.

This painting by Constantine Volanakis shows the ships locked in tight groups. The Kaiser dominates the foreground while the Re d'Italia sinks to her left

Von Petz was not one to be intimidated as the Italians steamed towards his wooden ships, even as he saw Affondatore emerging from the dense smoke clouds. Admiral Persano tried to ram Kaiser twice, but as it turned out, maneuvering a large vessel in an attempt to ram is more difficult than it seems. However, fire from the enormous 300-pounder guns of Affondatore caused quite a bit of damage to the Kaiser, dismounting an upper-deck gun, wounding or killing six men at the wheel of the Kaiser, smashing the engine-room telegraph, binnacle and other parts of the vessel. Von Petz responded with broadsides from his damaged ship, and much damage was caused to the Affondatore’s top-hamper and deck. The proximity of the ships also led to exchanges of small-arms fire from marines and sailors on deck and on the tops. A third attempt to ram found Kaiser straight ahead of Affondatore. However, as the Affondatore steamed towards the Austrian ship, Admiral Persano ordered the captain to veer off to avoid a collision, perhaps out of chivalric sentiment.
 A painting by Alex Kirchner featuring the Kaiser with the Ré di Portogallo behind her and Erzherzog Ferdinand Max to the left.

Von Petz had barely managed to evade the formidable Affondatore when a new threat emerged in the shape of the ironclad Ré di Portogallo, which was commanded by Captain Ribotti who led Italian rear. Ré di Portogallo, together with Maria Pia and Varese, had brought heavy fire to bear on the lead ships of von Petz’s division. Several projectiles flew over Kaiser, hitting Novara, Erzherzog Friedrich and Kaiserin Elizabeth instead. Von Petz ordered full speed ahead in an attempt to ram and sink Ré di Portogallo. Kaiser did hit the Italian vessel at the beam abreast of the machinery, but at an angle. Nevertheless, the impacts shore off most of the small boats and damaged several gun ports as well as tearing off some sixty feet of armor. Ré di Portogallo replied with broadside from point-blank range that tore of the bowsprit, started a fire on board as well as causing the foremast to fall down with rigging and all into the funnel. The imperial crown from the Kasier’s figure-head was left on Ré di Portogallo’s deck. More importantly, the steam pressure began to decrease, but Kaiser managed fire off additional rounds at the Ré di Portogallo as the Italian vessel turned starboard, with several shot striking below her armor and with a 24-pound shell exploding on deck before the Ré di Portogallo disappeared in the smoke. Yet, the action wasn’t over for Von Petz as the ironclad Maria Pia loomed up at a distance of some 800 yards. Von Petz immediately engaged the enemy despite the state of his damaged and burning ship, and as the Kaiser fired its guns, two Italian shells burst between the decks of the Kaiser, putting part of her battery out of action. A steam pipe was also ruptured and the quarter deck was almost swept clean. The chief engineer informed von Petz that the machinery no longer could be trusted, and with fire on the port side and over the wreck of the funnel, von Petz decided to pull away in attempt to reach the harbor of San Giorgio di Lissa. Several other ships of von Petz’s division had also been damaged by the Italian ironclads, but the rear of the Italian line had unexpectedly been held in check by von Petz’s wooden ships.
 Eduard Nezbeda's painting of the Kasier ramming the Ré di Portogallo.

 While von Petz and his division battled the Italians, the Austrian ironclads were fully engaged with their counterparts. Erzherzog Ferdinand Max rammed Re d'Italia and Palestro. Striking both ships with glancing blows, Tegetthoff inflicted enough damage to sink Palestro. Returning to Re d'Italia, Erzherzog Ferdinand Max pounded the Italian ship with gunfire before ramming it. Opening an 18-foot hole, the ramming attack sent the Italian ship to the bottom. Following these dramatic actions, Admiral Persano chose to withdraw with his fleet.

The Battle of Lissa was the first time two fleets of ironclads met in battle and it was also the last time the ram was used effectively in battle. The Italians lost two ironclads as well as 620 dead and 20 wounded. Several Austrian ships were damaged in the battle, although the casualties were limited to 38 killed and 138 wounded. The battle did demonstrate many of the challenges of the ironclad era, for example how to handle machinery and steering gear, what formation to fight in, and how to communicate. Also, the Battle of Lissa serves as an excellent example of the importance of establishing and maintaining the Aim, as demonstrated by Tegetthoff and his simple and direct plan.  

Admiral Persano returned to Italy and a court-martial for cowardice. He was found guilty of negligence and incapacity, stripped of his rank and forced to leave the Italian Navy. However, Austria was forced to cede Venice to Italy, although the Austrian victory at the Battle of Lissa probably did prevent additional loss of territory along the Dalmatian coast.

The Battle of Lissa did show that the ram could be of use in an era when armor was superior to guns, and rams came in vogue in shipbuilding around the world for several decades after the battle. Ramming as a tactic also pointed out the necessity of being able to fire the main armament over the prow of a vessel. Various solutions with central batteries and prow-mounted heavy guns were tried out over the next decade, and these experiments led up to the turreted men-of-war that emerged during the late 1800s.   

Commodore von Petz was one of the celebrated victors of Lissa. He was awarded the Maria-Theresia-Orden on August 29, 1866 and promoted to Rear Admiral. Von Petz then went on to serve as commandant of the Fiume Naval Academy between October 1866 and September 1867. He was subsequently made the deputy Harbor Admiral of Pula before taking command of an expedition to Siam, China, Japan and South America between 1869 and 1871 with the frigate Donau and the corvette Erzherzog Friedrich. Von Petz was eventually promoted to Vice Admiral and commander of the Trieste Naval Region. He died on May 7, 1885, and he is buried at the Trieste military cemetery together with his wife, Elisabeth von Petz (neé von Narischkine).

 Kaiser immediately after the Battle of Lissa. Note the missing funnel and foremast.


Sir William Laird Clowes. Four moderns naval campaigns. January 1902.

R. G. Grant. Battle at Sea: 3,000 years of Naval Warfare.

Richard Hill. War at Sea in the Ironclad Age. London: Cassel, 2000.

Donald Macintyre and Basil W. Bathe. Örlogsfartyg genom seklen. Gӧteborg: Wahlstrӧm & Widstrand, 1968

Lincoln P. Paine. Warships of the World to 1900.

Lawrence Sondhaus. The Naval Policy of Austria-Hungary, 1867-1918. United States Naval Institute. Proceedings, January 1901.


[1] The situation was often reversed in the land battles with the Austrian army having modern artillery and the Prussians older pieces.