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The Ram Triumphant: Lissa 1866 

In 1864 the Austro-Hungarian Empire joined with the Kingdom of Prussia to inflict a crushing defeat on the small nation of Denmark. This was to be the first of three wars, escalating in scale, which the Prussian Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, used to advance German unification. In a separate article (click here) on this site we saw the Austro-Hungarian Navy in action against the Danish Navy off the island of Heligoland in 1864, an encounter that was a tactical victory for the Danes but which had no impact on the outcome of the war. A hero of the Battle of Heligoland was the flamboyant Austro-Hungarian commander, Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff (1827-1871)

                           Cavalry action at Königgrätz - by Alexander von Bensa

In the second of Bismarck’s wars, in 1866, the Austro-Hungarian Empire found itself the focus of its previous ally Prussia’s aggression in a contest which would determine which power was to be dominant in Central Europe. The newly-emergent Kingdom of Italy allied itself to Prussia with the objective of winning the territory of Venetia, the last major area in Italy still under Austro-Hungarian rule. The war was to prove another short one, with Prussian professionalism mercilessly punishing Austro-Hungarian inefficiency. A rapid Prussian drive south into Bohemia (the modern Czech republic) was made possible by superb mastery of logistics and at Königgrätz (modern Hradec Králové) on 3rd July 1866, in a clash that involved almost half-a-million men, the Austro-Hungarians suffered a massive defeat. This one battle was enough to decide the so-called “Seven Weeks War” which was ended by the “Peace of Prague” treaty the following month.

                                      Affondatore (as later reconstructed)

Austro-Hungary was more successful against the Italians, who had invaded Venetia, defeating their numerically stronger army at Custoza in June 1866 and forcing them to retreat. The other theatre of action was at sea. Both nations had built substantial fleets with the objective of controlling the Adriatic. It is an indicator of the rapidity of technological change that only seven years after the French had launched the Gloire, the first sea-going ironclad’ the Austro-Hungarians could deploy seven such ships of varying power, and the Italians no less than twelve. Both sides also posessed wooden vessels – the Austro-Hungarians had seven steam frigates and corvettes plus another dozen smaller units, while the Italians had some sixteen. The advantage was with the Italians as regards firepower, on paper at least twice that of their enemy as regards total “weight of shot” – that fired by all guns. Great things were expected of the two Italian “Kings” – the Re d'Italia and Re di Portogallo ironclads, each armed with some 30 heavy rifled weapons – as well as the single-turret ram Affondatore, which had just arrived from its builders in Britain  and which mounted two 300-pounder, 10-inch rifles.

                                                                 Re d'Italia
            Persano

Given the disparity between the two navies it should have seemed easy for the Italian commander, Admiral Carlo Persano, to execute the order given him to "sweep the enemy from the Adriatic, and to attack and blockade them wherever found." In the event however inefficiency, delay and insufficient gun-drill characterised the Italian effort. Though war was declared 20th June – not unexpectedly, for a crisis had been brewing for some time – it was not until  25th June before he moved the bulk of his fleet from Taranto in the far south to Ancona on the northern Adriatic, some eighty miles south of the Austro-Hungarian naval base at Pola. On arrival at Ancona on 27th June Persano found thirteen enemy ships offshore, all cleared for action. He made no effort to fight them and according to some reports was so depressed by news of the Italian defeat at Custoza that he hung back from confrontation. On July 8 he took his force to sea for three days’ practice manoeuvring and signalling – but no firing-drill, despite many of the guns being newly mounted and unfamiliar to their crews.

The Italian Minister of Marine forced Persano’s hand by ordering an attack, not on Pola, but on the Austro-Hungarian held island of Lissa (now Vis), off the Adriatic’s eastern coast. Possession of this island was regarded as essential for control of the Adriatic – and gaining it had been an Italian ambition for some time – but attacking it while there was still an undefeated enemy fleet at large could only be regarded as foolhardy. One reason for the decision may have been that, with negotiations imminent to end the war, possession of Lissa, even at high cost, might provide a valuable bargaining chip.

           Tegetthoff

The decisive factor in the drama now unfolding was to be the aggressive Austro-Hungarian naval commander, Wilhelm von Tegetthoff, who had been blooded in action against the Danes. His crews were of both Slav and Italian stock from along the Adriatic coast, including some 600 from Venice, and they were unlikely to have been inherently superior as seaman to Persano’s men. The difference lay in the loyalty, fighting spirit and discipline which Tegettoff had instilled in them and their facing down of the Italian fleet at Ancona on 27th June had boosted their confidence.

Tegetthoff was initially suspicious that the Italian moves against Lissa were a diversion but telegrams from there convinced him that they represented a major Italian attempt to take the island. Accordingly, on 19th July, he headed there with his entire force.

The Italian offensive was meanwhile proceeding slowly. It opened with shore bombardment – a difficult undertaking as Lissa’s coastal batteries were sited on commanding heights and manned by determined marines and artillerymen. The operation was nevertheless largely successful, not least due to the arrival of the powerful Affondatore and by the end of the second day some two-thirds of the Austro-Hungarian guns had been silenced. Had the Italian ground-troops waiting offshore been landed the island could probably have been captured before Tegettoff arrived. Zeal to do so was lacking however and on the following day, 20th July, clearing mists revealed to the island’s defenders the Austro-Hungarian squadron driving from the north-east at full speed. Persano hurriedly gathered the Italian ships to the north of the island to meet them.


Tegettoff’s force advanced in three successive divisions, ironclads, wooden frigates, and finally the smaller vessels, each in a wedge-shaped formation (see diagram above), with the apex toward the enemy. The object was to drive through the Italian line, if possible near the van, and bring on a melee in which all ships could take part, ramming tactics could be employed, and the enemy would profit less by their superiority in armour and guns. Tegetthoff's tactic depended on aggression and confidence, matching them against a hesitant and passive enemy commander.

The Italians had been caught at a disadvantage. On the previous day the Formidabile, one of their better ships, had been put out of action by  shore batteries. Another, coming from the west end of the island, was too late to take part in the action. The commander of the Italian wooden ships, one Albini, was reluctant to risk them, despite Persano signalling desperately to them to come around the Austro-Hungarian rear. With his ironclads Persano formed three divisions, each of three ships and he swung across the enemy's bows in line ahead. At this critical juncture, and for no obvious reason, he shifted his flag from the Re d'Italia in the centre to the Affondatore, which was steaming alone on the starboard side of the line. The change was not noted by all his ships, and confusion of orders inevitably followed. The delay involved also left a wide gap between the Italian van and centre divisions and through this the Austrians drove, with Tegetthoff in his flagship Erzherzog Ferdinand Max leading the way.

  Contemporary painting - the confused-melee nature of the action is obvious

From this point on, formations became almost meaningless, a confused fracas in which the two forces rammed or fired into each other in a fog of smoke and spray. The Austro-Hungarian left flank and rear held up the Italian van while their ironclads attacked the Italian centre. The wooden ships of the Austro-Hungarian middle division displayed none of the hesitation of their Italian counterparts. Led by the 92-gun Kaiser, essentially a traditional wooden ship of the line equipped with a steam engine, they smashed into the Italian rear. The Kaiser, an obsolete relic, was to endure the hardest fighting of the battle. She twice avoided the Affondatore's ram though she was struck by one of her 300-pound projectiles. The Re di Portogallo then bore down on her but her Captain Petz rang for full speed ahead and steered for the ironclad, striking a glancing blow and scraping past her, both ships blazing at each other as they passed. The Kaiser thereafter withdrew, her foremast and funnel down and a fire burning amidships. Altogether she fired 850 rounds in the action, or about one-fifth of the total fired by the Austrians, and she received 80 hits, about one-fifth of the total. Of the 38 Austrians killed and 138 wounded in the battle, Kaiser lost 24 and 75 respectively.

 Kaiser charging Re di Portogallo while the Affondator attacks on her port quarter
                                          Painting by Eduard Nezbeda

Similarly fierce action was in progress elsewhere. The Italian gunboat Palestro was forced to withdraw to fight a fire that threatened her magazines. The ironclad Re d'Italia, which was at first supposed by the Austro-Hungarians to be Persano's flagship, became a focus of their attack and her steering gear was disabled. As she could go only straight ahead or astern, Tegettoff seized his chance. He rammed her squarely amidships at full speed with the Erzherzog Ferdinand Max, smashing through her armour and opening a huge gash. The Re d'Italia heeled over to starboard, lurched back again, then sank almost immediately, taking 381 of her crew with her.

                          Erzherzog Ferdinand Max ramming the Re d'Italia
    Re d'Italia rolling over and sinking - Erzharzog Ferdinand Max in background
                                 Painting by Carl Frederich Sorensen

This dramatic sinking practically decided the battle. The fighting had lasted little more than an hour before the Italians withdrew westwards, allowing Tegettoff to bring his force into Lissa’s fortified harbour of San Giorgio. The fire on the Palestro reached her magazine as she retreated and she exploded with the loss of 231 of her crew. Other than this vessel and the Re d'Italia the Italians’ other losses were slight – 8 killed and 40 wounded. Their ships were badly battered however and soon afterwards the Affondatore sank in Ancona harbour, unable due to her battle damage to resist a squall.

  Kaiser after the battle - foremast and funnel gone, bows badly damaged
Tegetthoff on  Ferdinand Max's bridge 

Tegettoff’s victory had no impact on the outcome of the war, which had essentially been determined by the Prussian victory at Königgrätz. Despite defeat by land and sea at Custoza and Lissa, Italy was awarded Venetia in the peace negotiations. The most notable naval consequence of the Lissa battle was the exaggerated value many assigned to ramming as a tactic, thereby making a ram bow a feature of almost every warship, large or small, up to World War I. The more valuable lesson was that a passive and defensive policy, such as Persano had adopted, would always fail if confronted by a determined and aggressive enemy.. There have been few better examples than Lissa of the American Admiral Farragut's belief that “iron in the ships is less important than iron in the men".

It is surprising, in view of the facts, that Persano announced a victory when he returned to Italy, thereby triggering widespread celebrations which was dampened when the full story was made known. He was to suffer the humiliation of being arraigned before the Italian Senate and being dismissed from the navy on the basis of cowardice and incompetence.

Tegetthoff, still only 39 at the time of his victory, had one five years to live before he was struck down by pneumonia. Deservedly promoted and hailed  as a national hero, his most significant – and painful – duty in his later career was to sail to Mexico in the frigate Novara in 1867 to bring back the body of the so-called Emperor Ferdinand Maximilian who had been shot by the Mexican government of Benito Juárez.

But that’s another story

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