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1866 - Battle of Lissa

Through the early 1860s, Austria maintained hope of retaining leadership in Germany because the smaller states preferred weak Austrian leadership to Prussian domination. Nonetheless, by mid-1864 Franz Joseph realized that war was inevitable if Austrian leadership was to be preserved. The immediate cause of the Seven Weeks' War between Austria and Prussia in 1866 was Prussia's desire to annex the Duchy of Holstein. Austria and Prussia had together fought a brief war against Denmark in 1864 to secure the predominantly German duchies of Schleswig and Holstein for Germany. Pending final decision on their future, Prussia took control of Schleswig, and Austria took control of Holstein.

In April 1866, however, Prussia plotted with Italy to wage a two-front war against Austria that would enable Prussia to gain Holstein and Italy to gain Venetia. Although Austria tried to keep Italy out of the war through a last-minute offer to surrender Venetia to it, Italy joined the war with Prussia.

War with Italy was declared on June 20, 1866. This new war found the Austrian Navy in a very unprepared condition. The popular idea seems to have been that the late alliance with Prussia had inaugurated a reign of peace ; that there were to be no more wars ; and though, as a measure of precaution, an army might be necessary, to spend money on a fleet was dowuright waste, and , in the impoverished state of the Treasury, a thing not to be thought of. Accordingly, the ships which were unfinished when the Archduke Maximilian went to Mexico, were unfinished still ; and what ships there were, had been permitted to lie by, waiting till it was convenient to repair them.

Though Maximilian was no longer there to direct the work, or to push it forward, when the necessity occurred, the navy still enjoyed the benefit of his rule. He had insisted that He had insisted that the navy should be a national force, that the ships and their engines, as well as their men, should be Austrian. The arsenal at Pola was a reality ; and the ships, though unfinished, were in their own hands, to be got ready as soon as possible. The one point in which they had trusted to foreign resources was the only one that utterly failed them. But it was an important one. A number of heavy guns which had been ordered from Krnpp's works were stopped by the Prussians, and the want could not now be adequately supplied. The spirit of the service was, however, excellent.

Tegetthoff, with the few ships ready for sea, took up his station at Fasana ; and whilst the men - raw recruits most of them - were drilled almost incessantly, the Admiral inspired the commanding officers, and through them the seamen, with courage and confidence. Other ships were fitted out, hastily, imperfectly, but still equal to the emergency. The two large ships, armoured frigates of the first class, were pushed forward ; their spars were not ready, but they were jury-rigged, and sent to Fasana.

The ship's guns were weak : they must be supplemented by the ships themselves : if a 48-pound shot would not pierce the enemy's plates, a 5,000-ton ship might. Hence the determination to use the ships freely as rams. To fire by concentrated broadsides and to ram - these were the elements of the tactics.

The Italian Navy was on a widely different footing from the Austrian. From the birth of the kingdom, six years before, the fixed idea of the Italians had been to have a navy. They aimed at being a great naval power ; and, by a liberal expenditure, had got together a number of ships that could compare even with the fleets of England or France. They were able to collect at Ancona a force of twelve armor-plated ships, besides a large number of powerful wooden frigates and smaller craft.

Though the material superiority lay so entirely with the Italians, a large proportion of the Austrian seamen were Dalmatians, the descendants of the Uscocchi and other maritime tribes of the Gulf of Quarnero, the best and sturdiest seamen that the Mediterranean has ever seen, the men who had, for centuries, upheld the supremacy of Venice in the Adriatic, or who, on their own account, had questioned the rule alike of Venetian, Turk, or Spaniard.

With six ironclads, the Schwarzeriberg, and four gun-vessels, Tegetthoff left Fasana on the 24th of June; at daybreak of the 27th he was off Ancona. The main body of the Italian fleet had arrived there two days before : they mustered 1 1 ironclads, 4 large frigates, and sundry smaller vessels : a force certainly more than double that of the Austrians. But they were coaling in a promiscuous and disorderly manner. The Be d' Italia's coal had caught fire in the bunkers ; the Re di Portogallo had got water in her cylinders ; almost every ship had some defect due to carelessness, stupidity, or ignorance ; and none was ready to go out and attack the enemy. When at last some of them did get under way, they pottered about, performing silly or pedantic evolutions in the entrance of the harbor; while Tegetthoff, having seen all that he wanted to see, and having encouraged his men by the sight of a timid or disorganised enemy, went quietly back to Fasana.

Lissa [aka Vis] was known as the head-quarters of British Adriatic cruisers in the old French War. Lissa is an island, or rather a mass of hill and mountain, eleven miles long from east to west, and six broad from north to south, rising in some of its peaks to a height of nearly 2,000 feet. Its principal productions, according to the gazetteer, were wine, oil, almonds, and figs ; bees, sheep, and goats were reared in great numbers by its inhabitants ; and near its coasts were rich sardine fisheries. But neither figs nor sardines formed its value in Italian eyes. The English had fortified the principal harbour, the Bay of San Giorgio, and on its recurring to the Austrians the fortifications had been preserved and added to. In time of war it evidently might, from its position and security, become a place of the utmost importance.

On the 10th of July 1866 the island, then in possession of the Austrians, was attacked by an Italian squadron from Ancona of 12 ironclads and 22 wooden vessels. One of the ironclads was damaged in a bombardment of the forts, and two were detached on other service, when an Austrian squadron of 7 ironclads, one unarmored warship the "Kaiser" and a number of small craft which had left Fasano under the command of Admiral Tegethoff came to interrupt their operations. The Italian admiral Persano arranged his ships in a single long line ahead, which allowing for the necessary space between them meant that the Italian formation stretched for more than 2 m. Just before the action began Admiral Persano shifted his flag from the "Re d'Italia," the fourth ship in order from the van, to the ram "Affondatore," the fifth. This made it necessary for the "Affondatore" and the ships astern to shorten speed, and, as the leading vessels stood on, a gap was created in the Italian line.

Admiral Tegethoff, who was on the port bow of the Italians, attacked with his squadron in three divisions formed in obtuse angles. The Italians opened a very rapid and ill-directed fire at a distance of 1000 yds. The Austrians did not reply till they were at a distance of 300 yds. Under Tegethoff's vigorous leadership, and aided by the disorder in the Italian line, the Austrians brought on a brief, but to the Italians destructive, mle. They broke through an interval between the third and fourth Italian ships. The unarmored Austrian ships headed to attack the unarmored Italians in the rear.

At this point an incident occurred to which an exaggerated importance was given. The Italian ironclad "Re di Portogallo" of 5600 tons, in the rear of the line, stood out to cover the unarmored squadron by ramming the Austrians. She was herself rammed by the wooden "Kaiser" (5000 tons) and the Austrian was much injured. The "Kaiser" and the wooden vessels then made for the protection of fort San Giorgio on Lissa unpursued. Kaiser's forward mast collapsed and the bow was demolished as a result of ramming enemy ships

In the center, where the action was hottest, the Austrian flagship "Ferdinand Max" of 5200 tons rammed and sank the "Re d'Italia." The Italian "Palestro" of 2000 tons was fired by a shell and blew up. By midday the Italians were in retreat, and Tegethoff anchored at San Giorgio. His squadron had suffered very little from the wild fire of the Italians.

The battle of the 10th July was the first fought at sea by modern ironclad steam fleets, and therefore attracted a great deal of attention. The sinking of the "Re d'Italia" and the ramming of the "Portogallo" by the "Kaiser" gave an immense impulse to the then popular theory that the ram would be a leading, if not the principal, weapon in modern sea warfare. This calculation was not borne out by more recent experience, and indeed was not justified by the battle itself, in which the attempts to ram were many and the successes very few.

Austria won key victories over Italy but lost the decisive Battle of Kniggrtz (Hradec Krlov in the presentday Czech Republic) to Prussia in July 1866. Defeated, Austria agreed to the dissolution of the German Confederation and accepted the formation of a Prussian-dominated North German Confederation, which became the basis of the German Empire in 1871.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:51:29 ZULU