|Cavalry action at Königgrätz - by Alexander von Bensa|
|Affondatore (as later reconstructed)|
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.
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 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 the Re di Portogallo while the Affondator attacks on her port quarter|
Painting by Eduard Nezbeda
|Erzherzog Ferdinand Max ramming the Re d'Italia|
|The Re d'Italia rolling over and sinking - Erzharzog Ferdinand Max in background|
Painting by Carl Frederich Sorensen
|Kaiser after the battle - foremast and funnel gone, bows badly damaged|
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.
|The classic image of the defiant Tegetthoff on the Ferdinand Max's open bridge during the battle|
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!
The first book in the Dawlish Chronicles Series features ironclad action in the Black Sea as the vicious Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 reaches its climax.
Russian forces are driving deep into the corrupt Ottoman-Turkish Empire. In the depths of a savage winter, as the Turks face defeat on all fronts, a British officer is enmeshed and finds himself confronting enemy ironclads, Cossack lances and merciless Kurdish irregulars. And in the midst of this chaos, while he himself is a pawn in the rivalry of the Sultan’s half-brothers for control of the collapsing empire, he is unwillingly and unexpectedly drawn to a woman whom he believes he should not love.
Britannia’s Wolf is available in hard-copy and Kindle format –click here for details.
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