Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Recommended: The Rise and Fall of the Austro-Hungarian Navy, 1900-1918

By Stanley D. M. Carpenter, Professor Emeritus, U.S. Naval War College (Excerpts)

Building a Modern Navy

At 1645 on 31 October 1918, onboard the flagship of the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Navy, the red-white-red ensign of the Habsburg Navy fluttered down from the jackstaff.  Rear-Admiral (Kontre-Admiral) Nicholas Horthy, Fleet Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C), tucked the folded ensign under his arm and departed as the last official act of the Habsburg Navy. Had not World War I and the military defeat of the Central Powers unleashed the nationality tiger in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, might the Navy have become the dominant Mediterranean naval power?  Based on the pre-war building program in the new dreadnought era (post-1906) under the leadership of aggressive, politically astute commanders Admiral (Admiral) Count Rudolf Montecuccoli (1904-13) and Grand Admiral (Grosadmiral) Anton Haus (1913-18), Austria-Hungary embarked on a naval expansion program. The plan was reflective of Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan’s doctrine of taking command of the sea through decisive battles fought by great battle fleets as advocated in his influential work, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660 to 1783. 

SMS Tegetthoff, Destined to Be Surrendered, October 1918

Might the Navy have become the equal of the Italian service or even the French Mediterranean force? Indeed, by 1910, the technological means existed as did the prerequisite of reliable enemies in Serbia, Russia, and Italy.  The Austrian and Hungarian Delegations all possessed the political will, albeit often begrudgingly, to appropriate funds for naval building and development for the Austro-Hungarian Navy to dominate the Eastern Mediterranean, Ionian, and Aegean Seas.  But, when the crucial test of war came in 1914, the Navy proved singularly ineffective in several critical areas of naval warfare and played a comparatively minor role in the fight against the Allied Powers in the Mediterranean Theatre. . .

Technological developments and the Industrial Revolution made the battleship era possible. By the 1890s, warships displacing 14,000 tons of water, with steel armor up to fourteen inches thick, able to withstand the steel-capped armor-piercing shells of 12- and 13.5-inch naval guns, became the standard. Naval gunnery improved dramatically. Rapid and more accurate fire power made possible by such developments as “continuous aim” introduced by Captain Percy Scott, RN, using gyroscope technology as well as the improved optics introduced in German capital ships for gun-laying, increased accuracy and destructive potential at greater standoff distances.

Austro-Hungarian U-boat SM U-1 in Pola

Austria-Hungary possessed the robust industrial potential for warship construction. The Skoda Works at Pilsen, Silesia, manufactured heavy caliber guns using the “jacket and hoop system,” which gave tremendous strength with high elasticity. The Poldihutte Works near Prague and the Witkowitzn Berghau und Eisenhutten-Generkschaft Works at Witkowitz in Moravia together produced over 9,000 tons of steel armor plate per annum. Five Dalmatian and Adriatic coast shipyards-built vessels ranging from small craft to massive warships; notably, the Stabilimento Tecnico Triestino yard at Trieste for the battleships and the Cantiere Navale Triestino at Monfalcone for cruisers, destroyers, and small craft. The Hungarian Danubius yard by 1914 could construct all types, particularly the latest dreadnought type. The Whitehead Yards at Fiumi manufactured an improved gyroscope-guided Whitehead torpedo with much-improved accuracy. . .

More massive battleships of the Erzherzog class, funded and launched between 1902 and 1908, displaced 14,500 tons and mounted 12-inch guns in the main battery, as did the 14,200-ton Radetzky-class battleships.   Moreover, in a significant departure from previous practice, the new warship designs incorporated open ocean operational requirements as opposed to the earlier strictly coastal defense capabilities. 14   The years 1910-11 saw the building of the ultimate expression of Austro-Hungarian naval power – the four dreadnoughts of the Viribus Unitis class.  With coal bunkers for 2,900 tons of fuel giving an operational range of 4,200 nautical miles at ten knots on turbine engines, these ships of the dreadnought squadron could sail to the North Sea without coaling. The 12 x 12-inch main battery guns mounted in four turrets represented the first battleships to have triple gun turrets. Thus, by the war’s start, the Austro-Hungarian Navy had evolved from a coastal defense force to a real “blue water” navy.  But, as events demonstrated, that capability came to nothing more than a wasted asset. . .

Inscribed in gold letters on a marble plaque at the main entrance to the Naval Academy at Fiume was the Navy’s motto—“Above Life Stands Duty”—a powerful statement. Every officer candidate entering the Academy saw the inscription as he entered the halls. 19  Naval personnel came from all parts of the Empire, but specific nationality patterns emerged. The majority of officers of all branches and specialties came from German Austria—roughly 1,000 commissioned officers (line, chaplains, lawyers, and surgeons) and 1,000 commissioned officials (engineers, paymasters, and supply) in 1914. Enlisted sailors originated predominately from the coastal regions. . . Although German represented the language of command, every officer spoke four languages.  Despite its multi-national nature, the Navy exhibited a remarkable spirit of “monarchical patriotism” to the end of the Empire in 1918. 

The Coming of War

The strategic situation in August 1914 hampered the Navy’s role in the four-year struggle.  Three overarching strategic dynamics determined the Navy’s dilemma. First, the correlation of forces in the Mediterranean, even excluding the Italian Navy, proved overwhelming. Against just the British Royal Navy and the French Mediterranean forces, the disparity in tonnage, total hulls, and gun caliber meant little in the Mediterranean for the surface ships. Second, the failure to secure and develop advanced operating bases in the Mediterranean or Ionian Seas dictated that all operations originated from either Pola or Cattaro. The limited operational range of the smaller ships meant that any operations external to the Adriatic lacked escort protection for the battle line. Submarines could and did operate in the Mediterranean when the Otranto blockade could be passed. 

Essentially, the Navy undertook only five limited missions: 1) defend the coast; 2) attack enemy Adriatic shipping; 3) support Army coastal operations; 4) protect its commercial trade; and, 5) influence neutral countries in favor of the Central Powers.


The River Flotillas did execute successful supporting operations against Serbia and Montenegro.

Austro-Hungarian submarines did have some successes. On 20 December 1914, the U-12 torpedoed the French battleship Jean Bart inducing the French to withdraw all heavy capital units from the Adriatic. On 27 April 1915, the U-5, under the command of Austrian naval hero Captain Georg von Trapp, sank the French armored cruiser Léon Gambetta in the Strait of Otranto with a loss of 684 men. Consequently, the French withdrew south to maintain the blockade from a discreet distance. Austro-Hungarian submarines did ultimately sink ninety-four vessels for a total of 190,000 tons.

Only three significant surface actions occurred throughout the war. Within minutes of Italy’s declaration of war, Admiral Haus ordered the fleet to raise steam at Pola, resulting in a coastal raid with the desired strategic effect of delaying Italian mobilization along the vulnerable frontier. As a result of the heavy shelling of railways, rail centers, and communications facilities combined with an Italian fear of an amphibious landing at Ancona, Italy delayed troop movements northward towards the frontier. 

SMS Szent István Sinking, 10 June 1918

The Otranto Barrage, running from Cape Santa Maria on the Italian Adriatic coast across the mouth of the Adriatic to the islands of Corfu and Fano, consisted of drift boats with suspended anti-submarine nets equipped with hydrophones and explosives. Attempts to disrupt the drifters led to the second and third major surface engagements, both commanded by Captain (Fregattenkapitän) Horthy of the SMS Novara on 22 December 1917 and as Fleet C-in-C in May 1918.  The first raid by cruisers and destroyers disabled twenty-seven Allied drifters, two destroyers, and two transports. The second and more massive raid utilized the dreadnought squadron and resulted in disaster. Although the escort ships did significant damage to the drifters, Szent István, while skirting the Dalmatian coast to avoid detection, was struck by two torpedoes from the Italian torpedo-boat MAS 15 (Motobara Armata Silurante). She capsized, killing four officers and eighty-five sailors. . .

With the peace settlement, all that remained of the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Navy were eleven torpedo boats left to Yugoslavia and a few river monitors to Hungary. In judging the performance of the Navy in World War I, despite some small-scale successes, by and large, it proved a wasted asset. When put to the test of combat, the Navy failed to influence the war, despite great warships, well-trained professional crews, and excellent support infrastructure.

Source: International Journal of Naval History, 30 December 2020

Professor Carpenter's 3,400 word article has considerably more detail than these selections, especially on the politics and financing behind the naval buildup.  It can be read HERE

1 comment:

  1. Quite partial history and very Austro-Hungarian sided. Cap. Luigi Rizzo torpedoed and sunk also the battleship Wien in Trieste in 1917 before sinking the Szent Istvan. On 16th August 1914 the cruiser Zenta was hit and sunk in Otranto strait by French and British vessels. In a battle in the south Adriatic also the destroyers Lika and Triglav were lost and sunk. In november 1914 in Tsingtau, China, another cruiser, the Kaiserin Elisabeth, was lost during the japanese siege of the german base.
    And on 3rd november 1918 two italian raiders were able to enter the port of Pola and sunk the admiral battleship Viribus Unitis with a naval mine.