Key point: The fight was a warning of things to come. It showed how wooden ships would give way to the age of steam and iron.
Narrrowly avoiding a fatal blow from the Italian ironclad ram Affondatore, Commodore Anton von Petz, commander of Austrian wooden-hulled ship of the line Kaiser, came under fire from the heavy rifled guns of another enemy ironclad, the Re di Portogallo, on July 20, 1866, near the Dalmatian island of Lissa in the Adriatic Sea. This time, instead of evading the other vessel, Petz brought his ship on a collision course with the enemy’s armored hull. The 92-gun Kaiser supplemented a full set of sails with a two-cylinder steam engine. Gathering speed and momentum from her boilers, one of Europe’s last wooden ships of the line was seconds away from ramming one of Europe’s first ironclad warships in a history-making naval encounter of the Third Italian War of Independence.
For centuries Italy had been a collection of divided and rival monarchies, some of them under foreign control. The post-Napoleonic political order left much of Italy under the rule of Austria’s Hapsburg dynasty. Three wars were fought to unite Italy and win its independence. Each of these wars placed the Austrians against the Italian forces and their allies. Dominant among the Italian states, the Kingdom of Sardinia grew as it annexed the Austrian territory of Lombardy, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Tuscany, and several smaller principalities after the second war in 1859. In 1861, the combined nation was proclaimed the Kingdom of Italy. King Victor Emanuelle of the Sardinia-Piedmont became the new country’s first king. Unification was not yet complete. French troops still garrisoned the remnants of the Papal States around Rome, and Austria still controlled Venice.
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Ironclad warships like those participating in the Battle of Lissa had three primary characteristics: an armored hull, steam propulsion, and guns capable of firing exploding shells. An early version of the ironclad was first used during the Crimean War when the French employed floating ironclad batteries against Russian coastal fortifications on the Kinburn Peninsula in October 1855. It was an impressive debut. Despite receiving fire from Russian batteries, the ironclad batteries in concert with wooden warships destroyed the Russian forts in just three hours.
Seven years later, Union and Confederate ironclads clashed at Hampton Roads during the American Civil War on March 8-9, 1862. The battle on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States marked the first true naval combat between vessels built of iron rather than wood. Union and Confederate ironclads saw more action during the conflict, and European naval officers and ship designers eagerly studied accounts of these encounters. However, no bat- tle between fleets of ironclads occurred during the four-year conflict. That landmark event occurred about a year after the end of the war when approximately 20 ironclad ships of the Austrian and Italian navies fought at Lissa.
By European standards, the navies that clashed off Lissa were both new. Italy’s navy, the Regia Marina, was formed in 1861. It was predominantly a combination of the navies of Sardinia-Piedmont and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies with contributions from smaller states. Count Carlo Pellion di Persano, a veteran officer of the old Sardinian navy, commanded the united maritime force of the new kingdom. Persano had joined the Sardinian navy in 1824 and advanced rapidly through the ranks. He commanded the Daino during the First Italian War of Independence in 1848-1849 and a decade later participated in naval actions as a rear admiral during the Second War of Italian Independence for which he was promoted to vice admiral. In 1862 he became Italy’s Minister of Marine and afterward rose to full admiral.
With part of their country still under Hapsburg rule, the Italians saw Austria as their most likely adversary in a new war. In a major expansion and modernization program, two oceangoing ironclads were ordered from New York shipbuilder William H. Webb. The Webb vessels were the armored frigates Re d’Italia and the Re di Portogallo. At 5,700 tons each and plated with 4.5- inch armor, both ships carried impressive batteries of heavy rifled and smoothbore guns.
The New York Times reported that the engines of the Re d’Italia were built at the Novelty Iron Works, the same firm that built the distinctive turret of the USS Monitor. When first contracted by the Italian government in 1861, the Re d’Italia was begun as a wooden steam frigate. After the ironclads Monitor and CSS Virginia fought at Hampton Roads, plans were changed to include armor plating for the Re d’Italia. The design left the propellers and rudder unprotected by armor. Two smaller ironclads, the 2,700-ton iron corvettes Formidabile and Terribile, were purchased from France. An armored turret ship, Affondatore, was built in England. Essentially a double-turret monitor, the Affondatore carried only two pieces of artillery, both 10-inch Armstrong guns. The Austrian Empire arose from the land- locked interior realms of the Continent, and for centuries its Hapsburg rulers paid little attention to naval affairs. In the 1797 Treaty of Campo Formio, the Hapsburgs swapped the Austrian Netherlands with Revolutionary France in exchange for Venice and the Adriatic coastal regions of Istria and Dalmatia. With Venice came a ready-made navy for the Hapsburgs.
Twenty-two-year-old Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian was placed in charge of the Imperial and Royal War Navy in 1852. Despite his youth, the archduke was an excellent choice as commander-in-chief. He had spent a few years at sea in the navy. His royal status gave the imperial sea service a much-needed advocate. A forward-looking reformer, Maximilian modernized the Austrian navy. When the archduke left his post in 1861, his navy was well on its way to world-class status. In the early 1860s, the Austrians began acquiring up-to-date ironclad steam warships, all of which were built in their own Adriatic shipyards.
Beside a trend toward ironclad war vessels, the navies of Austria and Italy had another factor in common: their crews spoke several different languages. Austrian officers gave their commands in German, the official language of the navy. However, many of the crewmen spoke Croatian, and many others spoke Italian dialects. When Austrian officers gave orders in German, petty officers had to translate for most of the crew.
At the time of unification in 1861, the great majority of Italians spoke regional dialects rather than standard Italian. Adding to the language differences were rivalries between the former officers of the old navies of the Italian states.
War broke out between Austria and Prussia on June 14, 1866. This conflict, the Seven Weeks’ War, would determine whether the German states united under the wishes of Prussia or the Hapsburgs. Prussia’s ally Italy declared war on Austria on June 19. The Prussians wanted the Italian army and navy to distract the Austrians as much as possible.
Before the outbreak of the war, Admiral Persano took stock of the state of the navy. He had well-armed modern ships but was short of trained gunners, engineers, and warrant officers. He warned the naval ministry on May 21 that the fleet was unprepared for war. “It would take three months to make it tolerably ready,” he told the ministry.
Rear Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff to command of the Austrian battle fleet. He had a proven track record having led the North Sea fleet both in the Second Schleswig War of 1864 and the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. His performance in the former won him promotion to the rank of admiral. Stubborn and tending to offend superiors with his blunt opinions, Tegetthoff’s courage, efficiency, and ability to command more than compensated for his troublesome temperament. Although strict, he was fair and considerate to his subordinates, gaining their trust and admiration. He led with a steady hand in a time of technical transformation for European navies and exhibited superb command skills and impressive tactical ingenuity.
Tegetthoff pushed to complete the unfinished ironclads Erzherzog Ferdinand Maximilian (known as the Ferdinand Max) and Habsburg. Their new Krupp guns had not arrived, so he armed the ships with old-fashioned 48-pounder smoothbores. He was soon ready to take the fleet to sea.
On June 27, Tegetthoff’s fleet appeared off the Italian naval base at Ancona, roughly 125 sea miles southeast of Venice. The ships at Ancona were coaling, and two of them were still bringing guns on board. On the Re d’Italia, the crew was fighting a coal fire. The Re di Portogallo was unserviceable because she had water in her cylinders. None of the ships was ready for battle. Tegetthoff lingered off the coast for a few hours and then steamed away.
Spurred by demands from Prussia for action, the government ordered Persano out to sea. He left Ancona on July 8, spent five days steaming through empty waters, and returned to port.
Still under pressure from the government, Persano decided to capture Lissa. Held by an Austrian garrison, Lissa was 10 miles long and five miles wide. The island’s sea-going inhabitants worked the sardine fisheries in the offshore waters, and farmers produced wine, almonds, and figs. The British had occupied Lissa during the Napoleonic War, and the Royal Navy had achieved a minor naval victory near the island in 1811. After the final downfall of Bonaparte, the British returned Lissa to the Austrians.