Austria-Hungary: An Inland Empire Looks to the Sea II

Bombarding of Ancona by August von Ramberg, depicting Austro-Hungarian battleships shelling the Italian coastline in May 1915

At the turn of the century, Germany’s decision to challenge Britain’s hegemony at sea transformed the Triple Alliance into an anti-British bloc no longer attractive to Italy. The program outlined in Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz’s navy laws of 1898 and 1900 made the German fleet the world’s second-strongest as of 1905; by then, Britain had resolved its differences with France (1904) and would soon achieve a rapprochement with Russia (1907), creating the Triple Entente. A visit to Toulon by the Italian fleet in 1901 provided the first sign of a warming of Franco-Italian relations; Italian navy leaders soon considered Austria-Hungary, not France, to be their most likely future rival. Thus, for more than a decade before the outbreak of the First World War, Europe’s greatest naval race outside of the North Sea occurred in the Adriatic, where the nominal allies renewed their old rivalry. Counting all battleships laid down in the past twenty-five years, by 1905 Austria-Hungary had just twelve to Italy’s eighteen. As the navy scrambled to catch up, it continued to benefit from the patronage of Franz Ferdinand and the support of a broad domestic political coalition. The web of connections linking Skoda, Witkowitz, and the Stabilimento Tecnico Triestino coalesced into a first-rate naval-industrial complex, enabling Austria-Hungary to build larger warships much faster than Italy, indeed, faster than any country other than Britain and Germany.

In December 1906, the commissioning of Britain’s 18,110-ton Dreadnought – the largest, fastest, and most heavily armed warship yet built – rendered all existing battleships obsolete. The resulting clean slate gave fresh hope to inferior naval powers willing to pay the price to catch up with superior rivals, but Austria-Hungary decided to proceed with the construction of the three 14,500-ton Radetzky class pre-dreadnoughts, just funded in the autumn of 1906, before considering dreadnoughts of its own. Italy laid down its first dreadnought in June 1909, after learning that the Dual Monarchy was considering a fleet plan including four 20,000-ton dreadnoughts. A constitutional crisis in Hungary delayed the implementation of this plan, and Austria-Hungary finally laid down its first dreadnought, the Viribus Unitis, in July 1910, followed two months later by the Tegetthoff, for which the class of warships was named. Meanwhile, in the summer of 1910, the Italians laid down three more dreadnoughts, prompting Austro-Hungarian legislators to approve a second pair in March 1911, to give both navies four. Like the older battleships of the fleet, the Austro-Hungarian dreadnoughts were built entirely from domestic resources, at an exorbitant cost ultimately covered only by giving the navy one quarter of the entire defense outlay in the last fiscal year before the First World War. Work began on the third and fourth dreadnoughts in January 1912, the Prinz Eugen at Trieste and the Szent Istvan at Fiume’s Danubius shipyard, the first firm in the empire’s Hungarian half to receive a major warship contract. Italy responded later that winter with its fifth and sixth dreadnoughts. Thanks to its more efficient shipyards, in October 1912 the Dual Monarchy became the third European power to have a dreadnought in commission, when the Viribus Unitis entered service after a building time of just twenty-seven months. Italy’s first dreadnought, completed in forty-three months, finally entered service in January 1913.

Each navy would have three dreadnoughts in service by the time the war began in July 1914, but before then their rivalry took an unexpected turn. After the Italo-Turkish War (1911-12) temporarily strained Italy’s relations with the Triple Entente, the Italians, in December 1912, agreed to an extension of the Triple Alliance, then, in June 1913, to a Triple Alliance naval convention. War plans called for Admiral Anton Haus, the Austro-Hungarian naval commander, to head a battle fleet including the newest units of the Austro-Hungarian and Italian navies, joined by any German warships that happened to be in the Mediterranean, with the mission of engaging the French fleet and blocking the transport of colonial troops from North Africa to France. The convention became moot on 31 July 1914, when Italy condemned Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia as an act of aggression. Over the months that followed, Italy pursued a policy of neutrality that was increasingly hostile to the Dual Monarchy, before finally joining the Entente under the terms of the Treaty of London (26 April 1915).

The First World War

A week after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary secured the support of Germany for a war against Serbia, assuming that the threat of German intervention would suffice to keep Russia out of the conflict. Russia’s decision to stand behind the Serbs gave Germany the continental war it wanted and left Austria-Hungary fighting for German war aims under German direction. While the British navy, concentrated in the North Sea, imposed a blockade on Germany, the French blockaded the mouth of the Adriatic. The access to overseas trade that had been such an important corrective to the empire’s economic dependence on Germany thus ended, leaving Austria-Hungary even more at the mercy of its ally. Haus kept the fleet at Pola throughout the initial phase of the war, explaining to a subordinate that “so long as the possibility exists that Italy will declare war against us, I consider it my first duty to keep the fleet intact.” The French initially deployed dreadnoughts and pre-dreadnoughts in the lower Adriatic but grew less aggressive after Haus transferred his small submarine force from Pola to Cattaro (Kotor), the Austro-Hungarian base at the southern tip of Dalmatia. Following the torpedoing and near loss of the dreadnought Jean Bart in December 1914, the French navy sent no capital ships into the Adriatic. After a U-boat torpedoed and sank the armored cruiser Léon Gambetta off the southeastern tip of Italy on 27 April 1915, the French no longer deployed any warship larger than a destroyer north of a line approximately three hundred miles (480km) south of Cattaro.

The prudence of Haus in the face of a vastly superior foe left his fleet intact to take on the Italian navy. On the evening of 23 May 1915, within hours of Italy’s declaration of war against Austria-Hungary, he steamed out of Pola with the three dreadnoughts then in commission, backed by nine pre-dreadnoughts and a host of smaller warships, for a punitive bombardment of the Italian coastline. The Italians entered the war supremely confident but within two months assumed the same cautious posture as the French, after they lost the armored cruisers Amalfi and Garibaldi to submarine attacks within a span of eleven days in July. That autumn the Italians learned that their warships were not necessarily safe even in port, when Austrian saboteurs, on the night of 27 September, blew up the pre-dreadnought Benedetto Brin at Brindisi. During 1916 the Italians moved their dreadnoughts to Taranto, well out of harm’s way, and repeatedly pleaded for more help to contain the Austro-Hungarian threat. The French and British appeased them by sending more warships to the mouth of the Adriatic, enabling the Dual Monarchy’s “fleet in being” to tie down an ever-greater number of Allied warships that could have been put to better use elsewhere. Further Italian losses during 1916 only reinforced their timidity, most notably the dreadnought Leonardo da Vinci, sunk on 2 August at Taranto by Austrian saboteurs, and the pre-dreadnought Regina Margherita, which on 11 December fell victim to a minefield off Valona, Albania. By then, confirming that they had conceded the Adriatic to the Austrians, the Allies attempted to close the mouth of the sea by deploying the Otranto Barrage, anti-submarine nets dragged by trawlers and drifters commandeered from fishing fleets, backed by minefields, on the model of the Dover Barrage, deployed by the British to block German access to the English Channel from the North Sea.

After making Pola and Cattaro available to German U-boats during the first round of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1915, Austria-Hungary again supported the Germans after their fateful decision to resume the campaign early in 1917, despite the American intervention it was likely to provoke. The Austro-Hungarian navy agreed to send its own submarines out of the Adriatic to attack Allied convoys in the central Mediterranean, and to assign more personnel to support the German U-boats operating out of Cattaro. To weaken the antisubmarine barrage at the mouth of the Adriatic, the navy launched a series of ever-larger and more aggressive attacks, culminating in the Battle of the Otranto Straits (15 May 1917), a successful cruiser raid led by Captain Miklos Horthy that opened the straits to German and Austro-Hungarian submarines for the following six weeks. But for the Central Powers, the shift away from large-unit surface operations idled most of the sailors of their fleets and increased the likelihood of unrest aboard those ships. In July 1917 the first demonstrations swept the Austro-Hungarian fleet at Pola. Then, during January 1918, sailors of the fleet joined in a strike by workers in the Pola arsenal. Finally, on 1-3 February 1918, a serious mutiny temporarily paralyzed the naval forces at Cattaro. The uprising included sailors of all nationalities of the empire, reflecting the predominant influence of war weariness encouraged by socialist politics, which gave it more in common with the mutinies that swept the Russian and German navies in 1917 and 1918 than with the concurrent unrest in the Austro-Hungarian army and home front. Following the suppression of the Cattaro mutiny, four of its leaders were executed and almost four hundred others imprisoned. Afterward, a radical reorganization of the naval hierarchy left Horthy as fleet commander in place of the ineffective Admiral Maximilian Njegovan, who had succeeded Haus upon his death twelve months earlier. The Hungarian captain’s extraordinary promotion to rear admiral forced the twenty-eight senior officers who outranked him either to retire or to accept posts on land.

In the war’s last year, Horthy’s one bold stroke met with disaster on 10 June 1918, when the dreadnought Szent Istvan was torpedoed and sunk by an Italian torpedo boat while making its way down the Dalmatian coast from Pola, along with the other three dreadnoughts of the Tegetthoff class, for an attack on the Otranto Barrage. Horthy hoped the attack would force Italian and French dreadnoughts out of Taranto for a battle at the mouth of the Adriatic, but the sinking of the Szent Istvan – the only major warship lost by Austria-Hungary in the entire war – forced the cancellation of the operation. Afterward Austro-Hungarian morale plummeted, dashing Horthy’s hopes for a revitalizing victory. He continued to vouch for the battle-readiness of the fleet, at least through the summer months, but it never sortied again. In the autumn of 1918, while Germany made peace overtures to the Allies, the Dual Monarchy began to disintegrate internally as Emperor Charles (who had succeeded Franz Joseph in 1916) tried in vain to salvage the situation. On 30 October, one week after the Austro-Hungarian army crumbled in the face of the final Allied offensive on the Italian front, Charles ordered Horthy to turn over the navy to the Yugoslav national council, whose members by that time included some of the leading Slovenian and Croatian officers serving under him. The transfer ceremonies occurred at Pola the following day. The Allies ultimately did not allow postwar Yugoslavia, an amalgamation of Serbia with the former South Slav lands of Austria-Hungary, to keep the ships, which first were distributed among the victorious Allies as reparations, then, in most cases, scrapped. During the interwar years, Italy, in possession of Trieste, Fiume, and Pola, finally enjoyed the hegemony over the Adriatic that had been denied to it by the Habsburg empire’s effective development of local naval power.

While the demise of Austria-Hungary brought the dismantling of the naval industrial complex that had enabled it to build a great-power navy on domestic resources, the introduction of new international borders, tariffs, and currencies disrupted the trade networks that had linked the central European interior to Trieste and Fiume. Fatefully, a region already economically dependent on Germany in the days of the Dual Monarchy became even more so after being subdivided into a collection of smaller, weaker states. Most historians consider the demise of Austria-Hungary to have been inevitable; indeed, a number of contemporary observers felt the same way. But lost in the debate over the measures that could have been taken to prolong its history or remedy its problems is the question of whether measures that were taken, such as the development of maritime interests and naval power, actually enabled Austria-Hungary to last longer than it otherwise would have. It would not be unreasonable to conclude that if the Habsburg empire had not turned to the sea in the 19th century, it would not have survived into the 20th.

Bibliography Babudieri F., Industrie, commerci e navigazione a Trieste e nella regione Giulia (Milan, 1982). Casali A. and Cattaruzza M., Sotto i mari del mondo: La Whitehead, 1875-1990 (Rome, 1990). Cattaruzza M., `Population Dynamics and Economic Change in Trieste and its Hinterland, 1850-1914′, in Population and Society in Western European Port-Cities, c. 1650-1939, ed. R. Lawton and R. Lee (Liverpool, 2002), pp. 176-211. Gardiner R., ed., Steam, Steel, and Shellfire: The Steam Warship, 1815-1905 (London, 1992). Halpern P., The Naval War in the Mediterranean, 1914-1918 (Annapolis, MD, 1987). Halpern P., The Battle of the Otranto Straits (Bloomington, IN, 2004). Lambert A., Battleships in Transition (Annapolis, MD, 1984). Mayer H. and Winkler D., In allen Häfen war Österreich: Die österreichischeungarische Handelsmarine (Vienna, 1987). Sondhaus L., The Habsburg Empire and the Sea: Austrian Naval Policy, 1797-1866 (West Lafayette, IN, 1989). Sondhaus L., `Strategy, tactics, and the politics of penury: Austria-Hungary and the Jeune École’, Journal of Military History 56 (1992), 587-602. Sondhaus L., The Naval Policy of Austria-Hungary: Navalism, Industrial Development, and the Politics of Dualism, 1867-1918 (West Lafayette, IN, 1994). Sondhaus L., The Great War at Sea: A Naval History of the First World War (Cambridge, 2014).

1 thought on “Austria-Hungary: An Inland Empire Looks to the Sea II

  1. For an engrossing and supremely entertaining fictional look at the Austro-Hungarian navy, check out John Biggins’ four Otto Prohaska novels (Tomorrow the World, The Emperor’s Coloured Coat, A Sailor of Austria, and The Two-Headed Eagle). They comprise a “memoir” of naval service to the Dual Monarchy from the turn of the century to its collapse, historically accurate down to the finest detail. Their abundant wit manages to blend sarcasm and sentiment, no mean feat! Highly recommended.

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