The Battle of Lissa, July 20 1866. When ironclads ruled the seas…
I am still surprised that many people have no knowledge of or interest in history. World War Two might as well have been in the Dark Ages for many people. I suppose there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in our lives now with the Internet and cable TV, so history seems dry in comparison. And a lot of history isn’t presented in a particularly interesting way. Still, I think it’s a shame, and a failing of our educational system that a greater appreciation of the depth and breadth of what has gone on before us is not instilled in people. As a victim of the American educational system, I can say unconditionally that the view of history we were taught was extremely limited in its scope. The nineteenth century consisted of Napoleon, Lewis and Clark, and the American Civil War. In the rest of the world…nothing much happened.
So of I’ll start this little side trip down history lane with the American Civil War, a familiar jump off point. During this war there was a famous sea battle, the Monitor vs the Merrimac. (The Merrimac was this ship’s original name, it was rechristened the CSS Virginia at the time of the battle.) These were some of the world’s first armoured warships, and this was the first time armoured warships had met in battle. The battle tactically was a draw, neither ship was able to seriously damage the other. The Confederates needed a win a lot more than the Union, so in effect this was a Union victory, it proved they had a weapon that could protect the obsolete Union wooden warships that were blockading the Confederacy’s ports.
After this battle, the world’s navies began to build and experiment with ironclad warships, and the era of the ironclad was born. Though of course then as now big weapons like large wooden sailing warships were way too expensive to just scrap, so they remained in use, many having their masts cut off and engines installed, some even being converted to ironclads. During the age of ironclad there was only one major battle between fleets of ironclads, the Battle of Lissa between Italy and Austria in 1866. This little known battle took place during the also little known Third Italian Independence War, which was part of a larger war between Austria and Prussia. Italy was basically just trying to capture (or liberate I suppose) some Italian territory and provinces from Austria, such as the city of Venice.
In any event, a large Italian fleet was sent to invade the Dalmatian Islands, some islands on the west coast of what is now Croatia. The Italian fleet consisted of 12 ironclads and 10 wooden warships, all of which had steam engines and most of which still sported sails. The smaller Austrian fleet had only 7 ironclads and 7 large wooden warships. The Italians had more than twice as many rifled guns as the Austrians, and by numbers alone, the battle should have been an easy Italian victory.
Numbers alone do not victory make though. The Italian Fleet was commanded by sixty year old Count Carlo di Persano. The Italians were not prepared for battle and hastily cancelled their landing operations and arranged their fleet for battle when word of the approaching Austrians reached them. Admiral Persano changed his mind and rearranged his ships twice. Then he decided to change flagships, and ordered his fleet to stop while boats were lowered so he could transfer to his new flagship. A third of his fleet didn’t get the order and sailed out ahead of the rest of the Italian fleet, leaving a big gap between the two groups of ships. How does one say “Oops” in Italian?
While the Italians were screwing around the Austrian fleet under the command of thirty nine year old Wilhelm von Tegetthoff was rapidly approaching with his ships in a three ships deep flying wedge formation. His plan was to get as close as possible to the Italians and fight one-on-one ship vs. ship duels, where the Italian numerical advantage would be minimized. When Tegetthoff saw the gap appear in the Italian line of ships, he headed right for it. While charging toward the Italians the Austrian ships could only fire their forward guns, while the Italians could fire full broadsides. The Italians were however caught by surprise because of all the confusion, and while they raked the Austrians with fire, only minor damage was done for the most part. The Austrian fleet charged into the middle of the Italian fleet, and the battle was on.
Despite a lot of gunfire, most of it missed its mark or was deflected by armour. The Austrian’s one really large wooden battleship, the Kaiser, managed to engage and escape from no less than four Italian ironclads, a feat unmatched in naval history. The Austrian flagship managed to ram two Italian ironclads. One of them, the Palestro, caught fire, and eventually exploded and sank with the loss of almost all hands. The Italian Admiral then belatedly ordered his flagship, the most powerful ship in the Italian fleet, into the battle. It was too late, the Austrian flagship managed to re-ram the first Italian ironclad they had rammed, this time scoring a direct hit because the Italians zigged when they should have zagged and ran right in front of the Austrians. The Italian ironclad Re d’Italia sank within two minutes.
At this point, even though his ship was in great position to ram the now badly damaged Austrian flagship, Admiral Persano ordered the Italian fleet to withdraw. He returned home with his damaged fleet, two ironclads sunk with over six hundred dead, and proclaimed that he had achieved a great victory over the Austrians! He was celebrated as a hero for a few days before the news out of Austria arrived, they had lost no ships and only thirty eight dead. At that point Persano was court-martialled and dismissed from the Italian navy. Tegetthoff was celebrated as a victorious hero, and is considered one of the greatest naval commanders in Austrian history. And rightfully so, he had defeated a superior enemy fleet, a feat few have matched.
The ultimate result from this battle? Historically, basically none. The Prussians decisively won the land war with Austria, so the Austrians were forced to pretty much give the Italians what they wanted. Austria did get to keep the Dalmatian islands as a consequence of the battle, as the Italian invading fleet had been driven off. Ship designers continued to put rams on warships for another 50 years, even though they were never really used in battle again and in fact did a lot of damage in ship to ship accidental collisions. Gunfire did comparatively little damage in the battle, mainly because the ammo of the day wasn’t designed to penetrate armour. Ironclad ships evolved into the all iron pre-dreadnought warships exemplified by the American battleship Maine, sunk by misadventure in Havana. The next great naval battle was over forty years later, the battle of Tsushima, where warship designers discovered just how badly they had applied the lessons of Lissa, but that’s for a future post.
Any historical lessons illustrated here? Quite a few. Just because the leader says they won the battle doesn’t mean it’s so. The inferior force can and does sometimes win battles. The biggest lesson I see here is that a great victorious battle can ultimately mean nothing. The sailors who died that cloudy July day ultimately died pointlessly, an all to common result in history. A collection of contemporary and other images/photographs of the battle, its participants, and the aftermath can be viewed here.
(The above lithograph of the Battle of Lissa is public domain under US copyright law, I think. I chose it because it shows the fine mix of vessels in the battle. In the middle left is an unidentified Austrian wooden cruiser. The Italian Re d’Italia is shown sinking in the foreground, the Palestro exploding in the far left. The ironclad in the middle appears to be the Ferdinand Max, the Austrian flagship. I think the ship at the right is the Italian flagship, the only ship with a turret that fought in the battle. Note the small civil war Merrimac style gunboat in the middle left, several small armoured gunboats fought in the battle. Credit: F. Kollarz, ‘Battle of Lissa’, coloured lithograph, n.d. Copy in Institute of Arts and Science, Hazu, Split.)