Battle of Lissa (1866)

Battle of Lissa (1866)

Infobox Military Conflict

caption="The Sea Battle of Lissa" by Carl Frederik Sorensen, 1868.
partof=the Third Italian War of Independence
conflict=Battle of Lissa
date=July 20 1866
place=Adriatic Sea, near Lissa, present-day Croatia
result= Austrian victory
combatant1=flagicon|Italy|1861 Italy
combatant2=flagicon|Austrian Empire Austria
commander1=flagicon|Italy|1861 Carlo di Persano
commander2=flagicon|Austrian Empire Wilhelm von Tegetthoff
strength1=12 ironclads
10 cruisers
4 gunboats
(approx 68,000 tons)
strength2=7 ironclads
1 steam two-decker
6 cruisers
12 gunboats
(approx 50,000 tons)
casualties1=2 ironclads sunk
620 dead
40 wounded
casualties2=38 dead
138 wounded

The Battle of Lissa took place on 20 July 1866 in the Adriatic Sea near the island of Vis ("Italian": Lissa) and was a decisive victory for an outnumbered Austro-Hungarian force over a superior Italian force. It was the first major sea battle involving fleets using iron and steam, and one of the last to involve deliberate ramming.

The battle occurred as part of the Third Italian Independence War, in which Italy allied with Prussia in the course of the conflict against Austria. The major Italian objective was to capture Venice from Austria.

The fleets were composed of a mix of unarmoured sailing ships with steam engines, and armoured ironclads also combining sails and steam engines. The Italian fleet of 12 ironclads and 17 unarmoured ships outnumbered the Austrian fleet of 7 and 11 respectively. The Austrians were also severely outmatched in rifled guns (276 to 121) and total weight of metal (53,236 tons to 23,538 tons). A single turret ship took part in the action — the Italian "Affondatore".

Piedmontese Count Carlo di Persano (60 years old) commanded the Italian fleet, while the Austrian fleet was commanded by "Kontreadmiral" Wilhelm von Tegetthoff (39 years old).The Fort of Lissa was put under the authority of the Transsylvanian Romanian "Oberst" David Urs de Margina.

Plans for the battle

The attacking Austro-Hungarian fleet was divided into 3 divisions. The 1st Division consisted of the armoured ships, the 2nd the powerful, but obsolete unarmoured wooden ship of the line "Kaiser" and 5 frigates. Finally the 3rd Division consisted of the smaller screw gunboats and armed merchants. The merchant cruiser "Stadion" was ahead of the fleet acting as a scout.

The three divisions were formed up into three consecutive arrowhead or "V" formations; the armoured 1st division under Tegetthoff was in the van, the weaker gunboats and paddle steamers of the 3rd division to the rear while the powerful but unarmoured vessels of "Kommodor" Petz's 2nd division were in the centre.

The Austro-Hungarian plan, due to their relative lack of firepower, was to close quickly into a melee and utilise close range fire and the ram on a small portion of the Italian fleet and sink them, breaking the Italian will to fight.

The Italians, despite their superiority, were not prepared for battle. They were busy preparing for landings when the news that the Austrian fleet was at sea and seeking battle reached them. Persano cancelled the landings, ordered the fleet into line abreast and having second thoughts, cancelled that order and ordered the fleet into 3 divisions in a line ahead formation, the same formation that battles were fought in the age of sail.

The 1st division in the vanguard consisted of "Principe di Carignano", "Castelfidardo" and "Ancona" under Admiral Vacca, Captain 1st Class Faà di Bruno's 2nd division in the centre consisted of "Re d'Italia", "Palestro" and "San Martino", and the 3rd division to the rear had the "Re di Portogallo", "Maria Pia" and at the extreme rear "Varese" under Captain Augusto Riboty. In total, the Italians had 11 ironclads in the battle line. The other (wooden) ships were dispersed into the battleline. The exception was "Affondatore", which was on the far side of the 2nd squadron and out of the battleline. Persano may have intended for this to be an uncommitted reserve.

Before the battle Persano caused more confusion by deciding to transfer his flag to the "Affondatore" and the 2nd and 3rd Divisions slowed to allow "Re d'Italia" to lower her boats. However the signal to slow down never reached the 1st Division and they continued to steam on, allowing a gap to open in their battle line. To compound the error, Persano never signalled the change of flag and throughout the action the Italians continued to look to the old flagship "Re d'Italia" for orders rather than "Affondatore".

10 o'clock — the fleets engage

Having ignored the warnings of "Suspicious ships in sight" from his pickets, Persano had allowed the Austrians to effectively ambush his force while it was still forming. Tegetthoff, seeing the gap opening between the 1st and 2nd Divisions forced his fleet into the gap and concentrated on raking the Italians and ramming. This meant that he allowed his T to be crossed. While the Austrians were approaching, Vacca's 1st Italian Division threw a heavy weight of fire at them. The Austrians could only reply with their chase guns. Because Persano was in the process of transferring his flag, no general order was given. The 2nd and 3rd Divisions did not join in and the Austrians crossed the killing area, suffering some serious damage but no losses. "Drache" on the extreme right (starboard) wing of the Austrian 1st Division was hit 17 times by heavy shells, losing her mainmast and temporarily losing propulsion. Her captain, von Moll, was decapitated by a heavy shell, but his subordinate, Karl Weyprecht, brought the ship back into the fight.

By 10:43 am the Austrians had brought the Italian van to close action. "Habsburg", "Salamander" and "Kaiser Max" on the Austrian's left wing had engaged the Italian 1st Division, while the right wing of "Don Juan", "Drache" and "Prinz Eugen" engaged the Italian 2nd Division. Persano, now on the most powerful warship in either fleet, "Affondatore" stayed clear of the engagement.

With the confusion in the Italian van, "Kommodor" von Petz took the opportunity to take his 2nd Division to the Italian rear and fall on their 3rd Division. The unarmoured wooden ships of the Austrian 2nd Division were facing modern ironclads armed with heavy guns, yet despite suffering heavy fire they held together. The screw frigate "Novara" was hit 47 times, and her captain, von Klint, was killed. "Erzherzog Friedrich" was hit by a heavy shell below the waterline but still remained afloat, while "Schwarzenburg" was disabled by heavy Italian fire and set adrift.

The decisive moments — the ramming attacks

Seeing things going badly, Persano found the courage to throw himself into battle, deciding to ram the unarmoured screw battleship "Kaiser" rather than one of the armoured ships engaged with the Italian 2nd Division much nearer him. However, "Kaiser" managed to dodge "Affondatore". Taking heart from his admiral, the captain of "Re di Portogallo" decided to hurl his ship at "Kaiser", maintaining a heavy fire with her rifled guns as he did so. At the last moment, von Petz turned the tables on her and turned into the ram, in effect conducting a counter ram. The impact tore off "Kaiser"’s stem and bowsprit, leaving her figurehead embedded in "Re di Portogallo". The Italian used the opportunity to rake "Kaiser" with fire, putting her mainmast and funnel into the sea. The smoke was so great that as they backed off for another ram they lost sight of each other and ended the duel.

At roughly the same time, Tegetthoff threw his flagship, "Erzherzog Ferdinand Max", at first the former Italian flagship, "Re d'Italia", and then "Palestro". In both cases he scored only glancing blows, but these caused serious damage, especially to "Palestro", which was dismasted and set afire.

Showing remarkable courage, "Palestro"'s captain, Cappellini, told his men that they could abandon ship but he would stay, and pulled his ship out of the line. His crew refused to leave their Captain and "Palestro" finally blew up and sank at 2.30pm, with only 19 survivors out of the ship's complement of 230.

Meanwhile "Erzherzog Ferdinand Max" was circling Faà di Bruno's "Re d'Italia", pouring on fire before surging forward and achieving a good impact with her ram, aided by the Italian ship having reversed her screws (in a poorly thought-out attempt to avoid crossing the Austrian's bows) at the crucial moment. This put an 18 foot hole below the Italians' waterline, and the Italian ship struck her colours and sank two minutes later. According to legend her Captain shot himself after giving the order to strike the colours.

As the "Erzherzog Ferdinand Max" limped away, damaged after conducting 3 ramming attacks, the "Ancona" closed on her attempting to ram. In the excitement the Italian gunners got a full broadside off at point blank range, but while they had remembered the gunpowder, they had forgotten to load the shot.

After his encounter with "Re di Portogallo" earlier in the battle and having fought his way clear of "Maria Pia", "Kommodor" von Petz's "Kaiser" found itself at close range with "Affondatore". Despite being a perfect target for a ram, "Kaiser" survived when Persano ordered "Affondatore" to turn away.

The aftermath

Location map
label=Vis | position=left
label_size = 90
caption = Location of island Vis on the map of Croatia.
lat=43.04 | long=16.0
background =
float = right
width = 200
"Kaiser"'s encounter with "Affondatore" was the last major action of the battle. With two armoured ships sunk, the Italians withdrew, although there would be some exchange of long range artillery fire for several hours. Tegetthoff's mariners, almost exclusively Venetians and Croats, saluted the victory over the Italians by screaming: "Viva San Marco!", the cry of war and victory of the Venetian Republic. Incidentally, this was the first and last time that "Affondatore" saw action until her demolition in 1907.

Persano returned and announced a great victory, causing much initial celebration until the real outcome of the battle was publicized. He was court-martialled for cowardice and dismissed from the navy.

Tegetthoff returned home a hero, was promoted "Vizeadmiral", and is considered one of the greatest naval commanders in Austrian history.

The engagement was mostly inconsequential on a grand scale, as the Italian defeat was overshadowed by the crushing Prussian victory over the Austrian Army at Königgrätz. Austria, humbled by Prussia and bullied by Napoleon III of France, agreed to cede Venice to Italy despite the overall failure of the Italian war effort. However, Tegetthoff's efforts were instrumental in preventing the Italians from taking control of the Dalmatian islands, also once ruled by Venice.

The importance of ramming in the battle led to naval designers, over the next 50 years, equipping future warships (especially battleships and cruisers) with ram bows. This aggravated a number of incidents of ships being sunk by their squadron-mates in accidental collisions. Ramming never featured as a viable battle tactic again. The fixation on ramming may also have inhibited the development of gunnery.

Modern commentators now take the view that Lissa occurred during a period of weapons development when armour was considerably stronger than the guns available to defeat it. This was compounded by poor gunnery on the Italian side and on the Austrian side by the fact that a number of their ships (including "Ferdinand Max") had been forced to go into battle without their full armament owing to the Prussian embargo.

"Kaiser", remarkably, reported herself fit for action the morning after the battle. She was converted into an ironclad in 1869-1873 and remained in commission until she was renamed "Bellona" and hulked in 1902. Her feat in willingly engaging four ironclads at short range while an unarmored, wooden ship appears to be unprecedented and was never emulated.

Order of battle

Note: Awaiting confirmation of some details and the names of all the Italian gunboats. Vessels are ranked by fighting power (most powerful first).


1st Division — Armoured ships

* "Erzherzog Ferdinand Max" (fleet flag, broadside ironclad, launched 1865, 5130t, 16-48pdr SB, 4-8pdr SB, 2-3pdr SB. 123mm iron belt over the battery, 12.5kts)
* "Habsburg" (launched 1865, as "Erzherzog Ferdinand Max")
* "Kaiser Max" (broadside ironclad, launched 1862, 3588t, 16-48pdr SB, 1-12pdr SB, 1-6pdr SB, 15-24pdr ML rifles. 110mm iron belt, 11.4kts)
* "Don Juan d'Austria" (launched 1862, as "Kaiser Max")
* "Prinz Eugen" (launched 1862, as "Kaiser Max")
* "Drache" (broadside ironclad, launched 1861, 2750t, 10-48pdr SB, 18-24pdr MLR, 1-8pdr SB, 1-4pdr SB landing gun, 115mm iron belt, 11kts)
* "Salamander" (launched 1861, as "Drache")

2nd Division — Wooden steam warships"'

* "Kaiser" (squadron flag, 2-decker screw ship of the line, launched 1858, 5811t, 2-24pdr ML rifles, 16-40pdr SB, 74-30pdr SB, wooden and unarmoured, 11.5kts)
* "Novara" (screw frigate, launched 1850, 2615t, 4-60pdr shell, 28-30pdr SB, 2-24pdr BL rifles, 1-12pdr landing gun, 1-6pdr landing gun, 12kts)
* "Schwarzenburg" (screw frigate, launched 1853, 2614t, 6-60pdr Paixhans shell guns, 26-30pdr Type 2 ML, 14-30pdr Type 4 ML, 4-24pdr BL rifles, 11kts)
* "Radetzky" (screw frigate, launched 1854, 2234t, 6-60pdr Paixhans shell guns, 40-24pdr SB, 4-24pdr BL rifles, 9kts)
* "Donau" (launched 1856, 2165t, otherwise as "Radetzky")
* "Adria" (launched 1856, 2165t, otherwise as "Radetzky")
* "Erzherzog Friedrich" (screw corvette, launched 1857, 1697t, 4-60pdr Paixhans shell guns, 16-30pdr SB, 2-24pdr BL rifles, 9kts)

3rd Division — Minor craft

* "Narenta" (screw gunboat, 2-48pdr SB, 2-24pdr BL rifles)
* "Kerka" (as "Narenta")
* "Hum" (2nd class gunboat, 2-48pdr SB, 2-24pdr BL rifles, 11?kts)
* "Vellebich" (as "Hum")
* "Dalmat" (as "Hum")
* "Seehund" (2nd class gunboat, 2-48pdr SB, 2-24pdr BL rifles, 11kts)
* "Wall" (as "Seehund")
* "Streiter" (as "Seehund")
* "Reka" (as "Seehund")
* "Andreas Hofer" (screw tender, 3-30pdr SB)
* "Kaiserin Elizabeth" (sidewheeler steamer ("radaviso"), launched 1854, 4-12pdr SB)
* "Greif" (sidewheel steamer, 2-12pdr SB)
* "Stadion" (unarmed merchant steamer. Employed as a scout and was in the Van)


Armoured ships

* "Affondatore" (fleet flag, ironclad turret ram, launched 1865, 4006t, 2-9in 100pdr Armstrong SB (2x1), 5in iron on belt and turrets, 12kts)
* "Re d'Italia" (squadron flag, broadside ironclad, launched 1863, 5610t, 6-72pdr SB shell, 32-164mm BL rifles, 4.5in iron belt, 10.5kts)
* "Re di Portogallo" (launched 1863, as "Re d'Italia" except 2-10in shell, 26-164mm rifles)
* "Regina Maria Pia" (broadside ironclad, launched 1863, 4201t, 4-72pdr SB shell, 22-164mm BL rifles, 4.3in iron belt, 12kts)
* "San Martino" (launched 1863, as "Regina Maria Pia")
* "Castelfidardo" (launched 1863, as "Regina Maria Pia")
* "Ancona" (launched 1864, as "Regina Maria Pia")
* "Principe di Carignano" (broadside ironclad, launched launched 1865, 3446t, 10-72pdr 8in SB shell, 12-164mm BL rifles, 4.75in iron belt, 10kts)
* "Formidabile" (broadside ironclad, launched 1861, 2682t, 4-72pdr SB shell, 16-164mm (5.5in) BL rifles, 4.3in iron belt, 10kts (19 km/h))
* "Terribile" (launched 1861, as "Formidabile")
* "Palestro" (coast defence ironclad, launched 1865, 2165t, 4-200mm ML rifles, 1-165mm ML rifle, 4.5in iron belt, 8kts)
* "Varese" (launched 1865, as "Palestro")

Wooden steam warships

* "Gaeta" (ex-Neopolitan screw frigate, launched 1861, 3917t, 8-160 mm ML rifles, 12-108pdr shell, 34-72pdr shell)
* "Maria Adelaide" (ex-Sardinian screw frigate, launched 1859, 3429t, 10-160 mm ML rifles, 22-108pdr shell, 19 small guns) (Squadron Flag)
* "Duca di Genova" (ex-Sardinian screw frigate, launched 1860, 3459t, 8-160 mm ML rifles, 10-108pdr shell, 32-72pdr shell)
* "Garibaldi" (ex-Neopolitan screw frigate "Borbone", launched 1860, 3390t, 8-160 mm ML rifles, 12-108pdr shell, 34-72pdr shell)
* "Principe Umberto" (ex-Sardinian screw frigate, launched 1861, 3446t, 8-160 mm ML rifles, 10-108pdr shell, 32-72pdr shell, 4 small guns)
* "Carlo Alberto" (ex-Sardinian screw frigate, launched 1853, 3231t, 8-160 mm ML rifles, 10-108pdr shell, 32-72pdr shell guns, 7 small guns)
* "Vittorio Emanuele" (ex-Sardinian screw frigate, launched 1856, 3201t, 8-160 mm ML rifles, 10-108 and 32-72pdr shell guns, 7 small guns)
* "San Giovanni" (ex-Sardinian screw corvette, launched 1861, 1752t, 8-160 mm ML rifles, 14-72 pounder shell, 12 small guns)
* "Governolo" (ex-Sardinian sidewheel paddle corvette, launched 1849, 2243t, 10-108pdr shell, 2 small guns)
* "Guiscardo" (ex-Neapolitan sidewheel paddle corvette, launched 1843, 1343t, 2-160 mm ML rifles, 4-72pdr shell)

Minor ships

* "Giglio" (ex-Tuscan sloop, launched 1846, 246t, 2 SB of unknown type)
* "Cristoforo Colombo" (gunboat, 4-30pdr SB)
* "Gottemolo" (as "Cristoforo Colombo")
* "Unknown" (as "Cristoforo Colombo")
* "Esploratore" (sidewheel dispatch vessel, launched 1863, 981t, 2-30pdr SB, 17 knots)
* "Messaggere" (launched 1863, as "Esploratore")
* "Indipendenza" (unarmed merchantman)
* "Piemonte" (unarmed merchantman)
* "Flavio Gioia" (unarmed merchantman)
* "Stella d'Italia" (unarmed merchantman)


"SMS Lissa", an Austro-Hungarian broadside ironclad, was launched in 1869 and named in honor of the battle of Lissa. She was scrapped between 1893 and 1895.

Alfred Cappellini of "Palestro" was the namesake of an Italian armored gunboat launched in 1868 and a monitor launched in 1915.

Faà di Bruno of "Re d'Italia" was the namesake of an Italian armored gunboat launched in 1868 and a monitor launched in 1916.

Augusto Riboty of "Varese" was the namesake of an Italian destroyer leader launched in 1916 (and which survived both world wars, finally being scrapped in 1951).

"Vizeadmiral" von Tegetthoff was the namesake of an Austro-Hungarian center battery ironcladlaunched in 1878 and a dreadnought battleship launched in 1912. Ironically, at the end of World War I, the latter ship was given to the Italian Royal Navy, which in 1924-25 scrapped the ship that bore the name of the man who had defeated it in its first battle.

External links

* [ The Battle of Vis]
* [ Bibliography]
* [ Collection of Images]
* [ Hearts of Iron]
*it [ Page of the Italian Navy official site on Affondatore]
*it [ Page of the Italian Navy official site on battle of Lissa]

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