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

Stanley D. M. Carpenter
Professor Emeritus, U.S. Naval War College

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. 1  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.
The bombardment of the port city of Trieste by a French squadron during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1715) demonstrated to the Habsburg monarchy the need for a “blue water navy.” Before the eighteenth century, only a few river craft operated on the Danube.  However, the Navy waxed and waned throughout the century despite the efforts of Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Joseph II through such schemes as forcing coastal cities to fund warships. In the Treaty of Campo Formio of 1797, Austria acquired Venetia along with its small fleet of ten ships-of-the-line and several lesser warships. With Venice came considerable maritime commerce and the concurrent need for naval defense, but confused and dilatory naval policy from Vienna dissipated the nascent force. 2   

SMS Tegetthoff (Stanley D.M. Carpenter)


In the mid-nineteenth century, the Navy experienced a resurgence under Rear-Admiral Archduke Ferdinand Max. The 1866 war with Prussia went badly on land. Still, at sea, Austrian naval forces under Rear-Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff defeated a superior Italian squadron at the Battle of Lissa, 20 July 1866, the first general action between armored warships. Lissa preserved the gains of 1797 and imbued the fledgling naval service with the tradition of engaging despite low numbers. During Tegetthoff’s years as C-in-C (1868-1871), the Navy underwent positive material and doctrinal progress, which abated in the post-Tegetthoff years. Drift between a purely coastal defense mission and a blue-water, offensive orientation led to a confused naval strategy. Little modernization occurred. The changeover from sail to steam propulsion lagged as did the dramatic changes in propulsion, armament, and weaponry exhibited by other navies.  Expenditures as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product and population expansion also lagged.
3  

The appointment of Admiral Count Rudolf Montecuccoli in 1904 as both operational and administrative C-in-C set in motion a dramatic sea change. Austria-Hungary entered the Dreadnought Era. Not only did the Empire embark on an extensive capital shipbuilding program, but the expansion of the Danube River Flotilla resulted by 1914 in a robust force of six monitors mounting 4.7-inch guns and multiple howitzers as well as several motorboat auxiliaries. 4   Following the lead of its Imperial German Dual Alliance partner, Austria-Hungary began its dramatic naval expansion in 1898 with a proposed ten-year building program calling for twelve battleships, twelve cruisers, twenty-four high seas torpedo boats, and twenty-four coastal defense craft.  The ambitious plan proved too costly to garner Hungarian Delegation support; however, it did result in the construction of three new battleships by 1902. Montecuccoli thus inherited the nucleus of a capital-ship based force to build upon on his appointment as C-in-C. 5 

The late nineteenth century proved exceptionally transformational for naval and maritime technology and the attendant revolution in naval theory.  Technological developments such as larger caliber rapid-firing rifled naval artillery, rotating gun turrets, armor plating, and more efficient steam propulsion systems allowed for the development of all-weather, long-range battle fleets no longer tied to cycles of weather, tides, and seasons. In terms of naval history and theory, numerous periodicals dedicated to naval service, tactics, strategy, doctrine, and professionalism such as the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, naval annuals edited by Thomas Brassey and Frederick T. Jane, The Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute, the French Reuve Maritime, Germany’s Marine Rundschau and Italy’s Rivista Marittima all contributed to the new maritime revolution. Naval historians and theorists such as Sir Julian Stafford Corbett in his 1911 Some Principles of Maritime Strategy and A.T. Mahan captured the imagination of naval enthusiasts and, more importantly, the attention of governments. Mahanian doctrine advanced the concept that great empires are built and sustained by exercising command of the sea as determined by a decisive battle between great battle fleets. Corbettian theory acknowledged the importance of sea control but emphasized the criticality of the naval blockade, amphibious operations, naval support of operations ashore, and joint operations. The Habsburg Empire, as did Germany, Japan, and Italy, all nations that hitherto had not been great naval powers, joined the race to build the great battle fleets.

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. 6  

 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. 7 

With an expanded navy, an extensive port and support facility infrastructure followed.  Pola, the primary operating base, and by 1914 a first-rate naval base, contained dry docks for major hull repair as well as an arsenal, graving docks, fuel storage, and intermediate-type maintenance facilities. Light forces operated out of Bocce di Cattaro. While not suitable as an anchorage for larger warships, Bocce provided excellent facilities for cruisers and submarines, as did Sebenico. Lussin served as the significant Command, Control, and Communications Center.

ADM Nicholas Horthy (Stanley D.M. Carpenter)

Imperial and public support proved vital to naval expansion. While the elderly Emperor Franz Josef cared little for naval affairs, the imperial heir, Franz Ferdinand, showed a genuine interest. As General Inspector of the Armed Forces and Rear-Admiral (1902), he participated in all aspects of naval affairs, providing a high degree of royal patronage. Determined to make the Navy a first-rate force, Franz Ferdinand insisted that it should be strong enough to conduct offensive operations as well as coastal defense. His objective was to reflect his Mahanian ideas of command of the sea, with the attendant missions of commerce interdiction and power projection. 8   Blessed with royal patronage, the Austrian Navy League (Ӧstereichisches Flottenverein), founded in 1904, flourished. Mainly a civilian organization to advance naval technology, armaments, and doctrine, the League exercised considerable lobbying influence in the Austrian Reichsrat. However, it enjoyed somewhat less power in the Hungarian Diet. Franz Ferdinand, as Protector of the League, appointed Prince Alfred of Liechtenstein, a robust naval expansion proponent, as President. By 1914, over 44,000 members belonged to seventy-two worldwide branches.  The League’s fundraising practically paid for the nascent naval air arm.  The League organ, Die Flagge, published numerous articles and pamphlets in support of the expanding naval efforts.  Despite considerable royal patronage and growing public interest, the Austrian Navy League never reached the level of influence of its German cousin. Few non-Germans in the Empire supported naval expansion, and the Crown did not encourage civil servants to join as occurred elsewhere. Nonetheless, the Austrian Navy League expressed the rise of a naval consciousness within the Habsburg Empire. 9  

For the Austro-Hungarians, naval power went far beyond the Mahanian imperative that great nations required great battle fleets. Despite the naval victory at Lissa, in 1866, Austria lost Venice to a unified Italy, rife with nationalist “irredentist” sentiment to recover the ethnically Italian lands still under Habsburg control. Concern over Italian actions and territorial threats to the Adriatic coast prompted intense debate over the need for expanded naval power. For example, a pamphlet entitled Öesterreich-Ungarns Wacht sur see argued for the creation of a great battle fleet as well as positing that the need represented a life or death situation for the Dual Monarchy. The author asserted that without the battle fleet, the Italians could establish blockades, seize the Dalmatian Islands, range the coasts unimpeded, and seize Lissa. The pamphlet perhaps overstated the actual threat, but it reflected the growing public concern over the Italian rivalry. 10   The official opinion also ramped up the tension. For example, General Conrad von Hötzendorf, Chief of the General Staff, advocated a preventive war against Italy in 1907. 11, 152.)]   The Vienna press made its position known as well. The Neue Freie Presse, a highly influential newspaper not known for an aggressive attitude, asserted in 1908 that “on both sides the possibility of war is being seriously considered.” 12   Political proposals to deescalate the tension included combined Italio-Austrian naval cooperation against French aggression in North Africa, and, a Triple Alliance naval concentration under the command of the Austro-Hungarian C-in-C in case of war with the Triple Entente powers (Britain, France, and Russia). 13 

The Russian rivalry centered not in the Adriatic, but on the Balkans, particularly those areas either still under the Ottoman Turkish Empire or the recently created independent states such as Bulgaria. The naval question for the Austro-Hungarians concerned the Straits issue (Bosporus, Sea of Marmora, and Dardanelles). Various treaties since 1856 closed the Straits to Russian warships, confining its naval power to the Black Sea and mitigating any existential Russian maritime threat. However, the various Balkan crises such as the 1908 Austro-Hungarian Bosnian annexation threatened to flash into a general war wherein the Russian Black Sea Fleet might break its confines and threaten the Adriatic coast. Nevertheless, Imperial war planners considered the Russian naval threat as minimal. Italy presented a far more likely threat scenario.

The histrionics against the Italians, primarily known colloquially as flottenparoxysmas,” had a positive effect on Austro-Hungarian naval expansion. 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. 15   

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.

Battleship construction illustrated the political and financial difficulties unique to the Empire caused by the Ausgleich or Compromise of 1867 that created the Austro-Hungarian state and the Dual Monarchy. The Ausgleich mandated that Army and Navy appropriations pass both the Austrian and Hungarian Delegations. Typically, naval appropriations passed reasonably quickly on the Austrian side, but not so for the Hungarians, who saw naval developments as favoring the Austrians. Compromise followed. In 1904, an agreement called for naval purchases and construction in proportion to each nation’s share of the common budget, typically 64% for Austria to Hungary’s 36%.  Although clumsy and inefficient, the arrangement did win over sufficient Hungarian support. 16   Squabbles over funding for the new dreadnoughts threatened to scuttle the program even after significant construction of the first two hulls by 1910. The Naval Section argued that the ships must be completed and operational by 1913, the expected date of the first Italian dreadnought, a feature that “increases the urgency of executing the naval programme with all possible despatch.” Ultimately, the Hungarians agreed to a regime whereby Austrian companies manufactured the hulls and armor, while Hungarian vendors produced the artillery, ammunition, and internal fittings.  In truth, Hungarians garnered nearly half the total contracts. 17   The compromise resulted in funding all four dreadnought battleships, two cruisers, six destroyers, and six submarines, all built at the Fiumi yards with at least 50% of the shells and a high proportion of the electrical work supplied by Hungarian vendors.  Based on this final agreement, the Delegations approved a multi-year building program for 1911 to 1917. 18   Arguments by two successive C-in-Cs, Montecuccoli and Haus, further convinced the Delegations to fund a second dreadnought squadron by 1919.

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, with approximately 31% Croatian, 20% Magyar (Hungarian), and 16% German-Austrian. By 1911, Jewish sailors, mainly from the Adriatic coastal area of Küstenland and Croatia, made up 1.7% of the other ranks, though Jewish officers averaged only about .1% of the officer corps. 20   For other positions, nationality played a role in rate determination. Due to better technical schooling, Germans and Czechs tended to become engineers, electricians, and heavy gunners, Magyars for medium caliber guns, and other nationalities for machine guns, stokers, deck, and boat hands. Despite the polyglot nature of the lower decks, ethnic relations remained cordial until the naval mutiny of 1918 when other factors influenced nationalistic fervor. 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. 21 

A-H Navy Submarine (Stanley D.M. Carpenter)


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.
22   The River Flotillas did execute successful supporting operations against Serbia and Montenegro. Admiral Haus consolidated the fleet at Pola and refused to send forces to operate outside the Adriatic, stating that “his first obligation was to keep the fleet intact to meet the Italian threat.” 23   The Italian threat froze the Navy firmly in the Adriatic.

Captain Georg Ritter von Trapp, Austro-Hungarian Navy (Stanley D.M. Carpenter)

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. 24 

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. 25   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. 26 

By late 1917, severe discontent gripped the sailors at Pola, stimulated mainly by frustration and inaction. On 1 February 1918, significant disturbances broke out on several ships. The mutineers demanded peace without annexation, as well as democracy and self-determination for all nationalities (an answer to President Woodrow Wilson’s peace proposals), and better living conditions. Admiral Horthy soon subdued the rising with forty mutineers tried and four executed; the Navy had become operationally crippled. 27

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. Hemmed in by geography, cobbled by weak finances, severely outnumbered in the critical theatre, and finally, undercut by the unwillingness to commit capital assets to a general action by senior leaders, the Austro-Hungarian Navy came to naught.

(Return to December 2020 Table of Contents)


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Horthy, Nicholas. Memoirs. 1957. Reprint. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1978.

Neue Freie Presse (Vienna), Multiple Editions, 1900-1918.

Leyland, John, ed. The Naval Annual, 1900. Portsmouth, England: J. Griffin, 1900.

________. Brassey’s Naval Annual, 1915, War Edition. London: William Clowes and Sons,
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Times (London), Multiple Editions, 1900-1918.  

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Footnotes

  1. Alfred T.  Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1890).
  2. Lawrence Sondhaus, The Habsburg Empire and the Sea: Austrian Naval Policy, 1797-1866 (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1989), 52.
  3. István Deák,  Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1848-1918 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 64.
  4. Anthony Sokol, The Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Navy (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1968), 76.
  5. These represented the battleships (BB) of the Habsburg class – SMS Habsburg, SMS Arpad and SMS Babenburg.
  6. Clark G. Reynolds, Command of the Sea: The History and Strategy of Maritime Empires, Vol. 2 (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1974), 409.
  7. The Naval Annual, 1910, 346-7; Sokol, 61, 76-77.
  8. Nicholas Horthy, Memoirs (1957; reprint ed., Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1978), 61.
  9. Paul Halpern, The Mediterranean Naval Situation, 1908-1914 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971), 156.
  10. Thomas A. Brassey. ed., The Naval Annual, 1910 (London: J. Griffin and Company, 1910), 146.
  11. From a Conrad memorandum of 6 April 1907: “We must strike at Italy the sooner the better…the best possible moment would be the spring of 1909.” (Quoted in Gunther E. Rothenberg, The Army of Francis Joseph [West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1976
  12. Neue Freie Presse (Vienna), 28 August 1908, quoted in Rothenberg, p. 152.
  13. Horthy, Memoirs, 69.
  14. Naval Annual, 1910, 51.
  15. Siegfried Breyer, Battleships and Battle Cruisers, 1905-1970, trans. Alfred Kurti (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1973) 408.
  16. Louis A. Gebhard, Jr., “Austria-Hungary’s Dreadnought Squadron; the Naval Outlay of 1911,” Austrian History Yearbook IV-V (1970): Vol. 246, no 58, 248.
  17. Times (London), 12 April 1911, 5; Neue Freie Presse (Vienna), 22 December 1910, quoted in Times (London), 26 December 1910, 6.
  18. Gebhard, 255.
  19. Horthy, Memoirs, 13.
  20. Ibid,; Sokol, Austro-Hungarian Navy, 78-79; Erwin A Schmidl. Jews in the Habsburg Armed Forces, 1788-1918 (Eisenstadf: Ӧsterreichisches Jüdisches Museum, 1989), 121, 134-44.
  21. Sokol, Austro-Hungarian Navy, 76, 79; Halpern, Mediterranean Naval Situation, 150; Arthur J. May. The Habsburg Monarchy (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1951), 492.
  22. Sokol, Austro-Hungarian Navy, 86.
  23. Quoted in Halpern, Mediterranean Naval Situation, 356-58.
  24. Sokol, Austro-Hungarian Navy, 121.
  25. Horthy, Memoirs, 71.
  26. Paul G. Halpern, The Naval War in the Mediterranean, 1914-1918 (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1987), 502-503.
  27. Ibid., 448-49.

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