1870-1914 - The Austro-Italian Naval Race

Italy makes short work of Austria
(portrayed as an eagle).

Contributed by John Fraser Chisholm
email: John@annongul.demon.co.uk

1870-1914 - The Austro-Italian Naval Race

The most famous of Naval races before 1914 is undoubtedly the Anglo-German race that poisoned relations between those two countries. There were other races taking place however, from the tiny fleets of the South American states to the Great Powers of the Mediterranean. It is this last race which is covered by this article, or rather a part of it.

Virtually all of the European Great Powers had an interest in this area; Russia wished to open up the Dardanelles to her warships, France had her North African colonies, while Italy was keen to acquire some. Britain had the Suez Canal to protect, whilst Austria-Hungary had her long Adriatic coastline for which to cater. In this article I will look at one aspect of this tangled Naval web; the relationship between Austria-Hungary and Italy.

The Kingdom of Italy was a relatively new creation, borne out of the mid nineteenth century wars of unification. Her foreign policy was divided between a desire to recover remaining "Italian" lands held by Austria-Hungary or to pursue an ambitious colonial policy in North Africa. On joining the Dual Alliance in 1881, and thus allying with Austria-Hungary, the Italians signaled a desire to pursue the colonial route. There was always a large section of Italian political opinion which thought that this was a mistake, and recovery of the so-called "Irridenta" ( Unredeemed lands) should be the priority. This always made relations between Vienna and Rome difficult, and undermined any real trust between the two states that could have developed.

The pursuit of a North African colonial policy brought the Italians into confrontation with the French, who saw this as their own sphere of influence and were not keen to see a rival muscling in on their patch. For the Italians this meant that there was always a possibility that they may end up at war with France. A large Naval building program was instituted to counter the threat of the French fleet, and the two states were soon Naval rivals. The problem was that in the 1880`s, battleship development was in a state of transition, and many of the vessels laid down by both France and Italy were obsolete before the decade was out.

And what of Austria-Hungary? Allied to Germany from 1879, and threatened by Russia, Vienna was keen to use the Dual Alliance as a way of turning a potentially hostile Italy into an ally. Thus what became the Triple Alliance was an excellent diplomatic coup for Vienna, and they could concentrate on the Russians. Distrust of Italy was still high; the upstart Kingdom was the old enemy of 1848, 1859 and 1866, and this view of the Italians never lost its sway over Austro-Hungarian politicians or the military.

The Habsburg Navy saw Italy, not Russia as the greatest threat. The crushing victory won by Admiral Tegethoff over the Italian fleet in 1866 had the same mystique for the Habsburg navy as Trafalgar had for the Royal Navy. During the 1880`s, the fleet was run down as Italy became converted from threat to ally; this was probably for the best as Austria-Hungary did not squander scarce resources on floating mastodons as the Italians did. Indeed only two new vessels were launched during the 1880`s, and naval building was allowed to run down.

The 1890`s saw a change in relations and in naval construction. The British had led the way with the launch of Collingwood in 1882; although she was not completed until 1887, she represented the first in a line of ships of broadly similar design. With four big guns, two forward and two aft, she set a basic standard eventually copied by everyone. The Italians took this design up in 1888 with the Re Umberto class, completed in 1893, followed by the Emanuele Filberto class laid down in 1893 and completed in 1902. Meanwhile the beginnings of the Alliance System had started to become clear in Europe with the signing of an Alliance between France and Russia in 1893. Although this seemed to put Italy firmly in the Austro-German camp, her attitude was increasingly ambivalent towards the alliance. Italy had joined to gain a measure of security against France as she pursued her colonial ambitions. Now, as tensions heightened she was facing the prospect of Germany, or worse Austria-Hungary, dragging her into a war that she could well do without.

A similar change in attitude was taking place in Vienna. As Rome distanced herself from her allies, so distrust in Vienna grew, fueled by a military keen to portray Italy as a potential enemy in order to get more money out of the treasury. The Navy in particular led this drive, supported by Archduke Franz-Ferdinand who was to become a very keen supporter of the Navy`s interests. The Emperor and the Parliament were won over and in 1893 Austria-Hungary laid down three vessels. Meant to be coast defense battleships, they soon became mini-battleships displacing 5,500 tons, 4000 tons less than the Italian Emmanuele Filberto, but it was a beginning. Unlike the Italians the Austro-Hungarians were starting from virtual scratch as far as battleship construction was concerned, but over the years they were to develop shipyards and heavy industry to support a growing fleet. By 1914 they could complete a dreadnought battleship in less than 26 months, a pace the Italians never matched.

Throughout the 1900`s the Adriatic became a mirror of the North sea, although on a much smaller scale. The Emmanuele Filberto`s of 1902 were followed by the Regina Margherita`s of 1904 and the Regina Elena`s of 1907. In designing these ships the Italians were blessed with visionary naval architects in the shape of Bernedetto Brin and Vittorio Cuniberti. Both men emphasized speed and firepower over protection, much as Fisher was to do with his battlecruiser designs.

Not to be outdone, Austria-Hungary launched the Habsburgs in 1900 and the Erzherzog Karls in 1903. Austro-Hungarian designers were more constrained by budgets and their vessels tended to be smaller than their Italian counterparts, but generally were more heavily armored . By 1910 the Italians had eleven battleships compared to Austria-Hungary`s nine.

The launch of Fisher`s Dreadnought in Feb-1906 left the Naval world in something of a whirl. The Austrians had three warships halfway through construction, so-called semi-dreadnoughts which had to be completed. As the world and his wife dashed to add dreadnoughts to their fleet, the Italians laid down one of this type in 1909. With her armament in triple turrets she reflected the Italian desire for speed and firepower over protection, a characteristic followed by all later Italian dreadnought designs. With her shipyards free, the Austro-Hungarians responded in 1910 by laying down four units, the Viribus Unitis class. Politicians in Vienna were becoming less sure about the Navy, and more worried about developments in the Balkans; stopping the Russian steamroller was looking more important than racing against their nominal allies by spending large sums on warships. Admiral Count Montecuccoli ordered two ships of this class without parliamentary approval, and then went to make his case that they could neither risk falling behind the Italians, or suffer the unemployment that a reduction of naval orders would create. Backed by the major industrialists such as Skoda, he managed to persuade the deputies to add two more ships to the class, although the Hungarians demanded that one be built in a yard in the Hungarian half of the Empire.

Unwilling to allow the Austro-Hungarians to snatch the lead, three more dreadnoughts were added in 1910 and another two in 1912. Vienna had planned to start work on four new dreadnoughts in August 1914 but the onset of war forced a cancellation, as it did with the four planned Italian vessels in 1915.

This increasingly bitter race for supremacy in the Adriatic was looked on with horror by the Germans. The last thing that they wanted was their two allies squandering resources and racing against each other. So under diplomatic pressure from Berlin, in 1913 the Italians and Austro-Hungarians began a series of Naval talks culminating in a Naval convention. The results reflected the Italian's still strong concern over France, and in order to tempt the Austrians to deploy their vessels outside the Adriatic against France the Italians agreed that Admiral Haus, the Austrian commander in chief should take command of the proposed joint fleet. Although coaling facilities were agreed upon and other details were considered, it is difficult to see who took this plan seriously. Outside the immediate Italian naval staff most considered a war allied with Austria-Hungary very unlikely, and probably weakening to the nascent Italian Empire. For Vienna, they accounted the Italian fleet as inefficient and the Italians themselves as unreliable, and although no side showed actual bad faith neither showed any distinct enthusiasm for the notion either. When war eventually did break out, very few in Rome or Vienna were surprised that Italy declared herself neutral, and nobody in Vienna was much surprised when Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary barely six months later.

The results of the Naval race had little impact on the conduct of the war. The Austro-Hungarian fleet was eventually to be faced by the combined weight of the French and Italians, and Admiral Haus kept his battleships safely in Harbor. However, using their few submarines and light ships, the Habsburg fleet was able to effectively control the Adriatic, bombarding the Italian coast in tip and run raids similar to the Germans in the North sea with their raids on the British coast. The difference was that a pursuit by the allies could lead to potential disaster as the Austrian submarines proved several times. Meanwhile the Italians and the French could never shake off the mood of cool relations and never agreed to joint command or a joint fleet, much to the chagrin of the British who were junior partners in the Adriatic.

A much trumpeted result is that the race distracted two economically weak nations into squandering precious resources on fleets that would never be used. This criticism is usually leveled at Vienna rather than Rome, the latter`s drive for overseas possessions meant that a fleet was necessary. For the Austro-Hungarians it is quite easy to argue that they could have spent the money on re-equipping the woefully inadequate army artillery, or training more reserves, but this is missing the point. During the era of parliamentary government it was difficult to get funding increases for the Army, so the Navy was another way for the War ministry to increase its budget by convincing Parliament that a Navy was de rigeur for any Great Power worth its salt. After the suspension of Parliament in Austria (not Hungary) the economic imperative of keeping workers in a job and industrialists in profit harmonized well with the log-rolling of the armed forces for shares of the budget, and also the role of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand in supporting the growth of the navy. This argument also assumes that the Great Powers knew what war they were going to fight, and that it was going to be World War One. This fatal combination of hindsight and historical manipulation overlooks the fact that nobody expected the hell of the Great War, least of all the naval planners of Italy and Austria-Hungary who were no more guilty than their counterparts in other services or other countries, pushing for a big budget and then spending it. Modern planners can claim little distinction from their early twentieth century forebears in this respect.

© 1997 John Fraser Chisholm - All rights reserved