The K.u.K. Kriegsmarine, 1856 - 1918
Naval ensign of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1869 - 1918.
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A navy is defined by its mission, in turn suggested by the geography of the nation it protects. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain's Royal Navy assumed a worldwide scope to protect their country's vital commerce and foster its burgeoning empire. France's Marine Nationale had a twofold mission: to defend against British incursion on the Channel and Atlantic fronts, and to cover France's trade and colonial interests in the Mediterranean, against traditional foe Austria-Hungary and, later, unified Italy.
The Kaiserlich und Königlich Kriegsmarine, as the Austro-Hungarian Navy was known officially, had a far more limited scope in the era under study. The Habsburg Empire during this period included the present-day territories of Trieste, Croatia, and -- from 1908 - 1918 -- Bosnia-Herzegovina, thus covering the northern part of the Adriatic's eastern coast. Following the reunification of Italy in 1861, the Austrian Navy was devoted primarily to coastline protection, the suppression of smuggling, and deterring the powerful Italian fleet just across the narrow sea. The K.u.K. Kriegsmarine's principal mission was defending the Adriatic -- some 400 nautical miles from north to south -- and secondarily the Mediterranean. Much of the region had historic ties to Italy -- many of its cities had been founded as part of the Venetian trading empire -- and was subject to Italian irredentist agitation throughout the era and until 1946. At the south end of the sea, Montenegro had gained independence from Turkey in 1878, and Albania after the First Balkan War of 1911 - 12. Because of the nature of the turf to be defended -- a ria coastal area abounding in shoals and reefs, dotted with rocky islets and skerries -- the K.u.K. fleet consisted mostly of small, nimble ships: swift, shallow-draft cruisers and darting torpedo boats. Because of the Allied blockade and coal shortage during the Great War, submarines became the main strategic arm of the service. Providing basing facilities for German U-boats in their Mediterranean campaign emerged as a key support activity of the Austro-Hungarian service. Another specialized mission was patroling the Danube; Austria's river monitors presided over twoscore years of peaceful policing and "showing the flag," before being unleashed on Serbia and Romania during WWI.
The Navy's poor-cousin status in the Dual Monarchy's defense establishment was underlined by its financial dependency: navy budgets were entirely controlled by the War Ministry (i.e., the Army) after 1865. Top naval administrators were generally Army brass-hats indifferent to maritime matters. But against all odds, during its brief lifespan of 51 years the K.u.K. navy produced a creditable crop of naval leaders and a few genuine heroes. Influential advocates within the government included, in the mid-19th century, the Archduke Ferdinand Max, younger brother of Kaiser Franz Josef, and after his 1866 canonization, Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff. Navy boosters in the turn-of-the-century era included Admiral Graf Rudolf Montecuccoli, the prewar C-in-C, and Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Heir to the Throne and disciple of Alfred Thayer Mahan. They pushed energetically for naval expansion in the last years leading up to the Great War. Slow in gaining traction, the growth underwent hard acceleration in the run-up to the War, only to crash into a wall with the Empire's defeat and dissolution.
But as 19th century Vienna's elites indulged their haute bourgeois appetites, the incessant buildup of the Italian fleet in the 1890s goaded the complacent Austro-Hungarian Empire to counter with a buildup of its own. At a leisurely pace at first, then faster and faster, Vienna augmented its battle fleet. Starting with the sensible and unambitious three-ship Habsburg class of 1897 (10,000-tonners carrying three 9.4" guns), Austria was sucked into a costly naval competition with Italy. 1910 found the Empire (already fielding a fleet of ten powerful pre-dreadnoughts) straining its finances to produce four mighty dreadnoughts equal, on paper, to Italy's latest battleship. The Austrian fleet comprised handsome, well-designed, symmetrical, and smallish ships. Building the dreadnoughts proved a technical stretch for the nation's shipyards, but in the end it was done. By the time they came into commission, the Empire they served was cracking and groaning ominously. It was to survive just five years more.
To service their burgeoning fleet, the Austrians developed naval facilities at several deep-water ports along the Adriatic. Pola (Pula) became the battle fleet's principal base, nicknamed "the Austrian Portsmouth." Located at the tip of the Istrian Peninsula, it had a superb landlocked harbor (right) and one of the largest floating drydocks in the Mediterranean (map). Pola Seearsenal (naval base) is seen at right during World War I; click here for awesome enlarged view. Other important facilities were located at Trieste, the Empire's shipbuilding powerhouse, located at the northernmost extremity of the Adriatic; Fiume (Rijeka) at the head of the Gulf of Istria, home of the State Naval Academy; at Sibenik and the Bay of Cattaro (Kotor), Austria's southernmost port (south of Dubrovnik in present-day Croatia), where the main submarine base was established. During the latter part of the Great War, Germany extended port privileges to German U-boats that were helping to devastate shipping in the Mediterranean. In 1916, Austria-Hungary captured the port of Durazzo (Durrës) in Albania. They used it for assembling and servicing U-boats and for probes of the nearby Otranto Barrage. The retaking of Durazzo by Allied forces on Oct. 2, 1918 was the only Allied naval battle in which U.S. forces took part during the Great War. While the coast of Croatia was a long-held crown territory, neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina was a more recent acquisition for the Habsburgs (annexed 1908). Its loyalty to Vienna was shaky; Bosnian ears were susceptible to Slav nationalist agitation emanating from Belgrade and Petersburg. Viewed in this context, the reasons for the 1914 assassination of Archduke (Erzherzog) Franz Ferdinand in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, become less cloudy and confusing.
That assassination triggered the greatest war Europe had seen to date. Austria-Hungary overplayed its hand, recklessly fomenting a war of revenge on Serbia, although no link between the assassins and Serbia was ever established. Austria's demands were so excessive that they amounted to Serbia's giving up her sovereignty in part. Since the Serbs would never consent to complicity in thier own national extinction, this guaranteed war. But this conflict that started as a brushfire war in the Balkans would take on a life of its own, confounding the politicians who assumed it would be an easy win, troops home by Christmas. The brushfire war spread and took root and persisted until it pulled down the entire dynastic system of Central and Eastern Europe like a house of cards. Under the strain of prolonged warfare, the Dual Monarchy crumbled, torn apart by the same ethnic strife and ardent nationalism which plague the Balkans to this day.
The Emperor Karl I briefly assumed the Throne on the death of Franz Josef in 1916. As the empire came apart, the last Habsburg Kaiser attempted to donate the remaining ships to the new Yugoslav Republic. But at the Versailles peace conference, Austria's old archenemy Italy pressured the delegates, and in the end most of the ships went to the Allies as war reparations. Karl abdicated the throne in Austria but made two failed bids to regain the Hungarian Crown of St. Stephen in 1921. But he was thwarted by former Naval C-in-C Adm. Miklos Hórthy, who had installed himself as virtual dictator of Hungary.
The peace settlement spelled out in the Treaty of St. Germain (1919) left a rump Austria entirely shorn of coastline and four new independent successor states: Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and (on the Adriatic) the "southern Slav republic" of Yugloslavia, comprising Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, and Montenegro (re-drawing the map in Europe just as it was done in the Mideast at the same time). In the peace settlement the Austrian ships were doled out, mostly to Italy, for scrapping; deprived of both ships and ports, the new Austrian Republic went instantly from underdog navy to no seagoing navy at all.
And as for the Emperor Karl: Exiled to Madeira, the last Habsburg ruler died of pneumonia in 1922. Meanwhile all of the former Habsburg capital ships went to the wrecker's torch, though many of the destroyers and torpedo boats served Italy, Romania, and Yugoslavia between the wars; while on the Danube system, eight armored gunships built by the Habsburgs served in the navies of the successor states through World War II, several surviving until 1962; indeed, two venerable hulks of Vienna's Victorian monitors survive to this day. When peace came in 1945, many an ancient Habsburg hulk was found moldering quietly in some Italian backwater.
The Conduct of the War at Sea
The German High Seas Fleet ended up spending most of the war in port, blockaded by the British. Germany carried out its most aggressive and sustained naval warfare by U-boat, successfully squeezing British supply lines from America and the Empire. Just so the two Adriatic antagonists, Austria and Italy, conserved their battleship fleets by keeping them in port for the most part; the Italians instituted a de facto blockade of the Adriatic even before declaring war openly in May 1915, and maintained a distant blockade thereafter. The Habsburg Empire's surface fleet was largely confined to base by a fuel shortage: she had imported most of her coal (getting her prime steam coal from Cardiff, Wales) and this was obviously impossible while at war with Great Britain and blockaded by Italy's Regia Marina. Like operations in the Atlantic, Mediterranean sub warfare was deadly effective.
Austrian surface operations can be summarized in a short paragraph: Bombardment of railway bridges and other shoreline targets in Italy and Albania in 1915-16; a cruiser-and-destroyer foray against the Otranto Barrage on May 14-15, 1917; and an abortive sortie by the dreadnought fleet in June 1918, resulting in the loss of one Austro-Hungarian battleship. Fleet units also bombarded Italian positions in support of army operations on several occasions. Austrian destroyers, light cruisers, and torpedo boats had a far livelier war than the main battle fleet.
Limited by the coal shortage, the K.u.K. Kriegsmarine instead fought a vigorous submarine war. Its diesel-electric powered submarines claimed a number of the Allied warships operating in the Gallipoli campaign. In addition, they damaged the French dreadnought Jean Bart and sank two Italian armored cruisers outright in the Adriatic in July 1915. Austria provided basing facilities to German U-boats at Cattaro and Sebenico (modern-day Kotor and Sibenik in Montenegro). These southern ports were convenient to the Straits of Otranto, gateway to the Adriatic from the wider seas beyond and thus a choke point for intercepting commercial steamers.
Although the Allies attempted to block the Strait with an enormous belt of mines, anchored ASW vessels, nets and obstructions, (the "Otranto Barrage"), their effort was only partly successful. Since Italy and Germany remained technically at peace until late 1916, German U-boats operated under the Austrian flag when attacking Italian shipping during this prelude to actual hot war. Germany also shipped small UB-class U-boats to its ally by rail. The subs arrived in three sections and were reassembled at Trieste and, later in the War, at Durazzo. Italy retaliated using motor-torpedo boats (MTBs or, in Italian, MAS boats - left) and frogmen to sabotage Austrian vessels, with considerable success. Two of the Viribus Unitis class dreadnoughts, including the name ship, were destroyed by these means, as well as one Monarch-class monitor and several lesser craft. The 50-foot MAS boats carried two torpedoes each and were equipped to skip over floating booms at high speed, foiling the Austrians' main form of passive defense. It should be noted that the Austrians retaliated with covert operations behind Italian lines. These had some success: in separate events, one dreadnought battleship and one pre-dreadnought blew up entirely under suspicious circumstances. Testimony in investigative hearings strongly suggested sabotage in both cases.
In another fascinating footnote to history, Capt. Georg von Trapp (father of the Trapp Family Singers) became a war hero, sinking from his submarine, the U-5, twelve freighters totaling more than 45,000 tons, the French sub Néreide, and the French armored cruiser Leon Gambetta. Knighted for his services, Ritter von Trapp ended the war as commandant of the Kriegsmarine's Seearsenal at Cattaro Bay -- the main U-boat base.
Operationally, a unique characteristic of the Austrian fleet stemmed from the polyglot nature of the empire, with eleven separate ethnolinguistic groups. Austria's maritime capabilities had taken an enormous blow with the loss of its Italian territories: traditionally a land power, the monarchy had long relied on the Italian principalities for most of its ships and crews, and its main naval base was Venice until 1860. Following independence, in 1866 the Italians opportunistically attempted to take another swipe at Vienna by grabbing island territory in Dalmatia, resulting in their resounding defeat at Lissa. The victorious imperial crews were largely natives of the Dalmatian coast (present-day Croatia), fighting for their homeland. As the empire launched a larger fleet in the pre-dreadnought age, the fleet also contained German-speaking Austrian officers, Italian speakers from the Trieste/Fiume region, assorted Slavs, and a sprinkling of Macedonians, Greeks, and Turks. Cultural affinities and language difficulties led to functional specialization by ethnic and linguistic groups in the navy. The result has been compared to the Indian caste system, in kind if not in absolute complexity: officers were required to speak at least four of the eleven languages found in the Empire. Germans and Czechs generally gravitated to the signal corps or engineering; Hungarians tended to become gunners; Croats and Italians became deck-hands or stokers. Yet, like the far-flung empire which it served, despite these weaknesses the navy demonstrated remarkable flexibility and survival skills over the 51 years of its existence.
As the war ground on, reflecting conditions in the society and, indeed, in Europe as a whole, the navy was swept by mutinies, with U-boat crews being driven to duty at pistol point. In the winter of 1917-18, a massive mutiny erupted at Cattaro involving some 40 ships. It was put down harshly by a loyal squadron in February 1918, with the imprisonment of 400 sailors. The execution of mutiny ringleaders preceded the Empire's collapse by only eight months. As the fifth summer of the war ripened into autumn, the old Habsburg Empire expired on a pyre largely kindled by its own buffoonish quest for military glory. As the empire fragmented, ceremonies were held on Oct. 31, 1918 in which the new Yugoslav flag was hoisted over the Radetzkys and the three remaining dreadnoughts; for some of these ships it was not the first time they had served under a secessionist banner.
Despite the bitter rivalries of the past, the old K.u.K. navy is fondly remembered, as proven by the large number of modelers, historians, marine artists, commemorative bric-a-brac vendors, and web surfers who follow it today. The owners of this site concur that there could be no worthier object of contemplation. So contemplate away!
Led by the dreadnoughts, the K.u.K. Kriegsmarine fleet on exercises early in WWI. Click here for enlarged panoramic view!
Shore bombardment using cruiser Saida's 100 mm (3.9-inch) guns.
If you enjoy what you see here, be sure to leaf through our dossier on the Regia Marina, for ships with innovative features and "wow" design concepts only the Italians could deliver. For a photo essay on the Imperial German fleet from 1869 right through the dreadnought era and the Great Scuttle of 1919, stop by our German Navy desk. And for a fleet that can't be beat for sheer weirdness, visit the Mediterranean masters at our French Navy site.
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