Austro-Hungarian naval ensign

Austro-Hungarian Cruisers, 1888 - 1918

Foredeck of small cruiser SMS ASPERN: shielded 12cm (4.7-in) main gun + boxy, square bridge

Foredeck of the small cruiser Aspern showing shielded 12cm (4.7-in) main gun and boxy, square bridgeworks characteristic of this class, commissioned 1899-1902. These were fairly fast, shallow-draft, very handy and maneuverable craft, well adapted to inshore work in the Adriatic. While dreadnouoghts and aircraft were new to most navy personnel, the blue-water sailors of the region who largely made up the navy excelled at handling smaller ships within the often tricky confines of the Balkan coast.

For such a small operation, the KuK Kriegsmarine was quite open to innovation. The turbine powered Heligoland class ships and their operational partners, the Tatra class destroyers, were cutting-edge designs for their time. Not only that, after their combat record is tallied, they rank among the best of the Great War generation of ships in all navies.


I. Armored Cruisers

A. Early Armored Cruiser: S.M.S. Maria Theresia - 1893

B. Armored Cruiser Kaiser Karl VI - 1899

C. Armored Cruiser Sankt Georg - 1905

II. Light/Protected Cruisers

A1. Torpedo Cruiser Kaiserin Elisabeth - 1889

A2. Torpedo Cruiser Kaiser Franz Josef - 1889
Sister to the Kaiserin Elisabeth

B. The Zenta Class - 1899
Three ship class of small, nimble cruisers capable of inshore work.

C1. S.M.S. Admiral Spaun - 1910: Prototype Rapidkreuzer (Fast Cruiser)
Six Parsons turbine engines, twin screw = 27 knots
Armament: Seven 3.9" guns and four torpedo tubes.

Rapidkreuzers on Steroids:
C2. The Heligoland Class of 1914-15
Advanced turbine cruisers, improved Admiral Spauns
Formed the core of the assault force that hit the Allies' Otranto Barrage, May 14-15, 1917.

Austro-Hungarian Anchor Insignia
Cruiser Actions in the Great War

3.9-in broadside being fired from SMS SAIDA during 1914 shore bombardment

Austrian naval power at work: Austrian cruisers bombard French army batteries set up to support Montenegrin insurgents in 1914; click here to enlarge. This photo was shot from the shelter deck of the 27-knot protected cruiser Saida, sister of the Novara and Heligoland, whose slender, arrow-like hulls were packed with 16 Yarrow boilers and six Parsons turbines but only the most perfunctory protection, giving the class the apt description of "fast cruisers" (Rapidkreuzer). Armed with nine 3.9-in guns and a formidable torpedo arsenal, Saida and her two sister-ships distinguished themselves in combat against the Allies in the partially successful raid on the Otranto Barrage, May 14-15, 1917.

Admiral Miklos HorthyIn this action, known as the Battle of the Otranto Straits, Austro-Hungarian forces under the command of Adm. Miklos Hórthy (right) attacked the anti-submarine barrier across the straits. Striking by stealth at night, the numerous force of cruisers, destroyers, U-boats, and torpedo boats sank 14 militarized trawlers being used in the anti-submarine war; damaged the British cruiser Dartmouth; and partially dismantled the barrage, before the intervention of British and Italian cruisers from Brindisi drove them off. Adm. Hórthy's flagship, the Novara, suffered a severed main steam pipe. Her engines disabled, she had to be towed from the scene by her sister Saida. In the battle's aftermath, a German U-boat operating in concert with the Austrian surface forces laid a series of mines, one of which sank the French destroyer Boutefou with all hands.

The vulnerability of Allied forces on the Barrage tempted Hórthy to try again the following year. In 1918, Hórthy -- now promoted to C-in-C -- staged an even more audacious assault, this time utilizing two of the new Tegetthoff class dreadnoughts along with a heavy supporting force. However, this time the Italians were ready for him and he was forced to abort the mission as the sortie ended disastrously for Austria-Hungary. This fiasco did not greatly tarnish Hórthy's reputation as a war hero: he became long-term Regent of Hungary after the War and a force in European politics for nearly 25 years.

In the topsy-turvy world of the K.u.K. Kriegsmarine during WWI, the main battle fleet was confined to port because of the coal shortage, while cruisers and destroyers saw more action than the great dreadnoughts constructed at such great expense. Unexpectedly, diesel- and gasoline-burning submarines and motor torpedo boats proved the most effective warships of all in the Adriatic theatre. As in the German navy, the fleet's inactivity did not reflect a lack of pluck or initiative on the part of the men. Although a case could be made for a "Good Soldier Schweik" mentality prevailing in the Austro-Hungarian armed services as the war dragged on through four long, numbing years, those sailors who thirsted for action volunteered for duty in torpedo boats and submarines. There they frequently found the glory they craved -- or the death they courted -- sometimes both at the same time.


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