The Habsburg Class
Austria's Oceangoing Pre-Dreadnoughts (1900 / 1904)

Boxtop painting of the battleship HABSBURG of 1902

Intro - read on.    |    Specifications    |    Class History    |    Pictures    |    Links

SMS Habsburg, the KuK Kriegsmarine's first full-blown pre-dreadnought battleship, on trials in the upper Adriatic in 1901. Armed only with three 9.4" (24 cm) 40-caliber Krupp guns (in one twin turret forward and a single aft), these three ships were little more powerful than a large armored cruiser in other navies. Nevertheless they marked a significant stride for the Habsburg Navy: they certainly had the look of a pre-dreadnought battleship in other navies. Moreover, the high-muzzle-velocity, quick-firing Krupp 9.4s outperformed the 10" guns of other navies (notably the Italians, Austria's chief rival). See the article under Links for specifics on this notable artillery.

Voted through the Vienna legislature as part of the 1899 program, the ships were designed by Austria's chief naval architect, ing. Siegfried Popper. They bear the mark of his clean, uncluttered, and balanced hand, with nicely spaced masts, funnels, and gun emplacements. The Reichstag was sold on the expenditure as delivering a good bang for the gold mark, with ships that packed a hefty armament into a small (8,300-ton) package, promising maneuverability and shoal draft for operational versatility, plus slightly better speed than comparable ships of the time. Though the ships did not reach their design speed of 20 knots, they fell only fractions of a knot short, and were well regarded, at their time of commissioning, for their intended mission.

Habsburg class on maneuvers at dawn, art by Alex KircherLike the Russian Peresviets and British armored cruisers, these ships carried much of their secondary (5.9") armament in double-decked casemate mountings along the side. To give the guns an improved arc of fire fore and aft, the casemates were sponsoned out from the hull in shallow cylindrical platforms. Over all the Habsburgs met their navy's concern for moderate firepower, protection -- and expense. They provided a good bang for the buck (or in this case, the gold mark.) They certainly marked an improvement over the earlier armored cruisers and coastal monitors in terms of seaworthiness and fighting power, also. At right, a lovely postcard of the class on maneuvers; art by Alex Kircher.

All three ships were constructed at STT in Trieste, with the name ship going down the ways first in 1900 and commissioning in 1902, the Árpád launching in 1901 and commissioning in 1903, and the Babenberg launching in 1902 and commissioning in 1904. They marked another phase in the expanding industrial capacity of Austria-Hungary, both in shipbuilding and in naval armaments. The first two ships had their 9.4 and 5.9-inch guns manufactured by Friedrich Krupp's works in Essen, Germany, while the Babenberg's guns were slightly improved versions manufactured at the Skoda Works in Plzen, in the Austro-Hungarian province of Bohemia, now the Czech Republic. This established a pattern for future Habsburg warships: the initial run of weapons would be commissioned from Krupps and successive orders would be manufactured at Skoda, as noted in our ships' specifications. Such cooperation would have been unthinkable between, say, Krupp and the French Navy (which only received permission to manufacture Krupp's patended process armor a dozen years after the rest of the world); but by this time the Habsburg Empire was closely allied with Imperial Germany. Krupp AG maintained an office at the Skoda Works to oversee manufacturing of naval guns to its standards, and received a cut on all the armaments contracts using its designs under license.

Plans and Specifications

Plan of a Habsburg class battleship

Specifications for the Habsburgklasse:
Built by: STT, Trieste. First ship (Habsburg) launched September 9, 1900. Class commissioned 1902-1904.
Dimensions: 376' x 69'6" x 24'8"   Displacement: 8,365 tons. Armament: (3) 9.4"/40 cal (1x2, 1x1); (12) 5.9"/40; and (10) 2.8"/45 12-pdr guns; (2) 1.5"/18 Vickers machine guns; (2) submerged 18" torpedo tubes. Armor: Krupp type. Belt 8¾"/2"; CT 8"; barbettes and turrets 8½"/6"; bulkheads 8"; aft conning station 4"; upper belt 4"; casemates 5"; deck 2½". Fuel capacity: 500 tons of coal normal; 840 tons maximum. Propulsion: 16 Maudslay boilers (Habsburg), 16 Belleville (other two); (2) inverted vertical triple expansion engines developing 14,000 hp, shafted to twin screw. Speed: 19.63 - 19.67 knots. Crew: 880.

Ships in class: Árpád, Babenberg, Habsburg.

Metric specifications:
Dimensions: 114.57m x 21.20m x 7.49m   Displacement: 8,365 tons. Armament: (3) 24 cm/40 cal (1x2, 1x1); (12) 150 mm/40; and (10) 70 mm/45 12-pdr guns; (2) 37 mm/18 Vickers machine guns; (2) submerged 45 cm torpedo tubes. Armor: Krupp type. Belt 222/50 mm; CT 203 mm; barbettes and turrets 216/152 mm; bulkheads 203 mm; aft conning station 102 mm; upper belt 102 mm; casemates 127 mm; deck 64 mm. Fuel capacity: 500 tons of coal normal; 840 tons maximum. Propulsion: 16 Maudslay boilers (Habsburg), 16 Belleville (other two); (2) inverted vertical triple expansion engines developing 10,440 kW, shafted to twin screw. Speed: 36.35 - 36.43 km/hr. Crew: 880.

Plan of a Habsburg class battleship
Deckplan and elevation of the Habsburg class as razeed in 1912.  Enlarge

Ships' Histories

Forward turrets on a Habsburg class pre-dreadnoughtDue to the rapid evolution of naval technology and the burgeoning expansion of all fleets at the time, the Habsburg class found themselves obsolescent within a very few years of their debut. In 1911 they were placed in reserve and the funds otherwise allocated to operating them, used to build newer, more powerful ships (each successive class embodying simultaneous mandates for more firepower and speed, without sacrificing small size and economy). It fell to Siegfried Popper to somehow reconcile these inherently contradictory needs, a task which he appears to have performed with rare grace and good judgment until his retirement in 1909. Though Popper was one of the navy's brightest talents, it was an irreconcilable weakness of the K.u.K. Kriegsmarine that Popper became the indispensable man. This had hair-raising results when Vienna hailed the great architect out of retirement to perform his greatest miracle of all -- the creation of the Tegetthoff class dreadnoughts -- when the man had already begun to go blind in the service of Kaiser and country. At last the contradictions became too great for even Popper's deft hand to reconcile successfully, though he uncomplainingly sacrificed his remaining eyesight for the cause. But back in 1899-1900 when the cycle was only beginning, the flaws in this arrangement were not yet apparent. At right, the heart-shaped forward 24cm turret of the Habsburg, as seen from the foremast searchlight platform.

It is amusing to speculate about the outcome of a duel between the little Austrian ships and an Italian behemoth such as the Lepanto, with its 15-minute cycle between salvos and inadequate armor. But happily both fleets radiated "deterrance," and no such contest ever took place. In fact, even when the two nations went to war with fully developed fleets including dreadnoughts and pre-dreadnoughts, cruisers, destroyers, torpedo boats, subs, and aircraft, the tactic chosen was Sitzkrieg rather than all-out slaughter: a relaxed, Mediterranean approach to total war which was far kinder than the harsh measures forced by German occupation during WWII.

Having become obsolete, the Habsburgs were demobilized in 1910 and tweaked to become coast-defense vessels. They were rearmed and reconstituted as the IV Eskadre (4th Battle Squadron) in 1913-14. It was easy to judge their fighting value from this designation: the dreadnoughts were the First Squadron, the Radetzky semi-deadnoughts the Second, and the most recent pre-dreadnoughts of the Erzherzogklasse, the Third. To make them smaller targets, the Habsburg and Árpád were "razeed" -- cut down by a full deck in their midships superstructure -- during their 1912 refit; for no apparent reason (lack of funding?) the Babenberg did not get the same treatment, and retained her original silhouette throughout the War. During WWI, most of the Austro-Hungarian fleet was confined to port by a coal shortage after the initial months of war. Smaller patrol vessels and more powerful, more recent warships had priority in the allocation of coal, and the Habsburgs seldom budged from their moorings except for infrequent target practice and a few fleet maneuvers during the initial months of war, before the fuel shortage became acute.

As the Dual Monarchy disintegrated in 1918, the newly-crowned Emperor Karl deeded Habsburg and her sisters to the new government of the "South Slavs," precursor to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The obvious intent was to keep the fleet out of Italian hands, and secondarily to strengthen the hand of the Croats and other former Habsburg Empire citizens in dealing with outsiders (principally Italians). Despite the good intention, the attempt was stillborn as the Paris Peace Conference awarded the entire ex-Habsburg fleet to the Allies as war reparations. Though the warships might have had marginal value in Balkan politics, they were completely obsolete by First World standards. All the Habsburgklasse were given to the Allies, the name ship to Great Britain, and the rest to France; all went to the wreckers by 1923, along with the French vessels they had been built to counter. One imagines that many of the shipfitters who had been put out of a job since war's end, now found employment un-doing what they had so laboriously built up in the decades leading up to the Great War.

A Habsburg Class Picture Gallery

Painting of SMS HABSBURG at night

Battleships By Night: the Habsburg class ships make preparations to weigh for night maneuvers, in a dramatic reading by Alex Kircher. Colored lights take the place of signal flags by night. Clearly this is a peacetime mission, as every scuttle is blazing with light.

Pen-and-ink Drawing of SMS HABSBURG

Executed with his usual accuracy and authority, a drawing of the Habsburg by Aldo Cherini. This angle emphasizes the dense, compact look of the superstructure amidships, bursting with guns, smokestacks, davits, and hornlike ventilator cowls. For enlarged view, click here.

Action photo of the HABSBURG on an urgent mission
The name ship rushes off on an urgent mission.

Foredeck and 9.4-in turret on SMS BABENBERG
Foredeck and big guns on the Babenberg.

SMS ARPAD - profile view

Profile view of the Árpád, looking very much like an elevation plan. In order to jam so much armament onto a severely limited displacement, Popper had to build high, giving each ship the look of a seagoing castle with rounded towers, pierced with archery slits. In an attempt at modernization just before WWI, the midships "castle" was reduced by one deck. The Habsburg class was not involved in WWI combat, however.

Crew coaling ship on SMS BABENBERG
A fortnightly ordeal common to all steam era navies: Coaling ship on the Babenberg.
The men are standing on a bargeload of coal alongside the ship, whose sides rise parapet-like at left.

Quarter view of SMS BABENBERG

A rarely seen view from the stern quarter. This is the Babenberg, again looking very much like a lumbering castle gone to sea.

Pertinent Weblinks