Introduction


In June 1866 the war between Prussia and Austria broke out. Italy, being the Prussian ally, declared war on Austria and sent its army to Lombardy. However, despite being numerically stronger, the Italian army was defeated on June 24th and was forced to retreat. The situation was saved by the Prussian army, which defeated Austrians near Königgrätz (Sadova) on July 3rd.
The serious defeat of the Austrian army near Königgrätz and the information that Austria was prepared to negotiate a truce urged Italy to use its navy. The Italians wanted to capture certain territories on the eastern coast of Adriatic, which was controlled by Austria. These territories could then be used well in peace negotiations.
However, the commander of the Italian fleet, admiral Carlo Persano, did nothing with the fleet except cruising the sea on the geographical latitude of Vis, from July 9th till July 11th. Persano's passive behaviour was harshly criticized and the Supreme Command ordered him to undertake any kind of action which might be successful. Thus the idea of capturing Vis, the Gibraltar of Adriatic, as Persano called it, was born.


A map of Croatia, showing the position of Vis



Preparations for the Battle


The defense of Vis consisted of 1, 833 soldiers, several fortresses and coastal batteries (Wellington, Bentainks, Magnaremi, Nadpostranje) with a total of 88 guns. There was a surveillance unit on the hill Hum (585 metres high), which had a telegraph connection with mainland via the island Hvar.
The Italian fleet left Ancona in the afternoon of July 16th, and headed for Vis, without having a prepared plan of the operation.



The Italian Attack on Vis


Persano's fleet spent July 17th cruising near Vis, but not close enough to be seen by the defenders of the island. The only Italian ship that came very close to the island on that day was the reconnaissance ship Messaggero, which had the fleet's chief-of-staff on board and which was supposed to observe the locations of fortresses and batteries.
The following day the entire fleet approached the island and started attacking. Some ironclads were sent to the harbour of the island Hvar to cut the telegraph cable Vis - Hvar - Split. Reconnaissance ships were sent to the north-west.


A map of Vis

The main part of the fleet attacked Vis at 10 h 30 min on three different locations. The first squadron of ironclads, under the command of Giovanni Vacca, opened fire on Austrian batteries above Komiza. The second squadron, under the command of Persano himself, attacked the Vis harbour, while the third squadron of wooden frigates, under the command of Giovanni Battista Albini, was supposed to destroy the battery in Nadpostranje and carry out a landing in Rukavac bay.
The first artillery duels, however, have shown that the coastal batteries (especially the one above Komiza) were too high for Italian guns to reach. Thus the Italian squadrons attacking Komiza and Rukavac stopped attacking after several hours of futile bombardment, and joined the squadron which was successfully attacking the Vis harbour.


Admiral Carlo Persano

The following day (July 19th) the attack on the Vis harbour was started with the entire fleet. The Italians received reinforcements consisting of a modern turret ironclad Affondatore and several transport ships with soldiers. These ships have also taken part in the attack on the Vis harbour. Despite the fact that four ironclads managed to get into the harbour, the decisive attack was not carried out due to hesitation, strong wind and strong resistance of the defenders.




The Battle Begins


On the third day (July 20th) the position of the defenders of Vis was critical. Two thirds of guns were destroyed on the previous day, and in the early morning hours the Italians started making preparations for landing. At the moment when ironclads gathered in front of Vis harbour in order to make a decisive attack on the batteries, and the wooden ships were approaching Rogacic bay where 2, 200 men were supposed to disembark, the reconnaissance ship Esploratore reported sighting suspicious ships approaching from the north-west. As soon as Persano got this information he stopped the landing operation and started sailing towards the enemy.
After several telegraphic messages from Vis about the presence and actions of Italian fleet, the commander of Austrian fleet, admiral Wilhelm Teggetthoff, decided on July 19th that it was not a diversion aimed at luring the Austrian fleet away from northern Adriatic, but indeed a serious attack and an attempt of occupation of Vis. He acted quickly - the Austrian fleet leaves Fazana anchorage at 13 o'clock and heads for south.


Admiral Wilhelm Tegetthoff

The night before the battle caught Tegetthoff sailing towards Vis. A storm from west brought rain, wind and heavy seas which made sailing difficult, but in the morning the wind stopped and sea became calm. Around 9 o'clock lookouts on Austrian ships noticed the hills of Vis coming out of fog, and soon after that Italian ships scattered across the sea to the north of Vis.


Fleets Ironclads Guns aboard ironclads Large wooden ships Guns aboard large wooden ships Smaller wooden ships Guns aboard smaller wooden ships Total ships Total guns Sailors
Austrian 7 176 7 304 12 52 26 532 7,871
Italian 12 243 11 382 5 16 28 641 10,886

The Austrian fleet was sailing in the formation of a triple wedge. The first wedge consisted of seven ironclads, the second, 1000 metres behind the first one, consisted of six wooden frigates led by line-of-battle ship Kaiser, and the third, 1000 metres behind the second one, consisted of seven gunships. This was also a battle formation. At 10 hours 30 min, when the two fleets were very near, Tegetthoff, after ordering the increase of speed, issued, history would show, a crucial order: "Ironclads, sink the enemy by hitting it with your ram!". The wooden ships were ordered to support the ironclads. It is said that admiral Persano when he saw the enemy said "Here come the fishermen! (Ecco i pescatori!)", but that was far from his real opinion. Caught in the preparations of landing, with landing boats in the sea, he could at the beginning send only ten ironclads against Tegetthoff. The ironclad Formidabile, damaged during the attack on Vis harbour, was sailing towards Ancona; Terribile fell behind near Komiza, and the wooden ships were busy loading landing troops, boats and equipment. At the moment when the Austrian ships started attacking, Persano, while sailing in the line formation with three ironclads in every squadron, suddenly decided to change the admiral ship. He left Re d'Italia and boarded Affondatore which was out of the battle formation, just in order to be able to "intervene where it would be needed the most". By doing so, he caused confusion amongst his officers and disrupted the battle formation by making an empty space between the forward part and the centre of the formation. Admiral Tegetthoff noticed this and at 10 h 50 min the Austrian fleet breached the Italian battle formation.


The plan of the battle of Vis

Austrian ironclads then turned right and attacked the enemy centre. The wooden frigates of the second Austrian wedge, led by line-of-battle ship Kaiser, attacked the Italian rear, while the gunboats, after being attacked by the forward part of Italian formation, started sailing north, luring some Italian ships to follow them. Italian wooden frigates, under the command of Albini, did not participate in the battle. The battle was, in fact, divided into several smaller battles. The main battle was the one in the centre, where Tegetthoff gathered seven ironclads (against four Italian ironclads), thus creating a typical example of concentration of forces on the decisive part of the battlefield. Dense black smoke which covered the battlefield, as well as general confusion, were helping Tegetthoff realize his plan. The artillery fire was opened at random, as enemy ships would come out of a cloud of smoke, sometimes even at distances less than 50 metres.


Admiral Tegetthoff on the bridge of Ferdinand Max
during the battle of Vis

Most ships, especially the Austrian ones, tried to ram their enemy. Tegetthoff's ship Ferdinand Max was leading in these attempts. She, albeit under an unfavourable angle, rammed Italian ironclad Palestro in her stern with such force that the pole with the Italian flag fell from Palestro's stern on the bow of Ferdinand Max. After Tegetthoff had shouted "Who will get the flag?" a Croatian non-commissioned officer Nikola Karkovic ran towards the flag and grabbed it, despite being under heavy gunfire. It was the first trophy of the battle.


Tegetthoff's admiral ship - Ferdinand Max

At the same time Kaiser was under heavy fire of the rear of the Italian formation. The new admiral ship, Affondatore participated in these attacks from time to time. Kaiser managed to avoid being rammed by Affondatore on two occasions, and also managed to fire a broadside salvo from a short distance on Affondatore. Although Kaiser's guns were weaker than those on Affondatore and were not able to penetrate its armour, two dozen Kaiser's shells that hit Affondatore still caused considerable damage. However, after a duel with another Italian ironclad, Kaiser, ablaze and with demolished superstructure, had to retreat towards Vis harbour.


Affondatore

Re d'Italia was under heavy fire and Palestro tried to come to her aid. After being rammed by Ferdinand Max, Palestro soon suffered numerous hits. Fires were started and she had to limp out of the battle at nearly the same moment when Kaiser did the same. Two other Italian ships took her in tow, and boats were launched to take off the crew. Captain Capellini refused to abandon ship and his crew volunteered to stay and fight the fire.


Re d'Italia

In the meantime, the battle reached its climax. Re d'Italia's rudder was damaged and she was forced to stop. Admiral Tegetthoff took advantage of this and at 11 h 30 min, while sailing at top speed (11.5 knots), rammed Re d'Italia in her port side. The Italian ship sank in 3 minutes, taking 381 sailors with her. This made the ram of Tegetthoff's ship the most lethal weapon of the battle. All Persano's attempts to gather the remaining part of the fleet were to no avail. He was constantly raising signals such as: "The fleet should hunt the enemy, free manoeuvre, free sailing"; "Every ship that is not fighting is not in its position"; "Follow your commander in the line." However, many captains were not paying attention on his signals, because they were not even aware that Persano changed his admiral ship.


The sinking of Re d'Italia

Around 12 h 15 min the battle started abating. The Austrian ships gathered to the north of Vis harbour, sailing in three parallel lines. The Italian ships gathered to the west of Austrian ships, and were sailing in two lines. Sporadic artillery fire lasted until 14 o'clock, when the last salvos were fired. Half an hour later Italian ironclad Palestro sank due to explosion of ammunition storage, which was caused by fire which started during the battle, some three hours before. Only 19 men from 250 survived. During the afternoon neither side tried to continue the battle. Still numerically superior, but demoralized and without enough coal and ammunition, the Italians leave the waters of Vis at sundown and retreat to Ancona.



The Results of the Battle


Fleets Ships sunk Ships severely damaged Casualties
Italian 2 ironclads 1 ironclad 643 sailors
Austrian 0 1 line-of-battle ship 38 sailors

A few ironclads on both sides were lightly damaged, and it is believed that the sinking of Affondatore in Ancona harbour less then a month after the battle was partially caused by the damage sustained in the battle of Vis.


Kaiser after the battle of Vis - the forward mast has collapsed and the bow is demolished as a result of ramming enemy ships (such as Re del Portogallo)

The battle of Vis was the first battle of ironclads in history, and it influenced the development of marine tactics in the second half of XIX. century. However, too much attention was given to the tactic of ramming. Even several ships were built to be used especially for ramming. It has to be repeated once again that almost all attempts to ram during the battle were unsuccessful. The voice of sanity pointing out that any ship that was capable of moving could manoeuvre so that a ramming ship would miss or at best deliver only a glancing blow, was ignored. Later in the century, when guns became much more powerful, those who held that a ship approaching another with the intention of ramming would be destroyed were equally ignored. Thus the ram was built onto the bows of every battleship making them difficult to steer and reducing their speed.
The facts that the Italian fleet not only had more ships but also ships of better quality than the Austrian fleet were not of much importance in this battle. The Italians were badly led and untrained, which proved to be decisive not only in this battle, but also in the Italian defeats in the battles of World War I and World War II. The defeat in the battle of Vis Italians interpreted as a tragedy. Admiral Persano was stripped of his rank and dismissed from service.


Ferdinand Max after the battle of Vis

The Austrian fleet won this battle because of decisive actions without hesitation, battle plan that was worked out in detail, bravery and skill of crews and, above all, resolved and brave admiral Tegetthoff. It was often said that the battle of Vis was an example of what a fleet of wooden ships led by an iron admiral can do against a fleet of iron ships led by a wooden admiral. Indeed, the sailors on Austrian ships not only respected admiral Tegetthoff, but also liked him a lot. It is interesting to point out that out of 7,871 sailors on Austrian ships around 5,000 were Croats. They were mostly sailors, fishermen, people used to life near the sea and on ships. Their contribution to the victory is invaluable. One of the most famous Croatian sailors in that battle was certainly Marko Florio who was the captain of the wooden frigate Erzherzog Friedrich, which was in the second Austrian squadron. The captured Palestro's flag was cut into small pieces after the battle and those pieces were given to several persons. One of the pieces was in the Pula Navy Museum until 1918, when Italians looted it. It is said that the relatives of Nikola Karkovic still have a piece of that flag. The tradition of the battle of Vis existed for a long time on Croatian coast in the stories of sailors and in many folk-songs.


The Monument to the Dead, built on Vis shortly after the battle, 1866.


At the end, it has to be pointed out that the term Austria that was used in this text refers to Habsburg Empire which not only included Austria, but also Croatia, Hungary, Czech republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and several smaller territories which now belong to different states.





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