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Third Italian War of Independence: Battle of Lissa

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Battle of Lissa - Conflict:

The Battle of Lissa was fought on July 20, 1866 during the Third War of Italian Independence.

Fleets & Commanders:

Italians

  • Count Carlo di Persano
  • 12 ironclads, 10 cruisers, 4 gunboats

Austrians

  • Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff
  • 7 ironclads, 1 ship-of-the-line, 6 cruisers, 12 gunboats

Battle of Lissa - Background:

Beginning in June 1866, the Third Italian War of Independence saw the newly unified state of Italy attack the Austrian Empire with the goal of recovering Venice. The Italians operated in conjunction with the Prussians who had opened the Austro-Prussian War days earlier. As the armies moved to engage, both nations' fleets deployed into the Adriatic Sea. Following the Prussian victory at Königgrätz on July 3, the commander of the Italian fleet, Count Carlo di Persano was instructed to secure territory on the eastern side of the Adriatic that could later be exchanged in peace negotiations.

Battle of Lissa - Preparing for Battle:

Steaming off Lissa (Vis), Persano elected to attack the island on July 18 and 19, 1866. Shelling shore positions, Persano's ships began to wear down the defenders. Alerted to Persano's position, Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff began moving towards Lissa with the Austrian fleet. Like the Italian fleet, Tegetthoff's squadron was a mix of modern ironclads and older, wooden warships. Early on July 20, Persano began preparing for another assault on Lissa as well as operations to land 2,200 men. As these operations were about to commence, Persano received reports of strange ships approaching.

Breaking off the landings, Persano gathered his fleet and took it to sea to meet the enemy. Forming into line ahead, Persano distributed his 12 ironclads throughout his formation, with the wooden warships filling the gaps. Bearing down on the Italians from the northwest, Tegetthoff formed his fleet into three wedges, with his 7 ironclads in the lead group. As his force was smaller than Persano's and had fewer ironclads and rifled guns, Tegetthoff hoped to close quickly and win a melee-style battle where his heavy guns and rams could make up for his lack of numbers.

Battle of Lissa - The Fleets Clash:

Having moved slowly after receiving the warnings of Tegetthoff's approach, Persano's fleet was still forming as the Austrians neared. This situation was worsened when Persano elected to transfer his flag from Re d'Italia to the turret ship Affondatore. This decision caused the Italian center to slow, opening a gap between it and the ships of the vanguard. Seeing this opening, Tegetthoff drove his ships into the gap, dividing the Italian fleet. Turning away from Rear Admiral Giuseppe Vacca's vanguard, Tegetthoff ordered his ironclads to engage the Italian center.

With the ironclads of the first wedge engaged, Commodore Anton von Petz took the wooden warships of the second wedge and attacked the Italian third division. Though battling modern ironclads, von Petz's ships held together and inflicted substantial damage. Seeing the battle devolve into a melee, Persano ordered Affondatore to ram Petz's flagship, the ship-of-the-line Kaiser. Alerted to Affondatore's approach, Petz was able to avoid the Italian ship. Following the flagship, Re di Portogallo attempted to ram Kaiser. Turning into Re di Portogallo, Kaiser took heavy damage, but remained afloat.

As Kaiser was fighting for survival, Tegetthoff's flagship, Erzherzog Ferdinand Max rammed Re d'Italia and Palestro. Striking both ships with glancing blows, Tegetthoff inflicted enough damage to sink Palestro. Returning to Re d'Italia, Erzherzog Ferdinand Max pounded the Italian ship with gunfire before ramming it. Opening an 18-foot hole, the ramming attack sent the Italian ship to the bottom. With the fighting beginning to wane, Affondatore was presented with a chance to ram the wounded Kaiser, however Persano elected to turn away and withdraw with his fleet.

Battle of Lissa - Aftermath:

The Battle of Lissa cost the Italians two ironclads, as well as 620 dead and 20 wounded. While the Austrian fleet was battered, all of their ships survived and casualties were 38 killed and 138 wounded. The fighting off Lissa marked the first time two fleets of ironclads did battle and was one of the last engagements where ramming was used effectively. Returning to port, Persano was ultimately court-martialed for cowardice and dismissed from the Regia Marina. While Austria was ultimately forced to cede Venice to Italy after its defeat by Prussia, Tegetthoff's actions prevented the loss of territory along the Dalmatian coast.

Selected Sources

  • Battle of Vis - 1866
  • The Austro-Prussian War and Third War of Italian Unification

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