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How Austria-Hungary’s Battleship Fleet Wasted Away (And Was Destroyed)

Austria-Hungary's Battleships
Image: Creative Commons.

Despite being de facto “allies” in the years leading up the First World War, Austria-Hungary and the Kingdom of Italy distrusted each other. The two nations had engaged in an ironclad arms race in the 1850s, and in from 1870 to 1914 were engaged in what is now seen as the Austro-Italian Naval Race. Overshadowed by the Anglo-German Naval Race, the naval competition in the Mediterranean was notable in the wasted resources employed by Vienna.

Seeking to counter the Kingdom of Italy’s growing naval superiority, which was really only a limited threat to the Dual Monarchy, Vienna authorized the construction of a new class of “all-big gun” dreadnoughts. The result was the Tegetthoff-class (also known as the Viribus Unitis-class). Based on the pre-dreadnought Radetzky-class battleships, but with far superior armament and layout, the battleships had increased firepower and greater range.

Displacing 20,000 tons, the four warships – which included the flagship SMS Viribus Unitis, as well as the SMS Tegetthoff, SMS Prinz Eugen, and SMS Szent István – were the first and only dreadnought battleship constructed for the Austro-Hungarian Navy. Each was armed with twelve 12-inch (305mm) guns in triple turrets, twelve 5.9-inch (150mm) guns in single casemates, eighteen 11 pounder guns in single mountings and four 21-inch (533mm) torpedo tubes.

The battleships were reasonably armored for the era, and the four warships each had a belt of six to 11 inches of armor, while the casemates had 4.7 inches of armor. The turrets were protected by two to 11 inches of armor, while the plating on the decks ranged from 1.2- to 2-inches. Speed and radius of the Tegetthoff-class was considered adequate for the Mediterranean, but inadequate underwater armor and lack of compartmentalization was to be an Achilles heel.

The first three of the Austro-Hungarian dreadnoughts were completed in record time before the outbreak of the war, while Szent István was commissioned into the fleet in December 1915. The former three were in service to take part in the Bombardment of Ancona, which involved the targeting of military and civilian targets in central Italy. Taking place just after Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary in late May 1915; it was about the only significant action the three warships were to take part in together.

Perhaps fearing their loss, the warships were kept as “fleet in being,” anchored in the well-protected port of Pola. As the most promising and experienced sailors were detached to serve onboard submarines and torpedo boats or were assigned to land-based units, most of the ships were manned mainly by reservists.

Only in June 1918, as part of an effort to provide a safer passage for German and Austro-Hungarian U-Boats through the Strait of Otranto were the warships finally deployed. However, it ended in a disaster as the Szent István was struck by an Italian torpedo in her boiler room. The ship took more than an hour to sink, but still 89 sailors were killed. Captain Heinrich Seitz was prepared to go down with his ship, but was saved after being thrown from the bridge when the battleship capsized.

Following the sinking of the fourth ship of the class, the other Tegetthoff-class dreadnoughts remained in port for the remainder of the war. In October 1918 the navy, like the monarchy, was dissolved. However, Emperor Charles I had ordered the transfer of the flagship Viribus Unitis to the newly formed State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs in order to avoid having to hand the ship over to the Allied Powers. Renamed Jugoslavija, tragically just a day later she was destroyed by an Italian mine during the raid on Pola.

Following the Armistice of Villa Guisti, which ended the war for Austria-Hungary, Prinz Eugen was ceded to the government of France, and was later used as a target ship. The lead vessel of the class, Tegtthoff was handed over to Italy and scrapped in 1924, marking the end of the Austro-Hungarian Navy.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.