Austria-Hungary was never a great imperial power in the colonialist sense that the United Kingdom and France were. Indeed she never had any colonies, although she did flirt with the idea of acquiring some. She must therefore trail in behind Belgium and Denmark in the imperialist stakes. She did, however, have a coast line, and for this reason alone she found need of a navy to defend it.

The earliest Habsburg interest in the Adriatic arose in 1382 when the port of Triest placed itself under the protection of Duke Leopold II. Protection did not, however, extend to the provision of a navy. Acquisition of the Spanish Netherlands (roughly today’s Belgium) following the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1715) brought a second seaboard under Austrian influence. Still, however, Austria failed to found a navy, other than the creation of a Danube flotilla (the history of the navy on the Danube is covered below). It must be remembered that, unusually for a large country with a capital on a river (Vienna on the Danube) and a coastline (the Adriatic), there was no connection by water between the capital and the coast - the Danube flows into the Black Sea.

The building of a road between Vienna and Triest over the Semmering Pass by Kaiser Karl VI early in the eighteenth century focussed attention on Austria'a coastline signalled a revived Austrian interest in matters maritime and the founding of Austria’s first navy. By 1738, however, the interest had waned and the navy was disbanded, the crews being transferred to the Danube Flotilla.

Under Kaiser Joseph II a navy was re-established in 1786. Two cutters, La Ferme and Le Juste, were purchased from Ostend (still then in the Austrian Netherlands) and they were stationed in the Adriatic at Triest, the start of a one hundred and thirty-two year Austrian naval presence.

In 1797 the Treaty of Campo-Formio, signed with Napoleon Bonaparte, gave Venice to Austria and so Austria acquired a ‘Venetian Navy’ to add to its ‘Triest Navy’. Following Austria’s defeat by Napoleon in 1805, the Treaty of Pressburg placed the province of Venetia under French rule. After further defeats at the hands of Napoleon at Austerlitz and Wagram, Austria actually lost her Adriatic coastline. In May 1814 , however, Venetia was returned to Austrian rule and, under the terms of the Treaty of Vienna of 1815, Austria officially acquired the province, and with it the naval shipyards, docks and arsenal at Venice. Several vessels were added to the fleet but, as an economy measure, some were sold. It was in the subsequent period that the first major voyages were made - to Brazil, in connection with the marriage of Archduchess Leopoldine to Emperor Pedro I.

Clement notes that by 1833 the Navy had expanded to three ships-of-the-line, eight frigates, eight corvettes, twenty-five brigs and six fore-and-aft schooners.

From this period until the First World War the Austrian (from 1867 Austro-Hungarian) Navy took part in the following actions:

1840-41 Syria

Following the invasion of Syria by Egyptian troops under Ibrahim Pasha and the surrender of the Ottoman fleet at Alexandria the previous year, the United Kingdom, Austria, Prussia and Russia formed a military alliance against Egypt under the Treaty of London. A combined naval force under the British Admiral Stopford bombarded Beirut and landed troops. Austrian troops under Archduke Friedrich liberated the city of Saida and were instrumental in the fall of St Jean d’Acre. The fall of Saida, the biblical Sidon in today’s Lebanon, to Austrian forces accounts for the naming of three later ships Saida.

1848-49 Venice

1848 was a year of popular uprisings throughout Europe, and on 22 March the Republic of Venice, which had not existed since 1797, was once more established. Austrian forces were expelled and Vice Admiral von Martini, Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, was taken prisoner. As the majority of the sailors in the Austrian navy at this time were Italian, questions of loyalty arose. The Austrian authorities gave them the option of being freed from their oath of loyalty, and over eighty per cent chose to be released. The Austrians were not able to retake Venice and its naval dockyard, and in August 1849 the Venetians succumbed to the blockade the Austrians had enforced and surrendered. The following year the main base was moved from Venice to Pola, and in 1853 German replaced Italian as the navy’s service language.

1864 Denmark

Following a dispute with Denmark regarding the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, Prussia and Austria occupied them. The Austrian navy was the only effective naval force that could take action against the Danes, but ships had to be moved from the Adriatic to the North Sea. Their presence in the North Sea was resented by the British, and the gunboat Seehund ran aground, allegedly as the result of deliberate action by her English pilot, when entering Ramsgate to refuel. Under Commodore Tegetthoff, the Austrian fleet, together with Prussian ships, distinguished itself in a battle off Heligoland on 9 May 1864. This action was the last sea battle ever between wooden squadrons. Again, the successful action was commemorated in a ship’s name, Helgoland.

In August 1864 Denmark surrendered Schleswig and Holstein jointly to Prussia and Austria, but, less than two years later, Prussia and Austria were themselves at war, and Schleswig joined Holstein under Prussian rule.

1866 Italy

In this year Prussia and Austria fought the disastrous Seven Weeks War which led to Austria’s loss of Schleswig. In the Adriatic this war meant confrontation for Austria with the Italian navy and another place in naval history. On 20 July 1886 the first battle between armoured fleets in open waters took place. The Battle of Lissa, with the Austrian navy under the command of the newly promoted Rear Admiral von Tegetthoff, was one of very few Austrian successes in this war and arguably the Kriegsmarine’s finest hour. The Italian fleet of ten ironclads was defeated after the Austrians, whose fleet included only six ironclads, used Tegetthoff’s daring tactic of ramming larger enemy vessels amidships. Italy was deeply embarrassed by losing the battle to an inferior force, and the two Italian Admirals involved in the battle were dismissed from the service.

1897-98 Crete

Crete was the site of a rebellion against Ottoman rule and an assertion of ‘Greekness’. A multi-national force was sent in a way similar to today’s deployment of United Nations forces. Broadly speaking, the Allies were prepared to prop up the ailing Ottoman empire and yet were not prepared to see the Turks suppress the mainly Greek Cretans in a merciless manner. Crete remained in an anomalous position until finally ceded to Greece in 1913.

1900-01 China

The Boxer uprising of 1900 against the foreign traders in China and their privileged position similarly elicited an international response. Austria-Hungary had the cruiser Zenta on the China station and she was joined by the cruisers Kaiserin und Königin Maria Theresia, Kaiserin Elisabeth and Aspern plus two training ships. Henceforward a cruiser was maintained permanently on the China station and a detachment of marines was deployed at the embassy in Peking.

1913 Montenegro

During the first Balkan War Austria-Hungary joined Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy in blockading Montenegro.

During peace time Austrian ships visited the Far East, North and South America and the Pacific Ocean. During Ferdinand Max’s (Maximilian’s) ill-fated spell on the Mexican throne, they visited that country. Ships were also involved in Arctic exploration, discovering Franz Josef Land. Although now Russian and named Lomonssov, it is still named Franz Josef Land by atlas-makers throughout Europe. The navy was in many respects a white-water navy, but clearly had blue-water capability.



Even the most simple analysis of how the First World War came to break out would conclude that the domino effect of the treaties between the major powers made major confrontation the inevitable consequence of a declaration of war between virtually any two European countries. It is not without significance that the two who actually found themselves as the opening protagonists were Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Since Serbia had first re-emerged as a state in 1830, there was a tension as the two countries vied for influence in the Balkans. In 1878 the Congress of Berlin had allowed Austria to gain control of Bosnia-Herzegovina as the Ottoman Empire withdrew a further step from Europe. Serbia would have wished to see the provinces become part of a Greater Serbia since many of the inhabitants were Serbs. In 1908 Austria-Hungary formally annexed the two provinces, causing so much diplomatic activity that the faint-hearted might have expected the whole of Europe to become embroiled in an enormous war. Serbia however did not have sufficient support from Russia to be able to take any effective action, and so the only outcome was yet another increase in resentment felt for the Dual Monarchy by Serb Nationalists. Their day was yet to come.

On 28 July 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of Kaiser Franz Josef and his heir, was visiting Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. Although the Austrians obviously saw this as a reasonably safe visit to make, it resulted in his assassination and that of his wife, at the hands of Bosnian Serb nationalists. It is important to note that they were not in fact Serb nationals, but that this distinction was of no significance to the Austrian government, who laid the blame for the assassination squarely on the Serbian government. A modern analogy might be for the British government to blame the government in Dublin for an outrage committed by Irish Americans.

Kaiser Franz Josef, who had lived to see his brother executed, his son commit suicide, his wife assassinated and now his nephew assassinated, was persuaded by his advisors to settle the problem of Serb nationalism once and for all by a military solution. A completely unreasonable ultimatum was delivered to the Serbs, and so began the descent of Europe and subsequently the rest of the world into four years of war.

The Kriegsmarine was involved from the very beginning. SMS Viribus Unitis brought the bodies of Franz Ferdinand and his wife back to Triest on their journey to Vienna. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was a particular blow to the navy as he championed their cause at court - Kaiser Franz Josef consistently showed marked indifference to the navy and is never once recorded as even having worn a naval uniform. Within a month of this sad journey, monitors of the Danube Flotilla would fire the first shots of what the naïve might predict would be the Third Balkan War, but which would all too quickly be known as the Great War.

To understand the position the Austrian navy found itself in it is necessary to look back to the way in which it had developed and the level of commitment shown to it. Historically it had always been the poor relation of the Army. Indeed, until 1862 it had been part of the Army. In that year it achieved autonomy as the Marine Ministry under its Commander-in-Chief Archduke Ferdinand Max, but his departure for Mexico in 1864 signalled a further change: the navy came under the direction of the Marine Section of the War Ministry.

In 1867, following the Ausgleich and the establishment of the Dual Monarchy, it became the Imperial-Royal Austro-Hungarian Navy - die kk Kriegsmarine. This was technically wrong as these designations were more properly reserved for Austrian rather than Austro-Hungarian bodies. It was not until 1889 that the name was changed to the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Navy - die kuk Kriegsmarine. This distinction may seem pedantic, but it was as important to a Hungarian as it is for Scots to distinguish between English and British. Doubtless Hungarians felt, at least initially, little sense of ‘ownership’ and this would explain their reluctance to vote funds for the naval budget. Within the Dual Monarchy foreign affairs and the major issues of defence were dealt with jointly by the Delegations, nominees of the two parliaments Vienna and Budapest. The Hungarians were always more concerned with Hungarian issues than external relations, and so they often chose to squeeze the budget voted to the armed forces and the navy in particular. In consequence, Austria-Hungary’s navy was proportionately smaller than her army, and her ships did not compare with those of her fellow major powers, such as the United Kingdom, Germany or France.

The influence of the Hungarian delegates also influenced the placing of construction contracts, and the Hungarian shipyards at Fiume built ships in spite of limited skill and experience.

To be fair, in the two decades leading up to 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Navy had begun to assume a distinctly modern look and the first of two classes of dreadnoughts was almost complete as war broke out. Vice Admiral Rudolf Graf Montecuccoli held control of the navy from 1904 until his retirement in 1913. He was a career sailor who had fought in the Battle of Lissa and had served on the China station during the Boxer Uprising. His successor was Admiral Anton Haus.

Montecuccoli had family roots in both Austria and Italy, and it is important to appreciate one unique feature of the Austro-Hungarian Navy, its multi-ethnic, multi-lingual composition. Kemp records the composition of non-commissioned naval personnel in 1914 thus:

Croats and Slovenes












Czechs, Slovaks and Ruthenes



Poles and Romanians



Figures in brackets are for the general population of the Empire taken from the 1910 census. Not surprisingly the nationalities with homes around the Adriatic are over-represented and those from deep within the continental land mass are under-represented. What is perhaps surprising is that Italians made up approximately a seventh of the navy whereas they constituted only a twentieth of the general population. As the main enemy would prove to be Italy, this was more than just an interesting statistic. Officers were drawn more clearly from the German-Austrian lands and had to be competent linguists, proficient in at least four languages. Although German was the official language, and use of German enabled the efficient operation of a ship, most ships would have multi-lingual crews. The reason for this was that there was a correlation between nationality and job. Stokers tended to be Slovene, for example, whereas German-Austrians and Czechs tended to serve in the mechanical and electrical services.

The Navy was not, as might have been expected, a hot bed of nationalism. Like most Habsburg entities it somehow managed to function in spite of its multi-ethnic composition. Although nationalism began to emerge more openly as the war progressed, especially amongst the civilian population, it was not until the naval rebellion at Cattaro in February 1918 that nationalism began to plague the navy.

Officers could join the navy in one of two ways. Roughly half were graduates of the Naval Academy at Fiume. They then served as Kadet on a ship for approximately two years, before progressing to Leutnant by examination. On the other hand, those potential officers who had attended a civilian high school joined the Kriegsmarine as Aspirant for basic training in school ships. They then followed the same programme as Academy graduates. Engineering training was provided at a school in Sebenico

Shortly after Montecuccoli became Commander-in-Chief, a major review of naval resources was undertaken. What was most obvious was that the navy could only function effectively in a coastal defence role. The two main classes of battleship were the Monarch class and the Habsburg class, but their small displacement (all under 9,000 tons) made their designation as battleships debatable. The next and larger class, the Erzherzogs, appeared during the period June 1906 to December 1907, but they were still only slightly over 10,000 tons and not a match for their rivals in a battle.

In 1914 the ‘Great Powers’ had the following numbers of torpedo boats:







United Kingdom






although Austria-Hungary’s navy looked more impressive when only vessels of more than 100 tons were counted:











The next logical step for the Kriegsmarine to take would be the building of significantly larger ships. The appearance of HMS Dreadnought had moved naval architecture up a gear, and the threat of war in 1908 following the formal annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovnia mitigated towards taking such a step. In 1910 the first of three Radetzky class semi-dreadnoughts was launched with a displacement of just over 14,000 tons. The offensive capability that full dreadnoughts would give the Kriegsmarine would almost be a lucky bonus that went with inevitable growth. The inevitability, however, with which the Kriegsmarine might view the building of dreadnoughts was not shared by those who had the power to approve or not the purchase of such ships.

The first two dreadnoughts were actually laid down in July 1909 in the yards of STT in Triest even though authorisation for the purchase had not yet been granted. Approval was finally given for four dreadnoughts, but the Hungarian Delegation insisted that one be built in a Hungarian shipyard - that of Danubius in Fiume.

The first of those being built by STT was launched in June 1911, the Viribus Unitis, and the second, the Tegetthoff, in March 1912. They entered service in December 1912 and July 1913 respectively. The launching of the Viribus Unitis liberated a slip on which the keel of the third ship, the Prinz Eugen, could be laid. She entered service in July 1914, a matter of days before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. The building of the fourth member of the class, the Szent Istvan, proved problematic. At first Danubius lacked the facilities to build a ship of such a size, and it was not until January 1912 that work finally began, eleven months after approval had been given. She was not launched until January 1914 and had not been completed by the outbreak of war in the following July. As the Hungarian harbour of Fiume was unprotected, she was towed to Pola for completion, and finally entered service in December 1915.

Although the appearance of the dreadnoughts was the most obvious evidence of the increasing might of the Kriegsmarine, there were others. In the five years leading up to the outbreak of war, five destroyers/torpedo vessels had entered service and six of the Tatra class had been laid down. Twelve smaller coastal torpedo ships had entered service and delivery had begun of a class of eight high seas torpedo vessels. In May 1914 approval had been given for the first two of an Improved Tegetthoff class of dreadnoughts, although work was never actually started. They would have had a displacement of 24,000 tons. Other designs were under consideration during the war and, had the outcome been different, the post-war Austria-Hungary would have had a formidable navy.

The Triple Alliance which had been signed with Germany and Italy would have led the Austrians to expect that they would line up their twelve battleships with Italy’s nine against France’s eighteen. To assist would be the German Mediterranean Division, which consisted of the new and very fast battle cruiser Goeben and the fast light cruiser Breslau. This would have given the Triple Alliance Forces the advantage in the Mediterranean. The British commitment to support the French was restricted to battle cruisers, but this tipped the balance in favour of the Allies. What was to prove decisive in determining the balance of Mediterranean naval power, however, was Italy’s decision, as war broke out around her, to remain neutral. This tipping of the balance against Austria-Hungary has a most decisive effect, and meant that for the vast majority of the war the larger ships of the Austro-Hungarian navy would be reluctant to leave port. The shape of the naval war would be determined rather more by the actions of torpedo boats and submarines.

Why Italy remained neutral as war broke out is not clear. Ostensibly it was because the Austrian attack on Serbia was not a defensive action and so technically the conditions of the Triple Alliance were not invoked. A more likely reason was the deep-seated rivalry between Austria-Hungary and Italy. Italy wanted the Italian speaking parts of the Habsburg empire, especially Triest. She wanted the Dalmatian coast and she wanted to be mistress of the Adriatic. The nationalism of the age must be remembered and modern comparisons are invalid. Although South Tyrol has been under Italian rule since 1918, its return to Austria is on few if any political agendas, but the reverse sitution of 1914 with Austria ‘occupying’ Italian territory was much less acceptable.

As well as dramatically tipping the balance against Austria-Hungary, the Italian decision to remain neutral had two further effects on any future naval activity in the Adriatic. Since Austria stretched only as far as Cattaro on the eastern shore of the Adriatic, she did not have free access to the main part of the Mediterranean if Italy chose to deny it to her. Would Italy remain neutral. Austria-Hungary feared that she would not, in which case the power struggle would change from being Austria-Hungary versus the overwhealming forces of France and the United Kingdom - a pointless and totally one-sided confrontation - to Austria-Hungary versus Italy - a local derby and a grudge match to boot!

Italy was in no hurry to make her plans clear initially - would she be neutral or would she change sides and join the allies? Germany and Austria-Hungary sensed in Italy’s delay the distinct possibility that the Triple Aliance might well collapse into a Dual Alliance.



The German Goeben had been in dock at Pola in early July 1914, but put to sea as war seemed imminent, making ready to attack French shipping. By 2 August, when Italy formally and finally declared her neutrality, the Goeben and the Breslau were in position to shell the Algerian coast. The German High Command then ordered them to make for Constantinople, but they did not have enough coal to do this. Italy would only allow them to put into an Italian port (Messina) for twenty-four hours, which was insufficient to refuel properly. As the Allies would almost certainly know of their presence in Messina, the Ulan and the Tatra were dispatched from Pola to assist. The German ships made a succesful dash to Constantinople and the Austrian ships returned to port. Turkey did not enter the war until 29 October, and to mollify the Allies the charade of Turkey ‘purchasing’ the two ships was enacted. For the record, the following declarations of war were made:

28 July 1914

Austria against Serbia

5 August 1914

Austria against Russia; Montenegro against Austria

10 August 1914

France against Austria

12 August 1914

United Kingdom against Austria

25 August 1914

Japan on Austria

29 October 1914

Turkey declares war against the Allies (but secret alliance concluded with Germany on 2 August 1914)

23 May 1915

Italy joins the war against Austria (following secret Treaty of London with the Allies on 26 April 15)

14 October 1915

Bulgaria against Serbia (secret treaty with the Central Powers on 17 July 1915)

6 December 1915

Albania declares for the Allies

27 August 1916

Romania against Austria

28 August 1916

Italy against Germany (German U-Boots operating out of Pola had been attacking Italian shipping since Summer 1915)

2 July 1917

Greece against the Central Powers

7 December 1917

United States of America against Austria

For Austria-Hungary, the naval priority was clearly coastal defence. Taking on the French and/or British fleets would have been folly, and even what the coast that Austria held was far from secure. The advanced naval base at Cattaro was actually within range of Montenegrin, and from the first months of the war French, artillery on Mount Levcen.