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Battle of Lissa
Part of the Third Italian War of Independence
Die Seeschlacht bei Lissa.jpg
The Sea Battle of Lissa by Carl Frederik Sørensen, 1868.
DateJuly 20, 1866
LocationAdriatic Sea, near island of Vis (Lissa), present-day Croatia
Result Austrian victory
Italy Kingdom of Italy  Austrian Empire
Commanders and leaders
Italy Carlo di Persano Austrian Empire Wilhelm von Tegetthoff
12 ironclads
10 cruisers
4 gunboats
(approx 68,000 tons)
7 ironclads
1 steam two-decker
6 cruisers
12 gunboats
(approx 50,000 tons)
Casualties and losses
2 ironclads sunk
620 dead
40 wounded[1]
38 dead
138 wounded[1]

The Battle of Lissa (sometimes called Battle of Vis) took place on 20 July 1866 in the Adriatic Sea near the Dalmatian island of Lissa ("Vis" in Croatian) and was a decisive victory for an outnumbered Austrian Empire force over a numerically superior Italian force. It was the first major sea battle between ironclads and one of the last to involve deliberate ramming.

The Italian navy fired roughly 1450 shots during the engagement, but failed to do any serious damage to any Austrian ship while losing two battleships. One of the main reasons for this poor performance was internal rivalry between the Italian fleet commanders: for example, Italian Vice Admiral Albini, with his group of ships, did not participate in the battle.[2] The engagement was made up of several small battles: the main battle was between seven Austrian and four Italian ironclads and showed the ability of Austrian commander Tegetthoff to divide his more numerous opponents and then destroy the isolated ironclads.

Historical situation

The battle occurred as part of the Third Italian Independence War, in which Italy allied with Prussia in the course of the conflict against Austria. The major Italian objective was to capture Venice and at least part of the former Venetian territory from Austria.

The fleets were composed of a mix of unarmoured sailing ships with steam engines, and armoured ironclads also combining sails and steam engines. The Italian fleet of 12 ironclads and 17 unarmoured ships outnumbered the Austrian fleet of 7 and 11 respectively. The Austrians were also severely outmatched in rifled guns (276 to 121) and total weight of metal (53,236 tons to 23,538 tons).[3] A single turret ship took part in the action — the Italian Affondatore.

Piedmontese Count Carlo di Persano (60 years old) commanded the Italian fleet, while the Austrian fleet was commanded by Konteradmiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff (39 years old).

The Fort of Lissa was put under the authority of the Oberst David Urs de Margina, Romanian of Transylvania.

Plans for the battle

The Italian fleet under Persano was divided into 3 divisions: Persano commanded the main battle force with 9 ironclads; his deputy, Albini, commanded a "support" division (engaged mainly in landings); and Admiral Vacca commanded a third "reserve" division with minor wooden ships.

The attacking Austrian fleet was also split into 3 divisions. The 1st Division consisted of the armoured ships, while the 2nd consisted of the powerful but obsolete unarmoured wooden ship of the line Kaiser and 5 frigates. The 3rd Division consisted of the smaller screw gunboats and armed merchantmen. The armed merchant cruiser Stadion was ahead of the fleet acting as a scout.

The three Austrian divisions were formed up into three consecutive arrowhead or "V" formations; the armoured 1st division under Tegetthoff was in the van, the weaker gunboats and paddle steamers of the 3rd division to the rear, while the powerful but unarmoured vessels of Kommodor Petz's 2nd division were in the centre.

The Austrian plan, due to their weaker firepower, was to close quickly into a melée, and to use close range fire and ramming to sink a small portion of the Italian fleet, thereby breaking the Italian will to fight.

The Italians, despite their numerical superiority, were not prepared for battle. They were busy preparing for landings on the island of Vis (Lissa) when the news that the Austrian fleet was at sea and seeking battle reached them. Persano cancelled the landings, ordered the fleet into line abreast but having second thoughts, cancelled that order (creating confusion among the Italian commanders) and ordered the fleet into 3 divisions in a line ahead formation, the same formation as at battles in the age of sail.

The 1st division in the vanguard consisted of Principe di Carignano, Castelfidardo and Ancona under Admiral Vacca, Captain 1st Class Faà di Bruno's 2nd division in the centre consisted of Re d'Italia, Palestro and San Martino, and the 3rd division to the rear had the Re di Portogallo, Regina Maria Pia and, at the extreme rear, Varese under Captain Augusto Riboty. In total, the Italians had 11 ironclads in the battle line. The other (wooden) ships were dispersed into the battleline. The exception was Affondatore, which was on the far side of the 2nd squadron and out of the battleline. Persano may have intended this to be an uncommitted reserve.

Before the battle Persano caused more confusion by deciding to transfer his flag to the Affondatore and the 2nd and 3rd Divisions slowed to allow Re d'Italia to lower her boats. However the signal to slow down never reached the 1st Division and they continued to steam on, allowing a gap to open in the Italian battle line. To compound the error Persano never signaled the change of flag, and throughout the action the Italians continued to look to the old flagship Re d'Italia for orders rather than Affondatore.


Initial situation of the battle.

In the Austrian fleet there was enthusiasm but also fear, because the Italian fleet was bigger: 12 ironclads and 19 wooden ships with 641 guns, while the Austrians had only 7 ironclads and 20 wooden ships with 532 guns....When the engagement began, the Italian division Vacca was on a long circuit of the north of Lissa, and so was at first away from the battle. And it is curious that the Albini ships with their 398 guns, though ordered by Persano to do so, did not fire a single shot all through the battle.[4]

Having ignored warnings from his pickets of suspicious ships in sight, Persano had effectively allowed the Austrians to ambush his force while it was still forming. Tegetthoff, seeing a gap opening between the 1st and 2nd Divisions, forced his fleet into it and concentrated on raking the Italians and ramming. This meant that he allowed his T to be crossed. While the Austrians were approaching, Vacca's 1st Italian Division threw a heavy weight of fire at them. The Austrians could only reply with their chase guns. Because Persano was in the process of transferring his flag, no general order was given. The 2nd and 3rd Divisions did not join in and the Austrians crossed the killing area, suffering some serious damage but no ships were lost. Drache on the extreme right (starboard) wing of the Austrian 1st Division was hit 17 times by heavy shells, losing her mainmast and temporarily losing propulsion. Her captain, von Moll, was decapitated by a heavy shell, but his subordinate, Karl Weyprecht, brought the ship back into the fight.

By 10:43 am the Austrians had brought the Italian van to close action. Habsburg, Salamander and Kaiser Max on the Austrian's left wing had engaged the Italian 1st Division, while the right wing of Don Juan d'Austria, Drache and Prinz Eugen engaged the Italian 2nd Division. Persano, now on the most powerful warship in either fleet, Affondatore, stayed clear of the engagement.

With the confusion in the Italian van, Kommodor von Petz took the opportunity to take his 2nd Division to the Italian rear and fall on their 3rd Division. The unarmoured wooden ships of the Austrian 2nd Division were facing modern ironclads armed with heavy guns, yet despite suffering heavy fire they held together. The screw frigate Novara was hit 47 times, and her captain, Erik af Klint, was killed. Erzherzog Friedrich was hit by a heavy shell below the waterline but still remained afloat, while Schwarzenburg was disabled by heavy Italian fire and set adrift.

Ramming attacks

Seeing things going badly, Persano found the courage to throw himself into battle, deciding to ram the unarmoured screw battleship Kaiser rather than one of the armoured ships engaged with the Italian 2nd Division much nearer him. However, Kaiser managed to dodge Affondatore. Taking heart from his admiral, the captain of Re di Portogallo decided to hurl his ship at Kaiser, maintaining a heavy fire with her rifled guns as he did so. At the last moment, von Petz turned the tables on her and turned into the ram, in effect conducting a counter ram. The impact tore off Kaiser's stem and bowsprit, leaving her figurehead embedded in Re di Portogallo. The Italian used the opportunity to rake Kaiser with fire, putting her mainmast and funnel into the sea. The smoke was so great that as they backed off for another ram they lost sight of each other and ended the duel.

Tegetthoff (centre) at the Battle of Lissa, painting by Anton Romako.

At roughly the same time, Tegetthoff threw his flagship Erzherzog Ferdinand Max (commanded by Maximilian Daublebsky von Sterneck) at first at the former Italian flagship, Re d'Italia, and then at Palestro. In both cases he scored only glancing blows, but these caused serious damage, especially to Palestro, which was dismasted and set afire.

Palestro's captain, Cappellini, told his men that they could abandon ship but he would stay, and pulled his ship out of the line. His crew refused to leave their Captain and Palestro finally blew up and sank at 2.30pm, with only 19 survivors out of the ship's complement of 230.

Meanwhile Erzherzog Ferdinand Max was circling Faà di Bruno's Re d'Italia, pouring on fire before surging forward and achieving a good impact with her ram, aided by the Italian ship having reversed her screws (in a poorly thought-out attempt to avoid crossing the Austrian's bows) at the crucial moment. This put an 18 foot hole below the Italians' waterline, and the Italian ship struck her colours and sank two minutes later. According to legend, her Captain shot himself after giving the order to strike the colours.

As the Erzherzog Ferdinand Max limped away, damaged after conducting three ramming attacks, the Ancona closed on her attempting to ram. The Italian gunners got a full broadside off at point blank range, but while they had remembered the gunpowder, in the excitement they had forgotten to load the shot.

After his encounter with Re di Portogallo earlier in the battle and having fought his way clear of Maria Pia, Kommodor von Petz's Kaiser found itself at close range with Affondatore. Despite being a perfect target for a ram, Kaiser survived when Persano ordered Affondatore to turn away.

Tegetthoff's victory was saluted by his mariners - mainly Croats and a few Venetian - with the traditional Venetian cry of victory: "Viva San Marco!" ("Hurrah with Saint Mark!"). In fact, Tegetthoff had his naval training in Venice and was a fluent speaker of Venetian, the most used language in the fleet. During the battle he gave his orders in that language. The official name of the imperial navy had been Oesterreich-Venezianische Marine (Austrian-Venetian Navy) until 1849.[5] Of the 7,871 sailors on the Austrian ships, around 5,000 were Croats.[6]

Members of the crew coming from Italian families of Venetia, Istria and Dalmatia gave no signs of irredentism,[7] and national hero Giuseppe Garibaldi became very angry when he understood that some Venetian people had shown no desire to become part of the Italian state.[8] Later he admitted those crew members were bound to their military orders and duty.

In Italy, the outrage over the loss of two ironclads was huge and Persano after the battle was forced to resign with dishonor, together with Albini (whose ships only participated in landings and never fired a shot against the Austrian ships).


Lua error in Module:Location_map at line 510: Unable to find the specified location map definition: "Module:Location map/data/Croatia" does not exist. Kaiser's encounter with Affondatore was the last major action of the battle. With two armoured ships sunk, the Italians withdrew, although there would be some exchange of long range fire for several hours. Incidentally, this was the first and last time Affondatore saw action until her scrapping in 1907.

Persano returned and announced a victory, causing much initial celebration until the real outcome of the battle was publicized. He was forced to appear in front of the Italian Senate, which had the power to prosecute its members (such as Persano), and was dismissed from the navy for incapacity and alleged cowardice.[9]

Tegetthoff returned home a hero, was promoted Vizeadmiral, and is considered one of the greatest naval commanders in Austrian history.

The engagement had no impact on the outcome of the war, as the Italian defeat was overshadowed by the crushing Prussian victory over the Austrian Army at Königgrätz. Austria, humbled by Prussia and bullied by Napoleon III of France, agreed to cede Venetia to Italy despite the overall failure of the Italian war effort. The French Emperor's ironic comment about Italian leaders became historic: "Another defeat, and they will ask me for Paris!"[citation needed] However, Tegetthoff's efforts were instrumental in preventing the Italians from annexing some of the Dalmatian islands, which were once part of the Republic of Venice.

The importance of ramming in the battle led to naval designers, over the next 50 years, equipping future warships (especially battleships and cruisers) with ram bows. This aggravated a number of incidents of ships being sunk by their squadron-mates in accidental collisions. Ramming never featured as a viable battle tactic again. The fixation on ramming may also have inhibited the development of gunnery.[citation needed]

Modern commentators now take the view that Lissa occurred during a period of weapons development when armour was considerably stronger than the guns available to defeat it. This was compounded, on the Italian side, by poor gunnery and, on the Austrian side, by the fact that a number of their ships (including Ferdinand Max) had been forced to go into battle without their full armament owing to the Prussian embargo.

Kaiser, remarkably, reported herself fit for action the morning after the battle. She was converted into an ironclad in 1869-1873 and remained in commission until she was renamed Bellona and hulked in 1902. Her feat in willingly engaging four ironclads at short range while an unarmored, wooden ship appears to be unprecedented and was never emulated.[citation needed]

Order of battle

Note: Awaiting confirmation of some details and the names of all the Italian gunboats. Vessels are ranked by fighting power (most powerful first).

Austrian Empire

1st Division — Armoured ships

  • Erzherzog Ferdinand Max (fleet flag, 2nd class armoured frigate, launched 1865, 5130t, 16-48pdr SB, 4-8pdr SB, 2-3pdr SB. 123 mm iron belt over the battery, 12.5kts)
  • Habsburg (launched 1865, as Erzherzog Ferdinand Max)
  • Kaiser Max (3rd class armoured frigate, launched 1862, 3588t, 16-48pdr SB, 1-12pdr SB, 1-6pdr SB, 15-24pdr ML rifles. 110 mm iron belt, 11.4kts)
  • Don Juan d'Austria (launched 1862, as Kaiser Max)
  • Prinz Eugen (launched 1862, as Kaiser Max)
  • Drache (armoured corvette, launched 1861, 2750t, 10-48pdr SB, 18-24pdr MLR, 1-8pdr SB, 1-4pdr SB landing gun, 115 mm iron belt, 11kts)
  • Salamander (launched 1861, as Drache)

2nd Division — Wooden steam warships

  • Kaiser (squadron flag, 2-decker screw ship of the line, launched 1858,[10] 5811t, 2-24pdr ML rifles, 16-40pdr SB, 74-30pdr SB, wooden and unarmoured, 11.5kts)
  • Novara (screw frigate, launched 1850, 2615t, 4-60pdr shell, 28-30pdr SB, 2-24pdr BL rifles, 1-12pdr landing gun, 1-6pdr landing gun, 12kts)
  • Schwarzenburg (screw frigate, launched 1853, 2614t, 6-60pdr Paixhans shell guns, 26-30pdr Type 2 ML, 14-30pdr Type 4 ML, 4-24pdr BL rifles, 11kts)
  • Radetzky (screw frigate, launched 1854, 2234t, 6-60pdr Paixhans shell guns, 40-24pdr SB, 4-24pdr BL rifles, 9kts)
  • Donau (launched 1856, 2165t, otherwise as Radetzky)
  • Adria (launched 1856, 2165t, otherwise as Radetzky)
  • Erzherzog Friedrich (screw corvette, launched 1857, 1697t, 4-60pdr Paixhans shell guns, 16-30pdr SB, 2-24pdr BL rifles, 9kts)

3rd Division — Minor craft

  • Narenta (screw gunboat, 2-48pdr SB, 2-24pdr BL rifles)
  • Kerka (as Narenta)
  • Hum (2nd class gunboat, 2-48pdr SB, 2-24pdr BL rifles, 11?kts)
  • Vellebich (as Hum)
  • Dalmat (as Hum)
  • Seehund (2nd class gunboat, 2-48pdr SB, 2-24pdr BL rifles, 11kts)
  • Wal (as Seehund)
  • Streiter (as Seehund)
  • Reka (as Seehund)
  • Andreas Hofer (screw tender, 3-30pdr SB)
  • Kaiserin Elizabeth (sidewheeler steamer (radaviso), launched 1854, 4-12pdr SB)
  • Greif (sidewheel steamer, 2-12pdr SB)
  • Stadion (unarmed merchant steamer. Employed as a scout and was in the Van)

Kingdom of Italy

Armoured ships

  • Affondatore (fleet flag, ironclad turret ram, launched 1865, 4006t, 2-9in 100pdr Armstrong SB (2x1), 5in iron on belt and turrets, 12kts)
  • Re d'Italia (squadron flag, 2nd class armoured frigate {broadside ironclad}, launched 1863, 5610t, 6-72pdr SB shell, 32–164 mm breechloading rifles, 4.5in iron belt, 10.5kts)
  • Re di Portogallo (launched 1863, as Re d'Italia except 2-10in shell, 26–164 mm rifles)
  • Regina Maria Pia (2nd class armoured frigate {broadside ironclad}, launched 1863, 4201t, 4-72pdr SB shell, 22–164 mm breechloading rifles, 4.3in iron belt, 12kts)
  • San Martino (launched 1863, as Regina Maria Pia)
  • Castelfidardo (launched 1863, as Regina Maria Pia)
  • Ancona (launched 1864, as Regina Maria Pia)
  • Principe di Carignano (3rd class armoured frigate {broadside ironclad}, launched 1865, 3446t, 10-72pdr 8in SB shell, 12–164 mm breechloading rifles, 4.75in iron belt, 10kts)
  • Formidabile (broadside ironclad, launched 1861, 2682t, 4-72pdr SB shell, 16–164 mm (5.5 in) breechloading rifles, 4.3in iron belt, 10kts (19 km/h))
  • Terribile (launched 1861, as Formidabile)
  • Palestro (armoured corvette {coast defence ironclad}, launched 1865, 2165t, 4–200 mm muzzleloading rifles, 1–165 mm muzzleloading rifle, 4.5in iron belt, 8kts)
  • Varese (launched 1865, as Palestro)

Wooden steam warships

  • Gaeta (ex-Neopolitan screw frigate, launched 1861, 3917t, 8–160 mm ML rifles, 12-108pdr shell, 34-72pdr shell)
  • Maria Adelaide (ex-Sardinian screw frigate, launched 1859, 3429t, 10–160 mm ML rifles, 22-108pdr shell, 19 small guns) (Squadron Flag)
  • Duca di Genova (ex-Sardinian screw frigate, launched 1860, 3459t, 8–160 mm ML rifles, 10-108pdr shell, 32-72pdr shell)
  • Garibaldi (ex-Neopolitan screw frigate Borbone, launched 1860, 3390t, 8–160 mm ML rifles, 12-108pdr shell, 34-72pdr shell)
  • Principe Umberto (ex-Sardinian screw frigate, launched 1861, 3446t, 8–160 mm ML rifles, 10-108pdr shell, 32-72pdr shell, 4 small guns)
  • Carlo Alberto (ex-Sardinian screw frigate, launched 1853, 3231t, 8–160 mm ML rifles, 10-108pdr shell, 32-72pdr shell guns, 7 small guns)
  • Vittorio Emanuele (ex-Sardinian screw frigate, launched 1856, 3201t, 8–160 mm ML rifles, 10-108 and 32-72pdr shell guns, 7 small guns)
  • San Giovanni (ex-Sardinian screw corvette, launched 1861, 1752t, 8–160 mm ML rifles, 14-72 pounder shell, 12 small guns)
  • Governolo (ex-Sardinian sidewheel paddle corvette, launched 1849, 2243t, 10-108pdr shell, 2 small guns)
  • Guiscardo (ex-Neapolitan sidewheel paddle corvette, launched 1843, 1343t, 2–160 mm ML rifles, 4-72pdr shell)

Minor ships

  • Giglio (ex-Tuscan sloop, launched 1846, 246t, 2 SB of unknown type)
  • Cristoforo Colombo (gunboat, 4-30pdr SB)
  • Gottemolo (as Cristoforo Colombo)
  • Unknown (as Cristoforo Colombo)
  • Esploratore (sidewheel dispatch vessel, launched 1863, 981t, 2-30pdr SB, 17 knots)
  • Messaggere (launched 1863, as Esploratore)
  • Indipendenza (unarmed merchantman)
  • Piemonte (unarmed merchantman)
  • Flavio Gioia (unarmed merchantman)
  • Stella d'Italia (unarmed merchantman)


SMS Lissa, an Austro-Hungarian broadside ironclad, was launched in 1869 and named in honor of the battle of Lissa. She was scrapped between 1893 and 1895.

Alfredo Cappellini of Palestro was the namesake of an Italian armored gunboat launched in 1868 and a Italian monitor Alfredo Cappellini launched in 1915.

Faà di Bruno of Re d'Italia was the namesake of an Italian armored gunboat launched in 1868 and a monitor launched in 1916. During World War II, an Italian submarine with his name was sunk in 1940 near Scotland.

Augusto Riboty of Varese was the namesake of an Italian destroyer leader launched in 1916 (and which survived both world wars, finally being scrapped in 1951).

Vizeadmiral von Tegetthoff was the namesake of an Austro-Hungarian center battery ironclad launched in 1878, a class of dreadnought battleships and the lead vessel of that class, launched in 1912. Ironically, at the end of World War I, the latter ship was given to the Italian Royal Navy, which in 1924-25 scrapped the ship that bore the name of the man who had defeated it in its first battle.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Stevens (1942), pp. 261-62
  2. The Italian "mistakes" in Lissa battle (in Italian)
  3. Stevens (1942), p. 257
  4. Scotti, Giacomo. Lissa 1866. la grande battaglia per l'Adriatico First chapter: "Nella flotta austriaca non mancava l’entusiasmo ma erano presenti anche timori, la flotta italiana era più numerosa:12 corazzate e 19 unità di legno con 641 cannoni.Gli austriaci avevano solo 7 corazzate e 20 unità di legno con 532 cannoni....La divisione Vacca intanto, ormai lontana, stava compiendo un larghissimo giro a nord che la allontanava dalla battaglia. Per quanto sollecitate dal Persano le navi di Albini invece, forti di 398 cannoni, non intervenivano"
  5. "La battaglia di Lissa". May 2011. 
  6. The Battle of Vis, by Ante Sucur
  7. Admiral Angelo Iachino, La campagna navale di Lissa 1866, Il saggiatore (it.)
  8. Denis Mack Smith, History of Italy, Laterza
  9. Silvio Bertoldi, Sangue Sul Mare, Mondadori 2006
  10. "The history of Uljanik". Uljanik d.d.. Retrieved 2 September 2010. 


  • Stevens, William Oliver and Allan Westcott (1942). A History of Sea Power. Doubleday. 
  • Sacchi, Martino. Navi e cannoni: la Marina italiana da Lissa a oggi, Giunti, Firenze 2000.
  • Sandler, Stanley. "The Emergence of the Moder Capital Ship." Associated University Presses, Lexington, KY, 1979.
  • Scotti, Giacomo. Lissa 1866. la grande battaglia per l'Adriatico, LINT Editoriale, Trieste 2004. ISBN 88-8190-211-7

External links

Coordinates: 43°10′35″N 16°3′12″E / 43.17639°N 16.05333°E / 43.17639; 16.05333

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