“Ramming Speed!”

Ah, ancient times, you little fox, you. Galleys scudding across the open waves, dodging into combat, maneuvering, positioning, and then finally beating on that drum to encourage the oarsmen to “stoke the boiler” and bring those knots up: it’s ramming speed, boys, time to plow your ram through the delicate hull of the nearest enemy ship. And if it’s one thing ships don’t like, it’s a ruddy great hole in their hull. Because, you know, water … leaking … sinking … and all.

Except hold on a second … “Ancient times”? “1866”? Something isn’t adding up.

Correct. It’s 1,400 years past the era of a sea faring captain shoving an iron fisted enema up your jacksey, so what’s going on here?

Well, long story short, apparently after a millennia of “ramming’s not cool, bro”, it came back into vogue. And if you’re sitting there right now thinking “hold on, military doctrine isn’t about ‘vogue’”, well, you’d be correct, and yet here we are.

Welcome to 1866, year of the “bend over and cough.”

On This Day In History, July 20th, 1866 | The Battle of Lissa

Allow me to put a little context around this. It’s 60 years after the battle of Trafalgar: big ships of the line, bristling with masts, sail, rope, and, of course, cannon. Technology has moved on and the era of wooden hulls and wind-power is coming to a close as quickly as your aspirations of “Suicide Squad” being a good movie.

Steam power is in.

Iron hulls – “you’ve got to hit me harder than that, bro!” – are in.

It’s the era of the Ironclad.

On This Day In History, July 20th, 1866 | The Battle of Lissa

150 years ago and Europe was basically a never-ending playground scrap that had been going on for hundreds of years. Everyone had a gripe with everyone else, and “gripes” back then typically came wrapped in a little bundle of “I have a bayonet, allow me to demonstrate why I feel that land belongs to me.”

Austria had been the MMA ring of choice for a while, and in 1866 they end up duking it out against Italy and Prussia in a bit of a feud called “The Third Independence War.”

This became known as “The War of “that land belongs to me, look, my flag is in it. Well, shit, if he’s having a go, so am I.’” Which, oddly, was the first of what would be three wars. Uh … *scratches head*.

The Austrian Empire in the 1860s was vast, extending into today’s northern Italy including Venice and Trieste, and today’s Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and even down to Serbia. Today’s southern Germany was part of the empire too, with Prussia siting above in today’s northern Germany. And here lay the root of the conflict.

At the time there was a move toward a unified German-speaking country. But would the capital be Bismarck’s Berlin or the Emperor Franz Joseph’s Vienna? In the power struggle, Prussia marched to take over territory that the two nations had wrested from Denmark in 1864.

Bismarck secretly allied with Italian forces, the recess bell sounded, Austria walked into the playground quite oblivious, and Prussia leapt in from behind with a lovely sucker punch to the back of the head. Italy, noticing shit was kicking off, immediately thought “I’m ‘avin’ some of that action!” and Napoleon-Dynamited a leaping kungfu kick to Austria’s shin: it was time to recapture Venice and the Venetian territories.

But this wasn’t going to be just leaping superman punches on solid land, because you can’t say “Venetian Territories” without looking at a map that looks like this:

The Third Independence War

And what’s a good chunk of that look like?

Water, that’s what.

It was clear that – as short as this particular brawl was going to be – naval forces were going to be important.

And here, Italy was KING.

Just seven years prior, the French had launched the Gloire, the first sea-going ironclad. Which apparently sparked a bit of an arms race as European nations started hitting the gym to swoll-up. In that short amount of time, the little kingdom of Austria had seven such ironclads bobbing about the Adriatic, which is cute and all, except Italy had twelve.

[do you even lift, bro?]

Let’s just say that the Italians felt pretty boss.

For starters, their ironclads came with rifled guns. And if this has you scratching your head, just think of the difference between a rifle bullet vs. a musket ball; one of them is drilling its ass into your sphincter via your skull from 1,000 feet, while the other is bouncing off in a random direction after exiting the barrel at a 90 degree angle.

Consider the “Merrimac vs. Monitor” fight in which American ironclads harmlessly bounced round iron balls off each other all day long; smoothbore guns were a thing of the past, and if you didn’t sport rifled barrels, you were the laughing stock of the gym.

The Naval Battle of Lissa 1866

Not only that, but the Italian fleet was pretty darn cutting edge; one of the ships had been just commissioned from Armstrong’s yard at Elswick; the armored turret-ram “Affondatore” (i.e. “The Sinker”).

And if you are calling your ship “the Sinker” then you are clearly bloody confident in her ability to nut-punch any cheeky sod who gets in the way.


4,000 tons, pure iron, guns like they were going out of fashion, and a spur for close-action ramming business. Because nothing says “naval warfare” more than twelve feet of enemy manhood all up in your mess hall.

We’re talking two 10-inch rifled Armstrong guns, hurling 295lb armor-piercing shells. Which may not seem like much by modern standards, but consider this: the biggest rifled gun the Austrians had was 24-pounds.

Think about that for a moment.

Affondatore was a ball-numbing monster. A correspondent of “The Times” described her as looking so formidable that she could sink the entire Austrian fleet on her own.

Battle of Lissa

But we are far from done. While Affondatore could cock-punch any Austrian ship into submission, it was not on its own; bros always roll together.

[Re d'Italia" and the "Re di Portogallo.]

[Re d'Italia" and the "Re di Portogallo.]

Re d’Italia” and the “Re di Portogallo.

At 5,700 tons apiece, the Re d’Italia and the Re di Portogallo were ironclad wooden ships that had enough muscle to make a potential enemy pee itself at the mere thought of getting into a fight with either one of them. The Re di Portogallo, for example, carried enough armament to make the entire Austrian female population swoon: two 300-pounders, twelve 100-pounders, and fourteen 74-pounders. The Re d’Italia mounted two 150-pounders, sixteen 100-pounders, and fourteen 74-pounders.

Again, remember the Austrians could only bring rifled 24-pounders to the gun show.

Battle of Lissa

In all, the Italians were swaggering about the oceans with 68,000 tons of face-crunching fury: 12 ironclads, 10 cruisers, and 4 gunboats. All of this under this chap:

Battle of Lissa

How you doin’.

Wait, wait … not him, this guy …


Admiral Carlo Pellion di Persano. Count, Minister of Marine, Senator Nominee, and wooer of women-folk.

He also thought the state of his ships and men left a little bit to be desired, but, hey, when your fleet can crush walnuts with its butt cheeks, whose going to listen to that type of negativity, amirite? Persano was told to shut the hell up and to get his arse over to the island of Lissa and prepare for an invasion.

Island of Lissa

Lissa, now called Vis and in Croatia, is an island on the Dalmatian coast, and it was also Austria’s key naval base on the Adriatic. So, what a great place to throw your first kick to the balls if you happened to be an Italian.

The man put in charge of stopping this from happening, was this bloke:

Wilhelm von Tegetthoff.

Wilhelm von Tegetthoff.

Now he may not look like it, but Tegetthoff was a stud. A mutton-chomps-on-steroids-stud. He commanded the fleet of the North Sea during the Second Schleswig War of 1864, and the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, and is considered one of the best naval officers of the 19th century. Yeah, that guy, right there.

He had tactical inventiveness, sense of command, inspirational leadership, and balls the size of water melons.

What he didn’t have was a fleet worth a damn.

7 ironclads.

1 steam two-decker.

6 cruisers.

12 gunboats.

With the Admiralty of Vienna in his ear suggesting that he should only take the ironclads to sea, Tegetthoff was the type of guy to tie two planks together, call it a ship, smash a bottle of bubbly, and name it “asskicker.”

“Give me every ship you have. You may depend on my finding some good use for them.”

It was 50,000 tons of “meh.”

Battle of Lissa

The iron clads were all of the earlier type, being armor clad vs. built from iron. They were wood, and basically modelled along the same lines as the old steam frigates. The two largest – “Ferdinand Max” and the “Hapsburg” – were 5,000 tons apiece, but here’s where the impressive stats stop, because they mounted batteries of eighteen 48 pounders; weak, and also smoothbore. There wasn’t a single rifled gun to be seen here.

The “Kaiser Max,” the “Prinz Eugen,” and “Don Juan de Austria” were smaller ships of 3,500 tons, but their armament at least was rifled. So there’s that. The problem was, they were breech-loading 24-pounders, so compared to the equipment the Italians were bringing to the party, the Austrian guns were basically nerf guns.

This was 12 ironclads against 7.

208 rifled guns against 74.

And 20,392 pounds of metal being thrown about by the Italians, against only 1,776 thrown back by the Austrians.

And with this collection of Pawn shop rejects, Tegetthoff had to face the Italian iron-tipped boot.

'L'Affondatore' circa 1866

There is one thing Tegetthoff had to his advantage: the quality of his men and officers. They looked like a motley lot: fishermen and coastal sailors, recently signed up and wearing picturesque native costumes instead of their uniform, but “there was iron in them.” They could make a good fight on board anything that would float, and every day they were out at sea practicing their shooting, targeting the same spot on enemy hulls, ship handling, and ramming floating targets. And this is important: knowing how to lob some iron over at a bobbing target, while you yourself lurch around like you’re on a wooden roller-coaster is a bit of an art form, and it’s bloody crucial if you, say, get into a naval fight.

But let’s face it, as practiced as these guys were going to be, throwing 48-pound smooth bore and 24-pound rifled rounds at the Italian armor wasn’t going to do anything useful, and Tegetthoff knew it. Which is why he devised a slightly different strategy.

“Close with the enemy and ram everything grey!”

He had his ships painted black. The Italians were Gray. The plan was simple: if it’s gray, ram it.

And with this level of resolve, they set off to see if they could find a Pizza Hut to trash.

Erzherzog Ferdinand Max ramming the Re d'Italia

Tegetthoff made the Ferdinand Max his flagship, arranged his armada into three divisions with the the ironclads paving the way, and lurched towards the island of Lissa like a Rottweiler off its leash.It was as he was prowling the open oceans spoiling for a fight, that the little hapless Italian dispatch vessel “Esploratore” hoved into view.

Italian dispatch vessel “Esploratore” hoved into view.

Austrian gunboats leapt into action and raced towards the little mite, and Esploratore ran for its freaking life, right into the port of Ancona. Here the Italian port guns kept the Austrians at bay, but it was the contents of the port that was of most interest to Tegetthoff: the Italian fleet (sans Affondatore, which was hell-bent on being fashionably late to the inevitable party).

The Italian fleet at Ancona

This was an intimidating sight, and Tegetthoff decided that there was no way he could face them … he had to retreat.

Psssst! No he didn’t! This was the freaking Neptune of the times, and when faced with overwhelming odds, he did what any god-damned Patton of the oceans would do: he cleared for action and started to steam up and down the port entrance just begging the gits inside to come out and “come get some.”

Persano did not accept.


Now here it is important to consider the morale affect something like this would have: the Austrians were buoyed by the Italians chickening out, while the Italians were somewhat dismayed that – being as superior as their ship were – why their admiral didn’t want to get into a fight.

Eventually, Tegetthoff got bored, sailed off, picked up another ironclad, and got back into some serious training at the gym.

The Italians, meanwhile, sat idly around in harbor.

Persano started to demonstrate stark incompetence and an unsuitability for the job at hand. He complained about not having definite orders, although his orders were pretty simple: destroy the Austrian fleet. You know, the one that was just outside of harbor a few days ago.

He stalled while saying that he was installing better guns.

He stalled saying that he was waiting for Affondatore to join (although, in all fairness, who wouldn’t want to wait for this bad, bad girl?)

Then he wrote to admiralty saying that he needed more ironclads. Seriously.


Eventually the Italian High Command just outright came out and said it: “get off your arse, go get the Austrians, or by jove you will be out of a job.”

Persano had a slightly different plan: “What if – and hear me out here – what if you landed a small force on the island of Lissa, and I’ll escort you! It will help with the overall war plan. Honest, guv’nor.”

Amazingly, his plan was accepted.

It was a terrible idea.

The Italians were planning on an over-seas expedition while the enemy was still at large; they would have been much better off either (a) crushing the living crap out of the Austrian fleet, or (b) at the very least blockading it in port. They did neither.

Persano was trying to avoid a naval engagement by scudding over to Lissa, pounding the onshore defenses into a fine pulp, drop off the troops, and then head home for a nice spot of tea before Tegethoff knew what the frik was going on.

Except Persano then proceeded to execute the plan with the type of leisure one would expect during an afternoon stroll. This was a plan that demanded speed, swiftness, and lethal aggressiveness – if one was hoping to avoid the enemy fleet, that is – but Persano pottered about doing a bit of reconnoitering, then came back the next day under French flags to reconnoiter a little more. While he was doing this, the Austrian commander on Lissa looked out, thought “who the bloody hell are these chaps?” and he promptly contacted Tegethoff.

Tegethoff couldn’t believe that the Italians would be so stupid, in fact it was so stupid that he started to wonder if it was a feint. However, convinced that this was a legit attack, he sent word to Lissa that he was on his way. This message was intercepted by Persano.

Persano thought it wasn’t legit. He figured Tegethoff was just telling the island that he was coming in order to boost their morale and to encourage them to hold out. Persano figured he had all the time in the world.

Persano was wrong.


The next day – yup, still on that afternoon stroll over here – the Italian bombardment of the island proved to be a failure, and Persano started to get a little anxious.

Why anxious? Perhaps the thought of an Austrian fleet kicking his teeth down the back of his throat? Nope! He hadn’t made arrangements to restock his fleet with fuel; they were getting low on coal.

Home started to beckon, but if he did that, he’d be relieved of his command.

So he waited until the next day (yup!) and went for an all-out assault on the island, which was great timing in a way, because all of this delaying had given Affondatore time to catch up: the Italian fleet was about to get real.


On the morning of the 18th of July, 1866, the sea was smooth, with a hot haze partially obscuring vision. Italians lazily climbed into assault craft and prepared to head towards Lissa, when a scout poking around in the Northwest signaled “um, there are some suspicious looking ships heading our way. They look pretty pissed.”

Tegethoff had arrived.

The three Austrian divisions were formed into a V-shaped arrowhead, with gunboats and paddle steamers (yes, paddle steamers) in the rear. The plan hadn’t changed: ram the bejesus out of anything gray.

The Italians, despite being superior ship-wise in every way possible, had been caught with their pants down, and they were not in formation. Persano presumably spat out his tea, had a moment of panic, peed himself a little, and then promptly ordered his entire fleet into line abreast.

Then he cancelled these ordered and ordered the fleet into three divisions in line ahead formation.

Confusion started to set it.

Battle of Lissa

In the first Division he had Principe di Carignano, Castelfidardo and Ancona under admiral Vacca (cool name, bro). In the center Re d’Italia, Palestro and San Martino under captain Faà di Bruno. And then the third division had the Re di Portogallo, Regina Maria Pia, and Varese under Augusto Riboty.

Eleven ironclads in line, with wooden ships dispersed throughout.

Which left the Affondatore, which was kinda floating around off to oneside. Now I’m not sure if this was intended to be a reserve, or perhaps she was just going to watch the show, I dunno, but Persano caused even more confusion when he decided that he was going to transfer his flagship to Affondatore.

Battle is about to be joined, the lines are formed, and he transferred command to the only ship not in line.

This was a problem. The 2nd and 3rd Divisions had to slow to allow the lumbering behemoth to catch up and get into position, but the signal to slow didn’t actually reach the 1st Division … which promptly kept steaming ahead and off into the distance. A gap started to form in the Italian line.

Now this is all kinds of bad, but it gets worse: Persano didn’t tell anyone he was transferring ship. Throughout the battle to come, the Italians were looking towards the [former flagship] Re d’Italia for orders rather than Affondatore.


As the Austrians ploughed towards the Italian clusterf**k, morale and enthusiasm were both high, but, let’s face it, they were steaming towards one helluva wall of iron, and this certainly stirred a little trepidation throughout. Tegetthoff cinched up his monstrous nautical balls, eyed the gap in the Italian line, and ordered his fleet directly for it.



Now here it is worth pointing out that the Austrians were heading directly for the broadsides of the Italian fleet, and their guns were not only complete trash when compared to the monstrous Italian affairs, but they could only bring forward facing guns into play. They had to close the entire distance Nelson@Trafalgar style; largely without returning any form of fire of their own.

The Italian 1st Division under Vacca started to rain down a heavy shelling, but because freaking Persano was still f**king about transferring command ship, no general order had been given on the Italian side; the 2nd and 3rd Divisions did not join in the fight.

The Austrians steamed on, taking a pounding like Rocky bombing and weaving against Clubber Lang, but all of their ships got through the maelstrom, which was a small miracle in and of itself. Drache on the extreme right of the Austrian 1st Division was hit seventeen times. Still she steamed on. Her captain was decapitated. Still she steam on. Her mainmast was destroyed. Still she steamed on. Her propulsion was disabled … somehow, she still freaking steamed on (seriously).

Battle of Lissa

By 10:43 the Austrians were in striking range, and they unleashed Habsburg, Salamander and Kaiser Max against the Italian 1st Division, while Don Juan d’Austria, Drache and Prinz Eugen engaged the Italian 2nd Division.

The iron clads poor handling and general inefficiency of the Italian crews showed through almost immediately: some steamed in completely the wrong direction, apparently oblivious to the battle that was beginning to rage around them. The Garibaldi  was the first to suffer Austrian attention when the Kaiser Max sent her to the bottom with some blistering gunnery,  in response to which the Duca di Genova retaliated by raking the Don Juan d’Austria.

The battle was ON.

Persano and the monstrous, face-ripping, rib breaking, hull tearing, Affondatore … ahem … stayed clear of the battle.

I really have no words.

With the Italians in disarray and confusion, the Austrian kommdor von Petz took his wooden hulled 2nd Division and started to ass-kick the Italian armored 3rd division. Amazingly, and somehow, the Austrian ships just kept going: the screw frigate Novara was hit FORTY-SEVEN times.

Re d'Italia rolling over and sinking - Erzharzog Ferdinand Max in background Painting by Carl Frederich Sorensen

The big Italian ironclad Re di Portogallo concentrated on the much smaller Austrian screw corvette Erzherzog Friedrich. Erzherzog Friedrich took a hit below the waterline from a heavy Italian shell, which blew a hole almost three feet across in the corvette’s hull, and if there’s one thing you do not want when you are at sea in a corvette: it’s a hole 3 feet across under the waterline. She started taking on water faster than the pumps could handle, big surprise there, so she started to limp towards Lissa and safety. The Italian ironclad sensed blood and pursued.

Capt. Anton Petz’s Kaiser immediately leapt in like superman, and even though the ship was a veritable wooden relic, she RAMMED the Italian ironclad, breaking off her own foremast and figurehead, both crashing down on Re di Portogallo’s deck.

Kaiser charging Re di Portogallo while the Affondator attacks on her port quarter

Kaiser limped away from the Italian ship, but was TORN INTO as the ironclad unloaded a devastating point-blank broadside into her. Amazingly, she still floated. But now, with fires raging across the Kaiser, Affondatore moved through the smoke and mist to finish off the crippled ship.

Oddly, Persano didn’t choose to use the imposing guns with shells the size of your mom’s ass, to sink the old ship of the line, oh no, he went for a full on ramming action. Persano ignored the swirling carnage right next to him, and he went full on Ben Hur ramming speed towards the wooden hulled Kaiser.

The 92-gun Kaiser was pretty much a traditional wooden ship of the line equipped with a steam engine. She was a relic. She was also on fire. She took one look at the encroaching iron-hulled beluga whale ponderously heading in her direction, and – not surprisingly – she moved out of the way.

Kaiser turned for San Giorgio harbor, and Affondatore made one last attempt; a big huge brute hellbent on pulverizing the Kaiser into fine matchwood. And just as things looked grim, the tiny Austrian screw gunboat Reka darted in front of the ram, firing her full broadside of two small guns at the Italian bridge. The Italian ship veered off, and the Austrian frigates shepherded the wounded Kaiser into port before returning to the fray, which now became a disorganized brawl.

The Kaiser

How Kaiser did not get torn in two I do not know. She proved to be the scrappiest of little ships, firing 850 rounds in all – a fifth of the Austrian total, and received 80 hits in all.

Meanwhile, as Kaiser limped away, Tegetthoff threw his flagship Erzherzog Ferdinand Max at the former Italian flagship, Re d’Italia, and then at Palestro. Basically he was head-butting his way through the fight. In both cases he scored only glancing blows, but these caused serious damage, especially to Palestro, which was dismasted and set afire.

Palestro pulled out of the line, blew up, and sank. Which is not a bad result for a glancing ram attack.

F. Kollarz, 'Battle of Lissa'

Erzherzog Ferdinand Max eyeballed Re d’Italia, mouthed “I’m coming for you, son!” and started to pour in fire as she closed for another ramming kill. Re d’Italia lost her shit, or something, panicked, and threw her into reverse as some oddball way of trying to avoid the ram. Not surprisingly, she ended up pretty much at a dead-stop in front of Erzherzog Ferdinand Max, which promptly rammed an 18 ft. hole into her.

Erzherzog Ferdinand Max backed up, climbed off, cleaned himself up, and headed off without even having breakfast or exchanging phone numbers.

Re d’Italia sank two minutes later. The Italians were mortified: it would be some time before they realized that Persano had not been onboard and this was not the flagship that had suck, but never-the-less, it was a significant blow.

the Re d'Italia sinking after being rammed by Tegetthoff's flagship, the Ferdinand Max

Now Erzherzog had just rammed the living crap out of three ships, one after the other, and was, by now, beginning to feel the effects. Watching the Austrian ship limping by, the Italian Ancona saw this as a great opportunity to do a ramming attack of her own, and – while doing so, pour in a full broadside into the stricken Erzherzog.

Except the Italians got soooooo excited at the opportunity of getting in a jolly good rogering, that they forgot to load the shot into their guns – seriously – and, well, it was a big bang, but not a whole lot of action.

Battle of Lissa

It’s okay, honey, it happens to everyone.

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, and asses began to twitch. The huge, elbow-to-the-face Italian flag ship cast a dark shadow over the unfortunate Kaiser as she … um …  sailed away?

Hold on, that can’t be right! Affondatore had hellacious gunnery and Kaiser was a sitting target for a beautiful ram … let me re-read this.

*mumble* *mumble* *flip* *mumble*

So. Yeah. Persano ordered Affondatore to turn away.


‘Cos that’s what you do when you have a ship capable of destroying THE ENTIRE ENEMY FLEET.


Both sides peeled away and the battle was done.

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.

Persano, of course, went home and announced a resounding victory. There was a great deal of celebration all around … until the actual results got to Italian ears. This was a bit unfortunate for Persano, as he found himself hauled in front of the Italian senate, which basically asked “WTF, dude?” He was dismissed, on charges of incompetence and cowardice.

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

Now this little mauling on the high seas didn’t really influence the overall war at all (Austria got their asses handed to them by the Prussians and ceded Venetia), but what this engagement did do was to influence naval design for the next fifty years … for some reason, everyone now thought that ramming was the new vogue. Which promptly slowed down research into gunnery, and, well, more than a few incidences of accidental ramming of one’s own ships.

Not surprisingly, ramming never features as a viable battle tactic again.






Chuck a Pilum

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