In 1865, the Prussian chancellor Bismarck submitted to Austria a proposal that Austria cede the provinces of Schleswig and Holstein to Prussia for a certain monetary compensation. At the same time, Italy offered Austria a thousand million lire for Venice. Austria flatly rejected both offers, and then Prussia and Italy concluded a pact on a joint attack on Austria. If Prussia attacks Austria, Italy will also attack it. The peace would be concluded so that Italy would get Venice, and Prussia some parts of Austria. On June 23, the Italian army crossed the Minzio, which opened up the southern Italian battlefield, and Austria was drawn into the war on two fronts.
The commander-in-chief of the operational Italian fleet, Admiral Persano, received an order from the Italian Minister of the Navy, Angioletti, even before the start of the war, to clear the Adriatic Sea of the enemy’s navy in the event of a war. On June 25, the entire Italian navy was in Ancona, and on June 27, a scout reported that the Austrian navy was nearby. The fleet set sail, but did not follow the Austrian navy, but soon returned to port. Such a hesitant and cowardly attitude of the Italian fleet caused great dissatisfaction in Italy.
Soon, the new Minister of the Navy ordered Admiral Persano to prepare the fleet for imminent war operations. The Italian government was convinced that with its larger and better fleet it would defeat the Austrian one. Italy then did not intend to conquer all of Dalmatia, but wanted to be the master of the Adriatic. After the defeat in the battle of Custozza, the Italian authorities urgently needed a victory in the Adriatic in order to repair their fallen prestige. For this reason, Minister Depretis personally went to Ancona and consulted there with Admirals Persano, Albini and Vacca. During these deliberations, it was determined that the Austrian fleet was in the Fažana Channel near Pula and that it could not be attacked there. This is why it was decided to capture the island of Vis. Albini was against it because Vis was very well fortified. It was called the “Gibraltar of the Adriatic”. Persano agreed, but asked for 6,000 troops to land. That’s how the decision was made to seize Vis.
When Austria got Vis and took it from the English, she found it well fortified. However, these fortifications did not defend the entire island, but only the port of the town of Vis. Austria kept those forts, improved and fortified the entire island, so in 1866 Vis was fortified and armed from all sides. In 1866, the fortresses of Vis defended the port of Vis, Komiža and the ports of Rukavac and Ruda. The port of Vis was defended by: Fortress Georg (15 guns), Mamula battery (6 guns), Robertson tower (1 gun), Šupurina battery (4 guns) and Bentink tower (7 guns). On the eastern side of the port of Vis there were two fortifications, the Schmid battery, 16 meters above the sea, with four cannons on the Sućurje peninsula, and the Welington tower on Jurjevo brdo, 190 meters above the sea with 6 cannons. In the interior of the port of Vis there was the Gospa battery with 8 cannons. The port of Komiža was defended by three fortifications: the Manjaremi battery with 8 cannons, the battery on the Perlić hill with 6 cannons and the Max fortress, in the background above the port with 4 cannons, which defended the access from Komiža to Vis. There were about 2,000 soldiers on the island at the time.
On July 16, at 3 p.m., an Italian fleet of 28 warships set sail from Ancona for the open sea. The fleet, which consisted of 11 ironclads, 4 screw frigates, 1 screw corvette, 2 wheeled corvettes, 4 reconnaissance ships, 5 gunboats, 1 hospital ship and 1 transport ship, was commanded by Admiral Persano, and the commanders of individual formations were rear admirals. Vaccao and Vice Admiral Albini. The fleet headed for the open sea to the northeast in order to conceal its true objective. In the meantime, the reconnaissance ship Messaggero, under the command of D’Amico, headed for Vis to accurately examine the military situation. It is interesting that the Italian fleet took action without having a special map of Vis, and neither did the Italian Ministry of the Navy. Under the English flag, Messaggero came to Vis on July 17, toured the entire island and recorded everything that interested him, especially the military facilities. When he returned, Admiral Persano decided that he would launch an attack the next day.
On July 18, the captain of the frigate Sandri arrived with four ships in front of the Pakleni Islands to cut the telegraph cables connecting Vis with the island of Hvar. When he found out that there were no telegraph cables there, he went towards Hvar and, under the threat of bombing the town, found out where the cable from Vis comes to Hvar, but he managed to cut it only around 6 pm. By then, it was already reported from Hvar to Trieste that the Italian fleet had attacked Vis. The second mistake that Sandri made was that he did not destroy the telegraph apparatus, which was moved to a hill near the village of Grablja, and everything that was happening was reported from there. Italians did not cut the telegraph cable between Hvar and the mainland. At 9:30 a.m., the first ships of the group Riboty and Albini arrived near Komiža and after a short exchange of fire with the coastal batteries, they passed on. Then the Vaccae detachment arrived, which with “Principe di Carignano” and “Castelfidardo” attacked the Manjaremi battery, and with “Ancona” the battery on Perlić hill. Shooting was not particularly successful because the fortifications were quite high above the sea. Seeing that he would not be able to overcome the fortifications of Komiža, Vacca sailed to Rukavac to help Albini. However, Albini also gave up further bombardment, also seeing that he would not be able to win anything. Persano and Riboty bombarded the fortifications at the entrance to the port of Vis, and the Schmid battery was soon destroyed. When individual explosions occurred inside the Georg fortress and on the Mamula and Šuperina batteries, Persano ordered the battleships “Maria Pia” and “San Martino” to attack the internal fortifications of the port of Vis. Vacca arrived with his squad and joined the bombing. Fortress Georg was destroyed, half of its guns and a fifth of the crew were disabled for combat. Mamula battery was also seriously demaged. The battle was continued by the Welington tower, Bentink and Šuperina battery. At 6 p.m., the Italian ships stopped firing and retreated to the open sea. The same evening, Persano sent a ship to Ancona to report that the “Adriatic Gibraltar” had been conquered, but that the island could not be captured due to the small number of soldiers. Persano used the night to rest his crew, instead of continuing the firing and attempting a landing at night, as Fort Georg was completely unable to prevent it.
During the night, the ceasefire was used to repair the forts on Vis to some extent and prepare them for further combat. On the second day, July 19, Persano ordered Rear Admiral Vacca to attack the outer surplus fortifications and Vice Admiral Albini to attack Fortress Georg. Around 10 o’clock, the Italian squadron was joined by several more ships that brought another 600 soldiers, so the landing force grew to 2,200 men. “Terribile” and “Varese” sailed towards Komiža to bombard the fortifications there. “Re di Portogallo” and “Palestro” attacked the Wellington tower, and “San Martino” and “Maria Pia” the fortifications on the west side of the entrance to the gully. While the forts at the entrance were thus engaged, “Formidabile” was tasked to sail into the port of Vis and destroy the batteries in it. During the artillery battle with the Šuperina battery, the Welington fortification and the Gospa battery, the battleships “Principe di Carignano”, “Castelfidardo” and “Ancona” sailed into the port of Vis. Since there was little room for maneuver in the harbor, they were ordered to leave the harbor. While there was fierce fighting in the port of Vis, Vice-Admiral Albini was supposed to land his 2,200 soldiers, but due to the difficult-to-access terrain and heavy fire from the island, he was unable to do so. The weather was deteriorating and Admiral Vacca advised Persano to return to Ancona and prepare for another attack, and D’Amico suggested that they go to the port of the Old Town and await the Austrian fleet there. However, Persano decided to continue the conquest of Vis.
The day of July 20 dawned gloomy, the wind was blowing from the south, accompanied by fog and rain. Another 500 soldiers arrived at Persan that morning, so he thought he could carry out the landing. “Terribile” and “Varese” sailed under Komiža to attack the batteries there. The rest of the fleet was standing near Vis, and Albini had already taken the first measures for disembarking, when at 7:50 a.m. “Esploratore” rushed to the fleet signaling that it had spotted suspicious shipping. Persano suspended all operations and called all ships together to prepare for battle with the approaching Austrian fleet.
The Italian fleet, formed in the order of two types, was waiting for the Austrians. In the machine of the first type were ironclads, and in the second type were wooden ships. When the Austrian fleet was 6 miles away, the Persano ordered to form a line in three groups and a north-easterly course towards the enemy. The Austrian fleet approached in a wedge formation, ready for battle from the start. Since the Austrian staff was well aware that the Italian fleet was stronger in terms of artillery and speed, the Austrian fleet had to, if it wanted to win, avoid artillery combat from long distances and try to get close to the Italian ships immediately so that their guns could also target the enemy’s ships or attack them with a beak and pierce them. That’s why the Austrian fleet was already deployed in such a way that the battleships would attack first in order to prevent the Italian initiative, break the order and enable the wooden ships to take action. The Austrian fleet led by Admiral Tegetthoff deployed in three wedges of seven ships each. In total, the Austrians had 27 ships, 532 guns and 7871 men, and the Italians 34 ships, 645 guns and 10886 men. Most of the sailors on the Austrian ships were Croats.
Tegetthoff issued the order: “Full steam ahead”, and then another: “Charge the enemy to sink him”. When the first Italian division was passing the first Austrian division, the “Principe di Carignano” opened fire on the Austrian ships, followed by the other ships, to which the “Kaiser Max” responded. Tegetthoff, however, instead of engaging in an artillery battle, rushed forward, followed by the other ships. In this way, he achieved what he wanted, commotion. A general fight ensued. All the guns went into action, and the ships tried to pierce each other with their beaks. Tegetthoff himself, on “Erzherzog Ferdinand Max”, certainly tried to carry out his intention. His ship twice rammed the flanks of the enemy ships, but too close, and at 11:30 a.m. it rammed with all its might into the middle of the “Re d’Italia” hull. He freed himself by suddenly driving astern, and “Re d’Italia” sank in 3 minutes together with 400 sailors.
The impression of that event was great, both on the Italians and on the Austrians, but the fight continued. Soon, “Palestro” was also badly damaged in a similar way, and the stern spar together with the flag fell from the force of the impact. Tegetthof shouted: “Er will die Flagge haben?” (Who will take the flag?), at which Nikola Karković from Hvar jumped and captured the Italian flag. The Austrian ship “Kaiser” was badly damaged and unable to fight any further, and headed towards the port of Vis. Around 2:30 p.m., the “Palestro” exploded, which was the result of cannon fire from the Austrian battleship “Drache” and the ignition of the gunpowder. Admiral Persano ordered a retreat. Around 3:00 p.m. the fighting stopped, and although the Italians still had 8 battleships and were still stronger, they lost faith in victory, and sailed towards Ancona.
There were about 600 dead sailors on the Italian side, and about 100 on the Austrian side. Two Italian battleships sank (“Re d’Italia” and “Palestro”), and all the others, except for “Terribile”, were damaged. On the Austrian side, “Kaiser” suffered the most, its front mast, chimney, bowsprit and bow were broken and almost the entire deck was destroyed. Other ships were also damaged, some more, some less. The victorious fleet headed with raised flags to the port of Vis, accompanied by thunderous cheers from the entire team. Cannons were fired from all fortifications in honor of the victors, bells rang, the people cheered the victors. Not only Vis, but no Croatian port has ever seen such a sight. In the evening of the same day, July 21, the dead sailors and officers were buried at the cemetery on the Prirovo peninsula, with the most solemn military honors and the firing of cannons from all 27 warships. This magnificent victory, at least for a while, distracted the Italians from their pretensions to the eastern coast of the Adriatic.
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