Battle of Lissa

Naval History: 150th Anniversary, Clash of Ironclads

Serving in Austrian Imperial Navy, Dr Ephraim M Epstein witnessed a historic naval battle on 20 July 1866. In the book of his life the drama comes in Chapter 20, Battle. Here below is a non-fiction account of the build-up and the naval aftermaths, soon to appear in the newsletter of the Society for Nautical Research.


‘Close with the enemy and ram everything grey!’ So the Austrian Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff rallied his men 150 years ago in one of naval history’s outstanding battles, the Battle of Lissa. I am the great granddaughter of an officer who was there. Researching his life set me on a quest to discover just what made the battle so famous. And to find his descriptive poem on it which gained him a reward from the Emperor Franz Joseph. Result: a new view and a mystery.

The clash between the sleek, black-painted Austrian fleet and the Italian grim grey is famed as the first warfare between ironclads. The Battle of Lissa claims several more remarkable historical points, including Austria’s defeat of Italy although outgunned and outnumbered. Furthermore, in face of these odds, Admiral Tegetthoff bravely and brilliantly used ramming as his winning tactic. And finally, this battle influenced warship design for the next fifty years.


I confess that I am neither a scholar of ships nor of naval warfare, but a storyteller researching in order to bring a true experience to life. Context required a step back – where is Lissa and why were Italy and Austria, today a land-locked country, engaged in a sea battle?

Before we get to the nautical elements, a little geo-political history. Lissa, now called Vis and in Croatia, is an island on the Dalmatian coast. This reminds us that 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 more… even down to Serbia. Today’s southern Germany was part of the empire too. Above it lay Prussia, today’s northern Germany – and therein lay 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. Meant to share, this now meant war and Austrian troops headed north to confront Bismarck’s men. In this era — post Napoleon, post Crimea, pre-Italian unification — treaties were made and broken with impunity. Bismarck had secretly allied with Italian forces. Once Austria was busy up north, the Italian navy sailed to seize Lissa, defense outpost for Austria’s key naval base on the Adriatic.


Nautical history to the fore now:  it was the era of steam-and-sail ship construction. Suddenly, in 1862 a riveting new development in navies around the world had begun. Literally riveting, because for the first time iron-armoured wooden vessels fought:  Monitor and Merrimack met in the American Civil War. The outcome of their duel was a stand-off, the impact on ship-building momentous. By 1866 the Italian Admiral Persano’s Adriatic fleet boasted twelve iron-clads, their wooden hulls covered with continuous belts of armoured plating. By contrast, Austria chose to armour in discrete sections to protect engines and magazines. Admiral Tegetthoff, early in 1866, was adding two magnificent iron-clads to his existing fleet of five. But they had to set off with incomplete armour and without their main guns – Prussia had embargoed supplies. The Austrian admiral ordered the scant plating available to go on the forward hull areas: if necessary he would ram. Wise in leadership, Tegetthoff made the new half-ready Ferdinand Max his flagship, leaving his favourite command, the tall-masted frigate Schwarzenberg, to the second line with his other vulnerable wooden ships. His men should see that Austria’s new iron-clads were trustworthy.


At this point, I will introduce my ancestor. Dr Ephraim M Epstein was Ship’s Surgeon on the corvette Seehund. Thirty-seven years old, he’d already had an adventurous life. He emigrated from Belarus to the United States aged twenty, converted to protestant Christianity from orthodox Judaism, gained degrees in theology and medicine, had been a medical missionary in Thessaloniki and practised in Vienna General Hospital. He decided to join the Austrian Imperial Navy and after passing the necessary exams his first commission was on board Feuerspeier Battery, off Venice. The Adriatic campaign soon saw him transferred to Seehund and heading southeast to join Tegetthoff.

Imagine his thrill when the famous admiral’s seven armoured ships hove into view: Habsburg, Salamander, Kaiser Max, Don Juan d’Austria, Prinz Eugen, Drache and then, with the admiral’s flag flying, the newly armoured wooden frigate Ferdinand Max. Leading the wooden steam warships was the two-decker Kaiser.

On the morning of 20 July 1866 Tegetthoff ordered Austria’s armada into three divisions – his ironclads at the front, then unarmoured wooden ships, then smaller gunboats and auxiliaries, a total of twenty-six in all. Italy’s larger flotilla, under Admiral Persano, outgunned and at 68,000 tons outweighed Austria’s 50,000 tons. Furthermore, nine of the Italian twelve iron-clads even had iron hulls.

Surgeon Epstein, on his 2nd class gunboat, was at the back of the fray. A true battle description is too complex to reproduce here or in the story of his life. A cogent, gripping account can be found in Chapter 11 of the book Famous Sea Fights, From Salamis to Tsu-Shima by John Richard Hale (tredition 2012). At the end of this article I list online access to some other detailed reports with illustrations. The facts are even more dramatic than fiction, but I have to condense to capture and convey the flavour of the whole event…


After the crackle and boom of initial cannon fire, amid thick clouds of gunsmoke the two lines of ironclads closed, Austrian black against Italy’s grey. In moments, Tegetthoff’s Ferdinand Max led his ships straight through a gap in the enemy line. Once through, Austrian vessels turned to barrage the Italians broadside-to-broadside in rolling, repeated roars. Ferdinand Max rushed full speed ahead at the ironclad Italian Palestro, smashing her stern and setting her on fire. The admiral pulled away and hunted another – his tactic was to ram the superior Italian fleet into defeat. Ferdinand Max scored a glancing blow against the armoured Portogallo, then went to defend the big wooden Kaiser. Kaiser, despite its lack of metal cladding, followed up Tegetthoff and rammed Portogallo again. Nearby the enemy’s Re d’Italia had stopped in the water. Tegetthoff charged full speed ahead, and with an almighty crunch Ferdinand Max hit her amidships. Her iron sides gave way, her tall masts toppled and she sank. But before the loss was fully registered a massive burst of flame and roar of explosion overwhelmed all other noise of battle – the Italian ironclad Palestro, the first ship rammed by Tegetthoff, had blown up. She sank as the Italian fleet began to retire in disorder. Austria claimed its victory, sailing into the harbour of Lissa.


There were other key elements of warfare and command involved, sidelines to my purpose, but essential historically. These include three Italian weaknesses: in the midst of landing troops on Lissa the fleet was caught short by the Austrian approach, Admiral Persano switched his flag to Affondatore from his previous Re d’Italia without fully informing his captains, and he ordered his fleet in a line formation more suited to sailing ships than modern ironclads. An outstanding Austrian strength: in advance Tegetthoff had intensively drilled his men in manoeuvres and guns and fully briefed his commanders on his battle plan, including ramming.

In a brief account of his life written in 1908, Dr Epstein says, ‘The devotion of our men and officers to our great Admiral won the day. It inspired me to write a description of the battle in English verse and I dedicated and presented it to the great Admiral and man, who thanked me for it in an autograph letter, and said it reminded him of Byron’s description of a sea storm in his Don Juan. I received a present of three hundred dollars from Emperor Franz Joseph for the poem.’


Of course I wanted the poem for the true-story novel of his life! Herein is the mystery. The Heeregesthichtliches Museum in Vienna cannot find it in their library, nor in various others they tried, nor can the War Archive of the Austrian State Archive. The former has a mention of Dr Epstein in the Seehund battle report, and was grateful to receive a copy of Dr Epstein’s 1908 account of his life and the Battle of Lissa. The next step was to visit the records in person (but I do not know the German language) or pay someone to do so, and I had to give up there – in Dr Epstein’s story I had another four decades to research.  It is strange that an epic that won the praise of both Admiral Tegetthoff and the Emperor, and written in English, does not readily show up in the efficient Austrian archives. I’ve learned in recent research that one entire museum hall in the History Museum of Vienna is dedicated to the famous Battle of Lissa. Surely the poem must be there somewhere?

The advantage of fictionalising Dr Epstein’s life was the scope for exploring the motivations and imagined internal responses, decisions and conflicts of this brilliant, driven man. Creative freedom also allowed me to invent a few lines of the missing Battle of Lissa poem, modelled on Byron’s Don Juan storm as referenced by Admiral Tegetthoff. I moved on to complete the rest of Dr Epstein’s life, in which he served in a cruising side-wheel steamer, Dalmatia, off the Austrian Adriatic coast before returning to America. There he practised medicine in the wild West and the West Virginia mountains, fathered nine children, founded Dakota university and completed his career on the editorial staff of a medical journal in Chicago until his death in 1913 aged 83.

In a final historical note, I must add that although the Battle of Lissa had been won the war was lost. On the very next day the Austrian army lost to Garibaldi’s troops near Lake Garda following massive defeat by Prussia in the north. Even before the Battle of Lissa Austria had begun negotiating peace. Nevertheless, due to this battle for the next fifty years navies worldwide built warships with ram bows – which were never used in combat again.

In recent research I’ve learned that a Croatian diving club, Dragor Sub, not long ago discovered the wreck of the Italian Palestro after three years’ search.  Click here to see . The Croatian Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Defense are said to have supported a December 2015 repeat of the expedition, with photographs and videos to be launched publicly. With a different kind of delving, perhaps Surgeon Ephraim Epstein’s English language epic poem will also emerge in this, the 150th anniversary year of the Battle of Lissa. If so, kindly tell him via this blogsite.

Susan Lee Kerr, Author, The Extraordinary Dr Epstein  Paxton Publishing, 2016

Some sources of battle, ship and technical information and illustrations:

With thanks for their interest The Society for Nautical Research