Ram in 1866?!

Eduard Nezbeda, ‘Die Seeschlacht von Lissa, 1866’. oil painting, 1911, private collection, Vienna. Portrayal of the Austrian triple-decker wooden battleship Kaiser (centre of picture) ramming the Italian ironclad Re di Portogallo. The Kaiser suffered substantial damage in the engagement, and the results can be seen in the post-battle photographs reproduced below. Reproduced in A.E. Sokol, Seemacht Österreich. Die Kaiserliche und Königliche Kriegsmarine 1382-1918 {Austrian Seapower: The Imperial and Royal Navy 1382-1918}, F. Molden, Wien, 1972.

The ram, in retrospect, is one of the most curious features of the ironclad period. Yet the reasoning was quite respectable. For the first time since the heyday of the oared galley, a warship was controllable independently of the wind because it now had steam power, and its adversary being heavily clad with iron was vulnerable to being holed under water. Moreover, the alternative means of defeating an opponent – battering with gunfire – might well be ineffective against armour. Therefore – the ram. The theoretical attractions were enhanced in conditions of smooth water and confined areas. Most of the experience in the American Civil War showed that however good the theory, in practice it did not work very well.

Most rammers had insufficient power and manoeuvrability, and most rammees seemed able to alter course, often only just in time, to make the blow a glancing rather than a perpendicular one. When the statistics are considered in cold hindsight, it is clear that the ram was not an effective instrument. Yet ship design persisted with it, not only in the American Navy but in European navies, for at least three further decades. The most spectacular success to which advocates of the ram could point was at the battle of Lissa in 1866 when the Austrian flagship Ferdinand Max struck the Re d’Italia, conveniently stopped broadside on at the time, amidships and sank her. This was the main ammunition for Admiral Sir George Rose Sartorious (a survivor of Trafalgar) in his campaign to make the ram the principal weapon system of the Royal Navy. It was never that; but it was incorporated in every substantial design and indeed the general public often referred to battleships simply as ‘rams’, as in H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds where the most modern of the world’s navies steam bravely towards the Martian war machines and are annihilated.

The ram turned out on occasion to be a formidable instrument indeed unfortunately for sinking one’s own side. The Iron Duke, a centre-battery ironclad, sank her sister the Vanguard in the Irish Sea in 1872 when both ships acted incautiously in a sudden fog. A much more high-profile disaster was the sinking of the Victoria by the Camperdown in the Mediterranean on 22 June 1893, during a self-evidently dangerous manoeuvre ordered by the Commander-in-Chief Sir George Tryon, who lost his life in the accident.

A feature of the Vanguard and Victoria sinkings was that both victims were struck in a particularly vulnerable place, at the junction of a transverse bulkhead. That might be thought bad luck; it was probably more germane that damage control precautions had in both cases been neglected. That might have been a legacy of the good old days of wooden warships, when watertight subdivision was not a feature.


The only high-seas fleet action of the ironclad era was the Battle of Lissa fought between the Piedmont/Italian and Austrian navies on 20 July 1866. The opposing fleet commanders were two very different personalities. The Austrian admiral, Wilhelm von Tegetthoff, upon the declaration of war, immediately made for the Italian port of Ancona and challenged the Italian fleet to battle. For various unconvincing reasons, the Italian commander, Count Carlo Persano, refused to come out. Persano was the type of officer often highly praised in peacetime for his organizational ability, which usually consists of reorganizing the previous reorganization. Persano hoped to win by his material preponderance, which was, in all truth, his only advantage. His fleet could boast of 11 ironclads (soon to be increased to 12) compared to Tegetthoff’s technologically inferior seven. But Tegetthoff had already won a moral advantage off Ancona. He also drilled his crews constantly while Persano idled his time, conducted a useless bombardment of the Austrian island of Lissa, and continued to complain that the odds were still not in his favor.

On 20 July, Tegetthoff’s fleet appeared in the Adriatic mist in a ramming formation something like a flying wedge, and his captains had their straightforward orders: “Armored ships charge the enemy and sink him.” Tegetthoff knew that he had to get in close to the Italians to negate their superior rifled gun range with his own concentrated fire and his ram bows. Persano’s exhausted command was confused, scattered, and unready. Persano added to their trials by a series of complex and conflicting orders, particularly when he discovered that his fleet faced the wrong direction. Then Persano decided to transfer his command to the newly arrived ironclad ram Affondatore (Sinker) but neglected to inform his captains. As it was, Affondatore failed to touch any of its enemies with its truly de Bergerac snout, although its rifled guns wrought sad execution at pistolshot range on the timber upperworks of several Austrian ironclads.

A point-blank melee followed, with the ironclads ramming and maneuvering to avoid the ram-mostly the latter. (The Italian wooden warship contingent, for unexplained reasons, remained aloof from the battle.) The Austrian Kaiser (the only ship-of-the-line ever to fight ironclads) scraped by the Italian Re di Portugallo, broadside flaming, leaving its bow sculpture on the Italian’s deck. Yet very little damage was inflicted on either side, as the ironclads mutually avoided or harmlessly bumped into each other and their broadside discharges bounced off armor plating. The misnamed Italian ironclads Terrible and Formidabile proved useless-the former loitering with the spectator wooden ship squadron, while the latter left for Ancona to repair what its captain claimed was serious damage from the Lissa Island bombardment. Meanwhile, Persano dashed about in Affondatore, incognito, turning away from several ramming opportunities, although the ram did fire some three shots at the Don Juan de Austria, breaking off some armor plates.

The battle turned decidedly more deadly when the Austrian flagship Ferdinand Max suddenly rammed the putative Italian flagship Re d’Italia, which heaved on its beam ends and sank like a stone. 5 For decades following, the example of the Italian warship would be held up as a prime example of the awful power of the ram. Actually, Re d’Italia was almost dead in the water at the moment of its ramming. Still, considering the weakness of the guns of that era against armor plate, and the technical inferiority of Tegetthoff’s warships, ramming was probably his most promising tactic.

Lissa’s immediate aftermath for the Italians was almost as grim as the battle itself. The ironclad Palestro, set afire during the battle, soon after exploded with all hands. Affondatore later foundered, not from battle damage but from stormy seas. When the wretched Persano inquired as to the whereabouts of his cherished ram, the reply was perhaps unintentionally ironic: Affondato (sunk). The real tragedy of Lissa is that it was unnecessary; the Austrians had already agreed to an armistice and to hand over Venetia (the bone of contention) by way of France, but the Italian leadership vaingloriously felt that they had to appear to win the province and city by their own efforts.

Post-Lissa Italian Navy

The Italian ironclad fleet, after the French, probably caused the most unease for the British Admiralty until 1866, the year of the Piedmont-Sardinian defeat at the Battle of Lissa. Piedmont-Sardinia (Italian unification would not come until 1871) could mass its entire ironclad fleet, numbering some 10 warships by the mid-1860s, in the Mediterranean, whereas the Royal Navy could muster only two. However, the crippling ineptitude displayed by the Sardinian fleet at Lissa showed that, as in the case of Russia, ironclads alone do not necessarily make effective warships or fleets.

Smarting from its defeat at Lissa, Italy constructed some of the largest, fastest, most technically interesting battleships in the world at the time. Caio Duilio and Enrico Dandolo (completed in 1880) were the first warships to be protected by all-steel armor; Italia and Lepanto (launched between 1880 and 1883) were the first all-steel battleships. These four ironclads carried no side armor; their designer, Benedetto Brin, argued that no such protection could be realistically applied against the great shells of the time. Part of the protection for Italia and Lepanto consisted of cork-filled cofferdams; the ships were designed, uniquely, to carry no less than a full infantry division. But the four guns of these great ironclads could fire one shot apiece about every 15 minutes, raising a very real question of their fighting worth. Their main guns, mounted in two en échélon turrets, gave, in theory, ahead-fire, but the real possibility of blast damage made this advantage problematical. The turrets were protected with no less than 17 inches of armor plate, some 25 percent of the ships’ weight. Other Italian ironclads continued this pattern, but the value of all were lessened, like those of France, by their slow construction times (Duilio and Dandolo, for example, took seven years to construct) and firing rates. Further, the Italians had to buy their main guns, armor, and engines from British firms, and their iron and steel from the French. At the time, however, the two monster warships were considered the most powerful battleships in the world. Yet in the long run, the en échélon arrangement of the turrets was a technological impossibility, for reasons noted above. Such mountings might have provided, at least in theory, more or less fore- and- aft firing arcs for the main guns around the masts, but Brin’s battleships carried no masts and sails and were, in fact, the first oceangoing capital ships, after the Devastation class, to dispense with this impedimenta. Brin’s more lasting contribution to the Italian Navy probably lay in the spearheading of a wholly Italian industrial metallurgical and mechanical basis for future construction. It could also be argued that with their high speed and light armor protection, Brin’s creations might be termed the first battle cruisers (or perhaps battle cruiser/troop transports).

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