Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020: Franz Josef’s Sharpshooter
Here in the foreground of the above image, we see the Huszar-class torpesobootzerstörer SMS Scharfschütze of the Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Royal Navy, the k.u.k. Kriegsmarine, in heavy seas, likely in the Adriatic around 1914. In a doomed fleet in which the surface forces saw very little actual combat during the Great War, Scharfschütze broke that mold.
The pre-Great War Austrian Kriegsmarine was strong in battleships (4 dreadnoughts, 14 pre-dreadnoughts), cruisers (2 armored, 10 protected/scout, 2 coastal defense), submarines (11) and torpedo boats (91) but was more sparse when it came to destroyers. In 1904, Vienna ordered a prototype destroyer from Yarrow, a 220-foot craft of some 400-tons based on the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Akatsuki-class which had been delivered five years previously.
Capable of 28 knots, the prototype vessel, Yarrow Yard No. 1171, was lightly armed with a single 70mm Skoda-supplied gun forward, seven 47mm 3-pounders, and a pair of 17.7-inch torpedo tubes. This was notably less powerful than Akatsuki, which carried a 4-inch Armstrong gun and five Hotchkiss 6-pounders.
Delivered in September 1905, Austria accepted the new destroyer as SMS Huszar (Hussar) and soon began building a dozen licensed clones at three domestic yards with Yarrow-supplied powerplants.
A 14th ship was laid down for the Chinese government in 1912 as part of another baker’s dozen tin cans. All of the Austrian ships were named for types of soldiers in the Dual Monarchy’s multi-ethnic military such as Ulan (Polish Uhlan lancers), Pandur (a Bosnian gendarme), Uskoke (a type of Croatian irregular) and Csikós (a type of Hungarian mounted troop).
The subject of our tale, Scharfschütze, was named for the classic Austrian Tyrolean sharpshooter.
Going into the history books, the name was also a traditional Austrian warship moniker. Most recently it had been used by gunboat on Lake Garda along the frontier between Italy and Austria. The vessel had been sold to Italy in the aftermath of the brief 1866 war along with the rest of the Garda flotilla for 1 million florins– a good deal more than what they were worth. After all, it didn’t make much sense to keep them as the Italians owned the lake they were on when the war was said and done.
Laid down at Stabilimento Tecnico Triestino (STT) San Marco outside of Trieste in April 1906, the new destroyer Scharfschütze was commissioned the next September.
Soon the ship, with a shallow draft of just slightly over 8-feet, was in use along the craggy coastline of the Balkans where Austria had gotten increasingly aggressive, annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 from the ailing Ottoman Empire over the howls of most of Europe.
As the world sleepwalked towards the Great War, the Austrian Huszar-class destroyers were seen as smallish and under-armed when compared to contemporary greyhounds in their opposing fleets, a fact that in 1910 saw them land their 47mm guns in favor of larger 12-pounders and pick up a machine gun or two for use against the increasing threat posed by low-flying aircraft. At the same time, a larger (1,000-ton) class of tin cans with 4-inch guns, the Tátras, were laid down at a Hungarian shipyard.
During the Balkan Wars of 1912-14, in which a loose confederation of minor powers soundly beat the Turks only to turn on each other and lose half of their territorial gains, Scharfschütze was involved in blockading Albania. It was on this duty that, for one reason or another, she detained the lightly armed 156-foot Montenegrin royal yacht/gunboat Rumija, which had been carrying a cargo of captured Ottoman officers that the Austrian ship repatriated, likely to the great pleasure of the Turks.
When the balloon went up and the lights went out across Europe in July 1914, the only Huszar classmate intended for the Chinese that was far enough along to complete, Lung Tuan, was seized and placed in Austrian service as SMS Warasdiner, after a type of Hungarian infantry common in the Seven Years War.
Scharfschütze, along with her sisters, joined the battlefleet in an abortive attempt to come to the aid of RADM Wilhelm Souchon’s hounded Mediterranean Division, composed of the battlecruiser Goeben and the cruiser Breslau. While Souchon famously skipped the Adriatic and made for Constantinople, Scharfschütze had to make do with coastal raids and patrols along her old stomping grounds off the rugged coast of Montenegro.
In doing so, she provided direct naval gunfire support for advancing A-H infantry, helped relieve the Franco-Montenegrin siege of Kotor from forces dug in along Mount Lovcen, shelled the monastery in Lastva where the Montenegrin headquarters was located at the time, helped destroy radio station towers along the coast, and screened the old battleship SMS Monarch, whose 9-inch guns were tasked with their own NGFS missions.
As Lovcen proved a tough nut for the Austrians to crack, our destroyer also screened the modern dreadnought SMS Radetzky, which was called in to lend her 12-inch guns to the campaign. Of note, Scharfschütze’s old foe, Rumija, was sunk during this time by Austrian torpedo boats.
Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy were bound by the Triple Alliance agreement going back to May 1882 to come to each other’s aid in the event of a European war. This was key to Germany coming to Austria’s aid after the latter invaded Serbia in July 1914 but the more waffling Italy pumped the breaks when her statesmen realized they would have to stand against not only the upstart Balkan Slavs but also France and the might of the British Empire. Shopping around for a better deal, Italy broke her pact with the two Kaisers and turned against her former allies, siding with the Entente.
On 3 May 1915, Rome renounced the Triple Alliance and, perhaps to no one’s surprise, declared war against Austria-Hungary at midnight on 23 May, enticed by secret promises of slices of Austrian Alpine and Adriatic territory. London and Paris were fine with giving away Franz Josef’s land if it meant ending the war on a high note.
Of course, the entry of the Italian fleet into the conflict effectively bottled up the k.u.k. Kriegsmarine for the duration of hostilities, which made what came next even more dramatic.
The day the war turned hot for Italy, Scharfschütze was tasked with a special mission of retribution. Sailing with the light cruiser SMS Novara and two torpedo boats (SMS Tb 80 and Tb 81), they set out in the darkness for the Italian torpedo boat station at Porto Corsini, located just 60 nautical miles from the city of Pula, where the main Austro-Hungarian naval base on the Adriatic was located.
While the other ships remained just offshore, our destroyer crept past the outer mole in the predawn hours of 24 May and penetrated the inner harbor via the narrow Candiano canal, which only spanned 100 feet or so from shore to shore.
Once inside the harbor, Scharfschütze achieved complete surprise and opened with everything she had at around 03:20, sending two schooners to the bottom, damaging the lighthouse, destroying the semaphore station, the lifeboat station and various private homes while taking several Italian coastal batteries under fire.
While the goal of attacking the torpedo boats stationed there fell flat as the vessels weren’t in port, the Austrians did draw blood. A single Italian fatality, Navy electrician Natale Zen, killed in his bed by shrapnel was probably the first Italian killed in the conflict.
By 04:00, Scharfschütze reunited with Novara, screened by the cruiser’s guns, and withdrew for home. She suffered no casualties or reportable damage, a feat that brought decorations to her wardroom and crew, personally delivered pier side by the future and last Hapsburg Kaiser, Archduke Karl.
Of course, when compared to the scale of the global conflict, the raid was small potatoes and did not cause more than a pinprick’s damage to Italy’s war effort. Nonetheless, the audacity of sending a destroyer into an Italian harbor where it ran amok provided a useful victory to the flagging Austrian efforts and it was much celebrated in period propaganda.
The rest of Scharfschütze’s war was active, with her tagging along on other, less successful coastal raids and in turn, finding herself in sharp surface actions against not only fast Italian MAS torpedo boats but also American subchasers and lived to tell the tale.
When the final act of the Great War played out and the Hapsburgs lost the throne amidst the Dual Monarchy’s disintegration as a country, the inventory of the k.u.k. Kriegsmarine that fell into the Entente’s hands was parceled out among its members.
Of the Huszár-class destroyers, two (Streiter and Wildfang) had been lost during the war. The survivors were doled out to France (Pandur and Reka), Greece (Ulan) and Italy who garnered the rest of the obsolete 1890s designed little tin cans to include Scharfschutze— the second time in Austrian naval history that a ship of that name was taken over by the country’s Roman foe to the South.
None of the ships survived the 1920s, having long since been scrapped as part of the interwar drawdown in naval tonnage.
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