Admiral Tegetthoff – A hero in Germany too

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Anyone who has studied the naval history of the K.u.K period will inevitably eventually come across the name of Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff.

Tegetthoff-lithographieAdmiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff, Photo is in public domain

His name is directly linked to the Battle of Lissa, which took place on 20 July 1866 as part of the Third Italian War of Independence between the Imperial-Royal Navy and the Italian Fleet. Due to the outstanding naval performance of Admiral von Tegetthoff and the ramming technique he used, the Imperial-Royal Navy defeated the Italian fleet.

But hardly anyone knows that Von Tegetthoff has also been successful in Germany and is therefore also celebrated as a hero here. To do this, we must go back to 1864, to be precise, to 9 May 1864. At that time, the German-Danish war took place between the naval forces of Prussia and Austria on the one hand and Denmark on the other. On 9 May, the enemy fleets had gathered in front of the then-England island of Helgoland, and the day would go down in history later as the day of the naval battle off Helgoland.

The K.u.K-Marine was involved in the naval battle with the two ships SMS Schwarzenberg under the command of Von Tegetthoff and SMS Radetzky under the command of Jeremiah, by the way, the last naval battle between wooden ships. The participation of the Austrian ships had the following reason: Since the Prussian navy was too weak to oppose the Danish, Austria sent from the Mediterranean at the beginning of March 1864 a squadron under Line-Captain Wilhelm von Tegetthoff with the two ships mentioned above as well as the gunboat Seal. The “Seal” was damaged in an accident in the English Channel and had to call at an English port. At the beginning of May, the rest of the Austrian squadron reached the North Sea.

Det_østrigske_flagskib_Schwartzenberg_brænderSMS Schwarzenberg, Photo is in public Domain

Created by AccuSoft Corp.SMS Radetzky, Photo is in public Domain

Why can Von Tegetthoff be celebrated as a hero? It must be said that the naval battle as such was not very spectacular. The battle began around 1 p.m. between the Danish navy and the Austrian ships because the Prussian gunboats were too far away. Von Tegetthoff’s first brilliant decision was to make sure that the gunboats were not cut off by the rest of the fleet.


Already at 3.30 p.m. the SMS Schwarzenberg caught fire and could no longer take part in the fight. Von Tegetthoff immediately grasped the situation and had the fight aborted. Under the protection of his cannons, the Prussian-Austrian fleet was able to retreat to the protection of the neutral English waters off Helgoland.

As the Danish flagship Jylland was also badly damaged, the Prussian-Austrian fleet could no longer be followed outside British territorial waters.

The chase ended around 4:30 p.m. The naval battle was over.      

1280px-Slaget_ved_HelgolandPainting of the Battle by Niels Carl Michael Flindt Dahl; Painting is in public domain

Interestingly, in both Denmark and Austria, the result of the battle was seen as a victory. The Danish squadron was enthusiastically celebrated upon arrival in Copenhagen.

Von Tegetthoff was promoted to Rear Admiral in Austria, which was justified by his double correct decision at the right moment.

In Hamburg-Altona there is still a monument to the Austrian marines who died in this battle.

800px-Hamburg.Denkmal.Helgoland1864.wmtMonument to the fallen of the Austrian Navy in Hamburg-Altona, license; Author: W. Meinhardt, without modification adopted by”/media/File:Hamburg.Denkmal.Helgoland1864.wmt.jpg