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The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • Reichley: Story of small battle is for our Navy friends

  • Since the U.S. Navy was established on Oct. 13, 1775, October was the month for a formal ball put on by CGSC. I was invited for many years to provide a historical display, which I am always happy to do. I also wrote a column about the Navy.
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  • Since the U.S. Navy was established on Oct. 13, 1775, October was the month for a formal ball put on by CGSC. I was invited for many years to provide a historical display, which I am always happy to do. I also wrote a column about the Navy.
    But I haven't heard of a Navy Ball the past few years, however that does not mean Navy personnel are not still my buddies. So here is a naval column, but not starring the U.S. Navy.
    As part of my self-imposed professional reading program as a volunteer and interpreter (most places call us tour guides), at the National WW I Museum in Kansas City, I'm currently reading The German Wars 1859-1945.
    The book has several "side bars" that are not about the subject, but are interesting. One is about the little known Battle of Lissa between the Austrian and Italian navies in July 1866. Italian Count Carlo de Pellion di Persano, called by the author "one of the worst commanders in the annals of naval history," commanded the Italian forces.
    Adm. Wilhelm von Tegetthoff, a generation younger, was the Austrian commander. The battle began badly when the Italians captured the island of Lissa but didn't cut the telegraph cable for several days, which allowed the Austrian fleet to be alerted and arrive quickly.
    The Italian force was stronger with more ships. But the Austrian commander was much more aggressive and decisive. Persano suddenly decided to change his flagship from the Re d'Italia to the newer and larger British-built Afondatore.
    But he didn't tell the captains of his other ships, who throughout the battle kept looking for signal flags from the Re d'Italia. And when his ship halted to allow him to board the Afondatore, the ships in line ahead of it kept going, while those behind it slowed, causing a big gap in the line.
    The new ship didn't have a set of signal flags, which wouldn't have mattered much as the captains kept looking for signals from the Re d'Italia, which never came.
    Tegetthoff did not rely on signals, but led his fleet personally. As the Austrians headed for the gap in the Italian line, he gave only two signals: "charge the enemy and sink him," and "ram everything gray (the color of the Italian ships)."
    The Austrian ships sailed through the gap in the Italian lines, with everyone firing at everything. So many steam-powered ships soon cast a blackened pall that reduced visibility to about 200 yards. In the resulting confusion Persano steamed madly about signaling his captains, who during the whole battle kept looking for signals from the Re d'Italia.
    An Austrian ship fitted with a ram hit the Re d'Italia, sinking it in minutes. It was soon joined at the bottom of the sea by the Palestro. Persano chose to withdraw the rest of his fleet, and Tegetthoff, with his much smaller force, chose not to pursue.
    Page 2 of 2 - During the half hour or so of the battle, the Austrians lost 38 men killed and 138 wounded. No ships were lost. The Italians lost 600 men killed and 200 wounded, with two ships sunk.
    Every battle has what future generations call "lessons learned." There were many in this little known battle. For the immediate future the ram bow was the new wave for ship battles. Its effectiveness lasted only until the fast moving wheels of technology caused naval battles to become much more "far away and impersonal."
    Long distance guns and armored plating soon sent ramming the way of the buggy whip and horseshoe.
    So, in this scribe's first October column, I give a tip of an aging cavalryman's Stetson to all Navy personnel, past and present.
    John Reichley is a retired Army officer and retired Department of the Army civilian employee.

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