Unknown Sailors — Presenting Some of History’s Lesser-Known Navies

Despite being almost totally landlocked, Austria had a navy up until World War One. Image courtesy WikiMedia.

Despite being almost totally landlocked, Austria had a navy up until World War One. Image courtesy WikiMedia.

Some nations are known for their legendary naval exploits: The Phoenicians, Athenians, Venetians, Spaniards and English all made history on the high seas. Then there are the navies that few have never heard of and others have forgotten. And while they may not have been as large or had the same reach as the major sea powers of their respective eras, in their own way, each left its mark on maritime military history. Let’s meet a few of this lesser-known navies throughout the centuries.

Scotland’s maritime history has been largely overshadowed by the more substantial and storied navy of its neighbor to the south – England. Despite this, over a period of about 600 years, various kings of Scotland built relatively sizable fleets. Originally founded in the 11th Century as a defence against Viking raiders, Scotland’s first navy of sorts consisted of oar and sail powered longboats, some captured from the Norsemen themselves.During the subsequent wars for Scottish independence, the country turned its attention inwards and put virtually no warships to sea. This changed with Robert the Bruce who reigned from 1306 until 1329. In his latter years, the famed ruler ordered the building of at least one man-of-war for Scotland.

It wasn’t until the era of King James I that Scotland became serious about establishing a permanent navy. In the 1420s, the ruler ordered the construction of a dedicated shipyard that would be used to launch a trade fleet and a small navy. Under James II (1437 to 1460), the fledgling Scottish fleet would equip its ships with cannon. James III (1460 to 1488), whose disastrous rule would be marred by internal strife, mostly used his two sail ships, the Yellow Caravel and the Flower, in battles against his own nobles.

However, under his son James IV (1488 to 1513), Scotland’s navy would reach its peak. Not only did the force grow to 38 ships, the vessels themselves were put to work successfully sweeping Scottish waters of English, Danish and Portuguese privateers. James IV also added new shipyards and under his reign the first Lord High Admiral position was established. Most significantly, during these years the Scots built what was reported to be the largest warship in the world at the time. The 240-foot-long, 1,000-ton Great Michael had a crew of 1,000 and carried the famous Mons Meg cannon, a 22-inch behemoth of a weapon that has the distinction as being the largest-caliber gun in history. Launched in 1512, the Scots found the Michael far too costly to maintain. Within two years, she was sold to France. Her new owners renamed her The Big Ship of Scotland and turned her loose on the English. Later, she would fight at the Battle of Solent in 1545 sinking one English ship.

Scotland relied largely on privateers in subsequent wars with England, but by the 1600s, Scottish ships were fighting alongside English vessels in various wars against France and Spain. By the 18th Century, Scotland’s maritime forces were folded into Great Britain’s.

The navy of the Lone Star Republic was first formed in 1836 during the country’s war for independence from Mexico. Under the command of Charles Hawkins, the small fleet was responsible for raiding Mexican shipping in the Gulf of Mexico and preventing the enemy from resupplying the army of General Santa Anna, which occupied parts of Texas at the time. The navy was made up of four fast schooners bought by agents of the republic: the Liberty, the Independence, the Brutus and the Invincible. While their efforts may have contributed to the defeat of the under-supplied army of Santa Ana, all four of the ships would be lost, captured or sunk by year’s end.

Within three years, the newly-independent Republic of Texas would acquire six new vessels and establish its second navy. Under the command of Commodore Edwin Moore, the revived fleet would defend the Texas coast while raiding Mexican harbours and shipping. The force’s greatest action would be at the Battle of Campeche in 1843, when the sloop Austin and the brig Wharton would challenge the Mexican steamships Montezuma and Guadalupe. According to some accounts, this battle is the only occasion in which sailing vessels would fight more modern steam-powered warships to a draw. While not at that particular battle, the Texas navy had its own steam-powered warship too, the Zavala. It was supposedly the first of its kind in any navy in North America. The Texas navy would eventually be integrated into the U.S. Navy in 1846 when the Republic joined the Union.

Historically a landlocked power, Austria had little need or opportunity to become a naval power. All that changed in 1797 when a treaty with Napoleon saw Austria suddenly in possession of Venice along with a stretch of coastline and port cities on the Adriatic Sea.Within five years, Austria’s Archduke Charles established a naval academy in Venice. Although the school would run for 100 years, at first it trained largely Venetian officers to command Venetian ships crewed by Venetian mariners. In fact, supposedly the only thing Austrian about the Austrian navy initially was the red and white flags its vessels ran up the masthead.

In 1837, Charles’ son, Archduke Friedrich joined this so-called Austrian navy at the age of 16 and quickly began making waves. On his rise to the top, the young Habsburg commanded a vessel by the name of Guerriera during the Oriental Crisis of 1840. The brief conflict involved the Egyptian rebel Mohammed Ali seizing for himself Turkish holdings in his own country as well as Syria. Friedrich’s ship took part in a joint British, Prussian, Austrian and Ottoman action against Sidon and Beirut. Later he would personally lead a multinational shore party to capture an Egyptian garrison at Acre. The young royal was awarded Knight of the Military Order of Maria Theresa for his leadership in the campaign and became Austria’s first maritime hero and champion of the country’s burgeoning navy. Until Friedrich, few ordinary Austrians even knew or cared that their country had a navy. Within four years, Friedrich would rise to become commander in chief of the Austrian fleet and would begin a personal mission to transform his country’s navy into a truly Austrian institution. Although Friedrich died a year later, his successors would continue his reforms.

In the 1850s, the navy would grow to incorporate four frigates, six corvettes, seven brigs, and a number of smaller ships. By the 1860s, the Austrian navy was commissioning steam powered gunboats. The fleet would see its first major action in the 1864 when it sailed from the Mediterranean to the North Sea to take part in Prussia and Austria’s second war with Denmark. Two years later the navy would be in action again, this time against the Italians in that country’s third war for independence. Although the Austrians were vastly outnumbered, they prevailed in a number of encounters with the Italians. It was the first war in which two European navies would fight each other with ironclads.

The Austrian navy continued to expand after its union with Hungary. It would go on to take part in various polar expeditions and would contribute vessels and marines to the multinational response to the Chinese Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a keen naval enthusiast, pushed for Austria to develop four of its own dreadnaught-style battleships in the years leading up to 1914: SMS Tegetthoff, SMS Viribus Unitis, SMS Prinz Eugen and SMS Szent Istvan (“SMS” stands for His Majesty’s Ship in German).

The 33,000-strong Austrian navy would play a limited role in the First World War – largely acting as a check on French and Italian sea power in the Mediterranean. Although the fleet of surface vessels, its naval air arm and its 27 German-supplied U-boats would clash mostly with the Italians, the wartime contribution of the kuk Kriegsmarine (the official name for the Austrian-Hungarian navy) was only marginally significant. Following the war and the dissolution of the Dual Monarchy, Austria once again found itself landlocked. While from the 1950s to 2006, the Austrian army maintained a small force of river boats, today the country has no navy to speak of.

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