The Austro-Hungarian Danube Flotilla

by Erwin Sieche (

The following has been excerpted from "Austro-Hungarian Warships In Photographs, Vol. 2. 1896-1918" by Baumgartner & Sieche, translation courtesy of Erwin Sieche.

With a total length of 2.840-km, from its three sources near Donau-Eschingen to its mouth at the Black Sea near Sulina, the Danube is one of Europe's longest rivers, second only to the Volga. The Romans secured the northern frontier of their huge empire ­the famous 'limes' with walls and moats­, and, for long stretches, included in their defensive system the Danube, on which they kept warships. Since the early days, the Danube was not only an important trade route but also served as a supply line during wars used by the military.

After having settled in Hungary, the Magyars, the 'Nassadists' ruled the river with their rowing boats. The political situation along the Danube became dramatic when the Ottoman Turks advanced into the Balkans and Eastern Europe. When the Hungarians suffered a crushing defeat by the Turks in the Battle of Mohács in 1526, the Hungarian plains lay wide open to the Turkish armies and forced the Habsburgs to react and to build a mighty armada for the Danube. Prinz Eugen's campaigns would have been unthinkable without this fleet. There were not only rowing boats but also sail-frigates being used on the middle and lower Danube. When the borders to the Ottoman Empire were secured and stable, the resourceful Empress Maria Theresia founded the 'Tchaikist' Corps in 1764. Soldiers of this corps were stationed at the 'Theiss-triangle' (Theisswinkel), the confluence of the River Theiss with the Danube. They were mainly engaged in guarding and securing the Danube. They remained in service till 1850, when the Tchaikists and their famous rowing boats, of different standard sizes, disappeared. The days of war between Austria and the Turks were over and nobody saw any more need of keeping war ships on the Danube.

There was a bad awakening during the Austrian-Prussian war in 1866, when the Prussian IInd Army, following Austria's defeat in the battle of Koeniggraetz (Hradec Králové), advanced, without meeting much resistance, almost to the Danube. Only the armistice of Nikolsburg on July 21, the day after the sea battle of Lissa, saved Austria from further calamities and spared Vienna the occupation by victorious Prussians. It was then that the Imperial War Council (Hofkriegsrat) changed its notorious tight fistedness and recognized the need of having a modern fleet on the Danube.

The age of steam ships had started in 1830 when two British engineers and entrepreneurs, John Andrews and Joseph Pritchard, established a ship yard at Floridsdorf ­then a suburb of Vienna­ and launched the first Danube steamship, the Franz I. The I Privilegierte Donau Dampfschiffahrtsgesellschaft (First Privileged Danube Steamship Company) founded a shipyard at the Budapest suburb of Altofen (Óbuda) in 1836, which would eventually turn into Europe's largest riverine shipyard. Some thirty years later, beginning in 1863, an industrial zone was established some miles up-stream from Óbuda/Altofen, at the opposite banks at Újpest, Budapest's 13th District Angyalföld. Industries located there were mainly engaged in producing machines and in ship-building.

Many navies started to build numerous, so-called monitors, in the sixties and seventies of the 19th century. Their design was based on the first turret ship Monitor built by the Swedish engineer John Ericsson for the American Union States. The type of a low deck armored fighting vessel with one or more guns in turrets, proved itself ill-suited for sailing the high seas. Ericssons' Monitor sank at force 7 winds off Cape Hatteras on December 31, 1862. As a consequence this ship design was no longer considered suitable for high-sea operations and no more sea-going monitors were built by the navies of the world.

The k.k. Naval Architect-Inspector Josef von Romako, brother of the famous Biedermeier painter, received orders to design a modern warship for the Danube. He resolved this task brilliantly by orienting himself along the Monitor design but opening new venues in regard to technical equipment. Two years after founding the I. Ungarische Pest-Fiumaner Schiffbau A.G. (Elsö Magyar Pest-Fiumei Hajógyár R.T.), in 1870/71, the Austrian Navy's first two-screw Danube monitors ­Maros and Leitha­ were built there. For the first time an Austrian warship was propelled by two fast running, vertically standing, high pressure engines. One has to know, that in those days common steam-engines were slow-turning low-pressure engines with huge horizontally arranged cylinders. Only after introducing fast running engines and having two engines for propulsion, it became possible to get along with small propellers, imperative, since it was impossible to accommodate bigger screws due to the ships' low draft. For the first time Bessemer steel plates were used for the belt armor, Leitha also got an armored deck--the k.k. Navy's first ships with steel protection. Another new introduction was the arrangement of both guns placed in a revolving deck turret. Advantages of turrets vis-à-vis casemates were lower weight of armor, wider firing angles, and full protection of its gun crew. Two rifled 6in (15)-cm breech loaders, System Wahrendorf, were mounted on fixed sledges. Crude lateral direction was obtained by manually turning the turret, fine tuning was arranged by the ship's maneuvering. It became a tradition from the beginning, that all monitors were named after tributaries of the Danube.

The monitors' designs were the most individual and innovative ever prepared by the A.(-H.) Navy. They were ideally suited for fighting on rivers, offered a small target area, had ­in those days­ an impregnable armor, and superior guns, with their crews protected by armor during battle. Consequently there was no match for them on the Danube for two decades. After that time, however, the Wahrendorf guns were outdated and so were the steam-engines, no longer up to the state of art in steam engine technology.

Naval Architect Josef Thiel designed a new monitor type, 100-t more displacement with nickel-steel armor and, koda's newest 4.7in (12-cm) cal 35 flat trajectory guns in single gun turrets. To be able to fire against hidden targets at higher elevation a 4.7in (12-cm) howitzer was placed aft, albeit without any protection. The boats were driven by two vertical triple expansion engines built by F. Schichau, Elbing (Elblag). The two monitors, named Szamos and Körös, were built by Schoenichen & Hartmann (Magyar Leszámítoló és Pénzváltó Baknak Schönichen-Hartmann-féle egyesült Hájo-, Gép- és Kazangyára) at Budapest/Újpest in 1891/92.

Simultaneously the two predecessors, by then 20 years old, were modernized, receiving new engines and also new 12-cm guns.

In addition the old torpedo boat No. I was transported to the Danube in June 1893. This small craft, 7.5-t displacement, measured 20.7 x 2.61 x 0.6 m and was only armed with a spar-torpedo. First trials showed already that this weapon could be used only when going up-stream. The boat was sold to the company Szohner Károly in August 1907, re-modeled, serving as tug. Sold again to a Mr. Böszörményi at Dunamocs, it was renamed Bandi (nick name for Andras) in 1911. The Hungarian Danube navigation company MFTR rented it during the period 1914­18, it sunk, most likely after an accident, was salvaged and broken up after the war.

Patrouillenboot a (Patrol boat) was procured from F. Schichau, Elbing in 1894. It had a displacement of 33-t, measured 22 x 3.5 x 1.1 m and was armed with an 8-mm machine-gun.

From then on, new monitors were built in ten year intervals: Temes (I) and Bodrog in 1903/04, by Danubius-Schoenichen-Hartmann vereinigte Schiff- und Maschinenbau A.G. (Danubius-Schoenichen-Hartmann egyesült Hajó- és Gépgyar R.T.)(1) at Budapest/Újpest; followed by the Enns and Inn with 526-t displacement, built by a branch of STT at Linz in 1913-14.

The Navy budget of 1914/15 provided for two more monitors, No IX and No X that were built within one year at the Linz shipyard and commissioned as Sava and Bosna [ex -Temes (II)] in the fall of 1915. These river vessels belonged to the few units that were actually built with funds from the last Navy expansion budget, since the Navy had expressed its willingness to freeze the Navy Special Credit of 426.8 million kronen till after the war, when a new fleet program would be submitted to the Parliamentary Delegations.

There were plans to replace the 46 year old veterans Maros and Leitha by two 1.240-t displacement monitors in 1916. They were to be armed with 7.5in (19-cm) and 3.5in (9-cm) guns. The new ships ­monitor No XI and No XII­ were planned for construction from 1917-18, but were never completed by the Linz shipyard.

Fast patrol boats with low draft were provided to complement the Danube flotilla, mainly for dispatch and reconnaissance duties. Since Patrouillenboot a did not meet expectations, Patrouillenboot b was ordered from Danubius in 1905/06. It had a displacement of 36.5-t and measured 28 x 4.4 x 0.4-m and was armed with two 8-mm machine-guns. It was paid off on August 23, 1915.

Two patrol boats ­c and d­ were ordered from a domestic yard at Lustenau at the Bodensee in 1908/09. They had a displacement of 39-t and measured 30 x 4.4 x 0.7-m and were also armed with two 8-mm machine-guns. Both were lost during the war:

Patrouillenboot c was scuttled at Pancsova on September 9, 1914 and Patrouillenboot d was sunk by Serbian artillery at Belgrade on May 15, 1915.

The next two patrol boats ­e and f­ were built in Glasgow in 1907/08, displaced 12-t and measured 18 x 2.7 x 0.4-m and were armed with one 8-mm machine-gun. Patrouillenboot e was paid off and sold in 1913. Patrouillenboot f was renamed Stör (I) in December 1916 and transferred to the Adriatic Lagoon flotilla 'Aqueduct' mid of March 1917, where it served as PM 1 (i.e. armored motor-boat 1). No information is available regarding its fate but with all probability it became Italian in 1920.

Patrouillenboote g and h followed. They were built by Danubius Schiffs- und Maschinenbau A.G. (Danubius Hajó- és Gépgyár R.T.) Budapest/Újpest in 1909. They had a displacement of 15-t and measured 18 x 2.7 x 0.4-m, were armed with one rapid fire 37-mm gun and two 8-mm machine-guns. Patrouillenboot g was scuttled at Pancsova on September 10, 1914. Patrouillenboot h was renamed Lachs (II) in December 1916 and transferred to the Lagoon flotilla 'Aqueduct' in mid-March 1917, serving as PM 2 (i.e. armored motor boat 2). Similar to PM 1 its further fate is unknown.

The Navy budget 1914/15 allocated funds for two 60-t and four 120-t patrol vessels. The smaller 60-t boats i and k were built within one year at the DDSG shipyard at Budapest/Óbuda ­which had lost all his private orders due to the outbreak of the war­ commissioned end 1915, and early 1916 respectively. In the meantime it was decided to name the patrol boats after fish occurring in the Danube: i became Fogas (pike-perch) and k Csuka (pike).

The larger 120-t boats, l, m, n, and o were also built within one year by Ganz & Co. ­ Danubius Maschinen-, Waggon- und Schiffbau A.G. (Ganz és tarsa ­ Danubius Gép- Waggon- és Hajógyár R.T.) at Budapest/Újpest and commissioned on March 14, March 28, and April 28, 1916 respectively. Their names: Wels ex-l (cat-fish), Barsch ex-m (perch), Compó ex-n (tench), Viza ex-o (sterlet).

Three more 120-t boats were ordered from Ganz & Co. ­ Danubius but were not completed till 1918. Boats p and q were named Stör (II) (sturgeon) and Lachs (II) (salmon). Patrouillenboot r was launched in 1918 but never commissioned and broken up in Hungary.

The first shots of World War I were fired by units of the Danube Flotilla during the night of July 28 to 29, 1914, only a few hours after the Declaration of War had been transmitted. The Flotilla saw action while supporting the Army Group Potiorek and suffered casualties. On August 4, 1914 Körös took six direct hits when closing in on a camouflaged Serbian battery, trying to provoke its fire, thus, forcing it to reveal its position.

Temes (I), Körös, the auxiliary mine sweeper Andor, and patrol boat b, coming from the Danube, broke through a Serbian mine barrage and entered the Save River, despite heavy shelling on September 28, 1914. For this successful undertaking, Linienschiffsleutnant (Lt.Cdr./Lt. Sen.) Olaf Richard Wulff, the commanding officer, received the Knights Cross of the prestigious Military-Maria-Theresia-Order in 1922. Leitha was badly damaged by Serbian artillery and put out of action temporarily; all its guns had been silenced, the conning tower took a direct hit and all its crew killed. Leitha was the first monitor that had to go to Slavonic-Mitrovica for substantial repairs. Temes (I) sank after hitting a mine in the Save on October 23, 1914. The ship was salvaged some time later, repaired and re-commissioned at Budapest on April 23, 1917. Consequently the new monitor under construction, i.e. Temes (II) was renamed Bosna. Enns and Temes suffered leaks through artillery hits during the taking of Belgrade on October 8, 1915. They could be moved from the battle zone only after dark. During the Romanian campaign Bodrog took five, Körös twelve direct hits on October 2, 1916. Inn sank during the return of the Ist Monitor Division from Cernavoda to Breila, due to hitting a mine, the Danube Flotilla's Chief of Staff, Korvettenkapitän (Cdr.) von Förster was killed. He is buried in a grave of honor that the City of Vienna had erected in Vienna's Central Cemetery. Inn was salvaged in November and repairs started at Budapest in spring 1918. At the same time the ship was converted, extending it by 2.4-m. Works were not completed by the end of the war due to materials shortages.

The war required expansion of the Danube Flotilla which was accomplished by establishing three groups, each consisting of two armed steam ships, a river mining unit, and a supply unit. In addition four hospital ships and twelve hospital barges were put into service.

Following the armistice of Focsani with Romania on December 9, 1917 and with Russia at Brest-Litowsk on December 15, units of the Danube Flotilla sailed across the Black Sea and reached Odessa on April 12, 1918. After an extended stay there, the Flotilla called later on Nikolajev, Akkermann, Ocakov, Cherson, and Kamenka and went up-stream the rivers Bug and Dnjepr, with Barsch going up-stream past Alexandrovsk. The Flotilla Wulff returned from Odessa to the mouth of the Danube during the period September 9 to 12. On October 13 units of the Danube Flotilla relocated from Romania to the assembly point Turnu-Severin, and as of October 28 it covered the army's retreat from Serbia. During this operation Bodrog foundered during fog near Visnica, had to be abandoned and was taken by the Serbs.

The Danube Flotilla arrived in Budapest on November 6, 1918, moored at the DDSG shipyard's Óbuda harbor, and was ceremoniously paid off. The Danube Flotilla had ceased to exist. The Austrians and Czechs bade farewell to their Hungarian comrades and continued their home journey to Vienna on board the paddle-wheelers Erzherzog Franz Ferdinand and Hebe. The final fate and disposal was determined by the Naval Allied Commission for the Disposal of ex-Enemy Vessels (NACDEV), a commission established by the peace conference in Paris to oversee the final use of former enemy ships. The NACDEV sub-commission for the Danube arrived in Vienna on October 2, 1920 to start its work.

A thorough presentation of the ships' fates and renaming during the war's aftermath in Central Europe, the time between the wars, and during the Second World War would exceed available space. For the interested reader there exists literature, especially Paul J. Kemp, Die Royal Navy auf der Donau 1918-1925, Graz 1988.

1 Due to continuous amalgamation of Hungarian machine and ship-building industries, names of enterprises changed frequently. Compare with the entry for Danubius in the chapter "The financiers and the shipyards".

Last Updated: 30 December, 2000.

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