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Italian map showing Lake Garda on the frontier between Italy and Austria, 1866

The naval operations on Lake Garda in 1866 during the Third Italian War of Independence consisted of a series of clashes between flotillas of the Kingdom of Italy and the Austrian Empire between 25 June and 25 July that year, as they attempted to secure dominance of the lake. The Austrian fleet, larger, more modern and better-armed, successfully maintained control of the waters, hindering the movement of Italian troops.

Background[edit | edit source]

aerial view of the Austrian fortress of Peschiera del Garda

At the outset of the war, the border between Austria and Italy ran down the middle of the lake.[1] The Brescia region to the west lay within Italy while Verona and the lands east of the lake were Austrian. Austria controlled Riva del Garda at the northern tip of the lake, as well as the important fortress of Peschiera del Garda on the west bank of the River Mincio at its southern end. Peschiera was part of the so-called 'Quadrilateral' of strong core Austrian defences,[2] leaving the exposed eastern shore of Lake Garda an area of potential weakness, vulnerable to Italian infiltration.[3] This might have involved a strike from the north end of the Lake up the valley of the Chiese river to threaten Trento and cut off the supply lines of the Austrian forces in the Veneto.[4] It might also have involved a landing of forces behind Peschiera to threaten Verona. On the Italian side, the buildup of Austrian naval strength caused concerns about a possible Austrian attack across the lake towards Brescia.

The Opposing Forces[edit | edit source]

The Austrian paddle steamer 'Hess'

During the years before 1866 war Austria had built up a powerful flotilla of steam-powered screw gunboats on Lake Garda.[3] The Garda flotilla had seen little action during the 1859 war against France, and afterwards the Emperor Franz Josef, on the suggestion of his brother, Navy Commander Archduke Ferdinand Max, moved It from army to navy control. With its headquarters in Torri del Benaco on the east bank of the lake, supported by the fortified bases at Peschiera and Riva del Garda, it Included 22 boats: 6 modern screw-driven gunboats - 'Wildfang', 'Raufbold', 'Wespe', 'Uskoke', 'Scharfschütze' and 'Speiteufeland', 2 large armed paddlesteamers, the 'Hess' and the 'Franz Joseph' a dozen launches, a pair of armed barges at Peschiera for use as floating batteries, a half-dozen unarmed sailboats for scouting purposes and the 3rd Marine Infantry Company stationed at Peschiera,[3] giving a total armament of 62 cannons and 10 mortars. In May this flotilla was placed under the command of Corvetten-Capitän Moriz Manfroni von Manfort, a well-known gunnery expert. He first placed his flag on board the 'Hess', with its larger and more comfortable accommodation, but shifted his command to the more effective 'Speiteufel' on 10 June as war appeared imminent.[3]

Augusto Elia.jpg

Augusto Elia

The Italian Garda squadron had its headquarters on the west bank of the lake in Salò. It consisted of two Italian-built wooden steam gunboats, the 'Solferino' and 'San Martino', a third steam gunboat, the 'Torrione', donated by Napoleon III in 1859 (the Frassineto, Castenedolo and Pozzolengo, also donated by Napoleon, were out of service at the start of the conflict), and the paddle steamer 'Verbania', later renamed the 'Benaco'. It also included a company of light infantry, the "Cacciatori di Garda", and once war broke out more ground forces were attached, including the 1st Battalion of the 10th Volunteer Regiment from Garibaldi's corps and a detachment of seven heavy guns. The Italians gathered as many sailboats and other small craft as they could and concentrated them at their base at Salò at the southwestern corner of the lake for possible use in amphibious assaults across the lake. The flotilla was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Augusto Elia.[5]

Operations[edit | edit source]

Gargnano being bombarded by the Austrian navy, 1866

At the start of hostilities of 25 June, the Austrians immediately sailed out to threaten Salo and prevent any movement of Italian troops. On June 30, the Austrian ships bombarded the railway station at Desenzano, a supply and communications point for the Italian Volunteer Corps of Giuseppe Garibaldi, but caused only minor damage.[3] More substantial action took place on July 2, at 5 am, when four Austrian gunboats, including the Hess and Franz Joseph, bombarded the village of Gargnano,[6] where there was a strong concentration of Garibaldi's forces. The bombardment caused extensive damage to homes, one dead and eight wounded among the defending volunteers of the 2nd Regiment. The fleet enemy was eventually compelled to withdraw under fire from an Italian battery commanded by Captain Achille Afan de Rivera.

Other skirmishes took place on the lake every few days, but the next significant combat occurred on July 19 when the Italian paddle steamer 'Benaco' head out from Salo and up near Gargnano, towing the raft 'Poeta' carrying supplies for the volunteers in the mountains of Valvestino and Tremosine. The 'Benaco' was suddenly attacked by two Austrian gunboats, the Wildfang and Schwarzschűtze, which forced it in to shore where the crew and supplies could be landed during the night. The next morning the Austrians were able to capture the stranded 'Benaco' and tow it away as a prize to Peschiera.[3]

The final action of the war took place at the north end of the lake. After skirmishes on the lake on 24 July, Manfroni learned that the Austrian army had abandoned Riva del Garda, which was one of his key supply points. To prevent the town falling to Garibaldi, he steamed north and occupied the fortifications in the town with his marines, and on 25 July his forces were able to hold off Garibaldi's volunteers until nightfall. At 10 p.m. the 'Hess' arrived with a telegram confirming that a cease-fire had been declared between Austria and Italy.[3]

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The Austrian fleet succeeded in dominating the lake until the end of the war, preventing any movement of Italian forces onto the eastern shore. It also hindered the movement of Italian supplies along the west coast and slowed down any effective attack into the Chiesa valley.

The Austrian flotilla did not long outlive the war. The armistice of 25 July was followed by the Treaty of Vienna in which Austria ceded Venetia to Italy. After this all of Lake Garda fell within Italian territory except for the northern tip around Riva del Garda, which remained part of Austria. Austria therefore sold its Garda fleet to Italy for one million florins.[3]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Stone, Norman, ed (1989). The Times Atlas of World History (3rd ed.). Times Books. pp. 227. ISBN 0-7230-0304-1. 
  2. Venetia redeemed; Franco-Italian relations, 1864-1866, John W. Bush Syracuse University Press, 1967, p.3
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 "Avalanche Press". Avalanche Press. http://www.avalanchepress.com/1866Gunboats.php. Retrieved 2016-09-10. 
  4. Review of the Austro-Italian War, 1866, Captain Walter James Wyatt, Edward Stanford, London 1867 p.13
  5. Bezzecca 1866: la Campagna Garibaldina fra l'Adda e il Garda, Ugo Zaniboni Ferino, Museo Trentino del Risorgimento e della Lotta per la Libertà, 1987 p.183
  6. Guerra Italo-Prussiana contro l'Austria nel 1866, Giovanni Cecchini, Giovanni Cecchini, Venice 1871 p.767

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