Austro-Hungarian Cruisers and Destroyers 1914-1918 from Osprey publishing is another book in the enormous New Vanguard series. The books look at specific weapons systems or aspects of military forces throughout history, with an emphasis on facts, nuts and bolts, armour plating and armaments as a resource for military history enthusiasts, wargamers and historical modellers.
The production standard, for a thin 48 page paperback book, is high. Throughout the book, every page is illustrated with archive photos, artist’s impressions or schematics. As well as schematics, there are a number of artists impressions showing the ships in action. The black and white photos from historic archive sources are captioned well and clear.
The detailed illustrations by Paul Wright show the ships in both profile and aerial views complete with useful labelling of key design features and specifications. Sadly, in a number of cases, the figures given for armour thickness differ in Noppen’s text and the specification table; for example, SMS Kaiser Karl VI is reported as having an armoured belt of 221mm (220mm in the specs) reducing to 180mm (170mm in the specs) and casement armour of 76mm (80mm in the specs). Whilst these minor discrepancies don’t affect the thrust of the book, it does mean that the specialist researcher would be left with a feeling of uncertainty.
Ryan Noppen’s text initially takes the reader on a type by type tour of the ships, looking at commission dates, design decisions, features and fate of each ship. In the opening sections, Noppen makes reference to a number of naval strategic theories such as Mahan’s “Fleet in being” and the “Jeune Ecole” theories; here the text could have benefited from a little more explanation for non-specialist readers.
The k.u.k. Kriegsmarine (Austro-Hungarian Navy) wrestles with the same procurement themes as all the great powers in the run up to the war, that of balancing limited resources, timing and political considerations to deliver the best combination of military hardware at the time it’s needed. Despite the political need to allocate ship building projects to Austrian and Hungarian shipyards in agreed proportions and limited experience in developing the most modern ships, the Austro-Hungarians seem to have navigated these constraints pretty well. Certainly, the k.u.k. Kriegsmarine seems to have had sufficient ships of sufficient capability by the time the war broke out to secure the Adriatic.
The second half of the book covers naval operations undertaken by the Austro-Hungarian navy in the Adriatic. Here Noppen recounts the key actions chronologically, giving the facts and strategic outcomes in a straightforward and competent style. Most remarkable here is the value of the destroyer fleet, relatively small ships with an ability to stage hit and run raids that seem to have established a clear moral and physical superiority over the Italian navy. The story of the Italian declaration of the war and how the Austro-Hungarians seized the initiative is a remarkable feat of arms; not every commander would have the guts to reverse a destroyer, the Scharfschütze (translated Sharpshooter), into a harbour in order to shoot the place up!
One omission in the text on operations is a map to orient the reader who, like me, may not have paid attention in Geography classes on the days the Adriatic was covered. A simple map could have covered the whole scope of the book and added much to the descriptive text. After the anti-blockade operations of the Otranto Straits and the major battle of May 1917, where Austro-Hungarian bombers played a significant role, Noppen covers the end of the war, when collapsing morale and shortages led to a partial mutiny. Finally, he relates how the fleet was split between the victorious powers, detailing how ships were renamed and commissioned into the French, Greek and Italian navies. A detailed index and bibliography concludes the package.
As a specialist summary of a detailed aspect of the Austro-Hungarian naval effort, this book does its job well and acts as a good introduction to the subject matter. It is obvious that the scope and scale of this aspect of the war will always be limited, for example, the reader will be conscious that they’re only getting a “small ship” view of the Austro-Hungarian navy. Of course, the nice people at Osprey have thought of this and the accompanying book in the series, Austro-Hungarian Battleships 1914-1918 by the same authors, should fill in the gaps!