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Sunday Battleship Blogging: SMS Szent Istvan

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Szent Istvan was the only dreadnought battleship constructed by Hungary. Befitting her unique status, Szent Istvan was named after King Stephen I, the first Christian king of the Magyar people, who lived between 975 and 1038. Szent Istvan carried 12 12″ guns…

What’s that you say? A Hungarian battleship? Hungary has no coast? Hungary, indeed, does not even appear to be close to any coastline? Did they build the ship on a river? Did they build it with wheels? Am I pulling your leg?

All fair questions. SMS Szent Istvan was one of a class of four dreadnoughts built by Austria-Hungary shortly before World War I. The Compromise of 1867 had created a dual administrative structure in the Empire, giving the Hungarian nobility substantial control over their own lands, and making Franz Joseph both King and Emperor. As a precondition of incurring the expense, Hungary demanded that one of the ships be built in a Hungarian yard and be manned by a Hungarian crew. Hungary today has no major naval shipyard (neither does Austria, of course), but the jurisdiction of the Hungarian half of the Empire extended to Fiume, now known as Rijeka in modern Croatia.

SMS Szent Istvan carried 12 12″ guns in four triple turrets, an extremely heavy armament for a ship of her size. The guns were disposed in the modern fashion, with two superfiring turrets at either end. This meant that Szent Istvan and her sisters combined a very heavy broadside with excellent end-on fire. Szent Istvan displaced about 20000 tons and was designed for a speed of 21 knots. The dreadnoughts were very well arranged, with respectable armor for their time period. The major flaw in the design was an almost complete lack of underwater protection; combined with the top heavy armament, this made them very vulnerable to torpedos.

Sadly, the shipyard at Fiume lacked experience with a ship as large as Szent Istvan. While her Austrian sisters entered service between 1912 and early 1914, Szent Istvan was not completed until late 1915. The quality of construction wasn’t quite up to par, and Szent Istvan couldn’t make the same speed as her sisters. This was not a great handicap for most of the war. The Austro-Hungarian Navy rarely left port, instead serving as a “fleet in being” designed to tie down Allied naval forces. In practice, this meant that the French and Italian navies spent most of their time waiting for the Austro-Hungarian Navy to sortie, freeing the Royal Navy up for confrontation with the German High Seas Fleet. This made for a boring war in both theaters of operation.

In February 1918, Emperor Karl I appointed a man named Miklos Horthy Commander-in-Chief of the Austro-Hungarian Navy. Admiral Horthy was not the sort to let the fleet lie in harbor while there was a war on. He authorized the fleet to sortie from Pula in an effort to attack a line of mixed naval defenses known as the Otranto Barrage. Szent Istvan and her sister left Pula on June 9. Unfortunately, it turned out that the workmanship on Szent Istvan had been particularly poor, and she began to vibrate and overheat when ordered to make over 16 knots. The effort also produced an inordinate amount of smoke, which attracted a pair of Italian torpedo boats. Szent Istvan was struck by two torpedos and capsized, although most of her crew was rescued. A film crew on her sister, Tegetthoff, witnessed and recorded the destruction of the ship.

Thus ended the sole major sortie of the Austro-Hungarian Navy, and Hungarian naval power more generally. Miklos Horthy returned to Hungary a war hero, and played an important role in crushing the 1919 Communist revolution. Horthy was named Regent of the Kingdom of Hungary (Karl was not recalled), and ruled until 1944. He helped lead Hungary into World War II on the side of Nazi Germany but, to his credit, resisted German demands to deport Hungarian Jews. He died in Portugal in 1957.

Trivia: What was the first dreadnought battleship sunk by aircraft?

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