|Trawlers leaving Taranto for Barrage duties (IWM Q 63041)|
|Mikos Horthy commanded the Austro-Hungarian cruisers|
The second force consisted of three light Cruisers of the modified Spauna class, SMS Helgoland under the command of Captain Neyesler, SMS Saida commanded by Captain Pinschka and the SMS Novara acting as Linienschiffeleutnant Nikos Horthy's flag ship. The three cruisers were amongst Austria's newest and most modern ships with a top speed of 27 knots but with a relatively weak battery of nine 3.1" guns. The three cruisers struck out of Cattaro at 10 p.m. and headed south. Admiral Njegovan had also dispatched several U-boats out into the Adriatic to sew confusion and watch for Allied response with the U-4 watching Valona harbour, the UC-35 to mine the main naval base at Brindisi whilst the U-27 patrolled between Brindisi and Cattaro with aerial reconnaissance flights prepared for the morning and a taskforce of torpedo boats led by the armoured Cruiser SMS Sankt Georg to act as support.
Admiral Mark Kerr, the British Commander of the Adriatic force wrote in his dispatch that:
Undoubtedly the Austro-Hungarian cruisers behaved most chivalrously. Whenever a drifter put up a fight and refused to surrender, it was noticeable the most of the guns of the broadside were directed not to hit the fishing-boat, and the shots went wide and they left their plucky little adversary afloat and passed on. It was keeping up the ancient tradition of chivalry at sea. (1)
With the Drifter line successfully decimated and distress flares and wireless messages being sent by the tiny vessels Horthy gave the order for his cruisers to withdraw to home waters before they attracted too much Allied attention. In their wake they left fourteen drifters sinking.
Acton soon received reports of what had been happening at the Barrage and a wireless message from the French destroyer Commandant Bory reported sing the Austrians at 4:30 a.m. but had been unable to shadow or transmit until 5:30 a.m. as she was chasing the U-4. Now his forces had to intercept two separate forces.
At 6:45 a.m. the Mirabello and her four destroyers (Boutefou, Commandant Rivière, Cimeterre and Bisson) positively sighted Horthy’s cruisers and at 7:00 a.m. at a range of 9300 yards they opened fire with their first salvo but the returning heavy fire from the Austrian ships proved too much for the smaller Allied ships and they fell back into a shadowing position in an action that took no more than seven minutes.
Acton’s force was sailing at 24 knots towards the gulf of Drin and were approximately 245 miles north west of the Csepel and the Belaton and 46 miles North-north west of Horthy’s retreating vessels. Unsure of the Austrian’s exact position Acton detached the Aquilla and Balston to reconnoitre towards Cape Mendes heading off at 35 knots. By 8 a.m. the Italian vessels engaged the two Austrian destroyers at 12,500 yards but within half an hour the Aquilla had been disabled with her boilers hit by Csepel. With the enemy disabled the two Austro-Hungarian vessels moved into the relative safety of home waters under the guns of the shore batteries around Cattaro.
Acton sent a request to Brindisi for assistance from HMS Liverpool the Marsela and Bacchiawhilst he took position around the damaged Aquilla
In Brindisi harbour Captain G. H. Vivian of HMS Liverpool, the senior British Naval Officer was losing his patients behind a cool exterior. The Liverpool had raised steam and been ready for action for an hour but Admiral Bollo, Commander of the Pisa division informed him it was “not necessary” and on his second petition at 9 a.m. the freshly arrived Admiral Revel refused to allow the Liverpool beyond the harbour’s outer walls.
Vivian had been receiving regular updates of the fleet action and was well aware of the situation faced by Acton’s vessels.
As the first British shells landed in the Novara’s course Horthy ordered a smoke screen deployed to envelope his vessels from sight in the hope the Allies would get closer and fall within the range of his guns and torpedoes. As the smoke cleared the Austrians headed north firing on the Allied destroyers that had got close and also the Mirabello which had arrived on their port side.
The ensuing gun battle at between 5000 and 8400 yards was intense with the Bristol and the Dartmouth firing accurately at SMS Novara’s chartroom was destroyed, a gun put out of action and fires started on deck. Horthy was struck by shrapnel that shredded his hat, singed his uniform down to his flesh and embedded five chunks into his leg. He was brought back to consciousness by a blast of cold water thrown over him to extinguish his burning clothes and moved to a stretcher on the foredeck to watch proceedings. He was lucky as the ship’s First Officer, Lieutenant Szuborits, was killed and so control of the ship passed to Gunnery Lieutenant Witkowski who commanded from exposed upper bridge directing the vessels guns personally.
The Allies were not faring well either with the Commandant Rivière halted by condenser issues and the Mirabello with water in her oil. Both vessels were guarded by the destroyers Cimeterre and the Bisson in case of U-boat attack. HMS Dartmouth was carrying the battle on her own as the Bristol’s filthy bottom slowed her down leaving her unable to keep up but it was a task that the Dartmouth was able to do with ease. With the Novara disabled by a direct hit on the turbine chamber destroying the condenser pipe line meaning the boilers had to be extinguished the cruiser began to slow and the Dartmouth was free to attack the Saida but soon turned to meet the Italian protected cruiser Marsale as she approached to assist.
The battle was far from over however as one Italian destroyer, Acerbi, attempting a torpedo run only to be dissuaded by the Austro-Hungarian fire. Acton, realising too late that he had missed a golden opportunity, withdrew for Brindisi with his damaged vessels in tow.
All was not plain sailing however as the force cruised through the Adriatic Kapitänleutnant
|KptLt Johannes Feldkirchner|
Following receiving news that the action was over from HMS Dartmouth at midday Vivian would have begun to calm down with the emergency passed although the language of his reports to the Admiralty show that his frustration was not far from the surface. At 2 p.m. news came to Brindisi from HMS Bristol that the Dartmouth had been torpedoed.
Vivian's first reaction was to get to the Dartmouth as quickly as possible and to the British vessel as well as save British lives but again he was refused permission to leave port. The French destroyer Boutefeu had been forced to return to Brindisi earlier that morning due to a condenser issue but was now ready to depart. Vivian went to petition his Italian counterparts for permission to accompany the French only to see the destroyer leave port. Vivian's growing frustration must have been tempered by horror and a certain amount of relief as a large explosion filled the air as the Boutefeu struck one of Feldkirchner's mines just beyond the boon defence. The destroyer quickly sank in a matter of seconds.
With the situation worsening on the Dartmouth, her captain, Addison, ordered the crew aboard the escorting destroyers but remained with a volunteer party who tried to save the ship. With their attempts successful and with the aid of a tug the cruiser limped into harbour by 3:00 a.m. the following morning. The fore of the cruiser was completely wrecked and only her armoured deck had kept the vessel together and it was sometime before she was operational again costing the Allies one of their more powerful cruisers.
Following the battle of Otranto barrage the Allies took stock of the situation and of the losses that had occurred. A very British response came from Admiral Mark Kerr, the Royal Navy's C-in-C of the Adriatic fleet based on HMS Queen in Taranto harbour;
It is quite certain that until some British destroyers are attached to the barrage for purposes of defence and 'E' type submarines for purposes of offence; that the Barrage can be raided by the Austrians same manner as here to fore. (3)
He went on to criticise the Allied naval forces.
The temperament of our Allies, who at present supply the destroyers and submarines for the barrage, is not suited for patrol work. Even their fast cruisers take some time as a rule to get to sea when the alarm is raised. A proper British force under a British Admiral would put n end to these raids (4)
Kerr's report acknowledged the bravery of the trawler forces but noted that the Austrian raid was the biggest they had seen so far. Steps were taken to only deploy the drifters by day for their protection and increase the standing patrols but these measures meant the Central Powers were free to move their U-boats and surface ships by night.
Another observation came from the frustrated Captain Vivian who pointed out that the Italian Navy had neglected to share codes with their Allies. This in itself was not an issue and to be expected if they did not want their Allies to understand certain aspects but on a shared frequency it is some what problematic. As Vivian stated in his report to Kerr, he head the following Communique:-
UX to FU "Ships in sight Otranto strait." - I had no idea who "UX" was nor "FU" was.
One other inconsistency that could easily be rectified was that some of the vessels were using local time an others, like the Liverpool, followed Admiralty directives and set their chronometers to Central European time.
A further complication was the use of maps and radio usage with the Mirabello's square map being numbered poorly or her radio signals poorly coded which led to confusion as to her actual position and when the Aquilla reported that she as disabled and in need of a tow they did not give a position so only Acton on the Dartmouth knew what was going on.
For the Austro-Hungarians it was a well received victory having suffered no losses and sweeping away enough trawlers to open the barrage at night as well as sinking two destroyers and damaging the Allies' cruisers. The whole operation proved the Austro-Hungarian navy was still a force that needed to be dealt with in the strategic situation in the Mediterranean.
1 – Horthy, M. “Memoirs”, Hutchinson & Co, London, 1956 p. 85)
2 - The Navy Record society, "The War in the Mediterranean1915-1918", Temple Smith, Aldershot, 1987 p.251
3 - Ibid p.257
4 - Ibid p.258
5- Ibid p. 256