Thursday, 1 November 2018

The loss of SMS Viribus Unitis

The Navy of the short-lived State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs suffered the loss of its flagship and Commanding Admiral within its first day of existence without leaving port.

   As the Austro-Hungarian Empire began to collapse and fracture a very powerful movement to unite the Slovenian, Croatian and Serbian peoples began to gain ground and on the 5-8th October the National Assembly of the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs was established in Zagreb. The Council declared that it represented the peoples of Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia as well as peoples living in Bosnia-Herzegova, Fiume, Dalmatia, Istria, Trieste, Carniola, Görz, Styria, Carinthia, Baǐka, Banat, Baranya, Medimurje and parts of South-west Hungary with one council member representing a hundred thousand people.

   The Council rejected Emperor Karl IV’s call for Federalisation of Cisleithania and on the 19th October announced it was the Supreme representative body for south Slavic peoples and that previous borders were no longer relevant and that their people would be represented in their forum alone.

   With Karl IV fighting a losing battle, permission was given to the Minister of War to grant local Military commanders the freedom to discuss how to maintain law and order with local People’s Councils. Finally on the 29th October the State was officially established under President Anton Koršec.

   As the Austro-Hungarian Empire ceased to be Karl IV and his ministers were eager that the Imperial fleet did not fall into the hands of the Allies and decided to gift the whole fleet, merchant marine fleet, port facilities, arsenals and fortifications writing to the National Assembly. On 31st October the Navy was officially handed over to Admiral Janko Vuković, , a veteran commander of the fleet including as commander of the flagship, SMS Viribus Unitus. Vuković was placed in charged of the State’s new Navy and he raised his flag over the Viribus Unitus renaming it Jugoslavija with Croatian sailors singing the Hymn Lijepa Nasa and celebrating whilst the Austrians, Hungarians and other nationalities were heading for home believing the war to be over. The National Assembly sent diplomatic notes to the Etenete nations informing them that there vessels were no longer combatants and declaring the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs was neutral in the ongoing conflict though the Allies did not recognise the fledging country.

   As Admiral Vuković and his men turned in for the night they were blissfully unaware of a hidden threat that had crept across the Adriatic. Equally ignorant of the status of the Austro-Hungarian fleet were two Italian frogman, Raffaele Paolucci and Raffaele Rossetti who had had been dispatched aboard a MIgnatta (Leach) with orders to sabotage the emeny’s warships. The Italian Naval aim to destroy the Austro-Hungarian Dreadnoughts could not be carried out at open sea with both opposing sides in the Adriatic unwilling to suffer loses and attempts to bomb the vessels with aircraft had been unsuccessful. Pola Harbour’s defences were also formidable discounting a raid by naval forces similar to the sinking of the pre-dreadnought SMS Wien the previous December in Trieste.

   Paolucci had made the suggestion to his superiors earlier in the year believing that saboteurs could swim into the harbour unnoticed and place charges upon the hulls of the ships. In July 1918 Paolucci began working with Rossetti who had developed the Mignatta from an unexploded German torpedo and would give them the ability to travel at 3 Km/H underwater using compressed air engines. The two began a three month training planning regime in the Gulf of Venice. They were assisted in their transit across the Adriatic by the torpedo boat MAS 95 before mounting their craft at 10 p.m. and telling the crew they would return within five hours.

   Within thirty minutes they had reached the harbour’s first defensive barracades consisting of floating metal cylinders on cables that could not be passed with their torpedo easily and the two frogmen decided to take the risky approach of pushing it over the metal barricades. Despite the extra noise this generated, being illuminated by large searchlights and having a semi submerged U-boat cruise past them they managed to proceed unmolested to the spiked sea wall where they had to push their craft over a sea gate this time the noise was masked by heavy rain and hail which had begun to fall. By this time the two Italians were beginning to question whether they should continue with the mission as the conditions they were encountering were not what they had prepared for but they pressed on through the anti-submarine netting that was the final barrier between them and the prize of warships. Despite being aided by agents within the harbour they had taken too long and it was already 3 a.m. by the time they reached the warships and 4:45 a.m. by the time they reached the Jugoslavija. As the sun began to rise above the horizon Rossetti placed one of the two limpet mines to the underneath of the dreadnought setting the time for 6:30 a.m. swimming underneath and holding his breath. Whilst a second was dropped onto the harbour floor.

   With their mission complete the two frogmen attempted to head for shore but were spotted by sentries on the deck of Jugoslavija and they were soon picked up by one of the dreadnought’s boats and soon the two men found themselves on the deck before Admiral Vuković who demanded answers. Rossetti admitted that they had placed explosives on the hull and that it would soon explode, he also advised the Admiral that he should save his men before requesting permission to abandon ship. Vuković ordered his men off the ship and gave permission for the Italians to do the same and whilst the ship’s crew descended into panic and bustled to try and alight the doomed vessel Rossetti and Paolucci climbed ship’s rail and jumped into the harbour. Once in the water the hapless Italians found themselves rounded up by angry sailors and dragged back aboard the dreadnought where a mob demanded to know where the mine was and that should the vessel explode they should go down with it and it took the intervention of Vuković to save their lives.

   As the deadline for the explosion passed the two prisoners began to grow sullen and worried that the mines were defective and their months of training and the hours in the cold of Pola harbour were all for nothing. With the panic subsiding Vuković ordered the men to return to the vessel and the prisoners to be transferred to the Tegetthoff. At 6:44 a.m. the mine exploded.

   Like many warships of the period the Jugoslavija had very little armour beneath the waterline and there was a concern that to do so would be detrimental to the vessel’s speed and manoeuvrability. Many naval planners had not believed that torpedo boats or submarines would be as much of a threat as the war had proved them to be and the idea that saboteurs would be able to sneak into the fleet’s home port and place a bomb on the hull was unthinkable. However the design o the Tegetthoff class had placed the ship’s coal bunkers against the hull acting as another layer of armour as the coal would absorb the blast and the bunkers would not fill with water as the coal already filled much of the space. Unfortunately for Jugoslavija her bunkers were empty and rapidly filled with water and, as the damage was to extensive for the pumps and water tight doors to contain and the once proud flagship of the Austro-Hungarian fleet capsized and foundered by 7:00 a.m. with Vuković stood on the stern calmly going down with the ship and three hundred of his men.

   The blast from the mine on the harbour floor caused damage several ships and sank the merchant ship SS Wien. For the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs it was an embarrassment with them not only losing their flagship and newly appointed Commander in Chief to two Frogmen they did so within twelve hours of receiving them. Needless to say there was a degree of horror felt by the vessel’s former owners in Vienna because, despite the uniform and flag changes they were still the Dual Monarchy’s men. For the Italians it was a great victory and when the two interned sailors were returned to Italy they were both awarded the Gold medal of Military valour and 13 million Lire prize money each. The Fleet of the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs was surrendered to the Italians and their Allies shortly afterwards when a joint taskforce moved to secure the Croatian coast and make sure the former Austro-Hungarian fleet was neutralised as a threat.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

The loss of HMS Cornwall and Dorsetshire

With the raid against Colombo going better than expected Vice Admiral Nagumo ordered his second wave elsewhere. A radio message had arrived from one of the heavy cruiser Tone’s reconnaissance aircraft had reported two destroyers heading South-south-west, three hundred miles away from Colombo and travelling at 26 knots. Lieutenant Commander Takashige Egusa, the air group Commander of the Soryu lead eighty Val dive bombers off the decks and set course for he Destroyer’s last known position. Whilst airborne a second report came through that the destroyers were both cruisers.

   HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall were travelling as fast as they could to join with Admiral Somerville’s fleet to not only add to its firepower for a possible engagement with Nagumo’s fleet, but also to escape aerial attack in port. In the evening of the 4th April orders were sent ashore for the crews to return to ship and news leaked out that they would be joining Somerville and departing as soon as possible. At 10:00 p.m. the two heavy cruisers left port in line astern and set course for the rendezvous point.

   Although both vessels were running at high alert since leaving port the sighting of two separate reconnaissance aircraft confirmed that they were in for trouble and action stations were maintained. Harold Farmer, one of the engineering crew aboard the Cornwall came off watch to find the Mess empty and a note telling him to help himself to the leftovers. Following lunch hr reported for action stations on deck where a sympathetic Chief Petty Officer gave him leave to get some sleep. “Get your head down and if there’s any sign of action I’ll wake you up.” (1) It was an offer that was quickly taken. It was the opinion of the engineering crew that being at Action Stations on the deck was preferable to being trapped below which was were Lieutenant Drew was heading for his duty shift in the After-Engine Room. The atmosphere was tense, and he could see on the men’s faces that they were concerned, and he did his best to relax them despite the claustrophobic heated conditions.

   Unknown to the British sailors below Commander Egosa was signalling Nagumo’s flagship “Sighted enemy vessels.”
“Air Group, 1st CarDiv take the first ship; Air Group 2nd CarDiv take the Second Ship” (2)

Aichi "Val" divebomber
   In the Dorsetshire’s After Detector Patrick Cannon looked out the door to see the first bombs fall. “I saw it come off and go down. It didn’t hit the Cornwall but went off near her bows. As this was happening we went to full alert.” (3) Harold Farmer was woken by that first bomb exploding alongside the Cornwall. “Nobody had a chance to warn us, they (the Japanese) just came out of the sun that the sun and that was it… Near misses were doing more damage than the actual hits” (4)

   In the After-Engine Room Edwin Drew was suddenly made aware of the action when they heard a loud explosion and the Cornwall shuddered. Within moments dust billowed out of the supply ventilation ducts covering the artificers and main throttles followed by more explosions and shuddering before they lost steam and the room was plunged into impenetrable darkness.

There was pitch darkness. That was immediately followed by a bomb exploding at the after end of the Engine room with dense smoke and flames visible above me against the deck head. I shouted to the lads to get out. We could not see each other but everyone knew where the sole exit ladder from the Engine Room was situated.

Standing alone in the darkness he heard a scream emanate from the far end of the room and Drew turned and began walking towards the sound only stopping when it petered out. Suddenly sapped of his drive he was overcome with fatalism and wanted to sit and await his fate but the thought of his wife and child at home changed his mind and he climbed the ladder. The journey to the surface was not easy and the raging fire burnt his hands and legs as he pushed through the smoky companionway. The ship was also beginning to list heavily to port and he was helped ono the upper deck.

I was in sock and in a poor state; in fact I was all in. The action was still on. We were still being bombed, but there was now no return fire. We really were sitting ducks.

   Aboard the Dorsetshire Patrick Cannon had been ordered to leave his position as the main armament was useless and assist with the pompom guns. There was a raging fire below from a direct hit to the small arms magazine, the ship’s Supermarine Walrus and her aviation fuel. Despite having a thick nest of aerial wire fall on him, Cannon made it to the fore pompoms, but he was too late to be of any assistance. “I was speechless… the gun and the men were just like in a ball as if a giant had got hold of them and screwed them up.” (7) They were just distorted.”  Petty Officer Crossky, who had gone to the other side found pieces of his men scattered through he ship’s rigging. Cannon reported to one of the surviving gunners saying he was there to assist, the seaman turned to face him with a look of futility whilst gesturing to the remains of the gun. “With what?”

   Through the chaos someone shouted “Oerlikon” and Cannon began to make his way to the fore Oerlikon cannon. The pedestal mounted gun was one of a pair which had been recently fitted aboard to augment the older guns. Patrick Cannon opined that; “The Ack-Ack armament on the cruisers was totally inadequate. It had never kept pace with the development of naval aircraft from way back in the 20s and 30s.” (8)
   As he ran forward someone shouted his name and Cannon saw a wounded sailor on the deck, he paused and through the maelstrom called “Is that you Murtagh?”
   Able Seaman Thomas Murtagh had served with him as a boy on HMS Ganges and had been a prize winning boxer but was now just a limbless mass of blood on the deck calling out to his friend; “Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!”
   Unable to move him due to his extensive injuries all Cannon could do is reassure and get to his post. Other wounded littered the decks intermingled with dead bodies including one of the ship’s doctors who had nearly been cut in two by machine gun fire. As the ship’s tilt became more pronounced the bodies began to roll with a river of blood flowing with them. The Japanese bombers kept coming down and Cannon found himself skidding under X turret waiting for the aircraft to pass. Once they were gone he clambered up to the quarterdeck and ran to the gunner who was blazing at the sky.
“Where’s your loader?” he shouted above the sounds of battle and the banging of trapped men below deck. The gunner indicated a body on the deck that was rolling with the tilt. Cannon grabbed the Oerlikon magazine and started attaching them to the gun and asked the gunner if he had had any luck and hit anything.
“Not a thing.” was the response as he continued to blaze away at the bombers which were so low that Cannon could see the bombs unclipping from their bellies.

    The Dorsetshire’s plotting officer, Lieutenant Commander Rupert East was aware the guns were firing but not of the damage the ship when the meteorological rating rushed in “Excuse me sir, the ship is sinking.” (9) East grabbed a second life jacket that happened to be lying around the plotting office and climbed to the starboard side against the tilt. As he prepared to jump in a rating without a life jacked appeared on the deck above him and asked if he could take East’s spare life jacket. Realising for the first time that he had two he threw it up before diving head first into the Indian Ocean. Years later he received a letter from Signalman Boardman thanking him for saving his life that day. 
   As orders were passed to “Abandon Ship” Patrick Cannon quickly unclipped the Oerlikon gunner who had the honour of being the last man firing at the Japanese and both jumped over the side. In the water they watched as the ship eased ahead slowly and started slipping beneath the waves. All around the Dorsetshire sailors were trying to find anything that floated that they could cling to and Cannon was no exception having left his life jacket hanging up in the Aft detector room. The mast snapped and fell into the water providing many with a life line and Cannon and his gunner found a chunk of wood to cling to as well. Together they made a pact that if they were to get through the sinking and meet again, wherever they were, they would have a night on the town. Slowly they began to make their way towards the main group of survivors. As they did they came across the wounded Petty Officer Crossky. Believing that the man wouldn’t make it through the night Cannon insisted on pulling him up onto their piece of flotsam.
I stayed with him for thirty-three hours. I never got my head out in thirty-three hours. I was covered in oil and eventually I got separated from (the Gunner) ut I stayed with Crossky and we made our way towards the main crowd. (10)

   Things were little better over on the Cornwall as the wounded Edwin Drew lay on the deck one of his colleagues, Lieutenant Archibald was suddenly struck by the realisation that he had a £50 note in his cabin. Battling his comrades attempts to restrain him and ignoring pleas to stop the Lieutenant pushed below decks to retrieve his money. As Captain Manwaring approached ordering “Abandon Ship.” Archie reappeared with the note in his pocket.
   Drew remembered;
They helped me up the sloping decks to the starboard side where I was able, with others, to slide down the ship’s side into the water. As I started the slide I remember thinking to myself “if I can only get into the water I’ll be ok.” Little did I know of the future at that moment. (11)
   Once in the water though he found himself covered in viscous oil which covered his eyes only allowing him to see if he tilted his head back and look along his cheeks and to add to this he realised that he ha no life belt despite having had one in the Engine room earlier. Despite these setbacks he still was conscious of the dangers of lingering near a sinking cruiser. Despite how hard he swam he wa still caught in the vessel’s pull and a cursory glance revealed the ship’s outer 14-foot starboard propeller was resting with the shaft at the sea level churning and sucking nearby flotsam and survivors towards it with no way to escape. As he drew close to it the Cornwall suddenly lurched to port and lifted the propeller clear of the water allowing Drew to pass under it safely.
   Harold Swann had made his way to the Cornwall’s rail and encountered a nineteen-year-old South African Stoker, Lawrence Swann, who refused to leave the ship on account of his inability to swim. His commrades pleaded with him to come them and they would take care of him in the water between them but he refused. “Ofcourse the ship went down in ten minutes so he had absolutely no chance. He was one of the many who went with the ship.” (12)
   The Cornwall had entered its’ death throes and Drew had a vivid memory of the death of his ship for years to come:
   I remember watching the ship moving away from me. I saw the Walrus float off the catapult but it was then sunk by the ship’s wireless aerials coming down across the wings as she went on her side. The seaman in the lookout barrel at the top of the foremast had to remain there until he was able to jump into the sea from a height of eight feet as the ship listed over to port… I was about half a mile astern of the ship when shortly afterwards she went down by the head and her stern came right out of the water and she sank in a vertical position and about half her length stood out of the water as she went straight down into the Indian Ocean… It is hard to believe but I heard a faint cheer. (13)

HMS Cornwall sinking taken from one of the attacking aircraft.
   Having received a dead man’s lifejacket, with the assistance of Sub lieutenant Dougall (RCNVR), Edwin Drew was suddenly aware of the Japanese aircraft passing over them firing their machine guns into the stricken sailors as they struggled to survive in the water. Patrick Cannon recalled clearly the strafing run:
I looked up and the Japanese planes had mustered in line and they dived over us and they machine gunned is in the water and I heard all of the plop-plop-plop and then I put my head as deep as I could – one or two who had life belts tried to do it and found they couldn’t and they reported later their backsides were up in the air like ducks! They were only too happy to find their backsides hadn’t been blown off! I remember seeing the bullets hitting the water not far from me. (14)
   Another sailor recalled hearing a Japanese gunner firing his gun to sound like a “V” for Victory in Morse code as an insult to the British.

   With the enemy now passed and the two heavy cruisers slipped beneath the waves the survivors had to take stock of the situation. Both crews were separated by several miles, despite being able to hear each other, they were effectively separated by several miles, despite being able to hear each other, they were effectively their own microcosms. As both crews had abandoned ship whilst the cruisers were still underway the men were scattered in a line and the speed of the sinking meant that only two boats from each cruiser were launched and most of the crew were clinging to Carley floats and flotsam and for many of the crew the first jo was to gather together around anything that floated.
   Edwin Drew had managed to find a mess deck table top which was three by ten foot and clung to it whilst surrounded by dead bodies floating on the ocean. As he tried to take stock of his situation the Cornwall’s  PT Petty Officer swam past and implored him to swim with him toward the Senior boat, the ship’s motorboat, which was just visible over the rolling waves. Drew agreed but on alighting from his flotsam he trod upon a large fish which was passing below the surface and the experience distressed him so much that he returned to the safety of his table top. After he had calmed down and thought about his surroundings the thought of being alone in the dark surrounded by corpses made him revaluate his choice.
So I summoned up courage and eventually reached the motorboat just as darkness fell. I reported to Commander Fair who was in the motorboat and he put me in charge of one of the Carley floats which was all roped together around the motorboat. There were already over twenty ratings standing in my float which meant that the buoyant “sausage” from which the wooden centre is suspended was two feet below water level so it looked as if we were standing with the water at waist level! (15)
   In the case of both ships In the case of both ships the boats were reserved for the wounded and as a makeshift surgery with the surviving ship’s medics doing all that they could for the worse cases with meagre supplies they had. If a wounded man succumbed to his wounds his body was lowered over the side and his place taken by somebody else. The Dorsetshire’s First Officer, Commander Cyril Byas, although wounded,  refused to take a space in the boats insisting that others be treated before him. Finally a group of ratings around him physically pushed him into a boat and a cheer went around that “Commander Byas is alive”. Stoker Francis Anstis recorded that Commander Byas “was our commander who virtually ran the ship and dished out punishment. He wasn’t too well liked and considered a bit too strict and a little unfair sometimes, but he was a good Commander and had control.” (16) By contrast, her Captain, Augustus “Gus” Agar VC was a very well thought of gentleman, a hero of the First World War but now seen by some in a paler light as he was sat in the ship’s whaler at the tiller.
Captain Agar who was sat in the stern of the whaler. Somebody said that he was coordinating and rallying the men. That wasn’t so. Everyone in that water was a survivor and were doing their own thing. Men were surviving on their own merits and not accepting orders from anybody. When you are clinging to a piece of flotsam in the middle of the Indian Ocean and you’ve been there twenty odd hours you are not looking for guidance from somebody sat in a boat. You’re hanging on like grim death. (17)
   This observation by Patrick Cannon may habe been understandable due to the nature of the situation but somewhat unfair as Captain Agar was suffering from the effects of the Bends which he had contracted during the sinking. The fifty two year old had been caught in the Dorsetshire’s suction and been pulled deep below the water and despite a shrapnel wound to his leg he managed to swim for the surface where he gulped down quite a bit of water and oil. He was in no state to be in the water.

   As can be expected by a lot of blood and dead bodies in the water sharks and other marine predators began to circle the shipwrecked men. The men did all they could to defend themselves which was to keep a sharp lookout and on spotting a fin the men would thrash vigorously and shout seemingly scaring the shark off. But this was only ever a temporary fix and the men were worried that they would suffer a similar fate to that of the shipwrecked crew of HMS Dunedin. The crystal clear water of the Indian Ocean gave a fantastic view of the schools of sharks massing beneath them.
A school of sharks went right underneath us, you could see them, they were well down in the water, but you could see the whole family. The thing that struck me was they were in V formation, but the blunt end was first…They were always there but you never thought of them too much unless they got too close. There were a lot of fish in the water. (18)
Another way to avoid shark attack was the pushing of dead bodies out of the group in the middle and out to the periphery believing that the sharks would more than likely take them first before the living.

   As the day dragged on the men had to fight off exposure, fatigue and their own wounds. Rupert East was somewhat philosophical about his thirty hours in the water commenting that “There is nothing you can do about it. If you’re in the water, nice warm water, and you are floating and not hurt there’s not very much you can do about it. You just continue floating.” (19). For the wounded the wait was unbearable and many succumbed to the shock or fatigue though Edwin Drew found the water very soothing on his burns. As clothes grew water logged and jettisoned other pieces of clothing were fashioned into head gear to keep off the sun’s heat. Much to Drew’s amusement and Lieutenant Archibald’s life long dismay the latter shed his trousers and condemned them to the deep before realising too late that the £50 note was still in the pocket.

   Fear of being picked up by the Japanese fleet, taken by sharks or that they would die out here was a constant despite the singing, talking and swimming competitions. It was believed that Somerville would not risk the rest of the fleet looking for them and that the ships had gone down so fast that no accurate position had been reported. As night fell and the temperature dropped several men began cheering believing a star on the horizon was an approaching ship and the delusion spread through the men bobbing in the ocean and there was a rolling cheer until the Officers quietened them down and pointed out the truth. This was not the worst delusion though and men suffering from stress, exhaustion, hunger and exposure began imagining things with fatal consequences.
I heard a boy called Jones (Able Seaman William Jones), I never could understand why he was screaming but he kept shouting “The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming.” Now we didn’t have any conflict with the Russians and for a boy seaman to shout about Russians was most unusual and he kept shouting. Then he died. (20)
Harold Farmer witnessed another incident;
This chap went a bit silly. He was in one of the rafts and so quite safe but he decided he was going to get a taxi and dived into the water. As he dived in we saw this shark come along and he never surfaced again so we imagine he was picked up by the shark. (21)
As men died due to their injuries, such as Engineer Lieutenant Mike Edgar of the Cornwall, the survivors often found themselves talking to the bodies of their former comrades with Patrick Cannon later recalling that he was talking for a while to a corpse and that a precaution they began taking was to ask a question at the start to see if they got a response. During the night Crossky, who was still laying on the flotsam, turned to Cannon and whispered that a man was trying to push him off and handed his pocket knife to Cannon and asked him to stop the man. Cannon said that should it happen again that Crossky should give him a nudge and he would deal with it. A short time later Crossky nudged him and Cannon shouted “Get off or I’ll cut your throat.” The drowning man pleaded that he too was from Torquay like Cannon and that he should help him but Cannon was firm in the defence of his wounded comrade. “I never saw him again. I’m presuming he drowned but that’s just hard luck.” (22)

   As the second day in the open ocean unfolded the meagre rations available were issued to the men. For the Dorsetshire’s crew they had to swim up to the whaler where they were issued a piece of hard tack biscuit the size of a postage stamp and allowed to dip their tongues into a tin mug so that they could moisten their lips. The Chief Petty Officer was holding the tiller threatening to wallop anyone who took a sip or if there was a danger of the boat being swamped by over enthusiastic crewmen. By contrast the Cornwall crew were eating tinned fruit. One of the ship’s doctors had petitioned the Admiralty to change the supplies in the lifeboats from the standard. The tins were punctured and passed amongst the men to take a mouthful of juice each. The tins were later opened and the fruit shared out.

   Tue first sign of salvation came as a Fairey Swordfish flew over them and rumour was spread that a jam jar was dropped with a message saying the fleet was searching for them. Word spread quickly and the men grew jubilant though the eventual sight of approaching ships concerned them at first as they feared the Japanese had found them until they saw the white ensign fluttering above HMS Enterprise and her attending destroyers HMS Paladin and HMS Panther. Somerville had received a garbled wireless transmission the previous day that talked about having a “shadower” and it wasn’t until 2 p.m. that they were able to identify the sender as the Dorsetshire but by then it was too late. The admiral had attempted to move towards the last known position of the two cruisers with one of his destroyers ahead  of him to begin the relief effort but they had to abandon the hunt because of the proximity of the Japanese fleet. As it was he had ordered the Enterprise that they had a limited time to find the survivors and not to be separated from the main fleet for too long lest they join the Cornwall and the Dorsetshire and the Enterprise’s Captain had already gone past the deadline when they spotted the men in the water. As the rescuers arrived they were ordered to stay where they were in the water and the Cruiser and destroyers would come to them and lower lifeboats but for the men in the water salvation was too tempting and several began to swim towards the ships though they found that their legs ached from fatigue and despite the mind’s willingness to get to safety quickly their bodies refused to budge.  As the Paladin approached the Dorsetshire’s survivors the crew began throwing over chunks of wood for them to hang onto as well as lowering scrambling nets for the men. As the ship went by, a South African seaman, Jeffrey Berlyn, reached out and grabbed Patrick Cannon by the hair and dragged him through the water and eventually onto the scrambling net.

   Once the operation was complete and the crewmen were pulled aboard their rescuers they were stripped of their oily clothes and washed off before being given what spare clothes were aboard and room to sleep and food to eat whilst wounded men were taken care of. Of the two ships a total of 1122 of 1546 men were rescued from the sea and sharks despite the Paladin having to bury twelve men who died that first night  but their deaths were kept a secret from the rest of the survivors to save them from upset.

   Somerville, though elated that so many of his men had survived being in the ocean for so long, was also sceptical of his chances of military success in the theatre believing that whomever was in charge would be unable to do any better. He wrote to his wife saying that “I’ve come to the conclusion that until I get a proper fleet out here I will simply have to hide, more or less.” (23)

(1)    Harold Farmer, IWM Sound archive Catalogue number 20500

(2)    M. Okumiya, J Horikoshi, M Caiden Zero! The Air war in the Pacific during World War Two from the Japanese view point, Zenger Publishing, Washington, P. 150-1

(3)    Patrick Cannon, IWM Sound archive Catalogue number 12811

(4)    Harold Farmer, IWM Sound archive

(6)    Ibid.

(7)    Patrick Cannon, IWM Sound archive

(8)    Ibid.

(9)    Roland East, IWM Sound Archive Catalogue number 10806

(10) Patrick Cannon, IWM Sound archive

(12) Harold Farmer, IWM Sound archive

(14) Patrick Cannon, IWM Sound archive.

(17) Patrick Cannon, IWM Sound archive

(18) Harold Farmer, IWM Sound archive

(19) Roland East, IWM Sound archive

(20) Jack Cannon, IWM Sound archive

(21) Harold Farmer, IWM Sound archive

(22) Patrick Cannon, IWM Sound archive

(23) The Somerville papers p. 401



Sunday, 10 June 2018

The Loss of SMS Szent István

SMS Szent István
SMS Szent István, Austro-Hungary's newest battleship

By May 1918 the Austro-Hungarian surface fleet was in crisis. Four years of relative inaction had led to severe unrest amongst the crews and on some of the ships they had already risen in open revolt. At the base at Cattaro on the 1st February 1918 the Red flag was raised over the Armoured cruiser SMS Sankt Georg and was joined by other ships including pre-dreadnought Monarch and cruiser Kaiser Karl IV as well as other ships in port whether they agreed with the mutiny or to avoid being shelled by the larger ships. Demands were handed to the shore commander Kontreadmiral Hansa demanding better conditions for sailors, a democratic style government, freedom from Germany and above all Peace. Most of these demands were beyond the ability of Hansa to permit and the Army Garrison commander threatened to bring artillery out to shell the mutineers. The light cruisers SMS Helgoland and Novaro, with a flotilla of loyal torpedo boats, moved out of range of the mutineers then raised the Imperial flag and were joined by U-boats from the German U-boat station but the senior officer Linienschiffskapitän Heyssler aboard Helgoland was loathed to sink very valuable ships and waste lives. On the 3rd February the Third Battle fleet consisting of the Pre-dreadnought’s SMS  Erzherog Karl, Erzherog Franz Ferdinand and Zrinyi arrived and the rebellion rapidly petered out and Hansa and all the officers were freed. Order was restored with the arrest of some 800 mutineers and the execution of four ringleaders including Franz Rasch.

   Elsewhere sailors were sabotaging the war effort with a force of sixty Italian speaking sailors under Fregattenleutnant Veith being captured at Ancona after being betrayed to the Carabinieri by some of their own number before they could sabotage the sugar refinery and MAS (Motoscafi Antisommgibil – Motor Torpedo boats) in the harbour on the night of 5-6 April. Elsewhere Linienschiffeleutnant Nikos Horthy reported his crew refused meals and duties until he personally inspected the vessel and brought charges to the ring leaders.

   As a reaction to these events the Austrian High Command forcibly retired older Admirals and officers or redistributed them to shore commands whilst promoting younger officers, a move that saw a reluctant Horthy promoted to Commander of the Adriatic fleet and a promotion to Kontreadmiral. After taking command another incident occurred with two crewmen of a destroyer that was due to escort a convoy to Albania, plotting to overthrow the officers and defect to the enemy. The plot never gained ground and Horthy signed the orders to execute the two men.
   Horthy believed that there could be only one recourse to quell the mutinies and sedition recording in his memoirs that the:

Best way to restore discipline in the Navy would be to put the ships into action, a view that was shared by our colleagues of the German Navy. The men who had not yet heard a shot fired in anger must be shaken out of their lethargy. (1)

When he was stationed on a cruiser inactive he had observed that:

This particular command gave me no joy. Inactive, we were moored to a buoy, and had to watch cruisers, destroyers, torpedo-boats and U-boats sail away and return, happily engrossed in their heavy duties. Among those who were gay after days, endangering their lives, traitors were not found. (2)

The German Naval mission to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was growing alarmed at the events unfolding at the mouth of the Adriatic as well. Since the attack on the Otranto Barrage the Allies had strengthened their defences with a total of forty Royal Navy destroyers (including six Australians) and twelve French destroyers which operated in patrols of 6-10 vessels day and night whilst the fleet of thirty-five trawlers with hydrophones sat north of the barrage listening for submarines in passage covered by a growing aerial patrol. To the south lay eighteen American wooden submarine chasers whilst mines lay at 60 feet below the surface near Otranto and others were connected to nets that would pull them up into submerged U-boats making the transit a very tricky affair. The German officers were keen to protect the exceptionally valuable U-boats and during April five had been attacked trying to cross the barrage and eight in May with SMS UB-52 being sunk by the British submarine HMS H4. They wanted the Austrians to act in support of the U-boats and after a raid on the barrage by Austrian destroyers in April was successfully repulsed by Allied destroyers without loss, a grander scheme had to be undertaken.

There was also a much bigger issue that was concerning the German Admiralstab and it went far beyond the Adriatic.  With the collapse of the Russian war effort there was a move for Germany and her Allies to take control of the vessels of the Black Sea fleet including powerful dreadnoughts and submarines before linking with the Turkish fleet and heading down the Bospherous and into the Mediterranean seriously affecting the balance of power which may cause to call for reinforcements from the Grand Fleet which would in turn affect the blockade of Germany and the balance of power with the  High Sea’s fleet. Having an active Austro-Hungarian fleet would further spread the Allies’ ships. As it was the Allied Naval council wanted to redistribute the fleets to meet a possible threat from the Black sea with the French dreadnoughts and the Danton class pre-Dreadnoughts to the Aegean and the five Italian dreadnoughts, the pride of their fleet, to be placed under French command at Corfu where they could simultaneously be used to check the Austrians and be in reserve should the new threat materialise. The Allied Council were concerned, however that the Italian force was not large enough to hold the four Tegetthof dreadnoughts and the four pre-dreadnoughts should the Austrians sail en-masse.

The Allies were also far from pleased with the strength of the Barrage estimating that in both April and May it had been breached fifty times by submarines going in or out and that shipping was still being sunk at the same rate as it had the previous year including the troop transport SS Leasowe Castle which was sunk 104 miles WNW of Alexandria carrying 3000 soldiers to Marseille. The troop ship was part of convoy of six troopships escorted by Japanese and British destroyers and was intercepted by SM Ub-51 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Ernst Kraft at 12:25 a.m.. The ship was operating a blackout with some of soldiers sleeping on deck at their action stations but the convoy was well lit by the full moon. The torpedo struck amidships under the funnel on the starboard side. Disaster was avoided with the ship coming to a halt and sinking slowly whilst the troops were paraded and put into lifeboats in an orderly fashion with the IJN destroyer Katsura and the sloop HMS Lily taking soldiers out of the boats and sending them back for more from the stricken vessel. In all only 101 of the ship’s company and troops went down with the ship including her master, Captain E. J. Holt.

The Austrian plan took into account the experiences of the previous year’s attack on the Barrage combining a powerful attack on the light forces that constituted it with overwhelming force combined with supporting vessels to cover the withdrawal who would ensnare any pursuers including, as Horthy was predicting battle-cruisers.
The attack was timed to coincide with General Boroevič's offensive across the Piave river with the main attack would be carried out by the four Tegetthof dreadnoughts working in pairs before withdrawing towards Pola having done enough damage before the Allied Navy responded. The Austro-Hungarian fleet was hoping to ensnare and sink the predicted battle-cruisers and any pursuing Allied vessels in a way that they almost managed the previous year. Twelve Austro-Hungarian U-boats were placed at favourable points through the Adriatic to catch the Allies unawares whilst the three Erzherzog class pre-dreadnoughts were arranged in a line running north to south level with Durazio whilst a rapid reaction force of four Novara class cruisers and eight Tatra class destroyers were assembled at Cattaro ready to respond.  

The Szent István was the newest of the Tegetthof class dreadnoughts, having come into service in 1915. The Tegetthof class were broadly similar to the Nassau class battleships and were considered fairly compact and well armoured and were armed with four turrets housing three 30.5cm guns as the primary weapons, the first battleships to be armed like this. Unlike her sisters, the Szent István had two shafts and propellers but had a top speed of 20 knots with coal soaked in oil to increase its burn rate. The Szent István was also the only Tegetthof to be built at a Hungarian dockyard, by the Ganz and Company’s Danubius yard at Flume in Croatia and was the first major warship built at the yard with the yard itself having to be refitted to carry out the work. The ship was laid down on the 29th January 1912 following the Hungarian government ratifying the 1910 and 1911 Naval budgets, something that the land locked nation was often loathed to do.

   The early life of the Szent István was marked with disaster and complications. On the day that she was launched, 17th January 1914, an anchor chain fell killing a dock worker and injuring another/ The vessel was also the only major warship in the fleet that did not have the Emperor present at the launch as Franz Josef I was ill and Archduke Franz Ferdinand was so anti-Hungarian that he refused to go. After the rocky start the Szent István’s career was somewhat unglamorous with her construction being halted by the start of the First World War with her final completion date being 13th December 1915. Unlike her sisters she never left Pola except for routine gunnery training until she received her orders for the Operation against the Barrage and only fired her anti-aircraft guns in anger as the Italians launched some eighty air raids on the Austro-Hungarian fleet between 1915 and 1917.

   On the 8th June Admiral Horthy lead the 1st Division consisting of the Szent István’s sisters SMS Viribus Unitis and Prinz Eugen out of Pola at dusk and arriving at Slano by dawn and waited for the 2nd Division to get into position. Captain Seitz led SMS Tegetthof and the Szent István out of port on the night of 9th June and after an initial delay caused by Tegetthof suffering engine difficulties and by the defensive boom across the Pola harbour not being retracted, the force of two dreadnoughts and their escorting destroyers and torpedo boats headed through the Dalmatian archipelago for Isoa Grossa where they would wait for the allotted time to begin a coordinated attack on the Barrage.

   The 2nd Division were not the only vessels who were delayed that night. The Italian torpedo boats MAS 15 and MAS 21 were floating off the island of Lutostrak with one of the two suffering its own engine problems at 3:15 a.m. on the morning of 10th June having been dispatched from Ancona by the base commander Calleani for a routine patrol of the Dalmatian coast under the command of Capitino di Corvetta Luigi Rizzo. Lookouts reported heavy smoke coming south and soon the two Austro-Hungarian battleships were sighed. Rizzo made the decision to attack as he could not out run the Austrians and there was a chance that they could do some damage and escape.

Orders were passed and the two MAS slowed their engines so that no white wash would betray their position and they managed to pass between two of the Austrian destroyer escorts and close to the two dreadnoughts at 3:35 a.m. and quickly powered up their engines approaching to 300 yards of the towering Austrian vessels. Capoltimoniere Armando Gori’s MAS 15 targeted the Szent István whilst Guardiamarina di complemento Giuseppe Aonzo’s MAS 21 attacked the Tegetthof both firing two torpedoes. With two torpedoes passing the SMS Tegetthof she immediately took avoiding action and believing that an Allied submarine was in the area began to zig-zag and fired upon phantom periscopes. The two Italian vessels turned for home pursued by the Austrian escorts with the Huszár class destroyer SMS Velebit  being forced to give up the pursuit after a depth charge was dropped by one of the MAS and exploded underneath it!  

The Szent István was not so fortunate and was struck by two torpedoes abreast of her boiler rooms penetrating both boiler rooms with the hole made worse by poor quality riveting.

The Situation aboard was somewhat bleak with severe flooding occurring in the aft boiler rooms and the dreadnought began to list to starboard by 10°. Action was quickly taken with the magazines flooded which reduced the list to 7° whilst collision nets were deployed to try and cover the torpedo holes but to no avail. The decision was made to turn the vessel and aim for nearby Bay of Beguije on the Isle of Molat at low speed but with the unimpaired flooding dousing the fires in the boiler rooms and the loss of electricity the ship’s fate was sealed.

   Following the Tegetthof’s return at 4:45 a.m. she attempted to tow her wounded sister but all attempts were fruitless as was turning the guns to port to redistribute the weight and counter the list as well as jettisoning all of the ready ammunition. Slowly the vessel began to capsize and at 6:05 a.m. on the 10th June she slipped beneath the waves taking 89 sailors with her out of a crew of 1041 with the rest of the Austrian vessels picking up the survivors. Concern spread as to the cause of the sinking and a belief that they had been betrayed rather than poor luck and lack of anti torpedo defences filled the fleet, Admiral Horthy later commented in his Memoirs that the Sinking;

Meant that the enemy could no longer be taken by surprise, for the Italian would have given the alar and we would have to face forces far superior in the neighbourhood of the Otranto Barrage that we had contemplated. With heavy heart, I decided to call of the attack and gave the order for the ships to return to Pola. (3)

For the Austro-Hungarian Navy it had been a last roll of the dice and for the surface fleet it was the end of the war though Szent István was not the last Tegetthoff to be sunk with Viribus Unitis being sunk later that year by Italian frogmen.

SMS Szent István slowly capsizing
For the Allies it was a lucky escape and news of the Austrian vessel’s fate was reported the next day before anyone knew that the four Tegetthofs had left port. Rumours began to circulate that two of the Austro-Hungarian battleships had been sunk and a third heavily damaged which the Naval council did not readily believe but it gave the Allies freedom of movement as it was now felt the Italian fleet now held the balance in the Adriatic allowing the French ships to be ready to deploy against the German threat that may appear from the Black Sea.

End Notes
1 - Horthy, M. "Memoirs" Hutchinson & Co, London, P.89

2 - Ibid. P.88
3 - Ibid p. 90

Saturday, 26 May 2018

The Warwickshire Yeomanry and the Leasowe Castle

For the Warwickshire Yeomanry the war in Palestine was over. With the successful routing of the
HMT Leasowe Castle
Ottoman forces in Palestine the War office decided in the spring of 1918 that yeomanry and cavalry units could be retrained as much needed Machine gunners and sent to the Western Front. Not long after Lieutenant Colonel Gray-Cheape, the regiment’s Commanding officer returned from leave in England, a telegram arrived from the War Office arrived confirming that the Warwickshires were to be amalgamated with the South Nottinghamshire Hussars into the Warwickshire and South Nottinghamshire yeomanry battalion of the Machine Gun Corps. There were mixed feelings about the merger with cavalrymen excited about the new challenge on the French soil but disappointment that they would not be there to see the end of the Turkish foe they had fought so hard against. Several senior officers, including General Allenby, addressed the Warwickshires before they left for training and General Hodgson said to his adjutant, Lieutenant Armstrong (also of the Warwickshires) that:

I shall always have a soft corner in my heart for the Warwicks, and I hope to hear news of their days in France (1)

Captain F. A. Drake the Warwickshire's Ship's adjutant

The new Battalion was reorganised with Lt-Colonel Gray-Cheape, as the senior officer, take command with Major Warwick of the Nottinghamshires as second in command. The two units merged with the first two companies being made up of Warwickshires and the last two of Nottinghamshires commanded by their own officers.

Training began at Victoria Camp on the 10th April for the Nottinghamshires and they were joined three days later by the Warwickshires. They were issued with a maxim machine gun to each company and an NCO instructor but the men were also drilled in Infantry, Gas and bayonet drill, all of which would be invaluable on the Western front during the current German offensive. NCOs and Officers were sent on special training courses at Zeitun. Training went exceptionally well and a live fire demonstration was carried out on the 16th May attended by senior brass.

With the Battalion up to establishment of 54 Officers and 984 other ranks and training complete the Battalion was ordered to Alexandria to be entrained on the 22nd May for its journey to France and on the  23rd May the Battalion joined the Berkshire and Buckinghamshire yeomanry Machine gun Battalion aboard HMT Leasowe Castle. Lt-Col Gray-Cheape took command of all of the soldiers aboard with Captain Drake of the Warwickshires as Ship’s adjutant.

The Leasowe Castle was a Union Castle Mail steamship that had only been completed in 1915 at the Cammell Laird and co. shipyards at Birkenhead. She was originally built for a Greek owner as the Vasiliss Sophia but was requisitioned by the British Government for troop transport duties. On the 20 April 1917 she was damaged whilst sailing ninty miles off Gibraltar by Kapitanleutnant Lothar von Arnauld dela Perière's U-35. Although the damage was substantial there were no casualties and she was able to limp to port for repairs. Fully repaired the Leasowe Castle had had a quiet career and her journey to Marseille to transport the new Machine gun battalion to the Western Front looked to be another easy run.

On the 26th May, at 3 p.m. the vessel joined a convoy of five other vessels in line astern as they passed down the swept channel to the open sea before forming up into a T formation with Leasowe Castle in the third spot.  The force was escorted by Cruisers, destroyers, two sloops and trawlers and began making good time and travelling around one hundred miles in nine hours.

It was just after midnight when the convoy was sighted by Kapitänleutnant Kraft’s UB-51. The
convoy had taken every precaution with strict blackouts enforced but the moon was particularly bright and the sea so calm that the wash from the ship’s bows was clear to sea. The inevitable torpedo slammed into the Leasowe Castle amidships below the first funnel. Captain Sutton of the South Nottinghamshire Hussars felt the vessel judder through the darkness of sleep and he awoke. As he slowly became aware of his surroundings he asked one of his berth mates what was happening and was told; “if I didn’t get out pretty quickly I should pretty soon know what it was.” (2)
Sutton pulled on a pair of shoes and his life jacket and ran for the stair case to the upper deck.

Up on deck where most of the men had been sleeping action was taken quickly and efficiently with the soldier’s manning their action stations whilst officers calmly paraded the men and began to fill the lifeboats in an orderly fashion whilst others were organised to prepare rafts. Gray-Cheape and Captain Drale moved to the bridge to coordinate evacuation efforts with the Ship's Master, Captain Holt. The liner had taken a slight list and was going down gently by the head which allowed the evacuation to be carried out at a steady organised pace.

Fearing further attacks the convoy continued on its journey at full speed whilst the Japanese destroyer Katsura (often referred to as R) stood by to pick up survivors from the boats before sending the empty boats back to collect men from the water and rafts including the men from B coy (Warwickshire's) who had gone over the portside. The water was still warm and still and Captain Sutton remarked that:

The night was wonderfully warm and I never felt cold, even in wet pyjamas. However some kind Naval officer fitted me out in a naval tunic an a pair of trousers, and of course I was the butt of many jests. (3)

Another of the Nottinghamshire soldiers, Fred Marshal later spoke of climbing into a life boat with Sergeant Major Legg whose trousers were so waterlogged that he thought someone was trying to pull him back into the water! 

Other soldiers lowered themselves don ropes and into the water and made for rafts and abandoned life boats however the greatest saviour was the sloop HMS Lily. At 1:45 a.m. the little warship came right up alongside the starboard side of the stricken liner and made fast with ropes so that she could take soldiers directly onto her own decks while the Katsura laid a smoke screen to protect the vulnerable vessel. A bear fifteen minutes later a loud rending noise filled the air with a bulkhead in the aft of the stricken vessel collapsing and suddenly the vessel began to go down rapidly by the stern and her bows reared straight up on end. Deck hands on HMS Lily rushed to cut the lines with axes and knives separating the two vessels before the Leasowe Castle  could take the sloop down with her.
Lt-Col Gray-Cheape

HMS Lily was carrying some 1,100 men and her Captain passed an order to the soldiers to redistribute themselves around the decks to try and even out the vessel and avoid capsizing. Having avoided being struck by two further torpedoes she immediately turned for Alexandria and proceeded as quickly as she was able whilst the Katsura, HMS Ladybird and some of the trawlers stayed to collect survivors and by 11:30 a.m. they had left their station having saved the majority of the passengers. Of the some 3000 men aboard only 101 soldiers and sailors went down including the vessel's master, Captain Holt, and Captain Drake who were last seen on the bridge until the very end, in fact the majority of the casualties were believed to have been on the forecastle when the vessel quickly broke and dived sucking them down with her and only the body of Sergeant Vickers was washed ashore at Sollum.  Lt-Col Gray-Cheape (pictured right) was seen in the water having gone over the side at the end and his haversack with personal items was recovered by Private Gould after the CO was killed by a falling spar.

HMS Lily arrived at Alexandria by 7 p.m. and the surviving soldiers were given clean dry uniforms and blankets as well as much welcomed food and supplies in the port. A letter of sympathy and a subscription of funds to help pay for personal losses was received from the Commanding Officer of the Yeomanry base at Kantara, Lieutenant Colonel Cheesewright as well as a message of condolences from Brigadier General Kelly. Immediate order also had to be restored with command naturally passing to the South Notts CO, Major Warwick but unfortunately his head injury by a spar meant that command passed to Major Mills who was promoted to Acting Lieutenant-Colonel with Lieutenant Mercer as adjutant and RQMS Pardoe as Battalion quartermaster replacing the lost Lieutenant Hunter. By the following day the Battalion was back in order and reported for duty. Following re-equipping and reinforcements the Battalion reported having 937 me by the 12th June and received orders to embark aboard another vessel on the 14th June and left aboard the Caledonia  on the 17th June for a much quieter journey across the Mediterranean.

The sinking of the Leasowe Castle could have been an absolute disaster and demonstrated the vulnerability of vessels to Austro-Hungary based U-boats even at this late stage of the War as well as the ineffectual nature of the Otranto Barrage at keeping the U-boats in check, it was an argument for the Allied Naval Commanders and something that was still being mulled over when the Austro-Hungarian fleet put to sea to attack the trawlers yet again...

 End notes.

(1)    Adderley, H. A “The Warwickshire yeomanry in the Great War”, W H Smith and Son, Warwick, 1922
(2) retrieved May 2018
(3)    Ibid.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

The Battle of Otranto Barrage May 1917

Since the outbreak of the First World War the surface units of the Austro-Hungarian fleet had seen little action beyond coastal bombardment of the Italian coast and although the force lacked battle cruisers and only had four dreadnoughts it was sizable enough to cause concern. Should the vessels breakout into the Mediterranean they could do damage to trade and troop transports and force a fleet action. The Austro-Hungarian ports at Pola and Cattaro were also home to a small U-boat flotilla that had begun preying on warships and trade vessels alike with the Royal Navy losing several larger vessels including the pre-dreadnoughts HMS Cornwallis and HMS Triumph as well as the hospital ship HMHS Britannic, the Titanic’s sister.  

The Etente powers established a blockade of drifters and trawlers across the mouth of the Adriatic Sea over the forty five miles of the Otranto strait between Brindisi and Corfu. The drifters were armed with 6 pounder guns, depth charges and anti-submarine nets and were supported by torpedo boats, destroyers and a cruiser force based at Brindisi with the aim of interdicting any enemy submarines that should try and break out.
Trawlers leaving Taranto for Barrage duties (IWM  Q 63041)

The Barrage was somewhat ineffective at stopping German and Austro-Hungarian U-boats who were passing through with ease and harassing Allied shipping but things were changing with the U-6 being caught and sunk by HMT Calistoga and the Dulcie Doris with Linenschiffsleutnant von Falkhausen and his crew being taken prisoner.

   Following the loss of U-6 and a further seven intercepted by Motor launces and aircraft patrols Admiral Njegovan decided serious steps had to be taken but that his vessels needed to operate in a manner that would see their safe return. The surface vessels had already begun gently probing with a French submarine reporting a force of four Austrian destroyers observing the drifters at night on the 11 March with a further sortie on the 21 April which saw an Italian steamer sunk outsider Valona. Further sorties were carried out on the 25 April and 5 May.

Mikos Horthy commanded the Austro-Hungarian cruisers
   Njegovan had to plan exceptionally carefully so as to preserve his vessels and escape the superior Allied numbers before they could respond. To this end a two pronged assault designed to confuse and draw off the Allies was implemented. At 8 p.m. on 14 May the Tatra class destroyers SMS Csepel and SMS Balaton under the command of Prinz Johann of Liechtenstein left Cattaro harbour and slipped down the Albanian coast passing Valona just after midnight without being seen by any of the searchlights. The destroyers began searching for a convoy or merchant ship to attack at the allotted hour when the second force would be in position.

   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 Alfredo Acton, the Italian Naval Commander of the area had either received specific information or was deeply suspicious that the Austrian fleet may try another raid and had deployed a force of French and Italian destroyers led by the light cruiser Mirabello on a patrol with orders to sail south-east until midnight when they should cross the strait before turning north towards Cape Boni and then on to Valona. Orders were also given to ready the dispatch of the cruisers in Brindisi with HMS Bristol and HMS Dartmouth brought to readiness.

   Acton was hit by the dilemma of where the Austrian attack would fall and if he were to deploy his vessels to defend the barrage then he would be leaving Brindisi and the vital rail hub or the Italian coastline undefended. He would have to play a reactionary role.

   At 3:30 a.m. a telegram from Fano arrived: The Austrians had been positively sighted in the strait and orders were issued immediately for the Bristol to be brought to half an hour's readiness, the Dartmouth to three hours and HMS Liverpool to six hours. Acton moved his flag to Dartmouth bringing her to half an hour's readiness at 5 a.m. HMS Bristol steamed out of harbour with two destroyers half an hour later with Dartmouth following with another two destroyers five minutes later with the Italian cruiser Aquilla bringing up the rear but Acton was already reacting to the Austrian's first attack.

   The Italian destroyer Borea and it's charge of three vessels had left Gallipoli at 10 a.m. on the 14 May for Valona and had had such an uneventful journey that they had arrived in good time at the Strade Bianche at 3 a.m. with the destroyer at the head of the formation. It was a calm still night with little wind. The moon hung over the mountains in their starboard quarter but the landward side remained very dark and shadowy. One of the Borea's lookouts reported a lot of smoke off to starboard and Commander Franceschi ordered a challenge flashed to the vessel. The pitch blackness suddenly drowned out by the bright illumination of floodlights from SMS Csepel and SMS Balatan moments before they opened fire.

SMS Csepel
   The action was swift and brutal with the Borea turning to starboard to get between the convoy and the Austrian destroyers but to no avail as the Csepel's first salvo had ruptured her main steam pipe leaving her unable to complete her manoeuvre and at the mercy of the enemy. As the Borea sank beneath the waves the Austrians concentrated on the helpless convoy with the munitions ship, SS Caraccio, exploding spectacularly under their barrage and a second vessel was left sinking whilst the third was badly damaged. Having done enough to distract the Allies the two destroyers put the convoy to their rudder and headed for Cattaro leaving the remnants of the convoy to limp or be towed to port. Both the SS Verita and the Bersaliere  made it into port.

   At the Eastern most point of the Barrage the crews of the drifters heard the gunfire and explosions but continued as if nothing was different casting their anti-submarine nets and maintaining a visual in case any action came close but Acton had not alerted them of any threat so whatever was going on was not their concern. At 3:30 a.m. Horthy's vessels arrived at the Barrage and divided with the Novarro heading east, the Helgoland heading west and the Saida concentrating on the centre. On the receipt of a message from the Csepel that the convoy had been disrupted the operation began. Each Austrian cruiser would approach one of the drifters and signal them to surrender and abandon ship before sinking the vessel and taking the crew prisoner.

   SMS Helgoland approached the trawler Gowan Lea at a thousand yards and signalled her to surrender but Kapitän Neyesler was most surprised when his opposite number, Captain Joseph Watt a Scottish veteran of the action the previous December, ordered his small trawler to engage the cruiser at full speed. The crew quickly manned the tiny 6 pounder guns and fired on their larger opponent which encouraged other trawlers in the area to follow suit. The Austrian Commander now caught in an unexpected action dealt with the situation calmly bringing his guns to bear with the first salvo damaging the Gowan Lea's gun and as the crew struggled to unjam it the Helgoland turned its attention upon the other vessels quickly decimating their attack leaving several vessels sinking and the Gowan Lea heavily damaged. Watt ordered his vessel to pick up any British sailor in the water they could and from the sinking trawlers.

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.

I had then in my mind the probability of our cruisers getting fairly close to Cattaro, being crippled or damaged after a running fight, and then being attacked by heavy ships from Cattaro. I therefore asked if the ‘Pisa’ Division or any of them were going out. Admiral Revel, who had arrived signalled to Admiral Acton at sea to ask if he wanted ‘Pisa’ Division, but by this time the action was practically finished and the reply was “no”. (2)

   Vivian felt this was a mistake that the three Armoured cruisers ( the Pisa, San Giorgio and the San Marco) under Contrammiraglio Bollo could not only assist in sinking the already damaged light cruisers or provide covering fire against the perceived threat of the SMS Sankt Georg or a Hapsburg class pre-dreadnought which would be moving to cover Horthy’s withdrawal. At 10:38 a signal was received from the Dartmouth calling for vessels to “Rendezvous on Dartmouth” and Vivian argued this was a call for assistance and once more implored Admiral Revel that the Pisa Division, who stood ready to leave port, should leave and that the Dartmouth must be in difficulties but again, to no avail, A fear of submarines waiting for a relief force outside of Brindisis harbour concerned Vivian and his Italian counterparts and with only a few destroyers available to escort and screen the larger vessels even Vivian admitted in his report that it may have been for the best that they did not leave especially in light of what was to come.

   The lookouts on HMS Bristol spotted the smoke of Horthy’s vessels at 9:00 a.m. arriving from the south and at 9:30 fire was exchanged at 13,000 yards with the Dartmouth leading the Allied forces into a parallel course. Acton’s forces were superior to Horthy’s in speed and firepower with the Dartmouth sporting eight 6” gns and the Bristol two 6” and ten 4” guns whilst Horthy’s three cruisers had nine 3.9” guns. In a straight fight the Allied ships would easily be victorious.

   Horthy claims in his memoirs that his position was not as bad as it seemed on paper. As the Allies approached he was already a step a head of them. Prinz Liechtenstein had already sent a message outlining his combat with the Mirabello group and Horthy had made the conscious decision to draw the Allies away from the smaller destroyers. He had also received a message from Cattaro offering support from the warships present which Horthy saw as a great opportunity to catch the Allies out but he needed to play for time.
   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.

HMS Dartmouth

   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.

   As the fighting subsided the Saida came along side her wounded sister to take her in tow whilst the Helgoland stood guard over the vulnerable cruisers. Acton ordered the Allied vessels to withdraw at the sight of smoke from Cattaro as the Sankt Georg under Admiral von Nensa supported by the coastal defence ship SMS Budapest. The Austro-Hungarian fleet had escaped.

   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
Johannes Feldkirchner’s mine laying SM U-125 fired a torpedo into HMS Dartmouth’s port side. The damage was quite extensive and whilst damage control crews battled to control the flooding two destroyers chased off the predatory U-boat as the other warships moved towards Brindisi.

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.

End Notes:

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