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6: The Naval Battle of Otranto

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The Naval Battle of Otranto

On February 1st, 1917, the unrestricted German submarine warfare began. From the point of view of naval strategy, the decision was defensible: the figures for enemy losses rose from a monthly average of 80,000 gross tonnage to 210,000 in April. Whether the decision was politically defensible is a much disputed question, to which a definite answer could be given only if it were absolutely certain that the United States would not have entered the war had the decision not been taken. That the intensified submarine warfare gave strength to the interventionists in the United States of America is not open to doubt. Could the Supreme Command of the German Army, which had, from August 29th, 1916, been taken over by Hindenburg(1) and Ludendorff,(2) have foreseen the collapse of the Russian front a few weeks later, the decision would no doubt have been deferred as it would then have been superfluous.

In Vienna, the agreement with the German proposal had been hesitant. The Emperor was vacillating. The Foreign Minister, Count Czernin(3), and the Hungarian Prime Minister, Count Tisza, were opposed to it. The scales were tipped by the vote of the Commander of the Fleet, Grand-Admiral Haus(4), who, in the decisive discussion held in the Imperial Palace, sided with Zimmermann(5), the German Foreign Minister, and Admiral von Holtzendorf, the German naval attaché in Vienna.

In the Mediterranean at that time there were thirty-two German and fourteen Austro-Hungarian submarines. At the outbreak of the war we had had only eight. Though we could now make full use of the Bocche di Cattaro, our operations were nevertheless considerably hampered by the bottleneck formed by the narrow exit from the Adriatic between Cape Santa Maria di Leuca and the islands Fano and Corfu; for the Allies were obviously making every effort to cork that bottleneck as tightly as possible. To this end, a stronger patrol service of torpedo-boats and destroyers had been instituted. The moment a U-boat showed its periscope above water, it was spotted by the destroyers and attacked with depth charges. If they evaded the destroyers, the U-boats were always in danger from the drifters, which trailed, at first to a depth of about seventy feet and later of a hundred and forty feet, which was the maximum diving capacity of the submarines, long nets fitted with explosives and warning devices.

I had talked at length with every U-boat commander who had entered the Bocche di Cattaro. They all agreed: it was becoming more and more difficult, if not impossible, to break through this blockade. I made up my mind that it was time to make a clearance.

The operation was carefully prepared. I asked the flotilla commander for the two cruisers Helgoland and Saida, which were of the same type as the Novara, and for the two destroyers Csepel and Balaton. To deceive the enemy, I again made use of camouflage and had the mainmasts of the three cruisers shortened to make the ships less easy to identify.

On the evening of May 14th, 1917, we set out; the two destroyers under the orders of Captain Prince Liechtenstein(6) sailed on reconnaissance an hour before the cruisers, which followed in line ahead. The time of departure had been calculated to allow us to arrive at a point near the Straits of Otranto as night was falling. The cruisers were then to fan out: the Novara eastward towards Fano, the Helgoland, in the centre, southward, and the Saida westward towards Cape Santa Maria di Leuca.

At three in the morning, we heard gunfire to the south. Our destroyers had intercepted a convoy sailing to Brindisi. They did a good job in sinking the two large steamers and their escorting destroyer.

Meanwhile, we were drawing near the point at which we were to scatter and soon we came upon the net-trailing drifters. We gave their crews warning, but not all of them took to their boats. Some manned their automatic guns and fired until their boilers exploded or their ships capsized. Crews that had abandoned ship were taken on board by us.

Our task had been carried out. Between them, the cruisers destroyed twenty-one drifters and took seventy-two prisoners. Damage to our own ships was negligible. The Novara had been attacked by an Italian sea-plane without suffering harm. The three cruisers joined up again and turned for home in line ahead, with the destroyers in the van.

The drifters meanwhile had given the alarm with rockets and wireless signals. Several enemy destroyers set out from Valona. A gun battle was fought, after seven minutes of which the eight enemy destroyers turned back towards Valona. We could not, however, prevent them from keeping us under observation and from furnishing the enemy command with accurate details of our positions. At this point, we were informed by the Liechtenstein vessels and by our aeroplanes that strong enemy forces had been sighted in the Gulf of Drin, off Durazzo, which had obviously set out from Brindisi to attempt cutting off our retreat. The first report gave one Italian and two British cruisers and two destroyers.

As I knew their positions, it would have been simple to shape a course to avoid them, for I knew both their speeds and ours, but as I was considering the best plan, I received a wireless message from Prince Liechtenstein stating that his two destroyers had found their way to the Bocche barred and were being forced towards the coast. I therefore made for the enemy, who, as soon as we were sighted, called off the attack on our two destroyers and steamed towards us. After sinking an Italian destroyer, Liechtenstein's two destroyers reached home safely.

The flotilla commander, who had a clear view of the situation, sent a wireless message to ask whether he should come out. I replied that it would be a good manoeuvre to try and get the enemy between us.

When the enemy cruisers had reached their firing distance, they followed a course parallel to ours and at 9:28 a.m. opened fire. A British cruiser had meanwhile replaced the Italian in the lead.

The British cruiser's first volley fell within yards of the Novara's bows, directly on our course. Since the range of the enemy artillery was plainly superior to ours, I ordered the smoke-screen apparatus to be used, so that we should be able to draw in closer and thus be able to use our smaller-calibre guns and launch our torpedoes to greater effect. The enemy was certain to come nearer, as he would be convinced that we were refusing battle.

When I thought the enemy cruisers were within reasonable distance, I sailed out of the smoke screen and continued on a northerly course. The destroyers, which had approached on the port beam, were driven off with gunfire.

A violent battle now developed along parallel courses at a distance varying between 15,000 and 25,000 feet. In spite of the slow speed of the Saida, which did not exceed twenty-five knots, we were able to move our formation slowly and keep within our gun range. The fire of the British cruisers was accurate and scientific, the Novara, the leader of our formation, being the main target. At first, hits were negligible, but gradually the situation grew serious. The conning tower was hit and the chart-room was destroyed. One of our guns was put out of action and a number of fires broke out which we succeeded in extinguishing before they had any considerable hold. On the other hand, we could see that the enemy ships were not going unscathed either.

At 10:10 a.m., I was wounded by a shell that exploded near me, five shell splinters embedding themselves in my leg. A piece of shrapnel weighing a couple of pounds carried my cap off my head without injuring me, that piece of metal with singed shreds of my cap still adhering to it was later handed to me. I was wearing my overcoat over my uniform and although, except for shoes and socks, my clothes were singed right through to my chest, I did not have a single burn. But I felt as if I had been felled by a blow on the head with an axe. I was also overcome by the poisonous fumes and lost consciousness. I was quickly brought round, however, by the cold water that was poured over me to extinguish my smouldering garments.

I had myself put on a stretcher and taken to the fore-deck, knowing I should have a satisfactory view of affairs from there. I intended to hand over the command of the vessel to my excellent first officer, Lieutenant Szuborits(7), but received the sad news that he had been killed. I therefore delegated the command to the officer next in rank, Lieutenant Witkowski(8), the artillery officer, who had stood on the open upper bridge throughout the engagement, leading the firing in a first-rate manner. I remained in charge of the flotilla, however.

At 10:35 a.m., we received a serious direct hit which exploded in the turbine chamber aft and destroyed the pipe-line of the condenser. The fires of eight of the sixteen boilers had to be extinguished. We could have gone on for a while on sea water, but I did not care to damage the remaining boilers and therefore informed my sister ships that the a Novara could proceed under her own steam only for another ten minutes. The fires were raked out and before long we were lying motionless. Meanwhile, the British fire had noticeably decreased; at 11 a.m., the enemy turned south-west and joined the destroyers approaching from the south.

At 11:20 a.m., the Saida came alongside the Novara to take her in tow, while the Helgoland sailed between the Novara and the enemy to cover the maneeuvre. While the hawser was got across, both sides were continuing to fire. A sharp attack by the Italian cruiser Quarto was beaten off' as was that of a destroyer which shot forward to fire a torpedo at us Captain Ritter von Purschka(9) of the Saida carried out the difficult hawser manceuvre faultlessly in spite of a rain of shells. We were also attacked by enemy aircraft, one of which we brought down.

We were beginning to breathe more freely when more columns of smoke appeared on the southern horizon and soon an Italian cruiser and several destroyers came in sight. Joining forces, the whole enemy formation, about ten vessels in all, moved towards us along a wide front. These were critical moments. In view of the numerical superiority of the enemy and the lame condition of the Novara, the situation seemed hopeless.

As I was unable to see the enemy fleet from my stretcher, I asked Witkowski what they were doing. He studied them through his binoculars and, after a long pause, replied, "It looks to me as if they are turning around and leaving us the field."

And, indeed, the enemy broke off the action and set course for Brindisi. That was at 12:07 a.m. Few columns of water marked the enemy's parting salute before they vanished in the mist of the southern horizon. Northward, the smoke of our St. Georg and a number of destroyers hastening from the Bocche di Cattaro had appeared.

The Italian Admiral Acton(10), who had been on board the leading British cruiser, had decided that the risk of an encounter with our battle cruiser St. Georg, supported by the coastal patrol vessel Budapest, was too great. He preferred to let the Novara slip from his grasp, though, on account of losing our mobility, we had been at his mercy. We had, therefore, won the battle.

At 12:20 p.m., the Saida, with the Novara in tow, turned towards the St. Georg. Before long, had joined her and our torpedo-boats, the crews of which gave us a rousing cheer. Twenty-four hours after leaving the Bocche di Cattaro, we returned victorious.

Together our three cruisers mustered twenty-seven 4.2 inch guns; against them had been arrayed one Italian and two British cruisers, apart from eleven Italian and three French destroyers, with thirty-three superior guns of 4.8 inch and 6 inch calibre and fifty-six guns of smaller calibre. Our tonnage was 12,200, the enemy's 25,932: twice as much as ours.

The enemy had lost twenty-three net-trailing drifters, two transports, two destroyers and one aeroplane. In addition, the enemy flagship Dartmouth was attacked by a German U-boat as she was entering the harbour of Brindisi and holed by two torpedoes. The French destroyer Boutefeu, going to the assistance of the Dartmouth, ran onto a mine released by the U-boat and sank. We had not lost a single vessel and the Straits of Otranto were once more open to U-boats. We had shown that the drifter blockade could be broken. The enemy, as can be gathered from statements made at a later date, recognized the danger and, for a long time, drifters operated only during the hours of daylight, so that U-boats were able to pass through the Straits of Otranto at night unhindered.

After the war, the wife of the British Admiral Mark Kerr(11) visited Budapest on the occasion of a Girl Scouts' Conference and brought me a letter from her husband, who had been in command of the British Adriatic Fleet. In this letter, Admiral Mark Kerr quoted from the despatch he had sent to the Admiralty after the battle of Otranto:

"Undoubtedly the Austro-Hungarian cruisers behaved most chivalrously. Whenever a drifter put up a fight and refused to surrender, it was noticeable that 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." (See: Admiral Mark Kerr: The Navy in My Time, 1933.)

After we had entered the Bocche di Cattaro, I was transferred to the hospital ship. It so happened that my wife had been granted leave to visit me. She had arrived the day before our sortie, so that she had followed the excitement of the battle, being kept in touch by the flotilla commander. She had learned that I was wounded and was waiting for me on board the hospital ship. The pleasure of our reunion made the pain seem negligible. I was fortunate in find-finding myself in the care of the best, ablest and most loving of nurses.

Some temporary repairs were made to the Novara and as soon as I could be moved, I took her to the naval arsenal at Pola, I lay on a stretcher on the bridge. This was no theatrical gesture on my part. At that time, the Adriatic was a dangerous area, riddled with submarines. Both enemy and our own mines made the passage difficult. I had the feeling that this would be my last trip on the good old Novara. I could not endure the thought of her being taken to Pola by other hands than mine. I had the most reliable and excellent officers on board, but I had had more experience than they.

I was taken to Vienna for an operation. On the advice of the famous surgeon, Professor Dr. Eiselsberg(12), I spent six weeks regaining my strength before the operation. Professor Eiselsberg took me to Baden, where we had rented a small house. The ear-specialist, Dr. Biel, joined us there, as the explosion had affected my ear-drums. He gave it as his opinion that nothing could be done, but natural regeneration saved me from deafness. After a while, my hearing returned, and in time had improved so much that no one talking to me would have guessed that anything had ever been wrong with it. Only when several people are talking at once, or when there is an extraneous noise, do I fail to hear what is being said.

Professor Eiselsberg allowed me to be moved when my wounds had begun to heal on my insistence that the climate of Kenderes would do me good. I should have done better to be guided by his advice, for the doctor at Kenderes proved a little too zealous and another operation, this time in Budapest, had to be performed.

1. Paul von Beneckendorf und von Hindenburg (1847-1934), German chief of staff during the war, president of the Weimar Republic from 1925 until his death.

2. Gen. Erich Ludendorff (1865-1937), German quartermaster-general during the war.

3. Count Ottokar Czernin (1872-1932), was advisor to Emperor Franz-Joseph, and war-time foreign minister of Austria-Hungary between 1916 and 1918. He sought a negotiated peace, but was unwilling to give up war aims against Italy and the Balkans. He was dismissed after French Premier Clemenceau dramatically disclosed the private peace-making attempts of Emperor Charles IV through Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma, brother-in-law of Charles.

4. Antal Haus (1851-1917).

5. Arthur von Zimmerman (1864-1940), Deputy Foreign Minister of Germany.

6. Prince Johann Lichtenstein (1873-1929).

7. Robert Szuborits (1877-1917).

8. Lt. Stanislaus Witkowski (1869-1935), later captain.

9. Rear Adm. Ritter Ferdinand von Purschka (1870-1940).

10. Adm. Alfredo Acton (1867-1934).

11. Adm. Mark Edward Frederick Kerr (1864-1944).

12. Baron Anton Eiselsberg (1860-1939), professor of surgery.

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