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7: Appointment as Commander of the Fleet

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Appointment as Commander of the Fleet

The End

On April 2nd, 1917, the United States of America entered the war on the side of England, France and Italy. The already considerable superiority of the enemy coalition was thereby increased to such an extent that the outcome of the war could hardly be regarded as in doubt. Even the cessation of the pressure in the East, brought about by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, could not re-establish a balance of forces. One of the first American measures was to send Franklin D. Roosevelt, the then Deputy Secretary for Naval Affairs, to Rome to urge the Italians to more intensive naval activity. Thaon de Revel, the Italian Minister for Naval Affairs, admitted that the Austro-Hungarians were numerically inferior in ships and guns but added that they had excellent shelters among the Dalmatian islands and that they had some audacious commanders. My name was also mentioned and Roosevelt, in telling this story to J. F. Montgomery, the future American Minister in Budapest, commented, "That was my first diplomatic defeat, and I owed it to Admiral Horthy." (J. F. Montgomery: Hungary the Unwilling Satellite, New York, 1947)(1) I mention this as one of many testimonies showing that our Navy was never defeated at sea. The debacle was caused by defeats on land. The weakening of the home front through hunger and shortages, engendering an internal collapse that spread to the Navy. After my wounds had healed, I was appointed captain of a dreadnought, the Prince Eugen. At Pola, the battle fleet was not in good form. Since the day of the Italian declaration of war, for three years that is, the crews had been largely inactive. They had been condemned to a kind of barrack-room existence, which is fatal to the best type of men. Much the same conditions prevailed at Kiel and the same atmosphere developed, demoralizing the naval personnel there. In our case, difficulties were exacerbated by the fact that all nationalities(2) of the monarchy were represented in our ships, so that to the underground activities of the Socialists were added the political agitation of Yugoslav, Czech and Italian nationalists.

During my first evening on board the Prince Eugen, I kept hearing shouts of "Hurrah!" I sent for the first officer, who told me that the crew had refused to eat the evening meal without apparent reason and that a craze for irrational cheering had spread through the fleet.

I went on deck and my presence sufficed to re-establish order. As I was going down to the battery, I came upon a sailor in the stairway who, unaware of my approach, was shouting "Hurrah!" I thrust him back unceremoniously, and, calling the crew together, nationality by nationality in separate groups, issued a grave warning against listening to hate-mongers.

The Magyars were called to the half-deck, as they, I thought, were the smallest group. To my surprise, I found more than three hundred men assembled, and from that moment I knew that, whatever happened, I shall be master of the situation.

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, day after day, endangering their lives, traitors were not found.

In the evenings, as I walked on deck, I could hear the gun-fire from the Isonzo front. Meanwhile, the gateway to the Adriatic, which we had forced the previous May, had been closed again. At a naval conference of the Allied Powers in Rome in February, 1918, it had been decided "to pay the greatest attention" to the Otranto blockade. The number of British destroyers was increased to forty and to them were added twelve French destroyers. Seventy-six drifters and a flotilla of American U-boat chasers kept guard over the blockade. Naval air force stations had gradually been strengthened and the speed and range of the planes were increasing.

Under these conditions, I was suddenly called, together with my two old academy-mates, Rear-Admirals Ritter von Keil(3) and Holub(4), to go to the Imperial Supreme Command, which had its headquarters at Baden. There I was taken to His Majesty Emperor Charles, who appointed me Commander-in-Chief of the Adriatic Fleet(5). I was taken aback and begged His Majesty to change his mind. I put it to him that, in view of the number of able seniors there were above me in the Navy, many would consider themselves slighted and that my appointment would cause much controversy. It was without precedent. Moreover, a Commander of the Fleet could not be expected to perform miracles in this fourth year of hostilities.Certainly I could not hope to influence the course of the war. The Emperor refused to change his mind and adhered to his decision on the grounds that young blood was needed in the higher ranks of the Navy.

Rear-Admiral Holub was appointed Chief of the Naval Section of the Ministry of War. Rear-Admiral Keil was to remain at the disposal of the Supreme Command at Baden. I was appointed Rear-Admiral, of a fleet that was on the verge of mutiny.

Shortly after I took over, a plot was discovered on board a destroyer destined convoying transports to Albania. Two sailors, one a Czech and the other a Croat of the Orthodox faith, had tried to talk the rest of the crew into murdering the officers when out at sea and joining the enemy at Ancona. The plot, however, was reported and the two sailors were arrested and sentenced to death by the naval tribunal. I confirmed the judgment and ordered the execution to be carried out the next day in the presence of twenty men from each ship. For the time being, it sufficed to bring the men to their senses.

It was very clear to me, however, that the effect of such deterrents could not be permanent. Earlier in the year(6), a bad case of mutiny had broken out in the Bocche di Cattaro; the red flag had been hoisted in a number of ships on the calling of a general strike in Vienna, and other cities. The Third Battleship Division had had to be ordered to the Bocche and it had not been easy to suppress the mutiny(7).

It seemed to me that the best way to restore discipline in the Navy would be to put the ships into action, a view that I knew 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.

I decided therefore to take the fleet out and once again try to break the blockade of Otranto. The whole fleet was to be engaged in this operation, for it was fairly certain that, after their experience of May 15th, 1917, the enemy would throw in battle cruisers at least in an attempt to intercept and destroy our returning warships. I hoped that our fleet would be able to surround and destroy them.

The attack was made on June 11th, 1918, after the consent of the High Command had been obtained. Two nights were needed for reaching the decisive area safely and unseen. At dusk, I ordered the first division out, and before dawn it had anchored at Slano, a well sheltered harbour north of Gravosa, not far from Ragusa. The second division under Captain Seitz(8) had only half the distance to cover to reach its anchorage off Isola Grossa, and therefore left twenty-four hours later.

For some unexplained reason, the harbour boom had not been removed and the departure of the second division was delayed, partly by this and partly because the Tegetthoff had engine trouble. It arrived late at the anchorage, and just before dawn the Szent István was holed by two torpedoes fired by an Italian torpedo-boat which had not been observed in the uncertain light. She sank in less than three hours and the Italian vessel escaped, which meant that the enemy could no longer be taken by surprise, for the Italian would have given the alarm. We would have to face enemy forces far superior in the neighbourhood of the Otranto barrage than we had contemplated. With heavy heart, I decided to call off the attack and gave the order for the ships to return to port.

In the autumn of 1918, Albania had to be evacuated and the coastal command removed from Durazzo to Alassio. The fleet provided cover for these operations, safeguarding the withdrawal of part of the Pfanzer-Baltin Army. Italian, British and American warships made a sharp attack on the transports at Durazzo but were beaten off by the Austro-Hungarian fleet.

The situation was deteriorating. On September 29th, Bulgaria asked for an armistice, thereby making the Balkan front practically untenable. The supplies of the Army and of the hinterland were becoming increasingly deficient. Count Tisza, the former Prime Minister, was sent by the Emperor to Bosnia to survey conditions and gather information. His report left little hope of preventing a secession of the South Slavs.

On October 17th, His Majesty issued a manifesto, promising the transformation of Austria into a federal state, the union of the Polish parts of Austria with an independent Polish state, a special status for Trieste and self-determination for all nationalities within the monarchy. If this manifesto was intended to stem the dissolution of the monarchy. Events showed that this "call to the conscience of an old and venerable monarchy" merely served to strengthen the centrifugal forces. The dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy could no longer be stayed.

In the Budapest Parliament, Count Michael Károlyi(9) rose and demanded the recall of all Hungarian troops for the defence of the Hungarian homeland. On October 1st, the Southern Slav National Council met; by the formation of a South Slav (i.e. Yugo-Slav) state, embodying Dalmatia and the northern coastal area. The monarchy was to all intents and purposes cut off from the sea. As I heard it, His Majesty was persuaded by generals of Croat nationality to hand over the fleet to the Yugoslavs to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Italians. Perhaps this decision was made on the basis of promises that were never honoured.

On October 26th, 1918, Emperor Charles sent the following telegram to Emperor William II:

"Dear friend, it is my duty, however difficult, to inform you that my people are no longer either able or willing to prosecute the war. . . . Hence I inform you that I have taken the irrevocable decision to seek, within the course of the next twenty-four hours, a separate peace and and immediate armistice. . ."

I knew nothing of this and, on October 17th, I sent in my report to the effect that I was prepared to attempt allaying the spreading mutiny on board the ships by personal appeals to the men. In fact, I went the round of the fleet and addressed the crews. At the same time, I took the precaution, lest matters should come to the worst, of seeing to it that all Imperial German secret instructions were destroyed. A large number of Germans had already left for their homeland, including the majority of the workers in the U-boat yard at Pola, after they had blown up all U-boats under construction.

On October 28th, 1918, I received the signal from His Majesty to hand over the fleet to the South Slav Council.

This order came as a crushing blow. Future prospects were grey and sorrowful, yet it was calamitous to have to relinquish our glorious undefeated fleet without a fight. No enemy lurked outside the harbour, the Adriatic was empty. Nothing was left but for me to receive the South Slav Committee. The meeting was arranged for nine o'clock in the morning of October 31st on board my flagship Viribus Unitis.

In the Admiral's cabin gathered Captain von Konek(10), my Chief of the Naval Staff; Captains Lauffer and Schmidt(11), the Commanders of the Second and Third Divisions; and the Commander of the Second Torpedo Flotilla. The Yugoslav National Council was represented by Dr. Tresic-Pavicic(12), Dr. Ivo Cok, Vilim Bukseg, and a few delegates(13) from the local Council, among whom to my surprise was our naval captain Method Koch(14).

The discussion was short and cool. I refused the request of the Yugoslavs to strike the Imperial red, white and red ensign and hoist the Yugoslav national flag. Until I left the ship at half-past four that afternoon, my pendant and the Imperial red, white and red ensign would be worn.

The following document was drawn up and signed:

"Minutes relative to the surrender of the Austro-Hungarian fleet to the accredited delegates of the National Council of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs in Zagreb, pursuant to the command of His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty. The Austro-Hungarian fleet, together with all its equipment and stores, is hereby surrendered to the National Council of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs in Zagreb with the special proviso that claims to ownership shall be reserved also for the non-South Slav states, and the Nations hitherto comprising the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Pola, October 31st, 1918."

Dr. Tresic-Pavicvic asked me to transmit to all naval officers serving in the fleet the request of his National Council that they should remain in active service, conditions of service to be unchanged. I did so, but, apart from the Croats and Slovenes, not one wished to stay.

I asked to whom I should deliver the command of my fleet. None of the delegates had considered that point. I therefore proposed my flag-captain, von Vukovic(15); my proposal was accepted with some hesitation, though von Vukovic was of Croat nationality.

Half-past four struck. This was one of the saddest moments in a life hitherto singularly happy. As I appeared on the deck of the Viribus Unitis, the crew stood as one man to attention. I was so moved that for a few moments I stood speechless, unable to begin my short farewell address to the men. The portrait presented by His Majesty Emperor Francis Joseph to the flagship which bore his personal motto Viribus Unitis as her name, the silk ceremonial ensign and my own Admiral's flag I took with me.

As my flag was struck, all the flags on all the ships followed suit: a war flag that had never been struck to an enemy. The majority of the officers, including many Croats and Slovenes, left the ships after me to leave Pola next morning.

With this episode, regular service in the fleet had ceased. The chief posts remained unoccupied. The electric lights were extinguished. The harbour booms were no longer guarded. This made it possible for two Italian officers to enter Pola harbour on the following day with the help of a newly invented apparatus and to attach a mine with a time-fuse to the Viribus Unitis below the waterline. As they were swimming away, they were observed by a petty officer who pursued them in a boat and had them brought on board. In a state of great excitement, they demanded to be taken before the Captain, to whom they related their exploit, explaining that the mine they had fixed to the hull would shortly explode. Captain von Vukovic, Commander-in-Chief of the fleet, ordered the crew to abandon ship immediately. He himself went up on the bridge and awaited the explosion. He went down with his ship. All honour to his memory.

Those of the officers and petty officers who had been unable to leave the ship in time succeeded in saving their lives by swimming to the shore, but they lost all their possessions. They came to my villa and from them I heard that the flagship of our fleet had not survived the change in her destiny. I shared out my wardrobe, uniforms and civilian clothes, among them. Then I shut up the house in which I had spent so many happy years, the house which had seen the birth of my children, and left never to return. All the household goods: silver, carpets, pictures, were left behind.

A special train conveyed the staff officers of the fleet, the majority of the officers of the flagship, and myself from Pola. It was sad to see all these young and energetic men journeying forth into a life of uncertainty.

My career also.seemed to be at an end. What could I look forward to in Hungary, a country in the throes of revolution?

1. p.45-6. Republished: Morristown, NJ: Vista Books, 1993.

2. The distribution of nationalities among the crews of the navy in 1914 were as follows: Croats 31.0 percent; Hungarians 20.4; Germans/Austrians 16.3; Italians 14.1; Czechs/Slovaks/Ruthenes 11.8; Poles/Rumanians 3.0; Slovenes 2.8.

3. Rear Adm. Franz von Keil (1862-1945).

4. Rear Adm. Franz Holub (1865-1924).

5. March 1, 1918.

6. February 1, 1918.

7. This incident was the root of the fabricated Communist charge that Horthy, "The Butcher of Cattaro" has suppressed a major socialist uprising in the fleet, jailed some seven-hundred sailors and executed more than four. (Vas, Zoltán: Horthy, 3ed. Budapest: Szépirodalmi K., 1977.) Horthy was not in command at the time. The commander in charge of the Third Division at Pola was Vice-Admiral Seidensacher. The true story of the mutiny is described in detail by David Woodward: Mutiny at Cattaro, 1918 (History Today Vol. XXVI, No. 12, Dec. 1976, pp. 804-810).

8. Capt. (Later Rear Adm.) Heinrich Seitz-Treffen (1870-1940).

9. Count Michael Károlyi (1875-1955).

10. Capt. Emil Konek (1970-1944).

11. Rear Adm. Franz Lauffer (1969-1951); Capt. Felix Schmidt Bornemissza (1895-1969) who, in 1944, was later captured by the Gestapo and taken to Mauthausen together with Horthy's son Nicholas.

12. Ante Tresits-Pavicich (1867-1949) Croat writer, politician, diplomat.

13. Laczko Kriz, Dr. Lovro Skalier, Dr. Mirko Vratovich, and Dr. Mario Krmpotic.

14. Capt. Method Koch (1874-1952), later became Rear Admiral in the Yugoslav navy.

15. Capt. Janko Vukovich of Podkapels (1871-1918).

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