Tag Archives: Adriatic

The Italian Naval Convention 10 May 1915

Italy, although a member of the Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany, had remained neutral in 1914. It had not been consulted beforehand and the treaty did not require it to participate in an attack on Serbia. Austria-Hungary was Italy’s traditional enemy and incorporating the 800,000 Italian speakers around Trieste and in the Trentino region of the Hapsburg empire into Italy was the main objective of Italian nationalists.

Italy had joined the Triple Alliance in 1882 for defensive reasons: it was too weak to fight Austria-Hungary on its own and it considered the German army to be the best in Europe. However, Italy and Austria-Hungary both strengthened their navies and the fortifications on their mutual frontier whilst supposedly allied.

Once war between the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary and the Entente of France, Russia and the United Kingdom had begun, neutrality was the obvious and most popular course for Italy. It had a long coastline and imported most of its wheat and coal by sea, making it very vulnerable to attack by the Royal Navy.

Italy, however, was biding its time. the question was whether it could best achieve its objectives by joining the Central Powers, the Entente or staying neutral. The Treaty of London of 26 April 1915 required it to join the Entente within a month.

The Italian speaking regions of Trieste and Trentino would become Italian. It would also obtain defensible frontiers and dominance of the Adriatic by the incorporation of German, Croatian and Slovenian speaking areas and receive colonies in Africa and Asia Minor.

The Italians expected wrongly that their objectives could be gained by a quick war against Austria-Hungary, so declared war initially on only it.[1]

On 10 May, a week after Italy had renounced the Triple Alliance, a Naval Convention was signed between France, Italy and the UK. The French navy and the RN would support the Italian navy until the end of the war, unless the Austro-Hungarian fleet was destroyed earlier. The Italians would command in the Adriatic and the French elsewhere in the Mediterranean, except in Ottoman waters, where the British would command until the end of the Dardanelles operation.

The Italian navy would be reinforced by four British battleships, four British light cruisers, 12 French destroyers, as many torpedo boats, submarines and minesweepers as the French could spare, including at least six submarines and six French seaplanes, with a seaplane carrier if possible.[2]

This resulted in the following balance of power in the Adriatic:

Type Austria-Hungary Italy Lent by UK & France
Dreadnoughts 3 4
Pre-dreadnoughts 3 2 4
Smaller battleships 6 4
Cruisers 2 9
Fast light cruisers 5 3 2
Old light cruisers 2 3 2
Destroyers 18 39 12
Torpedo boats 42 28
Submarines 7 21 7

Source: Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1923 vol. viii The Mediterranean 1914-1915, p. 143.

These figures exclude an Austro-Hungarian and two Italian dreadnoughts that were close to completion and some German submarines that were assembled at the Austro-Hungarian base at Pola for operations in the Dardanelles.[3]

The British ships would come from the Dardanelles, where they would be replaced by four French cruisers and an increase in the French battleship force to six.[4]

The Italian handed their declaration of war to the Austro-Hungarians on 23 May: it came into effect at midnight. The British squadron was at the Italian naval base of Taranto by the morning of 27 May.[5]

[1] The above is based on D. Stevenson, 1914-1918: The History of the First World War (London: Allen Lane, 2004), pp. 110-13.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1923 vol. viii The Mediterranean 1914-1915. pp. 141-42.

[3] Ibid. Footnotes 1, 2 & 11, p. 143.

[4] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, p. 396.

[5] Naval Staff vol. viii. pp. 144-45.

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The Sinking of SMS Zenta 16 August 1914

France did not declare war on Austria-Hungary until 12 August 1914, with Britain following suit the next day. Vice Admiral Augustin Boué de Lapeyrère, the commander of Anglo-French naval forces in the Mediterranean was ordered to take the offensive against the Austro-Hungarians. His initial task of protecting French troops moving from North Africa to France had by then been largely completed.

The French navy’s war plans had assumed that it would be fighting both Austria-Hungary and its ally Italy, so it had no plan to fight only Austria-Hungary. An attack on the enemy’s main base at Pola, now Pula in Croatia, was thought to be too risky.

De Lapeyrère decided that a sweep into the Adriatic to relieve the Austro-Hungarians blockade of Montenegro might provoke the enemy’s main battle fleet into coming out to fight. This would give the Allies an opportunity to win a decisive victory.

The Austro-Hungarian fleet was heavily outnumbered by the Allied one, which consisted mostly of French ships, but included a few British cruisers and destroyers. The British Mediterranean Fleet’s battlecruisers were watching the Dardanelles in case the German battlecruiser SMS Goeben and light cruiser SMS Breslau came out. Other British ships had been sent to the Red Sea in case German cruisers attempted to attack troopships heading from India to Egypt.

De Lapeyrère’s plan was to take his main battle fleet, showing no lights, along the Italian coast as far as the latitude of the Austrian base at Cattaro, now Kotor in Montenegro. They would then head towards Cattaro and destroy the Austro-Hungarian blockade force, which would have been driven towards them by a force of light cruisers commanded by the British Rear Admiral Ernest Troubridge.

The trap swung shut on 16 August, but caught only the small and old Austro-Hungarian light cruiser SMS Zenta. It fought gallantly but was overwhelmed and sunk in ten minutes. The action was sufficiently close to the coast that the survivors were able to make the shore. A destroyer escaped.

Unsurprisingly, the Austro-Hungarian fleet did not come out to face an enemy that heavily outnumbered it. Paul Halpern notes that ‘[a] curious feature of many prewar plans was the near total absence of what to do next if the enemy fleet did not come out to do battle.’[1]

The Austro-Hungarian naval plan was to maintain a fleet in being. The Allies were hampered by a lack of bases and the French navy’s shortage of colliers and oilers to fuel a fleet that consumed 5,000 tons of coal and 1,000 tons of oil per day.[2] De Lapeyrère was forced to rotate his ships between the Adriatic and Malta.

 

[1] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 59.

[2] Figures from Ibid.

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