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U-boats and US Troopships in WWI

When Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, the Chief of the Admiralty Staff of the Imperial German Navy, persuaded the German High Command to resume unrestricted submarine warfare from 1 February 1917 he admitted that this might bring the USA into the war. However, he argued that the U-boats would have sunk enough merchant ships to force the UK to surrender before the USA could mobilise a large army and transport it to Europe.

In fact the U-boats were unable to prevent US troops travelling to Europe. By the end of the war 2,079,880 US soldiers had reached Europe, 51 per cent in British ships, 46 per cent in US ones and most of the others in French ones, with a few travelling in Italian vessels. Most of the escorts, however, were from the USN: 83 per cent versus 14 per cent from the RN and 3 per cent from the French navy.[1]

A significant number of the US troops travelled in one of 18 German owned liners that had been interned in US ports and requisitioned. They had a total tonnage of 304,720 tons and capacity of 68,600 men. The largest of them, the Vaterland (54,282 tons), renamed Leviathan, could carry 10,680 troops. She and three large British liners, the Mauretania (31,938 tons, 5,162 troops), Aquitania (45,467 tons, 6,090 troops) and Olympic (45,324 tons, 6,148 troops) were considered to be so fast and seaworthy that escorts could not keep up with them. They consequently made most of the passage on their own, being met by destroyers near their destination ports. They carried 135,467 out of 1,037,166 Canadian and US troops transported to the UK in 1918. The other troopships travelled as part of escorted convoys.[2]

The largest loss of life of US soldiers to a U-boat came on 5 February 1918, when UB77 (Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm Meyer) sank the SS Tuscania (14,348 tons) off Islay, the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides. The Tuscania, which was part of a British convoy, was carrying 2,000 US troops from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Europe. The loss of life was made worse because some lifeboats overturned as they were being lowered and because they then tried to make land rather than wait near the ship to be rescued.[3]

There is some dispute about the number killed when the Tuscania sank. Lawrence Sondhaus’s recent German Submarine Warfare in World War I and the website U-boat.net both state that 166 soldiers and crew were killed. Archibald Hurd’s The Merchant Navy, part of the British Official History of the war, says 44 crew and about 100 soldiers. R. H. Gibson and Maurice Prendergast’s older work The German Submarine War 1914-18 says 44 crew and 166 soldiers, which is repeated in Paul Halpern and Robert Massie’s histories of the war at sea.[4]

The only other US troopship sunk by a U-boat on her way to Europe was the armed merchant cruiser Moldavia, which was part of a US convoy when torpedoed in the English Channel on 23 May. Fifty-six US soldiers died. The largest loss of Europe bound US troops came on 6 October 1918 when the troopship Kashmir (8,985 tons), whose steering had jammed, accidentally rammed the troopship Otranto (12,124 tons), which ran aground off Islay with the loss of 369 soldiers and 69 crew.[5]

Three more US troopships were sunk by U-boats, but on the way home when they were less well escorted: the Antilles (6,800 tons, 67 dead) on 17 October 1917, the President Lincoln (18,162 tons, 25 dead) on 31 May 1918 and the Covington (16,339 tons, 6 dead) on 1 July 1918.[6]

 

 

[1] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), pp. 435-6.

[2] Ibid., p. 436.

[3] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1931), p. 288.

[4] Ibid; Halpern, Naval, p. 436; A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. iii, p. 285; R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 762; L. Sondhaus, German Submarine Warfare in World War I: The Onset of Total War at Sea (Boulder MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). Kindle edition, loc. 3952 of 5745, Chapter 7.

[5] Halpern, Naval, p. 437.

[6] Ibid.

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SS Sussex Torpedoed by U-Boat 24 March 1916

In February 1916 Germany announced that from 1 March its U-boats would sink defensively armed British merchant ships without warning. Germany had, under pressure from the USA, abandoned unrestricted submarine warfare in September 1915. The Germans claimed that British defensively armed merchantmen had been ordered to attack U-boats before being attacked themselves, so could not be regarded as acting defensively. The Admiralty quickly disproved this accusation by publishing the actual orders.[1]

The German position on the issue of unrestricted submarine warfare is described by Paul Halpern as being ‘somewhat confusing’.[2] The naval and military commanders wanted to pursue unrestricted submarine warfare but Kaiser Wilhelm and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg were concerned about US opinion. The US government opposed the treatment of armed merchant ship as warships.

Following a conference on 4 March the Kaiser accepted that unrestricted warfare was necessary, with a likely start date of 1 April. Until then, Bethmann Hollweg should attempt to persuade the Americans to accept the German view. In the interim U-boats were authorised to sink enemy merchant ships in the war zone and armed ones outside it. Passenger liners, whether armed or not, could not be attacked anywhere by submerged U-boats. Halpern describes this as ‘sharpened’ rather than unrestricted submarine warfare.[3]

Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the architect of the German battlefleet had not been invited to the 4 March meeting. He resigned as State Secretary of the Imperial Naval Office, a job mainly concerned with administration and naval building, soon afterwards.

The Germans had 52 U-boats in March 1916, compared with 29 or 30 when they began unrestricted submarine warfare a year before. Of these 16 were in the North Sea, 20 small and short ranged ones with the Flanders Flotilla, 4 in the Baltic, 7 in the Adriatic and 5 at Istanbul. It was expected that another 38 would be completed by August.[4]

Several Dutch merchant ships were sunk in March, including the 13,911 liner Tubantia, the largest neutral ship sunk during the war. The Dutch were angered by these losses, but the attitude of the USA was far more important to the Germans.[5]

On the afternoon of 24 March the 1,353 ton French packet Sussex was torpedoed and badly damaged by UB29 (Oberleutnant Herbert Pustkuchen) whilst making her regular run from Folkestone to Dieppe with over 325 passengers. The Germans claimed at first that she had hit a mine, but fragments of a torpedo were found after she had been towed into Boulogne.[6]

The 50 dead included some of the 25 Americans on board. Pustkuchen claimed that he assumed from her crowded decks that she was a troopship.[7] British troopships then crossed at night between Folkestone and Boulogne.[8] The Germans may not have known that and Pustkuchen, with the very limited view offered by a periscope, may have genuinely thought that he was firing at a troopship. His action, however, created a major diplomatic incident with the USA.

On 19 April US President Woodrow Wilson told Congress that that unless the Germans abandoned ‘their present method of warfare against passenger and freight-carrying vessels, the Government have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the German Government altogether.’[9]

On 20 April the Germans agreed to stop sinking merchant ships without warning. Four days later Admiral Reinhard Scheer, the recently appointed C.-in-C. of the High Seas Fleet, recalled all his U-boats from the North Sea on the grounds that there was no point in sending boats on dangerous missions when their actions were so restricted. This left only the short ranged boats of the Flanders Flotilla operating against Allied shipping in British waters.[10]

The following table shows Allied shipping losses to U-boats since the end of the period of unrestricted submarine warfare. Sinkings rose in April and May and then fell again, especially outside the Mediterranean, to which several U-boats were transferred in September 1915 so that they could raid Allied commerce in an area where the risk of killing Americans was reduced, although not eliminated. On 7 November U38, a German boat that was flying Austro-Hungarian colours because Germany and Italy were not yet at war, sank the Italian liner Ancona, killing over 200 people, including about 20 Americans.[11]

Merchant shipping Losses to U-boats
Total Mediterranean
Month Ships Gross tons Ships Gross tons
Oct-Dec 1915 140 361,326 80 293,423
January 1916 25 49,610
February 1916 44 95,090
March 1916 69 160,536
April 1916 83 187,307
May 1916 63 119,381 37 72,092
June 1916 63 93,193 43 67,125

Source: P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 308.

The Germans thought that unrestricted submarine warfare was their best chance of forcing Britain out of the war. However, it also risked bringing the USA into the war on the Allied side. In 1916 they had too few U-boats to achieve the former but pursuing this strategy could still cause the latter.

 

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xv, Home Waters part vi, October 1915 to May 1916. p. 94.

[2] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 305.

[3] Ibid., p. 306.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 307.

[6] Naval Staff vol. Xv. p. 139.

[7] Halpern, Naval, p. 307.

[8] Naval Staff vol. Xv. p. 139.

[9] Quoted in R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 88.

[10] Ibid., p. 89.

[11] Halpern, Naval, p. 385.

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U-boats in Late 1915

Germany’s decision, under pressure from the USA, to end unrestricted submarine warfare in September 1915 did not end Allied shipping losses to U-boats. In the final three months of the war they sank 140 ships of 361,326 tons.[1]

Most of the losses in waters around the British Isles were from mines. The small coastal minelaying U-boats UC1, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 9 , operating from Zeebrugge, laid mines in 16 locations. Seventeen vessels struck mines around Dover and the Nore alone.[2] Mines were laid off Portsmouth in an attempt to disrupt transports to France, one of which sank the destroyer HMS Velox on 25 October.[3]

The minelayers did not escape unscathed. UC6 was damaged in early October: the Germans claimed that this was the result of her being rammed by a destroyer but no British destroyer reported such an incident that month.[4] UC9 left port on 20 October and never returned. Her fate is unknown.[5] UC8 ran aground in Dutch waters on 4 November and was interned.[6]

Mines were laid in 13 different places in November.[7] Their victims included the hospital ship Anglia, which was sunk on 17 November with the loss of about 80 staff and wounded soldiers.[8] Mines closed Boulogne to shipping on 10, 12-14 and 29 November. Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, was due to travel home from France on the last of those dates and had to go from Dunkirk instead of the more usual Boulogne to Folkestone route.[9]

One raid was carried out by a U-boat in the North Sea in December 1914, with the objective of keeping British escorts that might otherwise have been sent to the Mediterranean in home waters. U24 sank one Belgian and three British steamers during it.[10]

A number of U-boats were transferred to the Mediterranean. U21 arrived at the Austro-Hungarian port of Cattaro, now Kotor, on 5 May. As described here, she sank the British battleships HMS Majestic and Triumph off Gallipoli in late May. The coastal boats UB1, 3, 7, 8, 14 and 15 and the coastal minelayers UC12, 13, 14 and 15 were sent partially assembled by rail and completed at Pola.[11]

In early August U34 and 35 sailed to the Mediterranean, followed by U33 and 39 at the end of the month and later by U38: these boats were all of the U31 class. U21, UB7 and 8 and UC14 and 15 were based at Istanbul, with the others operating from Austro-Hungarian ports. During 1915 U-boats sank 54 British and 38 Allied and neutral ships in the Mediterranean. As well as merchant ships, they sank a number of troopship, starting with the British Royal Edward, torpedoed by UB14 (Oberleutnant Heino von Heimburg) on 13 August whilst bound from Alexandria to Mudros with the loss of 866 lives. UB14 also ambushed and sank the British submarine E20 in the Sea of Marmara as a result of information obtained when the French submarine Turquoise was captured by the Ottomans. Other warship losses to U-boats in the Mediterranean included the Italian submarine Medusa on 10 June and armoured cruiser Amalfi on 7 July, both sunk by UB15, then captained by von Heimburg.  The Italian armoured cruiser Guiseppe Garibaldi was sunk by the Austro-Hungarian U-IV on 18 July  and the submarine Nereide by the Austro-Hungarian U-V on 5 August.[12]

The Austro-Hungarian navy had begun the war with seven small submarines,  named by Roman numerals here to differentiate them from German boats. Their early actions were confined to attacks on French warships. U-IV fired at but missed the armoured cruiser Waldeck-Rousseau on 17 October 1914. On 21 December 1914 U-XII torpedoed and damaged the dreadnought Jean Bart, which was sailing at 9 knots with no destroyer screen despite it being three months since U9 had sunk three British armoured cruisers in a single action. As late as 26 April 1915 the armoured cruiser Leon Gambetta was making only 6.5 knots and had no destroyer screen when she was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 650 men by U-V, captained by Linenschiffleutnant Georg Ritter von Trapp, whose family were the subject of The Sound of Music. During the war the Austro-Hungarians added only the captured French Curie and a number of German UB boats to their fleet.

One reason to switch U-boats to the Mediterranean was to prevent them damaging German relations with the United States of America by killing Americans. On 7 November, however, the German U38 (Kapitänleutnant Max Valentiner), flying Austro-Hungarian colours because Germany and Italy were not yet at war, sank the Italian liner Ancona, killing over 200 people, including about 20 Americans. The US protested to Austria-Hungary, which promised to pay an indemnity and to punish the boat’s captain, who was not named.[13]

The Germans, who did not want further incidents with the USA, ordered their U-boat captains to observe prize laws in the Mediterranean, meaning that they had to allow the passengers and crew time to evacuate a merchant ship before sinking her. This was mostly complied with until 1917. Valentiner’s U38, however, sank five British and several Allied merchant steamers between 27 December  1915 and 4 January 1916 with the loss of over 500 lives, 334 of them on the liner Persia, sunk on 30 December 1915.[14]

 

 

[1] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945, pp. 152-53.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xv, Home Waters part vi, October 1915 to May 1916. p. 15.

[3] Ibid., p. 19.

[4] Ibid., p. 21. and note 2.

[5] Ibid., p. 22.

[6] Ibid., p. 24.

[7] Ibid., p. 23.

[8] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918., p. 61.

[9] Naval Staff vol. Xv. p. 24.

[10] Gibson, Prendergast, German, p. 61.

[11] Ibid., p. 71.

[12] Ibid., pp. 73-79.

[13] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, p. 385.

[14] Gibson, Prendergast, German, pp. 78-79.

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Submarines in 1914

Previous entries in this blog have dealt with the several sinkings of British cruisers by German U-boats: HMS Pathfinder by U21 on 5 September 1914, HMS Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue by U9 on 22 September and HMS Hawke on 15 October 1914, also by U9.

British submarines also scored successes in the early stages of the war, with E9 sinking the German cruiser SMS Hela on 13 September and B11 the Ottoman pre-dreadnought battleship Mesudiye on 13 December 1914. The first loss of a submarine to a warship had come as early as 9 August, when HMS Birmingham rammed and sunk U15.

The main impact of submarines in the rest of the war and in the Second World War was against merchant shipping, although they continued to sink warships. In the early stages of the First World War, however, they were used mainly against warships.

The rules of cruiser warfare required raiders to stop and search enemy merchant ships. They could be sunk or captured only if their cargoes contained either war materials (absolute contraband) or items such as food or fuel that had peaceful uses but were intended for the enemy’s military (conditional contraband conditional contraband). The safety of the crews of merchant ships that were sunk had to be ensured, making it difficult for submarines to conduct war against merchant shipping within the rules. They had no space for prisoners and no spare men to act as prize crews for captured ships.

In 1914 Germany possessed only 24 operational boats. Four were used for training and 16 were under construction.[1] Before the war Kapitänleutnant Blum of the German Navy had estimated that 222 U-boats would be needed to successfully carry out a war against British commerce under international law. On 8 October 1914 the commander of Germany’s U-boats, Korvettenkapitän Hermann Bauer, urged that German U-boats should attack British commerce on the grounds that the British had already violated international law at sea, but his advice was not acted upon until 1915.[2]

The first sinking of a merchant ship by a submarine came on 20 October, when Oberleutnant Johannes Feldkirchner’s U17 stopped the steamship Glitra, which was carrying a cargo of coal, coke, oil and general goods from Grangemouth to Stavanger, 14 miles off the Norwegian coast. The crew were ordered to take to their boats and their ship was sunk. U17 towed the boats towards the coast, before a pilot boat then took over. A Norwegian torpedo boat appeared shortly afterwards.[3]

The Naval Staff Monograph, written by Royal Navy officer after the war for internal use, notes that there was a significant difference in the British and German Prize Regulations. Both gave officers significant leeway in deciding whether or not to sink enemy merchantmen. However, the British one warned that naval officers who sank merchant ships ‘without good cause’ might find themselves liable for the compensation due to the owners, while the German one allowed the destruction of a ship ‘if it seems inexpedient or unsafe to bring her in.’[4]

There were few sinkings of merchant ships in 1914. On 26 October, Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Schneider’s U24 torpedoed the 4,590 ton French steamer Amiral Ganteaume, but she did not sink. She was carrying 2,500 Belgian refugees, 40 of whom were killed. This was described as ‘barbarous’[5], an ‘outrage’[6] and an ‘atrocity’[7] by British post war authors. However, Schneider may have thought that she was a troop ship. Whether he did or not, the incident showed the potential political and diplomatic implications of submarine warfare against merchant shipping. [8] The Naval Staff Monograph argues that he fired without ascertaining whether the people crowding her decks were civilians or soldiers.[9]

Only two more Allied merchant ships were sunk by U-boats before the end of the year. Oberleutnant Otto Hersing’s U21 stopped the steamers Malachite (718 tons) on 21 October and Primo (1366 tons) five days later. Both were sunk by gunfire after the crews had been given time to abandon ship.[10]

The most important actions of U-boats continued to be against warships. Both sides had submarines patrolling outside enemy bases and their own boats hunting the enemy ones. On 18 October Kapitänleutnant Bernd Wegener’s U27 spotted the British submarine E3 on the surface in the Helgoland Bight.

The submerged German boat approached to within 300 yards of the British one, using the rays of the sun to make it hard for the British to spot her periscope. The personnel on the conning tower were apparently all looking the other way. U27 then fired a torpedo into E3, which sank immediately. Four survivors were spotted in the water, but Wegener did not surface, fearing that there might be other British submarines nearby, and all 28 men on board E3 were lost. She was the first submarine ever to be sunk by another submarine.

U27 achieved another first 13 days later, when she sank the elderly cruiser HMS Hermes, which had been converted to a seaplane carrier before the war, and was being used as a aircraft transport. This was the first sinking of an aviation ship by a submarine. The quick arrival of other British ships meant that only 21 men were lost.

Apart from E3, the British Empire lost two submarines in 1914: the Australian AE2, probably to an accident, off Rabaul on 14 September; and D3 to a mine, probably British, during the Yarmouth Raid on 3 November.

The German lost four boats in addition to U15 in 1914: U18 was rammed by first the trawler Dorothy Gray and then the destroyer Garry inside Scapa Flow on 23 November and was so badly damaged that she had to be scuttled; U13 in August and U5 and U11 in December failed to return from patrols, presumably having struck mines.

The ships sunk by submarines in the North Sea were mostly old. The only dreadnought to be torpedoed by a submarine in 1914 was the French Jean Bart, which was damaged, but not sunk, by the Austro-Hungarian boat U12 in the Adriatic on 21 December.

 

 

[1] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), p. 7.

[2] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 291.

[3] Ibid., p. 292.

[4] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. xi, Home Waters part ii, September and October 1914. p. 113. gives Glitra’s displacement as being 526 tons but most others sources follow the official history in saying 866 tons; C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. i, p. 285.

[5] A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. i, p. 268.

[6] Fayle, Seaborne. vol. i, p. 285.

[7] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 15.

[8] Halpern, Naval, p. 292.

[9] Naval Staff vol. Xi. p. 144.

[10] Gibson, Prendergast, German, p. 17.

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Joseph Watt VC Fought a Light Cruiser in a Drifter

On 15 May 1917 three Austro-Hungarian light cruisers attacked a force of drifters that were patrolling the Straits of Otranto in order to prevent Austro-Hungarian and German U-boats breaking out from their bases in the Adriatic into the Mediterranean.

The drifter Gowan Lea, with a crew of eight men and a dog and armed with only a 6 pounder gun and depth charges, attacked the Austro-Hungarian cruiser Novara, which had a crew of 318, nine 3.9 inch and one 47mm guns and four 17.7 torpedo tubes. Gowan Lea’s skipper, Joseph Watt was awarded the VC. He was born in  Gardenstown, Banffshire and in peacetime skippered a Fraserburgh drifter. His vessel survived; its only casualty was the dog, who suffered shock and died three days later. Watt’s VC, Italian Al Valore Militare and French Croix de Guerre were sold by the auctioneer Spink for £204,000 on 19 April 2012; see the BBC website. I think that the purchaser will have paid £170,000 with a 20% fee to the auctioneer added on. The previous day’s Scotsman reported that the citation for Watt’s VC read:

Skipper Joseph Watt, Royal Naval Reserve.

For most conspicuous gallantry when the Allied Drifter line in the Straits of Otranto was attacked by Austrian light cruisers on the morning of 15 May, 1917. When hailed by an Austrian cruiser at about 100 yards range and ordered to stop and abandon his drifter the “Gowan Lea” Skipper Watt ordered full speed ahead and called upon his crew to give three cheers and fight to the finish. The cruiser was then engaged, but after one round had been fired, a shot from the enemy disabled the breech of the drifter’s gun. The gun’s crew, however, stuck to the gun, endeavouring to make it work, being under heavy fire all the time. After the cruiser had passed on Skipper Watt took the “Gowan Lea” alongside the badly damaged freighter “Floandi” and assisted to remove the dead and wounded.

According to this website on the VC, one Victoria Cross; two Distinguished Service Orders; six Distinguished Service Crosses; five Conspicuous Gallantry Medals; eighteen Distinguished Service Medals; and 31 Mentioned-in-Despatches were awarded for the action; see the London Gazette for the list of recipients. Thanks to poster Michaeldr of the Great War Forum for the link to the London Gazette.

Most of these awards were made to the drifter crews, but some went to the crews of the cruisers HMS Dartmouth and HMS Bristol, which participated in the later stages of the Battle of the Otranto Straits. Deckhand Frederick Lamb of the Gowan Lea received the CGM for continuing to fire her gun despite being wounded. Watt’s entry in Wikipedia, says that three other  members of the Gowan Lea’s crew received the CGM or the DSM. Since the London Gazette gives the citations for awards of the CGM but just lists recipients of the DSM, this is presumably Lamb’s CGM and two awards of the DSM.

The Otranto Barrage consisted of a line of drifters, mostly British, which were intended to trap enemy submarines that could then be attacked with depth charges. There were not enough drifters to have a continuous line and submarines could evade the line; in 1916 most passed it on the surface at night. In July 1916 there were supposed to be 50 drifters at sea, but a French officer reported that there were only 37, of which only 10 had their nets out. Strong currents meant that the drifters would move apart. Rear Admiral Mark Kerr, commander-in-chief of the British Adriatic Squadron, thought that 300 drifters were needed.

Only one submarine, the Austro-Hungarian U6 on 13 May 1916 was definitely destroyed by the Otranto Barrage. Two others were lost to unknown causes and may have fallen victim to it; the German UB44 in August 1916 and the Austro-Hungarian U30 in April 1917.

The Austro-Hungarians made several attacks on the Barrage; the one on 14-15 May 1917 was the largest. It was led by Captain Miklos Horthy of the Novara, which was accompanied by her sister ships the Helgoland and the Saida. They were modified to make them look like British destroyers from a distance. Two Tatra class destroyers, the Csepel and Balaton, would carry out a diversionary attack. Two Austro-Hungarian submarines, the U4 and U27, and a German minelaying submarine, the UC25, also took part.

The two Austro-Hungarian destroyers attacked a convoy, sinking the Italian destroyer Borea and a munitions ship, and damaging the other two ships in the convoy, one of which was set on fire. For some reason, they did not finish off the damaged ships, which both made port. The drifters were being screened by the Italian flotilla leader Mirabello and the French destroyers Commandant Riviere, Bisson and Cimeterre. The destroyer Boutefeu had returned to port with condenser problems.

Horthy’s cruisers evaded this force and two Allied submarines and attacked the drifters. They used their sirens to warn the almost defenceless drifters of their presence, giving their crews an opportunity to abandon ship, which the Gowan Lea did not take. Other drifters also resisted.

According  to the British official history[1]Floandi, described as a freighter in Watt’s VC citation, was a drifter which fired on the Novara. Skipper D. J. Nicholls and one of her enginemen were wounded, with the other engineman being killed. The crew of the Admirable, next to the Gowan Lea in the line,abandoned ship, but one man returned to her. He tried to man the gun but was killed before he could fire.

The Austro-Hungarians sank 14 drifters out of 47 and damaged four, three seriously. They rescued 72 of the drifters’ crews before heading back to their base at Cattaro, but they were 40 miles further from it than from the Allied base at Brindisi.

The attack on the convoy began at 3:24 am and that on drifters at 3:30 am. At 4:35 am Rear Admiral Alfredo Acton, commander of the Italian Scouting Division, ordered the Mirabello destroyer force to intercept the Austrians. It took some time until other Allied ships were ready to sail, but the British light cruisers Dartmouth, flying Acton’s flag, and Bristol, the Italian flotilla leader Aquila and the Italian destroyers Mosto, Pilo, Schiaffino and Acerbi set sail at 6:45 am. Acton did not order the Italian light cruiser Marsala and four more destroyers to sea until 8:25 am, an hour after they were ready.

The Mirabello group contacted the Horthy’s  cruisers at 7:00 am, but the French destroyers struggled to keep up. Acton’s force intercepted the Austro-Hungarian destroyers at 07:45. The Austro-Hungarians escaped after disabling the Aquila.

Acton was now between Horthy and Cattaro  and the two forces spotted each other at 9:00 am. Dartmouth (eight 6 inch guns) and Bristol (two 6 inch and 10 4 inch guns) outgunned the three Austro-Hungarian cruisers (nine 3.9 inch guns each), but Acton’s force was being whittled down. Pilo and Schiaffino  remained with Aquila, Mirabello had problems with her fuel supply and Commandant Riviere broke down at 11:45; Bisson and Cimeterre stayed to escort her. Bristol’s bottom was fouled, and she dropped behind the other cruisers.

Horthy’s  cruisers were able to concentrate on Dartmouth, so Acton slowed her to allow Bristol to catch up. Between 10:30 and 11:00 am Dartmouth damaged Novara, but Acton decided to concentrate on Saida, which was lagging the other two Austrian cruisers, which had drawn ahead of the British ships. Marsala and her destroyers had now arrived.

Saida was not badly hit, but Novara had now stopped. However, Austro-Hungarian reinforcements, including a heavy cruiser had now appeared, so at noon Acton headed back to Brindisi. On the way there, UC25 torpedoed Dartmouth and the Boutefeu, which had come out to assist her, struck one of the mines laid by UC25 and sank.

Aircraft from both sides were present. The Austrians got the better of the Italians, and their aircraft were able to spot for their destroyers. The Austrians bombed and strafed the British cruisers but did not damage them.

The action was clearly a success for the Austrians. The multi-national Allied force had suffered from signalling problems. It was clear that the drifters could not be protected at night unless more destroyers were available, which they were not. consequently, the barrage was maintained only during the day.

As Paul Halpern points out[2], the action made little strategic difference. The major Austro-Hungarian warships were still confined to port, and the threat to Allied shipping in the Mediterranean continued to come from submarines. Horthy had risked three of the best Austro-Hungarian warships in order to attack an ineffective blockade.

The big gainer from the Battle of the Otranto Straits was Horthy himself. He was promoted to Rear Admiral and made commander-in-chief of the Austro-Hungarian Navy in March 1918. He was Regent of Hungary from 1920-44.

Skipper Joseph Watts returned to the fishing fleet after the war. The Scotsman quoted a spokeswomen for Spink, the auctioneers who sold his medals, as saying that:

 “His Victoria Cross, so bravely earned, was kept in a small drawer on his boat, amidst the accumulated junk of a sailor’s life. Joseph Watt died at home in Fraserburgh from cancer of the gullet on 13 February, 1955, and was buried alongside his wife in Kirktown Cemetery. His loss was felt all over the North-east fishing communities with deep regret.”


[1] Henry Newbolt, Naval Operations, vol. iv (London: HMSO, 1938), p. 300.

[2] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 166.


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