Italian Destroyers Show the Way

By Park Benjamin

[The Independent, January 12, 1918]

During the Italian-Turkish War of 1912 the Italians undertook to force the Dardanelles in order to attack seven Turkish warships at anchor just beyond the narrowest part of the straits. This with a squadron of but five little torpedo boats of 200 tons each. They entered at about midnight and crept along the shore, dodging the mine fields, until they were picked up by a searchlight on Cape Helles. After that they raced thru the fire of over a hundred great guns, thru the blaze of uncounted electric beams, until they reached the famous narrows which Xerxes bridged and where Leander and Lord Byron swam the Hellespont, and there, eleven miles from the entrance, they found themselves stopped by a barricade of steel cables. Altho the Turkish vessels were provokingly in sight, the invaders had no way of cutting thru the obstructions and so perforce they turned back, again went thru the hail from the forts, and after an absence of two hours rejoined the Italian fleet without the loss of a man and without serious injury to the boats. The world—Turks and their friends excepted—thundered its applause. Commander Hello of the little flotilla was made a rear admiral instantly, and subsequently became his country's Minister of Marine. The admiral of the Turkish squadron, which did nothing, was caused Turkish fashion, historically to disappear. The lesson of that daring and gallant action seemingly was that while such light and vulnerable craft as destroyers or torpedo boats may get thru or around mine fields and pass fortifications, they can be stopped by steel cables stretched across the channel.

The practical character of this deduction was not lost on the owners of the Austrian navy, and they proceeded to avail themselves thereof with much confidence, in order to keep over-enterprizing Italian destroyers out of the Adriatic harbors, wherein His Apostolic Majesty's battleships had peacefully secluded themselves ever since the war began. There had been considerable improvement in small Italian warcraft since the Dardanelles episode. Some people thought them the best in the world, and certainly they were not very far from being so. One of them made a speed of forty-two miles an hour.

At about the time the invading Austro-German army reached the Piave River, the Germans had their newspapers say that the Austrian navy was going to do something, and, more specifically, that two battleships which had been in the harbor of Trieste for so long that grounding on their own beefbones seemed imminent, would really come out and help the Huns take Venice. Just how that was to be done was not explained, nor was it made clear in what way the much more powerful Italian dreadnaughts, which were still persistently lingering in the vicinity of the port were to be disposed of. The two ships selected for the task, the "Wien" and the "Monarch," were sister vessels of 5512 tons each, built in 1895. Ordinarily a 'battleship, twenty-two years old is a naval Methuselah, and somewhat feeble; but this pair having never done anything were well preserved, and while they both could, of course, be easily annihilated by the Italian "Giulio Cesare," for example, long before they could get near enough to the "Cesare" for their guns to reach her, still they might be formidable against gondolas, or even against cruisers, the latter, of course, if caught in a corner, and so unable to get away from ships of but seventeen-knot speed.

Meanwhile the Italian aviators in going to and from their regular daily job of dropping bombs on the Austrian ships in Pola and Fiume had observed that the "Wien" and the "Monarch" were in a slip between two of the three long piers which jut into the harbor of Trieste, that not only were they protected by mine fields and fortifications, but that no less than eight steel cables were stretched across the entrance of the slip. Furthermore, to these cables were connected mines liable to blow up if the cables were unduly jarred by collision with them. Those Dardanelles cables were still rankling in the memory of the Italian navy. Here, then, was a chance to try conclusions with another barrier of the same sort, and with warships—this time threatening ones—on the other side of it.

Then followed not only the most daring single naval episode of the war, but an achievement of distinct military importance, and not to be dismissed solely with the usual tributes to personal gallantry. A dark and misty night was selected for the work. From the division of Italian torpedo-boats which silently stationed itself in front of the port, two small, recently built and very swift craft were chosen. Lieutenant Rizzo, a Sicilian but thirty years old, was given command of both. While a young officer is always best for a dash, a prudent senior from excess of caution sometimes sends an elderly subordinate along with him. That is why one of the boats under Rizzo's direction was steered by a non-commissioned officer, aged sixty-two. The youngster, however, decides matters—and should.

A little after midnight, the boats crept into the harbor mouth. The mist dimmed the Austrian searchlights, and the small draft of water of the vessels enabled them to avoid mines which would have been fatal to heavier ships. One of the side piers was reached without detection and found unguarded. Even with the powerful tools provided, it was a dangerous thing slowly to cut cables which, if unduly shaken, might explode a whole series of mines. Nevertheless, this was done, even when it became necessary to grapple five of the hawsers which were under water, bring them to the surface and divide them strand by strand. At length the cables gave way, the mines and nets supported by them sank to the bottom, and there was open water straight to the "Wien" and the "Monarch." The boats sped into it, A moment later two torpedoes from Rizzo's boat struck the "Wien," which sank instantly. His quick signal to the following boat released two more, which wrecked the "Monarch."

The explosions suggested to the Austrians that there was trouble somewhere. It could not be in the harbor because of the impregnable cables and the mines, therefore, they argued, it must have come from the air, as usual. Then the heavens were lit up with the glare of countless electric beams and light bombs, and the airship guns shelled the clouds, and the other Austrian vessels in the harbor, not seeing anything to fire at, enthusiastically bombarded the Adriatic. But all this was as harmless to Rizzo and his men as the Turkish fire had been to Mello and his men five years before. As the torpedoes struck home, Rizzo's crews shouted. And as their boats ran out of danger, they sang as only Italians can.

And so it was established that into the most important port of the Adriatic defended by mines, fortifications, steel cables and nets, two little torpedo craft—smaller than many a pleasure yacht—could go and blow up battleships. And the port, too, of Germany's chief vassal, equipt with all the skill and care demanded for the protection of the German Empire against the loss of its Mediterranean outlet. The capture of the naval bases of Pola and Fiume might cripple the Austrian navy, but Germany could view this without regret, if not with complacency, since its ultimate effect would be to make her hold on Trieste more indisputable than ever by its present occupant. And consider also how seriously the permanent closing of so valuable a supply depot for the projected Hamburg-Bagdad railway might prove? Does anybody suppose that the German General Staff would leave such a harbor without all the protection from sea attack that their ingenuity could devise? Or that it has not rested in the belief that the defenses of Trieste were quite as "impossible" to overcome as those which it has provided at the North Sea bases? Was the German General Staff caught napping by this brave boy lieutenant, or is it again a demonstrated fact that youth and courage and the taking of a great risk are still as effective as they were over a century ago when our boy-lieutenant Decatur, twenty-five years old, captured and burned the "Philadelphia" in the harbor of Tripoli, and sixty years later when our other boy-lieutenant Cushing, barely twenty-one years of age, with his little steam launch and a bag of powder on the end of a spar found his way up the river to where the great Confederate ram "Albemarle" lay in supposed safety and sent her to the bottom? Nelson called Decatur's feat "the most heroic act of the age." The captain of the "Albemarle," with all the chivalry of his people, said "a more gallant thing was not done during the war."

German destroyers have twice recently come out of the North Sea bases and sunk squadrons of convoyed merchant ships, and some of their naval protecting vessels with them. And still we are told that it is "impossible" for attacking destroyers to get into these harbors, and the discovery of how not to do it is rewarded with a coronet. But do the highly skilled and elderly functionaries who are to make up the joint naval control hold fast to that belief, despite the lesson which Rizzo has taught them? If so, have not the Italians at least earned relief from blockading the Austrian fleet in the Adriatic, and the honor of being sent to the North Sea? Might it not be well to see what they would do there?

There are plenty more Rizzos in the Italian navy and plenty of Decaturs and Cushings in our own, as splendidly daring as these young heroes who have shown the way. Let the old heads in the Boards and Admiralties stick to their counsels of caution and experience. "In the bright lexicon of youth there's no such word as 'fail.'" A naval offensive against the German bases is now necessary. Surely the Italians have proved that they have not "lost the breed of noble bloods." Nor have we. Let our boys go in together.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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