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E + 20 : The End of Dreadnoughts

Technologies often change our lives more than we can imagine. At the beginning of

World War I, all major navies believed they would cruise up to the enemy coast, fight fleet battles, sink merchant ships and blockade the harbours.

The modern Austrian-Hungarian Battleship Szent Istvan with its 12 30.5 cm Guns in 1916

That is what the Royal Navy had done for 200 years. Whilst naval officers knew that there were now torpedoes, sea mines, turbine propelled destroyers and air planes, nobody had figured out what this actually meant. Most admirals wanted to fight the last war and imagined a decisive battle like Trafalgar. But mines, torpedo boats and spotter planes finished these fantasies. By 1915, the Admiralties had understood that it was far too dangerous to send their capital ships close to the shores. If you wanted to blockade a country or its fleet, you had to do it from a safe distance. The Straits of Otranto were an experimental field where all this was tried.

Back to the present - we lifted anchor at 11 am and are now crossing the peaceful Straits. There are only two other sailboats on the water. In 1915, it was different though. After Italy entered the war on the side of France, England and Russia, the Straits were a very busy place. Trawlers placed anti-submarine nets and dropped mines, tug boats patrolled the sea with listening devices and a dozen French and Royal Navy destroyers cruised in the space between Apulia and Corfu. Their mission was to prevent the Austrian Fleet from breaking into the wider Mediterranean. To confront the high-tech German Kriegsmarine in the North Sea, the Royal Navy had pulled back its most modern ships to the Home Fleet. Only second rate, old battle ships were left in the Mediterranean.

The Italian and French Trawlers were enlisted as auxiliary patrolling fleet

The Austrian fleet was small but modern. Their four new battleships and a good dozen of modern cruisers could easily take on the remaining, outdated English and French capital ships and were thus a serious threat. With the operation in Gallipoli still under way, the Allied Navies could not afford to have the supply threatened. There were almost half a million soldiers (65’000 from Australia and NZ) fighting in the Gallipoli bridgehead. A breakout of the Austrian-Hungarian Navy was a nightmare scenario for the Royal Navy.

The elaborate Deployment Plan of the Blockade with several lines of Defence

In the absence of modern battleships, the Royal Navy resorted to modern technology. The Straits of Otranto became the first three-dimensional naval battle space in history. Spotter planes flew regular patrols to detect enemy ships early, trawlers patrolled at night when the planes could not fly, tug boats experimented with brand new sonar devices and fast cruisers were kept at the ready to intervene whenever necessary. There were several lines of defense between Apulia and Corfu and a joint-naval command in Brindisi. The system was not perfect though. To the embarrassment of the Royal Navy, German and Austrian U-Boats regularly slipped through.

Captain Horthy's Cruiser, the Navarro, which got seriously damaged during the engagement

For a while the Austrian-Hungarian Navy only probed these defenses but once they knew how they worked the became bolder. In May 1917, 3 Austrian-Hungarian cruisers, 2 destroyers and 3 U-Boats attacked. The mission was to sink the tug boats and trawlers and break the blockade. They almost succeeded. After sinking 14 tug boats and severely damaging another three, they run into the Royal Navy cruisers. A running gun battle ensued for two hours. One Austrian Cruiser, the Navarro, was badly hit and her Captain, Horthy, severely wounded. It would propel him to national fame and eventually into the Hungarian government which he lead during WWII. The Royal Navy lost one of its Battle Cruisers to a German U-Boat.

The heavily tilting Szent István - a few hours later it was gone - her sailors visible in the sea

The Austrian Navy tried again 13 months later, in June 1918. Admiral Horthy – he had been promoted after his attack the year before – lead Austria’s four modern battle ships towards the barrage assuming that he could break it. His goal was to interrupt the supply chain that supported the allied troops in Macedonia. Horthy’s Task Force however were discovered by chance at night by Italian torpedo boats and immediately attacked. The night provided perfect cover for the small and agile torpedo boats. They could see the mighty silhouettes of the battle ships but the Austrian ships could not see them. One of the battleships, the Szent Istvan, was hit and sunk a few hours later. The attack was called off. The Austrian Navy never left their ports again.

Since then, the Straits of Otranto are peaceful and stayed this way to today. It is hard to imagine that his quiet, sunny sea was the place where the powerful battleships who ruled the seas for 300 years lost their dominant position.

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