Archives For Italian Shipwrecks

On the night of June 9, 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Navy dispatched a task force of two dreadnoughts from their naval base at Pola to loosen the strangle hold the Allied navies had on the Austro-Hungarian coastline. The two dreadnoughts, Svent Istvan and Tegetthoff were to rendezvous with two other units and engage their Italian counterparts the next day. Unfortunately for the Austro-Hungarians, two Italian patrol boats spotted the Svent Istvan and Tegetthoff as they steamed down the coast early in the morning on June 10. The two patrol boats launched a torpedo attack on the two vessels and one of the boats, MAS 15, successfully struck the Szent Istvan with two torpedoes amidships.

The Austro-Hungarian crew worked frantically to repair the damage, but were unable to control the flooding either via counter-flooding or plugging the holes. The ship quickly lost power as the boilers were doused by the rising seawater. Despite additional efforts to ground the ship and to keep the ship aright by swinging her turrets around, the ship capsized three hours later and plunged to the bottom of the sea. Due to its having taken three hours to sink, the death toll was relatively low with only 89 crew members losing their lives. With its sinking, the Svent Istvan gained the ignominious distinction of being the only dreadnought to have been caught on film while sinking during World War I.

Advertisements

Battle of Diu

February 3, 2014 — Leave a comment
chaul

Diu Island
CC Image Courtesy of Vipul.Photography on Flickr

As the 1400s drew to a close, Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama and his intrepid crew continued to push their voyages ever farther eastward. Desiring to secure glory and spices for their tiny nation, the Portuguese began to establish small outposts in India and along the East African coastline. Inevitably this led to clashes with the various powers already in the region. Egyptian, Ottoman, Indian warlords (specifically the Zamorin of Calicut) and even Venetian forces opposed Portuguese expansion as it threatened their monopolistic grip on the lucrative spice trade.

Slowly the conflict simmered and built towards a climactic battle which finally occurred on February 3, 1509 off the coast of Diu, an important port on the Indian coast. A fleet of 18 Portuguese warships along with ~1,900 troops sailed into the harbor of Diu where they were opposed by nearly a hundred Egyptian, Ottoman and Indian vessels. Despite being numerically inferior, the Portuguese warships were better equipped and more technologically advanced than the Egyptian, Ottoman and Indian dhows and galleys. Taking advantage of this technological superiority, the Portuguese used their artillery to pound the allied forces into submission. The Portuguese victory allowed the country to continue to expand its fledgling trade empire and its effects echo even today as Portuguese is spoken in Goa and other Indian ports.

On the night of December 19, 1941, a half dozen Italian frogmen slipped into the British naval anchorage at Alexandria, Egypt. Sitting astride human torpedos, the frogmen quietly went to work placing explosive charges under British warships including the battleships HMS Valiant and Queen Elizabeth. Although all six of the frogmen were captured as they tried to make their escape, their charges successfully detonated around 0600. The Valiant and Queen Elizabeth both settled quickly on the shallow bottom of Alexandria’s harbor while a Norwegian oiler, M/V Sagona and the Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Jervis, she was refueling were also severely damaged.

Despite these successes, the raid was not nearly as successful as the Italians had hoped for two reasons. First, the original assault plan had called for the initial charges to sink the tankers in the harbor and spread fuel oil across the surface of the anchorage’s water. Secondary incendiary devices were then to ignite the fuel oil and turn the harbor into a blazing inferno. The Sagona’s oil tanks, though, miraculously failed to rupture and the incendiary devices, despite exploding as planned, had nothing to ignite. Second, because the two battleships sank on an even keel, post-raid aerial reconnaissance mistakenly thought the ships had not been damaged at all. As a result, the Italians failed to take advantage of a vastly changed strategic situation in the Mediterranean with the British battle fleet seriously weakened.

The Valiant and Queen Elizabeth both underwent repairs in South Africa and the US respectively and returned to the war effort in 1943. Both served in the Pacific Theater before returning to the UK where the Valiant was scrapped in 1945 and the Queen Elizabeth in 1948. A new Queen Elizabeth is set to join the Royal Navy in 2017 for sea trials and the ship will mark the return of carrier borne fixed wing aviation to the Royal Navy.

Robert Holland

Robert Holland’s Blue-Water Empire is a phenomenal history of British engagement in the Mediterranean world from 1800 to the present. Holland takes the reader around the entire circumference of the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Malta to the Ionian Islands to Cyprus to Suez and leaves the reader struck by the influence the United Kingdom exerted in places many could not even locate on a map. Instead of focusing explicitly on social, political, military, diplomatic or economic history, Blue-Water Empire masterfully weaves them all together to present a comprehensive account of Great Britain’s strategy (or lack thereof) in colonizing and policing the Mediterranean over the course of three centuries.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is how Great Britain’s actions in the Mediterranean continue to echo today. For example, Holland carefully analyzes the trajectory of Cyprus under British rule and the air fields retained by the United Kingdom after her political withdrawal from the island. Those same air fields at Akrotiri and Dhekelia have been used as staging grounds for any action against Syria in 2013 or 2014. Also addressed in the book is the perennial question of how best to deal with the flood of refugees that accompanies unrest in North Africa or the Middle/Near East. Not only has the Arab Spring resulted in the destabilization of the region, but it also has driven refugees to seek asylum in places like Malta and Italy. Tragically, many of those refugees have died en route as their vessels are overcroweded and unseaworthy and subsequently sink.

Overall, Blue-Water Empire will not only entertain the casual reader, but will also inform the curious as to some of the origins of today’s headlines.

Wien

SS Po
Photo: Wrecksite

Less than a hundred years ago, Austria wasn’t a landlocked central European nation, but a large empire with a coastline stretching from Trieste in the north to modern day Montenegro in the south. During this period, ocean liners of  Lloyd Triestino plied back between Austria-Hungary and other locales throughout the Mediterranean, Middle East, India and Far East. Among those liners was the SS Wien, a 7,767 ton liner built in 1911 and named for the Austrian capital of Vienna. Upon the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the ship was requisitioned by the Austrian Navy for service as a hospital ship. During the war she served in both the Austrian and German navies until a mere ten days before Armistice Day. On November 1, 1918, Italian frogmen launched a mission that resulted in the successful sinking of the Wien.

Raised in 1921 and renamed Vienna, the ship returned to service as a liner and had her name changed yet again to Po – a name change which better reflected her post-war Italian ownership. The Po was again requisitioned for service as a hospital ship, this time for the Italian Regia Marina. On March 14, 1941 the Po was sunk by British aircraft in Valona Bay off the coast of Albania. Thus the ship suffered the ignominy of having been sunk in both World Wars.

Odysseus' and the sirens

CC Image Courtesy of Ken & Nyetta on Flickr

The Mediterranean Sea continues to give up the secrets it harbors from Greek and Roman times. This week, archaeologists working in Turkey discovered the well-preserved remains of 2 Roman-era shipwrecks. Excavations have been ongoing in the area since 1995 and are being performed by Italian archaeologists. The site was once the location of a Roman trading city named Elaiussa Sebaste which was founded in the 2nd century BC. One ship is from the Roman Imperial period and the other from around 500 AD. They both contain cargoes of amphorae and marble. Archaeologists hope that further excavations and study will supply insight into Roman trading patterns between Elaiussa Sebaste, Syria, Egypt and the Anatolian peninsula.

Work on a third wreck, this one from around 350 BC, is likely to assist archaeologists in their understanding of Greek shipbuilding techniques. Dubbed the Mazotos Wreck, the ship was discovered in 2006 and archaeological work began in 2007. This year the team found that approximately 45 feet of planking as well as the ship’s keel have been preserved and are useful for study. The ship was carrying ~1,000 jugs of wine when it sank and the remains of its cargo have helped researchers better understand the trade of ancient Greece.

These are not the only discoveries made this year in ancient Greek and Roman maritime archaeology. Earlier this year, surveyors for a gas pipeline discovered a Roman era wreck that dispelled the belief that Roman trading vessels hugged the shoreline and did not traverse open water. Robert Ballard also discovered two wrecks off the coast of Cyprus. With the continuation of exploration operations on the Antikythera Mechanism wreck, there could be even more revelations to come as the year draws to a close.

gondola

Today, Venice is best known for its graceful gondolas and idyllic streets of water, however, for several centuries it was a powerful city-state which exerted economic and political control over a large swath of northern Italy and the Adriatic Sea. Perhaps the Republic of Venice’s greatest accomplishment was on October 7, 1571 when naval forces led by Venice’s Doge Sebastiano Venier defeated Ottoman forces at the Battle of Lepanto.

For nearly a hundred years the Ottomans had waged an off and on war against various Italian city-states and the Kingdom of Spain. Prompted by the capture of a Venetian colony on the island of Cyprus, the Venetians and their Christian allies assembled a force of 212 galleys and galleasses to launch a punitive expedition against the Ottomans and free the imprisoned colonists. The Christian and Ottoman fleets encountered one another in the Gulf of Patras on October 7th and immediately engaged in combat. Although outnumbering the Christian fleet by nearly 40 ships, the Ottoman forces were decimated by the superior guns and seamanship of the Christian fleet. The Christians captured approximately 130 ships and destroyed another 80 while losing only 50 of their own with 1 captured by the Ottomans. Additionally, the Ottomans suffered 20,000 casualties to the 7,500 lost by the Christian fleet and more than 10,000 imprisoned Christian rowers were freed from slavery.

The battle was one of the most significant naval victories in history and marked the high-water mark of the Ottoman Navy. No longer would Venice or any of her sister Italian city-states be existentially threatened by the Ottoman Empire. Venice reasserted her economic dominance of the region, however, changes in technology and trading routes eventually led to the city’s graceful dive into impotence. The city lost her independence in 1797 when Napoleon Bonaparte captured the city and she became a pawn in European geopolitics for the next 80 years until her incorporation into the Kingdom of Italy in 1866. Today though, there are growing calls for Venetian independence amidst the Eurozone crisis and continuing Italian austerity.

The Battle of Lepanto has been honored by the naming of two ships in the Italian Navy after the battle. The Genoese commander of one wing of the Christian fleet, Admiral Andrea Doria, became one of Italy’s most famous naval heroes and is perhaps most associated with the wreck of his namesake, the Italian liner Andrea Doria, which sank after colliding with the Swedish ship Stockholm in 1956.