14/5/1917 The Battle of Otranto

On land the Italians are making their tenth attempt to break through the Austro-Hungarian defences at the Isonzo. At sea though it is Austria-Hungary which is attacking. Their target is the Otranto Barrage, the Allied blockade of the mouth of the Adriatic at the Straits of Otranto. Drifters, mostly British, patrol here, trailing nets in which they hope to catch enemy U-boats; larger ships are ready to support the drifters in case of enemy action.

Led by Commander Horthy, an Austro-Hungarian flotilla sails out at night to attack the drifters, sinking 14 of them and damaging another four. An Allied squadron comprising British, French and Italian ships gives chase, trying to prevent Horthy’s ships from escaping back to port. However the Austro-Hungarians also bring up reinforcements. In the fighting that follows, the Austro-Hungarians see one of their cruisers suffer heavy damage (with Horthy himself severely injured) but the Allies have the worst of it, losing two destroyers.

The battle shows the Allies that they cannot be certain of complete control of the Adriatic. However there are no great consequences of the action. The Otranto Barrage remains in operation, but it also continues to be a a rather ineffectual barrier to German and Austro-Hungarian submarines.

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The Castle of Otranto (Echoes form the Vault)

SMS Novara, Horthy’s flagship (Wikipedia)

Horthy, seriously wounded (Wikipedia)

1/12/1916 The Battle of Athens: French marines clash with Greek royalists

The situation in Greece remains chaotic. Allied forces are occupying much of Greek Macedonia, with the port of Salonika as their headquarters. The remnants of the Serbian army has also been shipped to Macedonia and is now plugging away at the Bulgarians who occupy their country. Meanwhile Bulgarian troops have crossed the border in a number of places.

Deep divisions in the Greek body politic make it hard to respond coherently to this tense situation. The country now has two governments. In Salonika, a pro-Allied government is headed by Eleutherios Venizelos, Greece’s prime minister before the start of the war. Meanwhile in Athens King Constantine is doing his best to preserve Greek neutrality.

Constantine’s determination to keep Greece out of the war may mark him down as the only sane man in a continent gone mad, but his neutralism irks the Allies. If Greece came into the war on their side it would make it far easier for them to menace the Central Powers in the Balkans. They are determined that one way or another Greek neutrality must be brought to an end.

So today a force of 3,000 French marines lands at Piraeus and marches to Athens. The French hope that this show of force will overawe Constantine and force a realignment of Greek politics in their favour. But things do not go according to plan. Fighting breaks out between the French and Greek troops. The Greeks shell French positions and French ships retaliate by shelling parts of Athens.

Neither side is prepared for a complete rupture: the Greeks want to stay out of the war, the French want to bring the Greeks in as an ally, not tip them into the German camp. The French beat a hasty retreat back to their ships and the Greeks let them go.

But with the French gone, the Greek royalists turn their attention to the supporters of Venizelos. Were his supporters guilty of treason by supporting the French landing? Is it time to deal with the followers of this rebellious politician?

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Douglas MacPherson illustration from The Sphere, 16 December 1916 (Wikipedia)

15/9/1916 Submarine v. Aeroplane

Before the start of this war aeroplanes and submarines were novelties, with no one too sure as to how much of a role they would play in any conflict. Now they are increasingly important weapons, with aeroplanes observing enemy army movements and raining death down on people below while submarines attack warships and merchant vessels.

Today sees further progress in the use of these new weapons. The Foucault, a French submarine, is patrolling in the Adriatic, when it is spotted by two Austro-Hungarian seaplanes. The Foucault is submerged but close enough to the surface that the Austro-Hungarians fly in to the attack. They drop bombs, hitting the submarine and forcing it to surface. Its captain orders his men to scuttle the submarine and abandon ship.

The Foucault is the first submarine to be sunk by aeroplanes. The crew survive uninjured and are rescued by the Austro-Hungarians.

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French sailors swimming to Austro-Hungarian seaplanes as an Austro-Hungarian rescue ship approaches (Some WW1 Photographs)

29/12/1915 Durazzo: Austrian ships mostly flee to safety

Austro-Hungarian ships have sailed out to attack the Italian-occupied port of Durazzo in Albania. However they managed to sail into a minefield and now they are slowly making their way back northwards, towing the stricken Triglav. They hope to return to base before being caught by pursuing ships of the British, French and Italian navies.

French ships are the first to catch up with the Austro-Hungarians. The Triglav is abandoned to its fate and scuttled. British ships engage the others at long range but the Austro-Hungarians manage to make it to safety, though not without suffering damage.

The Austro-Hungarians have learned the hard way that they run great risks when they send their ships out into the Adriatic.

28/12/1915 Durazzo: an Austrian naval raid goes awry

The Serbian army has retreated into Albania to escape destruction at the hands of the German, Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian invaders of their country. Many of the Serbian soldiers and the civilians fleeing with them have died crossing the Albanian mountains, mostly from exposure and the effects of hunger but some at the hands of Albanian raiders; many Albanians are less than pleased at the Serbs bringing the war into their country.

The Serbs are making their way to the coast, where they hope to be brought to safety by Allied ships. To interfere with this evacuation an Austro-Hungarian naval force headed by the Helgoland sails down into the Adriatic to attack the Albanian port of Durazzo, now under Italian occupation (and renamed from the Albanian Durrës). On their way they spot and sink a French submarine. Then they bombard Durazzo and sunk some Greek ships that may have been planning to assist the Serbs. Then their luck runs out as they blunder into a minefield. One Austro-Hungarian ships is sunk, another, the Triglav severely damaged.
The Austro-Hungarians now decide that discretion is the better part of valour and begin to retreat back to base, towing the crippled Triglav. But there is danger ahead for the slow-moving flotilla. British, French and Italian ships are converging, intent on destroying the Austro-Hungarian squadron. They race northwards hoping to catch the enemy ships before they reach safety.

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SMS Helgoland (Wikipedia)

18/3/1915 [Gallipoli] The Allies attempt to force the Straits

Britain, France and Russia have been discussing how to carve up the Ottoman Empire. The Allies are confident that Turkey is on its last legs and that one determined blow will knock it out of the war.

And now Britain and France launch the blow they hope will finish off the Ottoman Empire. British ships have been bombarding the forts guarding the entrance to the Dardanelles for nearly a month. Today a Franco-British naval force (in which Britain has provided most of the ships) attempts to force its way through the Straits, from there to sail through the Sea of Marmara to the Bosphorus and Constantinople, the Turkish capital. The Dardanelles are defended by minefields, gun batteries and forts, but the Allies expect that their minesweepers will be able to clear a way through while the battleships’ guns knock out the Turkish shore batteries.

But things do not go according to plan. The battleships are unable to silence the Turkish guns and the Allied minesweepers are unable to operate effectively under enemy fire. Bouvet, a French battleship, hits a mine and sinks in a couple of minutes, with the loss of some 660 of its crew of 710 men. The British battleships Irresistible and Ocean also hit mines and sink, though their crews are successfully evacuated.

The Allied naval force is commanded by Vice-Admiral John de Robeck. Rather than see the rest of his fleet destroyed, he orders a withdrawal.

Back in London, naval minister Winston Churchill wants de Robeck to resume the attack tomorrow. But Jacky Fisher, the commander of the British navy, thinks a purely naval assault on the Straits is doomed. Lord Kitchener, the war minister, and the Prime Minister, Henry Herbert Asquith, agree to halt naval operations.

The British do not abandon their plans to force passage through the Straits. The prospect of decapitating the Turkish Empire and reopening the trade routes to Russia is too enticing. Now, though, they realise that if the Straits are to be forced, they will need to land an army on the Gallipoli peninsula to seize and hold the Turkish positions there, to prevent the enemy from firing on minesweepers. Planning for this invasion now begins.

image source (Wikipedia)

17/2/1915 Singapore: a mutiny crushed

Britain’s colony of Singapore has been engulfed by fighting as mutinous Indian troops have battled the British and other loyal colonial soldiers. Now the tide turns against the mutineers. Heeding calls for help, French, Japanese and Russian warships arrive in Singapore and land their marines. After a short battle many of the mutineers surrender. Others flee into the countryside outside the city. The mutiny is effectively over.