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)

11/12/1916 Italy loses a battleship and a general

Since Italy joined the war, the Italian navy has been supported by ships from France and Britain in its efforts to keep the Austro-Hungarian fleet bottled up in the upper Adriatic. As a result Italian shipping is able to sail without much molestation by enemy warships. However the seas still have their dangers, as the crew of the Regina Margherita discover tonight. After leaving the Albanian port of Vlorë (known to its Italian occupiers as Valona) in rough seas, this pre-war battleship strikes a mine. The ship sinks with the loss of 675 men.

General Oreste Bandini, commander of the Italian expeditionary force in Albania, is aboard the Regina Margherita. Bandini is not among the 270 survivors.

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The Regina Margherita, before the war (Wikipedia)

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)

18/7/1915 The Second Battle of the Isonzo: Italy attacks again

The first Italian attempt to break the Austro-Hungarians along the Isonzo failed. Now, less than two weeks later, the Italians are having another go. By now their army is at last fully mobilised and they hope to apply lessons learned from their previous mistakes.

The assault is preceded by a heavy artillery bombardment, intended to stun and devastate the Austro-Hungarians. The results are less impressive than they hoped, however. The Italians have not pinpointed all the defenders’ positions accurately, so not all the shells land where they should. The Austro-Hungarians have also in many cases cut deep dug-outs into the rocky landscape, in which they are able to shelter. Still, there are no shelters for the Austro-Hungarian reserves behind the frontline; the artillery wreaks a heavy toll on them.

The Italians are concentrating their efforts on taking Mont San Michele, on the Carso plateau. Taking the peak should put Gorizia in their grasp. In the afternoon the infantry moves forward. In an effort to reduce officer casualties, an instruction has been issued that they are to wear the same uniforms as their men. Unfortunately there has been insufficient time to implement this, so most of the officers are still wearing the distinctive uniforms that mark them out as targets. Their habit of marching in front of their units with drawn sabres also makes it easy for the enemy to pick them out.

Progress is slow, but there is progress. Italian forces manage to overrun the enemy’s forward positions. The real work will begin when they move further up the slopes towards the main Austro-Hungarian lines.

Meanwhile, the Italians are also attacking at sea. A naval squadron has set sail from Brindisi to attack the coastal railway in Dalmatia. Their shelling of the line near Ragusa Vecchia is not challenged by the Austro-Hungarian surface fleet. However, an enemy submarine fires a torpedo, singing the Giuseppe Garibaldi and putting the rest of the squadron to flight. Following the sinking of the Amalfi on the 7th, the Adriatic is increasingly looking like an unsafe area of operations for the Italian fleet.

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Isonzo front (WorldWar1.com)

Guiseppe Garibaldi sinking (Wikipedia)

7/7/1915 The Battle of the Isonzo draws to a close

The Italians have been trying to break through the Austro-Hungarian defences along the Isonzo river. They make their last assaults today before calling a halt to their offensive. Gains have been minimal. The Austro-Hungarians hold the high ground and have occupied favourable positions from which to repel the Italian attacks. The Italians have not done themselves any favours by attacking in close order formations more suited to the Napoleonic Wars than to battles involving machine guns, barbed wire and high explosive artillery shells. They have suffered some 15,000 casualties since the offensive was launched on the 23rd of June.

Despite their defensive positions, the Austro-Hungarians have also suffered considerably, enduring nearly 10,000 in the course of the Italian offensive. Italian artillery is hitting them hard, particularly behind the front line where the Austro-Hungarians have yet to build adequate fortifications for reserve positions. Another factor driving up Austro-Hungarian casualties is the determination of their commander that absolutely no territory is to be yielded to the enemy. Boroevic has ordered that when any position has been taken by the Italians his men must immediately mount a counter-attack to retake it.

Cadorna, the Italian commander in chief, is unperturbed by the failure to break through the enemy’s lines. He is in France at a conference of Allied commanders. On the Western Front a joint offensive by France and Britain is being prepared for mid August. In the meantime Joffre urges the Italians to maintain the pressure on Austria-Hungary, so as to relieve pressure on the beleaguered Russians. Cadorna plans to launch a second attack on the Isonzo in the middle of July, when his army will be fully mobilised.

At sea things are also not going the Italians’ way. The cruiser Amalfi is returning to Venice after patrolling off the Adriatic coast when it is torpedoed by a German U-boat, the UB-14. This is a bit cheeky, as Germany and Italy are not officially at war yet; to get round this the UB-14 has notionally been transferred to the Austro-Hungarian navy. The Amalfi sinks with the loss of 67 men.

fanciful image source (Der Erste Weltkrieg)