THE AUSTRO-HUNGARIAN FLEET UNDER THE CROATIAN FLAG IN 1918
Dr. Matthew Zvonimir Markotić
Matthew Zvonimir Markotić was born in Slavonski Brod in 1929. He came to the United States after World War II and, among other achievements, he received a doctorate of jurisprudence from Harvard University. History was his hobby. He died in California in 2001. He gave me a copy of the posted article in the 1990s and, although it needs a critical update, I’m sure a number of readers will find it interesting, and even useful.
With the enthusiastic support of the Crown Prince, Franz Ferdinand, the battle fleet of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy underwent major ship construction during the immediate years before World War I, with the result that the fleet entered the war not only with an increased number of ships, but also with improved technical quality and firepower.
During the war the monarchy ‘s battle fleet consisted of three battleships of he Radetzky class (14,226 tones, 20.5 knots, and four 12 inch guns), four battleships of the Viribus Unitis class (20,000 tons, 20.5 knots, nine 12 inch guns), and nine older and smaller warships of the Erzherzog, Hapsburg and Monarch classes (1). Support ships included two armored cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 3 older cruisers, 18 destroyers, 90 torpedo boats, and 5 submarines (2).
The fleet was not strong enough to compete with the British or even the French fleet. However, the British fleet remained primarily in the Atlantic, and the French fleet, and the few British units not only in the Atlantic, were mostly based in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Austro-Hungarian battle fleet’s main opponent was the Italian fleet, and the monarchy’s fleet was sufficiently powerful to face and even to keep in check the Italians. Based mainly in Pula, Kotor, and Sibenik, in the Northwestern Adriatic, off the coast of Albania, and in the Straits of Taranto.
The battle fleet was manned by all nationalities comprising the monarchy but the plurality of the naval personnel were Croatian. Ten percent of the officers and a third of the enlisted men were Croats (3). These Croats were generally loyal to the Emperor Franz Joseph, and to his successor, Emperor Karl. At the same time, they were Croat nationalist, and most of them hoped that the dual monarchy would be transformed into a multinational federation with Croatia becoming a sovereign kingdom independent of Hungary.
The hardship of the war, the military defeats, and the unprecedented losses in killed and wounded soldiers lessened the Croats’ faith in the Emperor and his government. By 1917, it became evident to all but the most fanatic supporters of the monarchy that the Austro-Hungarian empire and its allies were losing the war. There were serious shortages of food and clothing not only among the civilian population but also among the military. These shortages increased in 1918. There was a mutiny by sailors in Kotor in February of 1918, which was brutally suppressed (4).
By October of 1918, it became clear not only that Austro-Hungary had lost the war, but also that the monarchy could not be saved and that the Habsburg empire was coming to an end.
On October 18, 1918, the American President Wilson, through a diplomatic note signed by the Secretary of State Robert Lansing, advised the Austro-Hungarian Government that in accordance with the President’s 14 Points, various nationalities of the monarchy would be given the opportunity for autonomous development (5). In effect, the note signaled the breakup of the monarch. On October 28, Emperor Karl requested an armistice from President Wilson (6).
In Pula, aboard the fleet flagship Viribus Unitis (7), the fleet commander, Admiral Miklós Horthy, found it increasing difficult to maintain order and discipline in the fleet (8).
On October 23, there were disturbances and fights between Croatian and Hungarian sailors in Rijeka. Shots were fired (9). On the fleet flagship Viribus Unitis there were incidents of disobedience and increasing chaos. A young officer on the Viribus Unitis, Lieutenant Commander Alexander Milošević, became so upset by the events that he shot himself on October 28. In a suicide note he expressed hope that his death would help bring order and discipline to the fleet (10). The next day a mob tried to storm the officers’ club in Pula. On October 30, LCDR Milošević was given a military burial. The ceremony at the grave was the last common action of the multinational crew of the Viribus Unitis (11).
In the meantime, events in Zagreb accelerated the collapse of the monarchy. The Croatian parliament, the Sabor, declared on October 29, 1918, the constitutional connection with Hungary terminated, and proclaimed Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia and independent state (12). The Sabor then went on to give executive authority in the new state to the National Council in Zagreb.
The day before, the sailors of the Viribus Unitis and representatives of other ships met in Pula and elected a sailors’ committee with intent to take over the fleet. Commander Metod Koch, a Slovene, was elected by the sailors as a local representative of the National Council (13).
Commander Koch’s position was approved later by the admiralty of shore in the hope that he would act as a liaison officer with the by then almost mutinous sailors.
By October 28, the Austro-Hungarian high command in Baden was in touch with the Italian military headquarters in Padua. Terms of armistice were negotiated, and it became evident to the Austrians that most of their battle fleet would have to be surrendered to the Allies, primarily to the Italians. Emperor Karl decided on that day to turn over the battle fleet to the Croats in the hope of preventing its surrender to Italy.
Appropriate telegraphic messages were sent by the high command in Baden to the National Council in Zagreb, to the admiralty in Pula, and to Admiral Horthy aboard the Viribus Unitis (14). Similar orders providing for the turning over of the fleet to the National Council were also sent to the naval authorities in Kotor, Šibenik, Triest, and Rijeka (15).
Another telegraph was sent to Admiral Horthy in Pula on October 30 releasing all sailors who were not south Slavs from duty, and ordering their return to their homes (16).
In Zagreb the National Council appointed Dr. Ante Tresić-Pavičić, Vilim Bukšek, and Dr. Ivan Čok as its representatives to receive the battle fleet from Admiral Horthy. These three were joined in Pula by local representatives Dr. Lovro Skailer, Dr. Mirko Vratović, Lacko Križ, Mario Krmpotić, and Commander Metod Koch (17).
At about 9 a. m. on October 31, Admiral Horthy received these representatives on board of the Viribus Unitis. With tears in his eyes the fleet commander signed the transfer agreement. At the request of the Admiral, the actual transfer ceremony was postponed until late afternoon. Captain Janko Vuković pl. Podkapelski, the commanding officer of the Viribus Unitis, and one of the most senior Croatian naval officers, was appointed the new fleet commander (18). Captain Vuković had a distinguished naval record. For instance, on December 20, 1917 he had led a squadron of warships to the shores of Cortellazzo to bombard the Italian batteries (19). The sortie was successful (20).
At proximately 4 o’clock that afternoon the formal ceremony turning over the fleet to the Croats took place on the quarter deck of the Viribus Unitis. Admiral Horthy and his officers were saddened while the Croats were jubilant. To the sound of bugles the red-white-red flag of the old monarchy was hauled down for the last time, and the Croatian red-white-blue flag was hauled up the mast not only of the Viribus Unitis but also to the masts of hundreds of other naval and merchant ships in the harbor of Pula. The ships’ bands played the Croatian national anthem, “Lijepa naša Domovina…”, and 21 gun salutes followed (21). Admiral Horthy left the flagship at 4:30 p. m. carrying with him a portrait of the Emperor Franz Joseph, the ship’s ceremonial ensign, and his personal flag. He was visibly moved as he left the ship for the last time (22).
That night the ships in the harbor of Pula were illuminated for the first time since the beginning of the war, and there were celebrations on ships and on shore (23). Similar events took place in all other Adriatic ports abroad the units of the fleet. The Croatian flags flew everywhere, and the joy of the people was immense.
Early next morning, November 1, 1918, at about six o’clock, two Italian naval officers, Medical Lieutenant Raffaele Paolucci and Major of Naval Engineers Raffalle Rossetti, acting as what a later generation would call frogmen, entered the harbor of Pula swimming in rubber suits and pushing a torpedo-like mine (24), they attached the mine to the hull of the Viribus Unitis, just below the accommodation ladder leading to the main deck (25). A timing device was fixed to explode the mine. As they were swimming away, they were seen by a petty officer in a picket boat. They were hauled aboard the boat and taken on the board the flagship. There they were brought before Captain Vuković. In his presence the two Italian officers became increasingly nervous, and finally stated that the ship would explode at any time. Captain Vuković issued orders to abandon ship. He was concerned with the safety of the two Italians, shook their hands telling them that they were brave men, and arranged for them to be taken ashore immediately (26).
True to the naval tradition and with great personal courage Captain Vuković went up to the ship’s bridge to await the explosion.* When it came a few minutes later, Viribus Unitis sank, and Captain Vuković and about 50 Croatian sailors went down with the ship (27). Such was the end of the first battleship to fly the Croatian flag (28).
After they were taken ashore, the two Italian officers claimed that they did not know that the Viribus Unitis had been turned over to the Croats. Their story is credible since the Italian naval command expected to acquire all Austro-Hungarian battleships, and sinking one of them made no sense.
After the sinking by Italians of the Viribus Unitis, and of the merchant ship Wien during the same night, the Croats were incensed. They believed that they and the newly independent state proclaimed in Zagreb were not enemies of the Western Allies but their friends and associates. On November 1, 1918, Commander Metod Koch sent a telegram to the commander of the Allied fleet complaining of the sinking of the two ships, and requesting protection by the U.S. fleet or a fleet of a nation not having a geographic interest in south Slavic territory (29). Unfortunately this transparent reference to Italy was not effective since by the Treaty of London of 1915 Great Britain and France were under obligation to satisfy Italy’s ambitions in the Adriatic.
The response came next day in the form of telegram signed by Lloyd George, Orlando, Clemenceau, and Col. House. While it was friendly in tone, it directed the fleet to proceed immediately to Corfu under a white flag, and surrender to the supreme command of allied forces (30). To add insult to injury, a few days later the Italian naval command ordered the fleet to take down the Croatian flag since the allies did not recognize the flag as one of the interdependent state (31).
Despite emotional protests by Croatian sailors, part of the fleet went to Corfu under the white flag. The rest of the fleet remained in port, and was gradually taken over by the Allies, most by Italians. The Croatian flag disappeared from the Adriatic. The once powerful battle fleet was distributed to the Allies. The new state of the Kingdom of SCS (later known as Yugoslavia), proclaimed on December 1, 1918 in Belgrade, received only a few coastal defense ships.
*According to another source:
“The explosion did not happen at 6:30 as predicted and Vuković returned to the ship with many sailors (believing mistakenly that the Italians had lied). He therefore remained on his ship and went down with her and 300–400 of her crew when the mines exploded shortly afterwards at 6:44. Following the explosion, the battleship sank in 15 minutes.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SMS_Viribus_Unitis
See Assault on the Viribus Unitis http://www.worldwar1.com/sfvu.htm
(1) Paul G. Halpern, The Naval War in the Mediterranean. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1987, p. 7.
(2) Ibid. p. 7.
(3) Arthur J. May, The Passing of the Habsburg Monarchy, 1914-1918. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966, p. 780.
(4) Hans Hugo Sokol and Theodor Braun, Ősterreich–Ungarns Seekrieg 1914-1918. Graz: Akademische Druck und Verlagsanstalt, 1967, Vol. 2, pp. 705-707.
(5) Ferdo Šišić, Dokumenti o postanku Kraljevine Srba, Hrvata i Slovenaca. Zagreb: Matica Hrvatska, 1920, p. 179.
(6) Ibid. p. 189.
(7) Named after the motto of the Emperor Franz Joseph.
(8) Admiral Horthy later became regent and ruler of Hungary.
(9) Sokol, Seekrieg, p. 715.
(10) Ibid., p. 721.
(11) Ibid., p. 721.
(12) May, Passing, pp. 779-780.
(13) Petar Pekić, Propast Austro-ugarske monarhije i postanak nasljednih država. Subotica: Globus, 1937, p. 272.
(14) Bogdan Krizman, Raspad Austro-Ugarske i stvaranje jugoslavenske države. Zagreb: Školska knjiga, 1977, p. 105.
(15) Ferdo Čulinović, 1918. na Jadranu. Zagreb: Glas rada, 1951, p. 211.
(16) Pekić, Propast, p. 273.
(17) Ibid., p. 273.
(18) Miklós Horthy, Memoirs. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1957, p. 92. [Memoirs was published by R. Speller in New York, 1957.]
(19) Halpern, Naval War, p. 411.
(20) While a Croatian patriot, Captain Vuković was not universally favored for his new command because he had accompanied earlier in the year Count Tisza on his trip to Sarajevo to rally the Bosnians to the monarchy. Captain Vuković was under orders and had no choice. See, Henry Baerlein, The Birth of Yugoslavia, London: Leonard Parson, 1922, Vol. 2, p. 20.
(21) Ibid., p. 20.
(22) Gordon Brook-Shepherd, November 1918. Boston-Toronto: Little, Brown, 1981, p. 316.
(23) Halpern, Naval War, p. 567.
(24) Ibid. p. 567.
(25) Baerlein, Birth, p. 21.
(26) Ibid., p. 21.
(27) Horthy, Memoirs, p. 92. See also Baerlein, Birth, p. 21-22.
(28) Viribus Unitis not only played a role in the ending of the war but also in its beginning in 1914. It carried the Crown Prince, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife from Triest to Metkovic on their fateful journey to Sarajevo. After their assassination, their coffins were carried back to Triest on the flagship. See Horthy, Memoirs, p. 317.
(29) D. Janković – B. Krizman, Gradja o stvaranju Jugoslovenske države. Beograd: Kultura, 1964, 2 vol., p. 442.
(30) Ibid., p. 455.
(31) Krizman, Raspad, p. 144.