The sinking of the Goeben
Exeter EX 5
12th July 1964
That introduction was made more demanding by the slowly developing political events leading to the outbreak of the Great War. The Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated on 28th June. Initially it had little impact but steadily the tension mounted. By the end of July it was clear there was going to be a war. The only question for us in the Navy was whether the British Empire was going to be involved. The last few days were extremely tense as declarations of war flew around Europe. When Germany declared war in France we went to a war footing but were still unclear whether we would go to the aid of France.
26 knots, 8 x 12” main guns & 16 x 4” tertiary guns)
could have supported the Germans but fortunately choose neutrality.
The Germans had only two ships in the Med. The powerful Battlecruiser Goeben (23,000 tons, 26 knot, 10 x 11” main guns & 12 X 6” secondary guns) and the light cruiser Breslau (4,500 tons, 26 knots, 12 x 4” guns). Goeben, fortunately for us, needed a major overhaul and had defective boilers. A brief stop at the Austrian naval base at Pola, only days before the outbreak of war, had enabled some repairs to be made but her speed was still reduced.
The options and prospects for the Goeben were limited. A breakout to the Atlantic was extremely unlikely we thought. There were no coaling stations for them and in all probability they would run out of fuel before they could reach Germany. That was assuming they managed to avoid meeting the Home Fleet during a dash up the English Channel! An alternative was to flee eastwards with the prospect of being interned in Turkey or as some suggested, being turned over to the Turks. It seemed most likely however the Goeben would make a run to join the Austrians in Pola. There they would be in a friendly port and able to undergo proper repairs.
A major concern for the French was that the Goeben would attempt to interfere with their planned movement of troops from North Africa to reinforce the French borders. If the Goeben had got loose amongst those convoys they could have done terrible damage and caused a vast loss of life. It meant that the French fleet was overwhelmingly devoted to convoy protection. Consequently it was the Royal Navy that had to deal with the Goeben.
Admiral Milne deployed the Royal Naval ships in three formations. Admiral Troutbridge with two of our sister ship’s, the battlecruiser’s Indomitable and Indefatigable along with several destroyers were sent to patrol the entrance to the Adriatic. A second formation of the slower armoured cruisers and several light cruisers were deployed there as well. Our battlecruisers, while heavily armed, were lightly armoured compared to the Goeben. The latter was also built with far greater watertight integrity and so was able to sustain far greater hull damage than our ships. It was felt therefore that it would require two of our battlecruisers to take her on safely. The slower armoured cruisers had no chance against the Goeben and were only to be used as an extended scouting force, kept within range of the battlecruisers.
(4,500 tons, 29 knots, 2 x 6” guns and 10 x 4” guns) and the
Germany declared war in France at 6pm on the 3rd of August. At this stage the Goeben was taking on coal at the Sicilian port of Messina. The neutral Italians would not provide her with coal. So desperate was her need for coal that she refuelled from German merchant ships in the harbour. In their need to refuel quickly they
even ripped up the decks of the merchant ships to
speed up the transfer process. During
the night orders reached them from Berlin that they were to make a breakout to
the Atlantic and return to Germany. Needless to say we were not aware of these
Britain of course promptly declared war on Germany, in support of France. We’d been through this kind of drill many times before, but even so it was a shock for me, as a 16-year-old boy new to the service, to have the klaxon going off at 11pm on 3rd August and to be told we were at war. A process not helped by our being exhausted, having spent most of the evening coaling.
Admiral Suchon the German commander suspected he would be spotted if he headed through the Straits of Messina in an attempt to get back to Germany. Hoping to confuse us he headed south-east. We only knew that the Goeben had not gone through the Straits of Messina so we had to assume it was trying to make for either Pola or Turkey.
Expecting the Goeben to head for Pola Admiral Milne ordered the blockade force at the Adriatic to head south west searching for them. We had steam up and left harbour, accompanied by the two light cruisers and the destroyers at 1am on the 4th. With only one battlecruiser we were seen as a scouting force and were instructed not to engage the Goeben but track them while waiting for reinforcements. Accordingly we headed north-east hoping to sandwich the Goeben between our two forces if she was heading for Pola.
Alas, things didn’t go the way we expected! Our Gunnery control misjudged the range and our shells screamed over the Goeben’s masts to crash harmlessly into the sea behind it. They however quickly found our range and several shells plunged into our hull.
At this stage the Goeben turned and ran north-east. This was taking them towards Admiral Troutbridges force. We immediately broadcast our position and the Goeben’s heading. With all our guns still firing Captain Thomas decided to continue the action, hoping to be able to push Goeben onto the two other battlecruisers. It was a bold decision. It also revealed a noticeable difference between the two gunnery spotting systems. German spotting equipment could find the target range quickly but found it difficult to maintain that. Ours, on the other hand took longer to find the range but was better at maintaining that spotting range.
This is certainly what happened on this occasion. Goeben’s gunnery fell off, while ours scored hit after hit. The two groups of ships raced north-east for several hours at range of nearly 10 miles. At times Goeben was struck by multiple shells in a single broadside which steadily knocked out her secondary and tertiary guns, inflicted numerous hull hits and several critical hits. In one of these Admiral Souchon was killed. We in turn suffered some minor hits and further damage to the hull.
While the two battlecruisers had been slogging it out, Weymouth and Dublin had been waging their own private fight with the Breslau. Given the long range it meant their lighter guns were less effective. Thus, damage to both sides had been fairly low with only the Weymouth suffering minor damage on our side while the Breslau in turn also suffered only minor damage. There was little point in the light guns of our two ships in engaging the Goeben, given her heavy armour. However due to the manoeuvring of the ships they did come into range of the Goeben at times and managed to fire on her and score hits which did minor damage.
The Goeben, while severely damaged, was not giving up the fight and seemed to redouble her efforts, scoring numerous hits on the Inflexible that did considerable damage. We suffered badly in this and it looked as if for a while as if we would have to give up the fight. This was where I won my first ‘gong’.
My post at battle stations was in charge of the ammunition hoist to Q turret. My position was in the first hoist room, just above the magazine. From there I monitored the flow of charges and shells up to the turrets and ensured any delays were properly dealt with. In those days there was a huge emphasis on rate of fire and nothing was allowed to delay the prompt movement of charges and shells up to the turrets. This even led to the dangerous practice of jamming open the anti-flash shutters in the hoists so there was not even this slight delay in the process. We always knew it was dangerous but our obsession with maximising the rate of firing overrode this risk.
We’d maintained a steady fire some time with the ammunition flowing smoothly up through the series of hoists to the turret. Then at 12:10 p.m. there was a thunderous crash above and everything in the barbette shook violently. Seconds later I heard a screeching roar from above and realised it was charges exploding in the turret. There was no time to issue instructions, I simply dived across the hoist room, snatching out a piece of steel jamming the flash doors open and the doors snapped shut. For a few brief but terrifying seconds the roar grew louder and louder as the charges in the hoist burst into flame (rather than exploded), one after the other. Perhaps only ten seconds after the initial hit the flash doors in the hoist shook and buckled under the strain of the searing charges. The doors held but even so some flame still shot out around the door. My left hand was badly scorched and I still bear the scars today.
Needless to say the magazine would almost certainly blown up if the flash had reached our room, where 6 charges lay waiting for the hoist and then the magazine. Q turret and hoist were now out of action with 25 men killed outright. My prompt action almost certainly saved the ship and I was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
What men were left in the Q magazine were deployed in damage control parties and we rendered what assistance we could around the ship for the rest of the action, rescuing men, helping to put out fires and keeping the guns in action.
On Inflexible we were now down to half speed, most of our tertiary guns were out of action, we’d suffered considerable hull damage and now one of our turrets was knocked out. Later in the battle we lost two other guns but in those case the guns jammed from hits and there was no ammunition explosion. Goeben I’m pleased to say was an even worse situation, hardly moving by this stage. She had suffered so much flooding she was deep in the water and had only a few guns still firing.
It was now late in the afternoon. Perhaps it would have been a wise move for Captain Thomas call off the action and await reinforcements. In a move that was hotly debated after the event, he decided to continue the action.
A major concern was that we had heard no word from Admiral Troutbridge as to his position, despite our sending out regular reports. All we heard on the radio was that he was heading towards our position. We were subsequently flabbergasted to discover that he had decided he needed the armoured cruisers to extend his search line and so had dropped his speed to keep formation with them. We of course, were expecting him to be driving Indomitable and Indefatigable towards us at full speed. In addition it was now 5pm and night was steadily approaching. Captain Thomas feared losing contact with the Goeben in the night. With drawn features, he ordered the ship to continue the action, declaring “The Royal Navy can afford to lose a battle-cruiser, the Germans cannot”.
We still had two destroyers loaded with torpedoes and he sent these in to attack. Goeben pushed it’s engines to the limits and manoeuvred as best they could to avoid the attack. The plucky destroyers raced in and launched their torpedoes, One at least hit, but it failed to detonate. Goeben had lost so many of it’s secondary guns it was unable to inflict any damage on them.
Again, we commenced the gunnery duel. We once more scored numerous hits on the Goeben. All of which proved too much for her. With all engines gone and weighed down by thousands of tons of water she drifted to a halt and slowly started to roll on her beam. Captain Thomas ordered our guns to cease fire, the First Lieutenant pointed out that Goeben was still flying her flag but Captain Thomas replied that any ship that had fought that well, deserved to go down with her flag proudly flying. Then her bow dipped beneath the waves and she steadily plunged down into the depths.
Goeben had managed to score one last hit on our crippled hull before her end. With hardly any steerage way and deep in the water Inflexible seemed about to sink as well. However we were now able to reduce our speed and reduce the flooding while our damage control parties worked furiously to seal off compartments and pump the water out. One more hull hit would have finished us off! After several hours our buoyancy improved significantly and we were able to breathe a sigh of relief as we realised we would get our valiant ship home.
While all this last drama of the Goeben was taking place the Breslau attempted to escape. The three cruisers had engaged in their own fight for these long hours. Breslau had fought bravely but equipped with only 4” guns she was hardly a match for the 6” guns of our two cruisers. Sheltered to a degree by the Goeben she had initially taken only minor damage but now, pursued more closely by the Weymouth and Dublin she was hit repeatedly. Even so she scored quite a lot of hits and even managed to knock out Weymouth’s 2 x 6” gun turret. The latter fell out of the fight and Breslau was finished off by Dublin. Both our brave little cruisers suffered damage in their long-running fight but were in no serious danger.
Inflexible was in no position to pick up survivors but in the gathering dusk the two cruisers and five remaining destroyers managed to pick up 756 German survivors out of total crew of 1,400. At 10pm with our repairs done as best we could and loaded with survivors we turned and steamed slowly back to Malta.
We were met next day, several miles out to sea, by a flotilla of small craft who escorted us into harbour to a rapturous welcome. We remained there for two weeks while the dockyards patched up our battered hull. After which we sailed back to England for a major overhaul. During that period his Majesty King George V came down to Portsmouth. On the foredeck of our proud ship he knighted Captain Thomas and awarded me my DSC.
At the time the sinking of the Goeben was seen as a great morale boost to the British population at large and a somewhat humiliating defeat for the German navy. Subsequently and particularly after the war it was taken to have had profound political influence as well. It was discovered that the German Emperor had seriously offered the Goeben to Turkey in return for her joining the war. Her loss appears to have undermined Turkish resolve and instead she remained neutral during the Great War. I’ve always wondered if Turkey would really have joined on Germany’s side, she had too much to lose. She did extremely well out of the war, exporting extensively to Russia and charging tariffs on the huge volume of military equipment which Britain shipped through the Bosporus to the Russians.
Our repairs were finished by February 1915 and we returned to the Mediterranean in time to take part in the great amphibious assault on the Austrian naval base of Cattaro on the Adriatic on April 25 1915. There we provided gunfire support to the ANZAC troops as they seized the hills overlooking the base. It was of course the first step in the campaign to drive up the Adriatic, which Mr Churchill accurately described as ‘the soft underbelly of Austria’. Italy of course attacked Austria a few weeks later. My next big battle was outside Pola, where we crushed the Austrian fleet, leading to her capitulation in November 1916. I’ll write of that another day.
Your loving grandfather
Rear Admiral (Rtd) Sir Norman Butcher KCMG, DSC and bar.
Operation Trident, the Allied invasion of Cattaro 25th April 1915.
Exeter EX 5
20th April 1965
Given the date, it’s time I continued writing about my adventures, as we’re coming up to another of those great anniversaries, namely Operation Trident, the Allied invasion of Cattaro on 25th April 1915.
After its battle with the KMS Goeben, HMS Inflexible needed an extended period in the docks undergoing repairs. This gave the powers that be the chance to send us Midshipmen off on various courses. I and another midshipmen, Brian de Winter, were assigned to go on a course on gunnery spotting with a particular emphasis on using shore based radio to direct a ships gunnery. This was because Inflexible was being fitted with a newly developed ship to shore radio system. We were both somewhat sceptical about this course, thinking it was another waste of time on much vaunted new technology, that wouldn't actually work under combat conditions. Still, it did give us an entertaining break from the rigours of navy life and a chance to get out the pub and unwind.
We were fully repaired and ready to go back into action in February 1915 so we sailed once again for the Mediterranean. The war at sea had been quiet there since the sinking of the Goeben. The Austrian fleet never ventured out of port. However, big plans were in the making which we were unaware of. The top brass decided to undertake a naval invasion of the Austrian port of Cattaro, just north of Montenegro. This was seen as an important strategic objective. It was a deep, very sheltered harbour where Austrian ships could remain safe from any attacks. It was also close to the Montenegrin front line and gave the Austrians the ability to move troops and ships up rapidly to attack on that front. If however, we captured it, it gave us a base in the Adriatic from which to harass the Austrian coastal shipping.
There was great concern about the varied rugged terrain in the area. However the Austrian garrison was small, isolated and engaged by the Montenegrin forces to the south. It was felt that a surprise assault by several divisions would be able to seize the coastal hills and therefore dominate the harbour itself. This would allow our naval forces to bombard the harbour and surrounds with impunity and quickly lead to the fall of the isolated town.
To undertake this operation the British forces had; the new 1st Australian Division, the New Zealand and Australian Division and the 29th Infantry Division. These were to be transported and landed by a group of transports. These would be protected by a large contingent pre-dreadnought battleships, who would also provide shore bombardment. Further out at sea, screening forces of pre dreadnoughts would guard against a sortie by the Austrian navy. Further up the Adriatic light screening forces of fast cruisers were to be deployed to search for any such sorties.
France contributed their three new battleships, seven of their pre-dreadnoughts, plus a force of armoured cruisers, light cruisers and destroyers under the command of Admiral Guepratte and their 1st Infantry Division.
As the scale of the operation and the requirement for ships grew, so did the fleet of available ships. The Royal Navy initially planned to use only pre-dreadnoughts and 19 of these were made available to support the invasion. HMS Inflexible of course was there, as it was our regular station, and we were designated as a fast scouting unit to search for Austrian naval forces. At the time the fast, new battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth was entering service and Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, decided to send her to join in the operation as an opportunity to calibrate her guns.
Finally, much to our relief it was then decided to create a fast battle group, to be commanded by Admiral Heard. So, our old comrades HMS Indomitable and HMS Indefatigable were sent out to join us. I think the presence of the French modern battleships rather embarrassed the Royal Navy into sending these. On Inflexible we’d been concerned that even with our superior speed we’d be vulnerable if we’d encountered the three Austrian battleships. Together these four fast, powerful, new ships were more than capable of taking on three Austrian battleships by themselves. The overall Commander of the combined British and French forces was Admiral De Robeck.
The Austrian Navy itself was a rather top-heavy and acquainted force. There were only three battleships plus a collection of elderly pre-dreadnoughts and coastal defence ships. There were only a handful of elderly armoured cruisers and light cruisers to support them. The Austrians did have some good, modern destroyers. There were also a large number of motor torpedo boats. Despite our concerns about the latter however, they played no part in the operation, being based at Pola at the head of the Adriatic. It was surprising that some were not moved to Cattaro, as they could have posed a serious threat to our invasion force.
It was very difficult of course to conceal the build-up of Allied forces. Initially it had been expected to launch the invasion from Malta but the politicians managed to arrange with the Greeks for the fleet to be based at Corfu, which was far closer to Cattaro. The convenience of the closer base far outweighed the security concerns. It was strongly suspected that Austrian agents that operating in Corfu port would be able to provide information about fleet departures to the Austrian navy. We were certain however, from intercepted radio messages, that they already had a team of agents in Malta anyway.
The Allied High Command were deeply concerned that the Austrians already had some kind of pre-warning about our operation. There were several things we were concerned about; that the Austrians would send MTB’s to defend the port or lay minefields. Also they were concerned that the Austrians would move their fleet closer to Cattaro. In fact just before the operation began we received notification from an agent in Vienna that the fleet had been ordered to sail to their base at Split. There was also the risk that they may be able to ship additional land forces in to the area. Although due to the risks, the latter seemed unlikely, provided we moved quickly, so it was decided to proceed.
Initially the Navy had planned to send out several forces of fast, light cruisers to patrol north of Cattaro and search for Austrian ships coming down from the north. At the last minute however, concerns about MTB’s proved too much and the light cruisers were instead allocated to escorting troop ships. One of the things we really dreaded was having a fully loaded troop ship, carrying several thousand infantryman, sunk.
The invasion was set the dawn on the 24th April and at dawn on the 22nd the first scouting forces left Corfu and headed up the Adriatic. Our fast battle group was the first to leave port and we threaded through the narrow channel between the island and the mainland with a great sense of anticipation and concern about attacks by MTB’s. Once we were into open waters we could relax a bit. Six formations of pre-dreadnoughts, cruisers and destroyers followed us. They were to arrive early and commence bombarding shore positions along the coast. They would also act as additional support should the Austrian fleet venture out. The landing forces and minesweepers with escorting pre-dreadnoughts would leave 16 hours later. The intention being to engage any Austrian forces at sea around Cattaro and destroy them before the invasion forces arrived. We didn't want to engage in a battle with the troop ships nearby at any kind of risk.
Accordingly our screening forces ventured some way up the Adriatic, well past Cattaro. Much to our concern we found nothing. Admiral De Robeck was concerned that the Austrians had left port in good time and had actually managed to sail further down the Adriatic and were now behind us. Consequently he ordered the forward fleets to fall back towards the invasion forces and provide close support.
It was then, at 10am, along the coast just south of Cattaro, our ships encountered the first Austrian force. This was a rather forlorn and futile scouting force of one old, slow, armoured cruiser, a light cruiser and four destroyers. Our force while old, was vastly superior, with three pre-dreadnoughts Lord Nelson, Swiftsure and Agamemnon, the light cruiser Lowestoft and two destroyers. The battle, if you can call it that, was over in half an hour with all the Austrian ships sunk, well before they had time to come into their own gunnery range.
Here we saw the first example of the determination and courage of the Austrian destroyers. Their Austrian High Command had realised that this was a crucial battle and they had to take high risks to prevent the invasion going ahead. As a result destroyers had been ordered to attack regardless of the cost and in all the subsequent encounters of the campaign they did just that, but to no avail and at terrible cost.
A few hours later the French armoured cruiser Dupleix approached the entrance to Cattaro harbour where it encountered the three old Austrian coastal defence ships, Monarch, Wien and Budapest. These lumbering old rust buckets were not close enough to engage or fast enough to catch up but they pursued the Dupleix west along the coast. This was a serious mistake as our fast battle group and a force of pre dreadnoughts was charging at full speed to support the Dupleix.
With our superior speed we quickly moved into extended gunnery range and at 5pm the massive 15” guns of the Queen Elizabeth roared out. Still not fully experienced with the big guns, their first salvoes missed but this was quickly corrected. All our ships went forward at full speed to close the range so the battlecruisers could engage with their 12” guns.
Previously my role had been in the bowels of the ship, managing the flow of ammunition to our guns. Now, in both senses I’d moved up and my new role, due to my recent gunnery course, was high up in the ship in the spotting top. From here I could clearly observe the fall of our shells sending up; either huge columns of water which would almost obscure the target or big clouds of smoke and debris as a shell exploded somewhere on the target. Our 12” would usually burst quite visibly. When one of Queen Elizabeth’s massive 15” shells hit however, it plunged deep into the target with little visible sign. This would be followed briefly by an explosion which shook the entire ship and rapidly tore it to pieces.
Queen Elizabeth was firing at the Monarch the furthest ship away and we in Inflexible firing on what we subsequently discovered to be Budapest the second ship. I had a good eye in those days and had bracketed the Budapest several times and scored at least one hit. Somehow I had a sixth sense as to what they would do next and made a quick correction to the gunnery plot. Only six of our eight guns could bear but I only counted two columns of water, indicating four hits and a mass of explosions on the ship itself. As the smoke slowly cleared it became apparent that the Budapest was sinking.
The Gunnery control officer looked askance when I called the correction but was good enough to commend my action to Captain Thomas. He called me to the Bridge later and congratulated me on my gunnery spotting.
We could have held back and destroyed the Austrians at a distance, out of their gunnery range. Our fast battle group commander, Admiral Heard, however was eager to finish the battle as quickly as possible, so we could focus on the main Austrian fleet. Accordingly we closed to within the range of the Austrian guns. At this range our firepower was devastating. Our supporting pre dreadnoughts were also able to engage at long range.
It was something of a massacre, the Austrian ships were simply blown out of the water, with only Indomitable suffering one minor hit from the Wien. With only six 9.4” guns between the three Austrian ships, even one of our battlecruisers could have taken them on. It was another forlorn sacrifice of brave men. Once again the Austrian destroyers charged forwards, only to be devastated by a hail of shells from our secondary and tertiary guns.
Night fell after this. Deeply concerned about protecting the invasion force Admiral De Robeck ordered the bulk of the fleets to concentrate just south of Cattaro, at the designated pre invasion assembly point. There were more than enough pre dreadnoughts to protect them and the French modern battleships were also deployed to screen them.
There was never any thought of abandoning the invasion. High Command had always factored in the possibility that a delay may occur. The key was to ensure the Austrian fleet could not attack the transports and that any threat from MTB’s or minefields in the landing areas were removed.
At dawn on the 24th April, the pre-dreadnoughts comprising a bombardment squadron moved into the entrance of Cattaro harbour. The 10 pre-dreadnoughts commenced shelling the Austrian shore batteries overlooking the landing beaches. We’d taken numerous minesweepers as well as we expected a series of mine fields but the Austrians had done little to bolster the defences and no minefields were present.
The British fast battle fleet plus two groups of pre-dreadnoughts were further out to sea searching for the Austrian main force. Its failure to appear was completely mystifying. Given that the Austrians had committed their weaker forces, we had to assume their main battle fleet was at sea as well. The failure of our heavy screening forces to locate the enemy had been of great concern to us. This left Admiral De Robeck afraid that the Austrians had been in Split and somehow got behind us.
In a way this is what they had done, but they had actually sailed all the way from Pola. Subsequently we realised a series of errors on both sides had led to a situation we did not expect. Admiral Mack, the Austrian commander never actually received his instructions to proceed to Split. As a result the Austrian fleet remained in Pola harbour and only set sail when he received word from the Austrian agents in Corfu that the Allied fleet’s had sailed. They had in fact got behind us. He had taken virtually the whole Austrian fleet down the western side of the Adriatic. During the night he managed to slip past our forces patrolling near the spur of Italy. From there the Austrian fleet closed in on the entrance to Cattoro harbour, rightly guessing some of our invasion fleet would be gathered there by now.
As a result, at 4.15pm the Austrian fleet moved in from the south to attack the bombardment force. Fortunately, the French modern battleships had already closed in to support to cover the transports. Despite being considerably outnumbered the Austrians attempted to close the range and engage the transports. Fortunately the Austrians were out of gunnery range when first spotted and our transports were able to commence a withdrawal behind a screen of mostly French battleships and pre-dreadnoughts. The three French battleships were superior to the three smaller Austrian ones. In addition we had ten pre-dreadnoughts as compared to their six weaker ones. The Austrians in addition had a number of their old armoured cruisers and light cruisers and again numerous destroyers, but we outnumbered them in this category as well.
All our ships steadily withdrew out west into the Adriatic, with the battleships and pre dreadnoughts trading blows. In a long range gunnery duel between the battleships, spanning many hours, the French got the better of it. Their battleships put up a superb fight and did most of the damage to the Austrians. Paris and the Jean Bart suffered only minor damage. The Courbet unfortunately took heavy damage but was still able to continue the fight. The armoured cruiser Waldeck Rousseau was also damaged.
It should be noted that the Royal Navy’s pre dreadnoughts acquitted themselves well. They suffered some damage, particularly the Triumph but scored numerous hits on the Austrian pre dreadnoughts and several major hits on the Virbus Unitus and Prinz Eugen. They also caused varying degrees of damage to the Austrian light ships, including contributing to the sinking of the pre-dreadnoughts Ferdinand Max and Erzhherzog Karl. It was something of an embarrassment to the Royal Navy that our fast battle group was still some distance away from the battle
It was must be said though that it was the French who inflicted the most serious damage on the three Austrian battleships. They reduced the Virbus Unitus to a floundering wreck with only two main guns operating. Tegetthoff and Prinz Eugen suffered substantial damage as well.
The sun was now setting, with only a quarter moon and some light rain, visibility became quite poor. Admiral Mack in the Virbus Unitus recognised his limited choices. It was clear there was no chance of getting through our fleet to the transports. To try and engage the Allied fleet any further was little short of suicide. His only chance was to try to break away with the surviving ships and head back to Pola. He ordered Virbus Unitus and the light cruiser Novara, both badly damaged, to engage the Allied fleet at the maximum distance they could, while the last of the destroyers charged the Allied fleet in diversionary torpedo attacks, in an attempt to buy time. It did buy some time but at a terrible cost. Even in the dark and rain the massed fire of ten pre-dreadnoughts and three battleships quickly blew the destroyers to pieces before they got into range.
Free of that threat, the French battleships proceeded to demolish the Virbus Unitus and Novara. This gallant action, from which Admiral Mack emerged unscathed, slowed the Allied fleet enough and gave the remaining Austrian ships the chance to head north at full speed.
Admiral Heard and Admiral Guepratte contemplated sending our fast battle group or the French battleships in pursuit but I think they had all been somewhat disconcerted when the Austrians appeared behind us earlier. One message from Churchill had been hammered into us before the operation commenced. The invasion was the priority, speed was essential and the Austrian fleet was secondary. We were not to go ship hunting but to ensure the success of the invasion. The idea of the Austrians getting away was galling but we turned back towards the invasion area.
We had in fact won a splendid victory. Nearly three quarters of the Austrian Navy had been destroyed in one night. Whereas we had only suffered some major damage to a few ships and varying degrees of damage to others. Overall damage had been negligible, in fact we didn’t lose a single ship. It was a small price to pay for the major strategic victory we gained by capturing Cottaro.
We were always somewhat mystified by the Austrian High Command sending out their fleet against such superior numbers of Allied ships. Subsequently we discovered that the operation had been based on out of date information. Their agents had obtained an early draft of the Allied plan. One that had been done before the various modern battleships were added to our forces. The Austrians had been expecting perhaps 12 pre-dreadnoughts. Even that would have been a challenge for them but they hoped our ships would be too distracted that the attack would catch us unaware.
At 4.30am on 25th April 1915 virtually the entire Allied fleet was assembled off the coast of Cottaro harbour. The effect was demoralising for the Austrian defenders. The previous day when we first bombarded the landing areas the garrison had been fairly weak. Nevertheless the few shore batteries had put up a spirited defence, while the infantry had held fast even under our massive bombardment. When our forces had withdrawn on the approach of the Austrian fleet the garrison thought we were retreating and that they were saved. Accordingly they spent the night celebrating.
Now we were back and in even bigger numbers. The effect was a huge shock in their often drunken state and led to near panic. Thus when the bombardment started, the morale of the garrison quickly collapsed. We could very quickly see them running back from the beach defence line and guns. When the invasion forces hit the beach’s they met virtually no opposition and as our troops stormed forward any opposition simply melted away before them.
The intention was to isolate the two large peninsulas on the southern side of the harbour. Once isolated any garrison there would be cut-off and be easily dealt with. To do this we would land the 29th Infantry Division and 1st Australian Division at the bay about seven miles south east of the port of Cottaro itself. From there an open valley lead virtually to the back of Cottaro. The valley had steep hills on either side which we knew were not garrisoned. The plan was to seize the hills to protect our flank as the infantry advanced up the valley until we are in a position to attack the port.
The French 1st Infantry Division would land in the Bay of Traste a few miles south-west of Cottaro to cut off the lower peninsular and advance quickly to threaten the town. The lack of any serious opposition meant all three divisions swept forward and achieved their objectives by 11 am. At 12pm the impetuous Australians were probing into the outskirts of Cottaro itself. Which led to the large contingent of Naval and support personnel there fleeing north around the harbour or taking any boat they could find to flee to the other side.
The New Zealand and Australian Division had been kept in reserve to exploit or support where it was needed. Given the rapid Austrian collapse it was decided to land it on the small bay on the northern peninsula covering the harbour. From there it would move up the inner harbour to seize Castelnuovo and the artillery batteries there. Given the rather dismal performance of the Austrian infantry so far it was felt that this would be relatively easy. Taking Castelnuovo would open the passage way into the convoluted inner harbour.
Inflexible was chosen the land operation because we were the only ship that had any kind of ship to shore radio facility. Accordingly Captain Thomas positioned her in the harbour entrance where they could bring their guns to bear on Castelnuovo. Having done the gunnery course I was sent with a small team to direct gunfire support for the Anzacs, if needed. A team of ratings and I set out in a small boat to join the Anzacs in the landing. This all went peaceably and we started to trudge off around the coast lugging the delicate, clumsy and heavy equipment.
There appeared little in the way of an Austrian defence so the Australian 4th Brigade moved forward into the outskirts of the town which was about a mile away. Shortly after this the New Zealand infantry brigade followed them. I had the radio team set themselves up on a path about 60 foot up the slope to our left where we had an excellent spotting position. This drew some angry grumbling from the ratings about the ‘unnecessary’ climb. From this height though we saw clearly over various obstructions and could observe, with considerable alarm, perhaps 5 battalions of Austrian troops moving out of the low hills to the west of Castelnuovo and advancing into the New Zealand brigades rear. The latter were clearly unaware of what was happening. Fortunately we had already started making contact with the ship to keep them informed and much to our surprise were speaking to them within only a couple of minutes of twisting dials and pointing the aerial in different directions.
Gunnery under those conditions somewhat more difficult than today. We had to estimate different distances and compass directions, then have Inflexible fire 3 shells in a ‘ladder’ so that we could spot the fall and determine, range and direction. I did some quick calculations in my head and had the radio operator send the coordinates to the Inflexible. Three guns roared out creating a ‘’ladder’. There was little risk of hitting our own men as I’d been careful to make sure it was well off target. It gave us however the crucial starting point and with three more ladders I confidently ordered full 8 gun salvo’s from the Inflexible into the Austrian troops. This was enough to disrupt the rear units of the Austrian counter-attack and I was then able to ‘walk’ the gunfire further into the Austrian troops. Casualties amongst the Austrians evidently was horrendous and they quickly broke and ran. The New Zealander’s had halted their advance and took up defensive positions. After we were confident the Austrians posed no further threat, we called off bombardment.
This allowed the New Zealanders to clean up the surviving Austrian while the Australians advanced and seized Castelnuovo. Fortunately our fire caused no casualties amongst our own troops. After things had calmed down the Division Commander General, Godley, came back and thanked us for our work in avoiding what could have been a serious trap for his troops. His language in describing being under fire and how I had stopped the barrage only 100 yards from his command post was quite colourful. When he heard my name he commented that I’d lived up to it, which is where I got my nickname of ‘The Butcher’. There was a more flattering acquisition from this action though, as shortly afterwards I was promoted to Sub Lieutenant.
By mid-afternoon all resistance had ceased and the remnants of the garrison were fleeing to the north-west. The High Command had expected a three-day fight at least to complete the invasion and our casualties had been only a fraction of what was feared.
The immediate side-effects were significant and led in, due course, to the collapse of the Austrian southern flank. The relatively small Austrian forces deployed against the Montenegrin front in the area were largely trapped out supply and forced to surrender. This gave the Montenegrin’s the opportunity to push forwards on their northern front.
Later Allied land forces from Cottaro moved cautiously up the virtually undefended Adriatic coast. Subsequently we launched further seaborne operations to capture ports along the coast and cut communication lines supplying the Austrian forces. The Austrians never managed to gather enough troops to respond to our landings and lost large sections of the Dalmatian coast line as a result.
More importantly, despite the difficult terrain, we were able to shift supplies across the mountains to Serbia. The various diversions of Austrian troops were significant and when finally in January 1916 they and the Germans launched an offensive against Serbia, it failed to achieve any significant advance. Austria quickly went downhill under a series of hammer blows on all fronts after that.
Your loving grandfather
Rear Admiral (Rtd) Sir Norman Butcher KCMG, DSC and bar.