The "Bersaglieri" of the Sea

By Captain L. Vannutelli
(Naval Attaché to the Italian Embassy at Washington)

[The North American Review, August 1918]

The Italian Navy found herself at the outbreak of war in the most adverse conditions in regard to the enemy. Italy was placed in very inferior strategic conditions, both at sea and on land, by the boundaries imposed on her after the war of 1866. Military domination of the Adriatic is in the hands of Austria, and by reason of the sinuosities of the Illyrian coast and the labyrinths of the Islands of Dalmatia, she can very easily throw her ships against the undefended Italian cities of the opposite, nearby open coast.

The Adriatic is for Italy as the lung of a human being. The domination of this sea for .many centuries by Rome and Venice demonstrated the real historic and geographic necessity of having the rule of this narrow maritime basin in the hands of only one State; and history shows that a durable and constructive peace was only possible in the Adriatic when the supremacy of the sea was incontestably assured to one nation.

The conditions of strategic and geographic inferiority of Italy in the Adriatic are such that not even a fleet three times, as strong as that possessed today by Italy could compensate for the superiority of Austria, owing to her protected coastline and numerous ports.

While Austria-Hungary has six or seven magnificent indentations closed in by mountains many constituting so many excellent, strong naval-bases, Italy has not even one equivalent port. Italy is in the absurd position of having her only great Adriatic base, Taranto, not in the Adriatic, but in the Ionian Sea.

The Italian dreadnoughts are obliged to remain enclosed at Taranto, because Italy has not a sufficiently ample port, with deep water, which could accommodate a squadron of big ships in the Adriatic. She was therefore obliged to occupy the port of Valona on the Albanian coast, since, in the hands of Austria, it might have become an excellent base for the domination of the Otranto canal. The blockade of the Adriatic was one of the most imperative measures and this blockade could not be made effective if Austria had been in possession of the central Albanian coast.

Valona and Corfu are the two positions which dominate the canal of Otranto and may be said to be the key to the gate of the Adriatic. The strategic position of Italy was somewhat improved by the occupation of Valona, and it would have been even much better if Corfu had become the principal base of the Italian fleet. For this reason the problem of the Adriatic is intimately bound up with that of Albania and the Ionian Sea. But if Valona, Corfu and Taranto form an excellent system for the blockade of the Adriatic, it cannot be said that any one of these three eccentric positions would constitute a naval base for operations in the Central or Northern Adriatic and therefore arises the question which strategic base would dominate the Adriatic in all its length.

The Adriatic question is very complex and must be considered not only from the purely military standpoint, but also from the political side, for Italy has strong national interests to defend on the Dalmatian coast.

The present war demonstrates in the most evident way the Italian situation in the Adriatic, for, even if the Austrian fleet be blockaded in its ports, yet Italian ships cannot navigate without grave danger and at present the commerce of the Italian ports in that sea has been completely interrupted.

This is the situation of Italy as regards Austria in the Adriatic, with the added difficulty that the Italian coast is low, sandy, unprotected and open, while that of Austria is mountainous, full of fjords, protected in all its length by a triple barricade of islands, furrowed by labyrinths of deep-water internal canals.

This special condition, while it greatly facilitates the offensive operations of Austria, even with large ships, makes the simple defense of Italy very difficult.

But Italy, besides efficiently providing for her defense has done a great deal more; she has resolutely pushed the offensive right into the Austrian strongholds and organized a perfect and continuous aerial exploration service so as to constantly keep in touch with the displacements and the movements of the enemy squadron.

Under these conditions of inferiority, the great ships could very seldom be used, and therefore the Italian Navy resorted, as much as possible, to the use of small torpedo boats, especially for nocturnal surprise actions, which may now be said to have become the most characteristic operations of the young Italian Navy in the Adriatic.

The small torpedo boat may be called the "Bersaglieri," of the sea, and it is without doubt the best qualified weapon for nocturnal surprises, especially in such a restricted sea as the Adriatic. The rapidity of perception, the spirit of initiative, the power of resistance to effort and fatigue, the quickness and speed of decision, renders the southern Italian temperament one of the best adapted for the use of these small, very swift boats.

In fact the history of the actions of the Italian Navy in the Adriatic enumerates a continuous and numerous series of similarly brilliant operations: for on the very first day of the war, the destroyer Zeffiro entered the Port Buso by skilfull manoeuvres, destroyed the batteries of that fort and took all the Austrian garrison prisoners.

During the night of the 28th of May, 1916, following upon information furnished by seaplanes, the Italian torpedo boat 24 O.S., having surmounted the barriers, succeeded in penetrating the mouth of the port of Trieste and in throwing torpedoes against a great transport ship.

A similar sortie took place on the night of the 7th of June, 1916, when, following upon information gathered the preceding day by seaplanes, two small torpedo boats succeeded in eluding the watchful eyes of enemy destroyers and forced the entrance of the port of Durazzo, where they torpedoed and sank a great transport filled with war material.

This attack was followed by another on the night of the 25th-26th of June, 1916, after a preceding, exploration carried out by seaplanes, when two small Italian torpedo boats again penetrated the barriers of this same port and torpedoed and sank two steamers, one filled with, arms and the other with explosives.

For the third time, on the, night of the lst-2nd of August, 1916, a small torpedo boat entered the port of Durazzo where it torpedoed and sank a large steamer, and as in the other cases this had been previously located by means of aerial explorations.

On the night of the 1st and 2nd of November, 1916, acting upon information furnished by exploring seaplanes, some small Italian torpedo boats crossed the mined zone and, lowering the obstructions, penetrated the outer anchorage of the stronghold of Pola and threw torpedoes against a large enemy ship, which, however, were unfortunately stopped by the protecting nets of the vessel. The evening of the 9th of December, 1917, having ascertained the presence of two battleships of the Monarch type at the further end of the interior of the port of Trieste, a division of two small torpedo boats, commanded by Lieut. Commander Luigi Rizzo, was sent to attack. The night was so cold that there were blocks of ice even along the shores of the canals, and besides this there was a dense fog. Navigation was therefore difficult; nor was it easy to recognize the banks or to discover the position of the numerous obstructions which barred the entrance to the port. Having chosen the position to attempt the forcing of the passage, it was necessary to cut the wire ropes and to remove the obstructions which barred the entrance; this was a very difficult piece of work and lasted about two hours, for it was necessary to successively cut eight wire ropes stretched from one end of the passage to the other, and then to lower the connections of the large mines, so as to be able to pass over them without a resulting explosion. The two small torpedo boats were able to evade the rays of a searchlight in action, and to penetrate the port. A battleship anchored near Punta Sabbia was recognized. The torpedo boat of Lieut. Commander Rizzo reached the position of attack slowly and silently and quickly hurled two torpedoes which exploded against the ship and sank it. The second torpedo boat also threw its torpedoes against a similar ship further away. Both torpedoes exploded, but it was not possible to determine with any certainty whether the second Austrian battleship was sunk. Both little torpedo boats then returned with all speed towards the entrance of the harbor while the coast guns opened an intense fire, and all the searchlights were put into action. Lieut. Commander Rizzo was able to again guide his two torpedo boats by means of skilful maneuvering through the same passage by which he entered the port, and with the engines going at full speed reached the open and returned to his base.

The night of the 10th-11th of February, 1918, another port, the roadstead of Buccari, near Fiume, was forced by two other small Italian torpedo boats. One of the destroyers was commanded by this same Lieut. Commander Rizzo. The small torpedo boats, protected by the darkness, were able to enter the roadstead and to throw torpedoes against a steamer and against other small ships, returning intact to their bases.

The 14th of May, 1918, a small torpedo boat, commanded by Lieut. Commander Mario Pellegrini, during the darkness of the night, approached and entered the port of Pola. The escorting destroyers, which had remained outside, after about an hour saw a large flash in the direction of Punto Cristo and immediately after heard two strong, successive explosions. They then distinguished two conventional luminous signals which, according to the pre-arranged understanding, signified, the first "Enemy ship torpedoed" and the second "We are sinking our boat." The searchlights of Pola remained in action in the interior of the harbor till dawn. Commander Pellegrini and his dependants were taken prisoners. Later it was known that the battleship had been sunk.

But the most important of all these operations, as well as the most recent, was that carried out at dawn of the 10th of June; by the same Commander Luigi Rizzo. The preceding night, shortly before leaving the port, Lieut. Commander Rizzo had received information that an enemy squadron had been sighted, steering northward, protected by ten destroyers. He immediately decided to attack them. He succeeded in discovering them, and in forcing his way within the line protected by the escorting destroyers. He shot two torpedoes against the ship which was leading, sinking it, and one against the second. During his retreat he was pursued by a destroyer which he had passed at a distance of about 100 meters, but fortunately a mine sank this destroyer, so that Lieut. Commander Rizzo was able to return safely to his base at dawn. This success aroused great enthusiasm all over Italy and today Lieut. Commander Rizzo is immensely popular.

He was-born at Milazzo (Sicily), of a sailor family. He is thirty-two years old. While still very young he chose a sea life, entered the Merchant Marine service, and commanded a Roumanian ship on the Danube. At the outbreak of war he was called into service with the rank of Sub-Lieutenant in the Reserve. He immediately displayed dashing qualities which have characterized all his actions, and received his Lieutenancy in May, 1915. He was rewarded with the silver medal for bravery, after having captured some enemy aviators under violent fire. Rizzo was transferred to the regular service as a reward of merit, and received a second silver medal for dashing raids on the enemy coast. During the retreat on the Piave last October, he succeeded in entering the Tagliamento River with a motorboat, shelled the enemy on the banks, taking prisoners, and received a third medal. In December, 1917, when he entered the port of Trieste, he won his promotion to the rank of Lieutenant Commander and the gold medal for bravery. In February, 1918, after he penetrated into the Bay of Buccari, he received the bronze medal for gallantry. After having torpedoed the battleship Santo Stefano he was promoted to Commander, and was nominated Knight of the Military Order of Savoy. He has a calm, temperament, is silent, brave and energetic.

The actions above numerated demonstrate by themselves how intense, continuous and daring was the offensive activity of the small Italian torpedo boats in the Adriatic, which repeatedly pushed beyond the lines of obstruction right into the very interior of the enemy Naval bases. On the other hand, the Austrian destroyers, in spite of the great advantage of numerous well-protected bases, from which they were able to throw themselves against the Italian coast, never attempted to force the Italian ports.

Thus it will be seen that these little Bersaglieri of the Sea penetrated eleven times into the very heart of the enemy naval bases, and their intense activity was crowned with great success.

Now the young Italian navy, in spite of the most adverse conditions, thanks to the daring and dash of its young officers, has succeeded not only in facing, but overcoming, the great advantages possessed by the enemy, obtaining truly admirable results of the greatest importance. The power of the Austrian fleet has been so diminished after the recent losses that it is doubtful whether for some time it will risk coming out of its bases to endeavor to support the operations against Venice.

Recent events demonstrate clearly that the consequences of the retreat of Caporetto served to elevate the combative spirit and to cause a new and strong unity of sentiment to spring forth such as gave rise to the recent important successes. It may therefore almost be said that from a certain point of view the loss of territory had only a relative importance for Italy—for it served to unify and solidify the firm resolve to fight for the vindication of the violated frontier.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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