The French Navy in the Adriatic

By Robert W. Nesser

[Scribner's Magazine, November 1918]

If the part played by the French navy in the Adriatic Sea has not been generally understood, this has been due not to any lack of initiative or activity on its part, but rather to the silent manner in which it has carried out its allotted task. Since the first days of August, 1914, the French army has had its operations in the field described in daily bulletins, but the navy, though doing proportionately as much work as the army, work upon which the very existence of the army often depended, said nothing. This was not because its vessels remained inactive, but because the information which the public desired to know might also have been of value to the enemy. For this reason the operations of the French navy have been only imperfectly pictured in the official communiqués which have emanated from the Ministry of Marine in Paris. Month after month passed and still there was nothing to report except that "the fleet continues to blockade the entrance to the Adriatic."

The outbreak of hostilities found the French navy fully imbued with the doctrine and fully prepared by its training for the "grande bataille en haute mer"—the achieving of great victories in fleet engagements—and this policy was that outlined in the orders which Admiral de Lapeyrère received from the Ministry of Marine on August 10, 1914, on the eve of his departure for the Adriatic. But if the French commander-in-chief expected to surprise the enemy on the high seas, he was destined to be disappointed. The Austro-Hungarian fleet felt itself too inferior in strength and in numbers to venture beyond the protection of its shore batteries and mine-fields, and persistently refused to depart from the reticent strategy, which, during the present conflict, has characterized the operations of the Teutonic navy at sea.

In this the Vienna admiralty showed its appreciation of the geographical advantages which it possessed in the fringe of islands that dotted the Dalmatian coast from Polar to Cattarro. Sweeps of the Adriatic Sea were possible from time to time, but it was extremely difficult, if not dangerous, for the French squadrons, deficient as they were in patrol and minesweeping craft, to remain long in those waters, when at any moment they were liable to be surprised by enemy flotillas issuing from the channels behind the islands along the eastern shore. The policy of prudence therefore dictated the establishment of a line of blockading ships off the Straits of Otranto, with Malta as a base. This was the plan of operations adopted by Admiral de Lapeyrère, and it was due to his wise decision that the French navy was able to immobilize the enemy's forces for over two years without needlessly exposing or sacrificing its own vessels.

The naval campaign in the Adriatic opened auspiciously when the French fleet of fifteen battleships, six large cruisers, and thirty smaller ships, appeared off Antivari on the morning of August 16th, and surprised the Austrian light cruiser Zenta while engaged in laying mines in the offing. But this was the only occasion when the French naval gunners were able to demonstrate their ability to hit the target as they had been taught in practice. In spite of the repeated appearance of the French squadrons in the Adriatic, the enemy refused to come out, and this and other demonstrations served no other purpose than to expose the vessels needlessly in waters with which the French officers were not familiar, due to the fact that "our ships had never before penetrated into that sea." It was in the course of one of these periodic sweeps that the dreadnought Jean-Bart, flying the flag of the commander-in-chief, was struck by a torpedo fired from the Austrian submarine U-12. Fortunately the damage caused by the explosion was comparatively light. The water-tight compartments held until the ship was able to reach a safe anchorage, and the fine dreadnought was saved to the French navy.

The presence of the enemy's undersea craft, and the lack of sufficient scouts and torpedo-boats to combat them, was the signal for the withdrawal of the larger French naval units from the Adriatic. From that moment, the line of the blockading cruisers and battleships stretched from Otranto to the Island of Saseno, on the Albanian coast. It was the beginning of a long and weary vigil, which was to continue without interruption for almost a year. Back and forth the vessels cruised, keeping the sea in all weathers, while the smaller craft, the submarines and the destroyers, sought the shelter of the inhospitable shores of the islands of Paxo and Antipaxo, near Corfu. All the vessels had to coal at sea, whenever the weather conditions allowed, and once a month the schedule called for a visit to the British naval station at Malta in order to allow the overworked crews a little liberty and rest on shore. From time to time the fleet ventured into the Adriatic in order to escort the transports laden with supplies and munitions destined for the Montenegrin and Servian armies in the field. On these occasions the battleships and cruisers were well flanked by destroyers, and during the unloading of these precious cargoes the latter often penetrated far north of Antivari in the vain hope of falling in with some Austrian war-vessel. "What are we doing?" wrote an officer in the squadron. "We are filling our lungs with fresh salt sea air, but never, do we get a glimpse of the enemy, and very likely we will never get into action until the day when we ourselves become the target for one of his submarines, against which we have not the slightest protection, not even the shelter of a friendly anchorage," and this condition of affairs continued throughout the winter of 1915, when the harbor of Navarin was placed at the disposal of the Allies by the Venizelos ministry.

The most tragic incident of the blockade was the loss of the Léon Gambetta. This cruiser formed part of the light division rendered famous in René Milan's admirable little book "Les Vagabonds de la Gloire." Her regular station was near the Italian side of the Straits of Otranto, but on the date of the disaster the French blockading vessels had been withdrawn further south because of the report that several of the enemy's submarines were in the lower Adriatic, and the possibility that their appearance was merely a covering movement behind which the main Austrian naval forces might attempt to force the passage in order to join the German cruisers in the Dardanelles and thereby jeopardize the safety of the large troop convoys then en route for Gallipoli.

About midnight on the night of April 26-27, 1915, the lookout on the Léon Gambetta reported a sailing vessel approaching the cruiser. She was evidently bound for the Adriatic, and this called for an examination of her papers by a boarding officer. A boat was lowered for this purpose, and Captain André of the Gambetta was awaiting the return of his officer, when, at twenty minutes after midnight, the war-ship was struck by a torpedo which penetrated the dynamo-room and instantly plunged the vessel into darkness. A few seconds later a second torpedo exploded in one of the boiler-compartments. The engines stopped and the cruiser began to settle. On the bridge Captain André gave the orders to assure the safety of his men, while he himself quietly awaited death at his post of command. For the majority of the ship's company, there was little hope of rescue, the explosion of the first torpedo having disabled the wireless, thus preventing the sending out of the S.0.S. call. Only a few of the boats could be lowered owing to the heavy keel of the cruiser, and these were soon filled with men. "Be steady, my children!" called out the captain. "The boats are for you! We officers will remain!'' Perfect discipline reigned, to the last moment. The men quietly obeyed the orders of their officers, who seemed to be everywhere, encouraging and assisting the sailors. Slowly the great cruiser began to heel. Rafts, spars, and other floating material were thrown overboard, and those who could not find places in the boats were ordered to save themselves on them if they could. "Courage! We die together!" rose the cry from the bridge, where Admiral Senes, Captain André, and their officers were still clinging to the bridge-rail. Then the Léon Gambetta turned, and disappeared beneath the waves amid cries of "Vive la France" from those on board.

Not an officer survived the disaster. Out of a total complement of 821 souls, 684 brave officers and men were lost. The conduct of every man of the lost cruiser had been heroic, that of their officers magnificent. "Nous autres, nous resterons!" will forever remain the watchword of the French navy.

Despairing of being able to reach his adversary on the surface, Admiral de Lapeyrère decided to engage him with his own weapons. Already in the fall of 1914 had the French submarine Cugnot succeeded in entering the harbor of Cattaro, but her presence was discovered before she was able to attack the Austrian battleship moored in the outer harbor, and it was only by the merest chance and the skilful handling of her commander that she managed to escape from the patrol vessels which were sent in pursuit. The Curie, which attempted to penetrate into the military port of Pola, in December, 1914, was not so fortunate. Her appearance in the midst of the Austrian battle-fleet was made under circumstances which were little short of dramatic. To quote from the narrative of a French naval officer:

"The Curie had cruised the length of the Adriatic to reach the waters before the naval station of Pola. Above the stone-wall of the breakwater could be seen the Austrian dreadnought Viribiis Unitis and Tegethoff, which had so often refused the challenge offered them by the French ships. Prudently the commander of the Curie waited in the offing until some vessel should appear" to pilot him through the dangerous mine-fields. He had not long to wait. At dawn an Austrian destroyer started to enter the harbor, and the Curie, unobserved; steamed in after him, although there was little chance even as victor, of her ever coming out again in safety. Like the Gugnot the Curie found her diving rudders entangled in the meshes of a steel anti-submarine net at the very moment when her heroic venture was about to be crowned with success. For a long time the submarine struggled to free herself in order to be able to fire her torpedoes, but in vain. After several hours the electric power began to fail the-full charge of the accumulators having been exhausted in an effort to escape from certain disaster. In this moment of trial, the commander of the submarine decided to come to the surface in order to save the lives of his men."

On shore, a garden-party was in progress. The Austrian admiral was entertaining the officers of the fleet and their families. There was no reason to suppose even the possibility of a sudden intrusion by the French fleet, which at that moment was known to be far from Pola. Besides, were not the forts at the entrance of the bay capable of disputing the passage of any venturesome French war-ship? On the lawns of the arsenal were gathered the ladies, the officers in their showy uniforms, the military and naval bands, when suddenly a cry of terror interrupted the gay scene. A strange submarine was seen to emerge in the naval harbor, its hull covered with the tell-tale net. The periscope, torpedoes, and tricolor colors came to the surface not far from the anchorage of the Austrian dreadnought Virilus Unitis. The shore batteries opened a murderous fire, the marines rushed for their rifles, and the crew of the Curie, who had started to abandon their vessel, found themselves swimming for shore in the face of several well-directed volleys, which wounded the captain and killed the second in command." Even the Austrians were obliged to admire the enterprise and heroism of the French sailors; and one of the survivors has recorded the fact that the Austrians were generous enough to cheer their defeated foe before they were marched off as prisoners of war.

Without again venturing into the enemy's harbors, Admiral de Lapeyrère's submarines maintained a vigilant patrol of the Dalmatian coast. Their base was situated, at Plateali Bay, where their wants were looked after by the old battleship Marceau recently converted into a mother ship for submarines. The plucky little craft would leave port regularly, generally in tow of some larger vessel, in order to economize as much fuel as possible, save time, and rest their crews. In the Straits of Otranto they would cast off their tow and proceed to cruise under their own power off the enemy's ports, where, constantly subjected to attacks from the Austrian destroyers and hydro-planes they patiently awaited the enemy's larger ships and cargo-vessels. That they so often were obliged to return empty-handed was not due to any lack of initiative on their part—on the contrary, their commanders invariably did more than was asked of them—but to the ability of the Austrian spies to find out the movements of the French vessels and report their presence to the authorities at Pola and Cattaro. How well informed they were kept is shown by the fact that whenever unforeseen circumstances prevented the French undersea craft from carrying out their reliefs promptly, or obliged one of them to leave her station, that moment was always the one chosen by the enemy to send his vessels to sea.

No account of the submarine, operations in the Adriatic, however, would be complete without reference to the brilliant record of Lieutenant Cochin, who in the submarine Papin carried out an enterprise of daring, which, perhaps, has had no parallel in the war. While cruising off the Austrian coast, the Papin found herself in the middle of a dangerous mine-area. Without hesitation, Lieutenant Cochin proceeded to pick his way through the mine-field, cutting the cables of more than one hundred mines as he went, and destroying them after he had set them adrift.

The entrance of Italy into the war on May 23, 1915, brought about an important repartition of the allied naval forces. In deference to the wishes of the Italian Government the naval operations in the Adriatic were confided to the Italian navy under the command of the Duke of the Abbruzzi. Several divisions of French destroyers and submarines, and a few British cruisers, were assigned for service with the Italian naval forces, but the greater part of the French fleet was relieved of the heavy duties which it had discharged so enterprisingly and so well, and was withdrawn from the Adriatic.

Italy's participation in the war also greatly influenced the naval campaign in the Adriatic in another respect. While Italy remained neutral, the French navy had been obliged to operate far away from its home bases, Toulon and Bizerte, but now the conditions were reversed, and it was the allied naval forces who found themselves well within reach of their enemy. This opportunity the Italian and French torpedo flotillas were not long to overlook. In July the French destroyer Bisson carried out a brilliant operation against Lagosta. Lieutenant Le Sort had been intrusted with the dangerous mission of cutting the telegraph-cable under the enemy's guns. He not only accomplished this duty successfully, but in addition discovered and destroyed an important submarine supply depot which the Austrians had established there in spite of the efforts of the French to prevent them. Nor was this the only instance when the Italian commander-in-chief found occasion to commend Lieutenant Le Sort. A month later the Bisson accounted for the first Austrian submarine sunk in the Adriatic by the Entente navies. The Bisson was steaming in company with two Italian destroyers when she sighted the submarine running on the surface. Lieutenant Le Sort immediately left his consorts and steamed at full speed in the direction of the enemy. The crew of the U-3 afterward said that their captain had been in no hurry to submerge, as he was certain that "there would be plenty of time later." But in this he proved to be mistaken. Within ten minutes the Bisson opened fire at three thousand yards. The first two shots fell short, but the third struck the submarine fairly and exploded in her engine-room. The accuracy of the Bisson's fire must have impressed the Austrian commander with the necessity of exercising a little more caution the next time.

In the meanwhile the Italian naval forces were busily engaged in affording protection to the transports which, great and small, were arriving almost daily at Medue. In this the Italians no longer had the co-operation of the destroyer flotillas which the French admiral had previously loaned them, all the French vessels having been recalled to cover the important convoy movements which were then in progress toward Salonica, and the Italians found great difficulty in performing this duty unaided owing to the near proximity of the Austrian base of Cattaro. The roadstead of San Giovanni di Medue, exposed to attack both from the air and from the sea, pretty soon became untenable. The warnings of raids followed each other so rapidly that the crews of the warships and merchant-vessels often remained for days at their guns. These successes encouraged the Austrian flotillas to even more daring deeds. During the night of November 23-24, 1915, a small convoy was destroyed within sight of the coast. Three days later the French cargo L'Harmonie succumbed to a joint attack made upon her by enemy submarines and aircraft. On December 4th, eight hostile vessels appeared off San Giovanni and destroyed three vessels at anchor and the French submarine Fresnel, which was ashore on a sand-bank. About the same time the Italian transport Re Umberto, and the destroyer Intrepido were sunk off Vallona by mines.

But the Austrians attempted to repeat their successes once too often. On December 29th word was received at Brindisi that the cruiser Helgoland and five destroyers had just bombarded Durazzo. An allied division composed of the British cruiser Dartmouth, the Italian scout Quarto, and a group of French destroyers, was immediately sent in pursuit, while another force was ordered to steer a roundabout course in order to cut off the enemy from the north, and if possible drive him toward the Italian shore, where he was certain to be intercepted by the first division. The movement was well planned, and very nearly succeeded. As it was, the Austrians did not escape unscathed. Off Durazzo one of their destroyers, the Llka, was destroyed by a mine, while the Triglav was so seriously injured that she had to be abandoned. This was the last raid attempted by the Austrian light squadrons in those waters.

And it was fortunate that this impression was conveyed to the enemy so forcibly, for early in January, 1916, it became evident that the first duty of the French naval forces was likely to be the withdrawal from Albania of the retreating Servian and Montenegrin armies. One of the most important military expeditions that took place in this connection was the seizure of the Island of Corfu on the morning of January 11, 1916, by the cruiser division under Vice-Admiral Chocheprat. Seldom has there been witnessed so well-executed a disembarkation. Within a few hours every man, gun, and animal brought by the vessels of the squadron had been landed, and so quietly had the admiral's orders been carried out that when the marine guard appeared at the gates of the German Emperor's palace and roused the janitor of the Achilleion from his sleep, that worthy unsuspectingly protested: "It is too early to visit the palace. Come later."

By the end of February, one hundred and fifty thousand Servian troops had been transported to Corfu and Brindisi, not to mention the twelve thousand civilian refugees who could not be left behind. It was impossible to risk any of the large transports in this service, so that only trawlers—of which the Allied navies by this time had been able to commission quite a number—were available for the evacuation of all those unfortunate people assisted by every torpedo-boat, patrol-vessel, and vedette that could be spared from the main fleet. The Austrians made no attempt to hinder the evacuation, "and it was thanks to their lack of initiative as well as to the enterprise, courage, and devotion of the French sailors and merchant crews," wrote Captain de Cacqueray, who was in charge of the operations off the Albanian coast, "that we were able to surmount all our obstacles and save the Servian army."

History alone will be able to render full justice to the results accomplished by the silent work of the French navy during its long watches off the Straits of Otranto. In spite of the difficulties which it experienced due to the lack of scouts and of bases within proximity of Pola and the Austrian fleet, the French navy maintained an effective blockade of the Adriatic. The battleships alone are held to have steamed over, six-thousand hours, while the destroyers were under way no less than twice that length of time, a record which the other belligerent navies have yet to surpass, and one of which the French people may well be proud.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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