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Marina Militare - The Great War

The Italian Navy's situation before World War I, with its commitments to the defense of Libya and the Dodecanese Islands, appeared to be anything but easy. The opinion was that the Navy was far from prepared to support Italian foreign policy. When hostilities broke out involving Austria, Italy's position was not initially clear. The Navy began to prepare to fight in the Adriatic. Training was intensified, the defense of ports increased. Light units prepared to sortie and plans for landings on the eastern Adriatic coast were reviewed. Landings on the coast, in support of the Italian Army, were intended to distract the Austrian forces from the northern theater.

At the beginning of 1915 a sound plan for operations in the Adriatic was drawn up. It required that Italy maintain an offensive posture with its larger ships, against a more prudent Austrian Navy, and assumed that the enemy would use mines and submarines. The Triple Alliance with Germany and Autrla-Hungary officially ended in May 1915. A new agreement between Italy and the Entente (France and the United Kingdom) was signed on May 10, 1915 and Italy entered the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The combined naval assets of the Entente and Italy allowed them to dominate the Adriatic instead of just preventing Austrian transits through the Channel of Otranto. The contribution the Italian Navy gave to the war effort was important. The strategic objectives of the Italian Navy's employment were: (1) to cut off Austria from the rest of the world by interrupting its sea communications lines; (2) to protect the maritime flow of friendly supplies to and from Albania and in the Mediterranean; (3) to prevent enemy naval operations along the coast; and (4) to provide naval support, in the Northern Adriatic, to Italian land operations.

By one accounting, the Italian Navy sank more enemy naval tonnage than all the other Allied fleets combined. It is true that the Italian battle fleet remained inactive in its base port, but so did every other Allied fleet, with the one exception of the British Grand Fleet. Even the Grand Fleet was compelled to spend many months of watchful waiting for "The Day" when the Germans would come out. The fact remains that the Italian fleet accomplished its strategic mission to the last degree. This mission was to prevent Austrian ships, military or merchant, from taking to the high seas. Not a single enemy surface craft succeeded in escaping from the Adriatic. All the navies of the world could not have done more. The Austrian fleet refused to come out and offer battle, and it was as hopeless to think of attacking this fleet in its base ports as it would have been to attempt a naval attack on the German bases.

It is not to be inferred, however, that the Italians allowed the Austrian ships to remain securely in their harbors. Attack after attack was made in these harbors, giving the world inspiring examples of clever, scientific ingenuity coupled with great personal initiative and daring. Italian motor boats, only sixteen meters long, constantly cruised at night among the Dalmatian Islands and off the ports of Trieste, Pola, Cattaro, etc., in attempts to locate and destroy Austrian vessels which might venture to put to sea. Italian submarines constantly blockaded these ports, while Italian destroyers and torpedo boats cruised incessantly throughout the length of the Adriatic. Some of the most brilliant individual achievements of the war, achievements worthy of being ranked with the best deeds of daring and cool judgment to be found in naval history, were performed by Italian naval officers.

Since the Adriatic is essentially a narrow gulf, clashes between large naval formations were unlikely and did not take place. During the Italian army's withdrawal to the Piave River in December 1917, Lieutenant Commander Luigi Rizzo sank the Austrian battleship Wien inside the port of Trieste, using two motor torpedo boats. He pioneered a new form of attack in ports against major units which refused to fight at sea. Italian destroyers and motor torpedo boats struck against the Austrian fleet at Porto Buso, Trieste, Parenzo, Fasano, and Buccari. Assault teams attacked enemy naval forces twice at Pola. During the latter of these two actions the Austrian battleship Viribus Unitis was sunk by a slow-speed two-seat manned torpedo called a mignatta.

The Italian Navy also was instrumental in the withdrawal operation of about 112,000 soldiers of the Serbian Army and 10,000 horses from Vlore (Albania) to Corfu (Greece), and later of the transportation of an allied expeditionary corps consisting of 97,000 men from Italian harbors to Vlore.

A 66-kilometer long anti-submarine barrier made of nets was laid down in the Otranto Channel to prevent the transit of Austrian submarines to the Mediterranean. This measure was extremely effective and the Austrians tried to destroy the barrier. Initial Austrian attempts to break through the Otranto Channel barrier ended with a naval clash against Italian and Allied units based in Brindisi. The Italians effectively used their motor torpedo boats, hindering the Austrian effort. Duringa second attempt, on June 10, 1918 near the island of Premuda, the Austrian battleship Svent Ivstan was sunk by a motor torpedo boat from a section commanded by Lieutenant Commander Luigi Rizzo. Rizzo became a national hero^ and this date was chosen asthe Italian Navy's Day.

The Italian Navy also gave a valuable contribution to the development of maritime aviation. In 1914 a special aviation organization operated at sea and later two seaplane support ships were built. During the war Italy used six hundred and fifty seaplanes and twelve airships for bombardment, aerial search and blockade operations. The Navy's aircraft were also used against ships, but with no significant results.

During the First World War, Italian naval employment was tempered by a fear of risking their fleet on unfavorable terms against the Austro-Hungarian fleet. The Italian Navy developed an excellent doctrine for the use of their torpedo boats and achieved remarkable results at very low cost. The Italian Navy took no part in Allied convoy efforts and refused to put its fleet under a Mediterranean multinational command. It did, however, form combined units with the French. In the closing days of the war, Italian naval forces executed a successful amphibious operation at the head of the Adriatic.

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Page last modified: 26-02-2013 10:54:54 ZULU