In 1907 the navy of the dualist, multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire placed an order for a new class of warships, whose design was based on the “all big gun” concept pioneered by HMS Dreadnought. Eventually four Tegetthoff class vessels were laid down, including the flagship Viribus Unitis, Tagetthoff, Prinz Eugen and Szent Istvan.
The last warship of the class was not completed until well into World War I. The vessels’ careers were not especially eventful. They spent most of their service lives as a “fleet in being” anchored in a well-protected port of Pola with only occasional trips to the Fažana Channel (well-screened by Brijuni Islands) for gunnery practice. During the war the ships were manned mainly by reservists, while the most promising and experienced members of their crews were detached to serve onboard submarines or torpedo boats, or assigned to land-based units. The second ship of the class ended her career in rather dramatic circumstances, which is why she perhaps deserves a more detailed treatment.
The Battleship IV was laid down at San Marco on July 23, 1910 and launched on June 24, 1911. The Emperor’s court used the occasion to organize a lavish celebration designed to carry a strong political message. The Emperor insisted that the battleship be given a rather unusual, Latin name Viribus Unitis (Strength in Unity – Emperor’s personal motto).
The Only Overseas Cruise
On March 30, 1914 Viribus Unitis, accompanied by Tegetthoff and Zrinyi, departed for a tour of the Levant. During the voyage the ships made a number of port calls, including Kumbor in the Bay of Kotor, Smyrna, Adalia, Mersin, Iskenderun, Beirut, Alexandria, Vlorë and Durrës. On May 19,1914 the flotilla arrived at La Valetta, Malta to a very warm welcome from the locally based Mediterranean Fleet of the Royal Navy. There were no indications at all that soon the two empires would be facing each other as enemies. On May 28, 1914 the Austro-Hungarian squadron departed Malta.
Viribus Unitis was commissioned as the flagship of the Austro-Hungarian Navy on December 5, 1912. Beginning on June 13, 1913 she participated in operations against Albania (Operation Scutari) as part of the European blockading fleet. On September 7, 1913 the battleship returned to Pola.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s Final Voyage
Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s inspection of the 15th and 16th Army Corps in Bosnia coincided with Vidovdan, the most important national holiday in Serbia. On June 24, 1914 the Duke and his wife arrived by train at Trieste, where they boarded the fleet’s flagship to travel to the Neretva River delta. There the Duke sailed on the Dalmat to the city of Metković, along the navigable portion of the Neretva. Then it was on to Sarajevo by rail. In those days this was the most comfortable way to travel from Vienna to Sarajevo.
As we all know from history books, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo by a young Bosnian Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip. The death of the Archduke and his wife triggered the outbreak of a world war, which, as Germany and Austria hoped, would change the balance of power in the Balkans and in the east.
The Austro-Hungarian Navy had a sad duty of transporting the bodies of the Duke and his wife back to Austria. On June 29, 1914 the caskets were loaded onto the Dalmat at Metković for a trip down the Neretva. There they were transferred to the Viribus Unitis awaiting at the river’s estuary. The caskets were placed on the quarterdeck, underneath the barrels of the aft main battery turret. With flags flying at half mast, the ship set course for Trieste. The battleship, accompanied by the tolling of church bells, sailed slowly along the coast to allow the Emperor’s subjects to pay their respects to the Duke and his wife. At 19.00 on July 1, 1914 the ship arrived at Triest. On the following day the caskets were carried off the deck and the Navy bid farewell to their Admiral and Protector.
A Helping Hand for the Goeben
Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany went into World War I as allies. After Great Britain had joined the war, the German Mediterranean Division, comprising two modern warships – the battlecruiser Goeben and light cruiser Breslau – was locked in the Mediterranean Sea. On August 7, 1914, following a German request for assistance, Admiral Haus took the most capable vessels of the Austro-Hungarian Navy to sea to help the German ships reach the port of Pola. Participating in the operation were battleships Viribus Unitis, Tagetthoff, a force of cruisers, six destroyers and thirteen torpedo boats. The fleet, along with the Goeben and Breslau, could have easily taken on the British Mediterranean Fleet. Since at that time Italy was still neutral, the damaged German ships could have reached Pola without much difficulty.
However, for diplomatic reasons, German vessels were directed to proceed to Turkey. Having evaded the Royal Navy the Goeben and Breslau arrived at Dardanelles. There, due to provisions of international law, both ships were sold to Turkey and continued to serve under the Turkish naval ensign manned by their German crews. The Austro-Hungarian force turned round at Cape Planka and set course for Pola, where they dropped anchor on August 8, 1914.
Bombardment of Italy’s East Coast
After the Empire’s former ally had changed sides, the Austro-Hungarian fleet departed Pola in the evening of May 23, 1915 and sailed to Italy, where they opened fire on the country’s east coast. Between 04.38 and 05.00 the Viribus Unitis bombarded the port of Ancona using her 30.5 cm and 15 cm guns. Despite efforts to avoid collateral damage, some of the shells hit Ancona’s cathedral, obscured by fire and smoke. A 30.5 cm shell could easily penetrate the walls of ten buildings before exploding, which is exactly what happened in the case of the cathedral in Ancona. Since there was practically no opposition from the Italian side, the local press called the attack barbaric. The Austrian ships, virtually unscathed, returned to their base.
On December 15, 1916 Emperor Charles I of Austria, who succeeded Emperor Franz Joseph on the imperial throne, inspected the Austro-Hungarian Navy’s flagship during his visit to Pola. The ship also hosted German emperor Wilhelm II during his one day visit to Pola on November 2, 1917.
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