The Wine-Dark Sea:
Dividing the Spoils
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
December 2019

The end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its Navy parked a scramble among the victorious Allies for ownership of the warships. Austrian and Italian negotiators signed an armistice on 3 November 1918 at Villa Giusti bringing an end to hostilities, but the Austrian armed forces' disintegration was already well developed by the time Austrian commissioner Johannes Prinz von und zu Liechtenstein, a navy captain, placed his signature on the paper.

In the armistice, the Austrian agreed to hand over their most modern warships to the Italians, in a ceremony to take place off Venice on 6 November. Unlike the German fleet that would head to Scapa Flow soon afterwards, the Austrian warships would be taken unconditionally and presumably be incorporated into the Royal Italian Navy. The list included all three surviving dreadnought battleships, three light cruisers, nine destroyers, a dozen torpedo boats, a minelayer and 15 submarines.

The Italians made their demand on 29 October, the first day of negotiations, but in the early hours of 1 November Italian frogmen sank the fleet flagship Viribus Unitus at her moorings. Things fell apart much faster than any of the diplomats imagined — on the 31st, the Austrian fleet command turned over its ships and facilities to the South Slav National Council. Most of the officers and sailors simply left for home by train or on foot, and no attempts appear to have been made to damage the ships or material. However, not a single Austrian flag was left behind to be taken as a war trophy and the world-renowned "sex in 18 languages" naval whorehouse was evacuated to Vienna.

Italian troops began landing in Austrian port cities on 3 November, first at Trieste. On the 4th they landed in Rijeka and Zadar, and on the 5th they finally entered the main Austrian fleet base at Pola. The Italians found that most Austrian personnel had already left for home; only a few South Slav long-service sailors were left behind as caretaker crews. Two days later, Commander Marijan Polic — a former Imperial and Royal officer now serving the unrecognized Yugoslav state — gathered enough crew to man the semi-dreadnoughts Zrinyi and Radetzky and torpedo boats T12 and T52 and steamed out of the harbor. When challenged by an Italian patrol boat, Polic had Radetzky raise the Stars and Stripes. The puzzled Italians watched the ships leave without firing on them.

Radetzky and her sisters in Pola, in happier days.

Two days later, the occupiers raised the Italian flag on the remaining vessels while the South Slav politicians argued that the ships belonged to them — the last Austrian Emperor having transferred ownership and no other Allied state having recognized the Villa Giusti naval transfer. Meanwhile on the same afternoon, Italian negotiator Ugo Conz (who along with Liechtenstein had negotiated and signed the Triple Alliance Naval Convention of 1913) presented Italy's demands to the assembled Allied naval representatives on the Greek island of Corfu. "The Austro-Hungarian fleet must be either given to Italy or destroyed," he contended, as the fitting result of "an Italian victory in an Italian war."

At this point, the British representative, Capt. William Kelly, burst into uncontrollable laughter and the meeting broke down into ugly accusations. In this atmosphere, the small Yugoslav delegation had little chance of being heard — only the British seem to have been willing to even listen — and their announcement that they already had two of the battleships in their hands and at sea went unheard. Unable to get anyone to take them seriously, the Yugoslavs ran out of patience, food and coal. On 17 November Polic sailed into Spilt — the American flag still waving — and five days later handed all four ships to the surprised U.S. Navy Lt. E.E. Hazlett, commander of the sub-chaser SC-124.

Over the following months the Yugoslavs grudgingly handed over warships one by one; when the Italians threatened force, the Americans (and to a lesser extent the British) in turn stared them down. President Woodrow Wilson was locked in a furious dispute over Italian claims in the Eastern Mediterranean, to the point of ordering the Navy to prepare for war. In what was apparently a calculated insult, in February 1919 the Americans commissioned the two battleships at Split (under their original names) in the U.S. Navy.

In response, the Italians assembled what ships they could get underway the next month for a maritime parade in the Venice lagoon. Flying signal flags spelling out "Peace to the Dead of Lissa," the battleship Tegetthoff, semi-dreadnought Erzherzog Franz Ferdinand, cruiser Admiral Spaun, two destroyers, five torpedo boats and four submarines steamed past cheering crowds.

Erzherzog Franz Ferdinand (front) and Tegetthoff enter the lagoon of Venice, 25 March 1919.

When German sailors scuttled much of the High Seas Fleet in June 1919, the arguments heated up. Now the Austrian battleships represented a much greater proportion of the potential spoils of war. France demanded one of the dreadnoughts, while the Americans and British backed Yugoslav claims. In January 1920, the Allied Naval Commission met in Paris to finally divide the fleet.

Italy received the dreadnought Tegetthoff, and made plans to add her to the fleet. But the financial crisis wracking the country precluded such plans, while the Allied Naval Commission continually objected. The Italians argued that they should be able to keep her as a replacement for the sunken Leonardo da Vinci, even during negotiations for the Washington Naval Limitations Treaty. But without the cash to refit her there was no point, and after brief service as a depot ship in La Spezia she would be scrapped in 1924. Erzherzog Franz Ferdinand, also allocated to Italy, went to the cutting torches in 1921.

The two semi-dreadnoughts in American hands had at first been allocated to the U.S. Navy, but as a gesture of goodwill the Americans transferred them to Italy — yet while the agreement came in May 1920, the American crews waited until October to hand them over. Zrinyi went to the breakers immediately, while Radetzky lingered as a hulk until 1926.

The Italians got more use out of the scout cruisers Helgoland and Saida, commissioning them in 1920 as Brindisi and Venezia. Their engines too worn for fleet duty, they served as colonial station ships through the 1920s and as floating barracks through most of the 1930s. Both were scrapped in 1937.

Six Tatra-class destroyers also went to Italy; all had seen very hard service and the Austrians had planned on scrapping them after the war themselves due to their worn condition. The Italians commissioned four and cannibalized the other two for spare parts; one was lost in a typhoon off China and the others scrapped in 1937. Italy also received most of the Austrian auxiliaries — transports, tugs, minesweepers, water carrier and repair ships.

French target ship Prinz Eugen sinks after a torpedo hit, 1922.

France received the other remaining dreadnought, Prinz Eugen, and used her as a target ship until she was finally sunk by torpedoes, underwater charges and naval gunfire in June 1922. They commissioned the light cruiser Novara as Thionville in 1921. She served in the Mediterranean as a gunnery and torpedo training ship until 1933, and after a few years as a floating barracks she was scrapped in 1941. One Tatra-class destroyer went to the French as well, and served until 1936.

The pre-dreadnought Erzherzog Karl, also assigned to France, slipped her towline in rough seas during her transfer to Bizerte and sank just off the Tunisian coast. The other seven older pre-dreadnoughts were assigned to Britain, and sold to Italian scrapyards.

Yugoslavia ended up with some ancient warships already discarded by the Austrians, and 15 modern torpedo boats. Romania received seven torpedo boats, Portugal got five and Greece took six. Several of these survived to fight during World War II.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold needs no revisions.