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