"And I pay for the plane!", Porec 8 November 1916

(To Marina Militare)
09/11/15

Waters of Porec, in Istria, dawn of 8 November 1916. Thick fog. Cold and humidity penetrate the bones through leather jackets. Water polish and lambskin lining. Of Austro-Hungarian ships, as usual, there is no trace. In the Upper Adriatic it is since 24 May of 1915 that they do not show up during the day. The domain of the sea is absolute on the Italian side. Until then, there were only 4 brief gun battles between our torpedo boats and their minesweepers, all in the Gulf of Trieste and concluded with the sinking of a couple of small units and pontoons of the k. (u.) k. Kriegsmarine. Little war. At night it's different. The Austro-Hungarians come out protected from the darkness, quickly cross the Adriatic, briefly bomb some coastal town in Romagna or in the Marche without defenses and retreat. For 6 times they have been intercepted by fighters and Italian torpedo boats, but they are rare cases. Now it is day, even if you see almost nothing, and the mission is simple. Driving from the sea, 8 seaplanes, 3 of which French, sent to bomb Parenzo. Two squadrons of torpedo boats of the Regia Marina, supported by the Null and Missori fighters, form a sort of arrow in the sea to show the planes where to go. All this is very primordial, but neither the hydro nor the torpedo boats have the radio. Only the two fighters are big enough to take an RT station

Italian and French planes arrive and bomb the Porec seaplane base. The reaction is not long in coming. Four hydro Lohners on patrol drop twenty bombs against Italian torpedo boats and then attack enemy aircraft. The ships are doing well without damage, but a French FBA, reached at the engine, is forced to crash. The training torpedo boat, the 9 PN of the corvette captain Domenico Cavagnari, intervenes (photo opening).

An excellent sailor with poor character and short stature, Cavagnari has already distinguished himself a week before, when he lowered at night, with his small ship from 120 tons, the obstructions that protect the Fažana Channel thus allowing the MAS 20 of the commander Ildebrando Goiran to torpedo, in the absence of other targets, the old Mars guard ship. The weapons did not explode and the Austro-Hungarian unit fared with two small waterways. Cavagnari remained under the obstructions all the time and recovered the MAS returning, finally, to the base. A silver medal (the second one) is being granted to the motu proprio by the king.

Today it's different. The French are recovered and the seaplane trailer is started. The other Italian units are already distant, somewhere in the fog, after the aerial attack of just before. The 9 PN proceeds, at this point, at a forcibly reduced speed, expiring even more, when a trace of sun appears through the fog. And you can also see 3 Austrian torpedo boats that immediately put their bow on that easy prey. The distances are reduced rapidly and soon the Arabic numerals painted on the bow of the bow are read: 1, 2 and 4. They are modern thin units equivalent to 9 PN. The 29 sailors of the Italian torpedo boat are waiting for the order to drop the trailer and get away at full speed. Cavagnari, on the other hand, is silent. We are less than 5.000 meters; as soon as you get to 3.000 the lone 57 mm piece of the torpedo boat will have to start the duel with the six 47 mm guns of the opposing ships. 4.000, 3.000 and then, suddenly, the subtle Hapsburg units approach outside and carry themselves under the batteries of Porec. They will say, later in the report, that the Italian ship was the Quarto, of 3.300 tons.

The trailer continues and the 9 PN arrives in Venice in the afternoon with its plane on a leash, intact apart from a bullet that has cut off the fuel supply, and with its two pilots still in disbelief. The news, immediately spread by the rumors, is that the little corvette captain told the aviators "J'ai refusé da payer l'avion, voilà c'est tout". It is a legend, but the stinginess of Cavagnari is equally proverbial. Genovese more than the Genoese, Mingo, as he has been nicknamed (by Domenico) since the time of the Academy, is a bachelor, but certainly does not lead the brilliant life of several of his colleagues in Venice and, above all, to the Lido. Son of a small pharmacist, he sends everything home, he always wears his uniform, he only wears military shoes and he thinks only of service. The only known weaknesses, the taste for chocolate and for sfogio, the steamed sole of an inn near the Scalzi bridge. Everyone judges him to be stingy; in reality he sends the money (the salary, as reported in the serial number, amounts to 5.000 lire per year, few for the time) to an invalid sister and arranges for the rest.

On the evening of November 8 the problem, however, is another. Admiral Paolo Thaon di Revel, Commander-in-Chief of the Upper Adriatic and of the Piazza di Venezia, summoned him on the spot. To risk a torpedo boat, with 30 men and which costs 100.000 lire, for an empty plane that is worth less than 1.000! Thaon di Revel's celebrated calculated risk doctrine was violated in full by that so conceited corvette captain. Worse for him !, is the thought of the Hero or non-hero majority, this time he pays for all of them, including a certain missed round of shot glasses. As shown by the notes made by Cavagnari and written on the edge of a page of the Rivista Marittima, many years later, the interview immediately started badly.

The young Genoese officer, however, was no less than the admiral. He replied, in fact, observing that the story "I pay for the plane" is nonsense and that he acted knowingly to arrive, finally, at a clash with that elusive enemy. The trailer was always cut in time. As for the cannon and the torpedoes he would have seen it. The other Italian units were still within reach, somewhere in the fog, and would soon arrive, guided by the explosions of the grenades, thus cutting off the enemy from their base. "I was expendable", he will write for himself alone, "and the people and Italy all needed a victory at sea". Thaon de Revel was struck by this impertinent young officer. The 22 January 1917 appointed him second in command of the Maritime Military Defense of Venice. Later he sent it back to the 1918 sea, at the insistence of the interested party. Chief of Staff of Thaon di Revel, now Minister of the Navy, between the 1922 and the 1925, commander of the Academy in the 1929, undersecretary and Chief of Staff of the Navy between the 1933 and the 1940, Cavagnari was the father of the "Grande Marina "of the thirties and forties. In the 1938, he married with that same girl of the past who prepared his release in Venice, twenty years earlier, and who also washed his shirts. To save money, of course.