The Royal Navy during the Great War to defend the "Serenissima"

(To Marina Militare)

In the collective imagination the Great War is identified with the terrestrial conflict: trenches, mud and mountains. This is explained by the number of mobilized of the Royal Army, over 6 million men (but among them also women, the "Carnic bearers", for example) on 36 million inhabitants. The role of the Regia Marina is instead usually related to the re-enactment of singles, however extraordinary, episodes such as the sinking of the Austro-Hungarian battleships Vienna (read article), Santo Stefano (read article) is Viribus Unitis (read article) or, at most, to that exceptional strategic, organizational, nautical and humanitarian enterprise which was the rescue of the Serbian Army.

This perception is understandable, but it obscures the essential fact that the First World War was also fought on the sea, and that thanks to the sea and the Navy, the victory of the conflict was, in the end, achieved.

A victory determined, ultimately, by the economic collapse of the Central Powers caused by 4 years of allied naval blockade: Italian in the Adriatic (before 24 in May 1915 passed, in dribs and drabs, everything), and English in the North Sea.

The facts, pure and simple, are the following: without control of the Adriatic, achieved against the Austro-Hungarian navy, and the Mediterranean, obtained against the threat of German submarines, it would not have been possible to win the war. This is because, yesterday as today, more than 80% of commercial traffic passes by the sea and without supplies a people is simply destined to die. Well, without the naval blockade assured by the Royal Ships and their crews between the 1915 and the 1918, the war on the Isonzo, the Alps and the Piave would not only not have been won, but would have involved, together with the ruin of Italy, also that of France and England.

Thus outlined the scenario and the objective to be achieved, the method adopted was the exercise of Maritime Power on the basis of directives drawn up and imposed by Admiral Paolo Thaon di Revel, Navy Chief of Staff and author of the victory over the sea in the Great War. The medium resulted in the coordinated, daily and pressing action exerted by the MAS, by the torpedo boats, by the fighters, by the mines, by the submarines, by the seaplanes, by the special vehicles and by the Navy, all of which silently confined the Austro fleet -negated inside its bases, the precluded in the Ionian Sea, and therefore in the Mediterranean and in the Levant, and closed, in fact, once and for all, the game, old of 5 centuries, between Italy and the Empire Habsburg.

A titanic effort that can be summarized in a few figures: 86.000 war missions, 2 million engine hours and 25 millions of miles traveled, equal to 1.200 times the earth's circumference at the equator.

Given this general picture, let us focus on Venice, or rather on the decisive function performed by the Navy for the defense of Venice and, with it, for the favorable outcome of the conflict. A defense that was prepared well before the 24 May 1915.

Admiral Thaon di Revel, on the basis of a lucid and correct appreciation of the situation, had identified Venice as the keystone of the Upper and Middle Adriatic. The city was, in fact, the only large Italian naval base capable of keeping Trieste and, above all, Pula, the largest of the Habsburg naval bases, in direct check.

The eventual loss of the Serenissima would have meant reopening the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea to the Austro-Hungarian fleet, as the support points of Brindisi and Valona could not accommodate forces capable of effectively countering the bulk of the imperial-royal team. Taranto, the only place between Venice and the Ionian Sea where the largest and most modern Italian battleships could be deployed, was, in fact, too distant. Losing Venice, moreover, would have meant allowing the imperial Hapsburg army to encircle the Italian lines and to emerge, without the possibility of contrast, across the entire Po Plain, up to the Alps and the Apennines.

That is why Admiral Thaon of Revel, to be sure that Venice did not capitulate, claims, in the midst of the political crisis following Caporetto, that the defense of the city and the lagoon was entrusted in full, even to the terrestrial coastal front, to the men of the Marina, to her people, in whom she trusted and believed in him.

Venice was, therefore, the object of patients, silent and effective care by the Navy. In particular, the infrastructure of the Arsenal was taken care of, providing it, for the time, with certainly adequate means and, above all, capable and well-organized workers.

Furthermore, interventions were carried out on the same geography: on the ground an infinite number of new canals were dug and dredged; at sea they were laid over 5.000 mines, then become 14.000 at the end of the conflict. These actions resulted in the opening of hostilities, in the Austro-Hungarian decision not to attack Venice from the sea.

Among the strategic tasks assigned to the Navy since the beginning of the conflict, the support of the sea wing of the Royal Army must be mentioned. In order to best fulfill this mission, the Italian Navy armed, even before entering the war, its first "armed pontoons".

At the same time, the Venice Arsenal also built special vehicles such as the "Mignatta", the jumping boats of the "Grillo" class, the airplanes armed with torpedoes and modified the pocket submarines of the "A" and "B" classes into effective scuba divers vectors.

The arsenal of Venice also assured its indispensable technical support to the MAS and of which the lagoon city was, together with Grado, the main operational base of the Upper Adriatic.

Always inside the Arsenal of Venice the protections for the protection of the Venetian artistic and architectural heritage were built. It was Admiral Thaon of Revel who planned and implemented a series of intelligent initiatives aimed at protecting the buildings, the monuments and the buildings of the city. He knew well, in fact, how it emerges from his long correspondence with D'Annunzio continued until the death of the Poet that war is culture because the soul of a people and of individuals is culture.

The anti-aircraft defense of the lagoon city was then perfected to the maximum, implanting numerous batteries of cannons mounted on the ancient fortresses and on special structures along the coasts, reaching up to the organized terraces, above the roofs, to place machine-guns and riflemen.

To the anti-aircraft defense was added, in the 1916, the progressive conquest of air superiority by the Navy Aviation which had its main base in Venice, that is the large aeronaval station of Sant'Andrea. During the conflict the naval seaplanes carried out more than 36.000 missions.

Among the installations that contributed to the defense of Venice and, therefore, to the final victory, the work of the 001 naval battery "Bordigioni" stands out, implanted in Cortellazzo, extreme wing of the Italian deployment on the lower Piave and more advanced point of the Venetian defensive alignment after Caporetto.

Italy and Europe, which we know today, all played out right in front of the waters of Cortellazzo, the 16 November 1917, when the Austro-Hungarian Army, in the midst of the momentum following the unexpected strategic success, and not only tactical, from Caporetto, he had come to the gates of Venice. The plan foresaw, at this point, to break down along the coast road, to encircle the Italian alignment from the Piave to the Monte Grappa and finally make it over. It was the decisive mail that finally induced the Habsburg fleet to support the attack from the sea with the battleships Wien and Budapest, leaving Pola and being escorted, in addition to the Habsburg seaplanes, by 13 torpedo boats. Arrived near Cortellazzo the Austrian battleships opened fire, at the 10.45, against the battery commanded by the lieutenant of Vascello Bruno Bordigioni, at first from around 9.000 meters, shortening then the distance up to 6.500 meters, that is point blank for the cannons from 240 and 150 mm of those ships.

The Cortellazzo battery, 4 152 mm guns, resisted under the bombardment of the big enemy guns damaging, with their precise shot, the two Austro-Hungarian battleships.

The sailors serving to the pieces did not give up, in fact, one millimeter under that infernal fire, firing in turn, according to the dictates of the Italian naval tradition, with precision and method. The Wien thus collected, overall, seven strokes in the dead work while at the Budapest it went worse, it was hit under the waterline by a bullet, as well as by numerous splinters of other shots fallen nearby that opened several water ways.

In the sky, meanwhile, the Marina's hydrocarbons arrived in support, dueling and repulsing the opposing planes. The MAS 9, 13 and 15, under the command of the frigate Captain Costanzo Ciano, and a destroyer squadron, commanded by the corvette captain Domenico Cavagnari, attacked the Austro-Hungarian naval division. The arrival on the scene of the battleships Saint Bon and Emanuele Filiberto, leaving Venice under the orders of the admiral Mario Casanuova, finally convinced the Austro-Hungarian units to return to Pola by forcing the cars.

That same day, the sailors of the battalions of the Marine Brigade successfully defended the trenches and holes dug in the mud and reeds. The courage and strength demonstrated by the men of what would become the San Marco immediately became legendary, leaving an impressive demonstration of the determination and the spirit of the body of the Unit: in the defense of the Piave the Regiment had no prisoner, no dispersed and, on the contrary, he managed to capture over 1.200 enemy soldiers.

All this is the Maritime Power, or the safeguarding of the legitimate interests of the Nation every day, in peace and in war, both on a continental and global level, ensured through the continuous, incessant beating of the sea of ​​ships. Yesterday like today and as always, by imposing one's own initiative on the opponent of the moment, be it an open enemy, pirates or something else. The role of the Navy as a decisive protagonist for the favorable outcome of the conflict and the decisive function attributed by the Navy to the defense of Venice are part of this extraordinary millennial story lived on the seas, in the skies, in the bases and above and below the waves, in the wake of the centuries-old traditions of Italy on the sea.