During the First World War, Austria-Hungary's four dreadnought battleships, the SMS Viribus Unitis, the SMS Tegetthof, the SMS Prinz Eugen, and the SMS Szent István, all of the Tegetthof class, remained at anchor in the Andriatic port of Pola. However their inaction did not mean that their guns did not still pose a serious threat to Italy's coasts. Indeed the Italians very much wanted to send these dreadnoughts to the bottom of the sea.
The ability to do so arrived in 1918 with the invention of a device known as the "chariot". The chariot in question took the form of a thirty-three foot long torpedo powered by compressed air, travelling three feet under the surface of the sea, designed to transport two mines that would then be placed on the hulls of moored ships. This device had to be manned by two divers in rubber suits who rode on top of it, their heads out of the water.
So on the night of 31 October, the two best Italian combat divers, Major Raffaele Rossetti and Lieutenant Raffaele Paolucci rode the chariot into the port of Pola, skimming over anti-submarine nets and avoiding searchlights, towards the huge dreadnought SMS Viribus Unitis (a name which means "with united forces," and which was the motto of Emperor Franz Joseph I). Though the weather was poor after two hours the two men managed to come alongside the battleship and to position the mines on her hull, setting the timers for one hour. Since there was no longer enough compressed air to get them back to the torpedo boat waiting for them in the open sea, the pair decided to sink the chariot and swim for it. At this point, just after setting the explosives at around 5:30 a.m. on the morning of 1 November, Rossetti and Paolucci were spotted and captured.
To their horror they were not taken ashore but on board the SMS Viribus Unitis. There they were introduced, not to the Austrian Admiral, Miklós Horthy, but to the neutral Yugoslav Rear-Admiral, Janko Vukovich. Unknown to the Italians, the very day before the National Council of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs had broken off relations with Austria-Hungary and had established the new State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs (which would become Yugoslavia shortly afterwards). Knowing that Austria-Hungary was on the verge of losing the First World War (the armistice was signed on 3 November) and not wanting to let his ships fall into Allied hands, Emperor Charles had decided to gift the entire Austro-Hungarian Navy and merchant fleet, along with all its installations, to this new neutral state. Therefore Rossetti and Paolucci now unexpectedly faced the newly appointed commander in chief of neutral Yugoslavia's equally new navy.
The two Italians quickly informed Vukovich that the ship was in mortal danger but refused to explain exactly why; they still wanted to sink the battleship, just not her neutral crew. Vukovich, shocked, ordered the evacuation of the crew and arranged for the two divers to be taken aboard the SMS Tegetthof. When the explosions did not materialise at 6:30 a.m. as predicted VukoviÄ‡ returned to the SMS Viribus Unitis with many member of the crew. Fourteen minutes later the mines finally detonated. The battleship sank in a short fifteen minutes, going down with 300-400 sailors and the Rear-Admiral.
As for Rossetti and Paolucci, they were interned for two days until the war between Italy and Austria-Hungary ended. Both men received the Gold Medal of Military Valor. In addition Rossetti received a 650,000 lire reward which he gave to Vukovich's widow. She put the money to good use, establishing a trust fund for the widows and mothers of war victims.
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