Part II: Sinking SMS Viribus Unitis
by Brian Warhola
Rossetti and Paolucci struggled against the ebbing tide to work their way past the nets and reach the anchored Austrian battleships. “At length,” Paolucci wrote, “our endevours were successful.” It was now 3:00 in the morning.
The largest ship, the dreadnought SMS Viribus Unitis, lay closest to shore, and was chosen as the primary target. Swimming through sleet and hail, Rossetti and Paolucci saw the sky begin to brighten with dawn. As they reached the side of the Viribus Unitis, the torpedo unexpectedly began to sink.
While Paolucci frantically struggled to keep the torpedo afloat, Rossetti located an intake valve that had accidentally opened, allowing air to escape from the cylinder. After shutting the valve, the two men rested in the shadow of the Austrian flagship for a few minutes. “Of all our trying moments,” Paolucci wrote, “this was undoubtedly the worst.”
Working their way down the long line of Austrian battleships, the two men reached the Viribus Unitis at 4:45 a.m. Rossetti removed one of the canisters of TNT from the front of the torpedo and attached it to the hull of the Viribus Unitis. Rossetti set a timer to detonate the 400-pound charge of TNT at 6:30.
As Rossetti and Paolucci pushed off from the side of the Viribus Unitis, they were spotted by a sentry on the flagship.The Italians tried to steer for shore, where they hoped to escape. Quickly, however, a boat was dispatched from the Viribus Unitis to capture them. Paolucci hastily armed the second canister of explosives and set it free in the ebbing tide. Rossetti flooded the torpedo’s air cylinder, letting it sink to the bottom.
The Italian officers were captured by sailors from the Viribus Unitis and taken back to the ship. There they were shocked to learn that during the night the Austrian fleet had mutinied and that the Austrian admiral had turned command of the Viribus Unitis over to a Yugoslavian captain named Ianko Vukovic. All German and Austrian crew members had been sent ashore, leaving the fleet in the hands of neutral Yugoslavian sailors.
It was 6:00 a.m. Knowing that in half an hour the TNT would detonate, Rossetti told Captain Vukovic, “Your ship is in serious, imminent danger. Save your men.” Captain Vukovic calmly demanded an explanation. Rossetti said “I cannot tell you; but in a very short time the ship will be blown up.”
Vukovic, wasting no time, shouted in German, “Men of the Viribus Unitis, save yourselves all who can! The Italians have placed bombs in the ship!” The Yugoslavian crewmen, on hearing this news, panicked and began to abandon ship. “We heard doors open and shut in a hurry, we saw half-naked men rushing about madly and clambering up the steps of the batteries, we heard the noise of bodies splashing into the sea,” Paolucci wrote.
Taking advantage of the sudden panic, Rossetti asked Captain Vukovic if they might save themselves. Vukovic agreed. Rossetti and Paolucci ran to the side of the ship and dove overboard. They were soon overtaken by a group of angry Yugoslavian sailors in a small boat, who took them back to the Viribus Unitis. “We thought,” Paolucci wrote, “that they intended to make us die on the doomed ship.” It was 6:20.
Back on the deck of the ship for the second time, Rossetti and Paolucci found themselves surrounded by a threatening mob of sailors. “Some of them were shouting that we had deceived them, while others wanted to know where the bombs were hidden.” Rossetti spoke up, demanding that he and Paolucci be granted fair treatment as prisoners of war. Vukovic ordered his men not to harm the Italians.
When 6:30 came, there was no explosion. Rossetti and Paolucci stared blankly at one another, wondering if something had gone wrong. Captain Vukovic was still attempting to restore order on the ship’s deck. Around the ship, crewmen who had abandoned the Viribus Unitis rowed in lifeboats, unsure whether to flee to safety or return to the ship.
At 6:44 the charge of TNT detonated. Rossetti and Paolucci were surprised that the delayed explosion made only “a dull noise, a deep roaring, not loud or terrible, but rather light.” Immediately, however, a huge column of water rose into the air at the ship’s bow and splashed down on its foredeck. In the moment of shock following the explosion, Rossetti and Paolucci once again asked permission to abandon the ship. Captain Vukovic shook their hands and pointed to a rope by which they could escape into the water, motioning to one of the lifeboats to pick them up.
Dragged aboard the small boat, Rossetti and Paolucci turned to watch the Viribus Unitis slowly sink. “The Viribus Unitis heeled over more and more,” Paolucci wrote, “When the water reached the level of the deck, the ship capsized completely. I saw the big turret guns tumbled about like toys. . .On the keel I saw a man crawling until he reached the top. It was Captain Vukovic. He died a little later, after being struck on the head by a wooden beam when, after having extricated himself from the whirl of water, he was trying to save his life by swimming to shore.” Rossetti and Paolucci were taken as prisoners of war to an Austrian hospital ship to recover. There, they learned that the second canister of explosives, set free by Paolucci just before they were captured, had exploded against the hull of an Austrian ship called Wien, sinking it.
Three days later, on 4 November 1918, Italy and Austria signed a peace treaty. The next day the Italian fleet took control of Pola, and Rossetti and Paolucci were freed. The two men were presented with gold medals for courage. Rossetti was awarded 650,000 lire from the Italian government as a reward for his services. He presented this reward to the widow of Captain Vukovic, describing the deceased captain as “a war adversary who, dying, left me with an ineradicable example of generous humanity.” The money was used to establish a trust fund for widows and mothers of other war victims.
From our site Trenches on the Web; originally contributed by Paul Chrastina of Old News