Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Battle of the Otranto Straits reviewed by James Thomas

The Battle of the Otranto Straits; Controlling the Gateway to the Adriatic in WWI
by Paul G. Halpern
Indiana University Press, 2004

Depiction of the Largest Battle in the Adriatic During World War I, 14-15 May 1917

This is an excellent book. Eminent naval historian Paul G. Halpern has done a wonderful job telling the story of the Battle of the Otranto Straits. The only potentially negative thing that might be said is that it will not appeal to most casual readers of Great War history or even basic naval history because of its very narrow focus. However, for those readers who are deeply interested in the naval elements of World War I, who love a thorough examination of a topic, and are especially hoping to fill in gaps in their understanding of all things navy, this is the book to read. It is well written, well researched, thought provoking, and outstanding in all other categories.

When most students of the Great War think about the war at sea, the North Atlantic with its U-Boats, blockades, transports and the Lusitania all jump to mind. The only major battle that tends to be common knowledge is Jutland and the great confrontation between the mighty British and German dreadnaughts. As Halpern points out, some readers may not realize there even was an Austrian Navy! This book tells of a battle that was both fascinating and significant, of a strategic dilemma and tactical action that should put Otranto Straits in the front ranks of naval studies.

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By 1917, Italy was moving from the Central to the Allied powers, the United States was about to join the fray, and supply difficulties were increasingly plaguing Germany and her Austro-Hungarian ally. The Adriatic Sea was quickly going from a Central Powers lake to a contentious battleground over supply from the Mediterranean. The Austrian navy, k. u. k. Kriegsmarine, was anxious not to confront the large but often feuding Italian or French avies or the British navy in any direct action, and the British were not willing to risk too many ships trying to maneuver in the narrow Adriatic. Instead, the British had established a blockade of the narrow Otranto Straits, combining a chain of small "drift" boats and larger patrolling ships. Submarines, submarine nets, and mines were also all part of the blockade. Unfortunately, Germany's unrestricted U-boat campaign, which was very effective in the Atlantic, was also incredibly successful in the Mediterranean. Great loss of merchant tonnage in the Mediterranean and the complex difficulties of the adjoining Adriatic made the connecting Otranto Straits vital to the military and naval interests of the nations on both sides of the war.

The battle described in Halpern's book was the result of the Austrians' attempt to break apart the Allied blockade to allow freer access to the Mediterranean and the opening of the straits. The story is told in intricate detail with absolute mastery of the subject based upon thorough research and superb narrative. Ship against ship, ship against boat, submarines, mines, and even aircraft all contribute to this significant but largely unknown encounter in the Otranto Straits. While the results were not decisive for either side, many lessons were learned, not just for the blockade, but for naval warfare in the Great War and the future.

The Battle of the Otranto Straits is one of those books where the journey is as great as the destination. No, the book is not for everyone; it is for those readers who enjoy great naval history, great storytelling, and a thorough examination of the subject. The battle itself may have been overshadowed by the events of the "real war" of the Western Front and the North Atlantic, but the events leading up to it, the relations between Allied powers exhibited through it, the now non-existent Austrian Navy, and the lessons taught should reinvigorate interest in this other theatre of the war. Dr. Halpern's book goes a long way in doing that and more.

James Thomas


  1. Fascinating material--you make it so clear and interesting. I didn't know anything about this battle before, but now I know I must get the book and read it! DB

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  3. Having read the memoirs of Admiral Horthy, last commander in chief of the Austro-Hungarian Navy and commander of the Austrian light cruiser SMS Novara at the naval battle of the Otranto Straits, I've often thought that the war in the Adriatic, except for the Austrian u-boat pens at Kotor, has been unfairly ignored by students of the war. This book will help to focus attention on the naval conditions in the Adriatic during the war. Maybe, now, the June 1918 sinking of the Austrian Tegetthof class dreadnought type battleship Szent Istvan by a single Italian torpedo boat, will also receive some attention.