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

Friday, January 18, 2019

Austria-Hungary's River Navy

By James Patton

Austro-Hungarian Monitor Bombarding Belgrade, 28 July 1914

There are only about a dozen ships left that served in WWI (shipwrecks excluded), ranging from the dreadnought USS Texas down to a small sub-chaser at Grytviken in the South Atlantic, and incredibly two of these ships were Austro-Hungarian. SMS (Seiner Majestät Schiff ="His Majesty's Ship") Leitha (Lajta in Hungarian) is now an attraction on the Budapest riverfront and SMS Bodrog (Sava in Yugoslav service) languishes by a riverbank, under protection of the Serbian government but with no restoration currently planned.

The campaigns of the Austro-Hungarian Donauflottille (“Danube Flotilla”) could literally be called a backwater of the Great War. The flotilla was the stuff of comic opera even in peacetime; responsible for enforcing the border with Serbia, patrolling the Danube down to the Iron Gates, up the Sava to the mouth of the Drina and sometime up the Drina (water level permitting) and occasionally up other tributaries of the Danube, mostly chasing smugglers. However, the flotilla gained a place in history when its ships fired the first shots of the war. 

The flotilla’s story began in 1867, when newly-independent Serbia became a rival of Austria-Hungary in the Balkans.  To ensure control of the rivers, the Austro-Hungarian Navy decided they needed monitors.

As was the custom with naval construction, each parliament would fund one, and SMS Maros and SMS Leitha were completed in 1871. This tit-for-tat arrangement continued with SMS Körös and SMS Szamos in 1892, SMS Temes and SMS Bodrog in 1904, SMS Enns in 1913, SMS Inn in 1914 and finally SMS Sava and SMS Bosna in 1915. All were named after rivers in the Dual Monarchy. 

These were scaled-down copies of John Ericsson’s 1861 design. Distinguishing features included all-iron construction, entirely mechanical power, little freeboard, shallow draft (USS Monitor had a 10’ 9” draft while the Austro-Hungarian monitors typically had a 3’ 11” draft—below-decks headroom was less than six feet), an armored steering position, and one or more armored rotatable gun turrets. The Austro-Hungarian monitors also carried one or two dismountable howitzers to deliver plunging fire. 

SMS Bodrog, Man-of-War

SMS Leitha was the first to fire a shot in anger, engaging Ottoman forces in Bosnia in 1878. At the outbreak of WWI Leitha and Maros were the oldest fighting ships in the Austro-Hungarian Navy and were about to be scrapped, but in July 1914 Leitha was still on the Sava on its final voyage. The first Hungarian war hero, János Huj, was serving on Leitha when he was killed on 12 Aug 1914. Leitha was badly damaged in October by a direct hit on the turret, which killed the gun crews, and was withdrawn to Budapest for repairs. Afterwards, she became the flagship of the flotilla, serving only in the second occupation of Belgrade in October 1915 and against Romania in October 1916 including supporting the Danube crossing by Mackensen’s Army at Svishtov. Thereafter she was held in reserve.

Typical of the later river monitors, SMS Bodrog was armed with two Škoda 120 mm L/35 guns (range 6.2 miles) in two turrets, one 120mm L/10 howitzer (range 3.9 miles) in a central pivot mount, and two 37mm guns. 

On 28 July 1914 Bodrog and two other monitors fired the first shots of the war against Serb fortifications by the Zemun–Belgrade railway bridge and on Topčider Hill. The Serbs were outgunned until they received a naval gun from Russia, but the monitors still regularly shelled Serb positions on the Sava and at Belgrade, even after French artillery support arrived in November 1914 and British gunners in January 1915. 

In 1915 the monitors were tasked with escorting munitions down river to go to Turkey via Bulgarian rail. The first convoy ran the Belgrade defenses unharmed, but was stopped by Russian mines and barriers in the Iron Gates. A second convoy again passed Belgrade and delivered their cargo, although one ship struck a mine near Vinča, and exploded.

In April 1915, a British boat that had been brought overland by rail from Salonika attacked the Flotilla base at Zemun, but neither of the torpedoes scored a hit. 

In September Bulgaria joined the war, and the Austro-Hungarians attacked Belgrade again. The flotilla supported crossings near the Belgrade Fortress and the island of Ada Ciganlija. Following the fall of Belgrade and the clearance of obstacles, the flotilla established a new main base at Orșova near the Hungarian–Romanian border. Munitions convoys could now move unhindered to the railhead at Lom. 

SMS Bodrog, Now a Working Ship

In November 1915 the Flotilla moved to Rustschuk, Bulgaria, where a base was established in the Belene Canal to protect the Danube border between Romania and Bulgaria in the event that Romania declared war. At this time the 37mm guns were replaced with one 66mm L/18 gun.

When Romania entered the war in August 1916 the monitors at Rustschuk were attacked by three improvised torpedo boats. The torpedoes missed the monitors but did hit a fuel barge. The next day monitors shelled Giurgiu, basically obliterating the port, and sank two Romanian patrol boats and a minelayer. Then the monitors shelled both Turnu Măgurele and Zimnicea. 

On 2 October, monitors destroyed a Romanian pontoon bridge being constructed across the Danube at Oryahovo, ensuring the defeat of the Romanian Flămânda Offensive. Later the monitors supported Mackensen’s crossing at Svishtov.  

In February 1917, monitors were sent down river to Brăila, and Bodrog became ice-bound at nearby Măcin. Later monitors went into the Black Sea as part of Flottenabteilung Wulff (commanded by Flottenkapitän Olav Wulff), arriving at Odessa on 12 April. Monitors operated in the Black Sea until September, then returned to Brăila and river duty. 

In October 1918 Bodrog was sent downriver to Reni to cover troop withdrawals. She moved slowly back to Lom and was the only monitor that failed to get back to Budapest. On 31 October, Bodrog ran aground in heavy fog near Vinča and was captured by the Serbs. 

After the war the ships of the flotilla in Budapest were divvied up as reparations. Neither Romania nor Yugoslavia wanted the three oldest ships, Maros, Leitha, and Szamos, so they stayed with Hungary. Körös, Enns, and Bosna were turned over to Yugoslavia and Temes, Inn, and Sava went to Romania. Yugoslavia had kept Bodrog as a war prize. Some were of the monitors were used in WWII and Bodrog (renamed Sava) served in the Yugoslav Navy until 1962.

A Restored SMS Lajta (formerly Leitha) Cruising the Danube at Budapest

Leitha was converted to an elevator platform for use in the gravel industry in 1921 and was in use until 1992. Much later, Bodrog was likewise converted to an elevator ship and so employed until 2005. Both ships were good for this purpose due to their displacement and low center of gravity. 

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