Sometimes rare gems appear in unexpected places. For example, the English translation of an important Japanese official history volume was published by a Dutch university. A publisher in Denmark produced a valuable account in English of the end of the war in Asia. Now we’ve discovered Adriatic Naval War, in English, from a company in Zagreb.
Last year saw the publication of The Naval War in the Baltic, 1939-1945, a very interesting but somewhat scattershot account of air-land-sea action on, above, and adjacent to the Baltic Sea. This book has certain similarities to that one. In English accounts, however, the naval war in the Adriatic is far more obscure than the Baltic, and it might not sound quite so sexy. That’s all the more reason to be thankful that authors Freivogel and Rastelli spent years researching the navies and operations of all the participants, then stitched everything together into a thick, informative volume in English. Much more so than The Naval War in the Baltic, the book from Zagreb includes enormous amounts of detail about warships, auxiliaries, merchant vessels, ports, shipyards, surface action, minelaying, bombing, etc.
There will probably never be a book on this topic that has all the answers to all the questions about what was happening, but this one comes pretty close.
To begin with, Achille Rastelli (who died before publication of the book) provides a chapter of almost 20 pages on Italian naval infrastructure (including ports, bases, shipbuilding facilities, shore batteries, etc) and warships. The next chapter, by Zvonimir Freivogel, does the same for Yugoslavia (as of April 1941) in about 35 pages, with even more particulars. Here’s an example how deeply the author dives into the subject:
Shipyards All great shipyards on the Eastern Adriatic coast (located at Trieste, Pola and Fiume) became Italian after 1918 and for Yugoslav shipbuilding and/or repairs of ships there remained only smaller yards. One of these was the former Austrian arsenal at Porto Re (Kraljevica). Later a branch of the Danubius shipyard at Rijeka, from 1922 named “Jugoslavensko brodogradiliste A.D.” and from 1929 “Brodogradiliste Kraljevica A.D.”. Another was the small Naval Arsenal at Tivat (Teodo; formerly a branch of the A-H Naval Arsenal at Pola), with some smaller yards at Split, Susak, Sibenik, Korcula (Curzola) and Trogir (Trau), established already in the 19th Century. There were also many local yards specialised in building of wooden boats and smaller coastal ships.
At Split there were two bigger and two smaller slipways, two floating docks and one floating crane. Kraljevica was having one slipway, former natural strand, enabling the building or repairs of ships between 350 and 500 tonnes. There was also a floating dock, but in April 1941 the shipyard employed only 45 workers, a sharp decline from 250 employed in 1939. The “Lazarus” shipyard at Susak was initially owned by the SHS Kingdom and was mostly repairing ships, to become stately and privately owned in 1929, employing between 60 and 100 workers.
In 1931 the Kraljevica shipyard was bought by the British “Yarrow” company, to be renamed in 1932 to “Yarrow – Jadransko Brodogradiliste A.D.”. The “Matijevic Brothers” shipyard at Split was initially renamed “Marjan” and later “Brodogradiliste Split”, to be renewed with help from French capital. Both yards, “Yarrow” at Kraljevica and “Split” at Split were in 1936 (together with the “Lazarus” shipyard from Susak) merged into the “Jadranska brodogradilista d.d.” (Adriatic shipyards company) with branches at Kraljevica, Split and Susak. Some 75 to 78 percent of funds were invested by the French company “Ateliers et Chantiers de la Loire” and the balance by the “Yarrow”. Most merchant ships and warships were still ordered or bought abroad. Only during early 1930s some ships were completed, being laid-down during the Austro-Hungarian era, including one water carrier and five minelayers. The shipyard at Split built in late 1930s two new smaller passenger ships and two destroyers, and building started on a new destroyer-leader, to be completed only after the World War Two as R-11 Split.
Between June 1940, when Italy entered the war, and April 1941, with the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece, only limited operations were conducted in the Adriatic. These mostly involved Italian convoys and escorts sailing to and from Albania, and British and—as of late 1940—Greek submarines attempting to sink that traffic. With the invasion of Yugoslavia, the Royal Yugoslav Navy joined the fray. Chapter 4 covers naval activity in the Adriatic during that short campaign, including complete Yugoslavian naval and naval air OBs. The actual action is covered in about ten pages of text. In the same chapter, lengthy tables identify every Yugoslavian warship, auxiliary, and merchant ship taken into Italian service, along with its new name and eventual fate. As with all the chapters, this one is fully illustrated with a multitude of photographs.
Not long after the end of the campaign, the first “naval” partisan ops began with action on and along the Adriatic. These operations were relatively small, but numerous enough that the authors devote a chapter to them during 1941-1943. Another chapter covers Allied submarine patrols in the Adriatic during that period. The same chapter devotes a few pages to the small Croatian naval force and the initial German plans. The latter eventually included introduction of their own light naval forces—some transported overland, some via Italian waterways—belonging to the Kriegsmarine, Army engineers, artillerymen, and Brandenburgers.
With the Italian armistice in 1943 and the withdrawal of Italian forces from the eastern shore of the Adriatic, the story becomes considerably more convoluted. Over the next few chapters—the heart of the book—the authors explore the German presence, the surprisingly robust “partisan navy,” and the growing intervention of Allied submarines and surface vessels. Croatia also attempted to float its own naval assets. The old Royal Yugoslav Navy operated a corvette and eight motor gunboats (all from the RN) in the Adriatic in 1945, but these were not welcomed by the partisans. The chapters look at the general course of events as well as focusing on many specific incidents.
For the third decade of April 1944, new Partisan landings were planned, to weaken German garrisons on Mljet and Korcula. The Allies did not believe these raids to be successful, and refused to make their landing and fast attack craft available for transport and support both operations, that were to be performed simultaneously. Korcula was defended by reinforced battalions of the 750th Regiment from the Jagerdivision 118, and Mljet by strengthened companies from the same Division. German positions were well protected by barbed wire and minefields. Partisans landed a better part of two Brigades (12th and 1st) on Korcula, hoping to liquidate German forces in the western part of the island, and the raid on Mljet—with three Battalions (two from the 11th and one from the 1st Brigade)—was meant to draw German attention away from the real target. At the moment there were only four operational Partisan “armed ships”, and the Mljet landing group was composed from NB 7 (A. Jericevic) and NB 8 (Viktor Kobol) with five coasters as troop transports, with the attached hospital ship Marin II. Each of bigger vessels was towing one smaller boat. These vessels were divided between the eastern and the western column. The northern group of the Korcula Landing force—sailing in two columns abreast—included other two armed ships, NB 3 (commanded by Tihomir Vilovic) and NB 4 (V. Padovan), together with a provisional hospital vessel, five coasters and eight towed boats. The southern Korcula group was divided into three columns, comprising ten coasters, two British LCAs and ten smaller boats in tow, being covered by PC 2. The Mljet force was to stay at Lastovo during daylight (to avoid being discovered at sea by German aircraft), and the landings on Mljet were to follow on 20/21 April. German forces were surprised by the landing on Mljet and a bigger part of one company was put out of action, but another two companies were sent as reinforcements with one SF, three I-boats and 11 coasters, to finally recapture the island. When NOVJ forces retreated on 22 April, NB 7 Enare II (one of the best armed ships) collided with the NB 8 Kornat and was heavily damaged. After being abandoned, she was set on fire, to prevent her from falling into German hands. NB 8 suffered engine problems and was towed back to Vis by the coaster Sv. Nikola, a part of the way under sails!
NOVJ operations against Korcula, in progress from 22 April, started less smoothly, beginning with a prolonged search for landing points. Some vessels arrived late, and the coaster Augustin got lost during the night and returned to Vis. Partisans took the Vela Luka harbour and encircled the German strongpoint at Blato, that surrendered on 23 April. In spite of all these problems, when the action ended on 26 April, on both islands some 400 German soldiers were killed and 459 were made prisoner, with great numbers of weapons and ammunition stores captured. German landing boat I 12 was damaged at Korcula by Allied aircraft on 25 April, but she shot one attacker down. Partisan losses amounted to 48 dead and 184 wounded, and two boats with seized war material capsized in the swell. German aircraft succeeded in sinking two coasters, Mir vami and Sloboda. German E-boats S 61 and S 30 found no enemy vessels at sea during their patrol on 22/23 April, going from Boka to Korcula and Mljet and back, because all Partisan vessels were concealed in coves near their landing points.
McConville, by the way, mentions these dual operations in passing, noting they were “strongly supported by the Royal Navy” and resulted in 505 German prisoners, who, he says, reportedly were transported to Bisevo Island (south of Vis) and murdered by the partisans.
Chapters continue with this kind of information through the end of the war, then Rastelli provides a chapter listing in chronological fashion Allied air attacks on Adriatic harbors. The final chapter evaluates the naval forces operating in the Adriatic during the war. Although not of any decisive importance, the magnitude of the makeshift partisan “fleet” and its coastal operations will come as a surprise to most readers.
The appendices (“attachments,” see list above) provide huge amounts of data, usually in tabular format, about naval forces in the Adriatic. No index. No footnotes or endnotes to cite sources. Large numbers of photographs illustrate all the chapters throughout the book with a very wide assortment of wartime vessels. Unfortunately, not a single map is to be found between the covers. On the other hand, the authors have made every effort to be consistent with the naming and spelling of geographical locations, and one of the appendices provides the alternative names for various locales. In all chapters and appendices, the English text is by no means perfect, but in every case the meaning is clear.
In a very few places the book reveals a bit of friction in regard to wartime and post-war Croatian-Serbian rivalries, the cult of Tito, and so forth. For example, the section on the Royal Yugoslav Navy’s operations in April 1941 begins this way: “Regarding later accusation of Croats for treason….”
With its black and white cover and serviceable but slightly dowdy appearance, Adriatic Naval War, 1940-1945 doesn’t exactly look like a bright, polished jewel of a book. The contents, however, are another matter. This is a gem. The authors have assembled what surely stands as the best English language treatment of the subject, a book packed with information that most readers will find new and interesting.
Available from online booksellers and local bookshops, or directly from Despot Infinitus.
Thanks to Despot Infinitus for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 11 March 2018
Copyright © 2018 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone