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From World War I through World War II, Italian Navy engineers were at the vanguard of special maritime operations. From the use of combat divers to the development of weapons, Italian naval expertise knew no rival in unconventional littoral combat. An example of their special warfare prowess started in the closing weeks of World War I when a rudimentary limpet mine sent to the bottom the Viribus Unitis.

Italian naval commandos, astride a converted torpedo, silently moved into Croatia's Pula harbor with the goal of sabotaging an Austrian ship. They set their sights on a dreadnought, Austria's flagship Viribus Unitis.

The two Italian frogmen and their modified German torpedo penetrated harbor defenses on the night of October 31, 1918. In the nose of the torpedo, a pair of 400 lbs demolition charges. Initially the plan was to swim into an Austrian held harbor and afix a charge. However, when a German 'dud' torpedo washed ashore along the Italian coast, it was converted and became the combat divers chariot, a nickname that stuck for many manned mini-submersibles.

Moving into the harbor, the combat swimmers and their torpedo made their way to the waterline of the Viribus Unitis. What they did not know was that the crew of the Austrian battleship, and remainder of the fleet, had mutinied and were now under command of a Yugoslavian officer.

Carefully putting the charge on the hull, the two frogmen began to motor away but were quickly discovered by sentries. Taken to the very ship which they mined, the two Italian saboteurs told the captain that it was nearing dawn and before 7 a.m. a charge would go off and sink the battleship.

After some doubt and haranguing, a portion of the ship's crew left the ship. However when the expected 6:30 a.m. charge failed to go off, doubt in the frogmen and those in boats out on the water increased. Back on board were the Italians and several hundred Yugoslav crewmen who replaced the mutinied Austrians.

And then 6:44 a.m. a low thud was heard coming from the water. A split second later, a column of water shot up and the Viribus Unitis began to list and sink. It would take 15 minutes but the Austrian flagship would sink, taking her captain and 300 crewmembers with her.

A simple 400 pound charge brought to the bottom a 21,000 ton dreadnought.

Next week we'll examine the British limpet mine and the attacks launched by Allied forces during World War II.

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Comment by Lejon Astray on January 12, 2012 at 2:49pm

I think this is a little last minute payback for the drubbing the Italians received at the Battle of Lissa.

Comment by Jake Holman Jr. on January 11, 2012 at 4:55pm
All valid points and observations. The article is more of an entree into the world of maritime special operations and their weapons, specifically the limpet type mine. While there had been other, early maritime sabotage efforts, the work of the Italians set a precident that was emulated and grown by navies around the world, leading up to elites of today like the US Navy SEALS or French Commando Hubert. Thanks again for the additional comment and points, history is only truly synthesized by multiple points or views.
Comment by Johannes Ritter on January 11, 2012 at 4:39pm

The article makes the whole thing sound a lot more glorious than it actually was.

The operation took place when the war was basically over. No one was paying any attention to security as Pola was in some sort of anarchy after the quasi dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The "serveral hundred jugoslavians" basically WERE the crew of Viribus Unitis! Yugoslavia at that time (or better, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes) existed for a few days. The sailors aboard were croatians and slovenes, mostly the original crew.

So what Italy basically did was kill a whole lot of people who were actually not at war with Italy and did not expect an attack. Exactly why the italian navy pulled this off isn't clear, either because they wanted to prevent this powerful warship from falling into Yugoslavian hands. Or to simply prove it was possible.

On the other hand, this act is well in line with last minute land grabbing Italy five minutes after twelve in WW1, desperate to come up with some gains but only managing gains after the other side had ceased to shoot back.

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