The Second Battle of Durazzo : Only World War I U.S. Navy Surface Action

The Second Battle of Durazzo : Only World War I U.S. Navy Surface Action

World War 1
U.S. and Allied naval officers onboard a U.S. Navy sub chaser during the engagement at Durazzo, Albania. 2 October 1918 (NH 121052).

The only actual surface action that U.S. Navy forces participated in during World War I was known as the Second Battle of Durazzo—present-day Durres, Albania—in the Adriatic on 2 October 1918. Twelve U.S. Navy submarine chasers under the command of Captain Charles P. Nelson, USN, participated in a combined Italian, British, and Australian naval force against ships, submarines, and shore batteries of the Austro-Hungarian Empire near the port of Durazzo. The 12 sub chasers provided screening services for an Allied force consisting of an Italian battleship, 3 Italian armored cruisers, 3 Italian light cruisers, 5 British light cruisers, 14 British destroyers, 2 Australian destroyers, 8 Italian torpedo boats (and a partridge in a pear tree).

The Austro-Hungarian naval force mostly bugged out before the battle commenced, leaving only two destroyers, a torpedo boat, and two submarines to oppose the Allies, and even they all managed to escape, albeit damaged. A heavy Italian bombardment by the armored cruisers directed at the naval base mostly succeeded in leveling a large part of the adjacent city. So, there is good reason why you probably never heard of this battle. Nevertheless, the U.S. sub chasers were subjected to pretty intense enemy fire and acquitted themselves very well, inflicting significant damage on the two Austro-Hungarian submarines engaged.

Italian cruisers bombarding the port of durazzo, 2 October 1918 (NH 123805).

In September 1918, an Allied force that had been bottled up in a quagmire at Salonika, Greece, on the Aegean Sea for well over a year finally started making progress, advancing into Macedonia and knocking Bulgaria—a German ally—out of the war. The French commander of the operation requested a naval action to prevent Austro-Hungarian reinforcements or supplies from arriving via Durazzo, the major Albanian port on the Adriatic. The Italian navy agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to the request and supplied the major capital ships as well as the commander, Rear Admiral Osvaldo Paladini. The American sub chasers, which had arrived in Corfu, Greece in June 1918 to assist in trying to prevent Austro-Hungarian and German U-boats from getting in and out of the Adriatic via the Strait of Otranto, were invited to participate.

The battle began with an early-morning air attack on Austro-Hungarian troop concentrations and shore batteries by Italian and British aircraft. While the Italian battleship stood off as a covering force, the Italian and British cruisers moved in close to the port to commence a bombardment after the American sub-chasers found a path through the offshore mine fields, coming under fire from shore batteries as they did so, without damage. Once through the minefields, some of the American sub chasers and Allied destroyers and torpedo boats were tasked to engage the two Austro-Hungarian destroyers and torpedo boat in the port. The Austro-Hungarian ships spent the first part of the battle steaming around the harbor, dodging torpedoes and shellfire—the torpedo boat was hit by a dud torpedo—before they made their escape to the north.

The three Italian armored cruisers then engaged in a lengthy shore bombardment that proved highly destructive to the civilian areas near the port. The U.S. sub chasers shifted to a screening role to protect the bombardment group from the two Austro-Hungarian U-boats that had slipped out of the port. Sub chaser No. 129 (SC-129) sighted the U-29 (or U-31) and SC-215 attacked with guns while SC-128 dropped depth-charges and claimed to have sunk the sub, which was actually damaged but got away.  SC-129 then sighted and depth-charged another U-boat, which also damaged but not sunk.

The shock of the depth charges crippled SC-129’s own engines, the most serious damage suffered by the U.S. boats that day. 

U-31 succeeded in putting a torpedo into the British light cruiser HMS Weymouth, which blew off a large part of her stern, but did not sink her.

HMS Weymouth in Greece during the Battle of the Mediterranean

Another British destroyer was also hit by a torpedo, but not sunk. At one point during the battle, SC-130 headed off a column of Allied destroyers that was about to blunder into a minefield by shooting into the water ahead of the destroyers. An Austro-Hungarian steamer trapped in the harbor was the only ship on either side to be sunk during the battle, which one American submarine chaser skipper likened to “hitting a fly with a hammer.”

Royal Navy destroyers in action at Durazzo, 2 October 1918 (NH 123809).

The American press, however, sensationalized the battle, hyping it as the “suicide mission” of the U.S. sub chasers, which wasn’t exactly the case. However, as the first surface engagement for the U.S. Navy since the Spanish-American War, the mostly very junior and inexperienced crews of the sub chasers acquitted themselves well. Captain Nelson was awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal and a variety of foreign awards, and would later be promoted to rear admiral.

The United States built 441 SC-1–class submarine chasers between 1917 and 1919 in response to direction from Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1916 to have the boats designed, so that if war came, they could be built en masse in civilian shipyards. The Navy deployed 121 SC boats to the European Theater, and their trans-Atlantic crossings were in many cases epic tales of survival in high seas and foul weather.

Eventually, 36 SC boats would operate from “Base 25” in “American Bay” on the Greek island of Corfu, supported by the tender USS Leonidas (AD-7)—named after King Leonidas of 300 Spartans/Battle of Thermopylae fame—where they participated in the Strait of Otranto patrol. The 110-feet-long, gasoline-powered boats were generally armed with a 3-inch deck gun, machine guns, and depth-charge projectors, and had rudimentary hydro-acoustic listening devices—“K-tubes” and “MB-tubes”—and perhaps most importantly, radio-telephones that enabled them to operate efficiently as a coordinated group. Although there are no confirmed cases of a submarine chaser actually sinking a submarine during World War I, their sheer numbers and ubiquity no doubt disrupted many attempted submarine attacks.  

Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox

(Source: America’s Sailors in the Great War: Sea, Skies, and Submarines by Lisle A. Rose, a very readable, concise, and well-researched treatment of the U.S. Navy’s contribution during World War I.)

World War 1

The Second Battle of Durazzo : Only World War I U.S. Navy Surface Action