IT WAS QUITE A NIGHT on 9 June, 1918, when the two Austria-Hungarian sister-battleships SMS Szent Istvan and Tegettoff left the port of Pula (now in Croatia) and set course for Dubrovnik.
Neither vessel was felt to have much to fear from the Italian Navy, because they were accompanied by a destroyer and six torpedo-boats.
The Szent Istvan, named after the first Christian king of Hungary, St Stephen, was still a new ship of 20,000 tons, and to that date had fired her gigantic 30cm guns only in practice. The plan was for both ships to rendezvous with others in the fleet and attack the Allied sea blockade near Brindisi in southern Italy.
The captain and his officers were conducting a final preparatory meeting in the admiral’s cabin on the rear deck. The captain was issuing instructions as the watch-keepers got ready.
The look-outs had nothing to report, and none of the 1000-plus crewmen could suspect that all hell was about to break.
Meanwhile it had been barely nightfall when Italian Navy corvette captain Luigi Rizzo gave the command to return to base. The crew of the torpedo-boats MAS15 and MAS21 had experienced rough weather but little action, and were keen to enter port.
As it was a clear night, they suddenly noticed smoke-plumes on the distant horizon. It could only be an enemy vessel.
Rizzo ordered his Captains Gori and Aonzo to sail straight for the plumes. It was a long way, but both torpedo-boats succeeded in breaking through the cordon of escorting vessels, and went on the attack against the Austria-Hungarian battleships.
Once in range, Rizzo decided to let MAS21 push the attack against the Tegettoff, but her torpedoes missed their target. At the same time MAS15 set course towards the Szent Istvan and fired two torpedoes. Both hit the battleship in the hull, near the boilers. The rear boiler-rooms immediately started to flood, and the ship listed by 10° to starboard.
The Szent Istvan’s captain responded by ordering the heavy guns to be turned to port to counter the list, but more and more water was pouring into the boiler-rooms, resulting in a power loss, and loss of pumping capacity too.
At 6.05 in the morning, the Szent Istvan capsized and sank, close to the island of Premuda. Her demise was filmed by an officer on the Tegettoff, and this is the only film ever made of the sinking of a warship during WW1. Eighty-nine crew lost their lives.
The Szent Istvan was discovered by the Yugoslavian Navy in the 1970s, and is now a protected wreck that can be dived only with special permission.
It took my Croatian friend Drazen Goricki a long time to get all the required permissions, but eventually the Ministry of Culture and the underwater archaeology department agreed to a group diving the wreck, the first time in many years that this had been allowed.