History of the SMS Szent István
SMS Szent István (His Majesty's Ship Saint Stephen) was the last of four Tegetthoff-class dreadnought battleships built for the Austro-Hungarian Navy. Szent István was the only ship of her class to be built within the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a concession made to the Hungarian government in return for its support for the 1910 and 1911 naval budgets which funded the Tegetthoff class. She was built at the Ganz-Danubius shipyard in Fiume, where she was laid down in January 1912. She was launched two years later in 1914, but Szent István's construction was delayed due to the smaller shipyards in Fiume, and further delayed by the outbreak of World War I in July 1914. She was finally commissioned into the Austro-Hungarian Navy in December 1915.
Armed with a main battery of twelve 30.5 cm (12.0 in) guns in four triple turrets, Szent István was assigned to the 1st Battleship Division of the Austro-Hungarian Navy upon her commissioning. Alongside the other ships of her class, she was stationed out of the Austro-Hungarian naval base at Pola. Szent István's commissioning into the fleet came too late for her to participate in the Bombardment of Ancona following Italy's declaration of war on Austria-Hungary in May 1915, and she saw little combat for the rest of the war due to the Otranto Barrage, which prevented the Austro-Hungarian Navy from leaving the Adriatic Sea.
In June 1918, in a bid to ensure safer passage for German and Austro-Hungarian U-boats through the Strait of Otranto, the Austro-Hungarian Navy attempted to break the Barrage. This attack was to be spearheaded by all four ships of the Tegetthoff class but was abandoned after Szent István and her sister ship, Tegetthoff were attacked by Italian motor torpedo boats on the morning of 10 June. While Tegetthoff was unharmed, Szent István was struck by two torpedoes launched from MAS-15, and capsized roughly three hours later off the island of Premuda. She is the only battleship whose sinking was filmed during World War I.
The ship's wreck was located in the mid-1970s by the Yugoslav Navy. She lies upside down at a depth of 66 metres (217 ft). Her bow broke off when it hit the seabed while the stern was still afloat, but is immediately adjacent to the rest of the heavily encrusted hull. She is a protected site of the Croatian Ministry of Culture.
The First Battleship sunk on film
Horthy was determined to use the fleet to attack the Otranto Barrage. Planning to repeat his successful raid on the blockade in May 1917, Horthy envisioned a massive attack on the Allied forces with Szent István and the other three Tegetthoff class ships providing the largest component of the assault. They would be accompanied by the three ships of the Erzherzog Karl-class pre-dreadnoughts, the three Novara-class cruisers, the cruiser Admiral Spaun, four Tátra-class destroyers, and four torpedo boats. Submarines and aircraft would also be employed in the operation to hunt down enemy ships on the flanks of the fleet.
On 8 June 1918 Horthy took his flagship, Viribus Unitis, and Prinz Eugen south with the lead elements of his fleet. On the evening of 9 June, Szent István and Tegetthoff followed along with their own escort ships. Horthy's plan called for Novara and Helgoland to engage the Barrage with the support of the Tátra-class destroyers. Meanwhile, Admiral Spaun and Saida would be escorted by the fleet's four torpedo boats to Otranto to bombard Italian air and naval stations. The German and Austro-Hungarian submarines would be sent to Valona and Brindisi to ambush Italian, French, British, and American warships that sailed out to engage the Austro-Hungarian fleet, while seaplanes from Cattaro would provide air support and screen the ships' advance. The battleships, and in particular Szent István and the other Tegetthoffs, would use their firepower to destroy the Barrage and engage any Allied warships they ran across. Horthy hoped that the inclusion of these ships would prove to be critical in securing a decisive victory.
En route to the harbour at Islana, north of Ragusa, to rendezvous with Viribus Unitis and Prinz Eugen for the coordinated attack on the Otranto Barrage, Szent István and Tegetthoff attempted to make maximum speed in order to catch up to the rest of the fleet. In doing so, Szent István's turbines started to overheat and speed had to be reduced to 12 knots (22 km/h; 14 mph). When an attempt was made to raise more steam in order to increase to 16 knots (30 km/h; 18 mph) Szent István produced an excess of smoke. At about 3:15 am on 10 June, two Italian MAS boats, MAS-15 and MAS-21, spotted the smoke from the Austrian ships while returning from an uneventful patrol off the Dalmatian coast. The MAS unit was commanded by Capitano di corvetta Luigi Rizzo, who had sunk the Austro-Hungarian coastal defense ship SMS Wien in Trieste six months before. The individual boats were commanded by Capo timoniere Armando Gori and Guardiamarina di complemento Giuseppe Aonzo respectively. Both boats successfully penetrated the escort screen and split to engage each of the dreadnoughts. MAS-21 attacked Tegetthoff, but her torpedoes failed to hit the ship. MAS-15 fired her two torpedoes successfully at 3:25 am at Szent István. Both boats evaded any pursuit although MAS-15 had to discourage the Austro-Hungarian torpedo boat Tb 76 T by dropping depth charges in her wake. Tegetthoff, thinking that the torpedoes were fired by submarines, pulled out of the formation and started to zigzag to throw off any further attacks. She repeatedly fired on suspected submarine periscopes.
Szent István was hit by two 45-centimetre (18 in) torpedoes abreast her boiler rooms. The aft boiler room quickly flooded and gave the ship a 10° list to starboard. Counterflooding of the portside trim cells and magazines reduced the list to 7°, but efforts to use collision mats to plug the holes failed. While this was going on the dreadnought steered for the nearby Bay of Brgulje at low speed. However, water continued to leak into the forward boiler room and eventually doused all but the two boilers on the port side. This killed the power for the pumps and only left enough electricity to run the lights. The turrets were trained to port in a futile effort to counter the list and their ready ammunition was thrown overboard. Upon returning to the formation at 4:45 am, Tegetthoff attempted to take Szent István in tow, which failed. Many of the crew members of the sinking battleship assembled on the deck to use their weight along with the turned turrets as a counterbalance, but the ship was taking on too much water. Szent István's chaplain performed one final blessing while the crew of Tegetthoff emerged onto her decks to salute the sinking ship. At 6:12 am, with the pumps unequal to the task, Szent István capsized off Premuda. 89 sailors and officers died in the sinking, 41 of them from Hungary. The low death toll can be partly attributed to the long amount of time it took for the battleship to sink, and the fact that all sailors with the Austro-Hungarian Navy had to learn to swim before entering active service. The captain of Szent István, Heinrich Seitz, was prepared to go down with his ship but was saved after being thrown off the bridge when she capsized.
Film footage and photographs exist of Szent István's last half-hour, taken by Linienschiffsleutnant Meusburger of Tegetthoff with his own camera and by an official film crew. The two films were later spliced together and exhibited in the United States after the war. The battleship's sinking was one of only two on the high seas to ever be filmed, the other being that of the British battleship HMS Barham during World War II. Proceeds from the film of Szent István capsizing were eventually used to feed children in Austria following the ending of the war.
Fearing further attacks by torpedo boats or destroyers from the Italian navy, and possible Allied dreadnoughts responding to the scene, Horthy believed the element of surprise had been lost and called off the attack. In reality, the Italian torpedo boats had been on a routine patrol, and Horthy's plan had not been betrayed to the Italians as he had feared. The Italians did not even discover that the Austrian dreadnoughts had departed from Pola until 10 June when aerial reconnaissance photos revealed that they were no longer there. Nevertheless, the loss of Szent István and the blow to morale it had on the navy forced Horthy to cancel his plans to assault the Otranto Barrage. The fleet returned to the base at Pola where it would remain for the rest of the war.
After the war MAS-15 was installed in the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II as part of the Museo del Risorgimento in Rome for the torpedo boat's role in the sinking of Szent István. The anniversary of the sinking, 10 June, has been celebrated by the Regia Marina, and its successor, the Marina Militare, as the official Italian Navy Day.