Chapter X: Durazzo
After Gallipoli we made one trip on patrol on barrage and then returned to our base. We had been there but one day when word was received to stand by to get under way. Rumors began to fly thick and fast as to where we might go. Every detail that might have a bearing on our movements was carefully noted. The French fleet was getting up steam in the harbor, a thing not seen before, and then we learned that Captain Nelson, Lieutenant-Commander Bastedo, and Doctor Clemmer were to be in on the party. There was a pharmacist's mate detailed to each chaser, and it certainly began to look as though something big were to be pulled off. A message was signaled from the Leonidas, very urgent indeed, requesting information as to the whereabouts of Captain Nelson's wicker chair. Special gangs of machinists were sent aboard to see that all was in readiness in that department. After the customary four hours of standing by, that always precedes an important order to get under way in the navy, twelve of us steamed out of the harbor in column. It was now nine o'clock at night and ordinarily the nets would be closed to passage at such an hour. None of us except Captain Nelson and perhaps Mr. Bastedo, neither of whom were communicative, knew where we were bound. We followed the Albanian coast to Strata Bianca and then set our course generally northwest. The first intimation most of us had of our destination was the instructions on formations on entering the port of Brindisi, Italy. Why we went there, what we had come for, or how long our stay might be was still a mystery. As we made our way through the outer harbor at about four o'clock in the afternoon of September 30th, we saw a great number of Italian battleships and British destroyers that did not seem to have been anchored for a long period. Most of them lay to with one anchor, or were made fast to buoys. In the inner harbor, was immense masses of Allied shipping, but prominent among all were the big Italian cruisers. We now knew something big was up. When we tied up in tiers to the quay, no one was allowed to go ashore, and even the officers were forbidden to communicate with anyone, special guards being posted on the dock to see that this order was strictly observed. That evening the commanding officers were called aboard the No. 95, and were told the object of our trip – a raid on Durazzo. During the following day we did nothing but sleep, and at night we overhauled the entire battery. The engine room force, since they could work out of sight of those on shore, were able to overhaul their machines during daylight. That consumed one day, and the next night all officers assembled on an English ship for detailed instruction. The plan was to have the Italian light cruisers and the English and Italian armored cruisers bombard the port of Durazzo in two divisions; the armored cruisers bombarding first, the light cruisers afterwards. They were all to be escorted by English destroyers, and the chasers were to act as submarine screens. Unit B was to lay to the north of the bombarding sector; Unit G between the sector and the harbor itself; with another unit southward and one to the westward. At five o'clock in the morning aeroplanes were to start bombarding the town. They were to fly from the Italian coast, drop their bombs and return, continuing this as long as effective. At two o'clock G. M. T. in the morning of October 2d, although some had thought the time to be local and had arisen two hours before, we left Brindisi and set our course to Durazzo. That is, twelve chasers were supposed to be in this detachment, but when we got into the outer harbor, by telephone we found that the 244 had fouled her propellers in wire alongside the dock when about to shove off, and would be unable to extricate herself in time to join us. About ten o'clock we arrived at our position off Durazzo. At the sight of us a couple of small torpedo boats started out of the harbor, but seeing the smoke from the cruiser fleet which now appeared on the horizon, they hurried back. The arrival of the chasers and the fleet had been timed exactly, so that we separated and got to our designated positions as the armored cruisers went into their bombarding sector. They ran along their sector sending salvo after salvo, which both sank the shipping in the harbor and destroyed the buildings in the town. Clouds of smoke and fire were seen as the shipping was destroyed and the houses burned and crumbled. [See Note 1]
As soon as the cruisers had started firing the forts on shore opened up with a great roar, and we could see big splashes of flame along the cliffs over the sandy shore. The airplanes were doing remarkably effective bombing, and we were watching the fight with lots of interest, zigzagging along our patrol. While the armored cruisers were bombarding, the light cruisers stood to the northward along the coast and past us as though they meant to proceed against Catarro, an Austrian and German submarine base. One of their escorting destroyers ran in near the beach, and swinging her stern around let go a shot at the forts. Then, putting their helms hard over the big ships swung around to go on to their bombarding sector. At this maneuver the northern forts opened up, and shells fell around us. We little chaser men were greatly thrilled and were as proud as could be, for we thought at the time the Austrians considered us of enough importance to send nine-inch shells at us. We ignored the fact that it was the cruisers beyond that warranted the whistle and dull splash of these big projectiles. The expression of our elation over our own imagined importance was suddenly interrupted by a report of the S. C. 129 that there was a submarine off our port bow.
The 129 was the last boat in our unit and set off after the submarine she saw, just as our leader the 215 and we saw another. These subs, when the light cruisers had started north, had evidently set out after them, and when they turned back to the southward they had stuck their periscopes up to see what was going on. They did not seem to pay the least attention to us, but had their eyes on the bigger game.
The second shot from the 215's three-inch gun hit the periscope of the second submarine about 750 yards away and a big column of water and compressed air shot up six feet from the surface. [See Note 2] The submarine kept going, however, as such a shot does not put them out of business. The escaping air from the periscope left a trail on the water and 128, maneuvering to the starboard side of the 215, got him right between us (we were now one hundred yards apart), and we let go fourteen bombs with the result that up came pieces of the underwater craft. [See Note 3] We did not stop to pick up evidence, however, as a third submarine was then reported by 129. Meanwhile 129 had set off to intercept the sub. she saw 1600 yards distant. The periscope had not been seen for about a minute, which is a long time under such circumstances, when the executive officer stepped on the whistle, which is a signal to drop a depth charge. At the explosion of this charge, up came both periscopes of the submarine to see what had so jarred its peaceful progress. This gave the submarine's exact bearing to the chaser, and although the bomb had crippled the chaser's engine, in this condition she kept going and was able to intercept the course of the U boat, where she let go enough depth charges to entirely destroy the submarine.
This last bombing, however, put all her engines out of order, and she had to lay to temporarily. By this time the destroyers had sighted the third submarine, and began firing at her, so we little chasers thought it better to get out of their way if any of us expected shore liberty that night.
A hospital ship, The Baron Call, that had come out of the harbor was trying to run away, and we had orders to take her, but we saw a submarine about three quarters of a mile off. We immediately went after this one, which was probably the sub. that had torpedoed the Weymouth,[See Note 4] but she had learned her lesson, and submerging as soon as she sighted us, we could not find her. We did not spend much time searching because we were afraid the runaway hospital ship might escape. As we started for the runaway the shore batteries began dropping shells around her, but by the time we got to her she was out of range, and so a destroyer put a boarding party on board and then we all escorted her back to the port of Brindisi, but just outside the harbor orders were received to let her go.
It was at this fight we first saw the Italian speed boats and they were wonderful. They ran right through the shells dropping thickly all around them into the harbor, shot off their torpedoes at the shipping there, and then at great speed turned about and ran out again. Everything in the harbor seemed to have been destroyed. A couple of Austrian destroyers started out, but, bang! and down they sank. One salvo from the cruisers hit a big merchantman, which had started out, but in thirty seconds there was absolutely nothing of her left.
There was a good record made by the other units of chasers in this fight. They did not see any submarines so could not sink them, but they guarded the larger ships from mines, and were credited with saving some individual ships in engagement.
The 130, which belonged to the unit directly under Captain Nelson's command, and was stationed between the bombarding sector and the shore, the position the most dangerous yet the most promising for excitement, showed itself to be typically American by eleventh-hour success. During the bombardment some mines became loose, and these were sighted by the 130 directly in the path of British destroyers which were racing about the larger ships. There was no time for telephones or flag signals, for the destroyers were almost on them. Order to fire at the nearest mine six hundred yards away was given. The elements were unfavorable, the little boat bobbed up and down, jumping from crest to trough of the long swells, while the mine would show up for a moment on the top of a wave and disappear. Immediately following the order came the 3" report. A great volume of water shot into the air as the mine was exploded dead ahead of the onrushing ships. [See Note 2] Never slackening her speed, the little chaser continued on her course towards this evident mine field to head off the destroyers and lay to between the ships and the nearest mines. At the explosion of the mine caused by the 3" shell, with a swish of white water from their sterns the destroyers put their wheels hard over and sheered clear, thus narrowly missing their doom.
This unit was so placed that shots from the forts fell around them and the Allied salvos went over their heads. It was a decidedly ticklish position.
Although there was a good bit of firing on the part of the Austrians, they did not seem to be able to do any harm to the attacking force, which seems almost incredible seeing how much they fired upon us. Our Allied navy seemed and proved to be very superior to the enemy, but leaving out the element of surprise, the forts should have registered some damage with their shells. Speaking from personal observation, there seemed to be a complete absence of fear displayed by any of the chasers' crews, who were so interested in at last getting a bit of the fight they had looked forward to ever since they enlisted, that there was no chance for nervousness at the shells and mines that strewed the area. To be sure, after the demonstration, when one considered the number of nine-inch shells fired and number of mines the location of which we did not know, it seems miraculous that no ship was swamped, if not hit or blown to flinders. It was a gay night at Brindisi on our return, and then came the order to go back to our base at Corfu.
Of such value were the chasers considered that the Italian government, while it gave its silver medal to Captain Nelson and Lieutenant Bastedo and the three commanders of the chasers in Unit B, gave bronze medals to the commanders of Unit G.
The translation of the Italian notification letter reads as follows:
Commando in Capo Dell' Amata,
Oravale E Del Basso Adriatico,
Brindisi, 8 November, 1918.
To CAPTAIN C. O. NELSON, U. S. NAVY,
Commander of the U. S. S. C. Flotilla.
I am pleased to communicate to your honor that on account of the brilliant action at Durazzo of October 2, 1918, and after my suggestion, the silver military medal for valor has been conferred upon your honor and the following U. S. Naval Officers.
LIEUTENANT-COMMANDER PAUL H. BASTEDO, U. S. Navy.
LIEUTENANT W. AUGUSTUS OTT, U. S. NAVY.
ENSIGN MACLEAR JACOBY, U. S. Navy.
ENSIGN HILARY RANALD CHAMBERS, JR., U. S. Navy.
The bronze military medal for valor has been conferred upon the following:
ENSIGN GEORGE J. LEOVY, U. S. Navy.
ENSIGN ERSKINE HAZARD, U. S. Navy.
ENSIGN JOHN MOORE BEVERLY, U. S. Navy.
On this occasion I express to your honor my greatest pleasure for the well deserved honor, and for the good work carried on in the Adriatic.
With my highest consideration, and best regards,
I remain yours
(S.) CUSANTI VISCONTI,
Vice Admiral, Commander-in-Chief.
Shortly after the raid on Durazzo, twelve chasers under command of Captain Nelson set out for another raid on the enemy's post. These chasers were of those left behind on the former occasion, that all the boats might have a chance. These two divisions were doomed to disappointment, however, for on arriving at Durazzo it was found that the Allied army had taken the town. The chasers now were used as protection from sea attack while troops were landed, but no enemy appeared to dispute Allied authority, and in a disappointed and dejected frame of mind the boats returned to the base.
__________Subchaser.org Editor’s Notes:__________
Note 1: The Durazzo engagement was the single major naval engagement of WWI in which the American Navy participated. A rare set of photos of the Durazzo engagement, part of the G.S. Dole collection, may be seen in the Chasers section. These photos depict much of what Chambers describes here: The chasers arriving in the harbor, cruisers moving into formation, the Italian armored cruisers firing on Durazzo, and entering Brindisi harbor afterward.
Note 2: This report of a chaser firing at a periscope is found in other sources as well, among them a letter in the G.S. Dole collection, in which Dole remarks that the only action the chasers saw at Durazzo was shots fired at a periscope and at a floating mine that sank without exploding.
Note 3: Whether or not a submarine was sunk at Durazzo by the chasers is a matter of some debate. In the final accounting, the chasers were not officially credited with sinking any submarines; yet there are sources that add some corroboration to this story, not the least being the account of John Langdon Leighton, a member of Admiral Sims’ Intelligence staff. In his book, Simsadus: London, he credits the Americans with sinking four subs, two by chasers, only one of those two at Durazzo. This stands in opposition to Chambers’ description of the destruction of two subs in the Durazzo engagement. Another reference to this incident may be found in an issue of the Sub-Chaser Post, the newsletter of a private organization of chaser men that formed after the war. In an issue of the newsletter is a letter purportedly from an Austrian sub commander, who denies that any Austrian subs were sunk at Durazzo, indicating that all of their subs were accounted for. He does indicate that it is possible that a German sub may have been sunk. The difficulty in claiming kills is in the proving: absent unquestionable evidence, such as pieces of the destroyed sub or a live prisoner fished from the water, the authorities were disinclined to count a reported kill. Leighton attempts to take a conservative position on kills as well, pointing out the propensity of Navy men to claim kills right and left. But he claims that other evidence confirms four kills. The evidence includes reports from agents of submarine traffic in enemy harbors consistent with the reports of kills (if a sub fails to return to base and stops reporting by radio, it’s evidence that an attack on it may have been successful) and tracking information gathered by British radio receivers, who intercepted encrypted submarine radio messages. While they may not have been able to decipher the messages, they could detect the direction of the signal’s origin, and by triangulating reports from multiple radio receivers, determine the sub’s location (and compare that to the location of the attacking ships).
Note 4: There is a photo of the torpedoed Weymouth in Brindisi harbor, in the photo set of the Durazzo engagement located in the Chasers section.