The German cruiser SMS Hertha sailing out of Mers-el-Kébir in August 1904"The Taranto raid taught me to respect the Italians, perhaps more than I had ever respected the Russians; they were a people with a long naval tradition and their bravery and seamanship was beyond reproach. They were constantly let down by their equipment, however: their ships were inferior to ours in nearly every respect and they were heavily outnumbered and outgunned. With
Vizeadmiral Büchsel's battle-line ready to establish a blockade and the French holding the northern line, they would be very hard pressed to mount any kind of effective response to our presence."Which is why I thought it best to maximise our presence in the Mediterranean and why I dispatched my heavy cruisers to long patrols, to actively scout out the enemy and seek out his merchant shipping. It was this decision which led to the well-known Battle of Sardinia. I am willing to accept the credit (and the blame) for sparking off this, so widely discussed, skirmish; but I
cannot, in good faith, claim any credit for its results. That must go to its entirety to
Fregattenkapitän Rheinhard Sheer and the crew of the
Hertha, who proved their mettle above and beyond my expectations."
-Vizeadm. Galster K (post mort.) 1956, The Naval Question: Collected Papers and Letters, edited by Dr. Ernst Jablonka, Universitätsverlag Heidelberg.
August dawned rather well for the German Navy. Firstly - Büchsel's battlefleet had reached the Mediterranean and was now ready to establish a blockade on the Italians. Secondly, the cruiser forces in the Mediterranean were finally ready to stretch their legs and go after the Italian light forces, their merchantmen and coastal targets of opportunity. Thirdly, the R & D department reported that they had ready air pre-heater designs for implementation in future ship construction.
And, finally, the U-boote
reported the sinking of two Italian merchantmen, without suffering any losses themselves. This was much more significant than one would think. For better or worse, these early submarines were deathtraps and this war was their baptism in fire. The blockade had pinned most of the Italian sea traffic in their harbors and the submariners performed daring night-time raids in their leaking steel coffins, to chase down that one
elusive torpedo strike. In a way, the success of the surface fleet sabotaged the efforts of the submariners; but that also benefited the Unterseeflotte
in the long term. For the world was completely
unprepared for the havoc the U-boote
could wreak on a merchant marine that judged their efficiency based on their early-20th-century performance.
The Italians struck back with the sinking of the collier Lorelei
near Tanga; the Germans couldn't help but applaud the Taranto's
masterfully executed escape.
Finally, the French Army proved its mettle by pushing into the Italian defenses through the Venadio pass and along the coastline towards Genoa. Nevertheless, the Italians put up a spirited defense and the French assault eventually stalled, having only barely achieved its goals and with none of the significant breakthroughs the French had hoped for.
On the 26th of August, the Hertha
, operating independently, spotted a massive Italian convoy traveling from Sicily to Sardinia, to reinforce and resupply the island's garrison troops. The silhouettes of the Italian ships were clearly visible in the breaking dawn; and, seeing an excellent opportunity to disrupt the Italian defenses in Sardinia, Galster instructed Fregattenkapitän
Rheinhard Sheer of the Hertha
to engage as he saw fit.
Originally, the German lookouts only identified a few light ships as escorts: a protected Bari
-class cruiser and a few destroyers. Sheer knew that there was nothing the Italians could realistically do to harm his ship, except engage with torpedoes; and so he continued with his attack, taking the Bari
under long-range fire.
Unfortunately, less than half an hour after first contact, the lookouts identified two more Italian warships steaming at flank speed towards the Hertha
. They were both, clearly armored cruisers; and one of them was easily identifiable as a Carlo Alberto
-class. Sheer immediately turned to Galster."Herr Admiral,"
he said, "am I still free to engage as I see fit?"
Upon Galster's confirmation, Sheer ordered an immediate about-turn; and trained his guns on the Alberto
A bit of background, for the naval enthusiast: the Albertos
were universally considered to be excellent
ships for their intended roles (i.e. anti-cruiser duties). They were exceptionally
heavily armored for their size, with a main belt thicker than that of the Victoria Louise
-class ships. They were also quite
fast, being only a knot slower than the German ships. They paid for this with a considerably reduced broadside: they only mounted 7-inch guns as their main battery, where the German cruisers were armed with 11-inch, capital-ship rifles.
This is not as significant a difference as one might think. While it is true that the German guns packed a significantly
stronger punch, the Italian 7-inchers could still reliably penetrate the extended belt and deck of the German ships, that were built to resist gun calibers of up to 6 inches. Furthermore, the Italians reloaded much
faster than the Germans and could still easily match every two of Hertha's
salvos with three of their own.
Five minutes after Sheer's order to reverse course, the lookouts get enough light to identify the second heavy cruiser. It's a Vettor Pisani
and that immediately
seals the deal. Sheer had made the right choice.
than the Hertha
. They, too, were only capable of 21 knots but that made them no less capable. Their armor was thick
- thicker than the Hertha's
in places and, more significantly, they had a completely
splinter-proof deck, with armor up to 2 inches thick. This also made them very resistant to plunging fire at longer ranges. Their main turrets may have only housed single, 10'' rifles, but they were tough
, with an aromor of 5.5 inches that could reliably bounce enemy fire. And, more significantly, they had a secondary broadside of eight
7-inch rifles per side, the same that the Albertos
used as their main
could, under no circumstances
, be drawn into a close-range fight, or her fore and aft compartments would be smashed to scrap. By forcing the Italians into a running / chasing duel, Sheer leveraged his ship's speed as well as possible, while also denying the Italians the chance to use their massive secondary broadsides. He could train two of his 11'' rifles towards the enemy; and, in return, he limited the Italian's ability to fire back to only two 7'' and one 10'' gun.
rushes towards the south-east, the Italians hot on her tail. Fire is exchanged, but no hits are scored. The Bari
turns to rejoin the convoy (any followup German attack with Zerstörer
, Galster notes grimly, would have failed spectacularly) but the two armored cruisers and their destroyer escorts doggedly stay on Hertha's
Twenty minutes into the fight, Sheer decides to gamble. He turns the Hertha
on a slow, gentle turn towards the north, unshadowing his forward gun at a range of around 6,000 yards. The Italians follow him into the turn - and bring their own main batteries to bear.
Several broadsides are exchanged - and then the worst fears of Sheer come true, as a 7-inch shell from the Pisani's
secondaries strikes Hertha's
aft turret and jams the bearings. In a single moment, Hertha
loses half of her anti-capital capability.
Sheer has lost his aft turret; and he may now choose whether he wants to turn away and seek to disengage or continue a broadside engagement. He chooses the latter,trusting in his damcon crews to get the aft turret operational again.
And, again, he is proven right. Thirty minutes of frantic maneuvering later, the damcon crews report that Hertha
is fully battle-ready again.
Sheer serpentines to throw off the Italians' aim, while keeping his aft guns on target; he scores some success, but it's primarily his broadside secondaries that pepper the enemy cruisers' superstructure. Hertha
, in return, suffers a penetrating hit in her extended belt but flooding is minimal. Then, her lookouts note something important...
Look at the Pisani
. His aft turret is still tracking the Hertha
, but his forward turret is at a neutral position and is not firing
And, just like that, the heaviest chase weaponry the Italians have is out of the picture.
This changes things significantly. Sheer turns to starboard and unshadows his entire broadside. The entirety of the Hertha's
armament focuses on the Alberto
- Sheer is looking to knock out some of her guns as well.
This happens. Hertha's
the Italian, who had seriously overextended. The Alberto
takes the punishment for nearly half an hour, but eventurally staggers and falls back, leaving the Pisani
to take point again. To Sheer's chagrin, Hertha's
main battery had repeatedly straddled the Alberto
, but only scored one confirmed hit.
However, by the end of the gun duel, the Alberto's
front turret had also fallen silent (note the small inset window at the bottom left and how the front turret is 'neutral', while the aft is still tracking the Hertha
Frankly, the Hertha
was not that
much better off. By this time, her front magazine had only six AP shells left; and her aft turret 25. Her superstructure had been riddled with 7-inch shells; but , thankfully, nothing important had been damaged and she had barely taken on any water.
Also, she still had more than 300 rounds left in her secondary magazines and she was continuously peppering the Pisani
with high-explosive fire. Sadly, while her main batteries were consistently straddling the Italian, she still scored no hits with her precious last 11-inch shells.
The running battle takes the opposing forces less than 5,000 yards from the coastline of Sardinia. The thunder of the guns brings curious onlookers to the scene.
At 12:45, Hertha's
guns fall silent. She has fully expended her main and
secondary gun magazines, in what, at the time, was the longest, most drawn-out naval engagement of the century. She has suffered 27 hits from 7-inch rifles, which have caused only light damage to her superstructure and dented her waterline armor; in return, she has scored 12 hits with her main, 11-inch guns and another 38
with her 6-inch secondaries alone. Her stokers are exhausted; her grates fouled; she is completely and utterly
spent. And the Italian convoy has escaped to safety.
But there is nobody
who thinks that the Italians came out on top on this one. 2-on-1 odds, and the Hertha still
kicked arse and took names, causing significant damage to the Alberto
and giving as good as she took back to the Pisani
- not to mention the damage she caused to the Italian destroyers and the transport ship Vesuvio
in the early stages of the engagement.
So, on the 29th of August, the Italians sued for peace.