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Short Rounds

Col. McBride's Yachting Holiday

In 1915, with the Great War raging, the British became aware that Germany was in contact with nationalist elements in Ireland. In fact, the head of Naval Intelligence, Captain William Reginald Hall (nicknamed “Blinker” because he had an uncontrollable eye-lid tic), became convinced that German submarines were not only landing agents and arms in Ireland, but were taking advantage of friendly locals to hide out in isolated bays and inlets.

So he decided to set a trap.

Securing the 581 ton steam yacht Sayanora from a wealthy American (who apparently had no Japanese), Hall manned her with 50 Royal Navy men disguised as civilian seamen, and sent her to cruise the Irish coast still wearing her American colors. The yacht’s skipper was Lt. F.M. Simon, a Cunard officer who held a commission in the Royal Naval Reserve. Simon had served many years on liners carrying passengers back and forth across the pond, so that he was able to mimic American mannerisms and accents, some of which he attempted to impart to his crew. He ostensibly worked for the yacht’s supposed “owner,” one “Col. McBride of Los Angeles.”   The colonel was actually Maj. Wilfred Howell, a decorated officer who had been educated in Austria and could manage a German-tinged English and affected a somewhat Teutonic style of dress, with a distinctly Kaiserian mustache. 

Sayanora cruised here and there along the Irish coast, putting in at particularly isolated inlets and coves. From time to time “Col. McBride” or members of the crew would go ashore to pop in at a local pub, where sooner or later they’d begin to discuss the war, expressing generally pro-German views. Despite their efforts, they were not only unable to make contact with any Irish rebels, but found it rare to even hear a disloyal word. In fact, all the Irishmen they encountered seemed eminently loyal to the Crown. Indeed, some of the folks were so loyal, that on one occasion members of the crew were manhandled by some local citizens and had to be rescued by the police.

Their suspicions aroused, some of the local Irishmen decided to report the activities of Sayanora and her crew to the Royal Navy. And so, one day, while Sayonara was lying in Westport harbor, someone reported to Captain Frederick le Mesurier of the old battleship HMS Cornwallis, guard ship there, that the yacht had been seen laying mines. At that, le Mesurier placed Sayanora under arrest and alerted the Admiralty of his action.

Almost immediately, le Mesurier received orders from Hall to release Sayanora. This outraged Terence Morris Browne, the Marquess of Sligo, who lived in Westport The Marquess personally went to London to confront Hall in his office at the Admiralty. Fearful that the Marquess would “blow” Sayanora’s cover, Hall filled him in on the operation, much to Sligo’s astonishment.

Although he had secured Sligo’s silence, Hall seems to have realized that the mission was compromised, and it was shortly terminated, Sayanora and her crew being transferred to other duties.

What appears to have happened is that Sinn Fein, the principal Irish nationalist movement, had become aware of Sayanora’s mission, perhaps through an informant in the Admiralty or on the yacht itself, or perhaps merely because “Col. McBride” and his minions had been a little too obvious in their attempts to make contact with the resistance.

Nevertheless, Hall never admitted that the operation had been a flop. Indeed, he later claimed that Howell and Simon had gathered valuable intelligence that proved helpful when Ireland erupted into rebellion in 1916, though this seems very dubious.

 

The Defense of Punta d'Ostro

In 1914 the Bay of Kotor, or Cattaro, as it was known then, sheltered Austria-Hungary's southernmost naval base, home to a strong force of pre-dreadnought battleships, cruisers, and lighter warships, as well as a submarine squadron. Naturally, the approaches to the base were well fortified, particularly Punta d’Ostro, on the Prevlaka Peninsula, southernmost point on the Austro-Hungarian coast, where there was a powerful coast artillery installation, high up on a sheer cliff.

When World War I broke out, Allied naval strategists realized that if they could reduce the coast defenses, they might be able to blockade Cattaro or perhaps even bottle up the Imperial-and-Royal fleet by sinking ships in the channel. Several attempts were made to reduce the batteries, beginning on August 20, 1914, just three weeks into the war, aided by Montenegrin artillery firing from the eastern side of the entrance to the channel, which they partially controlled, and there were frequent naval skirmishes around the entrance to the bay, with occasional heavy losses on both side.

Nevertheless, although they bombarded Punta d'Ostro numerous times (well, at least a dozen), regularly claiming great success, and once even asserting that they had "destroyed" the place, the Allies never managed to knock out the coast defense installation.

It seems that after the first attacks, in August of 1914, the defenders managed a very clever deception. They regularly positioned explosive charges at the base of the cliff and then about halfway up. If, during a bombardment Allied shells came to close to the battery, the defenders would detonated some of the charges electrically. From the attacking warships the explosions suggested that they were firing too low, so they would elevate their guns. As a result, their rounds would pass safely over the battery to fall harmlessly into the mountains beyond, some of which were in Montenegro.

Notes:

1.       In keeping with traditional Balkan complexities, the name "Prevlaka Peninsula" apparently means the "Peninsula Peninsula" if fully translated into English. Also in keeping with Balkan tradition, the peninsula, now part of Croatia, is claimed by neighboring Montenegro.

2.       Those interested in further amusing, and often stirring, tales of naval action in the Adriatic during World War I might consider reading To the Last Salute: Memories of an Austrian U-Boat Commander, by Georg von Trapp, the famous Austrian submarine commander, and central character in "The Sound of Music," or The Battle of the Otranto Straits: Controlling the Gateway to the Adriatic in World War I (Twentieth-Century Battles) by naval historian Paul G. Halpern

 


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