Italian Navy brass snubbed peasant-bred Lt. Luigi Rizzo hard – until the day he slammed his tiny torpedo boat into an enemy harbor to sink a battleship. Then they had to admit that even if his blood wasn’t blue, it sure as hell was red.
This story originally appeared in the May, 1958 edition of True: the Man’s Magazine.
Forty feet of wood hull does not make much of a warship, but it was all Lt. Luigi Rizzo of the Italian Navy ever wanted.
It carried a machine gun and two torpedoes, and it planed across the emerald crests of the Adriatic Sea at 40 knots. In 1917 the bright-eyed little Sicilian officer proved to the world how his speedy gnat could sting when, in an astonishing display of courage tempered with ingenuity and cool planning, he rammed it through the tight defenses of an enemy harbor first by day and then by night. And what he did inside that harbor is the stuff of which legends are made.
War historians have called Rizzo the most audacious naval hero of modern times. Although he was only an ex-ferryboat captain from Rumania, he alone spread more havoc through the Austro-Hungarian fleet in World War I than the remainder of the Italian Navy put together. With his single torpedo boat he upset the balance of naval power throughout the world, became a legend in ships’ wardrooms everywhere, and was paid the supreme flattery of having the enemy post a $50,000 gold bounty on his head, dead or alive.
Yet the Rizzo legend never really developed. Today, in one of the quirks of history, his name is virtually unknown to the public, even in Italy.
Perhaps that’s because Luigi Rizzo was an unlikely hero. He first went to sea because he was hungry. Escaping from his poverty-ridden family in Milazzo, Sicily, while still a boy, he smuggled himself into the galley of a Greek coastal steamer—unwanted and unmissed. He grew up on freighters, sailing the oceans first as cabin boy and then as able seaman. In his early 20’s he yearned for a captain’s job, but even a third officer’s berth in the Greek merchant marine seemed closed to him. He had no education, except what he had taught himself from books; he was shy and serious; and he stood hardly a frail five and a half feet tall. He impressed nobody.
Still, he got his captaincy. It was only the command of a ferryboat on the Danube, but it was probably the best position he could hope for, and Rizzo accepted it with no illusions. He prepared to devote his life to shuttling back and forth from shore to shore, and it looked as though even the start of World War I would never disturb this tranquil existence. Yet it wasn’t long before the itch for the fight got into Rizzo, and when Italy joined the Allied cause in 1915 and opened hostilities against Austria-Hungary, he slipped out of Rumania and volunteered for his own navy.
Because of his years at sea and his rank as “captain,” he was assigned a junior reserve commission. At that time, however, Italian naval officers were still gentlemen bred, and Rizzo’s Sicilian peasant origin counted against him. He was ignored socially and professionally, and he chafed restlessly for a chance to show what he could do. For a few men war is the great knock of opportunity. It was for Luigi Rizzo. The first tentative tap on his door came on May 24, 1917, only a few months after he had at last been assigned the command of a battered old corvette. In broad daylight he boldly sailed his ship under Austrian shore batteries in the Gulf of Trieste to capture a forced landing in a new type of seaplane.
The Italian press filled its front pages with praise for Rizzo. He was given a medal for his daring, but since his ship had been badly damaged and the plane sunk by enemy gunfire, the admirals promptly demoted this reckless little man to the Motobarche Anti-Sommergibili, the anti-sub torpedo boat patrol. It was another slap in the face for the boy from Milazzo.
Burning with rage, Rizzo took his his tiny new command into the Adriatic and slammed it through its paces. Its performance was not only good but sensational, and the little lieutenant began to think. A few weeks later, on a bright, cloudless morning, Rizzo and his single crewman in the tiny, stripped-down torpedo boat hurtled in front the open sea directly at the boom guarding the enemy’s harbor at Trieste. In the port were a half-dozen Austrian battleships and their cruiser and destroyer escorts—the cream of one of the world’s major navies. The astounded Austrian gunners on the flanks of the entrance began to track this impertinent little craft, its bow canted high out of the water, as they waited for the pilot to make his turn before the boom and expose himself to their fire. But the Italian boat did not turn.
Rizzo was again out to prove himself, and this time he had calculated carefully. His pair of torpedoes were mounted high above water, almost flush with the boat’s deck, and his hull had been specially plated and braced at just the right spot. As the Austrian machine guns began to flick around him he glanced back at his crewman at the wheel.
“Straight over,” he bellowed, and flung his arm toward the boom.
The boat hit the barrier with engine wide open. soared crazily through the air, and smacked down inside the enemy harbor undamaged. All hell broke loose. A thousand guns began to blast wildly at this single, incredibly small, darting Italian craft. Rizzo desperately tried to pick out a capital ship for his target. But an Austrian destroyer, just preparing to leave the harbor, swerved sharply toward him, and he barely avoided being run down. The destroyer let fly with everything from depth charges to pistols as it raced by. His crewman dropped in the cockpit, badly wounded, and Rizzo grabbed the wheel. In the vastness of the harbor he could make out no battleships, and luck was running out. Gunfire now lashed the surface around him to a foam. In sudden decision he spun the wheel hard over and aimed at the boom again. With a scraping crash the boat leaped the heavy barrier and roared away, riddled with shrapnel.
The unheard-of audacity of rocketing into the enemy’s Pearl Harbor at midday made the world’s headlines, and Rizzo was again lionized by the Italian public. But the Navy brass dismissed the little Sicilian’s efforts as another bit of sheer bravado. What had he achieved, after all, except to warn the Austrians that their port defenses needed tightening? To the admirals, however, the most irritating result of the feat was that dozens of hot-eyed junior officers, galled by the Italian Navy’s perpetual inaction, deluged Rizzo with suicidal plans for breaking open all the enemy’s harbors. The young skipper was enormously pleased, but with diplomatic courtesy he referred the young enthusiasts to the top brass. He hoped their neatly phrased cries for the offensive would needle the Navy heads into action. The admirals acted, all right. They promptly beached what they considered a wild man.
In his shore job Rizzo had plenty of time for thinking. His first decision was that he could no longer be much concerned with what the admirals thought of him. Freeing his mind of this restraint, he began exploring the full possibilities of carrying the sea war to the enemy, of pushing small-boat attacks to the ultimate. In the end be set himself a task; he would prove, by himself it need be, that the Italian Navy was a Navy. To date it had scored no kills; he resolved that it would.
Now that he knew his broad aim, he had to get back to sea again.
He managed this by promising not to attack the enemy’s harbors and to patrol only for submarines. He had no intention of breaking his word, but since no one had said anything against his making plans, he contrived to spend a number of dark and stormy nights 75 miles out from his home port on the other side of the Adriatic. His command now was the 1,600 horsepower 40-foot M.A.S. 9, much larger and more advanced than his first torpedo boat, and instead of one man he had a crew of six. Leaving the boat lying a mile or two off shore, he and several of his men swim into Trieste harbor to investigate its defenses in person. As a result of his previous daylight penetration of the port, Rizzo discovered, the enemy had installed a triple system of boom defenses strung with small mines. He carefully charted them.
In his spare time in his home port he haunted the Italian Navy’s fledgling air arm, poring over its photographs of enemy harbors and the ships within. Once he even talked his way aboard a reconnaissance flight as an observer, and from the rear cockpit of the lumbering biplane repeatedly tapped the pilot on the shoulder, gesturing for even lower passes over the great Austrian dreadnaughts at their customary moorings. Though Rizzo got all the information he wanted in short order, he could do nothing with it but wait. Still, he was optimistic. The time was certain to come when the tradition-bound admirals would have to listen. It came sooner than he had hoped—in November, 1917, as the Italian Army suffered disastrous reverses on the front at Caporetto, no great distance from Trieste. When the beaten Italians began to flee along coastal routes toward Venice, the Austrian Navy grabbed its opportunity. The battleships it Wien and Budapest boldly sortied from Trieste harbor and shelled the retreating troops on the roads.
The Italian Navy was caught in paralyzed surprise.
The Adriatic Sea, never more than 100 miles wide and narrowing to 25 where it empties into the Mediterranean proper at the heel of Italy’s boot, had always been considered a kind of no man’s land for battleships. But suddenly here were two of the enemy’s biggest warships dashing out day after day to blast the Italian land forces with complete impunity. It was true that the ships were protected by destroyers and a great mass of torpedo boats, but there was no serious menace to them. Italian naval strategy had kept its fleet at Taranto, in the heel of the boot, several hundred miles away. Its whole purpose was to prevent the Austrian fleet from getting into the Mediterranean. Now, even with the attack to the far North, it still was not lured from that aim. Instead, the Navy heads sent heavy guns mounted on barges and British shallow-draft monitors to face the Wien and the Budapest. The battleships contemptuously knocked them all out.
And so, taunted by the press and the Army, and goaded by the protests of his own young officers, the Italian admiral in command of the Adriatic reluctantly approved the weird plan submitted to him by a reserve officer noted for his stubborn recklessness. At 5:10 on the afternoon of December 9, 1917, Luigi Rizzo conned the M.A.S. 9 out of its lagoon at Venice, with a sister craft under command of his friend Andrea Ferrarini trailing to starboard. Both torpedo boats carried crews of six, two 18-inch torpedoes, a half-dozen depth charges, and a heavy machine gun each.
By midnight the two boats had slipped close to Trieste, and now they lay silent on the dark Adriatic, letting the current drift them in. Less than half an hour later they had come so near the mole at the entrance to the harbor that they could hear the laughter of the Austrian sentries patrolling it. Rizzo marveled that they did not spot the blackened boats, but there was no moon and the guards were confident.
“Swimmers overboard,” he whispered.
Noiseless with the skill of a hundred rehearsals, the crew slipped cautiously into the sea one by one. Gently they eased the two boats toward the shelter of one of the huge buoys holding up the first of the three booms barring the entrance.
Within minutes every man in the two boats, including Rizzo, was quietly at work attacking the barriers with saws and heavy cutters. The outer one was a reinforced log boom floating on the surface. The second was a cable stretched a foot or so above water 150 yards farther in and intended specifically to catch any more jumping speedboats. The last barrier, a “sleeper” cable, lay just under the surface ready to rip the bottom out of anything that had crashed the first two booms. It had been discovered only by accident on one of the last reconnoitering swims a month earlier, and Rizzo recognized it as perhaps the most dangerous of the obstacles because there would not be time to cut it.
To the men, however, disarming the small mines attached to all three barriers was by far the most harrowing task. Two men on each boat had undergone special training for the job, but now they were working underwater in the black of night, with the bitter cold of December slicing into their bones. Fingers supposed to work delicately and steadily shivered and clutched at the fuses.
When a man could stand the cold for no longer, he slipped back to his boat and hauled out with no more noise than a slight drip. In each cabin was a battery of kerosene heaters, and with a few minutes thaw be was ready to go again. There was no one to check on how long a man stayed, but there were no shirkers. Both crews knew what was at stake. A dog barked, and every man stopped motionless. In a moment the dog was still, but when the light rasp of the cutting began again with the dog let go with full cry. After a few more attempts it was obvious that whenever they moved the dog would bark.
Rizzo debated abandoning the mission. He was risking the lives, he felt, of 13 other men because of that dog. Suddenly he heard one of the Austrian sentries step out of his hut to curse the dog soundly, but when the guard slammed the door behind him, it was apparent he was only annoyed, not warned.
Rizzo chuckled silently and nudged the man next to him to get on with the job. The word was passed along.
At a few minutes after 2 the first and second booms had been cut and the mines untriggered. Without a sound the men urged the two boats throughout he harbor gap toward the uncut underwater cable. There was an ominous scrape as the M.A.S. 9 struck the cable — and dragged to a dead stop. Rizzo held his breath. Dimly he could hear the dog yap once more on the mole, but nothing happened.
“Stand at the cable,” he whispered to his men. “Three on each side.”
The cable sagged as half his crew clustered around him, gripping the boat and each other for balance. Deliberately, hand over hand, they floated the boat over. Then they clambered aboard while Ferrarini’s boat repeated the performance.
They were inside the Trieste’s defenses—and free.
The current pushed them on. Slowly, they drifted into the center of the harbor. Although the surface of the water was black, Rizzo could see the silhouettes of the anchored warships against the faint glow of the sky. It was not long before he had identified the Wien, primly snugged to her proper mooring, with a weak stern light glowing. After her lay the Budapest.
He grunted in exultation. Here he was loose in what could certainly be called the bosom of the enemy—with four torpedoes for the two capital ships. In minutes —with luck—their guns would never kill another Italian.
Rizzo knew that he had one definite advantage.
The Austrians, in building their own torpedo boats, had done little more than copy the Italian types. The silhouettes were almost identical, and the watch aboard the ships could easily take Rizzo’s boats for their own.
“Start engines,” he whispered hoarsely to Ferrarini.
There was a momentary roar as one engine, then the other, came to life and was abruptly throttled down to a low rumble. With a tiny shielded light Rizzo signaled the second boat to follow, and he moved ahead at idling speed.
Would anyone hear the motors, he wondered. Would anyone pay them heed if he did?
During his aerial reconnaissance Rizzo had made out a system of anti-torpedo nets protecting each battleship. He thought he had found a weak spot, however, and he cruised slowly around the slumbering Wien until he reached it. Killing his engine. he signaled Ferrarini to move off for the Budapest. With his own engine silent, Ferrarini’s engine sounded like a burglar alarm to Rizzo. But there was no questioning hail from the Wien.
Rizzo’s craft was now pointed directly at the great battleship’s middle, 100 yards away. He had brought the M.A.S. 9 around so that she lay between the port and the dreadnaught. This was the weak spot–apparently no torpedo nets had been strung on the shore side of the ship. With a kind of complacent efficiency the Austrians had decided the water here was much too shallow to hide an enemy submarine, and certainly the shore defenses could handle an attacking small boat, if that fantastic possibility should ever come to pass again.
But was the battleship really a sitting duck? Rizzo wondered. It never paid to underestimate an enemy. He beckoned to his best swimmer.
“Go in,” he whispered, and see if there are any nets—or any kind of torpedo protection. Don’t go too close—and for heaven’s sakes don’t let the watch on the ship spot you.” He paused a moment as the man shed his warm coat. “Listen,” he said, clutching the man’s arm. “If you are discovered I will have to fire the torpedoes. You know what that means.”
The swimmer clapped his hand on Rizzo’s arm and nodded. Then he was gone. His breast stroke left hardly a ripple in the water. Minutes passed. A powerful searchlight on the Wien’s bridge suddenly flicked on.
Rizzo stopped breathing, and a crewman gasped. The light played about indecisively, while the men in the torpedo boat waited for the inevitable moment when it would settle on them. It did not. Instead it swept out over the bay in the opposite direction, probing across the harbor entrance where the booms had been cut only a short time before. The distance was too far for the unsuspecting watch to note anything wrong, and the light moved on.
An agony of indecision hung over Rizzo. Should he fire now, while the dreadnaught lay under his torpedo tubes, before he himself became the target of Trieste ‘s awakened gunners? Should he risk the mission by waiting? What if the Wien was girdled by unseen nets? And what about his swimmer? What about the chance that he would spoil Ferrarini’s shot at the Budapest?
The searchlight studied the opposite side of the bay, feeling its inlets and irregularities with a great light finger. The sailor behind it apparently had not yet thought to check the area between the battleship and the sleeping port. But he would—it was hopeless to think he might not. Rizzo and his men crouched out of sight in their cockpit, as if by this action they became more invisible.
There was the faintest splash in the water alongside. In a moment the gasping swimmer had pulled himself up on the stern and lay among them. Rizzo bent over swiftly and put his lips to the man’s ear.
“Any nets?” he demanded.
“No,” the swimmer puffed, struggling for breath. “I almost touched her side. “There’s nothing.”
Rizzo hissed with relief. Even if the searchlight caught them, they should be able to get of a torpedo. He glanced at his watch. It was 2:30. He turned to his engineer to give an order. And at that instant the searchlight went out. Rizzo could not believe it, and in the cockpit there was a numb silence among the men. Then the tension drained so quickly it was as though a bubble had broken. One could feel, if not hear, the soundless cheers. The commander hesitated a moment, speculating now where to lay his deadly cargo. At 2:35 a blast crashed open the night and a white flash sparked across the harbor. Ferrarini had attacked at last.
“Start engines!” Rizzo bellowed, his voice reaching clearly across the water to the Wien. The engine caught and raced at full throttle. If he could get to within 75 yards it would not matter.
The water leaped out of the way of the sudden driving surge of the boat. Rizzo raised his hand, a slow smile on his face. This was the moment.
He brought his arm down sharply. The torpedoes splashed and hissed arrow-straight for the fat Wien’s inviting side. Abruptly the torpedo boat sheered off, and then, in almost suicidal but understandable curiosity, it slowed nearly to a stop. The men watched fascinated as the twin lines of white bubbles bored through the gloom until they disappeared beside the victim.
Rizzo’s mind revolved through a tumult of exultation and abysmal doubt that the Austrians would have left one of their most prized ships so badly protected—particularly after the warning that he himself had given them with his first raid. There must be some kind of net just outside the ship itself which his swimmer missed. All their efforts would then have been for nothing, because certainly they would never have this chance again—if they survived.
Two bright flashes of light cut his agony short. A prolonged hollow boom momentarily deafened him as the two torpedoes went off almost together, and he could see two giant columns of water rising majestically into the air as the huge ship heeled with the blow. Then the torpedo-boat crewmen were hugging one another, screaming congratulations and “Long live the King!”. . .
M.A.S. 9 had won. Her torpedoes had torn two great holes in the Austrian battleship’s port side, just aft of mid-ships. Water foamed in, and the Wien began to list immediately as alarm bells jangled furiously and lights flashed on throughout the ship.
The torpedo boat circled slowly, seemingly hypnotized at what it had wrought. The list of the battleship increased. Men rushing up from below started jumping into the water. Searchlights roamed crazily across the bay as shore defenses woke up. Anti-aircraft guns fired aimlessly into the air.
A cloud of steam belched from the Wien’s boiler room even as one of its searchlights pinpointed the torpedo boat. Only then did Rizzo jam the throttle home. The tiny boat lurched forward, hardly ahead of the small-arms fire that flared up on the near shore. In moments it was out of range, racing for the far buoy and the opening in the booms.
On the mole at the harbor entrance the sentries stood transfixed at the scene. They seemed hardly to notice the M.A.S. 9 as its crew leaped over to bear down the still obstructing third cable, while Ferrarini’s craft disappeared ahead into the night. In the floodlit scene behind them the torpedo-boat crew could see the end of the Wien. The battleship tipped sharply, her lights went out, and with a great sucking, hissing roar she rolled over on her side like a sick cow and plunged heavily to the bottom of the harbor. As Rizzo’s men piled back into their boat they let loose a wild cheer, and only then did one of the sentries fire a shot. It plunged harmlessly into the wake of the torpedo boat.
Rizzo reached Venice at 7 a.m. to find himself a hero. Air reconnaissance just after dawn had told the story, and later reports were that the Wien had gone down in seven minutes with a loss of 46 dead and 17 injured. The Budapest was badly damaged. With a more difficult firing angle Ferrarini had scored with only one torpedo, but it served the purpose. Admiral Worthy of the Austro-Hungarian fleet later was to have the Budapest towed to the port of Pola, 75 miles south, where it was filled with concrete and sunk in shallow water to serve as part of the permanent harbor defense.
Rizzo, as the architect of what was surely one of the most lop-sided naval victories of all time, was promoted to commander, presented the Gold Medal, Italy’s highest award, and feted in public as never before.
Even the admirals broke down happily with apologies and congratulations. On the other hand, the Austrians, outraged that this man should have plunged so boldly into Trieste once more, paid Rizzo the flattering compliment of putting a price on his head—$50,000 in gold, dead or alive.
And there history might well have left Luigi Rizzo, a poor Sicilian boy now the most sought-after guest for swank Roman parties, and a commander with a torpedo-boat flotilla of his own. But a strange twist of fate on the misty morning of June 10, 1918, almost exactly six months later, brought Rizzo and Austria’s battleships together again.
Rizzo’s boat, the M.A.S. 15, together with the M.A.S. 21, had left Venice on a routine patrol running some distance down the coast of what is now Yugoslavia. They expected no encounters, since the Austrians still seemed frantically busy guarding their harbors after the disaster at Trieste.
In the first light of dawn Rizzo sighted a cloud of smoke on his starboard quarter—well astern. Suspecting that he had been observed by enemy sentinels on Gruiza Island, he inferred that the smoke came from destroyers sent out to sink him.
Torpedo boats do not generally mix with destroyers if they can help it. But Rizzo and his partner had been on patrol all night. They did not have enough gas for a protracted run down the Adriatic to escape the enemy. With only one course open, the two Italian boats turned directly to the attack, hoping to race through the enemy in the still uncertain light and cut across the top of the Adriatic Italy.
Rizzo approached at medium speed to avoid a foaming bow wave which might reveal him earlier than necessary. Suddenly, with a sharp pang of anticipation, he began to wonder if the “destroyers” were not something more important. Too much black smoke hung just over the horizon. He circled out a bit, with the M.A.S. 21 keeping on his port, to approach the enemy from the flank. A small island intervened and the two Italian craft spun around it. Now they moved toward the oncoming fleet from a more shallow angle. Though fading night still darkened the air, it had become plain what they faced. Rizzo, writing about the encounter later, recalled how it happened.
“I could not believe my eyes when I saw two battleships, escorted by 10 or 12 Austrian boats similar to ours. I knew the first battleship was the Szent Istvan, and so, without thinking about it too much, I put on more speed to cut in between the first two Austrian torpedo boats. We could see their crews plainly but none of them seemed to pay much attention to us. Perhaps they thought we were Austrian, delivering a message to the Szent Istvan.”
“Suddenly I realized that it was possible, that we were not going to be challenged. I jammed on full speed and in a minute found myself unexpectedly 100 yards inside the protecting line. Then I knew we had her.”
“At 300 yards I fired the torpedoes. Both struck the Szent Istvan, one directly amidships between the funnels, the other half way between the after funnel and the stern. I could not understand why the ship did not maneuver to avoid them. As the torpedoes detonated, huge pillars of smoke and water rose out of the sea.”
Rizzo had hardly a second to savor the spectacle. Gunfire began to explode around him on all sides.
“The enemy torpedo boat on my port quarter turned to cut me off, but succeeded only in crossing my wake about 150 yards behind. She opened fire, but the aim was too high and all of her shells landed ahead of me.”
Despite the hot pursuit, Rizzo stole a glance at the stricken battleship. Ammunition seemed to be exploding aboard her, and she was listing slightly, stopped dead in the sea. The second battleship, the Tegetthoff, had come up on the other side of her, screened by the remaining torpedo craft.
Nothing could be seen of the M.A.S. 21, which had fired both her fish at the Tegetthoff—and missed. The Austrian torpedo boat angrily dogging Rizzo proved to be faster, and in a few moments she had crept noticeably closer. Rizzo grew desperate, since he did not have even a machine gun aboard. He yanked at the throttle, but it was already wide open. Yard by yard the pursuing enemy crept up as the two boats bucked across the choppy Adriatic.
His position seemed hopeless to Rizzo. All he could do, he thought, was to turn sharply and try to ram the enemy. But he was aware that this would be at best a futile gesture; even if it was successful, they would simply all drown together here on the open sea. Yet that was better than sinking under the Austrian shells.
Then inspiration burst on the little Italian. He did have a weapon. With a crewman he hauled a tarpaulin over the boat’s stern to cover his movements. He had noticed that the pursuing craft kept directly in his wake. Now he set the fuse on a depth charge, and, hidden from the Austrians, carefully eased the bomb overboard without a splash. He watched gleefully. Nothing happened. The charge had failed to go off. An Austrian shell splashed a wave over him, and frenziedly he dived under the tarpaulin again to drop another bomb set for a shallower depth. This time he waited under the canvas, ready with still a third charge. But a jolt and a thunderous roar and a triumphant cry from his crew brought him out.
The charge had exploded directly under the enemy’s bow. Portions of the Austrian craft rained down on the sea. Rizzo slowed and swung his boat back to the shattered wreckage. There was no one alive. He dropped another depth bomb as a salute to a brave enemy and turned slowly home.
Two hours later and miles away Austrian newsreel cameramen aboard the Tegetthoff recorded the last moments of the 21,400-ton Szent Istvan as she listed to starboard, her decks sharply aslant despite the big 12-inch turret guns trained to port as a counterweight. The Szent Istvan’s captain tried until the last to save her, but with dramatic suddenness the dreadnaught capsized and slid into the Adriatic on her beam ends. Four officers and 85 men of her complement of 1,000 went down with her.
How had it happened? What were two great enemy battleships doing loose at sea? Admiral Nicolas Horthy, a proud and able man who later served Hungary as chief of state for many years, had in the climactic months of 1918 planned a master stroke which might well have altered the outcome of the war.
In one of the most successful naval ruses ever attempted, the entire Austrian battle fleet in the harbor at Pola hand been replaced by merchant ships camouflaged to look like warships. Italian aerial patrols had been completely deceived. Four Austrian battleships, three battle cruisers, four light cruisers, eight destroyers and twelve submarines thus were free in the Adriatic unknown to the Allies, and ready to rendezvous for a breakout into the Mediterranean.
Pure chance had brought Rizzo within sight of the Szent Istvan that misty morning. Sheer genius had let him sink her.
With that, Horthy, convinced the game was up, called his fleet back to Pola. The enemy never ventured out again.
But there was a further and even more important effect from the sinking. Inexplicably the films of the Szent Istvan in her death throes were shown throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its many diverse peoples reacted violently. Rioting broke out first in Vienna and then spread through the port cities and inland. Finally the enemy fleet itself, racked by Czech, Polish and Slav national factions and the sheer defeatism inspired by the widely publicized sinking, fell apart in mutiny—and the empire itself began to break up.
This was the history that a little Sicilian peasant, an ex-ferryboat captain, helped make by sinking two battleships practically singlehanded. He deserves to be remembered.