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Franz Josef's Forgotten U-Boat Captains

John Harbron argues the Austro-Hungarian navy, manned by multi-national crews, not only worked, but worked well in the First World War.

Lieutenant Georg Ludwig von Trapp on the bridge of U-5.The fifty U-boat captains of the Imperial and Royal Navy of Austria-Hungary from the creation of its submarine corps in 1909 to the fleet's dissolution in 1918 are long forgotten, as is the imperial navy in which they served defending the multi-ethnic Habsburg empire.

Yet, in the 1,000th anniversary year of the founding of Austria, they deserve to be remembered. Their skill at sea made them among the most successful U-boat skippers of the First World War. And in our own era of unremitting racial genocide in the former Yugoslavia, we admire them for their success as commanders of U-boats whose officers and men came from the many nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian empire, yet remained loyal to navy and state until their final collapse in October 1918.

'The warship of Austria-Hungary was a floating mechanism of the monarchy as a whole with most nationalities represented in a single crew', writes Lawrence Sondhaus, a US specialist on Austro-Hungarian seapower. Hence, a U-boat captain of; say, Hungarian (Magyar), Czech or German (Austrian) origin would command a crew composed mainly of Croats, all citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy. By 1914, most officers in the Kaiserliche and Königliche Kriegsmarine (Imperial and Royal Navy) of the Dual Monarchy – (he world's sixth largest fleet of dreadnought battleships, cruisers, destroyers and submarines – spoke at least three languages.

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