- A.N. Other
- History - general, Biographies and personal histories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2012 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Peter Judge
The September 2011 edition of the Naval Historical Review contained an interesting summary on submarine warfare which brings into perspective some little known facts concerning Baron von Trapp the hero of the recent revival of the musical Sound of Music. To many it is difficult to believe that von Trapp was a WW1 submarine ace in now land-locked Austria with a navy and submarines. However it appears that in WW1 the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Navy had a sizeable fleet of 6 submarines, as well as 4 Dreadnoughts, 9 Pre-dreadnoughts, 4 Coastal defence ships, 3 Armoured cruisers, 6 Light cruisers, 30 Destroyers and 36 Torpedo boats.
Where did it sail all those ships? Modern Austria has no seacoast, but at the beginning of the 19th century its territory encompassed Venice and the countries along the eastern rim of the Adriatic Sea. Its first naval cadet academy was founded in Venice in 1802, moving to Trieste in 1858 and then to Fiume on the Croatian coast, where it remained until WW1. The navy’s main base became the port of Pola (now Pula), at the tip of the Istria peninsula in modern Croatia. Before WW1 it fought a number of minor actions against Denmark, Italy and in the Boxer rebellion, and also took part in scientific expeditions in the Arctic and around the world. However at the end of WW1, when Austria lost all access to the sea, rather than surrender its ships to the victors, the entire fleet and its shore establishments were handed over to the new state of Slovenes, Serbs and Croats.
Korvettenkapitän (equal to Lieutenant Commander) Georg Ludwig Ritter von Trapp was the son of an Austrian naval officer who followed his father into the imperial navy, entering the academy at Fiume in 1894, aged 14. He graduated four years later – visiting Australia in one of his post-graduate training voyages. As a junior officer in an armoured cruiser, he was decorated for his performance during the Boxer Rebellion. Submarines fascinated him, and in 1908 he transferred to the newly-formed U-boat arm, taking command in 1910 of the brand-new U-6, which had been christened by Agathe Whitehead, granddaughter of Robert Whitehead, the English inventor of the torpedo. Von Trapp commanded successively three submarines during WW1, conducting in all 19 war patrols in which he sank 11 cargo vessels, a French armoured cruiser and an Italian submarine. At the end of WW1, with no more navy, he lost his job, at just 38 years old.
It seems however that he had also taken command of Agathe, whose inherited fortune enabled him to start a family – Rupert in November 1911 at Pola, then six more through to 1921. But Agathe died in 1922, of scarlet fever caught from her eldest daughter. In 1926 the young Maria Kutschera was brought in from nearby Nonnberg Abbey to tutor the second daughter, who was sick and unable to attend school. The following year the 47-year-old Baron married this 22-year-old tutor, with whom he was to have three more children between 1929 and 1939. The money from his first wife had been safely invested in a London bank, but to help a friend he transferred it to an ailing Austrian bank from which he lost almost all of it. Maria then took charge and began to arrange singing engagements to help their finances, building on the family hobby.
In 1936 he was offered a commission in the German navy but, being firmly anti-Nazi, he refused. Although this refusal put him in no danger, the family decided to leave Germany – not stealthily from Salzburg across the mountains (that route would have taken them into Bavaria, not Switzerland!), but comfortably by train to Italy. Von Trapp had been born in a region of the Tirol that became Italian, so that the whole family enjoyed dual citizenship.
Their first concert tour in the USA followed. They went back to Europe to tour Scandinavia in 1939, returning to Salzburg for a few months before finishing their tour. Then to the USA again in September 1939, eventually settling in Vermont. Von Trapp died there of lung cancer in 1947, aged 67; Maria outlived her husband by 40 years.