- Smith, Peter
- Biographies and personal histories, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2000 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
At least once a year, somewhere in Australia, the Oscar winning movie “The Sound of Music” is aired on television. Many members are aware of the main plot; the story of a nun, who as a governess, founded the Trapp Family Singers. How many members are aware of the sub plot and why the German Gestapo wanted Baron George Ritter von Trapp back in Germany?
The Baron’s story begins in 1908, when as a young Lieutenant in the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Navy, he was sent to Fiume to study torpedoes and submarine construction.
Englishman, Robert Whitehead was appointed the technical director of the Stabilimento Tecnico Triestino, which became the leading shipyard in the Austrian Empire. It was here in Fiume that he produced the Luppis torpedo, which was later perfected to the free running locomotive torpedo, sold under licence as the Whitehead Torpedo to world fleets including the Royal Navy.
The dashing young naval officer soon caught the eye of the young debutantes, but it was the eldest granddaughter of Robert Whitehead, Agathe, residing at Villa Whitehead who became the Baron’s companion. They were married in 1911 and moved to the Baron’s villa in Pola. Agathe died in 1922 from diphtheria, leaving the Baron to raise seven children; it is from here that the former nun Baroness Maria Augusta von Kutchera was engaged as governess.
On completion of his studies, the Austrian Admiralty sent von Trapp to take command of Torpedo Boat 52 where he quickly demonstrated his professional ability and was soon known as the Navy’s “Torpedo Ace”. Later, he was appointed commanding officer of U-Boat V.
U-V was a Whitehead-Holland type U-Boat (which was practically identical to the Electric Boat Company’s US Navy `C’ class petrol driven submarine) built in Fiume in 1909 and incidentally, launched by Agathe Whitehead.
During World War One, Allied naval ships began to blockade the Adriatic against the Austro-Hungarian ships and von Trapp became one of the first submarine captains to attack shipping at night. At a little after midnight of 26/27 April 1915, while in the Straits of Otranto, the French Armoured Class Cruiser `Leon Gambetta’ was sighted. U-V was manoeuvred into a favourable position before diving (due to petrol fumes the U-boat had a diving time of only several minutes). Two Whitehead torpedoes were fired. Von Trapp watched as both detonated, sending the 12,500 ton cruiser to the bottom with a loss of 684 officers and sailors from a crew of 821. Von Trapp also sank the Italian troop transport ship Principe Umberto, drowning 2000 soldiers.
On 5 August 1915, the Italian Nautilus Class submarine Nereide was encountered and sunk under the cliffs of the island of Pelagosa which had been captured by the Italians. Von Trapp claimed one more victim, a Greek steamer. On 14 August 1915 von Trapp was appointed to command the much larger U-XIV, the former French submarine Curie of the “Brumaire Class”. The submarine had been captured after it became entangled in the harbour defences at the entrance to the port of Pola. It was salvaged and while in refit much of its machinery was replaced or improved. Von Trapp was able to improve on the boat’s torpedo systems. During his command, von Trapp was to wage a successful war, between July and October 1917 sinking nine merchant ships, which included the 11,500-ton liner Milazza, an Italian troop transport, the largest merchant ship sunk by his navy during the war. Von Trapp was one of only several officers to be decorated Knight of the Order of Maria Teresa.
At the end of WWI, U-V was interned at Venice and taken over by the Italian Navy. U-XIV was handed back to the French.
When Austria signed the Treaty of Saint-Germain on 10 September 1919 her coastline from Trieste to Cattaro was ceded to both Italy and Yugoslavia. With Austria now a land locked country there was no need for a Navy. Baron von Trapp found himself out of a job, so he returned to the Dalmatian port of Zara (where he was born in 1880). His birthplace was made an enclave of Italy in 1919. He became an Italian citizen and accepted a Government Pension, which is rather ironic, as Italy was his chief wartime enemy.
Von Trapp married his children’s governess Maria in 1927 and moved to Salzburg; their life was simple with the fledgling Trapp Family Singers supplementing their income until Germany declared war in 1939.
Due to the limitations on the German Navy by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Germany did not realise that there were major flaws in their torpedoes. After many complaints of failures to detonate, even after replacing new magnetic pistols and new setting instructions, U-boat commanding officers were still reporting torpedo failures. It was then remembered that the former Austro-Hungarian “Torpedo Ace” and in-law of the famous Whitehead Family was quietly enjoying his retirement. The Gestapo was sent to Austria to bring the Baron back to Germany to help sort out the U-boat torpedo problem.
As the movie showed us, the Baron and his family evaded the Gestapo and escaped to Switzerland. However this is not true as they made their escape through Italy to North America, where they settled in Stowe, Vermont, USA where the Baron built the Trapp Family Lodge as an elite New England ski resort. He died in 1947 from lung cancer attributed to his time in submarines and did not see the rise of the Trapp Family Singers or the mainly inaccurate movie of his family’s life.
The editors are indebted to Peter Smith, Hon. Secretary of the Submariners Association, for permission to reproduce this article printed in its newsletter “7n Depth” – Vol. 20, No. 1 of January 2000.