WWI Centennial: Disaster At Caporetto

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 291st installment in the series.

October 24-27, 1917: Disaster At Caporetto

In the spring and summer of 1917, the momentum of events in the First World War seemed to favor the Allies. The U.S. and Greece joined the war, a democratic revolution promised to revive Russia, and the British put the Germans on the defensive again at Passchendaele in Flanders. Just a few months later, however, the tables had turned in dramatic fashion: although American troops began arriving in relatively modest numbers, the British Flanders offensive was flailing in the autumn mud and Russia was teetering on the verge of another (far more radical) revolution.

Then, on October 24-27, 1917, the other shoe dropped. A combined Austro-German force launched a crushing offensive on the Italian front, achieving a successful breakthrough and the near-collapse of the Italian Army. Caporetto is commemorated as one of the worst battlefield defeats suffered by either side during the war, with the virtual destruction of the Italian Second Army ranked alongside debacles like the annihilation of the Russian Second Army at Tannenberg, the collapse of Austria-Hungary’s armies during the Brusilov Offensive of 1916, and the shattering of the British Fifth Army in March 1918 during the final German onslaught. Thanks to Caporetto and the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd, by the end of 1917—after more than three years of war—the fortunes of the Allies had never been at a lower ebb.

Crisis and Complacency

Following the surprise Italian victory at the Sixth Battle of Isonzo, which saw the fall of the town of Gorizia, stasis returned to the front until the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo in August-September 1917, when the Italians once again managed to push the Habsburg defenders of the First and Second Isonzo Armies back near Montefalcone (though once again the gains came at an astronomical cost in human blood, including 30,000 Italian and 20,000 Habsburg dead).

The Italian conquest of the strategic Bainsizza Plateau during the Eleventh Isonzo threatened to isolate several Habsburg mountain strongholds, endangering Austro-Hungarian control of nearby Tolmein and the Slovenian hinterland to the east. Meanwhile, after 11 bloody battles, the Austro-Hungarian armies on the Isonzo Front were finally stretched to the breaking point. In short, the Central Powers could no longer neglect the Italian front.


Erik Sass

At the same time, the Habsburg military had new leadership at the very top. The young, reform-minded Emperor Karl I had succeeded his uncle Franz Josef on the latter’s death on November 21, 1916, and in March 1917 Karl sacked the imperious chief of the Imperial general staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf—one of the main advocates of war with Serbia in 1914, who had frequently butted heads with the empire’s civilian leadership, not to mention his equally imperious German colleagues.

Karl replaced Conrad with General Arz von Straussenberg, who had worked closely with the Germans on the Eastern Front and earned their trust. Straussenberg’s good relations with the German leaders, chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his own chief of staff, quartermaster general Erich Ludendorff, helped secure seven German divisions from the Eastern Front to bolster the overstretched Austro-Hungarian armies and spearhead a new attack on the Italian Front. The German contribution to the hybrid Austro-German Fourteenth Army, which remained totally under German command, included the elite Alpenkorps, specializing in mountain combat. The Austro-Hungarian Army contributed 10 divisions to the Fourteenth Army, as well as the Austro-Hungarian Second Isonzo Army (previously part of the Fifth Army under Svetovar Boroevic), Tenth Army, and Eleventh Army.

The arrival of 140,000 battle-hardened German assault infantry raised morale among their overtaxed Habsburg allies, and would soon strike fear in the hearts of their foes, according to Ernest Hemingway, whose character Lt. Frederic Henry observes in A Farewell to Arms (based on Hemingway’s own experiences as an ambulance driver on the Italian front): “The word Germans was something to be frightened of. We did not want to have anything to do with the Germans.”

The Germans and Austrians took elaborate precautions to conceal the movement of new troops to the front, as recounted by Erwin Rommel, then a 25-year-old lieutenant whose Württemberg Mountain Battalion, an elite assault unit, would play a major role in the victory:

Because of enemy aerial reconnaissance each prescribed march objective had to be reached before daybreak at which time all men and animals had to be concealed in the most uncomfortable and inadequate accommodations imaginable. These night marches made great demands on the poorly fed troops. My detachment consisted of three mountain companies and a machine gun company, and I usually marched on foot with my staff at the head of the long column.

The Central Powers’ attack at Caporetto would enjoy stunning success in large part thanks to storm trooper units like Rommel’s, using new “infiltration” tactics developed by German Army captain Willy Rohr beginning in the spring of 1915, refined at Verdun in 1916, and recently employed by the German Eighth Army under General Oskar von Hutier at Riga in September 1917.

The new combat technique centered on small, highly trained groups of Stosstruppen (stormtroopers) armed with machine guns, rifles, grenades, mortars, and even field guns, who would penetrate deep behind enemy lines following intense but localized heavy artillery bombardments, in order to neutralize enemy machine guns and artillery before the main infantry assault. The stormtroopers typically bypassed enemy strongpoints whenever possible, leaving them to be surrounded and destroyed by a second wave of larger assault squads with heavy weaponry, and enabling the stormtroopers to keep moving to sow chaos in the rear (below, a German assault platoon rests during the battle).


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

For his part the Italian chief of the general staff, Luigi Cadorna, ignored repeated warnings of an impending enemy attack, noting the arrival of snow in the Julian Alps and ordering Italian troops to stay on the defensive before going on holiday in Venice in mid-October. Cadorna was confident that the Austrian attack would come 50 miles south of the Isonzo, on the Carso Plateau. Away from headquarters and distracted by growing political opposition to his command in Rome, he also failed to discern that one of his army commanders, General Capello, hadn’t move the Second Army to a defensive footing—leaving a large number of his troops forward deployed on the far (eastern) bank of the Isonzo River, where they could be stranded if the bridges fell. In many areas Italian defenses were discontinuous, with hillside trenches broken by outcroppings, gorges, and other rough terrain—making them perfect targets for infiltration techniques.

Amid heavy autumn rains the Austro-German hammer blow fell at 2 a.m. on October 24, 1917, when artillery unleashed a terrifying bombardment that some German soldiers said exceeded Verdun or the Somme. Even Rommel and his colleagues seemed impressed:

It was a dark and rainy night and in no time a thousand gun muzzles were flashing on both sides of Tolmein. In the enemy territory an uninterrupted bursting and banging thundered and reechoed from the mountains as powerfully as the severest thunderstorm. We saw and heard this tremendous activity with amazement. The Italian searchlights tried vainly to pierce the rain, and the expected enemy interdiction fire of the area around Tolmein did not materialize.

That was probably due in part to the deadly combination of phosgene and chlorine gas shells that overwhelmed Italian soldiers, many of whom failed to put on their gasmasks because the yellow gas blended invisibly into the heavy mountain fog. By dawn Rommel and his assault team, whose mission was to protect the flank of the Bavarian Life Guards in a dangerous mountain assault, were moving forward to their jumping-up points:

A few shells struck on both sides of the long column of files without doing any damage. The column halted close to the front line. We were frozen and soaked to the skin and everyone hoped the jump-off would not be delayed. But the minutes passed slowly. In the last quarter hour before the attack the fire increased to terrific violence. A profusion of bursting shells veiled the hostile positions a few hundred yards ahead of us in vapor and a gray pall of smoke.

At 6 a.m. Italian secondary lines were under fire, and German and Austrian assault groups began appearing in mountain valleys along the Tolmein portion of the Isonzo front, indicating a major assault was under way. However, Italian communications had already been severed by artillery fire in many places, preventing the still-confident Cadorna from learning how serious the situation really was.


Erik Sass

After jumping off at 8 a.m., Rommel’s unit passed through the smoldering remains of the Italian front line and swiftly ascended the spoke-like ranges around Mount Mrzli, towering over the Isonzo. On encountering a well-sited Italian strongpoint, Rommel simply moved laterally and continued infiltration techniques over the craggy terrain until he found favorable ground for an attack—using vegetation, outcroppings, and other natural features to shield his troop movements from enemy observation and fire, while platoons provided covering fire for each other as they advanced.


German Federal Archives, Image 146-1970-073-25 // CC-BY-SA 3.0

Of course the terrain provided risks of its own. Early in the ascent the Rommel detachment’s armed advance scout, or “point,” accidentally dislodged a small boulder:

At this moment a hundred-pound block of stone tumbled down on top of us. The draw was only 10 feet wide and dodging was difficult and escape impossible. In the fraction of a second it was clear that whoever was hit by the boulder would be pulverized. We all pressed against the left wall of the fold. The rock zigzagged between us and on downhill, without even scratching a single man.

Attracting the attention of large numbers of Italian frontline troops could be fatal, so the stormtroopers focused on enemy units that directly impeded their continuing ascent over the ridgelines. Later in the morning, Rommel used a favorite tactic—deception—to turn a dangerous Italian defensive position protecting an unsuspecting garrison:

I singled out Lance Corporal Kiefner, a veritable giant; gave him eight men, and told him to move down the path as if he and his men were Italians returning from up front, to penetrate into the hostile position and capture the garrison on both sides of the path. There were to do this with a minimum of shooting and hand grenade-throwing … Their rhythmical steps died away and we began to speculate on their success … Again long, anxious minutes passed and we heard nothing but the steady rain on the trees. Then steps approached, and a soldier reported in a low voice: “The Kiefner scouts squad has captured a hostile dugout and taken 17 Italians and a machine gun. The garrison suspects nothing.”

And still Rommel pressed on. After capturing an isolated garrison and taking around 60 prisoners, the German mountain assault team returned to the advance, penetrating deep behind the Italian frontlines:

Our thousand-yard column worked its way forward in the pouring rain, moving from bush to bush, climbing up concealed in hollows and draws, and seizing one position after another. There was no organized resistance and we usually took a hostile position from the rear. Those who did not surrender upon our surprise appearance fled head over heels into the lower woods, leaving their weapons behind. We did not fire on this fleeing enemy for fear of alarming the garrison of positions located still higher up.

Further south, as the Italian defenses collapsed, Caporetto fell to the advancing enemy at 3 p.m., and at 3:30 the retreating Italians blew up the bridge over the Isonzo. However, these defensive measures were belated or irrelevant: the German Fourteenth Army advanced with almost unprecedented speed, and by later afternoon the Germans had occupied the Isonzo Valley while forward units were seizing control of mountain slopes far to the west of Caporetto.

Yet as late as 6 p.m., Cadorna, isolated at his headquarters in Udine, still believed that the attack was a feint to distract from the main enemy offensive on the Carso. Only as October 24 drew to a close did the Italian chief of the general staff grasp the scale of the unfolding disaster, as news arrived that 14 infantry regiments had been pulverized and some 20,000 Italian soldiers taken prisoner, along with ominous reports of mass insubordination and desertion in several divisions.

Over the next three days, from October 25-27, 1917, the Germans brought up artillery and mounted additional attacks to exploit the breakthrough, capturing the plateau around Cividale and threatening Udine itself by October 28—forcing Cadorna and his staff at the Supreme Command to hastily evacuate the town for safer environs to the southwest. Perhaps most spectacularly, Rommel’s 200-man strong assault company scored a legendary battlefield victory on October 25-26, 1917, with the capture of Mount Matajur, the next major peak after Mount Mrzli.

The physical ascent was epic in its own right, and the Germans now faced more determined defenders practiced in mountain warfare. At one point Rommel took characteristically bold action to relieve a surrounded German unit:

The 2d Company held some sections of trench on the northeast slope and was encircled from the west, south, and east by fivefold superiority, an entire Italian reserve battalion … The wide and high Italian obstacles lay in rear of the 2d Company, making retreat to the north slope impossible. The troops defended themselves desperately against the powerful enemy mass; only their unbroken rapid fire prevented an enemy attack. If the enemy ventured to attack in spite of the fire, then the little group would have been crushed … My estimate of the situation was that the 2d Company could be relieved only by a surprise attack by the entire detachment … Under such conditions I believed that the superior combat capabilities of the mountain soldier would prevail.

By the time they conquered Mount Matajur, in two days Rommel’s small force of mountain troops had crossed 18 kilometers of very rough terrain, ascended almost 3000 meters, and captured 9000 Italian prisoners—all at a cost of six dead and 30 wounded.

Meanwhile, the Italian Second Army fell into headlong (though initially orderly) retreat, as described by Hemingway:

The next night the retreat started. We heard that Germans and Austrians had broken through in the north and were coming down the mountain valleys toward Cividale and Udine. The retreat was orderly, wet, and sullen. In the night, going slowly along the crowded roads we passed troops marching under the rain, guns, horses pulling wagons, mules, motor trucks, all moving away from the front.

By October 27 the Second Army under Capello had simply disintegrated, with tens of thousands of beaten, demoralized soldiers streaming towards the rear in pouring rain; the collapse in turn exposed the northern flank of the neighboring Third Army under the Duke d’Aosta, forcing the latter to fall back from Montefalcone before the Habsburg Second Isonzo Army. Within a few weeks Boroevic’s force would advance west to within sight of the lagoons of Venice, now facing the threat that so recently menaced its sister city, Trieste. Will Irwin, an American war correspondent touring the Italian front, described the worried reaction as news of the debacle arrived in Venice:

I was aware that a curious change had come over the appearance of the crowds. Ten minutes before they had been streaming across the plaza. Now there was no movement. They had congealed into groups, talking low and seriously … All that Italy had gained so splendidly in the August offensive gone in one stroke! If it would only stop there!

Elsewhere the Habsburg Tenth Army under Krobatin and Eleventh Army under Conrad (the former Austrian chief of staff, now with a field command) rumbled into action, brushing aside the thin Italian covering force in the Carnic Alps and forcing back the Italian Fourth Army under Giardino—the latter imperiled by the Austro-German advance towards its supply lines. Only the Italian First Army under Giraldi, at the extreme west of the Italian front by Lake Garda, was able to stabilize its position after Conrad’s advance around the Asiago Plateau (the situation was worsened by the decision to dissolve the Italian Fifth Army, a reserve force, in July 1916; below, a retreating Italian 305-millimeter howitzer).


Italian Army Historic Photogalleries // CC BY 2.5

And still the retreat continued amid chaotic conditions well into November, with thousands of Italian troops mixed up with civilians, constantly threatened by the lightning-fast German advance. Hemingway’s narrator Frederic Henry noted: “We were very close to Germans twice in the rain but they did not see us… I had not realized how gigantic the retreat was. The whole country was moving, as well as the army. We walked all night, making better time than the vehicles.”

“I Cannot See When or Where the Awful War Is Going to End”

By the time the Italian retreat finally ended on November 12, as the battered First, Third and Fourth Armies took up strong defensive positions behind the Piave River, Italy had lost most of the country’s northeast, exposing Venice to the enemy, at a cost of 305,000 casualties, including 10,000 dead and 265,000 taken prisoner (top, Italian prisoners of war crammed in an Austrian prison camp; below Italian lancers joining the reforming line at the Piave). By contrast the German and Austrian attacking forces suffered just 70,000 casualties, including killed and wounded. The victory also allowed the Central Powers to defend a much shorter line, running via the Asiago Plateau, Mount Grappa, and the valley of the Piave—helping ease a severe manpower shortage by freeing up German and Austrian troops for service elsewhere.


Italian Army Historic Photogalleries // CC BY 2.5

The severity of the defeat at Caporetto triggered a harsh reaction from Cadorna, who realized that he would be held responsible and swiftly placed the blame on the Second Army, openly accusing officers and ordinary soldiers alike of defeatism and cowardice. In fact morale had been at rock-bottom even before the German attack, and during the chaotic retreat thousands of Italian soldiers deserted, while tens of thousands more surrendered without a fight.

Reports of mutiny and mass desertion prompted arbitrary, draconian measures, including the execution of hundreds of soldiers by drumhead tribunals behind the lines. In A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry witnesses the execution of an officer who was separated from his troops during the retreat:

"Have you ever been in a retreat?” the lieutenant-colonel asked. “Italy should never retreat.” We stood there in the rain and listened to this. We were facing the officers and the prisoners stood in front and a little to one side of us. “If you are going to shoot me,” the lieutenant-colonel said, “please shoot me at once without further questioning. The questioning is stupid.” He made the sign of the cross. The officers spoke together. One wrote something on a pad of paper. “Abandoned his troops, ordered to be shot,” he said. Two carabinieri took the lieutenant-colonel to the river bank. He walked in the rain, an old man with his hat off, a carabinieri on either side. I did not watch them shoot him but I heard the shots.

Henry narrowly escapes execution himself by throwing himself in the fast-flowing river, swollen with rain. Unsurprisingly he decides to desert: “It was no point of honor. I was not against them. I was through. I wished them all the luck. There were the good ones, and the brave ones, and the calm ones and the sensible ones, and they deserved it. But it was not my show any more.”

The debacle at Caporetto had a devastating impact on Allied morale, leaving little doubt that Britain and France would have to send reinforcements to shore up the Italian front (probably forcing them to call off the Passchendaele offensive). Many ordinary people felt the defeat personally. Charles Biddle, an American pilot volunteering in the Escadrille Lafayette in France, wrote home as the scale of the disaster became known:

What do you all think at home of the recent Hun invasion of Italy? The outlook is pretty gloomy, is it not, but I hope it may serve to make people in America realize that this war is not won yet by a long sight, and that if it is going to be won they have to got to get into it for all they are worth. We certainly should do our utmost without complaining when one considers what a soft time of it we have had so far.

Clare Gass, an American woman volunteering as a nurse in France, noted simply in her diary on October 29, 1917: “The news that Italy has lost thousands of men & hundreds of guns to the Austrians is very startling, I cannot see when or where the awful war is going to end.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

When Germany Planned to Airdrop Fake Money to Take Down Great Britain in World War II

General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Nothing looks particularly remarkable about the World War II-era printing plate at the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. It displays the text and serial numbers you would expect to find on British banknotes from the time, but this artifact didn't come from the British government—as the video from Atlas Obscura below explains. The plate was a tool used by Nazi Germany in an attempt to delegitimize the economy of Great Britain.

When they weren't combating troops on the battlefield, Germany was devising ways to bring down other European nations using spy tactics. One of these strategies was called Operation Bernhard. By printing 130 million pounds of fake British currency and slipping it into Britain via airdrop, Germany hoped to cripple the nation's economy.

To make the banknotes, Nazis relied on forced labor from artists, bankers, and known forgers being held captive in concentration camps. Details from the authentic bills—including watermarks, serial numbers, and the type of paper used to make them—were replicated in the forged documents.

Despite the effort put into the project, the fake banknotes never made it into British circulation. The Luftwaffe, the airfleet Germany had planned to use to drop the bills over Britain, had sustained too many losses by the time the plan was ready to be set in motion. Germany may have used some of the counterfeit cash to launder money and pay off spies working for the army, but by the end of World War II, any remaining evidence of the scheme was disposed of in a lake in Austria.

Years later, those artifacts were recovered, and the Spy Museum recently added the pound notes and a forged printing plate to its collection. According the museum, the plate is the only known surviving printing plate created by Nazi Germany for Operation Bernhard.

To see the artifacts and learn more about them, check out the video from Atlas Obscura below.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

The Quest to Find—and Save—the World's Most Famous Shipwreck

Karolina Kristensson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums
Karolina Kristensson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

Anders Franzén lived for shipwrecks. An engineer and expert on the naval warfare of the 16th and 17th centuries, he was especially obsessed with the old Swedish men-of-war that had once menaced the Baltic Sea.

When he wasn’t busy at his day job with the Swedish Naval Administration, he’d spend hours combing through archives in search of maps and documents, hoping they might reveal the location of Sweden’s great sunken warships. And when he learned that one wreck might still be trapped, undiscovered, not far from his home in Stockholm, he was hungry to find it.

For five years, Franzén spent his spare time searching for the shipwreck. He had little luck. Trawling the waterways around Stockholm—what locals call the ström—with a grappling hook, Franzén's “booty consisted mainly of rusty iron cookers, ladies’ bicycles, Christmas trees, and dead cats,” he’d later recall.

But on August 25, 1956, Franzén's grappling iron hooked something 100 feet below. And whatever it was, it was big.

Franzén gently lowered a core sampler—a tool used by oceanographers to get soil samples from the bottom of bodies of water—and retrieved a dark and soggy chunk of black oak. The following month, Franzén's friend Per Edvin Fälting dived into the ström and see what was down there.

Vasa Diver
Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums.

Fälting had to work blind. Just 30 yards below the surface, the brackish waters were pitch black. The diver ran his hands over the mysterious object and tried to get a feel for what it might be.

“I can feel something big,” Fälting said to Franzén over a diver’s telephone, “the side of a ship. Here’s one gun port and here’s another.”

There was a pause.

“There are two rows,” Fälting said. “It must be the Vasa.”

 

The Vasa was the greatest warship to never go to war. Named after the Swedish royal family—the House of Vasa—the vessel was commissioned by King Gustavus II Adolphus in 1625 and was earmarked to become his navy’s flagship. Gustavus had big dreams for the Vasa: He wanted the most lethal warship in the Baltic Sea, one that was as beautiful as it was deadly.

For three years carpenters, sailmakers, painters, woodcarvers, ropemakers, and hundreds of other artisans and craftsmen rushed to build the king’s vessel. The Vasa would be a floridly crafted masterpiece with at least 700 delicately carved sculptures, figurines, and ornaments: Angels, devils, lions, emperors, warriors, musicians, mermaids, ghastly faces, heavenly facades—all painstakingly crafted from oak, pine, and lime wood.

The boat’s exterior would be a palpable rainbow (gilded in gold leaf for extra measure). “The hundreds of sculptures clinging and clambering about the Vasa were an orgy of pink naked flesh, of steel-blue armor, of sanguine reds, poisonous greens, and marine blues,” writes Erling Matz in The Vasa Catalog. As Lars-Åke Kvarning writes in Scientific American, these ornaments had many purposes: “To encourage friends, intimidate enemies, assert claims, and impress the world with this picture of power and glory.”

Vasa Stern
iStock.com/rusm

The ship itself was constructed from 1000 oak trees and had three decks, including a stack of two gundecks, which would hold 64 cannons. The design was unprecedented in its size and complexity.

King Gustavus, famous for his military prowess, demanded it. At the time, he controlled “Finland, Estonia, and [Latvia], and he had just won the small part of Russia that touches the Gulf of Finland,” Kvarning writes. “By thus excluding the czar from the Baltic, he had nearly made [the Baltic] sea into a Swedish lake.” He was also juggling multiple wars and was anxious to get his hands on a new warship that would help preserve his dominance. He told the builders to make haste.

It was a foolish decision. In the early 17th century, constructing a functional ship was a matter of trial and error. (And according to Matz, there was a lot of error: In the 1620s, of the 15 naval ships Sweden lost, only two sank in the heat of battle.) There were no calculations to do or construction drawings to make. A new design was usually partially modeled on its predecessors—but the Vasa had none. The shipbuilders had to basically eyeball it. Worse yet, the Vasa’s master shipbuilder died mid-way through construction.

Vasa gundecks
iStock.com/pejft

Baffled by the ship’s giant dimensions, the Vasa’s architects were never able to confidently determine how much ballast the vessel needed. They filled the hull with approximately 121 tons of stone but believed it needed much more. But the king, who had personally approved the ship’s dimensions, effectively forbade any alterations—and anyway, adding more ballast would have brought the lowest gundeck dangerously close to the waterline.

When the nearly completed Vasa began floating in port, the ship’s skipper, Söfring Hansson, decided to test the boat’s stability. He asked a herd of 30 men to run back and forth across the deck; after just three runs, the ship began to teeter precariously. Some of the ship’s officers wanted to inform the king that the boat was on the verge of capsizing, but Gustavus wasn’t in town. The problem was ignored.

On August 10, 1628, crowds gathered at Stockholm’s waterfront to see the Vasa off. After attending a church service, the sailors—along with many women and children, who were invited to join the maiden voyage—boarded the boat. Four of the 10 sails were unfurled and, guided by a light breeze, the vessel lurched into Stockholm's ström just before 4 p.m. The crowd cheered.

And then it began to scream.

A slight gust caused the glimmering ship to tilt to its left. The Vasa briefly righted itself, only to return to its awkward, portside lean. The captain immediately demanded that all the gunports be closed, but it was too late—water had breached the openings. As one surviving crewmember recalled, “By the time I came up from the lower deck, the water had risen so high that the staircase had come loose and it was only with great difficulty that I climbed out.”

Vasa Bow
Anneli Karlsson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

Dozens of men, women, and children began jumping from the ship. Stockholm’s waters became peppered with helpless, flailing bodies. Sailors clambered up the ship’s sinking masts. Within minutes, the Vasa was underwater and 30 people were dead.

The world’s meanest warship had been felled by a gentle gust of wind. It had traveled barely 4000 feet.

Hearing that his prized warship was submerged, Gustavus—who was away in Prussia warring against Poland-Lithuania—demanded an inquest to find and punish the people responsible. The captain and a few shipbuilders were tossed into captivity and an investigation ensued. Some investigators claimed the cannons hadn’t been tied down and had rolled to one side, causing the boat to heel over. (Not true.) Others claimed the captain had been negligent. (He wasn’t.)

The truth was, the Vasa was just top-heavy: If anybody deserved blame, it was the man who demanded such clumsy dimensions—the king. But to implicate an infallible man who ruled by divine right was to implicate God himself. Like the Vasa, the case quickly sank from public view.

 

There is a secret swirling in Stockholm’s harbor: The water there is too brackish and deoxygenated to support the wood-munching shipworm Teredo navalis. In salty seas, this flat little bivalve will gorge itself on wooden piers, hulls, and shipwrecks—slowly destroying all signs of man’s handiwork.

But not in the Baltic. Wooden shipwrecks remain preserved in remarkable condition. (This is especially true in Stockholm, where, according to the Vasa Museum, “Centuries of raw sewage dumped into the harbor have created a dead zone at the bottom, where even bacteria cannot live.”)

Days after the Vasa sank, Sweden’s Council of the Realm sent a British man down to salvage the wreck, but the mission failed. In 1663, a Swede named Albrecht von Treileben plunged into the chilly ström under the protection of a diving bell and managed to retrieve more than 50 of the ship’s expensive bronze cannons.

Diving Bell
Vasa Museum // Public Domain

After that, the Vasa’s location was forgotten for 300 years. The closest thing to a salvage mission came in 1920, when two brothers requested permission from the Swedish government to find the ship and turn the vessel’s oak into Art Deco furniture. (The request was denied.)

Franzén, on the other hand, was determined to keep the Vasa in one piece. Problem was: Nobody knew how. Nobody had ever attempted to raise a shipwreck so big or so old.

Crackpot ideas swirled. “One idea was to freeze the Vasa in an immense block of ice and let her float to the surface,” Matz writes. “The idea was then to tow the iceberg to a suitable position and let it melt in the sun, whereupon the Vasa would emerge.” There was even talk of lifting the ship by filling the empty hull with ping pong balls.

Vasa blueprints
Illustration by Bertil Erkhammar, courtesy of the Vasa Museum

Thankfully, Franzén’s discovery generated so much interest in the Swedish media that the navy offered to supply boats and train divers, while the Neptune Salvaging Company generously offered to return the ship to the surface pro bono. Divers would use water jets to dig tunnels beneath the shipwreck. Heavy cables would be piped through these passages, creating a basket that could help lift the ship.

In 1957, the first divers plunged into the ström. Working in complete darkness, they carefully began the dangerous work of hollowing out six tunnels, ignoring the fact that tons of ballast could, at any moment, collapse onto their heads. It was a deadly workplace. “Girders, plans, and other paraphernalia meant that the air pipes and lines could easily get stuck,” Matz writes, “And they did.” (It didn’t help that, as the divers dug, they discovered at least 17 skeletons.)

After two relatively uneventful years, the tunnels were completed. The wires were piped through and strung to two pontoons (cheerfully named Oden and Frigg), which gently lifted the wreck 8 feet off the seabed. Starting in August 1959, crews slowly moved the Vasa to shallower waters and set her back down. They would repeat this motion—lift, move, lower—at least 18 times. After each successful drop, the crews would shorten the wires, ensuring the boat would inch closer to the surface with the next lift.


Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

But before the Vasa was allowed to surface, the hull had to be made watertight. The iron bolts that once held the ship together had rusted away, and the salvage crew had to patch and fill those cavities while still submerged. (They also installed new watertight hatches on each port.) This underwater handiwork took two years.

Finally, on April 24, 1961, three giant bilge pumps began purging water from the ship’s interior and the Vasa was, once again, kissed by sunshine. Within two weeks, the Vasa was not only above the surface—it was floating.

 

For years, the Vasa was housed in a misty, cave-like warehouse. It was there, in the Wasavarvet, that the ship took a rigorous shower in preservatives.

Vasa preserved in water
Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

The Vasa's wood contained approximately 800 tons of water—and it all needed to be removed. Researchers, however, couldn’t simply let the ship sit out and dry, because the waterlogged wood would shrink and split. To prevent cracking, preservationists had to spray the Vasa with a mixture of water and polyethylene glycol (25 minutes on, 20 minutes off) for 24 hours. This process, which came to involve 500 automated spray nozzles, lasted 17 years.

Slowly, water dripped from the Vasa and strings of excess polyethylene glycol trickled down, hardening to form stalactites resembling fine white candles. When the PEG-shower had finished, the humidity in the storage facility had to be gradually cranked down over the course of 10 years.

By that point, archaeologists—who had to be vaccinated against diseases such as jaundice and typhus before touching the boat—had already sifted through tons of mud and sludge in search of artifacts. By spraying down the Vasa’s decks with garden hoses, they had uncovered more than 30,000 items, including clothes, personal effects, barrels of meat, candlesticks, coins, and a piece of glassware containing a 66-proof alcohol. (“I can testify, from personal experience, that the liquor was good,” Kvarning wrote.) Divers also combed the ship’s watery gravesite to recover thousands more objects.

Vasa in PEG Solution
Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

Of these, every wooden artifact was dunked into a vat of polyethylene glycol solution. Dozens of cast-iron cannonballs—which had rusted so much that they now weighed as much as a Styrofoam balls—were dried in hydrogen heated to more than 1900°F. Six of the Vasa’s crumbling sails, which could only be cleaned while submerged in liquid, were dried in a mixture of alcohol and the solvent xylene. (They took more than a decade to conserve.)

Meanwhile, the Vasa’s sterncastle—the elaborate perch protruding from the ship’s rear—had fallen into shambles. “[W]orkers had to identify and locate many thousands of structural components, ranging from heavy beams to tiny bits of wood—a gigantic jigsaw puzzle to be assembled without benefit of blueprints,” Kvarning writes.

Otherwise, the whole of the Vasa remained in fantastic condition. The fine ornamentations, although missing their brilliant colors, were still magnificent in their details.

Today, there’s still a lot of work to be done. In 2000, the humidity in Stockholm was so high that the presence of soggy museum visitors caused sulfur buried in the ship’s wood to produce corrosive acids. The ship is also shapeshifting. To monitor wood deformation, geodetic measuring devices are being used to map slight changes in the ship’s shape (which is currently settling 1 millimeter every year [PDF]). To combat a potential breakdown, carpenters have built a replica of the Vasa’s hull, which is undergoing a battery of stress tests that will hopefully teach preservationists how to improve the ship’s stability.


Anneli Karlsson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

That hard work, however, has already paid off. Today, the Vasa Museum is the most popular cultural institution in all of Scandinavia. Home to the world’s only preserved 17th-century ship, the place is more than a vital time capsule—it’s an homage to an ongoing rescue mission more than 300 years in the making.

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