Gottfried von Banfield

Castelnuovo di Cattaro 1890 - Trieste 1986

Gottfried von Banfield was born on 6 February 1890 in Castelnuovo di Cattaro in Dalmatia, the youngest child of Ship-of-the-Line Captain Richard Mitis Banfield and Natalie Baroness Mumb von Mühlhaim. His father’s side of the family came from Ireland; in 1830 his grandfather had entered the services of the King of Bavaria and eventually served the Habsburg monarchy. After attending the naval primary school in Pola and the military secondary school in St. Pölten, he successfully completed the naval academy in Fiume from which he graduated on 17 June 1909. He served as an Austro-Hungarian naval cadet on a number of different battleships (“Arpad“, “Erzherzog Friedrich“) before being appointed frigate Lieutenant on 1 May 1912, when he took his first command over the tender “Hippos”. In the same year Banfield at his own request was despatched to the flying school in Wiener Neustadt and was in fact one of the first Austro-Hungarian naval officers to be trained as a pilot. After a brief training period he obtained his field pilot’s licence on 8 October 1912.  On 7 February 1913 he went on to train as a naval aeroplane pilot and was assigned to the Santa Catarina naval air base off Pola. At the end of March 1913 Banfield crashed during a flight demonstration at which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was present in Pola and suffered serious injurious, which seemed to have put an end to his career as a pilot. Just over a year later Banfield had recovered and he took up service again as a naval aeroplane pilot. From 1 July 1914 he was back in service.

At the start of the war naval aviation was still in its infancy: there was a shortage of personnel, naval aircraft and necessary infrastructure, so naval aeroplanes were restricted to a supporting role. Banfield was one of four naval aircraft pilots operating from the air base near Pola. He carried out reconnaissance operations along the Montenegro coast, endeavoured to cut off reinforcements and supplies to Montenegro troops, carried out raids in the Bay of Cattaro – in which Lovcen gained particular importance – and assisted ground troops from the air.

The significance of Banfield’s role is to be considered primarily in connection with Italy’s entry into the war. His remit was to protect the local coastline and hinterland from attacks. As a result, attention shifted, and the city of Trieste and its harbour increasingly became the target of the Italian army: loss of the city for the Danube monarchy would also have meant losing its access to the Adriatic Sea and as a result to the Mediterranean too. Banfield was soon commissioned to build a naval aircraft station here, which was to provide protection for the city against enemy air attacks and oversee the area from the Po delta, in the northern part of the Adriatic as far as the mouth of the River Isonzo. In 1916 Banfield eventually took over command of the station.  

As a naval air pilot Banfield, who had spent most of his life on the coast, was aware of the geographical and climate conditions of the new front and was familiar with the area and the local people. His aerial combats fought out over the city were seen and witnessed by the people who had remained in the city. The conditions for the remaining civil population gradually worsened not only because of the events on the nearby front but also due to recurrent enemy aerial attacks. Banfield was increasingly heralded as the city’s “protector” and became known as the “Eagle of Trieste”. He won individual air victories, and his downings, which could be seen and followed, were publicised by the media. This shed a positive light on the Navy, which had been hindered from carrying out major operations by the Otranto Barrage and was in urgent need of success. As a result, the media reported increasingly on Banfield and highlighted his victories hailing him as a naval aviation hero.

In the autumn of 1916 Banfield, who had in the meantime been made Ship-of-the Line-Lieutenant, was advised to request conferment of the Military Order of Maria Theresa. On 17 August 1917 he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Maria Theresa Order, the highest military distinction of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, by Emperor Charles I. Banfield was for almost 50 years the first naval officer and indeed the only aviator to be awarded this distinction. In late May 1917 Banfield gained the first documented night aerial victory, when he forced an Italian naval aircraft to land near Miramare castle.

Banfield won a total of nine confirmed and eleven unconfirmed air victories. After the end of the war Banfield remained in Trieste where he was imprisoned after the Italian invasion in November 1918. After being released he worked for Austro-Daimler in Vienna and the Škoda works in Prague-Smichov. In 1919 he moved to Britain, where a year later he married Countess Maria Tripcovich, whose father was a well-known shipowner in Trieste. After taking Italian nationality in 1923 he returned to Trieste where he took over his father-in-law’s shipping company. Gottfried von Banfield died on 23 September 1986 in Trieste.

 

Bibliography:

Banfield, Gottfried von, Der Adler von Triest. Der letzte Maria-Theresien-Ritter erzählt sein Leben, Graz/Wien/Köln 1984

Schupita, Peter, Die k.u.k. Seeflieger. Chronik und Dokumentation der österreichisch-ungarischen Marineluftwaffe 1911–1918, Koblenz 1983.

Sondhaus, Lawrence, The Naval Policy of Austria-Hungary, 1867-1918, West Lafayette 1994.