In the 1965 film The Sound of Music, Captain von Trapp ran a tight ship at home. He also ran a tight ship at sea, commanding two U-Boats for the Austro-Hungarian Empire during World War I. By the war’s end, he was the most decorated naval officer in Austria-Hungary.
Looking at the life and family of Captain Baron Georg Johannes Ritter von Trapp through the lens of the Sound of Music alone, you’d never know this man spent WWI on a u-boat that spewed poisonous fumes to its crew or that he sank tons of allied shipping in the Mediterranean — killing hundreds of enemy sailors — and was basically the best thing Austria-Hungary had going for it.
Aside from the 14 ships sank and one captured during his World War I service, he led Austria’s troops during the Boxer Rebellion in China, circumnavigated the globe twice, and saw his navy switch from sails to steam to diesel engines over the course of his career. At the war’s end in 1918, von Trapp’s record stood at 19 war patrols taking 11 cargo vessels totaling 45,669 tons sunk, two enemy warships sunk, and one captured.
U-5 was just 100 feet long but packed a terrible punch, with just a crew of 19 and four torpedoes.
Command of U-5
Captain von Trapp conducted nine combat patrols in the Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas, and most of them were full of action. He got his first kill just two weeks after taking command of U-5, sinking the French cruiser Leon Gambetta off the coast of Italy. 12,000 tons and 684 sailors went to the bottom. Four months later, he sank the Italian submarine Nereide.
For his command during the sinking of the Leon Gambetta, von Trapp was awarded the Military Order of Maria Theresa, Austria’s highest military award.
Command of U-14
His next command was a reclaimed French submarine that was upgraded and modernized. He was the bane of British and Italian shipping in the Mediterranean, sinking 11 more enemy vessels. He earned a knighthood and then became a Baron for his service in Austria’s navy for his actions in World War I.
That’s one helluva way to start a naval career.
Training, Circumnavigation, and China service
He trained in the Officer Training School of the Austrian-Hungarian Imperial Navy through the Maritime-Academy at Fiume in what is today Croatia, starting his career on sailing ships, going around the earth on the corvette SMS Saida II. He returned to Austria and joined the crew of the SMS Zenta, an iron steamship, in 1897. By 1899, the crew of the Zenta was fully engaged in China, part of the eight-nation alliance sent to relieve the foreign legation in Peking from the siege of the Chinese Boxers.
Georg was one of the seamen detached to the alliance to take one of the Taku Forts. The Austrian helped assault Fort Pei Tang with 8500 others in the multinational force. Many were killed in the bloody fighting but the allies took the fort and went on to relieve the legation in Peking.
Unfortunately for Capt. von Trapp, World War I did not end well for Austria-Hungary and he soon found himself out of a job, seeing as how the new Austria was landlocked and had no use for a Navy – and he was no about to become a Nazi just to command a ship. So he trained his children to perform and took them on tour, eventually settling down and starting the Trapp Family Lodge in Vermont.
After World War II, he founded Trapp Family Austrian Relief, Inc. to help aid the recovery of Austria and Austrians from the war’s devastation.