The Bizarre Backstory Of Croatia’s Yellow Submarine Nightclub

A submarine built at the height of World War II, which served under three different naval flags, recovered from an air attack that sunk it in its harbor, and then ended up as a floating restaurant in communist Yugoslavia? It’s a story that sounds surreal enough to be a work of fiction. But in the case of the submarine once known at Nautilo, it’s all true.

The Nautilo began life in a manner entirely typical for a submarine of its class — one of Italy’s Tritone Type I, or Flutto class of seagoing subs. The Nautilo was part of a class of 12 boats, three of which were never completed. The rest were all launched during the war, for service with the Royal Italian Navy, or Regia Marina, which fought many actions against the Allies in the Mediterranean, until the armistice that was signed in September 1943.

The submarine Nautilo, photographed dockside. Wikimedia Commons

The Tritone Type I submarine was 200 feet long, with a beam of 23 feet, and a draft of 16 feet. Each boat displaced 866 tons when surfaced and 1,068 tons submerged. Power came from two diesel engines developing 2,400 horsepower when surfaced and from a pair of electric motors producing 800 horsepower when operating below the waves. Driven by two screws, the submarine could make 16 knots surfaced and 8 knots submerged and could dive to a maximum depth of around 427 feet. Range when surfaced was 13,000 miles at 8.5 knots or 74.5 miles submerged at 4 knots while submerged on battery power.

A drawing of the Italian Tritone Type I, or Flutto class of seagoing submarine. К. Е. Сергеев/Wikimedia Commons

Typical for submarines of the era, the Tritone Type I was armed with a deck gun, a 100-millimeter-caliber weapon, provided with 149 rounds, in addition to its 12 torpedoes, arranged in four bow and two stern tubes. A pair of twin 13.2-millimeter-caliber machine guns were also provided for air defense.

Sailors ready to fire from the bow of an Italian submarine, in World War II. L’Illustrazione Italiana, Year LXIX, No 2, January 11, 1942

The crew complement of the Tritone Type I typically comprised five officers and 44 enlisted men. Two of the submarines, the Grongo and the Murena, were additionally fitted with containers for Maiale manned torpedoes, used by the navy’s special operations forces.

An Italian Maiale manned torpedo from World War II, at the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum and Library, Groton, Connecticut.

As to the submarine in question, the Nautilo was laid down in January 1942 at the Cantieri Riuniti dell’Adriatico shipyard, in Monfalcone, on the Gulf of Trieste, northern Italy. The submarine was launched in March 1943 and commissioned into service the following July, at Pola (modern-day Pula), further down the Adriatic coast, in what is today Croatia.

In July 1943, the Nautilo was primarily engaged in trials out of Pola, and after delivery to the navy it took part in various exercises, but there is no record of it ever seeing combat.

The submarine’s arrival with the Royal Italian Navy was also inopportune, with the tide of the war in the Mediterranean theater by now very much in the Allies’ favor.

Italy signed an armistice with the United States and Italy on September 3, 1943, and this was announced to the public five days later. Germany, Italy’s former Axis ally, responded by attacking Italian forces leading to an occupation of the country by the Nazis.

Italian Gen. Giuseppe Castellano (left) shakes hands with U.S. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower after the signing of the armistice between Italy and Allied armed forces in Cassibile on September 8, 1943. Maj. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith looks on. Stampa d’epoca/Wikimedia Commons
A Nazi propaganda photograph, showing German soldiers escorting disarmed Italian troops through the Italian city of Bolzano during World War II. German Federal Archives

On September 8 the Nautilo sailed from Monfalcone to Venice. In an apparent effort to join the allies, the Italian crew of the Nautilo attempted to leave Venice to days later, presumably to find a safe port. The Nautilo, which now also contained crew members from two other submarines, the Argo and the Beilul, was underway together with the midget submarine CM1, when they reportedly saw German S-boats — a type of torpedo-armed fast attack craft — sink the Italian destroyer Quintino Sella. That, coupled with mechanical problems, forced the submarine’s return to Venice.

The engine room of an Italian submarine in the Mediterranean, in World War II. L’Illustrazione Italiana, Year LXIX, No 48, November 29, 1942

The Italians then made an attempt to scuttle the Nautilo in the port of Venice, to prevent use of the submarine by the Germans.

Nevertheless, the Germans succeeded in returning the submarine to service, which it did under the name UIT-19. In December 1943, the submarine was towed by a tug from Venice to Trieste.

By January 1944, UIT-19 was back in Pola, still not yet officially commissioned into Kriegsmarine service. In Pola, it came under air attack by the U.S. Army Air Forces. On the 9th of that month, a force of 107 B-24 Liberator bombers struck the port and a direct hit sunk the submarine — at the coordinates of 44° 52’N, 13° 50’E — and put it out of action for the rest of the war.

Aerial photo showing the bombing of the German-operated submarine base in Pola, Italy, on January 9, 1944. Photo by USAAF/Interim Archive/Getty Images

The end of the war in Europe saw certain boundaries change significantly and Pola, together with the rest of Croatia, which had been under occupation by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy since April 1941, became one of the five republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Post-war, the Yugoslav Navy benefited from the windfall provided by various German and Italian vessels — submarines, destroyers, minesweepers, and amphibious landing craft — that were either captured or provided as war reparations.

Among them was the former UIT-19 (previously the Nautilo) that was raised and repaired between 1947 and 1949 in Pula’s Uljanik Shipyard. In 1953, the submarine was commissioned into service with the Yugoslav Navy as the Sava. Together with the Mališan (a former Italian CB class midget submarine) and the Tara (a British-built submarine originally acquired by Yugoslavia between the wars), it formed the basis of the new Yugoslav Navy submarine fleet.

Italian Navy submarine CB-20. This was later used by the Yugoslav Navy as Mališan. Zenwort/Wikimedia Commons

By 1958, the Sava had reportedly been relegated to training duties, although a major refit followed between 1958 to 1960, including a remodeled, more streamlined conning tower and removal of the deck gun. Training duties continued until the Sava was decommissioned in 1968 and finally stricken in 1971.

At this juncture, Per Miljković enters the story. Born in 1948 near the Croatian port of Dubrovnik, a 2021 report in the local newspaper described Miljković, who died in 2004, as “an entrepreneur, media manager, organizer, restaurateur, artist, a man ahead of his time.”

The former hotel porter and lemonade salesman, Miljković was just 22 years old when he brought the Sava in 1970, transporting it from the Bijela Shipyard in Montenegro and bringing it to Dubrovnik. The submarine was given the name Žuta Podmornica, or Yellow Submarine, after The Beatles’ 1966 song and 1968 animated movie.

The same newspaper article suggests that Miljković managed to secure the Sava from the Yugoslavian Navy before having paid for it, then transported it along the coast with the help of a military tug. Only after removing various items of brass, copper, aluminum, and steel, and selling them, was he able to settle the bill with the Navy.

Miljković’s plan was to have the submarine as the centerpiece of a restaurant, disco, and casino complex and it seems he had hopes that, after painting it yellow, he might even attract The Beatles to visit it. In the event, money ran short, and it seems that only the restaurant and nightclub became a regular fixture, with guests dining and lounging on the submarine’s deck, although some unconfirmed accounts suggest a full on discotech also operated on the submarine for a while. In 1974, Miljković sold the submarine for scrap, and it was towed to Sveti Kajo, near Solin, for its final appointment with the scrapper’s torch.

So came to an end one of the most unlikely histories of any World War II submarine.

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Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.