Running the Dardanelles Forts - Gallipoli, March 1915

By John Dudek 27 Apr 2015 0

Last Saturday, 25 April, was ANZAC Day when Australia and New Zealand take time to remember those who died for their countries in various conflicts. However, it is the fighting at Gallipoli in World War 1that is most usually associated with ANZAC Day and is seen as a defining moment in the history of the two nations and a major factor in their progress to independent statehood. Whilst the tragedy and heroism of the fighting at Gallipoli is remembered the naval actions that were a prelude have a lower profile. Today we take a look at the failed naval operations of March 1915.

 

On the sunny, warm morning of 8 March 1915, the majestic line of 18 British and French old pre-dreadnought and newer "all big gun" dreadnought battleships and battle cruisers, all with black coal smoke billowing from their funnels, entered the narrows of Turkey's Eren Koy Bay.  The battleships steamed in four alternating, mutually supporting British-French lines. They were attempting to force their way through the Dardanelles Strait to reopen its passage for Allied shipping and re-establish contact with their Russian allies in the nearby Black Sea. Lastly, it was hoped that these actions would be enough to knock Turkey's Ottoman Empire out of the war. At 1100 hours, the Allied battle line opened fire on the Ottoman forts along the shore.  The Ottoman Turkish forts returned fire with their own heavy guns, many of them modern German made Krupp coastal artillery and 6-inch mobile howitzers.  The Turks immediately began making telling hits upon the French battleships GAULOIS, AGAMEMNON, SUFFREN and the British battle cruiser INFLEXIBLE.  A lively gun duel of artillery fire was kept up between the warships and the forts ashore. However, within two hours the fort's gun batteries largely fell silent for lack of artillery ammunition.  British Squadron Commander Rear Admiral John de Robeck ordered the damaged French line of warships to withdraw in favor of bringing up the second line of undamaged British and French battleships.  While the Ottoman fort's gunfire had largely fallen silent, the British and French Allies hadn't given enough thought towards the lines of minefields that had been improperly swept by their minesweepers before the day's attack began.  At 1345 hours, the French battleship BOUVET approached the Asian shoreline of the Straits. She hit a mine, exploded with a fitful roar and sank in less than a minute, taking 639 of her crew with her.  The disbelieving British thought the ship had either taken a Turkish shell to her ammunition magazine or been struck by a torpedo.  One minute she was there, the next she'd vanished. The British stoically continued the attack and their advance into the Narrows.  At 1600 hours the British battle cruiser INFLEXIBLE struck a mine in nearly the same location as the sunken BOUVET.  However, the newer INFLEXIBLE was successfully kept afloat after shipping 1,600 tons of seawater.  She was later deliberately run aground by her crew on a nearby island to keep her from sinking.  The British pre-dreadnought battleships IRRESISTIBLE and OCEAN soon struck mines that left them without power and sinking as their crews took to their life boats.  Admiral de Robeck then ordered a general withdrawal from the straits.  In just over five hours of fighting and at a cost of only 118 Turkish troops killed or wounded, they managed to sink three Allied battleships while badly damaging three others, as well as inflicting nearly a thousand casualties to the Allied sailors of the British-French Entente.

 

 

 

A tragic series of terribly myopic miscalculations and bad decisions by the British Government and its Admiralty at the start of the First World War resulted in the Ottoman Empire joining the Central Powers of both Imperial Germany and Austro-Hungary against the Triple Entente of the Anglo-French Allies. These erroneous decisions would cost the Anglo-French forces dearly.  During the First World War fighting in the Middle East against the Ottoman Empire and its German allies, a final butcher's bill of over 1,500,000 French, British and British Commonwealth casualties killed, wounded, captured or missing paid the price for their government's earlier political ineptitude.  The coming land campaign at nearby Gallipoli alone would cost the French, British and their Commonwealth Allies over 252,000 casualties. 

 

 

Before the war's outbreak, the Ottoman Empire was neutral and for years had coyly vacillated at choosing sides between the potentially future warring powers of England and Germany.  The Turks played both nations to their own advantage and benefitted well in the process, gaining much trade from Great Britain, plus modern arms and armaments from Germany. In the meantime, the Turks contracted the British for the construction of three modern dreadnought, all big gun battleships in the final years before the war, and had paid for them well in advance of their delivery.  In the last hours of peace before the British declaration of war on Germany, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill ordered the British confiscation of the nearly completed Turkish battleships while offering the Turks no financial compensation for their loss other than a vague promise in the future. The Turks who had subscribed the money to pay for the construction of these new warships from the backs of their own population were absolutely furious. This was a particular thorny point of pride for them. Some Turkish women were actually selling their hair to help pay for the new warships.  Germany now saw a major political opening here and acted upon it.  Their battle cruiser SMS GOEBEN and the light cruiser BRESLAU were already entering the Mediterranean for the express purpose of raiding French troop convoy shipping should war break out.  Instead, they were now ordered to dash east across the Mediterranean and offer both their services, crews and ships to the Ottoman Empire's government.  The Turks eagerly accepted these modern warships and their experienced German crews into their otherwise decrepit and completely obsolescent navy. They now become its very back-bone. The battle cruiser GOEBEN was renamed YAVUZ SULTAN SELIM became the most powerful warship in the Black Sea and the terror of the Russian Navy in 1914.  The light cruiser BRESLAU became the MIDILLI and continued to serve at her battle cruiser sister's side.

 

 

Now, it was the British government's turn to be furious, although war had not yet been declared against the Ottoman Turks. However, the British were under no illusion about what the future held and soon sent major warship reinforcements to the region to prevent the two new warships of the Central Powers from breaking out into the Mediterranean and causing trouble with British trade routes.  All that was needed was a precipitating event to make war break out with the Ottoman Empire.  On 27 September the lit match was put to the powder train in the form of the British Dardanelles Squadron seizing a Turkish destroyer on the high seas.  Within days the Dardanelles Strait was closed to Allied shipping.  The light houses were blacked out at night, and new and deadly sea minefields were soon being laid to seal the deal.  No further Russian grain shipments would go to market via this absolutely vital trade route and no British weapons convoys would transit the straits to reinforce their Russian allies in the Black Sea region for the duration. Meanwhile on 28 October 1914 the Ottoman fleet led by the former GOEBEN and her consorts began running wild throughout the Black Sea in a stunning sneak attack against the Russians.  The ports of Sevastopol and Odessa came under heavy naval bombardment and two smaller Russian warships were sunk during the action. The raid's actual intent was to badly damage or sink the Russian Black Sea fleet but that end was not met.  Russia would declare war on the Ottoman Empire on 2 November 1914 and the British soon followed suit by doing the same on 6 November.

The ever ambitious and strategic minded British First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill had lobbied long and hard towards attacking and capturing the Dardanelles since September 1914.  It was commonly felt in British political and military circles that the Ottoman Empire was hopelessly outclassed, weak both in modern weaponry and military effectiveness. Their empire was often derisively referred to as "the sick man of Europe."  Churchill believed that if the Dardanelles were successfully attacked and conquered by sea, not only would Russia regain a critically needed supply route to the outside world, but the act might bring neutral Bulgaria and Romania into the war on the Allied side.  The prospect seemed like a win-win situation to Churchill.  He believed that a naval attack alone would be enough to re-open the Dardanelles Straits and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the First World War.  However, the Royal Navy's First Sea Lord, the elderly Admiral John "Jackie" Fisher did not agree.  Fisher believed that only through a combined land invasion with heavy naval support could the straits be kept open. Only then could the Ottoman Turks be made to sue for peace. Fisher and Churchill quarreled bitterly over the issue and Fisher finally reluctantly agreed to Churchill's plan, although he later confessed that he'd never really supported it. Fisher eventually resigned his office later in May1915.  Churchill's naval attack plan for the Dardanelles was finally approved by the British War Council on 13 February 1915 and the British and French began massing warships, men and material for the upcoming operation.  The expedition's commander was Vice Admiral S.H. Carden. Three days before the formal British declaration of war against the Ottoman Empire, a combined squadron of French and British warships launched a naval bombardment on the outer Turkish fortress defenses defending the entrance to the Dardanelles Straits.  This was done to test the Turk's military response and the effectiveness of their fort's artillery batteries.  The half hour long naval bombardment's results seemed favorable with a British shell blowing up the magazine of the Turkish fort at Sedd el Bahr, killing 150 of its defenders.  The Allied warships soon withdrew to make further plans.  At the same time the Ottomans began expanding and improving the strait's mine fields, while additional mobile artillery was brought in from Germany by railroad.  The Ottoman Turk's system of fixed coastal and mobile artillery batteries was arranged in three concentric rings of defenses, "Outer" "Intermediate" and Inner."  The Outer defenses of traditional masonry brick forts stretched from the Dardanelles Straits entrance, well into the Narrows where the Inner defenses began.  The Intermediate defenses were the less formal, recently excavated earthwork positions with the new mobile German howitzers within.  These howitzers could be easily and quickly moved from one prepared position of earthworks to another.  However, the jewel in the Ottoman's crown of defense lay in the 370 modern sea mines arrayed in ten separate minefield belts in the straits.  Each mine had the potential of sinking a battleship and soon proved easily capable of doing so.

 

 

The hellish ten month long battle of attrition against the Ottoman Turks on the Dardanelles adjacent Gallipoli peninsula formally began on the early morning of 19 February 1915 with the probe of two Allied destroyers into the entrance of the Dardanelles Straits.  They were soon fired on by Turkish forts with their modern German Krupp 240mm guns and a number of older but still effective artillery pieces.  Six British and four French battleships moved in to support the two destroyers while firing into the Turkish forts guarding the entrance.  For the remainder of the day, the squadron of Allied battleships fired into the forts, sending up much dust and smoke that shrouded them but were unable to knock out most of the big Turkish guns.  The warships upped anchor and withdrew that evening. A major weather front brought extremely stormy weather to the region over the next five days and it wasn't until 25 February that the Allies could mount another naval bombardment on the Turkish forts. However this time the intensity and accuracy of the Allied naval gunfire were able to drive the Turks away from their guns and into the safety of their fort's bomb proof casemates.  The gunfire also succeeded in dismounting several of the fort's big guns.  In addition, Royal Marine and Navy raiding parties of over 200 men were put ashore to blow up the fort's artillery with high explosives.  They successfully destroyed a dozen guns in one fort and nineteen in another before being driven off and back into their boats by counterattacking Turkish troops.  The outer forts of the Dardanelles had been neutralized.  Turkish national and troop morale plummeted following the Allied attack and in the nearby capital of Constantinople, two special trains kept steam up in their boilers 24 hours a day to carry away the sultan, his harem and all his government officials to safety should the Allies break through the Dardanelles straits.

 

 

At the same time, the Allied minesweeping trawlers manned by civilian crews were unable to successfully open passages through the minefields because of the strong current in the straits and more importantly, heavy Turkish artillery opposition; They made 8 separate attempts over 8 days but could not accomplish this vital task. The civilian mine sweeper crews refused to work while under the heavy gunfire from the Ottoman artillery  The British decided to give the minesweepers additional naval support and use the darkness of night to hide them from Turkish gunfire.  In addition, a large number of veteran Royal Navy volunteers offered to crew the minesweepers. On the evening of 13 March, the old British battleship HMS CORNWALLIS and the equally old protected cruiser HMS AMETHYST led six minesweeping trawlers into the straits to sweep a passage through the minefields.  Unfortunately the Turks, as always, were well equipped with German searchlights that illuminated the minesweepers in dazzlingly brilliant and blinding million candlelight arc beams.  AMETHYST was hit a number of times above and below decks leaving 24 men killed and 36 wounded. Four of the minesweepers were also hit and a number of their crews killed and wounded. The frustrated Admiral Carden decided to reverse his attack tactics and instead mount an all out daylight attack, with the minesweepers being under the direct protection and support of the entire Anglo-French fleet.  Before he could put his plan into operation, he fell ill with a severe stomach ulcer on 15 March and was succeeded by Rear Admiral John de Robeck.  Robeck was skeptical that any naval bombardment alone could silence the fort's guns and open the Dardanelles straits once again to Allied shipping.  He believed that only a combined naval and army amphibious invasion held any hopes of succeeding. Still, he had his orders and did everything in his power to carry them out.  He called for a fleet war council to outline his attack plans that would begin on the morning of 8 March.

The Admiral's plan was to silence the Turkish forts and big guns of the Narrows by long-range naval  bombardment.  Once these guns were subdued, the battleships would advance up the straits and engage the gun batteries protecting the minefields.  As soon as the Narrows forts and the mobile batteries were suppressed, the minesweeping trawlers would advance and, in broad daylight, sweep a passage 900 yards wide.  The battleships then would advance through this swept channel up to the Narrows forts and complete their destruction at close range.  If, as the admiral hoped, he could batter the forts into silence by the evening of the first day, then his fleet might complete its other assignments and enter the Sea of Marmara the following day.  This would re-open the Dardanelles straits to Allied ship traffic and leave the Turkish capital of Constantinople open to a prolonged and highly destructive Allied naval bombardment that could perhaps cause the Ottoman Empire to sue for peace.  The noted war correspondent Alan Morehead wrote;

"There was no element of surprise... and the object of the struggle was perfectly obvious to everybody from the youngest bluejacket to the simplest Turkish private.  All hung upon that one thin strip of water scarcely a mile wide and five miles long at the Narrows: if that was lost by the Turks, then everything was lost and the battle was over."

Following the repeated defeats of the Allied minesweeping forays into the straits by both day and night, Turkish morale was beginning to recover.  American ambassador to Turkey Henry Morganthau spent a great deal of time visiting the Turkish fortifications on both sides of the strait and spoke at length with the soldiers and officers of their Turkish-German garrisons.  He wrote:

"Everything was eagerness and activity.  Evidently the Germans were excellent instructors, but there was more to it than that.  ... for the men's faces lighted up with all that fanaticism which supplies the morale of Turkish soldiers... Above the shouts of all, I could hear the singsong chant of the leader, intoning the prayer with which the Moslem had rushed into battle for thirteen centuries.  'Allah is great.  There is one God and Mohammed is his prophet.'”

 

 

The Turks had one final "ace in the hole" that was the key to bringing about the defeat of the Allied fleet. This secret remained unknown until after the war.  On the evening of 8 March the Turkish mine expert Lieutenant Colonel Gheel had taken a small steamer, NOUSRET, down the straits.  Near the Asian shore, he had secretly laid a new line of twenty mines, 100 to 150 yards apart, perpendicular to the ten lines already stretching across the Straits.  During the days before the massive Allied naval attack of March 18, British trawler crews never discovered the mines nor had British seaplanes spotted them from the air.  For ten days, they had waited beneath the surface of the blue-green water; silent but deadly.

Immediately following the disastrous and extremely costly naval attack of 18 March on the Narrows, the idea for using further naval attacks alone to re-open the Dardanelles Straits was discarded in favor of an ultimately far costlier and bloodier venture: a combined naval and infantry amphibious invasion assault upon the nearby Gallipoli peninsula under the command of British General Ian Hunter.  An amphibious invasion would be followed by an irresistible advance inland.  This was thought to be the proper method of occupying the key land positions and forts overlooking the Dardanelles Straits.  Once they were firmly in Allied hands, it was thought that the Ottoman Empire would topple like a house of cards and they would be forced to surrender.  However, the Allies hadn't considered the extreme toughness and resiliency of the average Turkish soldier fighting on his home ground and with his back against the wall.  On 25 April 1915 following a withering Anglo-French naval bombardment, the first Allied troops came ashore at Suvla Bay and a number of other beach heads on the Gallipoli peninsula.  The long bloody battle of attrition, hardship and privation there would drone on for ten hideous months while killing or wounding over 250,000 Allied troops and tying down some15 British, British Commonwealth and French divisions who could have been better utilized elsewhere.  Hamilton's troops were eventually evacuated by sea on the night of 8 January 1916.  

The failure of the Dardanelles campaign and especially Gallipoli had major military and political repercussions in Great Britain.  General Sir Ian Hamilton was recalled to London and forced to resign from the Army.  Winston Churchill was demoted from his post of First Lord of the Admiralty for his role in the Dardanelles campaign and it would haunt him politically for many years afterwards.  He too resigned and later served with distinction on the Western Front as an infantry battalion commander of the Royal Scots Fusiliers.  The only principal commanding military officer to escape the stain of blame for the Dardanelles defeat and debacle was strangely enough the officer in charge of the failed naval attack on the Narrows, Admiral John de Robeck.  He was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath.  In the end, the twin Allied land and naval campaigns against the Ottoman Empire did enormous damage to their national resources and hastened the end to the traditional Sultanate and the old empire. However, it also stoked the fires of Turkish nationalism and pride.  The Allied campaigns were planned with an air of condescending over confidence, and plagued by ill-defined goals, poor planning and execution, inexperienced troops, inaccurate maps and intelligence, inadequate equipment and tactical deficiencies on all levels.  Geography also proved a significant factor as the Turks always enjoyed the advantage of occupying the high ground.  Perhaps another point to consider - had Winston Churchill not condescendingly looked down his nose at the lowly Turks before the war and allowed them to keep their three newly built battleships, the Ottoman Empire might have thrown in with the Allied cause rather than joining the Central Powers and Imperial Germany.  After all, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

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