The Naval Attack on the Dardanelles 1915 (2) The Attack

The previous entry in this series described the reasons why the British decided to launch a naval attack on the Dardanelles in February 1915.

The attack was to be led by Vice Admiral Sir Sackville Carden, who was then commanding RN forces in the Mediterranean. His force included the RN’s newest dreadnought, HMS Queen Elizabeth, which was the first battleship in the world to be fuelled entirely by oil and the first dreadnought to be armed with 15 inch guns. An accident reduced her speed to 15 knots, so the battlecruiser HMS Inflexible, which was originally intended to return to the Grand Fleet, stayed in order to give Carden a ship fast enough to bring SMS Goeben, the German battlecruiser now in Ottoman service, to action.

The other 12 British battleships in Carden’s force were all pre-dreadnoughts; some had been released from overseas stations after the British victory at the Falkland Islands and others were transferred from the Channel Fleet. They included HMS Agamemnon and Lord Nelson, which had been completed after HMS Dreadnought because the 12 inch gun turrets originally intended for them were fitted to Dreadnought in order to expedite her construction. The others were of the older Majestic, CanopusFormidableDuncan and Swiftsure classes. Carden also had four French pre-dreadnoughts, giving him a total of 18 capital ships, and the six seaplanes of the carrier HMS Ark Royal.

Carden had devised a seven stage plan:

  1. Destroy the forts at the entrance to the straits.
  2. Sweep the minefields and reduce the defences up to the Narrows.
  3. Destroy the forts defending the Narrows.
  4. Sweep the principal minefield at Kephez.
  5. Destroy the forts above the Narrows
  6. Enter the Sea of Marmara.
  7. Operate in the Sea of Marmara and patrol the Dardanelles.

Each attack on the forts would comprise three stages: a direct or indirect long range bombardment out of either range or bearing of the forts; a medium range bombardment by direct fire, including secondary armaments; and then a final bombardment at a range of 3-4,000 yards. Ships were to withdraw to long range if they came under fire: the largest Ottoman guns were thought to have a maximum range of 12,000 yards.[1]

Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, was urged by some staff officers to send the Royal Naval Division, an infantry force under the Admiralty’s control, to Carden. It had been formed at the start of the war from marines, naval reservists who were not needed at sea ships and wartime volunteers, and had fought in Belgium in 1914. At this stage of the war it lacked the supporting forces of an army infantry division. However, Churchill was willing to send only two battalions of Royal Marines to act as landing parties to destroy Ottoman guns.[2]

On 16 February it was decided to send the 29th Infantry Division, consisting mostly of regulars recalled from colonial garrisons, from the UK and the two divisions of the  Australian and New Zealand Army Corps from Egypt to Lemnos, the naval base of operations. However, Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, decided three days later that the 29th might be needed in France.[3]

This was the start of the military operation, but at this stage it was still expected that the fleet would force the Dardanelles. The troops were intended to demolish forts, destroy concealed howitzers, take the Gallipoli peninsula once the Ottomans had withdrawn and occupy Istanbul  if the expected revolution occurred.[4]

The naval attack began on 19 February. It showed that direct hits were required in order to knock out a heavy gun in a modern emplacement; indirect fire was not accurate enough to achieve such hits.[5]

Source: "Dardanelles defences 1915" by Gsl - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Source: “Dardanelles defences 1915″ by Gsl – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

The attack resumed on 25 February after a period of bad weather. The forts on either side of the entrance were silenced. Attempts by marine landing parties on 26 February and 1 and 4 March to complete the destruction of the forts were only partly successful because the Ottomans had re-occupied them once the naval fire lifted.[6]

Lieutenant Commander Eric Robinson of HMS Triumph was awarded the Victoria Cross for his courage whilst leading one of the landing parties on 26 February.

Carden’s first stage of silencing the forts at the entrance to the Dardanelles had now been achieved. There were no minefields in the first half of the 14 miles to the Narrows, but the battleships could not proceed through the minefields in the second seven miles. The trawlers that were employed as minesweepers had a speed of only four to six knots when sweeping, which was halved because they were going against the current. The remaining Ottoman guns were unable to do serious damage to battleships, although some were hit, but their howitzers were deadly against the minesweepers. Carden decided to use the minesweepers at night, but the Ottomans had anticipated this and installed searchlights.[7]

The battleships were unable to find the concealed howitzers. Air reconnaissance failed because the seaplanes were vulnerable to ground fire if they flew low and could not see the guns if they stayed high enough to be safe. Carden also employed a slow approach in which he used only a few of his battleships each day.[8]

On 11 March the Admiralty sent Carden a telegram saying that:

‘Caution and deliberate methods were emphasised in your original instructions…If, however, success cannot be obtained without loss of ships and men, results to be gained are important enough to justify such a loss.’[9]

Carden replied two days later that he intended a last attempt at night sweeping that night, which failed. It was now realised that the searchlights made night sweeping impossible. The only remaining option was a daylight operation in which the battleships suppressed the guns in order to allow the minesweepers to operate safely. A plan using all 18 battleships for an attack on 18 March was produced on 15 March.

The next day Carden’s health gave way. Command was given to Rear Admiral John de Robeck, his second in command. The RN’s rules of seniority meant that it ought strictly have gone to Rear Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss, commanding the base at Mudros, but he agreed to work under the man on the spot.[10]

The fleet was divided into three divisions: the First of the four newest ships; the Second of eight British pre-dreadnoughts; and the Third of the four French battleships and two British ones. Observation would come from the air. Aerial reconnaissance and other sources indicated that the main forts were armed with 42 guns of 8 inches or more, including six 14 inch guns.

First Division (Acting Vice Admiral John De Robeck):

HMS Queen Elizabeth, Inflexible, Agamemnon and Lord Nelson.

Second Division (Commodore Arthur Hayes-Sadler)

HMS Ocean, Irresistible, Albion, Vengeance, Swiftsure, Majestic, Canopus and Cornwallis.

Third Division (Contre-amiral Émile Guépratte):

Suffren, Bouvet, Gaulois, Charlemagne, HMS Triumph and Prince George.

The First was to bombard the main forts from 14,000 yards. The two British ships of the Third would engage the mobile howitzers and field guns. The French ships would attack the principal forts from 8,000 yards, which was the closest that had been swept of mines, once the British ships had dominated them. Six ships of the Second would relieve the French after four hours; the other two would support the minesweepers at night.

The fleet entered the Straits at 10:30 am. It came under fire by 11:00 am, but was at the firing position by 11:30 am. Soon after noon enough damage had been done to allow the French ships to move in to begin firing from closer range. Agamemnon, Inflexible, Suffren and Gaulois were all damaged, but by 1:45 pm the Ottoman fire was tailing off. De Robeck called up the minesweepers and ordered the Third Division to relieve the French. Around 2:00 pm the Bouvet suffered two explosions, the second apparently from a magazine blowing up, and sank rapidly. Only 48 men were saved, with about 600 going down with her.

The action continued. The forts stopped firing periodically, but this was because the gunners had to clean their guns of dust thrown up by shells landing in front of their emplacements. Between 3:30 and 4:00 pm the battleships began to encounter mines, which they assumed were unmoored, floating ones.

About 4:05 pm Inflexible struck a mine. She was badly damaged, and it seemed for a while that she might sink. Around 10 minutes later Irresistible hit a moored mine. Most of her crew were taken off by the destroyer HMS Wear, with ten men staying on board to try and get a wire to Ocean, which was ordered to tow the disabled battleship. However, it was impossible to do so because of Irresistible’s list. Ocean was coming under heavy fire, and was ordered to abandon the attempt at 5:50 pm.

The attack was then abandoned, and the fleet ordered to withdraw. At 6:05 pm Ocean struck a mine. Her crew was taken off by destroyers. Destroyers were sent at night to try and tow the two battleships, but both had sunk.[11]

As well as the three battleships sunk, Inflexible, Suffren and Gaulois all required dockyard repair. British human losses on 18 March were not high considering the number of ships lost and damaged: lists 13 killed on Irresistible, 35 on Invincible, one on Ocean and one on Majestic, including five men who later died of wounds received that day, but excluding one who died that day of wounds received earlier; including him, 71 British marines and sailors had been killed earlier in the attack. Robert Massie says that 639 men were killed on the Bouvet and 61 in the rest of the fleet. Ottomans and Germans were killed and wounded.[12]

The mines that caused the losses had been laid on the night of 8 March by a small Ottoman ship called the Nusret. The minesweepers had swept the central area, finding no mines; they had then assumed that the sides must also be clear. The seaplanes had failed to spot them.[13]

It was intended at this stage to resume the attack. The pre-dreadnoughts HMS Queen and Implacable were already on their way and HMS Prince of Wales and London and the French Henri IV were sent to replace the ships lost on 18 March.[14]

Bad weather from 19 to 24 March prevented operations. De Robeck originally intended to continue with the naval attack but on the 22 March he told a conference of generals and admirals that the fleet could not get through without the support of the army. The army would not be ready until 14 April. Destroyers were being fitted as minesweepers, but would not be ready until about 2 or 3 April.[15]

Churchill asserted that the Ottomans were almost out of ammunition when the attack was called off, a claim repeated by some others, including the early 60s BBC documentary series The Great War. However, Naval Operations, the British Official History, says that the Ottomans had about 70 rounds per heavy gun, 130 per 6 inch gun and 150 for each of those defending the minefields. Forts had been damaged but few guns knocked out. Research by Tim Travers in the Turkish archives shows that the howitzers and other field guns also had plenty of ammunition.[16]

The defences of the minefields had suffered little damage, and Naval Operations argues that the chances of a battleship getting through all 350 mines undamaged was 15 to 1 against, meaning that the Allies could expect only one battleship to reach the Sea of Marmara if the minefields were not cleared. It believes that the confidence of the Ottoman General Staff that they could not be cleared ‘was probably justified.’[17]

The army landed at Cape Helles on 25 April. From then on, the Gallipoli Campaign was primarily a land one, with the navy confined to landing troops, transporting supplies and wounded, providing supporting fire and ultimately evacuating the army. It could not attempt to break through the Dardanelles until the army had taken the high ground, which it never managed to do.[18]



[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, pp. 140-44.

[2] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. ii, p. 232.

[3] T. Travers, Gallipoli, 1915 (Stroud: Tempus, 2001).

[4] Marder, From. vol. ii,. p. 233.

[5] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 149.

[6] Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 234.

[7] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), pp. 449-51.

[8] Travers, Gallipoli, pp. 26-27.

[9] Quoted in Marder, From. vol. ii, p.243

[10] Ibid., pp. 243-45.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 213-28.

[12] Massie, Castles, pp. 463-4.

[13] Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 247.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 227.

[15] Travers, Gallipoli, pp. 38-40.

[16] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 223-24; Travers, Gallipoli, pp. 36-37.

[17] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 224.

[18] Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 258.

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The Naval Attack on the Dardanelles 1915 (1) Planning

From late 1914 onwards there was a dispute over British military strategy. The ‘Westerners’, including most generals, saw the Western Front as the decisive theatre. However, the ‘Easterners’, mostly politicians or admirals, thought that stalemate on the Western Front could not be broken, so wanted to launch an offensive elsewhere, probably the Near East, where they hoped to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war and persuade Italy and neutral Balkan countries to join the Allies.[1]

Admiral Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord proposed a number of schemes, including attacks on Zeebrugge. Borkum, Cuxhaven and the Baltic.[2] On 3 January 1915 he gave Winston Churchill, the First Lord and thus his political superior, a plan that he and Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the War Council, had devised for a major offensive against the Ottoman Empire. It involved attacks on Gallipoli and Istanbul: although then referred to as Constantinople in English, it has officially been called Istanbul since the Turks captured it in 1453.

It looked good on paper, but was impractical. It needed far more British troops than would have been released from France and assumed that Bulgaria and Greece, strong rivals and both neutral, would enter the war on the Allied side and co-operate.[3]

The day before, Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia had requested that the British carry out a ‘demonstration’ in order to distract the Ottomans who were attacking in the Caucasus; Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, told Churchill that the only place where such an action might succeed was the Dardanelles, but there were no troops available.[4]

By 4 January the Russians had forced the Ottomans to retreat from Sarikamish, but the British, apparently unaware of this, continued to look for ways to help their ally against the Ottomans.

Churchill was attracted by part of Fisher’s plan, which was for an attack by old battleships on the Dardanelles. He ignored Fisher’s requirement for the warships to be accompanied by troops, who would take the high ground along the Gallipoli side of the Dardanelles.[5]

The Royal Navy had always argued that warships could rarely attack forts successfully without support from land forces. Lord Nelson had argued that ‘any sailor who attacked a fort was a fool,’ and the former First Sea Lord Sir Arthur Wilson was the only senior officer of the early twentieth century who disagreed.[6]

On 3 November 1914 and Anglo-French squadron had bombarded the outer forts of the Dardanelles from 13,000 yards, damaging one of them. This led some to think that it might be possible to destroy them from a range at which they could not reply. However, it also alerted the Ottomans to the fact that they might be attacked. After the war, this was described as an ‘unforgivable error’ by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe and ‘an act of sheer lunacy’ by Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon.[7]

Hankey told Arthur Balfour, the former Conservative Prime Minister who would soon succeed Churchill as First Lord in a Coalition government, that:

‘from Lord Fisher downwards every naval officer in the Admiralty who is in the secret believes that the Navy cannot take the Dardanelles position without troops. The First Lord still professes to believe that they can do it with ships, but I have warned the Prime Minister that we cannot trust in this.’[8]

Balfour was one of the few that favoured an attack by only ships.[9] Churchill later admitted that he would not have gone ahead with a naval only attack had he known that 80-100,000 troops would be available by May. However, in January Kitchener had said that 150,000 men would be needed and few could be spared.[10]

Arthur Marder argues that in the end the ‘famed Churchillian impetuosity, eloquence and doggedness carried the day.’[11] Churchill argued, on the basis of the performance of German artillery against Belgian forts in 1914, that the Ottoman forts would not be able to resist the fire from 12 and 15 inch battleship guns. However, the Germans had forward observers to correct their fire, whilst the Allied ships would be firing on concealed positions from several miles away with no observers on shore. The Germans were also using howitzers with a higher angle of fire than battleship guns.

It had been hoped that seaplanes could act as spotters, but they found it difficult to take off unless the sea was very calm and could not fly high enough to safely and successfully spot the fire. The sea also affected the stability of the ships as gun platforms, another disadvantage compared with shore guns.

The risk from minefield was also ignored or under-estimated. The Ottoman shore batteries only needed to sink or force away the minesweepers, which were trawlers manned by peacetime fishermen who were members of the Royal Naval Reserve, to prevent the battleships from continuing.

Even if the battle fleet did manage to get past all the gun batteries, it was not clear what it was then supposed to do. It was apparently assumed that its appearance at Istanbul would cause a revolution, even though it would not have been accompanied by any land forces to occupy the city and its communications would be open to attack by any remaining forts.

Jellicoe later wrote in the margin of his copy of volume ii of Churchill’s The World Crisis:

‘Has anyone who wants to push battleships through the Dardanelles said what they propose they should do when through and how their communications are to be maintained and from what base are they to work?’[12]

Churchill assumed that the old battleships were of little value in the North Sea, so could be risked in this operation. However, before the Battle of Jutland, most British admirals thought that a major fleet action might cause such heavy losses amongst the dreadnoughts of both sides that the RN’s vast superiority in pre-dreadnought battleships would then become decisive.[13]

The next entry in this series will describe the actual attack.


[1] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. ii, p. 202.

[2] T. Travers, Gallipoli, 1915 (Stroud: Tempus, 2001), p. 20.

[3] Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 204.

[4] Travers, Gallipoli, pp. 19-20.

[5] Marder, From. vol. ii, pp. 204-5.

[6] Quoted in Ibid., p. 200.

[7] Quoted in Ibid., p. 201.

[8] Quoted in R. A. Hough, The Great War at Sea, 1914-1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 153.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Marder, From, p. 212.

[11] Ibid., p. 213.

[12] Quoted in Hough, Great, p. 152.

[13] Marder, From, pp. 214-19.

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The Sinking of SMS Dresden 14 March 1915

The light cruiser SMS Dresden was the only German ship of Vizeadmiral Maximilian Graf von Spee’s East Asia Squadron to escape the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914. The British force that hunted for her initially comprised two battlecruisers and 10 cruisers, but was reduced to four cruisers and an armed merchant cruiser after about a fortnight.

Dresden managed to evade the British ships for three months, hiding in the many inlets and bays of Tierra del Fuego. She kept in touch with Puntas Arenas by motor boat. Mr Milward, the British consul there, wrote an accurate report about Dresden’s whereabouts. However, Rear Admiral Archibald Stoddart, commanding the Royal Navy’s South Atlantic and Pacific Stations, thought that Milward had been misled by a German plan to trick British ships into a remote area in order to permit Dresden to escape.[1]

The Naval Staff Monograph vol. xxv, a British Admiralty publication written post war for internal use, attributes the failure to find her as being because ‘the intelligence organisation, centred in London and Montevideo…proved defective.’[2]

The Admiralty was convinced that she was hiding on the almost inaccessible Last Hope Inlet, a notion that seems to have resulted from German disinformation. The light cruisers HMS Bristol and Glasgow were sent there to await the arrival of the armoured cruiser HMS Kent. This allowed Dresden to enter the Pacific on 14 February 1915.

Glasgow, Bristol and the armed merchant cruiser HMS Orama were ordered back to Last Hope Inlet on 3 March after a report that there had been a light cruiser there, although Captain John Luce of Glasgow realised that this was a sighting of his own ship on her previous visit.[3]

An intercepted signal then revealed the location of a rendezvous between the German collier Gotha and Dresden. Kent was ordered there on 7 March and spotted Dresden. She saw nothing that day, but waited. The next morning was foggy, but the fog lifted in the afternoon to reveal Dresden 12 miles away, Kent pursued her, but was still eight miles from her when night fell. Kent was too short of coal to continue the chase.[4]

Luce, whose ship was coaling at Coronel, had decided to search the island of Más a Fuera in the Juan Fernandez Islands with Glasgow and Orama. Bristol was under repair after damaging her rudder at Last Hope Inlet. An intercepted signal then revealed that Dresden was at Más a Tierra, the main island of the group. Kent was then ordered to join Glasgow and Orama there on 14 March.[5]

The British ships found Dresden in Cumberland Bay. She was under steam, showing that she was not interned but intended to flee. The British opened fire at 8,400 yards and Dresden appeared to lower her colours after three minutes, although Fritz Lüdecke, her captain, claimed that they had been shot away and were re-hoisted. The British ceased fire and the Germans sent a boat carrying a flag of truce. The officer in charge of it, Leutnant Wilhelm Canaris, claimed that Dresden had been interned, which Luce rejected.

Another boat then approached Glasgow. It was carrying the local marine governor, who was also the lighthouse keeper. He protested the British action, but admitted that he had no means of forcing Dresden to leave Chilean waters. Luce offered compensation for the damage done to Chilean property by the British fire. In the meantime, Lüdecke had scuttled his ship by blowing up her forward magazine.[6] Nine Germans were killed and fifteen wounded.[7]

The survivors were interned, but Canaris managed to get back to Germany. He captained a U-boat and later rose to the rank of Admiral, becoming head of the Abwehr, German military intelligence. He was executed near the end of World War II because he had conspired against Adolf Hitler.

Another survivor of Dresden was a pig: warships then sometimes carried animals in order to provide fresh meat. He was rescued from the sea by HMS Glasgow, whose crew adopted him as a mascot and named him Tirpitz after the German admiral. He later transferred to the Naval Gunnery School at Whale Island, Portsmouth, before being auctioned to raise money for the Red Cross. His head was mounted after his death and presented to the Imperial War Museum.

Both sides had breached Chilean neutrality, the Germans by staying for five days rather than 24 hours and the British by opening fire.[8] The Chileans protested to both. The British apologised quickly, but noted that Dresden was hiding in an area where Chile had no means of enforcing its neutrality. The Germans took six months to reply. The British Official History argues that this meant that the action ‘rather increased the sympathy of the Chileans for the Allied cause as against that of the Central Powers.’[9]

Dresden captured a total of 12,927 tons of Allied merchant shipping during her cruise. Her destruction meant that the only German surface raider still at sea was the armed merchant cruisers Kronprinz Wilhelm, which would be interned at Newport News in the USA on 11 April 1915. The armed merchant cruiser Prinz Eitel Friedrich had been interned in the same port on 10 March 1915.

However, the Allies did not yet know that the light cruiser SMS Karlsruhe had been destroyed by an accidental explosion on 4 November 1915. The light cruiser SMS Königsberg was blockaded in the Rufiji River in German East Africa, now Tanzania.



[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol ii, pp. 243-44.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. xxv, ‘Review of German Cruiser Warfare 1914-1918′. p. 6.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 248-49.

[5] Naval Staff vol. xxv. p. 6; Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 249

[6] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 249-51 and footnote on p. 250.

[7] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 285.

[8] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 100.

[9] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 251.

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The End of the War of 1812

The War of 1812 between the United Kingdom and the United States of America, which began when the USA declared war on 18 June 1812, formally ended on 18 February 1815 when the US Senate unanimously ratified the Treaty of Ghent, which had been signed on 24 December 1814. It was a war without a clear winner, but it did have a clear loser: the Native Americans.

The British initially demanded at the peace conference that a Native American buffer state be set up in the Ohio/Wisconsin area, but were not in strong enough position to insist on this proposal when the USA rejected it, so  quickly dropped the idea. Most, although not all Native Americans, backed the UK in the war. The Creeks also fought and lost a war with the USA in 1813-14.

The Native Americans played a significant role in several British victories, including Detroit and Queenston. However, the death of their leader Tecumseh at the Thames was a severe blow. The British inability to establish a Native American state left them open to US expansion westwards after the war.

The USA had originally gone to war because the UK’s economic war with Napoleonic France was producing British interference with US trade and because the Royal Navy impressed [often shortened to press] US sailors into service. Under British law, the RN was entitle to impress, or conscript, British merchant sailors. These included men who it considered to be British, but who were US citizens in American eyes.

All these causes disappeared when Napoleon was forced to abdicate in April 1814, but fighting in North America continued. Negotiations between the belligerents began at Ghent in August 1814. The victory of the Anglo-Canadian army at Lundy’s Lane on 25 July had by then ended the threat of a US invasion of Canada. The US naval victory at Lake Champlain on 11 September ended the threat of a British invasion of the USA. Consequently, although both countries held some enemy territory, neither had enough of an advantage to affect the negotiations.

The negotiations continued for several months. Eventually, war weariness, the stalemate along the frontier and the removal of the original American grievances by the end of the UK’s war with France led to the negotiators agreeing terms on 24 December: little changed from the pre-war situation. They still had to be ratified by the respective governments: geography meant that the UK did so very quickly, but it took until February before the terms reached Washington.

Operations continued until then. The British control of the seas meant that they could launch a series of amphibious assaults, including one that resulted in the burning of the White House and an unsuccessful attack on Baltimore and another that led to the American victory at New Orleans.

Many Americans heard of the end of the war soon after they learnt of their victory at New Orleans, so it was natural for them to assume that New Orleans had won the war for the USA, but this was not the case. The British were in the early stages of an attack on Mobile when they learnt of the end of the war. It took some time until all the warships at sea learnt that a peace treaty had been signed, so some naval actions took place after the official end of the war.

If there was a decisive American victory of the war it was Lake Champlain. It prevented the British from capturing American territory, which would have given them a bargaining chip that might have forced the US to accept their demand for a Native American buffer state.

Although the war was a draw, a draw was enough for the USA to firmly establish itself as an independent nation and for Canada to remain part of the British Empire and thus later become an independent nation. The war gave Canada a sense of national identity.

The United States Navy was a relative gainer, since it put up a better performance than the United States Army and a established a tradition of victory. However, apart from Lake Champlain, the major naval actions of the war were won by the side that should have won on paper.

The US squadron at Lake Erie was much stronger than the British one. The USS Constitution captured HMS Guerriere and HMS Java in separate actions, whilst the USS United States took HMS Macedonian. In each case the US ship was more powerful.

The apparently most evenly balanced frigate action was when HMS Shannon captured the USS Chesapeake, which was similar in size and firepower. However, Philip Broke had captained the British ship for seven years, training her crew to a high level of efficiency. Captain James Lawrence had been in command of  the American ship for only 12 days. The other two American frigates to be captured by the British, the USS Essex and President, were both outnumbered. The sloop USS Wasp captured the roughly equal brig HMS Frolic, but was then forced to surrender to the much stronger HMS Poictiers.

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The Battle of Lake Champlain 11 September 1814

The American victory at the Battle of Lake Champlain, sometimes called the Battle of Plattsburg, on 11 September 1814 was the most decisive naval victory of the War of 1812.

In September 1814 11,000 British and Canadian troops under Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost invaded New York State. Prevost’s men were a mixture of veteran units recently arrived from the Peninsular War, British soldiers already in Canada and Canadians. His intention was to march along the western bank of Lake Champlain. The lakeside town of Plattsburg was defended by fewer than 2,000 effectives under Brigadier-General Alexander Macomb.[1]

The British plan required naval control of Lake Champlain. Both sides strengthened their squadrons in August, with the brig USS Eagle being launched on 16 August and the frigate HMS Confiance nine days later.

The following table shows that the British had two ships more than the Americans, with a greater total tonnage and more sailors, although the British ships may have carried fewer men than their official complements. The total broadsides fired by the two squadrons were very similar, but the British had a significant advantage at long range. Confiance was much bigger than any other vessel on either side, so the advantage would swing towards the Americans if they could put her out of action.

Displacement Broadside, tons
Name Tons Crew Total Long Short
USS Saratoga 734 240 414 96 318
USS Eagle 500 150 264 72 192
USS Ticonderoga 350 112 180 94 96
USS Preble 80 30 36 36 0
6 American gunboats totalling 420 246 252 144 108
4 American gunboats totalling 160 104 48 48
14 American vessels totalling 2244 882 1194 490 714
HMS Confiance 1200 325 480 384 96
HMS Linnet 350 125 96 96 0
HMS Chubb 112 50 96 6 90
HMS Finch 110 50 84 12 72
5 British gunboats totalling 350 205 254 108 146
7 British gunboats totalling 280 182 182 54 128
16 British ships totalling 2402 937 1192 660 532
Source: T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812. 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2), vol. Ii, pp. 117-20. The original gives the broadside of the 5 larger British gunboats as being 12 tons from long guns and 72 from short guns. This is presumably a typo, being both improbably low and the same as HMS Finch in the row above. The correct figure has been calculated from Roosevelt’s totals.

Lake Champlain is long and narrow with the wind normally blowing either north or south and a northward current.

Master Commandant [equivalent to a modern Commander] Thomas Macdonough, the American naval commander, anchored his ships in a line in Plattsburg Bay, which meant that the British would have to engage at short range, negating their advantage at long range. The northern end of his line was so close to Cumberland Head that the British could not turn it. A shoal prevented the British from attacking his southern flank.

The order of the American line from the north was the USS Eagle, flanked by two gunboats on each side, Macdonough’s flagship the USS Saratoga, three gunboats, the USS Ticonderoga, three gunboats and finally the USS Preble. The anchors of the four largest American ships had springs attached to them, enabling them to swing in wide arcs whilst remaining anchored. The USS Saratoga, had kedge anchors off her bows, which would allow her to turn round. The positioning of the gunboats prevented the British from attacking the American line from both side, as Lord Nelson had done to the French at the Nile.

Captain George Downie’s British squadron sailed at daybreak and sailed down the lake with the wind almost aft. HMS Chubb and Linnet engaged the Eagle, Downie’s flagship HMS Confiance the USS Saratoga and HMS Finch and the gunboats the rear of the American line.

Downie held HMS Confiance’s fire until everything was ready, with the result that her first broadside was devastating. Half of the USS Saratoga’s crew were thrown off their feet, although many of them were not seriously hurt. However, the American ship replied and Downie was soon killed. Both ships had many guns put out of action, some by enemy fire, others because their inexperienced crews overloaded them.

HMS Chubb was badly damaged by the USS Eagle and the leading American gunboats, drifted away and was captured. HMS Linnet concentrated on the USS Eagle, which was also receiving some of HMS Confiance’s fire. Damage to one of the USS Eagle’s springs meant that she could no longer fire on HMS Linnet, so she cut her other cable, sailed south and anchored in a position where she could fire on HMS Confiance. HMS Linnet then fired on the American gunboats and drove them off, before raking the USS Saratoga’s bows.

Theodore Roosevelt notes that the American would now have lost the battle ‘had not Macdonough’s foresight provided the means of retrieving it.’[2] He ordered the anchor astern of the USS Saratoga to be let go and had her hauled round far enough to allow her undamaged port batteries to come into action.

HMS Confiance had been anchored by springs on her unengaged starboard side. These could not be shot away as had those of the USS Eagle, but did not allow her to turn in order to bring her unengaged batteries into action. With over half her crew casualties, most of the guns on her engaged side out of action and her masts and sails badly damaged, she was forced to strike her colours about two hours after she opened fire.

HMS Linnet could not withdraw because of the damage to her masts and sails, but kept on fighting in the hope that the British gunboats would come to her aid. They did not, and she was forced strike her colours about two and a half hours after the battle began. HMS Finch had already been crippled by the USS Ticonderoga and forced aground. The British gunboats withdrew, possibly taking a shot accidentally fired from HMS Confiance by the Americans after her capture, as a signal to do so.

Roosevelt estimates that over 300 British and about 200 Americans were killed and wounded in the battle. Macdonough reported 52 killed and 58 wounded, but this excludes about 90 lightly wounded who did not have to go to hospital. The Americans took 180 dead and wounded from HMS Confiance, 50 from HMS Linnet and 40 from4 HMS Chubb and Finch. There were 55 shot holes in the USS Saratoga and 105 in HMS Confiance. Macdonough allowed the captured British officers to keep their swords because of the gallant fight that they had put up.[3]

Lake Champlain was the United States Navy’s greatest victory of the War of 1812. The frigate actions were all won by the stronger side. Macdonough was faced by a squadron that was much stronger than his at long range and roughly equal at short range. He placed his squadron in such a way as to force the British to fight at short range and to give him an advantage. Roosevelt describes him as ‘the greatest figure in [US} naval history’ before the American Civil War.’[4]

Alfred Mahan blames Prevost for the British defeat, arguing that he should have taken Plattsburg before the naval action.[5] The American shore batteries of the fortress could not fire on the British squadron without risking hitting the American one. However, if there had been British guns on the shore Macdonough’s position would have been untenable. He would have had to have moved his squadron further out into the lake, where the British superiority in long range gunnery ought to have proved decisive.

Prevost, however, thought that a joint attack on land and water  had to be made. His orders to Downie, according to Mahan, ‘used language indefensible to itself, tending to goad a sensitive man into action contrary to his better judgement.’[6] The land attack was called off once it became clear that the British had lost the naval action.

The result of the Battle of Lake Champlain was that the British invasion of the USA was halted. because it was impossible to advance on land without control of the lake. Peace negotiations had started in Ghent the month before, and the British would have been able to obtain better terms had they held a significant amount of US territory.

[1] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. ii, pp. 113-14.

[2] Ibid., pp. 137-38.

[3] Ibid., pp. 140-41. and footnote 2,

[4] Ibid., p. 143.

[5] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. ii, p. 201.

[6] Ibid., p. 201.


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The Naval Blockades: (2) Germany

During the First World War both the United Kingdom and Germany attempted to carry out naval blockades of the other. Each country used actions by the other to justify escalations by the other. The Germans laid unanchored, floating mines in the North Sea early in the war. International law said that such mines had to become inoperable after an hour. It was not feasible to do so, but this gave the UK an opportunity to argue that it was Germany that had first broken international law.

The UK then tightened its blockade beyond what was permitted by the 1909 Declaration of London. On 5 November the Admiralty announced that the whole of the North Sea was a war zone, warning that ships entering from the north would do so at their own risk. The official reason for this was the German minefields, but the real one was to force neutral ships heading into the North Sea to go through the English Channel, making it easier to search them for contraband.

On 4 February 1915 Germany announced that the waters round the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland would be a war zone from 18 February. It justified this by reference to the British declaration of 5 November. All hostile merchant ships in this area would be destroyed without warning. The safety of neutral ships could not be guaranteed because British ships had been flying neutral colours. U-boat captains were ordered that their first duty was the safety of their boat, so they should not take risks to find out if a ship was really neutral.[1]

In 1914 the most important successes of German U-boats had been against warships. This continued in 1915, with U24 sinking the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Formidable in the early hours of the year.

It was extremely difficult for submarines to comply with the rules of cruiser warfare, which required raiders to stop and search enemy merchant ships. Merchant ships could be sunk or captured only if their cargoes contained either war materials (absolute contraband) or items such as food or fuel that had peaceful uses but were intended for the enemy’s military (conditional contraband).

The safety of the crews of merchant ships that were sunk had to be ensured. Submarines had no space for prisoners and no spare men to act as prize crews for captured ships, so could comply with this only if the sinking occurred close to land.

One man had predicted before the war that submarines would sink merchant ships without warning. This was the British Admiral Lord Fisher, who by February 1915 was in his second spell as First Sea Lord. In late 1913 he had written a paper arguing that the invention of the submarine meant that the main threat to the UK was having its food and oil supplies cut off by submarine attacks on its merchant shipping

Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, and Admiral Prince Louis Battenberg, then the First Sea Lord, both refused to believe that any country would use its submarines in such a way. They thought that Fisher’s view that it would be done weakened his arguments about the risk of submarine attack on the UK’s food and oil supplies.[2]

Only four British merchant vessels had been sunk by U-boats before 30 January. In each case the Germans had given the crew time to abandon ship and no lives were lost.[3]

The most controversial incident had come on 26 October when Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Schneider’s U24 torpedoed but did not sink the 4,590 ton French steamer Amiral Ganteaume. She was carrying 2,500 Belgian refugees, 40 of whom were killed. However, Schneider may have thought that she was a troop ship. Whether he did or not, the incident showed the potential political and diplomatic implications of submarine warfare against merchant shipping.[4]

In the Irish Sea on 30 January U21, which had sunk the cruiser HMS Pathfinder in September, the first moving warship ever to be sunk by a submarine, stopped, searched and sank three British merchantmen after allowing their crews time to take to their boats. On the same day, however,  U20 torpedoed and sank three British merchant ships off Le Havre without warning. The crews of the Tokomaru and Ikaria all survived, but all that was found of the 21 man crew of the Oriole was two lifebuoys discovered near Rye on 6 February.[5]

Before the war Kapitänleutnant Ulrich Blum of the Kaiserliche Marine, the German navy, had estimated that 222 U-boats would be needed to successfully carry out a war against British commerce under international law, far more than Germany possessed in early 1915.[6]

The KM began the war with 24 operational U-boats, plus four older ones that were used for training and 16 under construction. By 22 February 13 more had been completed, but one of the new boats and six of the pre-war ones had been lost. Seven newly completed boats were under sea trials, leaving the KM theoretically with 23 to attack British trade. The need to refit, repair and resupply meant that there was an average of 5.6 and a maximum of 12 boats at sea on any one day between March and May 1915.

After the German capture of the Belgian coast gave them bases much closer to the UK, they had begun to build smaller UB and UC coastal submarines. The latter were minelayers, which initially were armed only with mines, although later ones also had torpedo tubes and guns. They were supposed to take four months to build compared with 18 for an ocean going boat, but UB1 was constructed in 75 days. By mid July 1915 17 UBs and 15 UCs had been completed, but the first six UBs were not operational until the latter part of April and UC1 not until early June. [7]

The U-boat war against British trade would eventually cause great problems for the UK, but Germany had too few submarines when it first launched its offensive. However, British counter-measures were also inadequate at first.

The Germans had lost a high proportion of their submarines so far in the war, but two had been rammed by warships whilst on the surface, four had struck mines and the seventh had been sunk by another U-boat on the surface after failing to respond to a challenge. The method that British warships possessed of sinking submerged submarines was the towing of explosive sweeps.

The British had laid a minefield across the Dover Straits in an attempt to stop U-boats entering the English Channel, but 4,000 out of just over 7,000 mines laid between 2 October 1914 and 16 February 1915 drifted or sank to the bottom because the weights holding them in position were too light.[8] The British also laid nets and organised patrols of small, armed ships, but the U-boats were able to pass through the Dover Straits.

The orders issued to U-boat captains on 18 February were that they should attack all hostile ships except hospital ships, unless clearly acting as troopships, and Belgian Relief ships. Neutrals should be spared. However, they were told that ‘if, in spite of the exercise of great care , mistakes should be made, the commanding officers will not be held responsible.’[9]

However, the first ship to be attacked in the new campaign was the Norwegian Belridge, which was carrying a cargo of oil from New Orleans to Amsterdam for the Dutch government. She was torpedoed on 19 February, but managed to make a British port. The Germans apologised and paid compensation.[10]


[1] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), pp. 293-94.

[2] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 24.

[3] C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. i, pp.358, 365-66.

[4] Halpern, Naval, p. 292.

[5] Fayle, Seaborne. vol. i, pp. 366-68.

[6] Halpern, Naval, p. 291.

[7] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), p. 7.

[8] Ibid., p. 17.

[9] Gibson, Prendergast, German, p. 31.

[10] Fayle, Seaborne. vol. ii, p. 12

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The Naval Blockades: (1) The United Kingdom


During the First World War both the United Kingdom and Germany attempted to carry out naval blockades of the other.

Blockades had been a part of British strategy in its wars with European enemies for many years. In the early 18th century they were mainly strategic, with the intention of giving warning if enemy fleets came out of port. By the end of that century, they also aimed at damaging enemy trade.

The UK had paid little attention to the rights of neutrals during its 18th and early 19th century wars: this was one of the causes of the War of 1812 with the United States of America. In 1856, however, it signed the Declaration of Paris, which stated that belligerents should not interfere with neutral trade. including enemy cargoes carried in neutral ships and neutral cargoes carried in enemy ships.

However, the protection offered to neutral trade did not extend to contraband, which was divided into two categories. Absolute contraband was items useful only to the military. Conditional contraband meant goods with both peaceful and military uses that were clearly destined for the enemy’s armed forces.

Conditional contraband was not defined by the Declaration of Paris. The UK insisted that it did not include food, but other countries disagreed. France, supported by Germany, declared it to be contraband during its 1885 war with China, as did Russia in the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War.

The UK was the world’s largest shipping carrier, a net importer of food and an exporter of manufactured goods. It had to consider the issue from three viewpoints: as a neutral in other people’s wars; the defensive one of defending its own trade; and the offensive one of blockading the enemy. Defensively, in a war with another country, it could continue to import from the USA in US ships. However, other European countries were less vulnerable to blockade than they had been before the development of railways, provided that they neighboured neutral countries.

In 1909 the Declaration of London attempted to define contraband. Absolute contraband was confined to a small number of purely military items, whilst the list of supplies defined as conditional contraband included food provided that it was for military, not civilian consumption.

The British delegates agreed the terms of the Declaration of London, but the UK never ratified it. There were protests from the public, which focussed mainly on the neutral and defensive angles, and a petition signed by 138 retired admirals.

Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, and the Foreign Office accepted the Declaration. They were concerned mainly with the neutral and defensive issues of protecting Britain’s merchant fleet and its wartime food supply.[1]

The Admiralty was planning to conduct economic warfare in the event of a war with Germany, which makes the agreement of its delegates to the London Conference more puzzling. Avner Offer suggests that it may have been ‘partly a matter of muddle and neglect’, but also offer a ‘more Machiavellian interpretation'; Admiral Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord, may have wanted the UK to have legal protection when a neutral, but expected it to act in its self interests in wartime.[2]

Some contemporary writers, such as Thomas Gibson Bowles, feared that the 1909 Declaration of London would prevent the Royal Navy from exerting the same pressure on a future enemy that they claimed had won past wars. However, Archibald Bell, the Official Historian of the British blockade, argues that Bowles’s claim that past blockades had been decisive was wrong. Bell contends that British leaders of the past ‘had never hoped that a continental enemy could be brought to terms by stopping its commerce.’[3]

Fisher’s immediate successor as First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, was sceptical about the merits of blockade, but he had retired by 1914. By then British strategy was to blockade Germany in wartime. The UK was allied to France and Russia, so the fears that a naval blockade would be circumvented by trade with neighbouring countries no longer applied. Germany was surrounded and her trade with the rest of the world could be stopped if Antwerp and Rotterdam were blockaded.[4]

Just before the start of the war the British decided that the traditional policy of a close blockade of enemy ports was no longer viable because of the threat of attack from torpedo armed enemy vessels on the blockading force. Instead, a distant blockade would be carried out. The Channel Fleet would block the English Channel, whilst a line of cruisers from the Shetland Islands to Norway would close the northern entrance to the North Sea.

There were, however, some difficulties in implementing the blockade when war came. One was the doctrine of continuous voyage. Absolute contraband intended for Germany could be stopped even if it was to be first unloaded in a neutral port such as Rotterdam and then transported by land to Germany. However, the Declaration of London stated that conditional contraband could only be stopped if it was heading directly to an enemy port.

The UK was reluctant to abandon entirely the Declaration of London, partly because Grey did not want to give up his support for neutral rights and international law and partly because it did not want to offend the USA.

However, the Germans laid unanchored, floating mines in the North Sea early in the war. International law said that such mines had to become inoperable after an hour. It was not feasible to do so, but this gave the UK an opportunity to argue that it was Germany that had first broken international law. The UK then announced that it would apply continuous voyage to conditional as well as to absolute contraband.

The UK also decided the treat food as contraband after it received reports that all food distribution in Germany was to be taken over by the government. The reports were actually an exaggeration of a plan to control food prices, but the British went ahead. However, the early British efforts at blockade did not have the desired effect. There was a reluctance to take measures that would offend neutrals who also supplied the UK.[5]

The naval force carrying out the blockade was also weak. Eric Osborne describes Rear Admiral Dudley De Chair as ‘an excellent choice for the job’ of commanding the 10th Cruiser Squadron, responsible for closing the northern approaches to the North Sea.[6] However, he initially had only six Edgar and two Royal Arthur class cruisers, launched in 1890-92. They were too slow to catch blockade runners and struggled in the harsh weather of their patrol area. they also had to take part in sweeps of the North Sea by the Grand Fleet. On 15 October one of them, HMS Hawke, was sunk by U9.

On 5 November the Admiralty announced that the whole of the North Sea was a war zone, warning that ships entering from the north would do so at their own risk. The official reason for this was the German minefields, but the real one was to force neutral ships heading into the North Sea to go through the English Channel, making it easier to search them for contraband. A number of Scandinavian shipping companies agreed that their ships would call at Kirkwall for inspection in return for being allowed to use the northern route.

The blockade was also strengthened in December by the replacement of the 10th Cruiser Squadron’s old ships with 23 armed merchant cruisers, merchant liners requisitioned by the navy and armed. They were both more numerous and more suitable for their role than the old warships initially assigned to it.[7]

The British blockade was not as successful in 1914 as its planners had hoped. It later tightened because the UK signed agreements with neutral countries, but only one of these, with the Netherlands on 23 November, was concluded in 1914. The UK had to move slowly because it could not afford to offend neutrals, especially the USA.[8]

The greatest British success in destroying German trade in 1914 was in sweeping the German merchant fleet from the seas, causing major economic problems for Germany. In November there were 221 German merchant ships were laid up in German ports and 1,059 in neutral ports, with another 245 having been interned in Allied ports.[9]

Osborne argues that:

‘The official reports on Germany’s economic conditions for November and December revealed hardship, but not sufficient to cripple the German war effort…The greatest achievement of British negotiations in 1914 was not the practical results achieved but the establishment of a foundation for future tightening of the blockade…The deadlock on the Western Front meant that economic pressure was vital to the success of the Allied cause and measures to date were not satisfactory.’[10]

The development of the British blockade was an example of the way in which a breach of international law by one side would be used by the other to justify a further breach, leading towards total war. The next escalation would be made by the Germans, when they used the British declaration that the North Sea was a war zone to justify the implementation of unrestricted submarine warfare.


[1] A. Offer, The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), pp. 271-77.

[2] Ibid., pp. 278-79.

[3] A. C. Bell, A History of the Blockade of Germany and of the Countries Associated with Her in the Great War – Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey, 1914-1918 (London: HMSO, 1961), p. 18.

[4] Offer, First, pp. 285-99.

[5] E. W. Osborne, Britain’s Economic Blockade of Germany, 1914-1919 (London: Frank Cass, 2004), pp. 58-65.

[6] Ibid., p. 59.

[7] Ibid., pp. 72-73.

[8] Ibid., pp. 76-78.

[9] Ibid., p. 61.

[10] Ibid., p. 79.


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