Tag Archives: First World War

Allied Submarines in the Dardanelles

Allied submarines operated in the Dardanelles even before the attack on its defences by surface ships in February 1915 and the amphibious landing on 25 April. HMS B11 sank the old Ottoman battleship Mesudiye in December 1914. The French boat Saphir was lost on 15 January 1915 after either running aground or hitting a mine.[1]

Once the armies were ashore the submarines had to enter the Sea of Marmara in order to prevent Ottoman supplies from reaching the Gallipoli. Getting through the Straits in order to attack enemy shipping in the Sea of Marmara was  very difficult. The boats had to pass through minefields and steel-wire anti-submarine nets without any metal blades to cut through the nets or the mine cables. They also had to avoid shore batteries and patrol boats and get through a 10 fathom deep stratum of fresh water that often made it very hard to control a submarine.[2]

Most of the British submarines operating in the Dardanelles were of  E class boats. In April the first British submarine to try to get into the Sea of Marmara, HMS E15, ran aground and had to be destryored by a British boat expedition in order to prevent her being captured. The Australian HMAS AE2 was more successful in getting through the Straits, but was sunk by an Ottoman torpedo boat: all her crew survived to be taken prisoner. The patrols of HMS E14 in April and May 1915 and E11 in May and June were, however, highly successful.

The Ottomans were able to send some supplies to their troops by land as well as the larger quantities carried by water. Submarines, however, managed to attack the land as well as the sea routes. On 17 July HMS E7 blocked the railway from Istanbul near Kava Burnu at the entrance to the Gulf of Izmid by bombarding a cutting and then shelled a troop train that had been forced to turn back from the obstruction. E7 subsequently attacked another train and a bridge without doing much damage, but she had done enough to show that the railway was vulnerable there.[3]

E7’s captain, Lieutenant-Commander Archibald Cochrane, was awarded the Distinguished service Order. The citation, from naval-history.net [the other citations below are from the same source], stated that it was awarded for:

For services in a submarine in the Sea of Marmora, where he did great damage to enemy shipping, and after blocking the railway line near Kava Burnu by bombarding it from the sea, shelled a troop train and blew up three ammunition cars attached to it.

E11 also attacked the railways during her second patrol, as well as sinking several merchant ships and the old battleship Barbaros Hayreddin. her captain, Commander Martin Nasmith VC, was not satisfied with the results of bombardments of the railways, so on the night on 20-21 August her First Lieutenant, Guy D’Oyly Hughes, went ashore to sabotage the track. The citation for his DSO stated that it was awarded:

For his services on the 21st August, 1915, when he voluntarily swam to the shore alone from a submarine and blew up a low brickwork support to the Ismid railway line, in spite of the presence of an armed guard within 150 yards of him. After a running fight of about a mile, he dived into the sea, and was finally pulled on board the submarine utterly exhausted, having had to swim nearly a mile in his clothes.

The Allied policy was to have two submarines in the Sea of Marmara at all times. According to the British Official History, they were able to make the enemy’s supply ‘so restricted and precarious that the maintenance of the Turkish army in Gallipoli was a matter of grave concern.’[4] However, E11’s second patrol ended on 8 September and E7, her replacement, was lost after being caught in submarine nets on 4 September. After battling 12 hours to free her Cochrane was forced to scuttle her after she was badly damaged by a depth charge. He and all his crew were captured, leaving only E2 in the Sea of Marmara. She put Lieutenant H. V. Lyon ashore on 8 September with the intention that he should repeat D’Oyly Hughes’s feat, but nothing more was heard from him.[5]

E2’s cruise ended in the middle of September. She was replaced by E12, which had a 4 inch deck gun rather than the 12 pounders fitted to her sisters. She was later joined by H1, the first of a new class of boats about half the size of the E class. The H class were built in the USA but fitted with their armament in Canada in an attempt to evade neutrality regulations.[6]

These two boats were joined on 22 September by the Turquoise, the first French submarine to reach the Sea of Marmara, and by E20 the next day. Three days later E12 headed back to base after a 40 day patrol, the longest yet carried out in the Dardanelles: she was damaged after being caught in the nets and then attacked by six enemy patrol ships as well as shore batteries, but made it back. H1 completed her 29 day patrol on 31 October.[7]

The captains of E12 and H1 were awarded the DSO. The citations read that:

Lieutenant-Commander Kenneth Mervyn Bruce, R.N. For his services in command of a Submarine in the Sea of Marmora, where he made a prolonged cruise, during the course of which he inflicted much damage on enemy shipping, and engaged and put to flight by gun fire a Turkish gunboat and a destroyer, and subsequently displayed much coolness, and resource in extricating his boat from a difficult position.

Lieutenant Wilfrid Bayley Pirie, R.N. For his services in command of a Submarine in the Sea of Marmora, where he inflicted much damage on enemy shipping, and co-operated with Lieutenant-Commander-Bruce in the chase of a Turkish gunboat.

The French submarines operating in the Dardanelles, which were older and smaller than the British E class boats, had found it hard to get through the Straits. The Joule struck a mine on 1 May, while the Mariotte was forced to surface near the Chanak batteries on 27 July after being trapped by the net defences. She came under artillery and was lost, with her crew being captured.[8]

Nothing was heard from the Turquoise from 26 October until a German telegram claiming that she had been sunk on 30 October by gunfire and her crew captured. In fact, she had been stranded and captured intact. Her confidential papers, including the details of a planned rendezvous with E20 were not destroyed.[9] When E20 arrived at the rendezvous on 5 November the submerged German U-boat UB14 was waiting for her. UB14 fired a torpedo from a range of 550 yards, sinking the British boat. Only nine of her crew survived.[10]

E11, which had returned to the Sea of Marmara on 6 November, was now the only Allied submarine there. Her third patrol lasted until 23 December, during which time she sank more steamers and the destroyer Yarhissar and bombarded the railways. Her three patrols totalled 97 days, and she was credited with sinking or rendering useless a battleship, a destroyer, five large and six small steamers and five large and 30 small sailing vessels. Nasmith was promoted to Captain after only a year as a Commander. E2 joined E11 on 10 December, but the Gallipoli Campaign was coming to an end.[11]

The British claimed that a battleship, an old coastal defence ship, a destroyer, five gunboats, 11 transports, 44 steamers and 148 smaller vessels were sunk by submarines in the Dardanelles for the loss of four British and four French submarines. The German official history says 25 steamers of 26,000 tons and 3,000 tons of small craft were destroyed plus 10 steamers of 27,000 tons damaged and put out of action for the duration of the campaign. Paul Halpern suggests that the difference may be partly explained by some ships being beached and later repaired and refloated.[12]



[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, p. 140; R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 208.

[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. 312.

[3] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 77.

[4] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 119.

[5] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 118-19.

[6] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 161; Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, pp. 88, 92.

[7] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, pp. 177-79.

[8] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 78; Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, pp. 209-10.

[9] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 179.

[10] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 205-6.

[11] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 206, 217-18, footnote 2 on p. 218

[12] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 119.


Filed under War History

The British Capture Kut-Al-Amara 28 September 1915

In June and July 1915 the British captured Amara and Nasiriyah in Mesopotamia. The force that did so was nicknamed Townshend’s Regatta because most of the troops of Major-General Charles Townshend’s 6th (Poona) Division of the Indian Army travelled along the Euphrates and Tigris in a flotilla of various types of ship and boat.

The British had landed troops at Basra in November 1914 in order to protect their interests in the region, notably but not only the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s refinery at Abadan and the pipeline to its Persian oilfields. The capture of Amara and Nasiriyah meant that the oil facilities and the vilayet (province) of Basra were securely held and the British should then have halted.

Townshend and his division were, however, ordered to advance on Kut-al-Amara, with the intention of taking Baghdad. He argued in his memoirs that this operation should not have taken place. Basra vilayet and the oilfields should have been defended by a force based at Basra, with outposts at Qurna, Nasiriyah and Ahwaz.[1]  He was right, but the campaign continued for a number of reasons: the need for a victory somewhere after defeats elsewhere; over confidence by local commanders; and momentum created by a series of easy victories early in the campaign.

The need for re-fits and the fact that the larger ships could not move any further up the Tigris meant that the naval force was reduced to the armed tug Comet, the armed launches Shaitan and Sumana and four horse boats carrying 4.7 inch guns towed by the motor launches RN 1 and RN 2. Captain Wilfrid Nunn, the Senior Naval Officer, and his successor, Captain Colin Mackenzie, were both ill, so Lieutenant-Commander Edgar Cookson of the Comet took over.[2]

The horse boats were so called because they had no engines and were normally towed by horses walking along the river or canal bank. The 4.7 inch guns were elderly, but the launches and horse boats had very shallow draughts, so could provide fire support for the troops in waters too shallow for the sloops that had provided this earlier in the campaign. RN 1 was commanded by Leading Seaman Thompson, a veteran, and RN 2 by Able Seaman Phil Gunn, a young sailor who would later be commissioned and rise to the rank of Captain: the rest of their crews were Indians. RN 1 and RN 2 were protected against sniper fire by steel plates around their cabins and engine rooms.[3] Phil Gunn’s RN 2 would lead the advance of the whole expedition.[4]

The advance began on 12 September, with the troops moving to Ali-al-Gharbi by ship. From then on, the shallow water meant that the troops had to march along the river bank, with the shallow draught tug, launches and horse boats providing fire support. The Ottomans withdrew without offering any resistance and the British force halted at Sanniaiyat from 15-25 September, during when it received reinforcements. The temperature was 110-16° F in the shade, of which there was little.[5]

The engines of the aircraft that had operated in Mesopotamia so far had proved to be unsuitable for the hot, dusty atmosphere: 70 hp Renault ones in the Maurice Farmans and 80 hp Gnomes in the Caudrons and Martinsydes. In early September three Royal Naval Air Service Short seaplanes with 150 hp Sunbeam engines under the command of Squadron-Commander R. Gordon arrived from Africa, where they had been involved in the operation that resulted in the destruction of the light cruiser SMS Königsberg. Their climbing ability was poor and it was difficult to get a long enough take off run on the Tigris. Two had their floats replaced to allow them to operate from land, thereafter giving good service despite engine problems.[6]

"Kut1915" by This map was created by the Department of Military Art and Engineering, at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point). - http://www.dean.usma.edu/history/web03/atlases/great%20war/great%20war%20%20pages/great%20war%20map%2047.htm. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kut1915.jpg#/media/File:Kut1915.jpg

“Kut1915” by This map was created by the Department of Military Art and Engineering, at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point). – http://www.dean.usma.edu/history/web03/atlases/great%20war/great%20war%20%20pages/great%20war%20map%2047.htm. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kut1915.jpg#/media/File:Kut1915.jpg


Aerial and naval reconnaissance discovered that Nureddin Pasha’s Ottoman troops were dug in astride the river in a strong defensive position 8 miles from Sannaiyat and 7 miles from Kut. There were two Ottoman divisions with 38 guns plus two cavalry regiments and 400 camelry. Most of the mounted troops were away on a raid and missed the battle of 28 September.[7] The Ottoman divisions had only six battalions each, meaning that they were outnumbered by the 14 British battalions. Some of the Ottoman guns were obsolete, giving the British an small artillery advantage.[8]

Townshend decided to divide his force into two columns. Column A would demonstrate against the Ottoman troops on the south bank of the Tigris. Column B, its flank protected by the naval flotilla, would attack on the right bank in order to pin the enemy’s centre. Column A would then cross the river and attack the enemy’s left flank.[9]

A boat bridge was laid across the river on 27 September. Column B advanced to within 2,000 yards of the enemy, whilst Column A demonstrated during the day before crossing the river under the cover of darkness. It was ready to attack by 5:00 am, with Column B advancing at the same time. The Ottomans advanced on the south bank at 11:00 am in order to enfilade Column B, but were thrown back by fire from the naval 4.7 inch guns and army 4 and 5 inch guns. The gunboats had moved forward at 11:00 am to engage Suffra Mound, which was taken by Column B by 2:00 pm. The boats came under shell and rifle fire, but the Ottoman artillery was largely silenced by the afternoon. Contact between the two columns was maintained by the aeroplanes and seaplanes, as the strong wind created clouds of dust that made visual signalling between the columns impossible.[10]

At 4:50 pm Column A began to advance on the rear of the enemy facing Column B. Enemy reinforcements appeared 40 minutes later, but Brigadier-General W. S. Delamain re-deployed his troops to face them. A bayonet charge routed the Ottomans, who escaped under the cover of darkness, suffering heavy casualties and leaving four guns behind.[11]

At 6:00 pm the naval flotilla heard of Delamain’s success from a seaplane. Townshend asked Cookson to advance to an obstruction that blocked the river in the hope of destroying it and allowing a pursuit by water and land. The flotilla set off after dark at 6:30 pm, coming under heavy rifle and machine gun fire, as they approached the obstruction, which consisted of a dhow in the centre, attached by wire hawsers to two iron lighters. An attempt to ram the dhow failed, so Cookson jumped on it in an attempt to cut the hawsers with an axe. He quickly suffered several bullet wounds and died 10 minutes later. The flotilla then withdrew.[12]

The flotilla, now commanded by Lieutenant Mark Singleton of the Shaitan, resumed its advance the next morning, 29 September. The Ottomans had retreated from the obstruction and the British vessels reached Kut at 10:00 am. The low level of the river made navigation difficult, but they continued past Kut. On 30 September they encountered two armed Ottoman vessels, the Poineer and Basra. Sumana and Shaitan had both run aground, the former breaking both rudders, so the Comet engaged the two enemy steamers herself before being joined by the Shaitan. The Basra was damaged and withdrew. The British pursued, but then came under fire from shore based guns astern of them. The Shaitan ran aground again and there was a risk that she and the Comet would be cut off, but the Shaitan managed to re-float herself and the British retired to Kut. The difficulty of conducting a pursuit when the only means of transporting heavy equipment was along a low river meant that the Ottomans were able to withdraw to a prepared position at Ctesiphon.[13]

The British suffered 1,233 casualties of whom 94 were killed. They captured 1,700 men and 14 guns: total Ottoman casualties were 4,000.[14] Twelve men on the Comet, four of them soldiers, were wounded.[15] Cookson is the only sailor listed on naval-history.net as being killed in Mesopotamia from 27-30 September. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. The same website gives the citation:

29446 – 21 JANUARY 1916

Admiralty, 21st January, 1916.

 The KING (is) pleased to approve of the grant of the Victoria Cross to Lieutenant-Commander Edgar Christopher Cookson, D.S.O., R.N., in recognition of the following act of most conspicuous gallantry during the advance on Kut-el-Amara:

On the 28th September, 1915, the river gunboat “Comet” had been ordered with other gunboats to examine and, if possible, destroy an obstruction placed across the river by the Turks. When the gunboats were approaching the obstruction a very heavy rifle and machine gun fire was opened on them from both banks. An attempt to sink the centre dhow of the obstruction by gunfire having failed, Lieutenant-Commander Cookson ordered the “Comet” to be placed alongside, and himself jumped on to the dhow with an axe and tried to cut the wire hawsers connecting it with the two other craft forming the obstruction. He was immediately shot in several places and died within a very few minutes.


[1] C. V. F. Townshend, My Campaign in Mesopotamia (London: T. Butterworth Ltd, 1920), pp. 35-36.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1921 vol. iv, Naval Operations in Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf. pp. 75-76.

[3] D. Gunn, Sailor in the Desert: The Adventures of Phillip Gunn, DSM, RN in the Mesopotamia Campaign, 1915 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2013). Kindle edition, locations 812-22, Chapter 22. This well researched book, by Phil’s son David, gives an excellent description of the Mesopotamian Campaign from the viewpoint of one of the RN’s lower deck.

[4] Ibid. Kindle locations 1067-79, Chapter 28.

[5] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 76.

[6] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. v pp. 253-58. Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 76 says that there were four RNAS seaplanes

[7] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 76.

[8] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, p. 192.

[9] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 77.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., pp. 77-78.

[12] Ibid., p. 78.

[13] Ibid., pp. 78-79.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 195 and footnote 2.

[15] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 78. Footnote 1.


Filed under War History

The Royal Navy and Townshend’s Regatta

British troops landed near Basra on 6 November, the day after hostilities began with the Ottoman Empire with the objective of securing British interests in the region, notably but not only the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s refinery at Abadan and the pipeline from it to APOC’s Persian oilfields. These had been achieved by 9 December when they took Qurna.

In early 1915 Ottoman forces attacked from Amara on the Tigris towards the oil pipe-line and from Nasiriyah on the Euphrates towards Basra. The pipeline was cut around Ahwaz. By then General Sir John Nixon was in command of the Mesopotamian Corps of two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade. He did not, however, have all the equipment, especially transport and medical services, of a corps.

On 12 April the Ottoman attack towards Basra was defeated at Barjisiya. Nixon then launched offensives towards Ahwaz and Amara to protect the pipeline and Nasiriyah to protect Basra. The politicians in London, Lord Crewe, Secretary of State for India until the Liberal/Conservative Coalition was formed in May 1915, and his successor Austen Chamberlain, both urged caution in Mesopotamia once the oil facilities and Basra were safe. They were, however, ignored by the government and army command of British India, which had more ambitious plans.[1]

The lack of a railway and the poor quality of the roads meant that the rivers were vital for communications. The attack on Amara, carried out by Major-General Charles Townshend’s 6th (Poona) Division, was made at a time of unusually high floods, meaning that the land was flooded for miles around the Tigris. The flood water was often shallow, but with ditches, cuts and canals that made it impossible to wade. The Naval Staff Monograph said that ‘there was too much water for the Army, but generally too little for the Navy.’[2]

Infantry were carried were carried on armoured bellums (local boats holding about eight people and propelled by paddles or poles). Other bellums were loaded with supplies, including ammunition. Artillery was loaded on barges, rafts, tugs and paddlers, with machine guns on rafts. Rafts were also used as ambulances, with roofed mahelas (large river sailing boats) used as hospitals. Townshend and some of his staff travelled on the sloop HMS Espiègle, along with the Senior Naval Officer Captain Wilfrid Nunn. The rest of his staff were split between the sloops HMS Clio and Odin. The flotilla also included the Indian Marine ship Lawrence, the armed tugs Comet and Miner, the armed launches Bahrein, Lewis Pelly, Shaitan and Sumana and the stern wheelers Shushan and Muzaffri. The troops called the force ‘Townshend’s Regatta.’[3]

Townshend’s attack began at 5:00 am on 31 May and by noon had succeeded in taking its first objective, a series of Ottoman outposts. Aerial reconnaissance showed that the enemy was in full retreat: the two British aircraft had to fly from Basra as there was no closer ground dry enough for them to land on. Townshend, his staff and a dozen other soldiers boarded the flotilla and headed off in pursuit. A captured Ottoman officer, who was put in one of the launches being used as minesweepers, pointed out the enemy mines on the river.[4]

The next Ottoman position, at Bahran, was bombarded at 5:30 am on 1 June, but had been evacuated. Four lighters had been sunk in an attempt to block the river, but it was possible to pass, although navigation was difficult because the ships had only rough maps of the river, which bent and twisted and whose channel was hard to identify because of the floods.[5]

At 5:50 pm Shaitan, the leading vessel, opened fire on the Ottoman gunboat Marmariss, which was towing some mahelas. The sloops joined in, also firing on the steamers Mosul and Bulbul By 8:05 pm, when the British ships anchored to wait for the moon to rise, the Bulbul had been sunk. The Marmariss escaped by abandoning the craft that she was towing. The British resumed the pursuit at 2:00 am on 2 June. At daybreak they found the Marmariss, abandoned, aground and on fire. The Mosul was found aground nearby, full of troops and stores.[6] As well as the Marmariss and Mosul, two steel lighters, seven mahelas, two field guns, a large quantity of rifles and ammunition, 140 prisoners and over £1,000 worth of treasure were captured.[7]

Townshend decided to press on to Amara with the lighter draught vessels: the sloops could not go any further. He set off at 11:00 am on 2 June with the Shaitan, Sumana, Lewis Polly, three horse-boats, each armed with a 4.7 inch gun, and Sir Percy Cox, the Principal Political Officer, in his steam launch L2. No opposition was met and white flags were being flown. Shaitan entered Amara at 2:00 pm on 3 June. She was surrounded, but was not fired upon. Townshend then arrived and took the surrender of 30-40 Ottoman officers and 700 men. The British were heavily outnumbered, although sources differ on the number involved: the Naval Staff Monograph says ‘Townshend and his 22 men’, whilst Naval Operations, one of the British Official Histories, says 100 ‘besides Lascar stokers.’[8] Possibly the smaller is the number who actually took the surrender and the larger includes all the crews of the vessels involved. The 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment arrived in the morning to secure Amara.

Townshend’s reputation was later destroyed by his defeat in the Siege of Kut-Al-Amara and his behaviour during his subsequent captivity, when he lived in comfort in Istanbul and made no attempt to find out about the appalling conditions in which his men were being held as prisoners. In this action, however, he led from the front, belying the clichéd image of the First World War general miles behind the lines. He wrote that ‘I owe the whole of the success firstly to the Royal Navy.’[9]

From 31 May to 4 June Townshend’s force captured 139 officers, 1,634 men, 12 field guns and five naval guns and captured or sank the Marmariss, five steamers and several barges and small craft. British casualties from 31 May to 4 June were one officer and three men killed and three officers and 18 men wounded.[10] The Ottomans suffered 120 killed or wounded as well as those captured.[11]

The next stage of the Mesopotamian Campaign was to take Nasiriyah in order to protect Basra. It was too difficult to move on it across the desert at that time of year, so the advance had to be made by river. This meant bringing the ships and river craft back from Amara to Qurna and then along a waterway that went through the very shallow and 10 mile broad Hammar Lake to the Euphrates. Some ships had been sent away: Clio to Bombay for a refit, Lawrence to Bushire and others to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to allow their crews to recover from the heat at a hill station.[12]

Nunn’s force was augmented by another stern wheeler, the, but was weaker than at Amara. Espiègle, Odin and Miner could not cross the Hammar Lake. The remaining force consisted of Sumana, the stern wheelers Shushan (armed with a 12 pounder, a 3 pounder and a maxim), Muzaffri (a maxim) and Messoudieh (a 3 pounder and a maxim), two horse-boats, each armed with a 4.7 inch gun, three transports full of troops, each with two 18 pounder guns on her foredeck and four tugs towing mahelas or lighters full of ammunition and supplies. The stern wheelers were given some armour plate, but the amount was restricted because the shallow water meant their draughts could not increase much. There were also mountain guns mounted on bellums. Nunn was onboard Shushan. The troops were from the 30th Brigade of Major-General George Gorringe’s 12th Indian Division, reinforced with additional artillery and engineers.[13]

The force began to cross the Hammar Lake at 4:00 pm on 27 June. Navigating the narrow, shallow and almost unmarked channels was difficult, even without being under fire. Open water was not reached until 4:00 am on 4 July. An Ottoman position at Gurma-Safha, defended by 2,300 troops, later reinforced to 3,000, was attacked and taken the next day. The British had 114 men killed or wounded, but captured 132 men and two guns.[14]

The next resistance was encountered at the Majinina Creek, about six miles from Nasiriyah, where the Ottomans had established a strong defensive position.[15] It was initially defended by about 2,000 Turks, six guns, two launches and ‘large numbers of hostile Arabs.’[16]

Both sides were receiving reinforcements and had about 5,000 men each by 24 July. The British, however, had more artillery and the advantage of an aircraft for reconnaissance.[17] Their attack began with an artillery bombardment at 4:30 am that day, with the infantry assault starting 30 minutes later. Sumana, under heavy fire, positioned a barge to allow the troops to cross the creek with fire support from the stern wheelers. The Ottomans offered stiff resistance but were forced back. [18]

Nunn took Shushan towards Nasiriyah, where white flags were flying, but she was forced to retreat after coming under fire. The Ottomans, however, evacuated the town overnight. On 25 July the leading Arab citizens invited the British to enter the town. Two days later Nunn took Shushan a further 71 miles up the Euphrates to Samawa, a telegraph station whose small garrison had fled after hearing of the fall of Nasiriyah. The Euphrates operation cost the British over 500 dead and wounded, including five sailors wounded. They took 15 guns at Nasiriyah.[19]

The Basra vilayet (province) was now secure and the British should have halted. Townshend and his 6th Division were, however, ordered to advance on Kut-al-Amara, with the intention of taking Baghdad. He argued in his memoirs that this operation should not have taken place. Basra vilayet and the oilfields should have been defended by a force based at Basra, with outposts at Qurna, Nasiriyah and Ahwaz.[20] He was right, but the campaign continued for a number of reasons: the need for a victory somewhere after defeats elsewhere; over confidence by local commanders; and momentum created by a series of easy victories early in the campaign.



[1] This is a summary of the relevant part of my PhD thesis. M. W. Gibson, ‘British Strategy and Oil 1914-1923.’ (University of Glasgow, 2012), pp. 48-55.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1921 vol. iv, Naval Operations in Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf. p. 52.

[3] Ibid.

[4] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, pp. 18-19.

[5] Naval Staff vol. iv. pp. 54-55.

[6] Ibid., pp. 55-56.

[7] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 20, footnote 1.

[8] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 56; Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 22

[9] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 57.

[10] Ibid., pp. 56-57.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 23.

[12] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 183.

[13] Naval Staff vol. iv. pp. 59-60.

[14] Ibid., pp. 61-62.

[15] A. J. Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign (New York, NY: Enigma, 2009), p. 69.

[16] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 63.

[17] Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign, p. 70.

[18] Naval Staff vol. iv. pp. 64-65.

[19] Ibid., p. 65.

[20] C. V. F. Townshend, My Campaign in Mesopotamia (London: T. Butterworth Ltd, 1920), pp. 35-36.


Filed under War History

The First Sinking of a U-Boat by a Q-Ship

The Royal Navy, faced with increasing losses of merchant ships to U-boats, came up with the idea of using decoy ships to trap German submarines. They were eventually known as Q-ships after Queenstown, now Cobh, in Ireland, where many of them were based.

Early war U-boats carried only around six torpedoes, so their captains preferred to surface and sink smaller merchant ships by gunfire. A Q-ship would give the impression of being an innocuous tramp steamer. Her armament would be hidden inside false deck houses or lifeboats or on swivel mountings that could appear when needed. Most of her crew, who were volunteers, would also be concealed, with hidden alleyways and special trap doors allowing them to get to their action stations without being seen. The majority of the crew of a warship are concerned with fighting rather than sailing her, so Q-Ships had far larger crews than they would have had as merchantmen. The collier Loderer had a crew of about six officers and 25 men in merchant service and 11 officers and 56 men after being converted to the Q ship HMS Farnborough.[1]

The first Q-ship to see action was HMS Prince Charles, a 373 ton collier that was given an armament of two 6 pounder guns, two 3 pounders and a number of rifles. Her civilian crew of Captain F. N. Maxwell and Chief Engineer Anderson and nine other men volunteered to remain on board. Lieutenant William Mark-Wardlaw RN was given command, with the crew being completed by Lieutenant J. G. Spencer RNR, two RN petty officers and nine RN ratings.[2]

Prince Charles was a civilian ship under charter to the RN and based at Scapa Flow. The terms of her charter allowed her to defend herself. Mark-Wardlaw’s orders of 20 July 1915 from Admiral Sir Stanley Colville included the following clauses (the earlier ones describing the area in which he was to operate have been omitted):

  1. ‘The object of the cruise is to use the Prince Charles as a decoy, so that an enemy submarine should attack her with gun fire. It is not considered probable, owing to her small size, that a torpedo would be wasted on her.

  2. In view of this, I wish to impress you to strictly observe the role of decoy. If an enemy’s submarine is sighted make every effort to escape, if she closes and fires, immediately stop your engines, and with the ship’s company (except the guns’ crews, who should most carefully be kept out of sight behind the bulwarks alongside their gun, and one engineer at the engines) commence to abandon ship. It is very important, if you can do so, to try and place your ship so th a t the enemy approaches you from the beam.

  3. Allow the submarine to come as close as possible, and then open fire by order on whistle, hoisting your colours (red ensign).

  4. It is quite possible that a submarine may be observing you through her periscope unseen by you, and therefore on no account should the guns crews on watch be standing about near their guns.

  5. If by luck you should succeed in sinking a submarine, on no account are you to allow the information to leak out of your ship, the strictest precautions are to be taken on arrival in a harbour, or meeting a ship at sea, that none of the officers or men give away the information.’[3]

Prince Charles left Scapa Flow at 8:00 pm on 21 July. In the early hours of 24 July she encountered a merchant ship stopped near a surfaced submarine 10 miles WNW of Rona. Mark-Wardlaw’s report stated that:

‘Shortly after this the submarine was observed to start her oil engine and proceed towards us at full speed. I then hoisted my ensign. At about 7.5 p.m., submarine being about 3 miles distant, 5 points on the port bow, she fired a shot which pitched about 1,000 yards over.

I then stopped engines, put ship’s head to swell from NNW, blew three blasts, and boat’s crews were ordered to get boats out.

All this time the submarine was coming very fast towards us (20 knots) and at 7.10 she fired a second shot which went between funnel and foremast and landed 50 yards over.

The submarine then turned so as to bring her broadside to us at about 600 yards, and as the submarine continued to fire and seeing that the range could not close any more, I opened fire with both port guns.

Directly I opened fire the gun’s crew of the submarine deserted their gun and entered conning tower and she apparently attempted to dive.’[4]

The submarine, which was U36, was struck by a shell as she dived. She came back up, turning. Prince Charles closed to 300 yards and continued to fire, scoring several hits. U36’s crew abandoned ship, with 15 out of 33 men, including her captain, Kapitänleutnant Ernst Graeff, being saved by the British.[5]

The steamer that had been near U36 when Prince Charles came upon them was Danish. Mark-Wardlaw suspected that she had been supplying the U-boat, so ordered her to follow him to port for inspection. The Danes turned out to be pro-British and delighted at the outcome of the action. They agreed to keep quiet about it and were released. [6]

­U36 had sunk a Norwegian sailing ship and steamer, a French steamer, a Russian steamer and nine British trawlers during her cruise. She had also fired on but missed the armed merchant cruiser HMS Columbella and captured the US sailing ship Pass of Belhama, which was sent to Cuxhaven with her cargo of cotton. She later became the German commerce raider Seeadler, like Prince Charles an apparently innocuous vessel with a concealed armament.[7]


[1] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), pp. 14-15.

[2] Ibid., pp. 8-9.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xiv, Home Waters part v, July 1915 to October 1915. Appendix J, p. 220.

[4] Ibid., p. 37.

[5] Ibid., p. 38.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., pp. 38-40.


Filed under War History

The First Aerial Torpedo Attack on a Ship

The first ship to be torpedoed by an aircraft was an Ottoman steamer supplying troops during the Gallipoli Campaign. On 12 August 1915 a Short 184 seaplane flown by Flight Commander Charles Edmonds took off from the seaplane carrier HMS Ben-my-Chree in the Gulf of Xeros carrying a 14 inch torpedo.

He spotted a merchant ship and dropped his torpedo from an altitude of 15 feet and a range of 300 yards. It struck the ship abreast the mainmast, sending up a large amount of debris and water. Edmonds saw that the steamer was settling by the stern. It was subsequently discovered that the ship had been beach four days earlier after being torpedoed and shelled by the submarine HMS E14, captained by Lieutenant-Commander Edward Boyle VC.

Edmonds torpedoed another enemy ship 5 days later when he launched a torpedo from an altitude of 15-20 feet and a range of 800 yards that struck one of three Ottoman steamer bringing supplies and reinforcements to Gallipoli. The ship caught fire and had to be towed to Istanbul.

On the same day Flight Lieutenant G. B. Dacre was forced to land on the sea near an enemy hospital ship by engine trouble. He persuaded the ship that he was a friend with a wave. His engine was working well enough to taxi, so he headed off on the surface. He spotted and approached a large steam tug, fired his torpedo and scored a hit. He came under rifle fire, but was able to take off after a two mile run, returning to Ben-my-Chree. The tug sank.

During the Gallipoli Campaign, Royal Naval Air Service aircraft made 70 attacks on enemy ships with torpedoes and bombs. These helped the attempts by submarines to shut down Ottoman seaborne supplies to Gallipoli. The main problem was that the Short 184 seaplane could only take off with a torpedo if conditions were ideal: a calm sea with a slight breeze and an engine that was in perfect working order. Even then, they could carry enough fuel for only a 45 minute flight when armed with a torpedo.[1] The performance figures quoted in the Wikipedia page linked in the first paragraph are for a later model with a 260 horse power engine. Ben-my-Chree carried the first Short 184s built.[2]

R. D. Layman points out in his history of Naval Aviation in the First World War that it is impossible to indentify the Ottoman ships involved or to be sure of how badly damaged they were because no accurate list of all Ottoman merchant ships sunk during the war is available.[3] It appears from the British reports, however, that all three ships were attacked and at least damaged.

HMS Ben-my-Chree belonged to the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company before the war: her name means Woman of My Heart in Manx. She was requisitioned by the Admiralty and converted to a seaplane carrier in 1915. She carried 4 seaplanes and was capable of 24.5 knots, making her the fastest of the merchantmen converted to seaplane carriers by the RN. She was sunk by Ottoman onshore artillery on 11 January 1917.[4]

Edmonds served in the Royal Air Force after the war, rising to the rank of Air Vice Marshal during the Second World War. He had previously been awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his part in the Cuxhaven Raid on 25 December 1914.


[1] The above is based on W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. ii, pp. 64-65.

[2] R. D. Layman, Naval Aviation in the First World War : Its Impact and Influence (London: Chatham, 1996), p. 149.

[3] Ibid., pp. 62-63.

[4] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 68.


Filed under War History

The End of the Last of the Early German Commerce Raiders: SMS Konigsberg

At the outbreak of the First World War eight German cruisers were outside home waters or the Mediterranean. The five ships of Vize Admiral Maximilian Spee’s East Asia Squadron sank the British armoured cruisers HMS Good Hope and Monmouth at the Battle of Coronel on 1 November 1914, but four of them were then sunk at the Falklands on 8 December. The other, SMS Dresden, was destroyed on 14 March 1915. These ships sank or captured a total of 29,826 tons of Allied merchant shipping, 12,927 of it by Dresden and 15,299 by SMS Leipizig.[1]

The two most successful German commerce raiders in the early stages of the war were SMS Emden, which accounted for 82,938 tons of merchant shipping, the Russian cruiser Zhemchug and the French destroyer Mousquet and SMS Karlsruhe, which sank or captured 76,909 tons of merchant shipping. Both were destroyed in early November 1914, Karlsruhe by an accidental internal explosion on the 4th and Emden by HMAS Sydney five days later.

By late November the light cruiser SMS Königsberg was the only one of the eight cruisers still afloat. She had sunk the old light cruiser HMS Pegasus at Zanzibar on 20 September 1914, and had previously sunk the 6,600 ton merchantman City of Winchester. The British then lost trace of her until the light cruiser HMS Chatham captured the German liner Präsident on 25 October. Papers found on board her indicated that Königsberg was in the Rufiji Delta in German East Africa, now Tanzania. [2]

Chatham spotted her masts on 30 October, but locals reported that the creek in that she was in could be mined and was defended by shore batteries and trenches. The waters were shallow, had no navigation marks and a major warship could pass them for only a few hours a day. Consequently, Königsberg was fairly safe from attack but was also trapped, since she could not hope to evade her blockaders.[3]

On 2 November the light cruisers HMS Dartmouth and Weymouth arrived. They tried to fire on Königsberg, her supply ship Somali and the shore positions, but observation was difficult, especially as the German cruiser had removed her top masts and camouflaged herself with foliage. An attack on the Somali by a steam launch carrying two torpedoes on 7 November failed, but Chatham was able to set the Somali on fire, destroying many of the Königsberg’s stores. Three days later the British blocked what was believed to be the only navigable channel out of the Rufiji by scuttling the collier Newbridge in it. The British lost two men killed and nine wounded in this operation.[4]

A seaplane was sent to the Rufiji, locating Königsberg on 22 November; she was out of range of any ships outside the delta. It was damaged, but returned after being repaired with a new hull that allowed it to carry an observer and bombs. A reconnaissance flight on 4 December revealed that there were two other channels that Königsberg might use, as well as the one that had been blocked. Six days later the seaplane was lost after a forced landing. [5]

Dar-es-Salaam was attacked on 28 November in order to destroy merchant vessels that might have supplied Königsberg. Commander Henry Ritchie was awarded the RN’s first Victoria Cross of the war for courage during it.

On 6 February the armed tug Adjutant was lost whilst investigating the entrance to the delta. The British Official History says that she was captured by the Germans and later used on Lake Tanganyika, but the Naval Staff Monograph, an internal Admiralty document, states that it was a different ship of the same name that was captured.[6]

Two Sopwith seaplanes with 100 hp engines and capable of carrying 100 pound bombs were sent out from the UK, but they were not powerful enough for the climactic conditions, one of them crashing on 24 February. Combined operations using marines were considered but rejected.[7]

The Admiralty commenced a formal blockade of the Rufiji on 1 March, meaning that neutral ships should leave, although none were present. The need for refits and redeployments of modern ships meant that the squadron off the Rufiji consisted of HMS Weymouth, the older light cruisers HMS Hyacinth and Pyramus and HMAS Pioneer, the armed merchant cruiser HMS Kinfauns Castle, the armed steamer Dupleix, the armed tug Helmuth and the armed whalers Fly, Pickle, Echo and Childers.[8]

On 6 March Vice Admiral Herbert King-Hall. C.-in-C. of the Cape Station arrived at the Rufiji in the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Goliath to take command. On 24 March Pyramus was sent for a refit. The next day Goliath was ordered to the Dardanelles, where she was later sunk. King-Hall transferred his flag to Hyacinth.[9]

Three more Short seaplanes with 160 hp engines arrived on the armed merchant cruiser HMS Laconia on 20 April. They carried out reconnaissance flights on 25 and 27 April, taking photos of Königsberg and fixing her position. She was, however, too well camouflaged to see whether or not she had landed any of her guns. The seaplanes came under heavy fire at their maximum height in this climate of 800-1,000 feet, so King-Hall decided not to carry out further flights for now. He suggested attacking Königsberg with a torpedo armed launch, but the Admiralty had come up with an alternative plan.[10]

On 28 April the monitors HMS Mersey and Severn left Malta for East Africa, accompanied by the fleet messenger Trent, four tugs and a collier. The monitors were shallow draft vessels designed for river operations and armed with two 6 inch guns. They struggled to make the journey, since they were not designed for the open seas or for the heat of the Red Sea, but they arrived on 3 June after a ‘voyage…as arduous as any in the war.’[11]

King-Hall’s squadron attacked Königsberg on 6 July. Pyramus had by then rejoined and Kinfauns Castle had been replaced by the armed merchant cruiser HMS Laurentic. The cruiser HMS Challenger arrived two days later. An onshore aerodrome had now been set up.[12]

The monitors headed up river at 4:15 am, stopping 10,800 yards from Königsberg at 6:20 am They easily dealt with machine gun and rifle fire and an attempt to launch a torpedo from the shore. They opened fire at 6:48 am, firing alternate salvos with an aeroplane spotting for them, but problems were encountered in receiving the corrections. Königsberg opened fire at 7:00 am, quickly straddling the monitors. Mersey’s captain decided to change her position after she was slightly damaged at 7:30 am, but one of her 6 inch guns was then knocked out. Six of her crew were killed and two wounded. She withdrew a short distance at 7:40 am. In the meantime, the light cruisers were bombarding suspected German positions at the entrances to the delta.[13]

The seaplane found it easier to spot for only one monitor, and Severn began to hit Königsberg from 7:51 am onwards. Mersey returned at 8:10 am, but both monitors then started to miss the target. Severn changed position at 9:15 am, reopening fire at 9:50 am, but the aeroplane had now left because of technical problems. Around this time, Königsberg’s fire became ineffective after an onshore German observation post was found and destroyed. Another aeroplane arrived in the afternoon, but little further damage was done before the British withdrew at 3:30 pm.[14]

The attack was resumed on 11 July, as soon as the monitors and aircraft had been repaired. This time, Mersey would move to the same position as before and open fire with the sole intention of covering Severn’s move to a different position 10,000 yards from Königsberg. The aeroplane would spot only for Severn. If she had not put Königsberg out of action in an hour, Mersey would move to 7,000 yards from the German ship and take over. If this did not work, Severn would advance to 6,000 yards range. Only one monitor would be firing at any one time to ease spotting for the aeroplane.[15]

The monitors were in the entrance by 11:45 am. Mersey’s attempt to distract Königsberg failed, and Severn came under heavy fire. She opened fire from 9,500 yards at 12:31 pm, closing to 8,800 yards after the first five salvos had missed. At 12:42 pm, the eighth salvo hit and hits continued to be scored until 12:49 pm, when shrapnel damage forced the aeroplane to ditch near Severn. Its last signal informed the monitor that all her hits had been in the forward part of the German cruiser. Severn corrected her fire and at 12:52 pm scored a hit that produced a large explosion and dense smoke. The Germans then stopped firing.[16]

Severn continued firing until 1:46 pm, when Mersey was ordered to close to 7,000 yards. As she advanced, Königsberg suffered a number of explosions, presumably an attempt to scuttle her since she was not then under fire. Mersey opened fire at 2:15 pm, with another seaplane spotting. She could not get closer than 8,000 yards and could bring only one gun to bear, but after 15 minutes Königsberg was on fire, listing heavily and had lost a funnel, so the British ceased fire and withdrew. Their only casualties were two men slightly wounded on Mersey.[17]

Königsberg inflicted little damage on Allied shipping, but she was able to tie up a large number of British warships, both in blockading her and in escorting troop convoys before she was found. The survivors of her crew joined the German force under Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck that was successfully conducting guerrilla warfare in East Africa.

The Germans also armed five merchant liners as commerce raiders in 1914. Two were quickly sunk: SMS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse (10,400 tons sunk) by the protected cruiser HMS Highflyer on 26 August 1914 and SMS Cap Trafalgar (no ships sunk) was sunk by the armed merchant cruiser HMS Carmania on 14 September 1914. SMS Cormoran (no ships sunk), short of coal, interned herself at Guam on 14 December 1914. The other two, SMS Prince Eitel Friedrich (33,423 tons sunk) and Kronprinz Wilhelm (60,522 tons sunk), conducted successful cruises before interning themselves in Newport News on 10 March and 11 April 1914 respectively. Both ships urgently needed repairs, Prince Eitel Friedrich was almost out of coal and some of Kronprinz Wilhelm ‘s crew were suffering from beri-beri.[18]

The sinking of Königsberg meant that there were no German commerce raiders at large. The eight warships and five converted merchant liners had sunk a total of 300,318 tons of Allied merchant shipping and five warships. Even adding in ships sunk by submarines and mines and ones interned in enemy ports, the UK lost less than 2.3 per cent of its total merchant shipping and less than 2.6 per cent of steamers of over 1,000 tons from the outbreak of war to 31 January 1915. The Allies sank, captured or interned nearly 15 per cent of the Central Powers’ steam tonnage over the same period.[19]

The main effect of the commerce raiders was that a large number of Allied warships were used to search for them and to escort troop convoys. The main problem for the raiders was coal supply. Their threat would have been greatly reduced if Allied cruisers had been used to convoy trade, especially colliers, instead of hunting for the raiders.[20] A second round of German surface commerce raiding began in early 1916. It used smaller and innocuous looking merchant ships that needed less coal.


[1] Shipping losses are from Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) vol. xxv, ‘Review of German Cruiser Warfare 1914-1918’. p. 1.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 338.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1921 vol. ii, ‘East Africa to July 1916, Cameroons 1914’. ‘Monograph 10 East Africa to July 1916’, pp. 54-55.

[4] Ibid., pp. 56-60.

[5] Ibid., pp. 61-68.

[6] Ibid. p. 75, footnote 1; Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 288, footnote 2.

[7] Naval Staff vol. ii. pp. 74-75. footnote 2, p. 75.

[8] Ibid., pp. 77-78.

[9] Ibid., pp. 79-82.

[10] Ibid., pp. 92-93.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 64.

[12] Ibid. p. 64, footnote 2.

[13] Naval Staff vol. ii. pp. 96-97.

[14] Ibid., pp. 97-99.

[15] Ibid., pp. 99-100.

[16] Ibid., pp. 100-101.

[17] Ibid., p. 101.

[18] Naval Staff vol. Xxv. pp. 12-13.

[19] C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. i, pp. 384-86.

[20] Naval Staff vol. Xxv. p. 3.


Filed under War History

Frederick Parslow VC and the Merchantman Anglo Californian’s Battle with U39

On 4 July 1915 the 7,333 ton merchant ship Anglo-Californian was 70 miles south of the Fastnet Rock, close to the end of a journey from Montreal. She normally carried nitrate, but on this voyage her cargo was 927 horses, intended for the Western Front. This was the fifth time that she had brought horses across the Atlantic. She was captained by 59 year old Frederick Parslow, whose son, also called Frederick, was her second officer. As well as her crew of 44 men, there were 50 American and Canadian cattlemen on board to look after the horses.[1]

At 8:00 am the Anglo-Californian, which was then 24 hours from its destination, Avonmouth, was spotted by SMS U39, captained by Kapitänleutnant Walther Forstmann. In order to conserve his torpedoes, Forstmann decided to surface and call on the merchantman to surrender. U39, capable of 16.5 knots on the surface, was three miles away from the Anglo-Californian, which was designed to sail at 12 knots. Parslow, however, believed that his ship, being lightly loaded, could make two knots more than this, so decided to flee.

The Anglo-Californian made radio contact with the Q-ship Princess Ena, a former cross-Channel ferry that had been armed with three concealed 12 pounder guns in order to act as a trap for U-boats. She was capable of only 15 knots, so would struggle to arrive in time, but she called up the destroyers HMS Mentor and Miranda.

Forstmann opened fire at 9:00 am from a range of one and a half miles. Captain Parslow remained on the open bridge with his son, ordering his crew to take cover below. The Parslows had no protection from the German gunfire. They had to lie down, with the son steering from a prone position and the father occasionally lifting his head to command the ship on a zig-zag pattern At 10:30 am Forstmann called on the Anglo-Californian to surrender. Captain Parslow realised that his ship could not escape, so ordered her to stop and the crew to abandon ship.[2]

At this point, Princess Ena opened fire from 9,000 yards. Her shots fell short, but Parslow then received a radio message urging him to ‘hold on’ as the destroyers were on their way. He therefore ordered his crew to return below decks, and to get the ship underway again. The Germans resumed firing, this time with rifles as well as U39’s deck gun. They targeted the bridge, which was soon wrecked, with the steering wheel and compass being damaged.[3]

With several holes in the hull, a fire in the hold and no sign of the Royal Navy, Captain Parslow decided that he had no choice but to surrender. He ordered the engines stopped and the crew to abandon ship. The lifeboats were swung out under the direction of Chief Officer Harold Read. Forstmann, however, was unwilling to risk being tricked a second time, so continued to fire from a range of only 1,500 yards. One lifeboat was upended as it was being lowered into the sea after one of the davits was hit, and another lifeboat capsized.

Captain Parslow was then killed, just as the two British destroyers appeared. Forstmann dived his boat and escaped. Twenty of the men and twenty of the horses on board the Anglo-Californian were killed. She was escorted into Queenstown (now Cobh) early the next day.[4]

Captain Parslow’s son and Chief Engineer James Crawford were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on 10 September. The citations below are from Naval-History.net:

 29292 -10 SEPTEMBER 1915

….. award of the Distinguished Service Cross to the following Officers:

Sub-Lieutenant Frederick Parslow, R.N.R. For his services in the horse-transport “Anglo-Californian,” which was attacked by a German submarine on the 4th July, and subjected to heavy gun-fire for an hour and a half. Sub-Lieutenant Parslow steered the ship throughout the action, and maintained his post after his father, the Captain of the ship, had been killed by a shell, until some of our patrol boats arrived and drove the submarine off.

Engineer James Crawford, R.N.R. For his services as Chief Engineer of the same transport, in the escape of which he was largely instrumental by maintaining the vessel’s maximum speed in spite of a shortage of firemen.

Captain Parslow was not given any official award until 23 May 1919, when he was posthumously commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve and awarded a Victoria Cross. The Admiralty may have feared that awarding a gallantry medal to a member of the Merchant Marine during the war could have allowed the Germans to claim that its members were combatants.

Parslow’s citation below is from Naval-History.net:

 31354 –  23 MAY 1919

Admiralty, S.W.,  24th May, 1919.

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned Officers:

Lieutenant Frederick Parslow, R.N.R.

For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when in command of the Horse Transport “Anglo-Californian” on  the 4th July, 1915.

At  8 a.m. on  4th July, 1915, a large submarine was sighted on the port beam at a distance of about one mile. The ship, which was entirely unarmed, was immediately manoeuvred to bring the submarine astern; every effort was made to increase speed, and an S.O.S. call was sent out by wireless, an answer being received from a man-of-war. At  9 a.m. the submarine opened fire, and maintained a steady fire, making occasional hits, until  10.30 a.m., meanwhile Lieutenant Parslow constantly altered course and kept the submarine astern.

At 10 30 am the enemy hoisted the signal to “abandon the vessel as fast as possible,” and in order to save life Lieutenant Parslow decided to obey, and stopped engines to give as many of the crew as wished an opportunity to get away in the boats On receiving a wireless message from a destroyer, however, urging him to hold on as long as possible, he decided to get way on the ship again The submarine then opened a heavy fire on the bridge and boats with guns and rifles, wrecking the upper bridge, killing Lieutenant Parslow, and carrying away one of the port davits, causing the boat to drop into the sea and throwing its occupants into the water.

At about  11am two destroyers arrived on the scene, and the submarine dived

Throughout the attack Lieutenant Parslow remained on the bridge, on which the enemy fire was concentrated, entirely without protection, and by his magnificent heroism succeeded, at the cost of his own life, in saving a valuable ship and cargo for the country He set a splendid example to the officers and men of the Mercantile Marine.

This website includes a painting of the Parslows under fire by Thomas M. M. Hemy, titled Unconquerable, and other pictures of the action, the Parslows and the Anglo-Californian.



[1] B. Edwards, War under the Red Ensign 1914-1918 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2010), pp. 61-62.

[2] The last 3 paragraphs are based on Ibid., pp. 65-67.

[3] A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, pp. 18-19.

[4] The last two paragraphs are based on Edwards, War, pp. 68-69.

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