SMS Goeben and Breslau Escape to Constantinople August 1914

At the outbreak of war the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet was commanded by Admiral Sir Archibald Berkley Milne, a well connected officer whose career had benefitted from his service on the royal yacht. His father had commanded the RN’s North America and West Indies Station during the American Civil War and his grandfather had also been an admiral.

Milne had been told by the Admiralty on 30 July that in the event of war:

‘The attitude of Italy is, however, uncertain, and it is especially important that your squadron should not be seriously engaged with Austrian ships before we know what Italy will do. Your first task should be to aid the transportation of their African Army, and if possible, bringing to action individual fast German ships, particularly Goeben, who may interfere with that transportation…Do not at this stage be brought to action against superior forces, except in combination with the French, as part of a general battle. The speed of your squadron is sufficient to enable you to choose your moment.’[1]

The German Mediterranean squadron, commanded by Rear Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, consisted of the battlecruiser SMS Goeben and the light cruiser SMS Breslau.

Goeben was armed with 11 inch guns compared with the 12 inch guns of the three British battlecruisers, HMS Inflexible, Indefatigable and Indomitable, in the Mediterranean. However, she had 12 of them compared with eight in the British ships and was faster and better armoured than them. Rear Admiral Ernest Troubridge’s First Cruiser Squadron included four armoured cruisers, HMS Defence, Black Prince, Duke of Edinburgh and Warrior. They were armed with 9.2 inch and either 6 inch or 7.5 inch guns.

 Goeben’s broadside was 6,680 lbs, more than any individual ship, but far less than the combined totals of 15,300 lbs for the British battlecruisers and 8,680 lbs for the armoured cruisers. [2]

Breslau was faster than the four British light cruisers, but was armed with 12 4.1 inch guns compared with HMS Gloucester‘s two 6 inch and 10 4 inch and the other three British ships’ eight 6 inch guns. The British also had 16 destroyers, but they were of the relatively slow Beagle class, the last coal fired British destroyers.

The bulk of the French navy was in the Mediterranean under the command of Vice Admiral Augustin Boué de Lapeyrère. He had been Minister of Marine from 1909-11, producing a coherent plan for the expansion of the French navy after a period in which it lacked a strategy because of frequent change in the Minister of Marine.

De Lapeyrère divided the French Mediterranean fleet, the 1ère armée navale into three group. One consisted of six semi-dreadnoughts, three armoured cruisers and twelve destroyers; the second of a dreadnought, five pre-dreadnoughts, three armoured cruisers and twelve destroyers; and the last of four older pre-dreadnoughts. Its main task at the outbreak of war was to protect the transit of the French XIX Corps from Algeria to France.

Britain and France had agreed that their combined forces in the Mediterranean would be commanded by a French admiral. As Milne was senior to de Lapeyrère, this meant that the British contingent would be commanded at sea by Troubridge. The combined Anglo-French fleet comfortably outnumbered the Austro-Hungarian navy and the German Mediterranean squadron,

The two sides would have been evenly balanced had Italy entered the war on the side of its Triple Alliance, but it declared its neutrality on 2 August. Fear that the long Italian coastline was vulnerable to Anglo-French naval attacks was a factor in this decision. It was justified on the grounds that the alliance was defensive and Austria-Hungary was the aggressor in the war.

Robert Halpern describes Italian neutrality in 1914 ‘as being one of their biggest services to the British and French during the war.’[3] See this post for the naval balance in 1914.

Milne was told by the Admiralty on at 12:55 pm on 3 August that ‘the Italian Government have declared neutrality. You are to respect this neutrality rigidly and should not allow any of H.M. ships to come within 6 miles of the Italian coast.’[4]

As well as meaning that his fleet was outnumbered, Italian neutrality restricted the options open to the Austro-Hungarian fleet commander Admiral Anton Haus. He could have moved his fleet into the Mediterranean had Italy been allied to Austria-Hungary, but the location of its only major base at Pola, now Pula in Croatia, meant that it was now restricted to the Adriatic.

The Chief of the Austrian General Staff Field Marshall Franz Conrad von Hötzendorff, supported by Foreign Minister Count Leopold Berchtold, wanted the fleet to move to the Black Sea to operate against the Russians. He feared that it would soon be destroyed by the Anglo-French fleet. Haus rejected this: his fleet would lack bases, coal stocks and a fleet train in the Black Sea; the Allies might destroy it in transit; and the Austro-Hungarian Adriatic coast would be left unprotected.

Goeben was at Pola undergoing repairs to her boilers when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28 July. Souchon, according to Robert Massie, did not want to be ‘subordinate to an Austrian admiral not inclined to fight Britain and France.’[5] He therefore sailed the next day with the repairs incomplete. He had difficulties obtaining coal from Italian ports, but replenished his supplies from German merchant ships at Messina.

On the evening of 3 August, the day that Germany declared war on France, Goeben and Breslau fired the first shots of the naval war when they bombarded the French ports of Philippeville and Bône in Algeria.

Souchon’s subsequent options appeared to be to attempt to exit the Mediterranean via the Straits of Gibraltar or to return to Pola, possibly first attacking the French troop transports.

Unknown to the Allies, Germany and the Ottoman Empire had signed an alliance on 2 August. In the early hours of 4 August Souchon received a signal ordering him to make for Constantinople, now Istanbul. Goeben did not have enough coal to make the voyage at its normal cruising speed, so he ordered a return to Messina to refuel.

Milne, aware that the German had been at Taranto, guessed correctly that she would then make for Messina, but they had left by the time that the light cruiser HMS Chatham arrived. At 6:30 pm [times quoted are local unless otherwise stated] he was ordered that ‘two battle-cruisers must proceed to Straits of Gibraltar at high speed ready to prevent Goeben leaving Mediterranean.’[6]

At 10:46 am on 4 August Indomitable and Indefatigable reported that they had sighted Goeben and Breslau. Britain and Germany were not yet at war, but the British ships, later joined by the light cruiser HMS Dublin, tailed the German ones. The British battlecruisers could not keep up with the Germans, losing sight of them at 5 pm. Dublin stayed in touch with them until 10:25 pm.[7]

The British vessels needed their hulls to be de-fouled and their engines overhauled. They had peace rather than war complements, which meant that they were short of stokers. Coal fired ships needed more stokers in order to maintain full speed, so carried more in wartime than in peacetime.

Indomitable reported that the Germans were making 26-27 knots.[8] Arthur Marder says that Goeben ‘managed to increase her speed to 24 knots for a short period. Her mean speed from noon to 8 pm was 22.5 knot.’[9] This exaggeration of the speed of the German ships would have consequences later.

War between Britain and Germany began at 11 pm British time (midnight Central European) on 4 August, but neither Britain nor France was yet at war with Austria-Hungary.

The German ships reached Messina in the early hours of 5 August. Milne argued that his orders to stay more than six miles from the Italian coast meant that he could not follow the Germans into the straits of Messina because they were only two miles wide. He further claimed that the Germans could have escaped from any ship more than six miles from the Italian coast because of their greater speed.

Milne expected Souchon move north out of the Straits of Messina, head west and attack the French troop transports. Alternatively, he could take the south exit and head for the Adriatic.

Milne took his flagship HMS Inflexible to join Indefatigable well to the west of the Straits of Messina. Indomitable was sent to Bizerte to refill her coal bunkers. Troubridge and his armoured cruisers were near Corfu in case Souchon headed for the Adriatic. The light cruiser HMS Gloucester was the closest British warship to Messina, covering the south exit.

At 10 am on 6 August Indomitable informed Milne that ‘[t]he French Admiral reports first transport left Algerian coast and French Fleet will not probably be free until 10th August as second shipment is necessary.’[10]

Milne appeared not to realise that the troopships were now sufficiently protected since at 4:33 pm he offered the French the assistance of ‘two battle-cruisers and 1 light cruisers’ if the Germans had sailed undetected.[11]

Souchon sailed at 5:00 pm. His plan was to feint towards Pola, before turning towards Constantinople after dark. Half an hour after issuing his orders he was informed by the German Admiralty that ‘[a]rrival Constantinople not possible for political reasons’, but decided to go ahead anyway.[12]

Milne was informed of the German departure by Gloucester at 6:16 pm.[13] He then headed west, as his orders prevented him entering the Straits of Messina and the Germans might still turn west towards the transports after exiting the southern end of the Straits.

Too late, a signal from the Admiralty told him that ‘[i]f Goeben goes south from Messina, you should follow through the Straits, irrespective of territorial waters.’[14] It was sent at 7:45 pm, but not received until 10:54 pm.

Gloucester, under the command of Captain Howard Kelly, followed the Germans as Goeben tried to sail as quickly as possible. Kelly managed to keep his superiors informed of the German movements despite their attempts to jam his ship’s wireless transmissions, Souchon did not know that Gloucester was alone, so could not take the chance of turning back to sink her.

Unknown to Souchon, the risk of a major action had already passed. Troubridge, with his four armoured cruisers and eight destroyers, was positioned off Cephalonia, south of Corfu. However, his destroyers were short of coal. The light cruiser Dublin, captained by Howard Kelly’s brother John, and the destroyers HMS Beagle and Bulldog were on the way to join him. John Kelly intended to be in position to attack Goeben at 3:30 am on 7 August, but his ships failed to find the enemy.

Troubridge at first assumed that Souchon was heading for the Adriatic and that he was heading south in order to shake off Southampton. He headed north, with the intention of engaging them in narrow waters where he could choose his range.

At midnight, however, he realised that the Germans were going to the eastern Mediterranean. He could intercept them, but the action would take place in daylight. E. W. R. Lumby says that Troubridge believed that his squadron could defeat the enemy only ‘by night, in half light, or in narrow waters.’[15]

Troubridge had earlier told Milne that ‘I consider a battle-cruiser to be a superior force to a cruiser squadron, unless they can get within their range of her.’ Milne replied ‘That question won’t arise as you will have the Indomitable and Indefatigable with you’, which in the event he did not.[16]

Although he thought that to do so would break his orders not to engage a superior force, Troubridge had reluctantly decided to attack, telling his Flag Captain Fawcet Wray at 2:45 am on 7 August that ‘[t]he Mediterranean [Fleet] will stink if we don’t attack her.’ He later explained to his court martial that thought that the Fleet ought not to have allowed Goeben to escape from the Straits of Messina.

However, at 3:30 am Wray persuaded Troubridge that engaging Goeben was ‘likely to be the suicide of your squadron.’[17] Goeben was faster and had longer ranged guns, so would be able to stand off and destroy the British squadron. At 4:49 am Troubridge signalled to Milne that:

‘Being only able to meet Goeben outside the range of our guns and inside his I have abandoned the chase with my squadron request instructions for light cruisers. Goeben evidently going to Eastern Mediterranean. I had hoped to have met her before daylight.’[18]

Wray later claimed that his advice ‘was not given with the intention of dissuading [Troubridge] from continuing the chase of the Goeben’, stating that ‘I actually remonstrated with him when I realised that he had decided to abandon the chase.’[19] His objection was to the idea that the British squadron might ‘lie across Goeben’s bows and more or less go bald-headed for her.’[20]

Gloucester continued to pursue the enemy. She exchanged fire with Breslau at 1:35 pm. Goeben then joined in, forcing Gloucester to withdraw, but Souchon could not afford to waste coal engaging a light cruiser. Only Breslau was hit, but she suffered no casualties and her speed was unaffected.

Goeben was pushing her machinery and men to the limit. Massie says that leaks of boiling water from her partially repaired boiler tubes meant that ‘[f]our men were scalded to death.’[21] The chase continued until the ships reached Cape Matapan at 4:40 pm. Gloucester was almost out of coal and Kelly had been explicitly ordered by Milne to go no further.

The British still had one chance. Milne took his battlecruisers east, but slowly. On 8 August, the Admiralty erroneously signalled him that Britain was at war with Austria-Hungary. An over-zealous clerk had seen a telegram prepared in advance of the declaration of war and sent it too soon. Milne therefore abandoned the chase until he was informed of the mistake.

The Germans were delayed by Goeben’s need to coal, so Milne might have caught them without the 24 hour delay caused by the telegram error. They reached the Dardanelles on the evening on 10 August, still not knowing if they would be welcome, which they were.

The next evening the British light cruiser HMS Weymouth, sent ahead of the battlecruisers by Milne, was turned away from the Dardanelles after being informed that Goeben and Breslau were now the Ottoman ships Yavuz Sultan Selim and Midilli. They formally changed hands on 16 August, but retained their German crews, who wore fezzes on ceremonial occasions. Souchon was appointed commander of the Ottoman fleet on 23 September.

The presence of these two ships in Turks led the British keeping Indomitable, Indefatigable, Defence, Gloucester and all available destroyers in the eastern Aegean. They were nominally under de Lapeyrère’s command, but effectively the force was separate from the Allied fleet in the rest of the Mediterranean.

Of the British commanders, only Howard Kelly, who was made a Companion of the Bath, came out of this well.

Milne was cleared of any blame, but did not receive another appointment. He had previously been told his next position would be the prestigious Nore Command. This went instead to Admiral Sir George Callaghan, who had been removed from command of the Grand Fleet on the outbreak of war, five months before his term was due to expire. Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher, who had previously called Milne ‘a serpent of the lowest order’ when Milne took Admiral Lord Charles Beresford’s side in his feud with Fisher, said that he would ‘have shot Sir Berkeley Milne for the Goeben.’[22]

Milne’s best option would seem to me to have been the one that Marder proposes, namely to close the north exit of the Straits of Messina with two battlecruisers and the south one with the other one and Troubridge’s squadron.[23] Since their guns had a range of over six miles, the ships could have waited outside Italian territorial waters.

Troubridge initially remained in command of the RN forces in the Aegean, but was then called in front of a Court of Inquiry. It sent him for a Court Martial, where he was defended by a leading barrister, Leslie Scott KC MP, and acquitted. This made it hard for the Admiralty to refuse him further employment, but he was giving only shore based jobs. He was knighted and finished his career with the rank of Admiral.

Although Goeben was vastly superior to any of Troubridge’s ships, he had four armoured cruisers, two light cruisers and a number of destroyers. I would agree with Admiral Prince Louis Battenberg, the First Sea Lord, argued that ‘[s]uperior speed (which undoubtedly existed) in a single ship can be nullified by proper tactical dispositions of four units.’[24]

It is difficult to see how Goeben could have kept out of the gun range of all the armoured cruisers and the torpedo range of all the light cruisers and destroyers. Any damage that reduced her speed would have enabled the British battlecruisers to catch her and steaming at full speed during a battle would have used a lot of her coal.

Commenting on Troubridge’s acquittal, Rear Admiral Frederick Tudor, the Third Sea Lord, thought that Troubridge’s ships ‘stood a chance of being severely punished’ if they had attacked. but that it was ‘out of the question’ that Goeben had enough ammunition to destroyed all of them.[25]

One point that perhaps says a lot about the RN’s attitude to ship design is that the arguments over Troubridge’s conduct revolved around the relative speeds, firepower and gun ranges of the ships involved. Little was said about the Goeben’s superior armour.

Wray was, according to Marder, ‘virtually ostracised’ in the RN.[26] However, he received a number of commands during the rest of the war and was awarded the DSO when captaining HMS Talbot in the Dardanelles. He was promoted to Rear Admiral on retirement and later to Vice Admiral on the Retired List.

Finally, the Admiralty must take a lot of blame. It sent a series of confusing orders instead of giving the local commanders all the facts and then leaving them to make the decisions.

Its order to Milne quoted at the beginning of this post told him to avoid battle with ‘superior forces’ but to seek battle Goeben, whilst noting his squadron’s speed. Taken together these comments appear to mean that the ‘superior forces’ were the Austrian battleships, but this was not explicitly stated, resulting in Troubridge concluding that Goeben was a ‘superior force’, with which he should avoid battle.


[1] Admiralty to C.-in-C., 3:10 pm, 30 July 1914 quoted in E. W. R. Lumby, Policy and Operations in the Mediterranean, 1912-14 (London: Navy Records Society, 1970), p. 146. Orginal source National Archives ADM 137/19

[2] Figures from 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). ii, p. 21

[3] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 52.

[4] Admiralty to C.-in-C. and Admiral Superintendent, Malta, 12:55 pm 3 August 1914 quoted in Lumby, Policy, p. 157. Original Source ADM 137/19.

[5] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 27.

[6] Admiralty to C.-in-C. 6:30 pm 3 August 1914 quoted in  Lumby, Policy, p. 153. Original source ADM 137/19.

[7] Times in this paragraphs are from signals quoted in Ibid., pp. 163-64. Original sources Naval Staff Monograph No. 21, The Mediterranean 1914-15, Appendix B.

[8] Signal of 4:10 pm 3 August quoted in Ibid., p. 160. Original source ‘Naval Staff Monograph No. 21’, Appendix B.

[9] Marder, From. ii, p. 23. His source is Hermann Lorey, Der Krieg zur See, 1914-1918. Der Krieg in den turkischen Gewassern (Berlin, 1928-38, 2 vols.), vol. i, pp. 6-7.

[10] Signal of 10:00 am 6 August 1914 quoted in Lumby, Policy, p. 170. Original source ‘Naval Staff Monograph 21’, Appendix B.

[11] Signal of 4:33 pm quoted in Ibid., p. 171. Original source ‘Naval Staff Monograph 21’, Appendix B.

[12] Quoted in J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). i. p. 63.

[13] Signal of 6:16pm 6 August 1914 quoted in Lumby, Policy, p. 172. Original source ‘Naval Staff Monograph 21’, Appendix B.

[14] Signal of 7:45 pm quoted in Ibid., p. 173. Original source ADM 137/19.

[15] Ibid., p. 142.

[16] The Court of Inquiry and the Court Martial 7 September to 9 November 1914 Ibid., p. 367. Original source ADM 156/76

[17] Ibid., p. 324.

[18] Signal of 4:49 am 7 August 1914 quoted in Ibid., p. 181. Original source ‘Naval Staff Monograph 21’, Appendix B

[19] ‘Declaration of Captain Fawcet Wray, 3 August 1917’ Ibid., p. 404. Original source Roskill Paper, which are now ar Churchill Ciollege, Cambridge..

[20] Ibid., p. 406.

[21] Massie, Castles, p. 44.

[22] Quoted in Marder, From. ii. pp. 32-33.

[23] Ibid. ii, p. 24

[24] Ibid. ii, p. 33.

[25] ‘Minutes commenting upon the Court Martial Proceedings, By the Third Sea Lord, 9 December 1914’ Lumby, Policy, p. 398. Original source ADM 156/76.

[26] Marder, From. ii, p. 27, note 5.



Filed under War History

12 responses to “SMS Goeben and Breslau Escape to Constantinople August 1914

  1. Fascinating stuff. I detect powerful hindsight among the commentators of the day with regard to what was a complex set of circumstances

    • Hindsight is wonderful. I think that Milne should have closed the Straits of Messina, giving Souchon the choice of internment or fighting a battle heavily outnumbered. However, every action has consequences, and we do not know how that would have impacted Italian relations with the Allies.

  2. Excellent. Loved the detail. I wonder what Nelson would have said.

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