Monthly Archives: October 2015

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.

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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.

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