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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6 Comments

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6 responses to “The Royal Navy and Townshend’s Regatta

  1. So it seems that oil is behind all the troubles in that area for the last one hundred years. And have we learned anything from history. In my cynical middle school history classes I had a mantra that was, “The one thing we learn from History is that we never learn anything from History”. I’m sure we do but do we do anything about it?

    • Oil was certainly a factor in the early stages of this campaign, but the British would not have continued to advance after July 1915 had it been the only one.
      I would say that the main impact of the war in terms of oil was that it made major powers realise that they needed secure oil supplies. My PhD on British Strategy and Oil 1914-1923 was originally to be dated 1914-1918, but my supervisor quickly convinced me that what the UK did after the war to obtain secure supplies was more significant than the impact of oil on wartime strategy.

  2. David Gunn

    Interesting stuff on a little known campaign. However, Townshend was not defeated at Kut al Amara. They simply ran out of food and supplies and had to surrender. See Sailor in the Desert by David Gunn, published by Pen & Sword

    • Thanks. I’ve purchased the Kindle edition of your book, which will be very useful as I plan to write more about the RN in Mesopotamia. Your father seems to have had a remarkable career and it’s particularly useful to have a lower deck memoir.

  3. Pingback: The British Capture Kut-Al-Amara 28 September 1915 | War and Security

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