The evacuation of Gallipoli did not end the Royal Navy’s presence in the Aegean. There was a risk that the German battlecruiser Goeben and light cruiser Breslau might break out of the Dardanelles. This ships had officially been transferred to the Ottoman Navy and renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim and Medilli, but the German names are used here because they remained under German command and had German crews.
Rear Admiral Sydney Fremantle, commanding the RN’s Aegean Squadron, thought that a break out would have one of three objectives: joining the Austro-Hungarians in the Adriatic was the most likely and had the highest chance of success; a raid on Allied transport routes was possible but had too low a chance of success to justify the risks involved; and raiding Mudros, Salonika, Port Said or Alexandria was unlikely as it would be a ‘desperate venture…end[ing] in the eventual destruction of the enemy.’ In fact, the last option was the one chosen.
On 12 January 1918, Fremantle was succeeded by Rear-Admiral Arthur Hayes-Sadler. His squadron included the last two British pre-dreadnought battleships, HMS Agamemnon and Lord Nelson. Their speed of only 18 knots meant that they could not intercept Goeben (22 knots) and Breslau (designed for 27.5 knots but capable of only 20 according to Arthur Marder). However, their armament of four 12 inch and ten 9.2 inch guns each versus Goeben’s ten 11 inch and twelve 5.9 inch guns and Breslau’s twelve 4.1 inch guns meant that they could stop them returning to the Dardanelles. The British had also laid a number of minefields.
The Germans had also changed their command. In September Vizeadmiral Wilhelm Souchon had returned to Germany in September to take command of the 4th Battle Squadron of the High Seas Fleet. His replacement, Vizeadmiral Hubert von Rebeur-Paschwitz, hoped that a sortie would draw Allied ships away from Palestine, where the Ottomans were under pressure; boost Ottoman morale after the loss of Jerusalem; and show that warships were meant to be used.
Aerial reconnaissance had told the Germans that HMS Lord Nelson was not at Mudros. She was taking Hughes-Sadler to meetings in Salonika. He would normally have used the yacht Triad for such a journey, but she was unavailable so he chose to use his flagship rather than a destroyer.
The German staff assumed, on the basis of information from minesweepers, that the mines laid across the entrance to the Dardanelles in 1916 had been washed away. They did not know that more minefields had been laid since, which they could not avoid. Just before the operation began they received a captured chart that showed that there were more minefields than they had realised. It appeared to show that there was a gap between them, but they did not realise that it was only a rough indication rather than an exact plan. The German sortie achieved surprise but at the cost of not properly reconnoitring the enemy minefields .
Goeben and Breslau sailed at 4:00 pm on 19 January, accompanied by four Ottoman destroyers. They left the Dardanelles at 6:00 am the next day, when destroyers turned back. Ten minutes later Goeben struck a mine, receiving only minor damage.
In Mudros harbour on Lemnos the British had HMS Agamemnon, three light cruisers, a sloop, and four destroyers, only two of which were ready for action. Another minesweeper and a monitor were under repair. As well as HMS Lord Nelson, another 23 ships were on detached duty in six squadrons, including two cruisers, four light cruisers, six destroyers and eight monitors.
Freemantle’s orders to detached squadrons, which were still in effect, were that if they encountered Goeben they should lead her ‘in a direction in which support may be obtained.’ However, the general signal that was to be made if Goeben was out was to ‘take all necessary action to engage the enemy.’ RN officers were bound to interpret this as an order to attack her. At 7:40 am the Germans attacked the British ships at Kusu Bay, Pyrgos. They quickly sank the monitors Lord Raglan and M28 before heading for Mudros, pursued by the destroyers HMS Tigress and Lizard.
At 8:30 am Breslau struck a mine. The Germans could now see mines in the clear, blue water. Goeben attempted to take Breslau in tow but at 8:55 struck a mine, which caused serious damage. Breslau then detonated another four mines and began to sink. The Ottoman destroyers came out in order to pick up survivors but withdrew after coming under fire from the British destroyers at 9:30. The British briefly chased them but had to give up due to the risk from shore batteries and mines. They picked up 14 officers and 148 men from the Breslau. Her official crew was 354.
Goeben withdrew. She struck another mine at 9:48, causing her to list by 15 degrees. She came under air attack but by 10:30 was into the Straits. At 11:32, however, she ran aground and was stuck for six days. Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service aircraft flew 270 sorties against her, dropping 15 tons of bombs. Strong winds, low clouds and effective anti-aircraft fire meant that only two hits were scored. Even if more had been obtained, the 65 and 112 pound bombs used could have done little damage. Two seaplanes armed with 18 inch torpedoes arrived on the seaplane carrier Manxman too late to attack. Indirect fire from a monitor was also ineffective.
This left submarine attack. One E-class boat, E12 was available on 21 January, but one of her engine shafts had been fractured. This restricted her surface speed and battery recharging, but not her submerged speed, so Hayes-Sadler refused to allow her to attack, although her captain, Lieutenant F. Williams-Freeman, was willing. Two more, E2 and E14 arrived on 21 January, but nothing was done until the C.-in-C. Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Sir Somerset Gough-Calthorpe, arrived on 25 January. E14, which was newer and had a more experienced captain and crew than E2, was sent in two days later, by when Goeben had been refloated and left. E14 was detected by hydrophones, forced to the surface by depth charges and destroyed by shore batteries. Her captain, Geoffrey Saxton White, was later posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation, from naval-history.net, which also lists all the British casualties, read:
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-Commander Geoffrey Saxton White, R.N.
For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty as Commanding Officer of H.M. Submarine “E 14” on the 28tlh of January, 1918.
“E 14” left Mudros on the 27th of January under instructions to force the Narrows and attack the “Goeben,” which was reported aground off Nagara Point after being damaged during her sortie from the Dardanelles. The latter vessel was not found and “E 14” turned back. At about 8.45 a.m. on the 28th of January a torpedo was fired from “E 14” at an enemy ship; 11 seconds after the torpedo left the tube a heavy explosion took place, caused all lights to go out, and sprang the fore hatch. Leaking badly the boat was blown to 15 feet, and at once a heavy fire came from the forts, but the hull was not hit. “E 14” then dived and proceeded on her way out.
Soon afterwards the boat became out of control, and as the air supply was nearly exhausted, Lieutenant-Commander White decided to run the risk of proceeding on the surface. Heavy fire was immediately opened from both sides, and, after running the gauntlet for half-an-hour, being steered from below, “E 14” was so badly damaged that Lieutenant-Commander White turned towards the shore in order to give the crew a chance of being saved. He remained on deck the whole time himself until he was killed by a shell.
Enver Pasha, the Ottoman War Minister had warned von Rebeur-Paschwitz to be careful with his two ships because of their great value to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans thought that the Germans had taken too great a risk with them.
Goeben’s damage was not fully repaired until after the war, by when she was the property of Turkey. She was not scrapped until 1971. although she had by then been out of service for many years. The Allies did not realise the severity of her damage and continued to fear another sortie by her. She did operate in the Black Sea later in 1918.
Hayes-Sadler, who was in poor health, was replaced by Rear-Admiral Cecil F. Lambert. The main negative for the Royal Navy of the action was that it allowed the Press to again bring up the story of the blunders that had led to Goeben and Breslau getting to the Ottoman Empire in 1914. The operation was a mistake by the Germans, who upset their Ottoman allies, lost a modern light cruiser and had a battlecruiser damaged in return for sinking two monitors and a submarine.
 A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. vol. v, pp. 12-13.
 Ibid., p. 13.
 P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, p. 255.
 Marder, From. vol. v, pp.15-16.
 J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. vol. v, pp. 85-86.
 Marder, From. vol. v, p. 15.
 Ibid., p. 14.
 Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 84.
 Ibid., pp. 88-90.
 R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921, p. 159.
 Marder, From. vol. v, pp. 16-17.
 Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 92.
 Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 152.
 Marder, From. vol. v, pp. 18-19.
 Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 294.
 Marder, From. vol. v, pp. 19-20.
2 responses to “The Battle of Imbros 20 January 1918”
Interesting stuff Martin!