Tag Archives: Churchill

Admiral Fisher Resigns as First Sea Lord

On 13 May 1915 at a meeting at the Admiralty Field Marshall Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, criticised the Admiralty’s recent decision to recall the super dreadnought HMS Queen Elizabeth from the Dardanelles. He argued that this would damage Allied morale and boost that of the enemy.[1]

The report of The Dardanelles Commission, later set up to investigate the campaign, noted that ‘[i]t is difficult to say why Lord Kitchener should have attached to much importance to the retention of the Queen Elizabeth.’[2] Kitchener by then was dead. The results of naval gunfire support to the army had been disappointing and the removal of Queen Elizabeth was more than compensated for by the despatch of other ships, including monitors, to the Dardanelles.

In return, Admiral Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord, threatened to resign if Queen Elizabeth remained. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, backed Fisher, albeit reluctantly in the view of Major General Charles Callwell, the Director of Military Operations and Intelligence, who was present.[3]

The next day the War Council met. The Admiralty argued that it would not have agreed to a solely naval attack on the Dardanelles had it been aware that 100,000 soldiers would soon be available for an amphibious landing. The demands on the Royal Navy by the German U-boat offensive, the Allied Italian Naval Convention and the need to maintain the strength of the Grand Fleet meant that the campaign must now be a land one with naval support rather than the other way round.

The army, however, claimed that the presence of Queen Elizabeth and her 15 inch guns had been a major factor in its belief that it could see the fleet through to Istanbul. It could not see how a rapid victory could be achieved, but withdrawal was inconceivable at this stage. This left siege warfare as the only option, but it was unclear how many troops could be provided, given the demands of the Western Front and home defence.

Fisher had originally proposed a combined land and naval attack on the Dardanelles, which he hoped would have won a quick victory. He had been reluctant in his support for the naval only attack. He now feared that the ships that he had been constructing to use in operations in the northern waters would instead he sent to the Dardanelles.[4]

The War Council meeting left Fisher with the impression that more ships would be sent to the Dardanelles. He told Captain Thomas Crease, his Naval Assistant, that if operations in the Dardanelles were to continue ‘they should henceforth be directed on the naval side by somebody who believed in them.’[5]

On 15 May Fisher received a memo from Churchill that proposed sending far more naval reinforcements to the Dardanelles than the two men had agreed the evening before. Fisher had offered his resignation several times before, but this time he finally quit. He officially remained First Sea Lord until 22 May, but seems to have visited his office only once more, on 17 May to remove some personal items.[6]

The departure of Fisher, coupled with the revelation that the British Army lacked enough high explosive shells, led to the replacement of the Liberal Government with a Liberal/Conservative Coalition. It was certain that the Conservatives would insist that Churchill, who had left them to join the Liberals in 1904 over the issue of free trade, would be removed from the office of First Lord.

Fisher at first had a substantial degree of public support, with several newspapers, led by The Times, arguing that he should become First Lord. There were several precedents from the 18th and early 19th centuries for that position, a political rather than a military one, to be held by an Admiral.

However, Fisher made two mistakes on 17 May. Room 40, the Admiralty’s code-breakers, decoded signals indicating that the German High Seas Fleet was about to put to sea. Crease told Fisher that he should go to the Admiralty to supervise operations. but he refused to do so. Vice Admiral Sir Frederick Hamilton had to act as First Sea Lord. He was the Second Sea Lord, with responsibility for personnel and shore establishments, so was not sufficiently versed in operational matters to stand in for the First Sea Lord. As it happened, the High Seas Fleet was only covering mine laying operations and did not go far into the North Sea.

H. H. Asquith, the Prime Minister, said that ‘[s]trictly speaking, [Fisher] ought to be shot’ with King George V, who had supported Fisher until then, stating that his behaviour ‘was bound to have a deplorable, if not a disastrous effect upon the public, not only at home, but abroad.’[7]

Fisher’s second mistake was to say that he would stay as First Sea Lord subject to various conditions that no politician was likely to accept. He insisted that Churchill’s replacement should not be Arthur Balfour, the Conservative who did become First Lord. Fisher also wanted an increase in the responsibilities of the First Sea Lord at the expense of the First Lord and the other members of the Board of Admiralty.

Even then, it was not until 22 May that Asquith accepted Fisher’s resignation. A final attempt the day before to persuade him to stay failed because Fisher would not serve under Balfour. The Coalition took power on 25 May, with Balfour as First Lord. Churchill remained in the Cabinet as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a job without ministerial responsibilities usually given to inexperienced ministers.

The new First Sea Lord was Admiral Sir Henry Jackson. As he was ‘almost unknown to the nation, the appointment elicited a lukewarm response.’[8] The outstanding candidate, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, could not be spared from his current post as Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet.

[1] 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. 276.

[2] PP, The Final Report of the Dardanelles Commission. (Part II–Conduct of Operations, &C.) with Appendix of Documents and Maps (1919), p. 23.

[3] Marder, From. vol. ii, pp. 276-77.

[4] This and the two previous paragraphs are based on J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, pp. 408-10.

[5] Quoted in Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 277.

[6] The remainder of this post is based on Ibid. vol. ii, pp.279-91.

[7] Quotes from Ibid. vol. ii, p. 283.

[8] Ibid. vol. ii, p.291.

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The Naval Attack on the Dardanelles 1915 (2) The Attack

The previous entry in this series described the reasons why the British decided to launch a naval attack on the Dardanelles in February 1915.

The attack was to be led by Vice Admiral Sir Sackville Carden, who was then commanding RN forces in the Mediterranean. His force included the RN’s newest dreadnought, HMS Queen Elizabeth, which was the first battleship in the world to be fuelled entirely by oil and the first dreadnought to be armed with 15 inch guns. An accident reduced her speed to 15 knots, so the battlecruiser HMS Inflexible, which was originally intended to return to the Grand Fleet, stayed in order to give Carden a ship fast enough to bring SMS Goeben, the German battlecruiser now in Ottoman service, to action.

The other 12 British battleships in Carden’s force were all pre-dreadnoughts; some had been released from overseas stations after the British victory at the Falkland Islands and others were transferred from the Channel Fleet. They included HMS Agamemnon and Lord Nelson, which had been completed after HMS Dreadnought because the 12 inch gun turrets originally intended for them were fitted to Dreadnought in order to expedite her construction. The others were of the older Majestic, CanopusFormidableDuncan and Swiftsure classes. Carden also had four French pre-dreadnoughts, giving him a total of 18 capital ships, and the six seaplanes of the carrier HMS Ark Royal.

Carden had devised a seven stage plan:

  1. Destroy the forts at the entrance to the straits.
  2. Sweep the minefields and reduce the defences up to the Narrows.
  3. Destroy the forts defending the Narrows.
  4. Sweep the principal minefield at Kephez.
  5. Destroy the forts above the Narrows
  6. Enter the Sea of Marmara.
  7. Operate in the Sea of Marmara and patrol the Dardanelles.

Each attack on the forts would comprise three stages: a direct or indirect long range bombardment out of either range or bearing of the forts; a medium range bombardment by direct fire, including secondary armaments; and then a final bombardment at a range of 3-4,000 yards. Ships were to withdraw to long range if they came under fire: the largest Ottoman guns were thought to have a maximum range of 12,000 yards.[1]

Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, was urged by some staff officers to send the Royal Naval Division, an infantry force under the Admiralty’s control, to Carden. It had been formed at the start of the war from marines, naval reservists who were not needed at sea ships and wartime volunteers, and had fought in Belgium in 1914. At this stage of the war it lacked the supporting forces of an army infantry division. However, Churchill was willing to send only two battalions of Royal Marines to act as landing parties to destroy Ottoman guns.[2]

On 16 February it was decided to send the 29th Infantry Division, consisting mostly of regulars recalled from colonial garrisons, from the UK and the two divisions of the  Australian and New Zealand Army Corps from Egypt to Lemnos, the naval base of operations. However, Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, decided three days later that the 29th might be needed in France.[3]

This was the start of the military operation, but at this stage it was still expected that the fleet would force the Dardanelles. The troops were intended to demolish forts, destroy concealed howitzers, take the Gallipoli peninsula once the Ottomans had withdrawn and occupy Istanbul  if the expected revolution occurred.[4]

The naval attack began on 19 February. It showed that direct hits were required in order to knock out a heavy gun in a modern emplacement; indirect fire was not accurate enough to achieve such hits.[5]

Source: "Dardanelles defences 1915" by Gsl - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dardanelles_defences_1915.png#/media/File:Dardanelles_defences_1915.png

Source: “Dardanelles defences 1915” by Gsl – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dardanelles_defences_1915.png#/media/File:Dardanelles_defences_1915.png

The attack resumed on 25 February after a period of bad weather. The forts on either side of the entrance were silenced. Attempts by marine landing parties on 26 February and 1 and 4 March to complete the destruction of the forts were only partly successful because the Ottomans had re-occupied them once the naval fire lifted.[6]

Lieutenant Commander Eric Robinson of HMS Triumph was awarded the Victoria Cross for his courage whilst leading one of the landing parties on 26 February.

Carden’s first stage of silencing the forts at the entrance to the Dardanelles had now been achieved. There were no minefields in the first half of the 14 miles to the Narrows, but the battleships could not proceed through the minefields in the second seven miles. The trawlers that were employed as minesweepers had a speed of only four to six knots when sweeping, which was halved because they were going against the current. The remaining Ottoman guns were unable to do serious damage to battleships, although some were hit, but their howitzers were deadly against the minesweepers. Carden decided to use the minesweepers at night, but the Ottomans had anticipated this and installed searchlights.[7]

The battleships were unable to find the concealed howitzers. Air reconnaissance failed because the seaplanes were vulnerable to ground fire if they flew low and could not see the guns if they stayed high enough to be safe. Carden also employed a slow approach in which he used only a few of his battleships each day.[8]

On 11 March the Admiralty sent Carden a telegram saying that:

‘Caution and deliberate methods were emphasised in your original instructions…If, however, success cannot be obtained without loss of ships and men, results to be gained are important enough to justify such a loss.’[9]

Carden replied two days later that he intended a last attempt at night sweeping that night, which failed. It was now realised that the searchlights made night sweeping impossible. The only remaining option was a daylight operation in which the battleships suppressed the guns in order to allow the minesweepers to operate safely. A plan using all 18 battleships for an attack on 18 March was produced on 15 March.

The next day Carden’s health gave way. Command was given to Rear Admiral John de Robeck, his second in command. The RN’s rules of seniority meant that it ought strictly have gone to Rear Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss, commanding the base at Mudros, but he agreed to work under the man on the spot.[10]

The fleet was divided into three divisions: the First of the four newest ships; the Second of eight British pre-dreadnoughts; and the Third of the four French battleships and two British ones. Observation would come from the air. Aerial reconnaissance and other sources indicated that the main forts were armed with 42 guns of 8 inches or more, including six 14 inch guns.

First Division (Acting Vice Admiral John De Robeck):

HMS Queen Elizabeth, Inflexible, Agamemnon and Lord Nelson.

Second Division (Commodore Arthur Hayes-Sadler)

HMS Ocean, Irresistible, Albion, Vengeance, Swiftsure, Majestic, Canopus and Cornwallis.

Third Division (Contre-amiral Émile Guépratte):

Suffren, Bouvet, Gaulois, Charlemagne, HMS Triumph and Prince George.

The First was to bombard the main forts from 14,000 yards. The two British ships of the Third would engage the mobile howitzers and field guns. The French ships would attack the principal forts from 8,000 yards, which was the closest that had been swept of mines, once the British ships had dominated them. Six ships of the Second would relieve the French after four hours; the other two would support the minesweepers at night.

The fleet entered the Straits at 10:30 am. It came under fire by 11:00 am, but was at the firing position by 11:30 am. Soon after noon enough damage had been done to allow the French ships to move in to begin firing from closer range. Agamemnon, Inflexible, Suffren and Gaulois were all damaged, but by 1:45 pm the Ottoman fire was tailing off. De Robeck called up the minesweepers and ordered the Third Division to relieve the French. Around 2:00 pm the Bouvet suffered two explosions, the second apparently from a magazine blowing up, and sank rapidly. Only 48 men were saved, with about 600 going down with her.

The action continued. The forts stopped firing periodically, but this was because the gunners had to clean their guns of dust thrown up by shells landing in front of their emplacements. Between 3:30 and 4:00 pm the battleships began to encounter mines, which they assumed were unmoored, floating ones.

About 4:05 pm Inflexible struck a mine. She was badly damaged, and it seemed for a while that she might sink. Around 10 minutes later Irresistible hit a moored mine. Most of her crew were taken off by the destroyer HMS Wear, with ten men staying on board to try and get a wire to Ocean, which was ordered to tow the disabled battleship. However, it was impossible to do so because of Irresistible’s list. Ocean was coming under heavy fire, and was ordered to abandon the attempt at 5:50 pm.

The attack was then abandoned, and the fleet ordered to withdraw. At 6:05 pm Ocean struck a mine. Her crew was taken off by destroyers. Destroyers were sent at night to try and tow the two battleships, but both had sunk.[11]

As well as the three battleships sunk, Inflexible, Suffren and Gaulois all required dockyard repair. British human losses on 18 March were not high considering the number of ships lost and damaged: naval-history.net lists 13 killed on Irresistible, 35 on Invincible, one on Ocean and one on Majestic, including five men who later died of wounds received that day, but excluding one who died that day of wounds received earlier; including him, 71 British marines and sailors had been killed earlier in the attack. Robert Massie says that 639 men were killed on the Bouvet and 61 in the rest of the fleet. Ottomans and Germans were killed and wounded.[12]

The mines that caused the losses had been laid on the night of 8 March by a small Ottoman ship called the Nusret. The minesweepers had swept the central area, finding no mines; they had then assumed that the sides must also be clear. The seaplanes had failed to spot them.[13]

It was intended at this stage to resume the attack. The pre-dreadnoughts HMS Queen and Implacable were already on their way and HMS Prince of Wales and London and the French Henri IV were sent to replace the ships lost on 18 March.[14]

Bad weather from 19 to 24 March prevented operations. De Robeck originally intended to continue with the naval attack but on the 22 March he told a conference of generals and admirals that the fleet could not get through without the support of the army. The army would not be ready until 14 April. Destroyers were being fitted as minesweepers, but would not be ready until about 2 or 3 April.[15]

Churchill asserted that the Ottomans were almost out of ammunition when the attack was called off, a claim repeated by some others, including the early 60s BBC documentary series The Great War. However, Naval Operations, the British Official History, says that the Ottomans had about 70 rounds per heavy gun, 130 per 6 inch gun and 150 for each of those defending the minefields. Forts had been damaged but few guns knocked out. Research by Tim Travers in the Turkish archives shows that the howitzers and other field guns also had plenty of ammunition.[16]

The defences of the minefields had suffered little damage, and Naval Operations argues that the chances of a battleship getting through all 350 mines undamaged was 15 to 1 against, meaning that the Allies could expect only one battleship to reach the Sea of Marmara if the minefields were not cleared. It believes that the confidence of the Ottoman General Staff that they could not be cleared ‘was probably justified.’[17]

The army landed at Cape Helles on 25 April. From then on, the Gallipoli Campaign was primarily a land one, with the navy confined to landing troops, transporting supplies and wounded, providing supporting fire and ultimately evacuating the army. It could not attempt to break through the Dardanelles until the army had taken the high ground, which it never managed to do.[18]

 

 

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, pp. 140-44.

[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. 232.

[3] T. Travers, Gallipoli, 1915 (Stroud: Tempus, 2001).

[4] Marder, From. vol. ii,. p. 233.

[5] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 149.

[6] Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 234.

[7] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), pp. 449-51.

[8] Travers, Gallipoli, pp. 26-27.

[9] Quoted in Marder, From. vol. ii, p.243

[10] Ibid., pp. 243-45.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 213-28.

[12] Massie, Castles, pp. 463-4.

[13] Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 247.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 227.

[15] Travers, Gallipoli, pp. 38-40.

[16] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 223-24; Travers, Gallipoli, pp. 36-37.

[17] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 224.

[18] Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 258.

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The Naval Attack on the Dardanelles 1915 (1) Planning

From late 1914 onwards there was a dispute over British military strategy. The ‘Westerners’, including most generals, saw the Western Front as the decisive theatre. However, the ‘Easterners’, mostly politicians or admirals, thought that stalemate on the Western Front could not be broken, so wanted to launch an offensive elsewhere, probably the Near East, where they hoped to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war and persuade Italy and neutral Balkan countries to join the Allies.[1]

Admiral Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord proposed a number of schemes, including attacks on Zeebrugge. Borkum, Cuxhaven and the Baltic.[2] On 3 January 1915 he gave Winston Churchill, the First Lord and thus his political superior, a plan that he and Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the War Council, had devised for a major offensive against the Ottoman Empire. It involved attacks on Gallipoli and Istanbul: although then referred to as Constantinople in English, it has officially been called Istanbul since the Turks captured it in 1453.

It looked good on paper, but was impractical. It needed far more British troops than would have been released from France and assumed that Bulgaria and Greece, strong rivals and both neutral, would enter the war on the Allied side and co-operate.[3]

The day before, Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia had requested that the British carry out a ‘demonstration’ in order to distract the Ottomans who were attacking in the Caucasus; Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, told Churchill that the only place where such an action might succeed was the Dardanelles, but there were no troops available.[4]

By 4 January the Russians had forced the Ottomans to retreat from Sarikamish, but the British, apparently unaware of this, continued to look for ways to help their ally against the Ottomans.

Churchill was attracted by part of Fisher’s plan, which was for an attack by old battleships on the Dardanelles. He ignored Fisher’s requirement for the warships to be accompanied by troops, who would take the high ground along the Gallipoli side of the Dardanelles.[5]

The Royal Navy had always argued that warships could rarely attack forts successfully without support from land forces. Lord Nelson had argued that ‘any sailor who attacked a fort was a fool,’ and the former First Sea Lord Sir Arthur Wilson was the only senior officer of the early twentieth century who disagreed.[6]

On 3 November 1914 and Anglo-French squadron had bombarded the outer forts of the Dardanelles from 13,000 yards, damaging one of them. This led some to think that it might be possible to destroy them from a range at which they could not reply. However, it also alerted the Ottomans to the fact that they might be attacked. After the war, this was described as an ‘unforgivable error’ by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe and ‘an act of sheer lunacy’ by Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon.[7]

Hankey told Arthur Balfour, the former Conservative Prime Minister who would soon succeed Churchill as First Lord in a Coalition government, that:

‘from Lord Fisher downwards every naval officer in the Admiralty who is in the secret believes that the Navy cannot take the Dardanelles position without troops. The First Lord still professes to believe that they can do it with ships, but I have warned the Prime Minister that we cannot trust in this.’[8]

Balfour was one of the few that favoured an attack by only ships.[9] Churchill later admitted that he would not have gone ahead with a naval only attack had he known that 80-100,000 troops would be available by May. However, in January Kitchener had said that 150,000 men would be needed and few could be spared.[10]

Arthur Marder argues that in the end the ‘famed Churchillian impetuosity, eloquence and doggedness carried the day.’[11] Churchill argued, on the basis of the performance of German artillery against Belgian forts in 1914, that the Ottoman forts would not be able to resist the fire from 12 and 15 inch battleship guns. However, the Germans had forward observers to correct their fire, whilst the Allied ships would be firing on concealed positions from several miles away with no observers on shore. The Germans were also using howitzers with a higher angle of fire than battleship guns.

It had been hoped that seaplanes could act as spotters, but they found it difficult to take off unless the sea was very calm and could not fly high enough to safely and successfully spot the fire. The sea also affected the stability of the ships as gun platforms, another disadvantage compared with shore guns.

The risk from minefield was also ignored or under-estimated. The Ottoman shore batteries only needed to sink or force away the minesweepers, which were trawlers manned by peacetime fishermen who were members of the Royal Naval Reserve, to prevent the battleships from continuing.

Even if the battle fleet did manage to get past all the gun batteries, it was not clear what it was then supposed to do. It was apparently assumed that its appearance at Istanbul would cause a revolution, even though it would not have been accompanied by any land forces to occupy the city and its communications would be open to attack by any remaining forts.

Jellicoe later wrote in the margin of his copy of volume ii of Churchill’s The World Crisis:

‘Has anyone who wants to push battleships through the Dardanelles said what they propose they should do when through and how their communications are to be maintained and from what base are they to work?’[12]

Churchill assumed that the old battleships were of little value in the North Sea, so could be risked in this operation. However, before the Battle of Jutland, most British admirals thought that a major fleet action might cause such heavy losses amongst the dreadnoughts of both sides that the RN’s vast superiority in pre-dreadnought battleships would then become decisive.[13]

The next entry in this series will describe the actual attack.

 

[1] 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. 202.

[2] T. Travers, Gallipoli, 1915 (Stroud: Tempus, 2001), p. 20.

[3] Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 204.

[4] Travers, Gallipoli, pp. 19-20.

[5] Marder, From. vol. ii, pp. 204-5.

[6] Quoted in Ibid., p. 200.

[7] Quoted in Ibid., p. 201.

[8] Quoted in R. A. Hough, The Great War at Sea, 1914-1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 153.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Marder, From, p. 212.

[11] Ibid., p. 213.

[12] Quoted in Hough, Great, p. 152.

[13] Marder, From, pp. 214-19.

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U9 Sinks Three British Cruisers 22 September 1914

In the first month and a half of WWI British and German submarines both sank an enemy light cruiser. Some British admirals, such as Sir John Jellicoe, the commander of the Grand Fleet, realised the threat that submarines posed to surface ships and acted accordingly. Others failed to recognise it.

At the start of the war, the Royal Navy’s Southern Force under Rear Admiral Arthur Christian was ordered ‘to keep the area south of the 54th parallel [which runs a little south of the Dogger Bank and Helgoland] clear of enemy torpedo craft and minelayers.’[1]

Christian flew his flag in the armoured cruiser HMS Euryalus and had under his command the light cruiser HMS Amethyst, the armoured cruisers HMS Bacchante, Cressy, Aboukir and Hogue of Rear Admiral Henry Campbell’s 7th Cruiser Squadron, the 8th Submarine Flotilla and the 1st and 3rd Destroyer Flotillas. The armoured cruisers were all old ships of the Bacchante class: some sources call them the Cressy class, but contemporary RN papers refer to them as the Bacchantes. They were unreliable, with no more than three of the five usually being available.

The Southern Force, operating from Harwich, conducted patrols in two areas. The force off Dogger Bank, covering the southern approaches to the North Sea, was generally stronger than the one in the Broad Fourteens, watching the eastern entrance to the English Channel. However, the latter was sometimes increased according to circumstances, such when the British Expeditionary Force crossed the Channel.

Commodore Roger Keyes, commanding the Harwich submarines, told the Admiralty on 12 August that the Bacchantes should be withdrawn. He feared that they were vulnerable to an attack by ‘two or three well-trained German cruisers…Why give the Germans the smallest chance of a cheap victory and an improved morale[?]’[2] However, even the Commodore for Submarines worried about an attack by surface ships, not U-boats.

On 17 September Keyes, supported by Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt, commander of the Harwich destroyers, had the opportunity to put his views to Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiral. He pointed out to Churchill that the Grand Fleet nicknamed the 7th Cruiser Squadron ‘the live bait squadron.’[3]

Churchill sent a memo to Prince Louis Battenberg, the First Sea Lord, on 18 September strongly recommending that the old armoured cruisers should be withdrawn from this patrol:

‘The risk to such ships is not justified by any services they can render. The narrow seas, being the nearest point to the enemy, should be kept by a small number of good modern ships.’[4]

Battenberg, who had not liked the idea of the Bacchantes patrolling up and down the North Sea, agreed. However, Vice Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee, the Vice Chief of the Naval Staff told Keyes that ‘[w]e’ve always maintained a squadron on the Broad Fourteens.’[5]

Sturdee was also concerned by the possibility of a German attack on the cross-Channel supply line. He admitted that the Bacchantes were not really suitable for their role, but argued that they were better than nothing until the new Arethusa class light cruisers were ready. HMS Arethusa was under repair after being damaged at the Battle of Helgoland Bight and her seven sisters had not yet been completed.

On 19 September Sturdee persuaded Battenberg to authorise a telegram concentrating the Bacchantes in the South: ‘The Dogger Bank patrol need not be continued. Weather too bad for destroyers to go to sea. Arrange for cruisers to watch Broad Fourteens.’[6] Churchill later said that he did not see it.

There were then four of the armoured cruisers on patrol, Campbell’s flagship Bacchante being in dock for repairs. Euryalus, Christian’s flagship, was added to the Cruiser Squadron in order to keep its numbers up, but Christian’s command responsibilities were wider, and Campbell should have transferred his flag to one of his other cruisers. James Goldrick comments that Christian ‘should not have allowed Campbell, nor should the latter have been willing, to remain in harbour.’[7]

At 6:00 am on 20 September Euryalus had to return to port for coaling and because her wireless aerials had been damaged by the bad weather. Christian would normally have transferred by boat to one of the other cruisers, but the high seas made this impossible. In Campbell’s absence command of the squadron fell to Captain John Drummond of Aboukir.

Christian sent Drummond an ambiguous signal, which did not make it clear that it was Drummond who was responsible for summoning the destroyers when the weather improved. By midnight on 21 September the wind had died down on the Broad Fourteens, but it was still strong in Harwich, so the destroyers were not sent out until 5:00 am on 22 September.

The Bacchantes‘ coal consumption was very high if they made 13 or more knots. Consequently they were sailing at barely 10 knots and not zigzagging on the morning of 22 September. They were in line abreast, two miles apart.

Richard Hough says that one reason for not zigzagging was that their captains thought ‘that seas a destroyer could not endure were equally impossible for a submarine.’[8] If true, this was a bad mistake, as the seas had been rough when U21 sank HMS Pathfinder and when E9 sank SMS Hela. At least one of the captains should have understood submarine operations; Captain Robert Johnson of HMS Cressy, although not a submariner, had commanded a submarine flotilla for three years before the war.[9]

Just before 6:30 am on 22 September Aboukir suffered a major explosion. Drummond assumed that she had hit a mine and signalled so to the rest of the squadron. In fact, she had been struck by a single torpedo fired by U9, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen.

U9 was an early German submarine, carrying only four 17.7 inch torpedo tubes and just six torpedoes. She was capable of only 8 knots submerged. On the surface her Körting paraffin engines gave off a lot of smoke and sparks and gave her a speed of only 14 knots. She could make 8 knots submerged.

Drummond soon realised that his ship had been torpedoed by a U-boat and ordered the other two cruisers away. However, Captain Wilmot Nicholson of Hogue thought that his ship would be safe if she kept to the side of Aboukir that had not been hit. Hogue stopped about a mile from Aboukir in order to launch her boats.

However, Weddigen had re-positioned his boat. At 6:55, as Aboukir sank, he fired two torpedoes into Hogue from only 300 yards away. U9’s bows rose out of the water, and Hogue fired on her, without scoring any hits. The cruiser sank within 10 minutes.

Cressy was also stationary, launching her boats. A periscope was spotted and Johnson ordered his ship to make full speed in order to ram the U-boat. At 7:20 Weddigen fired his two stern torpedoes at her; one missed and the other hit, but did not cause serious damage. He then closed to 500 yards and at 7:30 fired his last torpedo into Cressy, which sank 15 minutes later.

The first rescue ship to arrive was the Dutch steamer Flora, which picked up 286 men, many badly wounded and took them to Ymuiden. Another Dutch ship, the Titan, which rescued 147 men, and two British trawlers, the Coriander and J. G. C., were still picking up survivors when Tyrwhitt’s force of the light cruiser HMS Lowestoft and eight destroyers arrived between 10:30 and 10:45. The civilian ships could not have been sure whether or not they were in a minefield.

A total of 60 officers and 777 men were saved and 62 officers and 1,397 died. The Dutch repatriated to Britain the survivors taken initially to the Netherlands. Casualties on Cressy were particularly high because her boats were full of survivors from the other two cruisers when she was sunk. Many of the crews were middle-aged reservists recalled at the start of the war. Each cruiser also had nine cadets from the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth on board, most of them under the age of 15.

The website Naval-History.net lists the casualties and survivors for all three cruisers. The men listed as being either RFR (Royal Fleet Reserve) or RNR (Royal Naval Reserve) were reservists. Men who were rescued but later died of wounds are listed as having died on the dates of their deaths rather than the date of the sinkings. Captain Johnson of Cressy was amongst the dead, but Drummond and Nicholson both survived.

The Admiralty issued orders that armoured ship should zigzag, make at least 13 knots and not stop in waters where enemy submarines might be present. It said:

 ‘that if one ship is torpedoed by submarine or strikes mine. disabled ship must be left to her fate and other large ships clear out of dangerous area calling up minor vessels to render assistance.’[10]

The Court of Inquiry said that Drummond ‘should have zigzagged his course as much as possible. Johnson and Nicholson were guilty of ‘an error of judgment’ in stopping their ships. However, Battenberg thought that they ‘were placed in a cruel position, once they found themselves in waters swarming with drowning men.’[11]

Christian told Jellicoe that ‘certainly Cressy need not have been sacrificed and probably not Hogue if they had only dashed up within say a mile to windward, out all boats and away again.’[12]

Campbell, Christian and Drummond were all placed on half pay, but the two admirals were later given new employment. The Court of Inquiry’s criticism was mainly directed at the Admiralty, meaning Battenberg and Sturdee. Later, when they had left the Admiralty, the Third and Fourth Sea Lords, who had little involvement in operational matters, agreed with this, as did Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Wilson, a former First Sea Lord.

Much of the public criticism fell on Churchill, who was prone to interfere in operational decisions. In fact, on this occasion he had recommended that the Bacchantes should be withdrawn from this patrol, but had not interfered in order to make sure that this was done.

Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, who in WWII organised the naval parts of the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940 and the invasion of Normandy in 1944, was a Lieutenant in 1914. He wrote in his diary that it ‘just shows how utterly without imagination the majority of our senior officers are.’[13]

The action showed the potency of submarines to both sides, although some in Britain thought that more than one U-boat must have taken part. The Times wrote on 25 September that:

‘It is well-known that German submarines operate in flotillas of six boats. If it is true that only one, U9, returned to harbour, we may assume that the others are lost.’[14]

The Kaiser awarded Weddigen the Iron Cross First Class and every other member of U9’s crew the Iron Cross Second Class. The action cancelled out the moral advantage that the RN had gained from its victory at Helgoland Bight on 28 August 1914. U9 and the light cruiser SMS Emden were the only German ships to be awarded the Iron Cross during the war.

[1] Quoted in J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 171.

[2] Quoted in R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 129.

[3] Quoted in Ibid.

[4] Quoted in 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. 56

[5] Ibid. vol. ii, p. 57, footnote 27. Marder’s source was Admiral Sir William James, who was told the story by Keyes.

[6] Ibid.

[7] J. Goldrick, The King’s Ships Were at Sea: The War in the North Sea, August 1914-February 1915 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), p. 127.

[8] R. A. Hough, The Great War at Sea, 1914-1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 62.

[9] Goldrick, The King’s Ships, p. 126.

[10] Quoted in Ibid., p. 133.

[11] Quotes in this paragraph from Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 55.

[12] Quoted in Goldrick, The King’s Ships, p. 133.

[13] Quoted in G. A. H. Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (London: John Murray, 1996), p. 390.

[14] Quoted in Massie, Castles, p. 137.

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The Fall of Singapore – The Great Betrayal – BBC2

BBC2 recently broadcast a documentary titled The Fall of Singapore – The Great Betrayal. The synopsis from the BBC’s website says that:

Pearl Harbor and the Fall of Singapore: 70 years ago these huge military disasters shook both Britain and America, but they conceal a secret so shocking it has remained hidden ever since. This landmark film by Paul Elston tells the incredible story of how it was the British who gave the Japanese the knowhow to take out Pearl Harbor and capture Singapore. For 19 years before the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, British officers were spying for Japan. Worse still, the Japanese had infiltrated the very heart of the British establishment – through a mole who was a peer of the realm known to Churchill himself.

The main contributors to the programme were Prof. Richard Aldrich of Warwick University, a leading historian of the British intelligence services, and Dr Antony Best of the LSE, an expert on Anglo-Japanese relations. Many of the assertions made were justified by reference to primary documents in the UK National Archives.

At the end of the First World War, the Royal Navy led the world in naval aviation. Japan, which was then allied to Britain, attempted to obtain details of Britain’s new aircraft carriers. Ten requests for information were rejected, but Japan was allowed to recruit a civilian mission.

It was composed of former members of the Royal Naval Air Service, which had merged with the Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Air Force in April 1918. The mission was led by an experienced naval aviator, William Forbes-Sempill, the Master of Sempill and the son of a Scottish peer. It was in Japan during 1921-23.

The programme argued that the British mission allowed Japan to develop the naval aviation that enabled it to attack Pearl Harbor and to sink Force Z, composed of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, off Malaya in December 1941. This is perhaps going too far; Stephen Roskill contended in his history of the RN between the wars that the Japanese would have caught up with the RN and USN eventually, but that the Sempill mission speeded up the process.[1]

The programme suggested that the Japanese needed British help in order to develop naval aviation. They were behind Britain and the USA, but not by as much as the programme suggested. The first deck landing on an aircraft carrier was on HMS Furious on 3 August 1917, which then had a short flight deck forward of her superstructure.

The first carrier with a full length deck was HMS Argus, which was converted from an incomplete liner and completed in September 1918. Britain began construction of the HMS Hermes, the world’s first purpose built carrier, on 15 January 1918. She was launched on 11 September 1919 but not completed until February 1924.

Japan, meanwhile, laid down its first carrier, IMS Hosho, on 16 December 1919. She was launched on 13 November 1921 and completed on 27 December 1922. The first take off from and landing on her deck took place on 22 February 1923. The first landing on a carrier that was underway was on the USS Langley in November 1922. Conversion of the Langley, the USN’s first carrier, from a collier had been completed on 20 March 1922.

The claim made by the programme that the Japanese needed British help to build a carrier would seem to be an exaggeration, since the Hosho was under construction before the Sempill Mission arrived in Japan, but the mission clearly helped the Japanese to develop carrier aviation quicker than they could have managed if starting from scratch.

The second in command of the base from which the mission operated was Yamamoto Isoruku, in 1941 commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet and mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor. By 1941 the IJN was well ahead of the RN and at least equal to the USN in carrier aviation, so the Japanese had taken the initial lessons taught to them by the Sempill Mission and built on them by their own efforts. One of Britain’s problems was that most of its naval aviators transferred to the RAF in 1918, so it had few senior officers with air experience in 1939.

Another former RNAS pilot, Frederick Rutland, was recruited by the Mitsubishi company and taught the Japanese deck landing techniques. He was the son of a labourer and was promoted from the ranks. He was known as Rutland of Jutland because he carried out a reconnaissance mission at the Battle of Jutland.

At this stage, Sempill and Rutland had provided an ally with information as part of officially sanctioned missions. The Anglo-Japanese Alliance was ended by the treaties signed at the 1921-22 Washington Naval Conference and the two countries became potential foes. Despite this, Sempill continued to supply information to Japan. He had asecret job that seemed to make him an international arms salesman for Britain. This gave him access to secret information and brought him into contact with foreign navies and air forces, including those of Chile, Brazil and Greece.

MI5 became suspicious of Sempill’s links with Japan and tapped his phone and intercepted his mail. This provided evidence that he was supplying Japan with secret information. Britain had broken some Japanese codes and intercepted Japanese diplomatic cables relaying some of these from London to Tokyo.

In 1926, Sempill visited the Blackburn aircraft factory, ostensibly to inspect a new single-seater aircraft. He managed to obtain plans of the top secret Blackburn Iris flying boat. Soon after this, he was interviewed by the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, the Director of Public Prosecutions and a senior MI5 officer.

A meeting chaired by Sir Austen Chamberlain, the Foreign Secretary, decided not to prosecute Sempill. His position in society would make this embarrassing, but there was also the perennial problem with espionage cases that it would be hard to convict without revealing secrets, including the fact that Britain had broken Japanese codes. The relevant files are now publicly available in the National Archives, but were kept secret for many years.

There are no MI5 files on Sempill from the 1930s in the National Archives. One from the 1940s states that he was a paid consultant for Mitsubishi in 1931. He needed the money as he was overdrawn by £13,000; nearly £750,00o in 2012 terms.

During the 1930s Sempill became President of the Royal Aeronautical Society and succeeded his father as Lord Sempill, sitting in the House of Lords as a Conservative. He was a member of The Link, an organisation established in 1937 to promote Anglo-German friendship, and The Right Club, which aimed to rid the Conservative Party of Jewish influence.

Whether or not Sempill was involved, Japanese espionage against Britain continued during the 1930s. In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria. This raised fears of an Angl0-Japanese war, and Britain re-started work on a large naval base at Singapore. The programme suggested that construction began in 1931; in fact, building started in 1923 but was suspended more than once during the 1920s due to changes in government and budgetary constraints.

During the 1930s Japanese businessmen bought up large amounts of property in Malaya. The programme argued that many of them were spies. Japan bought the plans for the Singapore base from a British serviceman called Roberts.

The Singapore base was heavily defended against attack from the sea. The British thought that it would be impossible to invade Malaya and then attack Singapore by land. In 1937 Joe Vinden (spelling?), a British Army intelligence officer, reconnoitred the Malayan coast and concluded that an invasion of Malaya followed by a land attack on Singapore was feasible.

Vinden correctly forecast that the Japanese would land at Kota Bharu in north-east Malaya during the November-February monsoon season; others thought that an amphibious landing at that time of year was impossible. His recommendation that funds allocated to coastal artillery be instead spent on aircraft was ignored.

Japan also had spies in Hawaii, one of whom was Rutland. He later told interrogators that he was ordered to report on the attitude of the population to the possibility of war and on the dispositions of the US fleet. The FBI soon became suspicious of his activities.

Sempill was brought back to the Admiralty when Winston Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, the cabinet minister responsible for the navy, on the outbreak of war in 1939. Sempill gave an assurance that he would not discuss service matters with the Japanese. However, in August 1941 he intervened to secure the release of Satoru Makahara, manager of Mitsubishi’s London office, who had been arrested on suspicion of espionage.

At the same time Churchill and US President Roosevelt held secret talks at Placentia Bay. Shortly afterwards the British code breakers at Bletchley Park intercepted and decoded a signal from the Japanese Embassy in London to Tokyo that gave precise details of the talks. A report that was sent to Churchill about the intercept remained secret for 60 years; he noted that the Japanese version was ‘pretty accurate stuff.’ It had to have come from somebody close to him.

Richard Aldrich said that the most important Japanese source with access to Churchill was Sempill. A few days later MI5 told Churchill that the Japanese had information about his inner circle. He demanded proof and a month long surveillance operation produced the names of Sempill and Commander McGrath, who had been with Sempill in Japan.

Churchill stated that Sempill could not remain at the Admiralty. When Sempill was asked to resign his commission, however, Churchill said that he only wanted Sempill to leave his current job, not the RN. Antony Best pointed Sempill was a Conservative peer who would have had friends in the Conservative Party. Richard Aldrich argued that interning Sempill would look very bad for the government, which had employed him even though he had been under MI5 surveillance since 1925.

Rutland was deported to Britain by the Americans and interned. He was released near the end of the war and later committed suicide. Sempill was given a choice of either resigning his commission or taking up a post in northern Scotland; the programme did not make it clear that which he chose. He died in 1965.

It was argued that Sempill was not charged under the Official Secrets Act or interned under Defence Regulation 18B because he was a well connected aristocrat and his arrest would embarrass the government. Other members of the upper classes were interned, including Sir Oswald Moseley, founder of the British Union of Fascists and his wife Diana, one of the Mitford sisters, Admiral Sir Barry Domvile and Archibald Maule Ramsay, the Conservative MP who founded The Right Club.

However, none of them had held any government position during the war, whilst Sempill was close to the Prime Minister. This would suggest that embarrassment to the government in general and Churchill in particular for appointing a man previously suspected of supplying secrets to Japan to a sensitive post was a stronger reason for not taking action against him than his social position.

Another reason might be that a trial could have revealed that the British had broken Japanese codes. The programme mentioned this when discussing why he was not charged in 1925, but did not repeat the point when discussing his lack of punishment in 1941.

This was a very interesting programme. It should be noted that it was not as new a revelation as the BBC claimed. The relevant documents were released to public view at the National Archives in 1998, and The Independent newspaper reported on them, quoting Richard Aldrich. Nevertheless, the programme was well made, justified its claims with reference to primary documents and brought the story to a wider audience.


[1] Stephen Roskill, Naval Policy Between the Wars, vol. i (London: Collin, 1968), p. 529.

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