Tag Archives: Dardanelles

The First VC Awarded to a Submariner

The first submariner to be awarded the Victoria Cross was Lieutenant Norman Holbrook, captain of HMS B11. He received Britain’s highest award for gallantry after his boat sank the elderly Ottoman pre-dreadnought battleship Messudieh (alternatively Mesudiye) on 13 December 1914.

The British Admiralty, keen to move as many ships as possible to the Grand Fleet, had proposed that the blockade of the Dardanelles be left to the French. However, the threat from the German battlecruiser Goeben, now flying the Ottoman flag, meant that the French insisted that the British battlecruiser HMS Indefatigable should remain.

Consequently, the blockading force consisted of Indefatigable, the light cruiser HMS Dublin and the French pre-dreadnought battleships Gaulois, Vérité, St Louis and Charlemagne, the armoured cruiser Amiral Charner and seaplane carrier Foudre. Each navy also contributed six destroyers and three submarines.[1]

The British submarines were B9, B10 and B11 of the B class. Although only eight years old, the rapid pace of development of submarines meant that they were obsolescent by 1914. They were designed for coastal patrol work with a range of 1000 nautical miles at 8.75 knots surfaced, a maximum speed of 12 knots surfaced and 6 knots submerged, an armament of two 18 inch torpedo tubes and a crew of 15. The petrol engine used on the surface made conditions for the crew even worse than in later diesel powered boats.

They had hydroplanes on each side of their conning towers to improve underwater handling, an innovation that was not repeated until US nuclear submarines were similarly fitted for the same reason 50 years later.[2]

The Ottoman navy was active against the Russian one in the Black Sea, but sat on the defensive at the Dardanelles. The Messudieh was positioned as a stationary guard ship.

The Allies conducted an active submarine campaign in the Dardanelles from December 1914, two months before the Gallipoli campaign began with a naval attack and four months before the first troops were landed. There was, however, a bombardment of the forts at the mouth of the Dardanelles by British and French warships on 3 November 1914, five days after the Ottoman fleet attacked Russian bases in the Black Sea, but two days before Britain declared war on the Ottoman Empire.

Entering the Dardanelles was difficult for submarines even without the Ottoman minefields because of the current and differences in the layers of the water that made it hard to manoeuvre underwater. The British submarines were more manoeuvrable, and thus more successful, than the French ones.[3]

On 13 December 1914 B11 was chosen to be first Allied submarine to enter the Straits. They were protected by five lines of mines, but her diving planes were fitted with special guards to prevent her becoming tangled up in the mines’ wires.

Holbrook dived his boat underneath the mines, succeeding in passing them despite the strong current. He then came up to periscope depth, spotted a large enemy warship, closed to 800 yards range, fired a torpedo and dived. After hearing an explosion, he brought his boat back to periscope depth and saw that the enemy ship was settling by the stern.

The return journey was made more difficult by the fact that the lenses of B11’s compass had steamed up, making it unusable. Holbrook was not even certain where he was and had to estimate the time that it would take to clear the minefields on the way home. B11 bumped along the bottom several times. Eventually, he felt it safe to return to periscope depth. He could then see the horizon and steer for it. However, the compass was still unusable. B11 returned to base after being submerged for 9 hours to learn that she had sunk the Messudieh.

Holbrook’s VC was gazetted on 22 December, making it the first ever awarded to a submariner and the first of the war to a sailor to be announced. Commander Henry Ritchie’s VC was given for an act of gallantry on 28 November, but gazetted later than Holbrook’s. Every member of B11’s crew was decorated: Lieutenant Sydney Winn, the second on command, received the Distinguished Service Order and the other members of the crew either the Distinguished Service Cross or the Distinguished Service Medal. The DSC was awarded to officers and warrant officers, the DSM to petty officers and ratings.[4]

The citation for Holbrook’s VC, taken from this website, stated that:

For most conspicuous bravery on the 13th December 1914, when in command of the Submarine B-11, he entered the Dardanelles, and, notwithstanding the very difficult current, dived his vessel under five rows of mines and torpedoed the Turkish battleship “Messudiyeh” which was guarding the minefield.

Lieutenant Holbrook succeeded in bringing the B-11 safely back, although assailed by gun-fire and torpedo boats, having been submerged on one occasion for nine hours.

Note that English spelling of Turkish names differ.

The Ottomans blamed the loss of the Mesudiye on the Germans, who they said had insisted on putting her in an exposed position despite their opinions. She sank in shallow waters, making it possible to cut holes in her in order to extract trapped men. 37 men were killed out of a crew of 673. Many of her guns were salvaged and used in shore defences of the Dardanelles.[5]

In August 1915 the town of Germanton changed its name to Holbrook. Norman Holbrook visited Holbrook several times and his widow donated his medals to it a few years after his death. His VC is now on display at the Australian War Memorial, with a replica on show in Holbrook near a model of B11.

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, pp. 70-72.

[2] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 87. This source has been favoured where its information differs from the Wikipedia entry linked in the text.

[3] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 119.

[4] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 72-73.

[5] Ibid. vol. ii, p. 73, note 1.

11 Comments

Filed under War History

Churchill’s First World War – BBC4

On 30 July 2013 BBC4 broadcast a documentary called Churchill’s First World War. The BBC website describes it as follows:

Drama-documentary about Winston Churchill’s extraordinary experiences during the Great War, with intimate letters to his wife Clementine allowing the story to be told largely in his own words. Just 39 and at the peak of his powers running the Royal Navy, Churchill in 1914 dreamt of Napoleonic glory, but suffered a catastrophic fall into disgrace and humiliation over the Dardanelles disaster.

The film follows his road to redemption, beginning in the trenches of Flanders in 1916, revealing how he became the ‘godfather’ of the tank and his forgotten contribution to final victory in 1918 as Minister of Munitions. Dark political intrigue, a passionate love story and remarkable military adventures on land, sea and air combine to show how the Churchill of 1940 was shaped and forged by his experience of the First World War.

The programme was billed as being a drama-documentary, but the dramatisations were fairly limited: scenes of Churchill (Adam James) in the trenches and making a speech and shots of Clementine (Verity Marshall) at home. Most of it consisted of comments by experts, archive footage and extracts from private papers. The majority  of these were letters between Winston and Clementine, but there were also extracts from the papers of others, including Admiral Jackie Fisher, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s wife Margot and Andrew Gibb, an officer in Churchill’s battalion on the Western Front.

Churchill began the war as First Lord of the Admiralty, the Royal Navy’s political head. In July 1914 the bulk of the fleet was at Portland on the south coast. He decided to move it overnight to its war station at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, which was, according to Prof. Andrew Lambert of King’s College London, the critical point.

Prof. Gary Sheffield of Birmingham University said that Churchill’s problem was that he was not trusted. He regarded himself as a soldier, perhaps a warrior, and possessed an unquestioning belief in the British Empire, as did most British people at the time.

In 1914 Churchill wanted to be involved in the land campaign, which was then more significant than the war at sea. The RN’s air arm, the RNAS, had sent units to Dunkirk in order to bomb Zeppelin bases, which gave him an opportunity. They were accompanied by armoured cars, which were supposed to protect the airfields, but also undertook what David Tilley, Curator of the Tank Museum, describes as ‘buccaneering patrols.’

Churchill would build on the RNAS’s experience with armoured cars to carry out experiments with trench crossing machines, eventually leading to the development of landships, or tanks. Prof David Ceserani of Royal Holloway London noted that Churchill was a very modern military figure who appreciated the value of science and technology in warfare. However, he was an egomaniac, who had enormous self-confidence and energy, but sometimes struggled to work out what was a good idea and what was a bad one.

On 3 October the port of Antwerp was on the verge of surrender. Holding it would stall the German advance. Churchill rushed the Royal Naval Division, made up of naval reservists without ships and marines, to Antwerp, with some of them travelling in 100 commandeered buses. He wanted to resign his Cabinet post and be appointed a general. According to Sheffield, this caused derision amongst his Cabinet colleagues, who laughed at him.

Antwerp fell on 10 October, and 1,000 member of the RND were interned in the Netherlands. Churchill was branded a reckless adventurer by the Press, although Lambert noted that the extra week that the Germans took to capture Antwerp did make some difference to the war.

Lambert and Sheffield agreed that Churchill wanted to emulate his great ancestor the Duke of Marlborough by producing a war winning stroke. He saw Gallipoli as being his chance, but the campaign ended in disaster. Churchill fell out with Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher, the navy’s professional head, the First Sea Lord. Lambert said that each really wanted the other’s job. The deterioration in their relationship was shown by Allen Packwood, Director of the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge, via letters held by that archive.

The failure at Gallipoli meant that the ruling Liberals had to bring the Conservatives into a coalition government. Churchill had originally been elected to Parliament as a Conservative, but then switched to the Liberals, so was distrusted and disliked by the Conservatives. He lost his job as First Lord, though he remained in the Cabinet.

It was at this time that he took up painting. It had a therapeutic effect on him, although Alice Martin, the House and Collections Manager at Chartwell, his former home, noted that he painted a very dark self-portrait at this time: usually his paintings were bright.

In late 1915 he resigned from the Cabinet, and sought a commission on the Western Front: he was a Major in the Oxfordshire Hussars, a yeomanry [reserve cavalry] unit. He hoped that Sir John French, the commander of the BEF, would give him command of a brigade, but French was replaced by Sir Douglas Haig before this could be finalised. Haig gave Churchill command of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. Churchill was English, but he was MP for a Scottish constituency, Dundee.

It was probably better for Churchill that he was given command of a battalion rather than a brigade; the latter would have been too big a promotion, and would have meant that he would have been out of touch with the average soldier.

Clementine, according to Dr Tiffany Jenkins, agreed. She knew he was under great danger in the trenches, but urged him to stay for the sake of his political career, which was more important to him than his life. Clementine saw Winston’s war lust and realised that she was the only person who could restrain him. She wrote to Asquith defending Winston when he was sacked as First Lord, but Jenkins said that she was really accusing Asquith of being weak.

Packwood noted that Clementine was his defender and anchor in Westminster whilst she was in France. She was very busy, since she was also involved in setting up canteens for munitions workers. She and Winston wrote to each other almost every day whilst he was at the Western Front.

Patrick Hennessey, a former Army officer, noted that Churchill, a cavalry officer commanding an infantry battalion, got off to a disastrous start, but quickly turned it round. He recognised the importance of making the men’s conditions better, and targeted lice. His battalion became, and remained, one of the least lice plagued battalions on the Western Front. His time on the Western Front showed him as caring, focussed and sensitive. He possessed the ability of great military commanders to be imperturbable under fire.

On 7 March 1916 Churchill returned to the House of Commons. He had by then made his peace with Fisher, and made a very badly received speech calling for Fisher to be recalled. He returned to the Front, staying to May, when his battalion was merged with the 7th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers because to casualties

Churchill believed in attrition by metal and machines rather than men. He noted that the Allies had lost air superiority, and criticised the government and the generals. He said that: ‘Machines save life. Machine power is a substitute for manpower. Brains will save blood.’ He wanted tanks to be used in a mass attack, so was angry when the secret was given away in November 1916 by an attack of only 50 tanks.

Churchill was close to David Lloyd George, who became Prime Minister in late 1916. He hoped that this would mean his return to the government, but Prof. Richard Toye of Exeter University pointed out that Lloyd George was not initially in a strong enough political position to bring Churchill back to office.

By the summer of 1917 U boats were threatening  to starve Britain into submission. Lloyd George took the  risk of appointing Churchill as Minister of Munitions in July 1917 as his spirit and imagination were needed to increase production of the equipment and ammunition required to win the war. Churchill also had the grasp of detail needed to organise munitions production. He was not, however, in the War Cabinet so was excluded from the highest level of strategy and decision-making.

Sheffield commented that Churchill wanted to build up resources, wait for US help and win the war in 1919. However, the Germans took the offensive in March 1918. Ceserani noted that this converted the war into one of manoeuvre in which tanks, trucks and logistics were vital. Churchill’s Ministry of Munitions replaced the huge losses of tanks and guns in March 1918 and provided the enormous quantities of ammunition needed in 1918.

At Amiens in August 1918 the British Empire forces combined the use of tanks, artillery and aircraft to defeat the enemy. This led to the 100 days campaign that culminated in victory.

Lambert argued that the First World War convinced Churchill that he was a man of destiny because he could recover from anything.

The programme showed that Churchill made many mistakes during the First World War, losing office for a while and ending the war with a lesser political position than he had held at its start. However, its conclusion was that during the First World War:

‘No man learnt more of war command. It was a bitter but complete apprenticeship…First would come more wilderness years… But when summoned again, a greater warlord, steeled by the Great War, was ready and prepared to fulfil his destiny.’

For UK viewers, the programme is repeated on BBC4 at 2240 on Thursday 1 August, and is available on the I-Player until 6 August. It will probably be shown again on BBC4: such programmes tend to be shown a lot.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Political History, Reviews, War History