Tag Archives: de Robeck

The Royal Navy and the Gallipoli Land Campaign

Allied troops landed on the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 April 1915, two days later than originally planned because of bad weather.

All the troops, equipment and supplies had to be brought, and wounded evacuated, by sea. Warships provided fire support. Submarines raided Ottoman ships bringing reinforcements and supplies. The small Allied air force came from the Royal Naval Air Service. There was even a naval contribution to the land campaign: the Royal Naval Division.

In 1914 the RN found that it had more reservists than it needed to man its ships. It therefore formed the extra men and some Royal Marines into an infantry division. Some men also volunteered directly for the RND.

The RND was landed at Dunkirk on 20 September 1914 in order to help defend Antwerp. Some of its troops managed to return from Antwerp to the UK, arriving on 11 October; others were forced to flee into the Netherlands, where they were interned for the rest of the war.

The division’s infantry battalions were brought back up to strength before it was sent to Egypt in 1915. At this stage of the war it lacked the artillery and other supporting units of an army infantry division.

The invading force consisted of 30,000 Australians and New Zealanders, divided into two divisions; the 17,000 troops of the British 29th Division, made up of regulars who had been serving in remote colonial garrisons; the 10,000 men of the RND; and a 16,000 strong French division. The 29th would land at Cape Helles and the Anzacs 13 miles up the coast at a place now called Anzac Cove. The RND and the French would make diversionary landings at Bulair and Kum Kale on the Asiatic shore respectively. Preparations were slow because ships had been loaded in the wrong order for an invasion, meaning that they had to be unloaded and re-loaded at Alexandria.[1]

The fleet was commanded by Vice Admiral John de Robeck, who had taken over towards the end of the naval attack on the Dardanelles. His Chief of Staff was Commodore Roger Keyes, an aggressive officer who had previously commanded the RN’s submarines, including at the Battle of Helgoland Bight.

De Robeck’s fleet comprised one British dreadnought; 15 British and four French pre-dreadnought battleships; nine British, three French and one Russian cruisers; 24 British and five French destroyers; seven British, one Australian and four French submarines; a British seaplane carrier; and various minesweepers and other auxiliary craft. One each of the French pre-dreadnoughts and the French cruisers did not take part in the events of 25 April.[2]

Security for the operation was poor. Enemy agents in Athens learnt of preparations on the Greek Islands from the crews of Greek caiques; letters were sent by ordinary post from the United Kingdom to Egypt addressed to the ‘Constantinople Force, Egypt’; and there was open speculation in the Egyptian press.[3] Despite the large number of Allied troops in Egypt, it was officially neutral, so the British could not censor its newspapers.

Tim Travers highlights that the army and navy had different views of the invasion, which created confusion. The navy’s emphasis was on a combined attack on the Narrows, but the army believed that the navy’s role was to weaken the defences in order to permit the landing.[4]

A meeting of RN captains on 21 April decided to abandon the original concept of anchoring offshore in order to shell the beaches and approaches. Instead, the beaches would be bombarded before the landing, but the guns would then switch to the coastal ridges. Keyes rejected Captain Hughes Lockyer of the battleship HMS Implacable’s idea of firing on the beaches on the way in as he thought that the gun control system made it impossible to change the range and bearing quickly enough. The orders stated that ‘ships will cover the landings and support its advance.’[5]

This left captains with a fair degree of discretion. They were no longer required to anchor, but Lockyer said that Keyes’s comments meant that some were reluctant to move close to the shore. The casualties were heaviest at the beaches where the ships remained anchored offshore: V and W at Cape Helles. The landings at S and X at Helles and Anzac Cove benefitted from close naval support.[6]

The fifth beach at Helles, Y, was a late addition, intended to threaten any Ottoman retreat and reinforcements. The initial landing met little resistance, but the troops, lacking a clear objective, did not press on and were withdrawn the next day.[7]

W Beach was target of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers plus 50 men of the Anson Battalion of the RND. They came ashore in cutters which were first towed by steam boats before being rowed the final part of the journey, which was slow because of an unexpectedly strong current. The boats had to come back to carry the second wave. Casualties amongst both the Fusiliers and the sailors were heavy, with some boats being reduced to two rather than six rowers.[8]

The beach was taken thank to the courage of the Lancashire Fusiliers, six of whom were awarded the Victoria Cross. However, their casualties were too heavy for them to link up with V Beach. This beach was later known as Lancashire Landing.[9]

After disembarking the men intended for W Beach, Implacable bombarded X Beach, with Lockyer taking her to within 450 yards of the shore. She and the light cruiser HMS Dublin were so close in that they came under rifle fire. The small number of men defending the beach were so overwhelmed by the bombardment that the 2nd Royal Fusiliers landed without casualties. Implacable helped to repel an Ottoman attack in the evening. This beach was later known as Implacable Beach.[10]

Captain Alexander Davidson of the battleship HMS Cornwallis was concerned about the small size of the landing force at S Beach, which consisted of two companies of the 2nd South Wales Borderers and a detachment of marines. He therefore augmented it with marines and sailors from his ship and also landed himself. The beach was taken with only 63 casualties. However, Davidson was supposed to move Cornwallis to V Beach once S was captured, but stayed longer in order to evacuate wounded and provide fire support.[11]

The first wave at V Beach consisted of three companies of the Dublin Fusiliers and 50 men of the Anson Battalion in boats each crewed by a midshipman and six seaman. They were followed by the rest of the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers, half the 2nd Hampshires and 50 more men from the Anson Battalion on board the steamer River Clyde, captained by Commander Edward Unwin.[12]

The River Clyde was to be grounded. She would still be too far offshore for the men to land, so a steam hopper and three wooden lighters would provide a bridge for the troops to land from exits cut in her hull. However, problem with the steam hopper prevented the bridge being put into place.[13] The conversion of the River Clyde into a specialist landing ship was Unwin’s idea.[14]

Unwin and Able Seaman William Williams dived into the sea and managed to move two of the lighters into position with the help of Midshipman George Drewry, commanding the hopper. There was nothing that the lighters could be secured to, so Unwin and Williams used their own bodies to weigh it down. This allowed the Munsters to attempt to land, but most were killed or wounded. Some jumped into the water, but many of them, weighed down by heavy packs, drowned. Williams was also hit and Unwin had to release the line in order to stop him drowning.

Lieutenant John Morse and Midshipman Wilfred Malleson managed to restore a bridge of boats. An attempt to land smaller parties failed and the attack was halted.[15] The men would have got ashore more quickly had the hopper and lighters been able to form a bridge as planned, but casualties would still have been heavy.[16]

The few men who had made it ashore were able to shelter behind a sandbank. The naval fire support at V Beach was inadequate. The battleship HMS Albion stayed 1,400 yards offshore, too far to be useful without forward observers. Cornwallis was late arriving and also stayed too far offshore. Unwin was later very critical of Davidson, arguing that he should have been court martialled for lingering at the lightly defended S Beach.[17]

The cruiser HMS Euryalus did provide accurate fire support at V Beach, but she stayed further offshore than Implacable did at X Beach.[18]

It had not originally been intended to use French troops on 25 April, but it was decided that this was a waste, so they were landed at Kum Kale on the Asian shore. The objective was to prevent the Ottomans from bombarding the S Beach invasion force. Fire support was provided by the French battleship Henri IV, the British battleship HMS Prince George and the Russian cruiser Askold. Henri IV came close inshore to provide accurate fire support. The landing was successful, but the troops were withdrawn on 27 April as they could not advance further without reinforcements.[19]

The first part of the feint by the RND at Bulair was to begin just before dusk with men being rowed towards the shore. They would return to their ships without landing once darkness hid them from the Ottomans. A single platoon of the Hood Battalion would then land and light flares, fire rifles and give the impression that a real landing had taken place.

However, Lieutenant Commander Bernard Freyberg argued that this risked unnecessary casualties. A strong swimmer, he proposed that he should swim ashore alone and set off the flares. This was accepted. The movement of Ottoman reserves was delayed for while, but the original plan would have caused more problems.[20]

The final attack was by the Anzacs at Gaba Tepe, now called Anzac Cove. There was confusion over the intended landing spot and charts were poor. Some senior army officers claimed that the troops were landed a mile and a half to two miles too far north. Travers suggests that the choice of place was ‘quite flexible.’[21]

Peter Hart and Nigel Steel argue that the landing was no more than 500 yards away from the planned location. They note that the naval orders used 2,025 yard nautical miles rather than 1,760 yard statute miles.[22]

Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood, the Anzac commander, and others later said that change in landing beach was beneficial. It took the Ottomans by surprise and steep cliffs protected the troops. However, Travers comments that the Anzacs were confused by landing at the wrong point and that the Ottomans reacted quickly. Units became mixed up, resulting in a loss of cohesion.[23]

Naval gunfire could give little help at first because the situation was unclear, the terrain was difficult and there was no observation. Most ships stayed too far out, but the right flanks was helped by the cruiser HMS Bacchante, which came in as close as the rocks allowed. She and the battleship HMS Triumph, unlike other ships at Anzac, adjusted their fire according to heliographic signals from ashore.[24]

Although the army was now ashore, the navy continued to play a vital role in the Gallipoli campaign. Ships provided fire support to the troops; supplies and reinforcements had to be brought and wounded evacuated 50 or 60 miles to bases on the islands of Lemnos, Mudros and Tenedos. Rear Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss, commanding at Mudros said that there in September there were always between 150-70 ships at Mudros, excluding small ships. The supply chain was threatened by German U-boats, which intelligence reports said correctly were on their way.[25]

Six Victoria Crosses were awarded to sailors for actions at V Beach on 25 April. Four went to Unwin, Williams, Drewry and Malleson. One went to Seaman George Samson, who worked on a lighter all day under fire, helping wounded and putting out lines, before being badly wounded by machine gun fire. The sixth was Sub Lieutenant Arthur Tisdall of the RND, who went to the aid of wounded men on the beach who were under fire. Only Williams’s award was posthumous, although Tisdall was killed on 6 May. Drewry received the Distinguished Service Order.

De Robeck’s despatch, including a list all Special Recommendation to men under his command, which did not include the RND, is listed on naval-history.net, as are all the RN recipients of gallantry awards and all RN men killed, including the RND.

[1] A. Moorehead, Gallipoli. (London: New English Library, 1963), pp. 107-11.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, pp. 310-12

[3] Moorehead, Gallipoli., p. 109.

[4] T. Travers, Gallipoli, 1915 (Stroud: Tempus, 2001), p. 56.

[5] Ibid., p. 63.

[6] Ibid., p. 64.

[7] Ibid., pp. 72-74.

[8] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 330-32.

[9] N. Steel, P. Hart, Defeat at Gallipoli (London: Papermac, 1995), pp. 86-90, 96.

[10] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 325-27.

[11] Travers, Gallipoli, pp. 61-62.

[12] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 332.

[13] Travers, Gallipoli, pp. 64-65.

[14] Steel, Hart, Defeat, p. 41.

[15] Ibid., pp. 90-96.

[16] Travers, Gallipoli, p. 65.

[17] Ibid., pp. 65-66.

[18] Ibid., pp. 71-72.

[19] Ibid., pp. 75-78.

[20] Steel, Hart, Defeat, pp. 78-80.

[21] Travers, Gallipoli, p. 85.

[22] Steel, Hart, Defeat.

[23] Travers, Gallipoli, p. 83.

[24] Ibid., pp. 89-90.

[25] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 116.



Filed under War History

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.


Filed under War History