Tag Archives: French Navy

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 Sinking of SMS Zenta 16 August 1914

France did not declare war on Austria-Hungary until 12 August 1914, with Britain following suit the next day. Vice Admiral Augustin Boué de Lapeyrère, the commander of Anglo-French naval forces in the Mediterranean was ordered to take the offensive against the Austro-Hungarians. His initial task of protecting French troops moving from North Africa to France had by then been largely completed.

The French navy’s war plans had assumed that it would be fighting both Austria-Hungary and its ally Italy, so it had no plan to fight only Austria-Hungary. An attack on the enemy’s main base at Pola, now Pula in Croatia, was thought to be too risky.

De Lapeyrère decided that a sweep into the Adriatic to relieve the Austro-Hungarians blockade of Montenegro might provoke the enemy’s main battle fleet into coming out to fight. This would give the Allies an opportunity to win a decisive victory.

The Austro-Hungarian fleet was heavily outnumbered by the Allied one, which consisted mostly of French ships, but included a few British cruisers and destroyers. The British Mediterranean Fleet’s battlecruisers were watching the Dardanelles in case the German battlecruiser SMS Goeben and light cruiser SMS Breslau came out. Other British ships had been sent to the Red Sea in case German cruisers attempted to attack troopships heading from India to Egypt.

De Lapeyrère’s plan was to take his main battle fleet, showing no lights, along the Italian coast as far as the latitude of the Austrian base at Cattaro, now Kotor in Montenegro. They would then head towards Cattaro and destroy the Austro-Hungarian blockade force, which would have been driven towards them by a force of light cruisers commanded by the British Rear Admiral Ernest Troubridge.

The trap swung shut on 16 August, but caught only the small and old Austro-Hungarian light cruiser SMS Zenta. It fought gallantly but was overwhelmed and sunk in ten minutes. The action was sufficiently close to the coast that the survivors were able to make the shore. A destroyer escaped.

Unsurprisingly, the Austro-Hungarian fleet did not come out to face an enemy that heavily outnumbered it. Paul Halpern notes that ‘[a] curious feature of many prewar plans was the near total absence of what to do next if the enemy fleet did not come out to do battle.’[1]

The Austro-Hungarian naval plan was to maintain a fleet in being. The Allies were hampered by a lack of bases and the French navy’s shortage of colliers and oilers to fuel a fleet that consumed 5,000 tons of coal and 1,000 tons of oil per day.[2] De Lapeyrère was forced to rotate his ships between the Adriatic and Malta.

 

[1] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 59.

[2] Figures from Ibid.

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Joseph Watt VC Fought a Light Cruiser in a Drifter

On 15 May 1917 three Austro-Hungarian light cruisers attacked a force of drifters that were patrolling the Straits of Otranto in order to prevent Austro-Hungarian and German U-boats breaking out from their bases in the Adriatic into the Mediterranean.

The drifter Gowan Lea, with a crew of eight men and a dog and armed with only a 6 pounder gun and depth charges, attacked the Austro-Hungarian cruiser Novara, which had a crew of 318, nine 3.9 inch and one 47mm guns and four 17.7 torpedo tubes. Gowan Lea’s skipper, Joseph Watt was awarded the VC. He was born in  Gardenstown, Banffshire and in peacetime skippered a Fraserburgh drifter. His vessel survived; its only casualty was the dog, who suffered shock and died three days later. Watt’s VC, Italian Al Valore Militare and French Croix de Guerre were sold by the auctioneer Spink for £204,000 on 19 April 2012; see the BBC website. I think that the purchaser will have paid £170,000 with a 20% fee to the auctioneer added on. The previous day’s Scotsman reported that the citation for Watt’s VC read:

Skipper Joseph Watt, Royal Naval Reserve.

For most conspicuous gallantry when the Allied Drifter line in the Straits of Otranto was attacked by Austrian light cruisers on the morning of 15 May, 1917. When hailed by an Austrian cruiser at about 100 yards range and ordered to stop and abandon his drifter the “Gowan Lea” Skipper Watt ordered full speed ahead and called upon his crew to give three cheers and fight to the finish. The cruiser was then engaged, but after one round had been fired, a shot from the enemy disabled the breech of the drifter’s gun. The gun’s crew, however, stuck to the gun, endeavouring to make it work, being under heavy fire all the time. After the cruiser had passed on Skipper Watt took the “Gowan Lea” alongside the badly damaged freighter “Floandi” and assisted to remove the dead and wounded.

According to this website on the VC, one Victoria Cross; two Distinguished Service Orders; six Distinguished Service Crosses; five Conspicuous Gallantry Medals; eighteen Distinguished Service Medals; and 31 Mentioned-in-Despatches were awarded for the action; see the London Gazette for the list of recipients. Thanks to poster Michaeldr of the Great War Forum for the link to the London Gazette.

Most of these awards were made to the drifter crews, but some went to the crews of the cruisers HMS Dartmouth and HMS Bristol, which participated in the later stages of the Battle of the Otranto Straits. Deckhand Frederick Lamb of the Gowan Lea received the CGM for continuing to fire her gun despite being wounded. Watt’s entry in Wikipedia, says that three other  members of the Gowan Lea’s crew received the CGM or the DSM. Since the London Gazette gives the citations for awards of the CGM but just lists recipients of the DSM, this is presumably Lamb’s CGM and two awards of the DSM.

The Otranto Barrage consisted of a line of drifters, mostly British, which were intended to trap enemy submarines that could then be attacked with depth charges. There were not enough drifters to have a continuous line and submarines could evade the line; in 1916 most passed it on the surface at night. In July 1916 there were supposed to be 50 drifters at sea, but a French officer reported that there were only 37, of which only 10 had their nets out. Strong currents meant that the drifters would move apart. Rear Admiral Mark Kerr, commander-in-chief of the British Adriatic Squadron, thought that 300 drifters were needed.

Only one submarine, the Austro-Hungarian U6 on 13 May 1916 was definitely destroyed by the Otranto Barrage. Two others were lost to unknown causes and may have fallen victim to it; the German UB44 in August 1916 and the Austro-Hungarian U30 in April 1917.

The Austro-Hungarians made several attacks on the Barrage; the one on 14-15 May 1917 was the largest. It was led by Captain Miklos Horthy of the Novara, which was accompanied by her sister ships the Helgoland and the Saida. They were modified to make them look like British destroyers from a distance. Two Tatra class destroyers, the Csepel and Balaton, would carry out a diversionary attack. Two Austro-Hungarian submarines, the U4 and U27, and a German minelaying submarine, the UC25, also took part.

The two Austro-Hungarian destroyers attacked a convoy, sinking the Italian destroyer Borea and a munitions ship, and damaging the other two ships in the convoy, one of which was set on fire. For some reason, they did not finish off the damaged ships, which both made port. The drifters were being screened by the Italian flotilla leader Mirabello and the French destroyers Commandant Riviere, Bisson and Cimeterre. The destroyer Boutefeu had returned to port with condenser problems.

Horthy’s cruisers evaded this force and two Allied submarines and attacked the drifters. They used their sirens to warn the almost defenceless drifters of their presence, giving their crews an opportunity to abandon ship, which the Gowan Lea did not take. Other drifters also resisted.

According  to the British official history[1]Floandi, described as a freighter in Watt’s VC citation, was a drifter which fired on the Novara. Skipper D. J. Nicholls and one of her enginemen were wounded, with the other engineman being killed. The crew of the Admirable, next to the Gowan Lea in the line,abandoned ship, but one man returned to her. He tried to man the gun but was killed before he could fire.

The Austro-Hungarians sank 14 drifters out of 47 and damaged four, three seriously. They rescued 72 of the drifters’ crews before heading back to their base at Cattaro, but they were 40 miles further from it than from the Allied base at Brindisi.

The attack on the convoy began at 3:24 am and that on drifters at 3:30 am. At 4:35 am Rear Admiral Alfredo Acton, commander of the Italian Scouting Division, ordered the Mirabello destroyer force to intercept the Austrians. It took some time until other Allied ships were ready to sail, but the British light cruisers Dartmouth, flying Acton’s flag, and Bristol, the Italian flotilla leader Aquila and the Italian destroyers Mosto, Pilo, Schiaffino and Acerbi set sail at 6:45 am. Acton did not order the Italian light cruiser Marsala and four more destroyers to sea until 8:25 am, an hour after they were ready.

The Mirabello group contacted the Horthy’s  cruisers at 7:00 am, but the French destroyers struggled to keep up. Acton’s force intercepted the Austro-Hungarian destroyers at 07:45. The Austro-Hungarians escaped after disabling the Aquila.

Acton was now between Horthy and Cattaro  and the two forces spotted each other at 9:00 am. Dartmouth (eight 6 inch guns) and Bristol (two 6 inch and 10 4 inch guns) outgunned the three Austro-Hungarian cruisers (nine 3.9 inch guns each), but Acton’s force was being whittled down. Pilo and Schiaffino  remained with Aquila, Mirabello had problems with her fuel supply and Commandant Riviere broke down at 11:45; Bisson and Cimeterre stayed to escort her. Bristol’s bottom was fouled, and she dropped behind the other cruisers.

Horthy’s  cruisers were able to concentrate on Dartmouth, so Acton slowed her to allow Bristol to catch up. Between 10:30 and 11:00 am Dartmouth damaged Novara, but Acton decided to concentrate on Saida, which was lagging the other two Austrian cruisers, which had drawn ahead of the British ships. Marsala and her destroyers had now arrived.

Saida was not badly hit, but Novara had now stopped. However, Austro-Hungarian reinforcements, including a heavy cruiser had now appeared, so at noon Acton headed back to Brindisi. On the way there, UC25 torpedoed Dartmouth and the Boutefeu, which had come out to assist her, struck one of the mines laid by UC25 and sank.

Aircraft from both sides were present. The Austrians got the better of the Italians, and their aircraft were able to spot for their destroyers. The Austrians bombed and strafed the British cruisers but did not damage them.

The action was clearly a success for the Austrians. The multi-national Allied force had suffered from signalling problems. It was clear that the drifters could not be protected at night unless more destroyers were available, which they were not. consequently, the barrage was maintained only during the day.

As Paul Halpern points out[2], the action made little strategic difference. The major Austro-Hungarian warships were still confined to port, and the threat to Allied shipping in the Mediterranean continued to come from submarines. Horthy had risked three of the best Austro-Hungarian warships in order to attack an ineffective blockade.

The big gainer from the Battle of the Otranto Straits was Horthy himself. He was promoted to Rear Admiral and made commander-in-chief of the Austro-Hungarian Navy in March 1918. He was Regent of Hungary from 1920-44.

Skipper Joseph Watts returned to the fishing fleet after the war. The Scotsman quoted a spokeswomen for Spink, the auctioneers who sold his medals, as saying that:

 “His Victoria Cross, so bravely earned, was kept in a small drawer on his boat, amidst the accumulated junk of a sailor’s life. Joseph Watt died at home in Fraserburgh from cancer of the gullet on 13 February, 1955, and was buried alongside his wife in Kirktown Cemetery. His loss was felt all over the North-east fishing communities with deep regret.”


[1] Henry Newbolt, Naval Operations, vol. iv (London: HMSO, 1938), p. 300.

[2] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 166.


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