Tag Archives: World War I

The Loss of HMS Natal 30 December 1915

At 3:25 pm on 30 December 1915 the armoured cruiser HMS Natal, then moored in the Cromarty Firth signalled that she was on fire. Other ships were ordered to give assistance, but at 3:30 pm she turned over and had sunk by 3:45 pm: timings are from the website hmsnatal.co.uk.

There is some doubt about the number of dead and survivors. Wikipedia says that some of her crew were not on board at the time of the sinking as they had been given shore leave to either play in or watch a football match. It gives a range of 390-421 for the number of dead. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website says that there were seven wives of officers, three children, a civilian and some nurses from the Hospital Ship Drina on board, attending a Christmas film show. It says that over 420 people died, including 414 naval personnel.

hmsnatal.co.uk states that 421 died. Its list of the dead includes 423 names, but at least one person is double counted, with Commander John Hutchings’s wife Mabel being included under both her married name and her maiden name of Cuningham. The list also includes Mrs Violet Back and Mrs Bennett, the wives of Captain Eric Back and Engineer Lieutenant Frank Bennett respectively. All three husbands also died. Mr Dodd, the Factor of the nearby Novar Estate, his wife and their three children were also amongst the dead, as were Nursing Sisters Caroline Edwards, Eliza Millicent and Olive Rowlett of Queen Alexandria’s Royal Naval Nursing Service.

The total dead would therefore appear to be 422: eight civilians, including four women and three children, and 414 naval personnel, including three nurses.

It was originally thought that Natal had been sunk by a U-boat, but it was later realised that her loss resulted from an accidental explosion of her ammunition. She was the second British armoured cruiser to be lost accidentally in nine weeks: HMS Argyll ran aground in heavy seas on the Bell Rock, near Dundee, on 28 October. All her crew were saved, but she was totally wrecked.

On 8 December a collision between the new Queen Elizabeth class super dreadnoughts HMS Barham and Warspite left both requiring dockyard repairs, reducing the British margin of superiority in the North Sea.[1] The British thought that they needed a big margin over the Germans because they assumed that the German High Seas Fleet would only come out when at full strength, whereas their Grand Fleet would be reduced by repairs and refits. In fact, the German battlecruiser SMS Von der Tann missed the Battle of Dogger Bank because she was in dry dock and the Germans were not at full strength at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

Part of Natal’s wreck remained visible and was saluted by RN ships entering or leaving the Cromarty Firth. Plans to salvage in the 1920s and 1930s did not come to fruition. In the  1970s the wreck was reduced in size to prevent  it being a danger to shipping: see the website of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland. The development of North Sea oil would by then have increased civilian shipping traffic in the area.

Natal was not the first British warship to be lost to an accidental explosion whilst moored, suggesting that RN ammunition handling procedures were lax. The pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Bulwark blew up on 26 November 1914 and HMS Princess Irene, a passenger line converted into an auxiliary minelayer, exploded on 27 May 1915. The dreadnought HMS Vanguard and the monitor HMS Glatton both blew up later in the war.



[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, p. 261



Filed under War History

U-boats in Late 1915

Germany’s decision, under pressure from the USA, to end unrestricted submarine warfare in September 1915 did not end Allied shipping losses to U-boats. In the final three months of the war they sank 140 ships of 361,326 tons.[1]

Most of the losses in waters around the British Isles were from mines. The small coastal minelaying U-boats UC1, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 9 , operating from Zeebrugge, laid mines in 16 locations. Seventeen vessels struck mines around Dover and the Nore alone.[2] Mines were laid off Portsmouth in an attempt to disrupt transports to France, one of which sank the destroyer HMS Velox on 25 October.[3]

The minelayers did not escape unscathed. UC6 was damaged in early October: the Germans claimed that this was the result of her being rammed by a destroyer but no British destroyer reported such an incident that month.[4] UC9 left port on 20 October and never returned. Her fate is unknown.[5] UC8 ran aground in Dutch waters on 4 November and was interned.[6]

Mines were laid in 13 different places in November.[7] Their victims included the hospital ship Anglia, which was sunk on 17 November with the loss of about 80 staff and wounded soldiers.[8] Mines closed Boulogne to shipping on 10, 12-14 and 29 November. Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, was due to travel home from France on the last of those dates and had to go from Dunkirk instead of the more usual Boulogne to Folkestone route.[9]

One raid was carried out by a U-boat in the North Sea in December 1914, with the objective of keeping British escorts that might otherwise have been sent to the Mediterranean in home waters. U24 sank one Belgian and three British steamers during it.[10]

A number of U-boats were transferred to the Mediterranean. U21 arrived at the Austro-Hungarian port of Cattaro, now Kotor, on 5 May. As described here, she sank the British battleships HMS Majestic and Triumph off Gallipoli in late May. The coastal boats UB1, 3, 7, 8, 14 and 15 and the coastal minelayers UC12, 13, 14 and 15 were sent partially assembled by rail and completed at Pola.[11]

In early August U34 and 35 sailed to the Mediterranean, followed by U33 and 39 at the end of the month and later by U38: these boats were all of the U31 class. U21, UB7 and 8 and UC14 and 15 were based at Istanbul, with the others operating from Austro-Hungarian ports. During 1915 U-boats sank 54 British and 38 Allied and neutral ships in the Mediterranean. As well as merchant ships, they sank a number of troopship, starting with the British Royal Edward, torpedoed by UB14 (Oberleutnant Heino von Heimburg) on 13 August whilst bound from Alexandria to Mudros with the loss of 866 lives. UB14 also ambushed and sank the British submarine E20 in the Sea of Marmara as a result of information obtained when the French submarine Turquoise was captured by the Ottomans. Other warship losses to U-boats in the Mediterranean included the Italian submarine Medusa on 10 June and armoured cruiser Amalfi on 7 July, both sunk by UB15, then captained by von Heimburg.  The Italian armoured cruiser Guiseppe Garibaldi was sunk by the Austro-Hungarian U-IV on 18 July  and the submarine Nereide by the Austro-Hungarian U-V on 5 August.[12]

The Austro-Hungarian navy had begun the war with seven small submarines,  named by Roman numerals here to differentiate them from German boats. Their early actions were confined to attacks on French warships. U-IV fired at but missed the armoured cruiser Waldeck-Rousseau on 17 October 1914. On 21 December 1914 U-XII torpedoed and damaged the dreadnought Jean Bart, which was sailing at 9 knots with no destroyer screen despite it being three months since U9 had sunk three British armoured cruisers in a single action. As late as 26 April 1915 the armoured cruiser Leon Gambetta was making only 6.5 knots and had no destroyer screen when she was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 650 men by U-V, captained by Linenschiffleutnant Georg Ritter von Trapp, whose family were the subject of The Sound of Music. During the war the Austro-Hungarians added only the captured French Curie and a number of German UB boats to their fleet.

One reason to switch U-boats to the Mediterranean was to prevent them damaging German relations with the United States of America by killing Americans. On 7 November, however, the German U38 (Kapitänleutnant Max Valentiner), flying Austro-Hungarian colours because Germany and Italy were not yet at war, sank the Italian liner Ancona, killing over 200 people, including about 20 Americans. The US protested to Austria-Hungary, which promised to pay an indemnity and to punish the boat’s captain, who was not named.[13]

The Germans, who did not want further incidents with the USA, ordered their U-boat captains to observe prize laws in the Mediterranean, meaning that they had to allow the passengers and crew time to evacuate a merchant ship before sinking her. This was mostly complied with until 1917. Valentiner’s U38, however, sank five British and several Allied merchant steamers between 27 December  1915 and 4 January 1916 with the loss of over 500 lives, 334 of them on the liner Persia, sunk on 30 December 1915.[14]



[1] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945, pp. 152-53.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xv, Home Waters part vi, October 1915 to May 1916. p. 15.

[3] Ibid., p. 19.

[4] Ibid., p. 21. and note 2.

[5] Ibid., p. 22.

[6] Ibid., p. 24.

[7] Ibid., p. 23.

[8] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918., p. 61.

[9] Naval Staff vol. Xv. p. 24.

[10] Gibson, Prendergast, German, p. 61.

[11] Ibid., p. 71.

[12] Ibid., pp. 73-79.

[13] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, p. 385.

[14] Gibson, Prendergast, German, pp. 78-79.


Filed under War History

The Royal Navy and Townshend’s Regatta

British troops landed near Basra on 6 November, the day after hostilities began with the Ottoman Empire with the objective of securing British interests in the region, notably but not only the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s refinery at Abadan and the pipeline from it to APOC’s Persian oilfields. These had been achieved by 9 December when they took Qurna.

In early 1915 Ottoman forces attacked from Amara on the Tigris towards the oil pipe-line and from Nasiriyah on the Euphrates towards Basra. The pipeline was cut around Ahwaz. By then General Sir John Nixon was in command of the Mesopotamian Corps of two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade. He did not, however, have all the equipment, especially transport and medical services, of a corps.

On 12 April the Ottoman attack towards Basra was defeated at Barjisiya. Nixon then launched offensives towards Ahwaz and Amara to protect the pipeline and Nasiriyah to protect Basra. The politicians in London, Lord Crewe, Secretary of State for India until the Liberal/Conservative Coalition was formed in May 1915, and his successor Austen Chamberlain, both urged caution in Mesopotamia once the oil facilities and Basra were safe. They were, however, ignored by the government and army command of British India, which had more ambitious plans.[1]

The lack of a railway and the poor quality of the roads meant that the rivers were vital for communications. The attack on Amara, carried out by Major-General Charles Townshend’s 6th (Poona) Division, was made at a time of unusually high floods, meaning that the land was flooded for miles around the Tigris. The flood water was often shallow, but with ditches, cuts and canals that made it impossible to wade. The Naval Staff Monograph said that ‘there was too much water for the Army, but generally too little for the Navy.’[2]

Infantry were carried were carried on armoured bellums (local boats holding about eight people and propelled by paddles or poles). Other bellums were loaded with supplies, including ammunition. Artillery was loaded on barges, rafts, tugs and paddlers, with machine guns on rafts. Rafts were also used as ambulances, with roofed mahelas (large river sailing boats) used as hospitals. Townshend and some of his staff travelled on the sloop HMS Espiègle, along with the Senior Naval Officer Captain Wilfrid Nunn. The rest of his staff were split between the sloops HMS Clio and Odin. The flotilla also included the Indian Marine ship Lawrence, the armed tugs Comet and Miner, the armed launches Bahrein, Lewis Pelly, Shaitan and Sumana and the stern wheelers Shushan and Muzaffri. The troops called the force ‘Townshend’s Regatta.’[3]

Townshend’s attack began at 5:00 am on 31 May and by noon had succeeded in taking its first objective, a series of Ottoman outposts. Aerial reconnaissance showed that the enemy was in full retreat: the two British aircraft had to fly from Basra as there was no closer ground dry enough for them to land on. Townshend, his staff and a dozen other soldiers boarded the flotilla and headed off in pursuit. A captured Ottoman officer, who was put in one of the launches being used as minesweepers, pointed out the enemy mines on the river.[4]

The next Ottoman position, at Bahran, was bombarded at 5:30 am on 1 June, but had been evacuated. Four lighters had been sunk in an attempt to block the river, but it was possible to pass, although navigation was difficult because the ships had only rough maps of the river, which bent and twisted and whose channel was hard to identify because of the floods.[5]

At 5:50 pm Shaitan, the leading vessel, opened fire on the Ottoman gunboat Marmariss, which was towing some mahelas. The sloops joined in, also firing on the steamers Mosul and Bulbul By 8:05 pm, when the British ships anchored to wait for the moon to rise, the Bulbul had been sunk. The Marmariss escaped by abandoning the craft that she was towing. The British resumed the pursuit at 2:00 am on 2 June. At daybreak they found the Marmariss, abandoned, aground and on fire. The Mosul was found aground nearby, full of troops and stores.[6] As well as the Marmariss and Mosul, two steel lighters, seven mahelas, two field guns, a large quantity of rifles and ammunition, 140 prisoners and over £1,000 worth of treasure were captured.[7]

Townshend decided to press on to Amara with the lighter draught vessels: the sloops could not go any further. He set off at 11:00 am on 2 June with the Shaitan, Sumana, Lewis Polly, three horse-boats, each armed with a 4.7 inch gun, and Sir Percy Cox, the Principal Political Officer, in his steam launch L2. No opposition was met and white flags were being flown. Shaitan entered Amara at 2:00 pm on 3 June. She was surrounded, but was not fired upon. Townshend then arrived and took the surrender of 30-40 Ottoman officers and 700 men. The British were heavily outnumbered, although sources differ on the number involved: the Naval Staff Monograph says ‘Townshend and his 22 men’, whilst Naval Operations, one of the British Official Histories, says 100 ‘besides Lascar stokers.’[8] Possibly the smaller is the number who actually took the surrender and the larger includes all the crews of the vessels involved. The 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment arrived in the morning to secure Amara.

Townshend’s reputation was later destroyed by his defeat in the Siege of Kut-Al-Amara and his behaviour during his subsequent captivity, when he lived in comfort in Istanbul and made no attempt to find out about the appalling conditions in which his men were being held as prisoners. In this action, however, he led from the front, belying the clichéd image of the First World War general miles behind the lines. He wrote that ‘I owe the whole of the success firstly to the Royal Navy.’[9]

From 31 May to 4 June Townshend’s force captured 139 officers, 1,634 men, 12 field guns and five naval guns and captured or sank the Marmariss, five steamers and several barges and small craft. British casualties from 31 May to 4 June were one officer and three men killed and three officers and 18 men wounded.[10] The Ottomans suffered 120 killed or wounded as well as those captured.[11]

The next stage of the Mesopotamian Campaign was to take Nasiriyah in order to protect Basra. It was too difficult to move on it across the desert at that time of year, so the advance had to be made by river. This meant bringing the ships and river craft back from Amara to Qurna and then along a waterway that went through the very shallow and 10 mile broad Hammar Lake to the Euphrates. Some ships had been sent away: Clio to Bombay for a refit, Lawrence to Bushire and others to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to allow their crews to recover from the heat at a hill station.[12]

Nunn’s force was augmented by another stern wheeler, the, but was weaker than at Amara. Espiègle, Odin and Miner could not cross the Hammar Lake. The remaining force consisted of Sumana, the stern wheelers Shushan (armed with a 12 pounder, a 3 pounder and a maxim), Muzaffri (a maxim) and Messoudieh (a 3 pounder and a maxim), two horse-boats, each armed with a 4.7 inch gun, three transports full of troops, each with two 18 pounder guns on her foredeck and four tugs towing mahelas or lighters full of ammunition and supplies. The stern wheelers were given some armour plate, but the amount was restricted because the shallow water meant their draughts could not increase much. There were also mountain guns mounted on bellums. Nunn was onboard Shushan. The troops were from the 30th Brigade of Major-General George Gorringe’s 12th Indian Division, reinforced with additional artillery and engineers.[13]

The force began to cross the Hammar Lake at 4:00 pm on 27 June. Navigating the narrow, shallow and almost unmarked channels was difficult, even without being under fire. Open water was not reached until 4:00 am on 4 July. An Ottoman position at Gurma-Safha, defended by 2,300 troops, later reinforced to 3,000, was attacked and taken the next day. The British had 114 men killed or wounded, but captured 132 men and two guns.[14]

The next resistance was encountered at the Majinina Creek, about six miles from Nasiriyah, where the Ottomans had established a strong defensive position.[15] It was initially defended by about 2,000 Turks, six guns, two launches and ‘large numbers of hostile Arabs.’[16]

Both sides were receiving reinforcements and had about 5,000 men each by 24 July. The British, however, had more artillery and the advantage of an aircraft for reconnaissance.[17] Their attack began with an artillery bombardment at 4:30 am that day, with the infantry assault starting 30 minutes later. Sumana, under heavy fire, positioned a barge to allow the troops to cross the creek with fire support from the stern wheelers. The Ottomans offered stiff resistance but were forced back. [18]

Nunn took Shushan towards Nasiriyah, where white flags were flying, but she was forced to retreat after coming under fire. The Ottomans, however, evacuated the town overnight. On 25 July the leading Arab citizens invited the British to enter the town. Two days later Nunn took Shushan a further 71 miles up the Euphrates to Samawa, a telegraph station whose small garrison had fled after hearing of the fall of Nasiriyah. The Euphrates operation cost the British over 500 dead and wounded, including five sailors wounded. They took 15 guns at Nasiriyah.[19]

The Basra vilayet (province) was now secure and the British should have halted. Townshend and his 6th Division were, however, ordered to advance on Kut-al-Amara, with the intention of taking Baghdad. He argued in his memoirs that this operation should not have taken place. Basra vilayet and the oilfields should have been defended by a force based at Basra, with outposts at Qurna, Nasiriyah and Ahwaz.[20] He was right, but the campaign continued for a number of reasons: the need for a victory somewhere after defeats elsewhere; over confidence by local commanders; and momentum created by a series of easy victories early in the campaign.



[1] This is a summary of the relevant part of my PhD thesis. M. W. Gibson, ‘British Strategy and Oil 1914-1923.’ (University of Glasgow, 2012), pp. 48-55.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1921 vol. iv, Naval Operations in Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf. p. 52.

[3] Ibid.

[4] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, pp. 18-19.

[5] Naval Staff vol. iv. pp. 54-55.

[6] Ibid., pp. 55-56.

[7] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 20, footnote 1.

[8] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 56; Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 22

[9] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 57.

[10] Ibid., pp. 56-57.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 23.

[12] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 183.

[13] Naval Staff vol. iv. pp. 59-60.

[14] Ibid., pp. 61-62.

[15] A. J. Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign (New York, NY: Enigma, 2009), p. 69.

[16] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 63.

[17] Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign, p. 70.

[18] Naval Staff vol. iv. pp. 64-65.

[19] Ibid., p. 65.

[20] C. V. F. Townshend, My Campaign in Mesopotamia (London: T. Butterworth Ltd, 1920), pp. 35-36.


Filed under War History

Allegations of War Crimes at Sea in 1915

Germany announced on 4 February 1915 that it would conduct unrestricted submarine warfare in the waters round the United Kingdom from 18 February. It justified this on the grounds that the British blockade of Germany contravened international law. This led to heavy losses in Allied shipping, most infamously the sinking of the liner Lusitania on 7 May with the loss of 1,201 lives including 128 Americans.

A number of incidents involving submarines that occurred between 18 and 21 August led to both Germany and the UK accusing the other of being guilty of atrocities.

The first of these took place in the early hours of 18 August. The submarines HMS E8 and E13 were on their way to the Baltic to join their sister boats E1 and E9 when E13 suffered problems with her magnetic compass. She went off course and ran aground in Danish waters. At 5:00 am a Danish torpedo boat arrived, informing Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Layton, E13’s captain, that he had the normal 24 hours to get his boat underway, but that no help would be given.

At 9:00 am, by when another Danish torpedo boat had arrived, two German destroyers appeared. One of them, SMS G132, fired a torpedo at E13 from a range of 300 yards and opened fire with all her guns, although the submarine was in neutral waters. She was soon in flames and her crew abandoned ship. The Germans fired on them in the water until one of the Danish torpedo boats put herself between the German ships and the swimming survivors. Fifteen men were killed and the others picked up by the Danes.[1] They were interned, but Layton escaped after three months. He rose to the rank of Admiral, holding commands in the Mediterranean and Far East during the Second World War.

The next two incidents both took place on 19 August. The website uboat.net lists seven British and one Spanish merchant ships as having been sunk that day by U24, U27 and U38, which were operating between Ushant and St George’s Channel. A Norwegian ship was also sunk by U25 in the North Sea. Two days earlier U-boats had sunk 11 merchantmen, but they were on average smaller, with a total tonnage of 15,733 tons versus 38,434 tons for the nine sunk on 19 August. The largest ship sunk on 19 August, the 15,801 ton British liner SS Arabic was bigger than all the ships sunk on 17 August combined.

Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Schneider’s U24 was in the process of sinking the 4,930 ton merchant ship Dunsley by gunfire when she observed the Arabic, which was on her way to the USA, approaching. Earlier that day, U24 had survived attempts to ram her by the armed yacht Valiant II and the unarmed trawler Majestic and had been fired on by the defensively armed liner City of Exeter. Schneider was therefore wary of the Arabic and mistook her zigzag course for an attempt to ram his boat. U-boats had been ordered not to sink passenger liners without warning unless the liner was attacking them. Schneider thought that the Arabic was attacking him, so fired a single torpedo which hit her. She sank about ten minutes later.[2]

There is some doubt about the number of people on board the Arabic and the number of dead, with the three British Official Histories giving different figures: Naval Operations says 40 dead out of 428 onboard; The Merchant Navy gives 39 killed out of 429; and Seaborne Trade states that 44 died.[3] The Naval Staff Monograph, an internal Admiralty document written in 1926, says that she was carrying 429 people, 181 passengers and 248 crew, of whom 40, 18 passengers and 22 crew, were killed.[4] A document later published by the British government in response to German accusations that the British Q-ship HMS Baralong had murdered members of U27’s crew claimed 47 dead, a number that was increased to 49 in a later note.[5] Paul Halpern says that 44 died, including two or three US citizens.[6]

Baralong was one of a number of merchantmen given concealed armament and RN volunteer crews in order to act as decoy ships that could trap and destroy U-boats. She was a 4,000 ton ship, capable of carrying 3,000 tons of coal in four holds, that had been requisitioned as a supply ship by the RN. She was given three 12 pounder guns, two of which were concealed by dummy life belt lockers and the other by a sheep pen. Two of her holds were used for coal and the other two were filled with empty barrels that would help to keep her afloat if torpedoed. She was captained by Lieutenant-Commander Godfrey Herbert RN, a submariner, with Sub-Lieutenant Gordon Steele RNR as first lieutenant. Her maximum speed was 12 knots ‘on a good day.’[7]

Baralong received the Arabic’s SOS, but arrived too late to help.[8] At 3:00 pm she spotted that a steamer 9 miles away had changed her course significantly. She then received a radio message from the steamer, which was the Nicosian, saying that she was being chased by a submarine. Herbert headed for Nicosian, hoisting the signal for ‘Save life’ when 3 miles away.[9]

The Nicosian was a 6,250 ton ship of the Leyland Line, carrying a cargo of cotton, timber, steel rods and tinned meat plus mules for the British Army from New Orleans to Liverpool. She was unarmed, but carried a dummy gun on her stern. She was British but most of the 48 muleteers who tended to the mules were Americans. Baralong then flying the US flag and also had boards along her sides indicating that she was a US ship.[10] Sailing under false colours was legitimate under the rules of war, provided that the ship lowered and replaced them by her true ones before opening fire.

The submarine, which was U27, was firing on the Nicosian, whose crew had taken to her boats, from 1,000 yards. Baralong passed behind the merchantman, meaning that she was out of sight of the U-boat, dropped her neutral colours, raised the White Ensign and opened fire at 600 yards range once U27 was in sight. Several of the German deck gun crew were hit before they could fire on Baralong. She scored 34 hits with her 12 pounder guns and U27 sank, with the surviving members of her crew jumping into the sea and swimming for the Nicosian. Herbert claimed in her after action report that he was worried that they might try to scuttle or set fire to the ship in order destroying her and her cargo. He consequently ordered his crew to fire on them. Six succeeded in getting on board, so Herbert sent a party of marines across, warning them to be careful in case the Germans found the rifles that were in the Nicosian’s charthouse. According to Herbert, the six Germans who made it on board the Nicosian all ‘succumbed to the injuries they had received from lyddite shell.[11]

The German government issued a memorandum to the British government via the US government that accused ‘Captain William McBride’, a pseudonym adopted by Herbert as part of the pretence that Baralong was a merchant ship, of murder. They produced affidavits sworn by six of the American muleteers made to US public notaries. The witnesses were either on or in the process of boarding Baralong when she fired on the Germans in the water. They agreed that U27’s captain, Kapitänleutnant Bernd Wegener, was shot in the water after raising his hands in surrender. [12]

One of them, James J. Curran, claimed that Baralong had opened fire before she lowered her US colours. He also stated that Herbert said to his crew ‘Boys, we’ll shoot those poor wounded devils in the water’ and then told the men that he sent aboard the Nicosian ‘Get them all, take no prisoners.’[13] Another American muleteer, Bud Emerson Palen, said that he heard Herbert tell one of the boarding party that ‘My orders are to take no prisoners.’[14]

The testimony of a seventh American can be disregarded. Larrimore Holland had joined the RN, claiming to be a Canadian. He said that he had been a member of Baralong’s crew, but in fact never went to sea during his four months in the RN. He admitted to being American on 11 August and was discharged from the RN on 24 August.[15]

The British responded to the German demand that ‘McBride’ be charged with murder by suggesting that an impartial court of investigation, perhaps comprising United States Navy officers, should be set up to investigate the alleged incidents in four sinkings that occurred close together: E13 on 18 August, the Arabic and U27 on 19 August and the SS Ruel on 21 August.

The 4,029 ton collier Ruel was attacked by a surfaced submarine whilst returning from Gibraltar to Barry Roads in ballast. After a chase lasting an hour and half Ruel’s crew abandoned ship once the U-boat was a mile away. It then fired on her lifeboats, killing one man and wounding eight. The Ruel sank just as the armed trawler Dewsland and the drifter Campania appeared, chasing off the U-boat.[16]

The Germans said in reply to this that they had already investigated the three incidents in which accusations had been made against their navy. They claimed that that E13 was sunk in the final stage of an engagement and noted that British ships had attacked German ships in neutral waters, that Schneider thought that the Arabic was attacking U24 and that the attack on Ruel was in line with the policies that they had introduced in retaliation to the British blockade. They reiterated their demand that the British take action against ‘McBride.’[17]

The British awarded Herbert the Distinguished Service Order but did not say why, a normal security measure when decorations were given to Q-ship crews.

E13 was certainly attacked whilst helpless in neutral waters. The light cruiser SMS Dresden was sunk by the British in Chilean waters, but she had stayed there longer than allowed by international law, which E13 had not.

It is unlikely that the Arabic was trying to ram U24, but Schneider may well have genuinely believed that she was trying to do so.

The Germans may have intended to scuttle the Nicosian. However, Herbert’s claim that all the Germans who managed to swim from U27 to the Nicosian and haul themselves onboard her by ropes were so badly wounded that they soon died is impossible to believe, suggesting that he had something to hide. There are two witnesses that he told his marines to take no prisoners. Curran was an Irish-American who may have been prejudiced against the British.[18] Palen, however, was born in Canada.[19]

There was no justification for the Germans continuing to fire on the crew of the Ruel after they had abandoned ship.

The allegations made by both UK and Germany against the other would therefore appear to be justified, but there was little hope of either side admitting to this in the midst of a war in which the level of violence and ruthlessness was increasing. The first successful use of poison gas was by the Germans at Ypres on 22 April: the French had earlier made limited use of tear gas and a German attempt to use gas on the Eastern Front in January had failed because it did not work in temperatures below zero.[20] The first raid on London by an airship took place on 31 May, killing five people and injuring 35.[21]

The blockades imposed by Germany and the UK both aimed to starve the enemy. Diplomatically, the big difference was that the Germans killed Americans as well as British.

The USA sent Germany a series of strong diplomatic notes after the sinkings of the Lusitania and the Arabic. On 27 August Kaiser Wilhelm II accepted the view of his Chancellor, Theodore von Bethman-Hollweg, that passenger ships, even enemy ones, should not be sunk without warning. Three days later the order was amended to included ‘small passenger steamers’, without defining what this meant.[22]

The naval high command objected, Grosse Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the State Secretary of the Imperial Naval Office, and Admiral Hugo von Pohl, Commander-in-Chief of the High Seas Fleet, both offered their resignations, which were rejected. Pohl argued that the 30 August order meant that U-boats would have to examine ships before attacking them in case they carried passengers, making it impossible to conduct submarine warfare against commerce.[23] Tirpitz was told that he would no longer be needed at ‘consultations on naval questions connected with foreign politics.’[24]

Vize Admiral Gustav von Bachmann was removed as Chief of the Naval staff. On 18 September his replacement, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorf, announced that U-boats would be withdrawn from the west coast of the UK and the English Channel. The minelaying UC-boats based in Flanders and some U-boats continued to operate in the North Sea, but the latter were required to follow prize rules . Others were sent to the Mediterranean, where they could attack Allied commerce and communications with much less risk of sinking American ships or killing Americans. The transfer of boats to the Mediterranean and the need to repair others meant that only four would have been available for use west of the UK.[25]

On the night of 4 September the passenger liner Hesperian, bound from Liverpool to Canada, suffered an explosion 125 miles south west of Queenstown. The Germans insisted that she had struck a mine, but fragments of a torpedo were found on Hesperian before she sank. Kapitänleutnant Walter Schweiger’s U20, which had sunk the Lusitania, was in the area.[26] It is unlikely that the Germans would have mined an area in which their submarines were operating..

The last U-boat patrol to the south west of the UK was carried out by U41, which sailed on 14 September. She sank three British ships on 23 September. The next day she stopped and sank the liner Urbino. Another ship then appeared, which U41 approached and ordered to stop. She was HMS Baralong, now captained by Lieutenant-Commander A. Wilmot-Smith. She opened fire and quickly sank U41, before picking up the crew of the Urbino and the two survivors from the U-boat.[27] One of them, Oberleutnant Iwan Crompton, was later repatriated to Germany because of the severity of his wounds. He claimed that Baralong had been flying the US flag when she opened fire, which the British denied.[28]

The switch of U-boats to the Mediterranean did not prevent them killing Americans. On 7 November U38, a German boat that was flying Austro-Hungarian colours because Germany and Italy were not yet at war, sank the Italian liner Ancona off Bizerte, killing over 200 people, including about 20 Americans.[29]

From the outbreak of war to the start of unrestricted submarine warfare on 28 February 1915 U-boats sank 13 merchant ships with a total tonnage of 23,490 tons. From March to September they sank 431 ships of 677,184 tons.[30] New construction and seizure of enemy shipping meant that the British merchant fleet actually increased in size in the first year of the war. Construction, however, began to fall as shipyards switched to naval construction and repair work and shipyard workers joined the armed forces. At the same time, overseas campaigns increased the demand for shipping.[31]

Five U-boats were lost in 1914, two in January 1915 and 15 from March to September 1915.[32] New construction, meant that Germany had 46 boats at the end of September, but 15 of them were UB coastal boats and 14 were UC coastal minelayers. Only 17 were ocean going, compared with all 26 available at the start of the year. These figures exclude U25, which had been damaged too badly to return to active service, the obsolete U1-4 and U66-70, built in Germany, originally for Austria-Hungary, and then undergoing trials.[33]

The U-boats had shown that they were a potentially deadly weapon. The numbers available in 1915 could not, however, do enough damage to Allied shipping to balance the harm that they did to German relations with the USA.

[1] The last two paragraphs are based on J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, pp. 135-36.

[2] Ibid., p. 131.

[3] Ibid; C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. ii, p. 103; A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, p. 25.

[4] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xiv, Home Waters part v, July 1915 to October 1915. pp. 81-82.

[5] PP, Further Correspondence with the German Government Respecting the Incidents Alleged to Have Attended the Sinking of a German Submarine and Its Crew by His Majesty’s Auxillary Cruiser “Baralong” on August 19, 1915, HMSO 1916 [Cd. 8176]. p. 4; Memorandum of the German Government in Regard to Incidents Alleged to Have Attended the Destruction of a German Submarine and Its Crew by His Majesty’s Auxiliary Cruiser “Baralong” on August 19th, 1915 and Reply of His Majesty’s Government Thereto’, January 1916, HMSO 1916 [Cd. 8144]. p. 16.

[6] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 301.

[7] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), pp. 21-22.

[8] Ibid., p. 23.

[9] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. ‘Appendix N, Report from M.F.A. Baralong’, p. 229,

[10] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 24-27.

[11] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. pp. 229-30.

[12] PP, Cd. 8144. pp. 1-4.

[13] Ibid., p. 11.

[14] Ibid., p. 8.

[15] Bridgland, Sea Killers, p. 37.

[16] Hurd, Merchant. vol. ii, pp. 33-34.

[17] PP, Cd. 8176.

[18] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 26, 36.

[19] PP, Cd. 8144. p. 6.

[20] H. H. Herwig, The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914-1918 (London: Arnold, 1997), pp. 135, 168-69.

[21] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. iii, pp. 97-98.

[22] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. p. 173.

[23] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 141

[24] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. p. 173.

[25] Halpern, Naval, p. 302.

[26] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. p. 175.

[27] Ibid., pp. 176-77.

[28] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 51-54.

[29] Halpern, Naval, p. 385.

[30] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), pp. 152-53.

[31] Halpern, Naval, p. 303.

[32] Tarrant, U-Boat, p. 24.

[33] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), pp. 63-64.


Filed under War History

Trawler and Submarine Trap Sinks U-boats.

It was hard to detect or attack submerged submarines in June 1915. The only way of finding them was visual, mainly by spotting a raised periscope and/or the wake that it produced. It was also possible to see a submerged submarine that was close to the surface in the clear waters of the Mediterranean or the Dardanelles, but not in the Atlantic or North Sea.

Hydrophones, which detected submarines by sound, were introduced later in the war. Some were based onshore. Those on ships had the problem that the ship had to stop in order to prevent the sound of her engines interfering with that from the submarine: not ideal when a submarine was around.

There was also a lack of anti-submarine weapons. One not very efficient one was for ships to towing explosive sweeps. Ships fired on periscopes with their guns or tried to ram the submarine. Most submarines sunk early in the war, struck mines, suffered accident or were caught on the surface. The limited number of torpedoes carried meant that submarines preferred to surface and use guns to sink smaller ships.

One method of attacking submarines was to trick them into surfacing in order to attack with gunfire an apparently innocuous merchant ship. It would then open fire with its concealed weapons. These ships were called Q Ships and will be the subject of several later posts in this series.

A variation on this tactic was suggested by Acting Paymaster F. T. Spickernell, Secretary to Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty. It was that a trawler should tow a submerged submarine in areas were German U-boats were expected to be operating. The trawler and the British submarine would be in contact with each other via a telephone cable. A U-boat would surface to attack a trawler by gunfire rather than wasting a torpedo on a small craft. The trawler would then inform the British submarine by telephone. It would slip the tow and manoeuvre to torpedo the U-boat whilst herself remaining submerged.[1]

After a period of trials in the Forth in May, C class submarines from the Forth Local Defence were transferred to Aberdeen and Peterhead to work with the trawler Taranaki. The first patrol took began on 24 May, but no U-boats were encountered until 8 June, when Taranaki, towing C27, spotted U19 a mile and a half away, 30 miles east by north off Peterhead. She informed C27, which confirmed the situation by periscope before slipping her tow. She approached the German boat, raising her periscope again when she should have been in firing range only to see that U19 was heading towards her at 15 knots. C27 had to dive, and U19 was out of sight when she returned to periscope depth..[2]

Nothing had happened to make the Germans suspicious, but Taranaki’s appearance was changed as a precaution. She sailed from Aberdeen early on 23 June, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Harrington D. Edwards, accompanied by Lieutenant Frederick H. Taylor’s C24. At 9:30 am the next day they were at sea to the south east of Aberdeen when U40 surfaced 2,500 yards away and fired a shot across Taranaki’s bows. A problem with the telephone meant that it was three more minutes before C24 was informed. She was unable to release the cable, so Taranaki had to release it from her end. C24 was not free until 9:45 am, during when Edwards had to keep his trawler under way. [3]

A trawler not stopping when approached by a U-boat might have made the Germans suspicious, but U40‘s captain, Kapitänleutnant Gerhardt Fürbringer, saw nothing to fear, although one of his junior officers was suspicious. [4] U40 was on her first war patrol. The British hoped that a U-boat would assume that the tow line was drawing the trawler’s net.[5]

U40 stopped 1,000 yards from Taranaki, whose crew pretended to panic and abandon ship. C24 was finding it difficult to maintain her trim because she was still attached to 100 fathoms of towing rope and telephone cable. Once this problem had been overcome, she raised her periscope, found U40 1,000 yards away, closed to 500 yards, positioned herself for a beam shot and fired a torpedo at U40 at 9:55 am. It struck the U-boat, which sank immediately. Fürbringer, another officer and a petty officer were picked up by the British. The other 29 crewmen went down with U40.[6]

The success of this method, which was kept secret, meant that the scheme was considerably expanded: C26 and C27 were to work with trawlers from Scapa Flow; C14 and C16 from the Tyne; C21 and C29 from the Humber and C3 and C34 from Harwich.[7]

On 18 July Lieutenant-Commander Claude C. Dobson’s C27 and the trawler Princess Marie José, temporarily renamed Princess Louise, set out on patrol from Scapa. The trawler was captained by Lieutenant L. Morton, but Lieutenant C. Cantlie and Lieutenant A. M. Tarver were also on board in order to train the crew. Cantile, who was the only regular officer of the three, the others being peacetime merchant marine officers who were members of  the Royal Navy Reserve, took command during the subsequent operation.[8]

At 7:55 am on 20 July Cantlie telephoned Dobson to tell him that a U-boat had been spotted 2,000 yards away. The phone then broke down; Dobson waited five minutes before slipping the cable; contact had not been restored, and he could hear gunfire.

The U-boat, which was U23, had fired one warning shot before firing at the trawler. She stopped, raised the Red Ensign and dipped it as a sign of surrender, whilst her crew prepared to abandon ship in an apparent panic. This was in accordance with the plan, which was to trick the Germans and hopefully persuade them to come closer. It worked so well that U40 stopped near the trawler.[9]

The trawler’s crew did not know where C27 was, but she was only 500 yards away on U40’s starboard beam when Dobson raised her periscope. He fired a torpedo, but U40 then started her engines, and it passed under her stern. He fired another that hit and sank U40. The British rescued 10 survivors, including her captain, Oberleutnant Hans Schulthess, and two other officers. The British Naval Staff Monograph, written after the war for internal Royal Navy use only, stated that the prisoners ‘gave a good deal of information, not only of a technical character…but also on the general work of German submarines’, which it suggests may have been a result of their good treatment.[10]

The reason why the captains and a high proportion of officers of both U-boats sunk in this manner survived was that they would have been on the bridge whilst their boats were on the surface.

In both instances the more senior of the commanders of the two British vessels involved, Edwards and Dobson, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and the other one, Taylor and Cantlie, the Distinguished Service Cross. The coxswains of Taranaki and C24 were also awarded the Distinguished Service Medal after the earlier action. Dobson was later awarded the Victoria Cross.[11]

U23 was the last U-boat to be caught in this way. Her survivors managed to inform some German civilian internees who were being repatriated from the United Kingdom to Germany about her fate. Consequently no more U-boats fell into the trawler/submarine trap.[12]

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1925 vol. xiii, Home Waters part iv, February 1915 to July 1915. p. 249.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 250.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid; R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 46.

[6] Naval Staff vol. Xiii. p. 250.

[7] Ibid., pp. 250-51.

[8] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xiv, Home Waters part v, July 1915 to October 1915. p. 34.

[9] Ibid., p. 35.

[10] Ibid.

[11] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, p. 48, note 1; A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, pp. 55-56.

[12] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), pp. 22-23.


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

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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