Naval Operations in Dardanelles, (February–March 1915)

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The Dardanelles defences in February/March 1915, showing minefields, anti-submarine nets and major gun batteries.

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The bombardment of the Turkish Forts at Chanak during World War I, 1915. William Lionel Wyllie, R.A., R.I. (1851-1931)

World War I naval campaign by the Allied powers to open the straits connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean and drive the Ottoman Empire from the war. One of the war’s most controversial operations, it was also one of its great missed opportunities.

The Ottoman Empire’s entry into the war on the side of the Central Powers severed French and British access to the Black Sea and greatly increased the difficulty of getting military supplies to Russia. It also denied Russia a means of exporting goods to the West, thus exacerbating its financial difficulties.

Reopening the Dardanelles was not initially a priority for the Allies; their attention was fixed on the campaign in France. Stalemate there, however, led to increased interest in a flanking movement elsewhere. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill was also anxious to employ British sea power.

At the end of December 1914 Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Hankey, secretary of the War Council in London, submitted a plan for a Dardanelles campaign. He argued that Britain should use her navy and three corps of troops to attack the Ottoman Empire. Churchill embraced the plan and became its avatar. First Sea Lord John Fisher was persuaded to go along, as was Secretary of State for War Field Marshal the Earl Horatio Kitchener. The latter was moved by a Russian plea for a diversionary attack to relieve Turkish pressure in the Caucasus.

With Kitchener opposed to drawing troops from France, after much debate the War Council decided on a purely naval operation. It assumed that once the fleet had reached Constantinople, the threat of naval bombardment would drive the Turks from the war. Fisher and the admirals of the war staff group saw what Churchill did not—the need for a properly mounted combined-arms operation. Churchill also did not appreciate the vulnerability of ship-to-shore fire.

Vice Admiral Sackville Carden, commander of the blockading squadron off the Dardanelles, had charge of the operation. Less than enthusiastic, he requested a considerable force, including battle cruisers, to deal with the powerful German battle cruiser Goeben that had escaped to Constantinople at the beginning of the war. France also agreed to send a squadron commanded by Vice Admiral Émile Paul Guépratte.

Carden’s force was the strongest ever assembled in the Mediterranean. It consisted of 1 super dreadnought Queen Elizabeth (flagship), 1 battle cruiser Inflexible, 16 old battleships (4 French), and 20 destroyers (6 French). A flotilla of 35 minesweeping trawlers and a seaplane carrier were also dispatched, and cruisers and submarines were available if needed.

The Turks had some 100 guns defending the Dardanelles, 72 of which were in fixed emplacements in 11 different forts. The Germans supplied several dozen 5.9-inch (15 cm) howitzers and some other modern pieces. The heaviest guns, along with searchlights and minefields, guarded the entrance of the Dardanelles. The defenders were short of shells, however.

Although Carden came to believe that a naval bombardment alone would not be sufficient, the War Council ordered him to commence operations. Bad weather delayed bombardment of the outer Turkish forts until 19 February. The bad weather then closed in, forcing a six-day interruption. The bombardment recommenced on 25 February. Naval gunfire silenced all four outer Turkish forts, and minesweepers began clearing a path for the larger ships. Demolition parties also went ashore to complete destruction of the outer forts. The fleet then sailed into the straits and began bombarding the inner forts. Carden hoped to be off Constantinople in two weeks.

Carden’s optimism proved unfounded. Although the forts could be hit, damage was not that great. In any case, the mobile Turkish howitzers, firing behind the crests of the hills, were not easily accessible to flat-trajectory, high-velocity naval guns, and they scored a growing number of hits on Allied vessels. This fire did not bother the battleships, but it did affect minesweeping operations. Until troops could be landed to destroy the mobile howitzers, their fire prevented sweeping the minefields.

On 3 March Admiral Sir John de Robeck reported that the operation would not succeed unless troops were landed to control the shores of the straits, even though Churchill had assured the War Council that the navy would be able to force the straits alone. Churchill had even failed to send out the Royal Naval Division, which was available.

Captain Roger Keyes, Carden’s chief of staff, then took charge of the minesweeping, which went forward day and night. Churchill, meanwhile, kept up pressure on Carden, urging speed before the Germans sent submarines. Despite his near total lack of losses, Carden was fearful of taking responsibility for the destruction of any ships. On 16 March his health broke, and de Robeck assumed command of the grand assault planned for 18 March.

The naval effort to force the narrows began on schedule on the 18th, when the Allied battleships bombarded the land batteries in the narrows. Three ships (two British and one French) sustained damage, but most shore batteries were hit hard. Then disaster struck. The French battleship Bouvet took a hit in one of her magazines and blew up, sinking and losing 640 men. Allied shelling of land batteries continued throughout the afternoon, and de Robeck ordered his minesweepers forward, but they fled after coming under fire. Then the British battle cruiser Inflexible struck a mine, and she withdrew from action. A few minutes later the battleship Irresistible also was disabled by a mine. De Robeck then ordered a withdrawal for the night but instructed Keyes to stay in the straits with the destroyers and organize a tow for the Irresistible with the help of two other battleships, Ocean and Swiftsure.

Instead of concentrating on the salvage operation, the Ocean shelled shore installations. Torn by an internal explosion, her steering was disabled. Keyes ordered the Swiftsure to retire with the crew of the Ocean. He then secured permission to sink the Irresistible by torpedo and determine if the Ocean could be salvaged. As Keyes returned, there was a great explosion. No trace of the two battleships was found. Later, it was learned that all three battleships had run into a new and very small minefield, which Allied seaplane patrols had failed to detect.

Keyes and other senior officers believed that one more determined push by the fleet would be decisive. In fact, the Turkish shore batteries had used up half of their supply of ammunition in that one day and were down to their last armor-piercing shells. They were also virtually out of mines.

A great storm blew up, damaging some British and French ships. Still, preparations for renewal of the offensive went forward, and a message from the Admiralty ordered de Robeck to renew the assault. On 20 March de Robeck had 62 vessels ready as minesweepers and said the offensive would be renewed in a few days. Two days later, however, after meeting with newly arrived land force commander Army General Sir Ian Hamilton, de Robeck changed his mind. Then, in an acrimonious session, the War Council decided to let the views of its commanders on the spot prevail.

The attempt to force the Dardanelles with warships alone cost the British and French 700 lives, three battleships sunk and two crippled, and damage to other ships. The naval offensive was not renewed. The campaign now shifted to land operations on the Gallipoli peninsula. Naval activities from this point consisted chiefly of gunfire support and resupply.

References

Churchill, Winston S. The World Crisis. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1923.

James, Robert Rhodes. Gallipoli: The History of a Noble Blunder. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

Moorehead, Alan. Gallipoli. New York: Harper & Row, 1956.

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