The Sea Battles for the Dardanelles II

A naval artillery observation post on land: standing left, Lieutenant Franz Wodrig, right Lieutenant Rolf Carls.

Meanwhile, a major Allied landing operation at Kumkale on 3 March underlined the urgent nature of the munitions question. The almost 400 man strong landing detachment of the Royal Marine Light Infantry was, however, beaten back. The attackers suffered casualties totalling seventy dead and wounded. From the equipment left behind, the Turks concluded that this was not just a temporary landing but was apparently intended to occupy permanently the extreme tip of the Asian side of the Dardanelles.

However, the attacks now beginning to be made against the inner defensive positions only made little progress. To carry these out the fleet had to enter into the waters of the Dardanelles and thus loose its freedom of movement and ‘passive’ protection. In addition to the danger from the guns of the defence emplacements and the minefields in the waterway, the attackers also faced the threat of the mobile 15 cm howitzer batteries on both sides of the coast. The ships were therefore forced to manoeuvre quickly, which consequently reduced their firing accuracy. Thus they succeeded in neither destroying the Turkish batteries nor in clearing the numerous minefields.

On 5 March the batteries at Kilid Bahr, on the opposite side of Canakkale, were shelled by indirect fire. This attack was reciprocated by indirect fire from the Turkish ships of the line, Barbarossa and Torgut. In anticipation of these battles, the German captain of the Barbarossa, Lieutenant Commander Joachim von Arnim, had already been ashore to set up a fire control observation post on the heights of the southern peninsula. Although this post came under fire later, as it had revealed its position by the use of signal ammunition, by a rapid relocation the post could continue support the Turkish ships for effective fire. In the days which followed these observation posts were expanded, surveyed and connected to telephone exchanges. Lieutenant Rolf Carls, the gunnery officer of the Breslau, was commended for his actions in this work.

On the morning of 7 March, two large British warships, the Agamemnon and the Lord Nelson, accompanied by several French vessels, entered Karanlik Bay and began shelling Dardanos and the inside forts. Firing at the same time from Kaba Tepe, the Queen Elizabeth bombarded the forts, while HMS Dublin shelled the Bulair fortifications from the Gulf of Saros. The British warships moved inside the straits to push closer to the forts, but then they came within range of the Turkish coastal artillery. The naval guns fired in quick succession, but the warships withdrew after a short time because of the hefty resistance and without having inflicted (or incurred) any significant damage. During the bombardment it was observed that the Allied ships remained mostly in the Bay of Erenkeui, where they were largely outside the range of the fortress guns. Again and again, the 15-cm howitzers commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Wehrle, expending the then huge tally of 800 shells, had fired on the enemy warships in the Dardanelles, which forced them to keep moving and thus ensured that the ships simply ‘wasted ammunition’.

Even though by night there were entire flotillas of ships, protected by smaller vessels and destroyers, trying to clear the minefields, the Turks were constantly laying new mines. A special line of mines, which had been laid in the turning circle of retiring Allied warships, was to acquire decisive significance. The planning was carried out by Major Nazim Emin, the Chief of the Dardanelles Mine Service, who had a comprehensive knowledge of the currents and depth conditions. The Coastal Inspectorate assigned the minelayer Nusret for this task, while Naval Engineer Lieutenant Commander Arnholdt Reeder, of the German Imperial Navy, represented the SoKo (Special Command) on board. A torpedo specialist, Lieutenant Commander Paul Gehl, was assigned by the Straits Command to be on board Nusret as well.

Lieutenant Commander Reeder submitted his report to the MMD on this operation, which made a major contribution to thwarting the Allied naval attack of 18 March 1915:

‘On 7 March, at 11.30 in the afternoon [sic], I went on board the minelayer Nusret with Hafis Nasimi, the Turkish Mine Captain and Petty Officer Rudolf Bettaque, the German torpedo-man, to make the necessary preparations for minelaying. While I was personally double-checking the engine room and then got the boilers ready for smokeless sailing, the torpedo-man, Bettaque, and the Turkish mine-laying crew cleared the mines ready for launch. Two German NCOs and stokers were at my disposal for the operation of the engines and boiler. This was to guarantee that my commands were executed quickly and correctly. At 5 o’clock in the morning I had the anchor raised. The weather was good for this operation. A light mist lay on the water, which gradually turned into a steady rain. With an average of 140 revolutions, the minelayer made its way from Nagara along the Asian coast.

Since it was still dark and several minefields had to be negotiated, great caution was needed. However, the Turkish Mine Captain knew the critical points exactly, and so Nusret arrived safely at its destination. Throughout the voyage, [engine] revolutions were maintained according to my orders. This enabled me to sail completely smokeless, although the Turkish Eregi coal is very unsuitable for this purpose. At 07.10 hrs I had us turnabout and bound for home; simultaneously, I had the mines laid at 15 second intervals by Hafis Nasimi, the Turkish Mine Captain. Overall, 26 mines were laid in the general direction of SW-NE. Meanwhile the morning was already beginning to turn grey. The enemy guard piquet had apparently already withdrawn; within the Dardanelles no enemy ship could be seen. The visibility towards Canakkale was too low due to the rain and the dark background. With reasonable certainty I can therefore assume that the laying of the mines was not noticed by the enemy. At 8 o’clock in the morning, I was able to anchor again at Canakkale.’

This line, which had been laid with twenty-six Carbonit mines supplied from Germany, remained undetected until the attack on 18 March 1915. Churchill later wrote that ‘the Nusret may have changed the world’, as these mines shattered the dream of reaching Istanbul. This example of effective cooperation between Turkish and German military personnel has unfortunately been wholly ignored since by the Turks and this successful minelaying operation attributed exclusively to the Turkish crew.

The Allied fleet attacks on the Dardanelles, as well as mine clearance, were therefore far less successful than was assumed by the British and French. Nevertheless, rumours were heard in Istanbul that a successful attack by the Entente was imminent, causing unrest and sometimes panic in the city. When an official visit to the fortifications by the Diplomatic Corps was organised, the Austro-Hungarian Military Attaché, Josef Pomiankowski, reported:

‘We left Constantinople on the morning of 14 March. As far as I could tell, Enver Pasha had organised this excursion mainly for the American Ambassador, Mr. Morgenthau, who spread the most alarming rumours among the diplomatic corps, about the hopeless situation of Turkey and the forthcoming appearance of the Anglo-French fleet off Istanbul. […] The greatest interest was aroused by the battery at Dardanos, so named after the still visible ruins of the eponymous city of antiquity. This battery was located at the top of the heights and visible from afar, consisting of a one-metre high earthen breastwork of the ordinary type, behind which cannons were placed so that the barrels could shoot just above the ridge line. To protect the gun crew, they were provided with small steel shields., The enemy ships (especially on 7 March) had already bombarded this battery with a thousand shells, without somehow damaging it. By contrast, the entire area in front, as well as the forward part of the earthworks, were literally ploughed up and turned over by shells. On the protective shields one noticed only two dents, which apparently originated from exploding fragments. The crew serving the guns had suffered no losses; however, on 7 March, a shell had hit the observation post of the battery commander, which was about 15 steps away, and had killed him, along with other soldiers near him. In the afternoon we visited the forts of the European side, then returned aboard the Jürük, which started the journey back in the evening and arrived in Istanbul on the morning of the 16th.’

On 18 March the major Allied naval attack began, aiming to force a passage through the Dardanelles. Sixteen large warships, accompanied by many destroyers and minesweepers, approached the entrance of the Dardanelles. However, their approach had already been discovered in the early morning of that same day during the first flight of the new squadron at Canakkale. Captain Erich Serno, together with Lieutenant Commander Karl Schneider, the 2nd General Staff Officer at von Usedom’s headquarters, had made a reconnaissance flight. They spotted the enemy fleet and immediately afterwards warned of the apparently imminent attack. Schneider reported:

‘Early in the morning, we climbed up […]. We were flying at an altitude of 1,600 metres. The aircraft was at its ceiling. We realised that we had just flown over old Troy. At Tenedos we easily counted forty ships at anchor. All types were represented […]. Six battleships now headed in line towards the mouth of the Dardanelles. The battleship Inflexible led with the admiral’s flag flying.’

Both knew what this gathering of ships meant and flew back immediately to report the impending attack. As far as was possible in the short time available, coastal batteries and artillery units could be forewarned, Six large British battleships, including the Queen Elizabeth, with her 38-cm guns, started to attack the defences at Canakkale and Cape Kephes at around 11.30 am – initially staying out of range of the forts.

The Turkish coastal batteries and the mobile artillery units returned fire at the incoming French squadron, which consisted of four battleships and passed the line of British warships at about noon. All the battleships now came closer to their targets – but also within the range of the defending artillery. At around 2 pm the French squadron, which was under great pressure, was relieved by a squadron of six older British battleships. The battle then took an unexpected turn for the Allies, as the French battleship Bouvet hit a mine at about 2 pm, capsized in just two minutes and dragged almost the entire crew of 600 men down into the depths with it. Some of the other French ships were badly damaged and retired; the Gaulois was heavily damaged by artillery and a mine explosion and had to be beached at Tenedos. At 4 pm the Inflexible hit a mine and was barely able to escape out of coastal artillery range into safe waters. Shortly after, the Irresistible was hit so badly that she was abandoned and sank in the evening. These heavy losses caused the Allied Fleet Commander to break off the attack at 5 pm. When trying to take the Irresistible in tow, the Ocean also hit a mine and later had to be abandoned as well. The remaining nine English warships departed the Dardanelles westwards at full speed.

That date, 18 March 1915, marked an unforgettable day of victory for the defenders of the Dardanelles and is still celebrated every year in Turkey – especially in the Armed Forces – as ‘Canakkale Day’. The attackers had suffered heavy losses and forfeited the initiative, while the defenders had suffered relatively little damage. Admiral Souchon wrote home about the day’s events:

‘Yesterday’s heavy attack by the English [sic] and French on the Dardanelles ended as a great success for us. Here there is a great joy of victory. The French battleship Bouvet ran on to one of the mines laid on 6 March, and sank immediately. The English [sic] battleship Irresistible remained shot up, lay immobilised, the English [sic] battleship Ocean managed to steam away slowly with a heavy list. A destroyer sunk. Minimal loss on the Turkish side. In total, 2 heavy guns are damaged, of us Germans 2 dead, 7 badly, 7 slightly wounded. Hopefully the Englishmen [sic] will come again today and suffer such losses again. If they really want to succeed, they will have to do it before all the damage to the earthworks, telephones, etc. is completely repaired. Patching up will naturally be the case again this morning.’

As recognised later, the losses suffered by the Allies had been achieved to a large extent by the mines laid on 8 March by the Nusret. The Allied fleet had thought this area was already swept clear. In addition, in the days prior to 18 March, there had been no incidents in the area of this particular line of mines. However, it is not clear whether all the ships that sank were all as a result of mines. Von Usedom wrote about this in his report:

‘When Bouvet came into sight of the headquarters observation post at around 14.00 hrs, a strong smoke emission and listing could be observed, which got bigger and bigger. Three minutes later, Bouvet sank. From the speed of its sinking it was concluded that it had run into one of the mines set in the Erenköy Bay on 8 March, especially as it was also in the longitudinal location of this barrier. From later reports by the forward observers and Lieutenant Colonel Wehrle, commanding the howitzer batteries on the European shore, it became clear that the ship had suffered its heavy damage, whilst east of the mines, through artillery fire from Fort Anatoli Hamidié, causing the rapid sinking. It can also be concluded from the behaviour of the other ships that the enemy itself had not reckoned with the presence of mines, for Triumph, Majestic, Suffren, Gaulois and Charlemagne were heading for the scene of the accident. Suffren launched a boat. Motor boats, destroyers and later some mine-sweepers were trying to fish out survivors. In the process, a destroyer sank when hit by shells from the howitzer batteries, and sometime later a mine-sweeper. […] During this time, Dardanos had been able to clear its guns and at 6 o’clock in the evening, opened a lively and effective fire against Irresistible, which was sunk at quarter-past seven in the evening.’

This report puts into better perspective the sometimes over-exaggerated performance and impact of the mines laid down by the Nusret. It also shows the viciousness of this merciless battle, as even vessels that were clearly engaged in saving the lives of shipwrecked sailors and which had already put themselves into the minefield danger zone were nevertheless fired upon. Today this would be a clear violation of international military law, which prevailed at that time. This indictment must be made against the German and Turkish forces that took part in this battle and, in retrospect, casts a shadow on their victory over the Allied fleet.

The losses of the Allied fleet were high. Of eighteen ships, six had sunk or been put out of action for a long time. On the side of the defenders, however, only 114 men, including twenty-two German soldiers, were killed or wounded. Of a total of 176 guns, including those of the mobile howitzer batteries, only nine were destroyed. The forts had not been substantially damaged – even though massive numbers of shells had been fired at the fortifications. Of the ten lines of mines in the Dardanelles, nine were still intact. However, the ammunition situation on the Turkish side was critical after this battle. The medium howitzers and minefield batteries had fired half of their ammunition. The five 35.5-cm guns of the fortress artillery had only rounds left; for the eleven 23-cm guns there were only between thirty and fifty-eight rounds available per gun; while the reserve of high-explosive shells, the only effective munition against the battleships, was almost completely used up. A second, similarly heavy, attack would therefore have been difficult to fend off due to a lack of ammunition; a third attack would probably not have been opposed.

In the course of the battle, Major Binhold, a German commander of a field artillery battery, experienced an example of the Turkish custom whereby it was not common practice to pass on bad news. Binhold despatched his Turkish aide-de-camp to find out what had happened to a 15-cm howitzer that was being brought forward. The adjutant found the gun; it had fallen down a slope and the crew were in the process of recapturing the oxen. Returning to his CO, the ADC reported that the howitzer was not far off. Hours later, the aide was sent again to look for the long overdue howitzer. He found that the recovery work was still in progress, but reported back that the howitzer would arrive soon. Not a word of the accident was mentioned as such, as it would surely just lead to trouble. As more time passed by, Binhold set off on horseback himself during a lull in the fighting and saw that the ox-team was finally approaching the position. The circumstances of the delay were eventually explained; because he was familiar with the Turkish mentality, Major Binhold took a lenient view and closed the matter with a simple admonition.

After the 18th, the Commander-in-Chief of the Straits sector, Admiral von Usedom, immediately transferred the remaining ammunition available in the Bosphorus batteries to the Dardanelles. He also had ammunition from the fleet reworked for the calibres in use at the Straits. Mines were brought from Trebizond and Smyrna, even though they were indispensable there too. Although some stocks could be replaced from the modified munition factories in Istanbul, the Turkish government continued to urge Germany finally to provide adequate supplies.

Three days after the Allied naval attack, von Falkenhayn again tried to persuade his Austrian ally to campaign actively against Serbia. Enver Paşa also urged support for the opening of the land route to Germany and said optimistically in a letter to von Falkenhayn on 23 March:

‘I do not want our alliance with Germany and Austria to be a burden for these powers, but I am only anxious to help the allies with all we have at our disposal. This would be done to a much greater degree if Serbia is subjugated, thereby ensuring a reliable Bulgaria, as well as making Romania docile, and establishing an open route between us and Germany-Austria. I hope to be able to make other significant forces available for common purposes. Turkey still has half a million trained soldiers in reserve, who can be deployed immediately if armaments are available.’

This letter underlined the strategic importance of Turkey and strengthened von Falkenhayn in his planning. The resulting demand by the German government to the Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff, Conrad von Hötzendorff, to carry out the Serbian campaign was answered with requests for troops from Turkey. Austria thought such an advance would be possible if Bulgaria took part, Germany provided four divisions, and Turkey ‘[protects] Bulgaria against Greece and Romania if they intervene and […] as far as possible, with about two corps [participate] under the Bulgarian Supreme Command directly.’ At the beginning of April 1915, von der Goltz was able to deliver a letter from the Kaiser to the Sultan, which announced the start of a Serbian campaign in the ‘near future’. This came after von der Goltz himself had been appointed as mediator to Conrad von Hötzendorff to explain the necessity of the war option against Serbia.

Enver responded to the demand from Vienna for troop dispositions on 12 April. In a letter to von Falkenhayn, Enver agreed to ‘provide two Army Corps to the Bulgarian Army for a joint operation against Serbia’.315 But once again the campaign against Serbia did not materialise, which is why Berlin had to think of different ways of solving the transportation problem for ammunition. It even considered using Zeppelins and large aircraft but, unsurprisingly, these methods were rejected because they were impractical.

The defence against an Allied landing operation at the Dardanelles, which was growing more likely with each day that passed, now had to be planned quickly, taking into account the lack of material support from Germany.