Saturday, 18 April 2015

Gallipoli 2. Naval attempt to force the Straits

Sackville Hamilton Carden
The Admiralty's top heavy control of the world's greatest fleet did not always allow autonomy for its fleet commanders at sea. On this occasion the man on the spot benefited from a split between the First Lord (Churchill) and the First Sea Lord (Fisher). Forcing the Dardanelles Straits by naval bombardment of the defending forts had been strongly advocated by Churchill, and was preferred by Admiral Carden, leading the local forces in the eastern Mediterranean. Fisher was strongly in favour of action, but only as a (later) combined naval and land operation. Neither he nor Churchill held a particularly high opinion of Vice-Admiral Sackville Hamilton Carden. Carden had been part of the Mediterranean fiasco in the early days of the war that failed to intercept the German cruisers Goeben and Breslau. (Subsequently they had escaped via the Dardanelles into the Black Sea to support the Turks). Characteristically, Carden's early pessimistic assessment of  naval forced passage through the straits was followed some days later by a positive bombardment strategy. Churchill seized on the latter, and was to have his way. It began on 19th February, three days after the War Office had agreed in principle to send land forces. 

The plan was for the capital ships to bombard the outer forts protecting the entrance to the Straits to silence resistance and allow short range destruction by smaller craft. Following this, minesweepers would move into the main straits to clear the passage for the main fleet.

Coastal fort defences and mines combined to make
passage of the Straits a daunting mission

The first attack was unsuccessful, and stormy weather precluded further attempts for another 5 days. However, on February 25th the Navy attacked again, this time with more success. By the afternoon the forts were out of action. This allowed the minesweepers to move in and complete the first phase, and they advanced for 6 miles into the 38miles length of narrows. Optimism was high at this point, but the second phase faced stronger defences at the mid point of the narrows, and there were no clear plans to begin ground support against the Turkish defences.
HMS Cornwallis bombards the
fort at Kum Kale, Asian shore
From 3rd March, matters deteriorated for the Navy. Hampered by the weather, their attacks were less successful, and the land defences became stronger. Long range, indirect, bombing of the of the forts from the Aegean side of the peninsula was started by the giant guns of the Queen Elizabeth but then called off to preserve ammunition. Direct attacks by HMS  Agamemnon and HMS Lord Nelson were tried for two fruitless days. These unsuccessful attacks continued until 12th March, by which time Britain and France were ready to agree to Russia’s proposal to annex Constantinople, and the Italians seemed emboldened to declare war against Turkey in order to gain Adriatic coast territory. Nevertheless, the plan to force the Dardanelles Straits by Naval force alone had clearly failed. Despite this (see next post) the Admiralty soon sent new orders to Carden to attempt to force the straits again. Within two days Carden was overcome by illness (presumably stress) and had to be replaced by his deputy Vice-Admiral de Robeck, not without misgivings from Churchill. De Robeck signaled his willingness to comply with the order, and on March 18th reported fine weather and the start of operations – another fateful day in the saga.
De Robeck’s mission depended on the battleships being able to operate in mine free waters. The 1915 minesweeping technology and aerial reconnaissance were limited in their scope. Twenty mines had been laid in Eren Kereni bay, but only 6 of them had been swept. This was the very bay where the battleships Queen Elizabeth, Agamemnon, Lord Nelson and  Inflexible would make their long range bombardment of the forts. A massive land sea battle developed, as a French squadron moved in under cover of the battleships to engage with the many vigorously defended forts covering the straits. After about 3 hours, a number of the forts were out of action, allowing the minesweepers to start their part of the action. At this stage, it was looking good for the forcing of the straits, and the casualties had been low, with no ships badly damaged. But then disaster struck. 
The sinking Bouvet, March 18th 1915
Six hundred men perished

 Firstly, at 2pm the French cruiser Bouvet was mined and sunk with the loss of 600 men, as she was leaving the straits. Between 4 and 5pm both Inflexible and Irresistible were mined and badly damaged in Eren Kereni bay. This shocked the British command, and de Robeck broke off the action. 
Churchill writes, with feeling, “Never again did the British fleet renew the attack on the narrows which in pursuance of their orders they had begun on March 18th, and which they confidently expected to continue after a brief interval. Instead, they waited for nine months, the spectators of the sufferings, the immense losses and imperishable glories of the army, always hoping that their moment of intervention would come, always hoping for their turn to run every risk and make every sacrifice, until in the end they had the sorrow and mortification of taking the remains of the army off and steaming away under the cloak of darkness from the scene of irretrievable failure”

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