- Nekrasov, G., Commander, RAN
- WWI operations
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 1976 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
When World War I broke out the Royal Navy acquired the nearly-completed Rashadieh and Sultan Osman I – they became HMS Erin and HMS Agincourt respectively.
At first Turkey remained neutral and the Black Sea remained peaceful. Then a new turn of events changed the whole situation: the escape of the SMS Goeben and SMS Breslau from Messina and their arrival at Istanbul gave Germany a very strong diplomatic hand to play.
Goeben was a modern fast battle cruiser armed with 10 x 11″ 50 cal guns. The front line squadron of the Black Sea Fleet comprised three pre-Dreadnoughts – SV Evstaffi, Ioann, Zlatoust and Panteleimon, each armed with 4 x 12″ 40 cal guns.
Goeben had the advantage in range, rate of fire, fire control and speed over the three combined.
The Russian Navy was very much aware of the threat that Goeben posed and the Commander of the Black Sea Fleet proposed to sail for Bosphorus with his best ships, enter the Golden Horn and in case Turkey refused to order the German ships back into the Mediterranean Sea into the welcoming arms of the Royal Navy, he proposed to attack them in harbour with guns and torpedoes.
He signalled his intentions to St Petersburg. The Government and diplomats were horrified. They disagreed with the Admiral’s statements that Goeben’s presence would inevitably draw Turkey into the war on the German side: they argued that although the feeling in Turkey was somewhat anti-Russian, it was not anti-British or anti-French and that there was an excellent chance of keeping Turkey neutral. In fact not only did the Government prohibit the sortie, it also confined the Black Sea Fleet to stay in harbour so that Turkey would not be provoked. In the meantime the Russian Naval Intelligence reported concentrated buildup of coastal defences in Bosphorus at the same time Goeben and Breslau – and their crews were accepted into the Turkish Navy and became Yavuz Sultan Selim and Medilli respectively and commenced training in the Black Sea.
At this point it is interesting to note the personalities of the two Admirals:-
On one hand there was Rear Admiral Wilhelm Souchon – a German admiral with a French name, nominally in Turkish service (as a Vice Admiral).
On the other hand Admiral Andrei Eberhard – a Russian with a German name although of Swedish stock, who moreover was born in Greece. A veteran of the Japanese War, in 1906 he was given the command and the task of restoring the discipline and morale of the mutinous Potemkin, now renamed Panteleimon.
On 25th October 1914 Souchon was ordered to take the entire fleet into the Black Sea and attack the Russian Fleet. On sailing he told Enver Pasha, ‘I shall smash the Black Sea Fleet.’
Admiral Souchon had every reason to feel confident; apart from his material superiority over his adversary he now had the initiative handed to him on a platter by the diplomats.
Lesson No. 2: Wishful thinking by diplomats – in this case, the allied diplomats – may have to be paid in servicemen’s lives. In this case, as fate would have it, it was Australian as well as Russian blood.
Souchon sailed on 27th October and two days later commenced hostilities by bombarding Sevastopol harbour and also Odessa and Novorissisk. He was attacked by three Russian coal-burning destroyers (unsuccessfully) and sank a minelayer. Eberhard sailed from Sevastopol but failing to catch up with Souchon, he made two major decisions at once. The first was to prohibit the use of the normal approaches to Sevastopol (they were, in fact, mined the night before the attack); and the second was to commence shadowing of the enemy Naval air arm. Some three days later both fleets retired to their bases. At the same time both sides commenced mining operations.
The Imperial Russian HQ was concerned over the possibility of a Turkish landing and wanted Eberhard to protect the coast. He, however, saw his duty more clearly – to dispose of Goeben (Yavuz) at all costs.
He soon found himself fighting two wars; one with his superiors and one with Souchon.
Eberhard’s strategy was to carry out offensive mining and to interdict shipping along the Anatolian coast using all forces including the first three. Thus both sides went on the offensive.