- Turner, Mike
- Ship histories and stories, History - WW1, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2015 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Mike Turner
On 18 March 1915 three Allied battleships were sunk by a line of 20 Turkish mines laid by the small Turkish minelayer Nusret in the Dardanelle Straits. This led to the attempted forcing of the straits by sea being abandoned in favour of an invasion, including the ill-fated ANZAC landing at Gallipoli.
In the early 1900s forcing the Dardanelle Straits by sea was considered to be very difficult if not impossible. When he was Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean in 1904 Admiral Fisher had concluded that storming the Dardanelle Straits would be ‘mightily hazardous’.1In 1906 the British Army’s General Staff studied the problem and the then War Minister, Richard Haldane, had reported that ‘there would be a grave risk of a reverse’.2Then in 1911 Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote that ‘it is no longer possible to force the Dardanelles, and nobody should expose a modern fleet to such peril.’3
On 3 November 1914 Churchill ordered the commander of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Squadron, Vice Admiral Sir Sackville Carden RN, to bombard the forts at the entrance to the Dardanelles. This ‘testing the water’ bombardment was carried out by two battle-cruisers of Carden’s Mediterranean Squadron, HM Ships Indomitable and Indefatigable, as well as the obsolete French battleships Suffren and Vérité. About 80 rounds were fired and the forts at Sedd el Bahr sustained considerable damage, as a shell struck a magazine resulting in a large explosion.
The Turkish defence of the Straits was an effective combination of 393 mines and shore guns, Figure 1 refers. On 11 January 1915, at Churchill’s request, Carden proposed a plan for forcing the Dardanelles using battleships, submarines and minesweepers. The plan had three stages:
- Neutralise the outer forts at Cape Helles and Kum Hale with long-range gunfire, the battleships being out of range of the forts’ guns.
- Neutralise the shore guns and sweep a passage as far as Kephez Point.
- Continue from Kephez Point to the Sea of Marmora.
On 13 February, the British War Council approved the plan and Carden was supplied with additional vessels. The combined British and French fleet now comprised the dreadnought HMS Queen Elizabeth,16 pre-dreadnought battleships, one RN battle-cruiser, five cruisers, the seaplane carrier HMS Ark Royal, 16 RN destroyers, six submarines, and 35 minesweeping trawlers. Russia provided the light cruiser Askold.
A pair of trawlers towed an ‘A’ sweep, a length of 20 mm diameter sweep wire in the shape of a catenary. The sweep wire was kept at a suitable depth by two ‘prism kites’, buoyant wooden triangular tubes weighing about a ton. Being towed at slow speed, lacking cutters and not being serrated the sweep wire acted as a trawl and dragged a mine, possibly for miles, rather than cutting its mooring. The mine came to the surface when the trawlers were not underway in shallow water. Sweeping by day under heavy fire was all but impracticable.
A bombardment of the forts at the entrance to the Straits on 19 February was inconclusive, and showed that long-range bombardment was ineffective unless the ships could close in to a range suitable for direct hits on guns. On 26 February the ships gradually came into close range of the forts and Turkish guns were temporarily silenced. Minesweepers steamed into the Straits covered by battleships and destroyers, and by the morning of 26 February had swept a wide channel four miles up from the entrance. Demolition parties were landed from the Fleet and destroyed the forts at Sedd el Bahr and Kum Kale. RN minesweepers were covered by destroyers as they continued sweeping up the Straits on the night of 26/27 February. No mines had been encountered at this stage. Some of the older battleships steamed into the swept area and bombarded inner forts near Kephez Point at long range. However the ships were harassed by the fire from mobile howitzers that could not be located on either side of the Straits.
Bad weather delayed the operation until 1 March when six battleships engaged the inner defences whilst being harassed by the hidden howitzers. On the night of 1/2 March the minesweepers continued sweeping towards Kephez Point and were covered by the cruiser HMS Amethyst and four destroyers. Sweeping was at slow speed in strong currents. At 2300 the trawlers were just short of the first mine line when they were detected by a searchlight and forced to slip their sweeps when they came under heavy fire.
Bombardment of the inner forts continued. On the night of 6/7 March the RN minesweepers made another attempt to sweep towards Kephez Point, covered by two battleships, Amethyst and destroyers. Searchlights were only put out of action for a few minutes and the minesweepers were again forced to retire. This also happened when French minesweepers attempted sweeping. Another attempt by RN sweepers to clear a channel on the night of 8/9 March met the same fate, the trawler Okino being sunk.
Before dawn on 8 March 1915 a 360 ton Turkish minelayer Nusret covertly laid the last 20 of the 393 mines laid in the Straits. These mines were in the southern mine line in Figure 1 and laid in anticipation of earlier observed turns to starboard by bombarding vessels when reversing course. The existence of this mine line only became apparent on 18 March as described later.
The minesweepers towed at slow speed and the current out of The Narrows was invariably between one and four knots, so downstream sweeping was planned for the night of 10/11 March. There were seven minesweepers, one leader and three pairs. The battleship HMS Canopus went ahead and extinguished five searchlights, but only for a few minutes. Two hours later the seven trawlers in line ahead managed to get past Kephez Point whilst a searchlight was temporarily extinguished and then pass the three sweeps. Amethyst was stationed below The Narrows in support. One pair of sweepers swept two mines, and one of them sank the trawler Manx Hero. Some mine moorings were snagged by grapnels towed by picket boats and destroyed with explosive charges. These mines became drifters and were destroyed in the morning as they drifted out of the Straits.
A final attempt to sweep a channel through the Kephez minefields was made on the night of 13/14 March. If this attempt failed it would be necessary for the minefield batteries to be destroyed before sweeping resumed. The battleship Cornwallis bombarded searchlights and minefield batteries, followed by Amethyst and destroyers at closer range. Again seven trawlers steamed up in line astern. The sweepers were illuminated by two searchlights and the Turks held their fire until the sweeping flotilla was in the middle of the minefields. Even with all available guns brought to bear on the trawlers they managed to reach their turning point just up from Kephez Point. The damage to the sweepers was so heavy that only one pair of sweepers had a serviceable sweep. This pair of sweepers swept through several mine lines. About four mines were snagged and their moorings parted after being dragged together. Picket boats parted the mooring of more than eight mines, and over 12 drifting mines were located on 14 March. Amethyst provided support from near the southern mine line and was hit by a heavy shell that killed 24 men.
A bombardment of the inner forts and minefield batteries was planned for 18 March, followed by sweeping of a channel near the eastern shore through the mine lines up to Kephez Point. This would enable ships to enter the bay north of Kephez Point and engage the seven forts near The Narrows. On 16 March ill health forced Admiral Carden to hand over command to acting Vice Admiral de Robeck who had commanded the inshore bombardment squadron as a rear admiral. The intended bombardment area was swept on the nights of 14/15, 15/16 and 17/18 and seaplanes unsuccessfully searched for mines in this area. Four mines were located by the sweepers and, being the only mines located, were thought to be from the southern five mine lines laid earlier.
The bombardment on 18 March was by the dreadnought Queen Elizabeth, the battle-cruiser Inflexible and ten pre-dreadnought battleships. They were deployed in three lines, Line A (British), French Line B (FB) and British Line B (BB) as well as four RN battleships as supporting ships on the flanks. The initial formation is shown in Figure 1 (note the subsequent turns to starboard) and the ships identified in the appendix. There were also two RN battleships in reserve, Canopus and Cornwallis.
With three exceptions the twelve ships in the three lines had a main armament of four 12-inch (305 mm) guns. Queen Elizabeth had eight 15-inch (381mm) guns, Inflexible had eight 12-inch (305 mm) guns, and Bouvet had two 12-inch (305 mm) and two 10-inch (274 mm) guns as main armament. With the exceptions of Queen Elizabeth (1913), Inflexible (1907) and the two Lord Nelson class (1906) the bombardment ships were built in 1895-1899. Mines were only regarded as a real threat until they sank a number of ships, including four battleships, during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Battleships built in 1895-1899 were therefore vulnerable to mines (and torpedoes).
On 18 March Line A was preceded by the destroyers HM Ships Chelmer and Colne towing an improvised light sweep for snagging mines. Line A commenced the bombardment at 1125 with a picket boat proceeding ahead of each ship to sink drifting mines with its 3 pounder. At 1206 French Line B under Admiral Guepratte passed through Line A to engage at closer range. HMS Agamemnon and the French ships Inflexible, Bouvet, Gaulois and Suffren were badly hit during this initial bombardment. Gaulois had to be beached near Rabbit Island. By 1345 the forts were practically silent and Vice Admiral de Robeck ordered French Line B to retire and be replaced by British Line B. At 1354 Bouvet was following Suffren out of the Straits when she hit one of the remaining 16 of Nusrat’s mines. She sank within a few minutes, losing 635 men out of her complement of 670. The action was continued by British Line B, with HM Ships Albion and Vengeance on the western side of the Straits and HM Ships Ocean and Irresistible on the eastern side near Nusret’s mines. At 1611 Inflexible hit a mine, and was very badly damaged. (She managed to reach shallow water at Bozcaada (Tenedos) Island for temporary repairs before being sent to Malta, and then to Gibraltar, for permanent repairs. Only three minutes later Irresistible struck a mine, to be followed by Ocean hitting a mine at 1805. Both battleships sank during the night. Nousret’s 20 mines resulted in the sinking of three battleships and the beaching of another two. This damage far exceeds the damage for any other mining mission in the history of mine warfare – noting that battleships in WW II had much superior protection against mines and none were sunk by them.
The forts in The Narrows had been severely battered at great cost but not put out of action, while the minefields near Kephez Point were still virtually intact. A conference was held on board Queen Elizabeth on 19 March with senior Army officers, including General Sir Ian Hamilton, Commander in Chief of the Army. Vice Admiral de Robeck stated that he had abandoned any idea of renewing the naval attack until an Army occupation of the Gallipoli Peninsula could ensure safe passage of the Fleet though the Dardanelles. The Allies then invaded the peninsula, including the ill-fated ANZAC landing at Gallipoli.
1 Strachan, H, The First World War, Simon and Schuster, London, 2003, Ch.4, p. 16.
2 Gooch, J, The Plans of War: The General Staff and British Military Strategy, c. 1900-1916, Routlege and K Paul, London, 1974, p. 259. cited by Strachan, The First World War, Ch.4, p. 16.
3 James, R, Gallipoli, Basingstoke, 1989, cited by Strachan, The First World War, Ch.4, p.16.
‘Minelayer Nusret’, www.cityofart.net/bship/turc_nusret.html (25 November 2014)
‘Naval operations in the Dardanelles Campaign’. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naval_operations_in_the_Dardanelles_Campaign (4 November 2014).
Strachan, H, The First World War, Simon and Schuster, London, 2003.
TAFFRAIL, Swept Channels – being an account of the work of the minesweepers in the GreatWar, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1935.
‘The history of the Russian Navy. The Russo-Japanese War’,
<www.navy.ru/history/hrn10-e.htm> (14April 2005).
Restored Nusret on display as a museum ship at Tarsus, Turkey
Warships in Figure 1
Location No. Ship Class Tonnage
Line A 1 HMS Queen Elizabeth Queen Elizabeth 31,500
2 HMS Agamemnon Lord Nelson 17,700
3 HMS Lord Nelson Lord Nelson 17,700
4 HMS Inflexible Invincible 20,080
Line FB 5 FSGaulois Charlemagne 11,097
6 FS Charlemagne Charlemagne 11,097
7 FS Bouvet Bouvet 11,817
8 FS Suffren Iena/Republique 12,236
Line BB 9 HMS Vengeance Canopus 12,950
10 HMS Irresistible Formidable 14,685
11 HMS Albion Canopus 12,950
12 HMS Ocean Canopus 12,950
Flank 13 HMS Triumph Swiftsure 12,175
14 HMS Swiftsure Swiftsure 12,175
15 HMS Prince George Majestic 15,810
16 HMS Majestic Majestic 15,810