British Submarines and the Dardanelles

British Submarines and the Dardanelles

British submarines played an important part in the Dardanelles campaign. The Dardanelles was a military disaster for the Allies yet the part played by British submarines shows that not everything in the campaign was a disaster.

British submarines were sent in to the Sea of Marmora as part of the Allied strategy for defeating Turkey. The main task of the British submarines in the Sea of Marmora was to create havoc by disrupting the supply lines of the Turks in the area. Any supply ship that ventured out into the waters of the Dardanelles became an obvious target. The submarines were also expected to blockade the German heavy cruisers "Breslau" and "Goeben" that were based in Constantinople/Istanbul. This task was especially important as there was a real risk that both ships would slip out of port and attack the British fleet based at the island of Lemnos and return to port before anything could be done about it. Both ships had led a similar attack - and with much success - against the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The fear of submarines was such that both heavy cruisers did not leave port while it was known that British submarines were in the Sea of Marmora.

The Dardanelles campaign is a good example of how the Admiralty could not adjust its way of thinking towards a new weapon - by the Dardanelles campaign, the submarine had been in use by the Royal Navy for just thirteen years. When the decision was taken by the Admiralty to send submarines into the Sea of Marmora, five 'B' class submarines were sent from Gibraltar to Mundros on the isle of Lemnos. Three French submarines joined them. The Submarine Service were baffled by the choice of B-class submarines. It was well known that  the currents that led into the straits to the Sea of Marmora were very fast, unpredictable and treacherous. Despite this, the Admiralty sent in submarines that weighed just 313 tons when submerged and had engines that generated just 600 hp which gave them limited endurance. Why did the Admiralty order this? There are possibly two reasons:

   1) The submarines were the nearest to the Sea of Marmora and could get there the  

   2) There was an element in the Admiralty that still saw the submarine as an underhand
         weapon and not 'playing the game'. If the B-class submarines failed dismally in the
        Dardanelles, it might seal their fate within the Royal Navy and 'prove' to their
        supporters that when it came to crunch, they could not deliver.

Those in the Mediterranean region asked for E-class submarines. The Admiralty said that they were needed in the North Sea. The E-class had a much more powerful engine capable of generating 1600 hp and it had a submerged weight of 800 tons. Both these statistics gave the E-class a much better chance of getting through the Straits to the Sea of Marmora. W G Carr, an officer in the Submarine Service wrote:

"To expect a B-class submarine to penetrate the most difficult of sea-traffic routes seems now as ambitious as to expect to cross the Sahara in a 1909 Ford."

The Admiralty's mind was already fixed on using the firepower of battleships to pound the Turkish forts in the region. To the Admiralty, the issue of submarines was a distraction from the 'real' issue. The E-class submarines stayed in the North Sea while B-class submarines were sent to the Sea of Marmora.

In December 1914, B-11 was sent to the Dardanelles. Commanded by N Holbrook, the success of B-11 rested entirely with the skill of Holbrook and his crew. The size of the B-class gave it a limited time underwater. When, after 46 hours submerged, B-11 surfaced, the air in the submarine was so foul that nobody could light a match. B-11 managed to sink the Turkish battleship "Messudieh" in the Straits. If the Admiralty had a limited view of submarines, it did have a fine propaganda machine. The sinking was hailed as a massive victory and a major blow to the Turkish forces in the region. In fact, the "Messudieh" was an old battleship and was used as a coastal frigate and its loss was of no great military importance. However, its sinking did do a great deal to dampen the morale of the Turks.

For all B-11's success, its time in the Straits did show that it was too small for the job required. The c-in-c Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Carden, requested E-class submarines. This was turned down by the Admiralty. It was only after Carden had resigned his post, that seven E-class submarines were sent to the Dardanelles.

However, it was an Australian submarine that first reached the Sea of Marmora - AE-2 - commanded by Lieutenant Commander Stocker. The presence of AE-2 in the Sea greatly shook the morale of the Turks and the Allies placed an almost unexpected faith in AE-2 to turn the tide against the Turks in the region. The ANZAC's had taken severe casualties at Gallipoli and many felt that AE-2 would so disrupt Turkish shipping in the region, that the tide would turn.

"They (the ANZAC general staff) believe that he (Stoker) is going to torpedo all the ships bringing reinforcements, supplies and ammunition to Gallipoli and that all will be well."

Captain R Keyes writing to his wife in April 1915.

Keyes was a member of the British Naval Staff in the Mediterranean Sea.

Whether this belief that AE-2 would solve everything for the Allies kept the Allied commanders resolute in their belief that their tactics were right is unknown. But the bloodshed continued on the beaches of Gallipoli.

The submarines in the Dardanelles were not capable of turning round the campaign. With so many men trapped on the beaches that were nearly impossible to move out of, the submarines could only play a small part in the disaster that was Gallipoli.

The work done by E-14 (commanded by Lieutenant Commander Boyle) and E-11 (commanded by Lieutenant Commander Nasmith) caused the Turks no end of inconvenience. Their success in picking off merchant ships proved very useful. However, it also led to fewer targets as many merchant ships in the area refused to sail the Sea of Marmora.

On May 10th 1915, E-14 sunk the 5000 ton "Gul Djemal" which was carrying 6000 troops and a battery of artillery. This was a highly valued prize but a very limited one. Not all of the successes were as valuable as the "Gul Djemal". In response to this, the Turks developed a 260 mile road/rail route which connected Constantinople to the war front. Some merchant ship owners were attracted by the high financial rewards offered by the Turks to sail their ships, but most of the required supplies went by road/rail. In fact, the late arrival of Turkish troops to the Dardanelles was of little consequence to the Turks as the Allies were heavily bogged down on the beaches with little chance of getting off.

The impact of the submarines in the Dardanelles was mainly psychological. For a very short period of time there were only four submarines in the Sea of Marmora. Two of these were lost (AE-2 and E-20) but the Turks always believed that eleven submarines were operating in the area.

On May 25th 1915, E-11 was seen in Constantinople/Istanbul harbour. This was the first time in 500 years that an enemy warship had been seen in the harbour. The city was thrown into turmoil and disorder quickly broke out. E-11 sank the merchant ship "Stamboul". In itself, this was not important. But the fact that it had occurred in the city's harbour was of huge importance.

"It was the equivalent of a U-boat going up the Thames, strafing London Docks and ending up with bombarding Woolwich Arsenal."

J A Blackburn from "The British Submarine in Being."

In June 1915, E-7, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Cochrane, bombarded the Zeitum Powder Mills in the city. The submarine's small six-pounder gun could do little actual damage, but, once again, the psychological impact of the attack was great.

"The city was in uproar. The realisation that an enemy submarine had been in the harbour again was too much for the Turkish authorities. All troops on board the transports were hurriedly disembarked and returned to barracks. All sailings were cancelled, and the shops were ordered to shut."

P Kemp "H M Submarines"

However, the impact was short-lived and the city quickly returned to normal and military production was not affected.

The British submarines in the Dardanelles did not restrict themselves to just the sea. E-11's number 2, Lieutenant D'Orly Hughes, went on land and destroyed nearly fifty metres of the Berlin to Baghdad rail line. However, this made the Turks even more vigilant and the rail line became even more heavily guarded. Towards the end of the Dardanelles campaign, the E-class submarines still in the area were fitted with twelve pounder guns. These were used to attack ships and also land targets. E-7 destroyed two troop trains at Kava Burnu and the Gulf of Ismid. To guard against this, the Turks had to place medium artillery along the coastal routes where submarines might surface - these artillery pieces were withdrawn from the Gallipoli battlefields, but their withdrawal made little difference to the final outcome. The threat of artillery also ended the tactics of the British submarines as they could not dare risk any damage to their fragile hulls.

The ultimate impact of British submarines in the Dardanelles was not great in the sense that they did not (and probably could not) change the course of the campaign. However, they had proved that they were a valuable weapon when used properly. All the British submarines in the Dardanelles needed less upkeep and maintenance that one Allied dreadnought in the campaign (even if the dreadnoughts were old!)

The official war records of the Germans - "Der Krieg zur See" - states:

"The activity of hostile submarines was a constant and heavy anxiety; if communications by sea had been completely severed, the Turkish Army would have been faced with catastrophe."

MLA Citation/Reference

"British Submarines and the Dardanelles". 2014. Web.

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