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F - 106 : Gallipoli - Armchair Admirals, Armchair Generals and Dead Grunts

As we see these days, it is easy to start a war and make ambitious plans. Maps are patient when generals draw their big blue arrows. Reality is different though. How much fuel and ammo a tank needs per day is only a technical detail. But it matters.

With the Gallipoli Campaign, England and France tried to establish direct access to Russia

These thoughts came to my mind when reading up on the Gallipoli campaign in 1915. There is no need to describe it on these pages. Wikipedia provides an excellent summary. Winston Churchill’s grand strategy was sound. As England’s First Sea Lord, Secretary of the Navy, he aimed at reducing Ottoman pressure on the Russians in Armenia, opening a supply line to Russia's Black Sea ports and capturing Istanbul to remove Turkey from the war.

As always, the devil is in the details. The admirals in charge did not grasp them. Whilst the Royal Navy had plenty of submarines and sea mines at the outbreak of World War I, the tactical implications of these new weapons was not fully understood. They were no threat to battleships on the open sea. But big ships were vulnerable in confined coastal waters with no room to manoeuvre. The Royal Navy made only half-baked preparations to deal with these threats. Its mine sweeping flotilla were unarmed commercial trawlers. The anti-torpedos nets for the big battleships had big gaps.

The Ottoman Navy laid several Lines of modern Naval Mines in the Dardanelles

Sea mines were in wide use since the American Civil war. The Union States used them to blockade southern ports. Tethered to the sea floor and floating just below water, they were effective and feared. Exploding on contact, the charge of 100 – 200 kg TNT shredded the wooden hull of any vessel and sank it instantly. The Southern States lost two ships to Union mines. The point was made. Shipping from mined harbors stopped. Naval mines were used again in the Russian – Japanese war in 1905 and again proved highly effective.

Japanese Sailors inspecting Russian Mines in 1905

Mines were so feared that they were almost outlawed in 1907. But poorer countries with long shores and not enough money for a navy understood their usefulness. They opposed the ban. Naval mines were effective against steel-built battleships as well. Modern ships were equipped with an armour belt to protect them against incoming shells. But their bottom was made from ordinary steel plates. The Indefatigable Battle Cruiser Class, built in 1909, is a good example. Its 4-inch-thick armor belt reached only 1 meter below water and left the ship exposed to mines. On the move n the open sea this did not matter. But in confined coastal waters where mines were easy to place it did.

Grey represents the Armour Belt of the Indefatigable Battle Cruiser Class laid down in 1909

None of this was a secret when the Royal Navy sent the combined British French fleet into the Dardanelles. The Royal Navy thought it knew the location of the minefields. But there were new fields which had not been discovered. No proper mine sweeping effort was made. Then, on 18th of March 1915, disaster struck.

The Naval Attack on the Dardanelles on 18 March 1915

The fleet hit an unknown mine field and lost in one single day 6 battleships. 3 were sunk immediately (HMS Ocean, HMS Irresistible and the French Bouvet). 3 were badly damaged (HMS Inflexible and the French Gaulois and Suffren). 700 sailors drowned. It was the end of the naval campaign. Istanbul would never be threatened by surface ships again.

The last moment of the French Battleship Bouvet after it hit a mine on 18 March 1915

To make matters worse, the naval bombardment of the Turkish forts had zero effect. The modern batteries were hidden behind hills and fired indirectly. The Royal Navy knew this and dispatched its very first aircraft carrier, the Ark Royal, with 10 brand-new spotter planes, to the Mediterranean. But 9 of its planes had technical problems and stayed grounded. Also, naval guns with their flat trajectory were badly suited for silencing modern artillery forts.

The German howitzer "Dicke Berta" was designed to destroy modern Artillery Forts

Meanwhile, the Germans had found a solution to the same problem. To take out Belgium’s modern border forts, Germany built special guns, the “Big Bertha”, a 420 mm howitzer. Its shells travelled on a steep trajectory and destroyed the forts from the top. The Royal Navy had no such armament.

Big Berta's devastating Effect on the Belgian Fort Loncin near Anvers in 1914

Four days after the failed attempt, the British High Command decided to dispatch its 70’000 men strong Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF) to capture the Turkish Forts from the land side. The famous Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) contributed 20% to the MEF's troop strength. ANZAC (2 Infantry Divisions) and the British 29th Infantry Division were chosen to land. On the Gallipoli Peninsula, two Turkish Divisions were in position. The 9th and the 19th Infantry Division (commanded by Kemal Mustafa)

Two Landing sites were planned. One on ANZAC cove, the second on Cape Helles. The landings took place on the 25 April 1915. Neither went well. The ANZAC did better initially and - despite difficult terrain - almost reached Peak Baby. The English got stuck on the beaches. The Royal Navy’s battleships were not able to suppress enemy fire.

The ANZAC Troops had to attack uphill through steep Ravins - Turkish Infantry waited on top

The Turkish infantry was well prepared. Since March 18, they had dug extensive trenches on the beach shoulders and mountain ridges. Not harassed by artillery, they took up their positions quickly. The 700 Royal Dublin Fusiliers landing on Cape Helles’ V Beach got the worst.

V Beach on Cape Helles with its well prepared Turkish Defensive Positions (as of today)

They run into deadly cross fire from two Turkish Rifle Companies. It was a blood bath. In 10 minutes, the Turkish troops fired 18’000 bullets. 300 Dubliners were killed instantly, the other wounded. The water on the beach turned red from the blood spilled. The landings in the other sectors did little better. The British General Staff assumed that the Turkish Infantry was a demoralized force which would not put up much resistance. They looked at them through the lenses of the war in 1912 – but in 1915, the Turkish soldiers fought for their homes and countryl. They were determined to fight and would not yield ground until killed.

A gruesome Photo of V Beach on 25 April - the surviving Dubliners are below the Fort

Despite repeated effort, the Gallipoli Campaign never got far beyond the shores. End of April, German submarines were inserted in the Mediterranean. Together with Turkish E-boats they sunk three additional English battleships which served as floating gun platforms. They found gaps in the torpedo-nets. HMS Goliath, HMS Triumph and HMS Majestic were lost.

HMS Triumph near Gallipoli in 1915 - could not verify the location

The worst loss was HMT Royal Edward, a troop transporter with almost 1’400 men on board. It was sunk by another German U-Boot near the Dardanelles on October 1015. The Royal Navy still had not learnt its lesson in submarine warfare.

The Gallipoli campaign was a disaster for England and France. The failure to understand the effects of new naval weapons, the lack of modern artillery & accurate intelligence, a difficult terrain, the underestimation of the Turkish fighting moral, all contributed. For all the losses in men and equipent, there was nothing to show for.

English Troops taking Shelter against incoming Turkish Artillery Fire

When Bulgaria entered World War I on Germany's side in October 1915, heavy howitzers and mortars were sent to beef-up the small Turkish artillery force. There was no place to hide any longer. The British High Command knew they could not stay. On 7 December, all ANZAC troops were withdrawn. A month later the English followed. Total casualties for the British Army were 140’000, the Turkish defenders lost 250’000 men.

The planning and preparation of the Gallipoli campaign was full of superficial assumptions, sloppy intelligence and arrogant disregard. The quality of British staff work was dismal. The grunts on the ground paid the price. The disaster cost Churchill his job and sent him into the political desert for decades.

The botched landing served as warning on how not to conduct amphibious operations. The lessons were applied in 1944 in Normandy. Nothing was left to chance. People made fun of Churchill’s “funnies", the special purpose vehicles he requested for the landing. But he knew what he was talking about. The Normandy landing was successful.

We will visit the Gallipoli landing beaches in our first week of sailing.

If you want to watch a good, 8 min video on this subject, you find one on YouTube:

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