Pursuit of Goeben and Breslau

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Naval Pursuit of Goeben and Breslau
Part of World War I
Bundesarchiv Bild 134-C2320, Verfolgung deutscher Kreuzer durch britische Marine.jpg
British ships seen following the German ships
Date 28 July-10 August 1914
Location Mediterranean Sea
Result German victory
Belligerents
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland British Empire
 France
 German Empire
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Archibald Berkeley Milne,
United Kingdom Ernest Troubridge,
France Augustin Boué de Lapeyrère
German Empire Wilhelm Souchon
Strength
3 battlecruisers
4 armoured cruisers
4 light cruiser
14 destroyers
1 battlecruiser
1 Light Cruiser
Casualties and losses
none 4 Sailors

The pursuit of Goeben and Breslau was a naval action that occurred in the Mediterranean Sea at the outbreak of the First World War when elements of the British Mediterranean Fleet attempted to intercept the German Mittelmeerdivision consisting of the battlecruiser SMS Goeben and the light cruiser SMS Breslau. The German ships evaded the British fleet and passed through the Dardanelles to reach Constantinople, where they were eventually handed over to the Ottoman Empire. Renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim, the former Goeben was ordered by its German captain to attack Russian positions, in doing so bringing the Ottoman Empire into the war on the side of the Central Powers.

Though a bloodless "battle", the failure of the British pursuit had enormous political and military ramifications. In the short term it effectively ended the careers of the two British Admirals who had been in charge of the pursuit. Writing several years later, Winston Churchill - who had been First Lord of the Admiralty - expressed the opinion that by forcing Turkey into the war the Goeben had brought "more slaughter, more misery, and more ruin than has ever before been borne within the compass of a ship."[1]

Prelude[edit]

Dispatched in 1912, the Mittelmeerdivision of the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial Navy), comprising only the Goeben and Breslau, under the command of Konteradmiral Wilhelm Souchon. In the event of war, the squadron′s role was to intercept French transports bringing colonial troops from Algeria to France.

When war broke out between Austria-Hungary and Serbia on 28 July 1914, Souchon was at Pola in the Adriatic where Goeben was undergoing repairs to her boilers. Not wishing to be trapped in the Adriatic, Souchon rushed to finish as much work as possible, but then took his ships out into the Mediterranean before all repairs were completed. He reached Brindisi on 1 August, but Italian port authorities made excuses to avoid coaling the ship. This was despite Italy being a co-signatory to the Triple Alliance but had decided to remain neutral. Goeben was joined by Breslau at Taranto and the small squadron sailed for Messina where Souchon was able to obtain 2,000 short tons (1,800 t) of coal from German merchant ships.

Routes taken by the combatants.

Meanwhile, on 30 July Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, had instructed the commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Sir Archibald Berkeley Milne, to cover the French transports taking the XIX Corps from North Africa across the Mediterranean to France. The Mediterranean British Fleet—based at Malta—comprised three fast, modern battlecruisers (HMS Inflexible, Indefatigable, and Indomitable), as well as four armoured cruisers, four light cruisers and a flotilla of 14 destroyers.

Milne′s instructions were "to aid the French in the transportation of their African Army by covering, and if possible, bringing to action individual fast German ships, particularly Goeben, who may interfere in that action. You will be notified by telegraph when you may consult with the French Admiral. Do not at this stage be brought to action against superior forces, except in combination with the French, as part of a general battle. The speed of your squadrons is sufficient to enable you to choose your moment. We shall hope to reinforce the Mediterranean, and you must husband your forces at the outset."[2] Churchill′s orders did not explicitly state what he meant by "superior forces". He later claimed that he was referring to "the Austrian Fleet against whose battleships it was not desirable that our three battle-cruisers should be engaged without battleship support."[3]

Milne assembled his force at Malta on 1 August. On 2 August, he received instructions to shadow Goeben with two battlecruisers while maintaining a watch on the Adriatic, ready for a sortie by the Austrians. Indomitable, Indefatigable, five cruisers and eight destroyers commanded by Rear Admiral Ernest Troubridge were sent to cover the Adriatic. Goeben had already departed but was sighted that same day at Taranto by the British Consul, who informed London. Fearing the German ships might be trying to escape to the Atlantic, the Admiralty ordered that Indomitable and Indefatigable be sent west towards Gibraltar.[4] Milne′s other task of protecting French ships was complicated by the lack of any direct communications with the French navy, which had meanwhile postponed the sailing of the troop ships. The light cruiser HMS Chatham was sent to search the Straits of Messina for Goeben. However, by this time, on the morning of 3 August, Souchon had departed from Messina, heading west.

First contact[edit]

The German light cruiser SMS Breslau.

Without specific orders, Souchon had decided to position his ships off the coast of Africa, ready to engage when hostilities commenced in order to attack French transport ships, which where headed toward Toulouse. He planned to bombard the embarkation ports of Bône and Philippeville in French Algeria. Goeben was heading for Philippeville, while Breslau was detached to deal with Bône. At 18:00 on 3 August, while still sailing west, he received word that Germany had declared war on France. Then, early on 4 August, Souchon received orders from Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz reading: "Alliance with government of CUP concluded August 3. Proceed at once to Constantinople." So close to his targets, Souchon ignored the order and pushed on, flying the Russian flag as he approached, in order to evade detection he carried out a shore bombardment at dawn before breaking off and heading back to Messina for more coal.[5]

Under a pre-war agreement with Britain, France was able to concentrate her entire fleet in the Mediterranean, leaving the Royal Navy to ensure the security of France′s Atlantic coast. Three squadrons of the French fleet were covering the transports. However, assuming that Goeben would continue west to Gibraltar, the French commander, Admiral de Lapeyrère, sent the "Groupe A" of his fleet to the west in order to make contact, but we know now that Souchon was, by this time, heading east and so able to slip away.

At 09:30 on 4 August Souchon made contact with the two British battlecruisers, Indomitable and Indefatigable, which passed the German ships in the opposite direction. Neither force engaged as unlike France, Britain was not yet declared war with Germany (the declaration would not be made until later that day, following the start of the German invasion of neutral Belgium). The British ships commenced shadowing Goeben and Breslau but were quickly outpaced by the Germans. Milne reported the contact and position, but neglected to inform the Admiralty that the German ships were heading east. Churchill therefore still expecting them to threaten the French transports authorised Milne to engage the German ships if they attacked. However, a meeting of the British Cabinet decided that hostilities could not start before a declaration of war, and at 14:00 Churchill was obliged to cancel his attack order.[6]

Pursuit[edit]

The rated speed of Goeben was 27 kn (31 mph; 50 km/h), but her damaged boilers meant she could only manage 24 kn (28 mph; 44 km/h), and this was only achieved by working men and machinery to the limit; four stokers were killed by scalding steam. Fortunately for Souchon, both British battlecruisers were also suffering from problems with their boilers and were unable to keep Goeben′s pace. The light cruiser HMS Dublin maintained contact, while Indomitable and Indefatigable fell behind. In fog and fading light, Dublin lost contact off Cape San Vito on the north coast of Sicily at 19:37. Goeben and Breslau returned to Messina the following morning, by which time Britain and Germany were at war.

The Admiralty ordered Milne to respect Italian neutrality and stay outside a 6 mi (5.2 nmi; 9.7 km) limit from the Italian coast—which precluded entrance into the passage of the Straits of Messina. Consequently, Milne posted guards on the exits from the Straits. Still expecting Souchon to head for the transports and the Atlantic, he placed two battlecruisers—Inflexible and Indefatigable—to cover the northern exit (which gave access to the western Mediterranean), while the southern exit of the Straits was covered by a single light cruiser, HMS Gloucester. Milne sent Indomitable west to coal at Bizerte, instead of south to Malta.[7]

For Souchon, Messina was no haven. The Italian authorities insisted that he depart within 24 hours and delayed supplying coal. Provisioning his ships required ripping up the decks of German merchant steamers in harbour and manually shovelling their coal into his bunkers. By the evening of 6 August, despite the help of 400 volunteers from the merchantmen, he had only taken on 1,500 short tons (1,400 t) which was insufficient to reach Constantinople. Further messages from Tirpitz made his predicament even more dire. He was informed that Austria would provide no naval aid in the Mediterranean and that the Ottoman Empire was still neutral and therefore he should no longer make for Constantinople. Faced with the alternative of seeking refuge at Pola, and probably remaining trapped for the rest of the war, Souchon chose to head for Constantinople anyway, his purpose being "to force the Ottoman Empire, even against their will, to spread the war to the Black Sea against their ancient enemy, Russia."[7]

Milne was instructed on 5 August to continue watching the Adriatic for signs of the Austrian fleet and to prevent the German ships joining them. He chose to keep his battlecruisers in the west, dispatching Dublin to join Troubridge′s cruiser squadron in the Adriatic, which he believed would be able to intercept Goeben and Breslau. Troubridge was instructed 'not to get seriously engaged with superior forces', once again intended as a warning against engaging the Austrian fleet. When Goeben and Breslau emerged into the eastern Mediterranean on 6 August, they were met by Gloucester, which, being outgunned, began to shadow the German ships.[8]

Troubridge′s squadron consisted of the armoured cruisers HMS Defence, Black Prince, Warrior, Duke of Edinburgh and eight destroyers armed with torpedoes. The cruisers had 9.2 in (230 mm) guns versus the 11 in (280 mm) guns of Goeben and had armour a maximum of 6 in (15 cm) thick compared to the battlecruiser′s 11 in (28 cm) armour belt. This meant that Troubridge′s squadron was not only outranged and vulnerable to Goeben′s powerful guns, but it was unlikely that his cruiser′s guns could seriously damage the German ship at all, even at short range.[9] In addition, the British ships were several knots slower than Goeben, despite her damaged boilers,[10] meaning that she could dictate the range of the battle if she spotted the British squadron in advance. Consequently, Troubridge considered his only chance was to locate and engage Goeben in favourable light, at dawn, with Goeben east of his ships, and ideally launch a torpedo attack with his destroyers; however, at least five of the destroyers did not have enough coal to keep up with the cruisers steaming at full speed. By 04:00 on 7 August, Troubridge realised he would not be able to intercept the German ships before daylight and after some deliberation he signalled Milne with his intentions to break off the chase, mindful of Churchill′s ambiguous order to avoid engaging a "superior force". No reply was received until 10:00, by which time he had withdrawn to Zante to refuel.[11]

Escape[edit]

Admiral Milne

Milne ordered Gloucester to disengage, still expecting Souchon to turn west, but it was apparent to Gloucester′s captain that Goeben was fleeing. Breslau attempted to harass Gloucester into breaking off—Souchon had a collier waiting off the coast of Greece and needed to shake his pursuer before he could rendezvous. Gloucester finally engaged Breslau, hoping this would compel Goeben to drop back and protect the light cruiser. According to Souchon, Breslau was hit, but no damage was done. The action then broke off without further hits being scored. Finally, Milne ordered Gloucester to cease pursuit at Cape Matapan.

Shortly after midnight on 8 August Milne took his three battlecruisers and the light cruiser HMS Weymouth east. At 14:00 he received an incorrect signal from the Admiralty stating that Britain was at war with Austria; war would not be declared until 12 August and the order was countermanded four hours later, but Milne chose to guard the Adriatic rather than seek Goeben. Finally, on 9 August, Milne was given clear orders to "chase Goeben which had passed Cape Matapan on the 7th steering north-east." Milne still did not believe that Souchon was heading for the Dardanelles, and so he resolved to guard the exit from the Aegean, unaware that Goeben did not intend to come out.

Souchon had replenished his coal off the Aegean island of Donoussa on 9 August, and the German warships resumed their voyage to Constantinople. At 17:00 on 10 August, he reached the Dardanelles and awaited permission to pass through. Germany had for some time been courting the Committee of Union and Progress of the imperial government, and it now used its influence to pressure the Turkish Minister of War, Enver Pasha, into granting the ship′s passage, an act that would outrage Russia, which relied on the Dardanelles as its main all-season shipping route. In addition, the Germans managed to persuade Enver to order any pursuing British ships to be fired on. By the time Souchon received permission to enter the straits, his lookouts could see smoke on the horizon from approaching British ships.

Turkey was still a neutral country bound by treaty to prevent German ships from passing the straits. To get around this difficulty it was agreed that the ships should become part of the Turkish navy. On 16 August, having reached Constantinople, Goeben and Breslau were transferred to the Turkish Navy in a small ceremony, becoming respectively the Yavuz Sultan Selim and the Midilli, though they retained their German crews with Souchon still in command. The initial reaction in Britain was one of satisfaction, that a threat had been removed from the Mediterranean. On 23 September, Souchon was appointed commander-in-chief of the Ottoman Navy.[12]

Consequences[edit]

In August, Germany—still expecting a swift victory—was content for the Ottoman Empire to remain neutral. The mere presence of a powerful warship like Goeben in the Sea of Marmara would be enough to occupy a British naval squadron guarding the Dardanelles. However, following German reverses at the First Battle of the Marne in September, and with Russian successes against Austria-Hungary, Germany began to regard the Ottoman Empire as a useful ally. Tensions began to escalate when the Ottoman Empire closed the Dardanelles to all shipping on 27 September, blocking Russia's exit from the Black Sea—the Black Sea route accounted for over 90% of Russia's import and export traffic.

Germany′s gift of the two modern warships had an enormous positive impact on the Turkish population. At the outbreak of the war, Churchill had caused outrage when he "requisitioned" two almost completed Turkish battleships in British shipyards, the Sultan Osman I and the Reshadieh, which had been financed by public subscription at a cost of £6,000,000. Turkey was offered compensation of £1,000 per day for so long as the war might last, provided she remained neutral. (These ships were commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Agincourt and HMS Erin respectively.) The Turks had been neutral, though the navy had been pro-British (having purchased 40 warships from British shipyards) while the army was in favour of Germany, so the two incidents helped resolve the deadlock and the Ottoman Empire would join the Central Powers.[13]

Ottoman engagement[edit]

1914[edit]

Sevastopol[edit]

Continued diplomacy from France and Russia attempted to keep the Ottoman Empire out of the war, but Germany was agitating for a commitment. In the aftermath of Souchon′s daring dash to Constantinople, on 15 August 1914 the Ottomans canceled their maritime agreement with Britain and the Royal Navy mission under Admiral Limpus left by 15 September.

Finally, on 29 October, the point of no return was reached when Admiral Souchon took Goeben, Breslau and a squadron of Turkish warships into the Black Sea and raided the Russian ports of Novorossiysk, Odessa and Sevastopol. For 25 minutes, Goeben′s main and secondary guns fired on Sevastopol. In reply, two 12 in (300 mm) shells fired from a Russian fort at an extreme range of over 10 mi (8.7 nmi; 16 km) blew a pair of holes in the ship's aft smoke-stack killing 14 men. On the return journey, Goeben hit the Russian destroyer Leiteneat Pushchin with two 5.9 in (150 mm) shells and sank the Russian minelayer Prut, which had 700 mines on board intended for a minefield planned to be laid across the battlecruiser's homeward route.

The attack on Novorossiysk was also an outstanding success, with 14 steamers in the harbour sunk by Breslau′s guns while 40 oil tanks were set on fire, liberating streams of burning petroleum that engulfed whole streets. Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire on 2 November, and France and Britain followed on 5 November. The first land battles were expected in the Caucasus, and transport steamers started carrying Turkish troops eastwards along the Anatolian coast to Samsun and Trebizond. The Russian Black Sea Fleet sank three of these ships so, when another convoy sailed on 16 November, Breslau accompanied it as an escort while Goeben—which had located and severed the Sevastopol-Odessa submarine cable on the night of 10/11 November—cruised in the middle of the Black Sea.

Crimean Encounter[edit]

On 18 November, in a dense bank of fog, Breslau joined her consort. The two German ships were almost on top of the Russian Fleet, when the fog cleared and suddenly the antagonists were in each other′s view at less than 4,000 yd (3,700 m) range. Instantly, the guns of both sides opened fire. Goeben—with Breslau sheltering behind her—found herself sailing past the entire line of the Black Sea Fleet. A 12 in (300 mm) shell from a Russian battleship tore through the armour of Goeben′s 5.9 in (150 mm) casement, killing the six-man gun crew and detonating the ammunition. Only swift flooding of a magazine prevented a bigger explosion, but the Russian flagship Evstafi was hit four times by Goeben, killing 33 men, and the Russian battleship Rostislav were badly damaged. The Black Sea Fleet quickly hid itself again but continued to threaten the Turkish Black Sea coast for the rest of the war.

Troop transports[edit]

In November and December, Breslau and the light cruiser Hamidie undertook frequent troopship escorts to the Caucasus, but the Goeben consumed too much coal for this kind of work, although on 10 December she fired fifteen 11 in (280 mm) shells at the Russian shore defenses of Batumi. Intense Russian wireless activity on 23 December made it evident that the Black Sea Fleet had left the harbour. Goeben and Breslau were sent out to provide escort for some transports and, as night fell over a rough, wind-lashed sea, the German light cruiser was detached to reconnoitre to the NE. The Russian radios were silent now, and the whereabouts of the Black Sea Fleet were unknown. At 04:00, Breslau encountered the Russian fleet. Her searchlight illuminated a transport, which was sunk with a single salvo, and then the silhouette of a Russian battleship was caught in its beam. A second salvo from Breslau straddled the massive vessel before the light cruiser sought refuge in the darkness.

While returning from escorting another troop transport on 26 December, Goeben was mined off the Bosphorus. The first mine exploded to the starboard beneath the conning tower, which immediately caused a 30° list to port. Two minutes later, the ship hit a second mine, this time off the port wing barbette, where 600 short tons (540 t) of water disabled No. 3 turret and flooded the ship. The stricken battlecruiser was barely able to reach Stenia Creek. The damage was serious and kept Goeben in port for three months, apart from two brief sorties intended to deter Russian battleships that were apparently approaching Constantinople.

1915[edit]

Second Encounter[edit]

On 3 April, Goeben left the Bosphorus in company with Breslau to cover the withdrawal of the Turkish cruisers Hamidie and Medjidie, which had been sent to bombard Nikolayev. Medjidie struck a mine and sank, so this attack had to be abandoned, but the two German ships appeared off Sevastopol and tempted out the Black Sea Fleet. Although six Russian battleships—supported by two cruisers and five destroyers—were bearing down upon them, Goeben and Breslau sank two cargo steamers and then deliberately loitered about to draw on their pursuers. Hamidie had to be given time to return to the Bosphorus with survivors from the Medjidie.

When the range had closed to about 15,000 yd (14,000 m), Breslau slipped between her sister and the Russian squadron and laid a dense smoke screen. Under its cover, the German ships turned away, but kept their speed down so as not to discourage pursuit. Eagerly, the Russians chased after them, the ponderous battleships at their maximum 25 kn (29 mph; 46 km/h). At one point, Breslau fell back far enough to draw fire from the Russian line, but she spurted out of range again before any hits were sustained. As darkness fell, Goeben and Breslau began to pull away from their pursuers, for Hamidie had radioed that she was almost home, but in the darkness Russian destroyers closed on Goeben, stalking her in her smoke. But their wireless chatter betrayed them and Goeben′s four 60 in (1,500 mm) stern searchlights illuminated the shapes of five destroyers only 200 yd (180 m) astern.

Breslau′s guns opened fire, and the first destroyer burst into flames, mortally hit. The second in line suffered a similar fate, while the remainder turned tail and fled. None of their torpedoes had found a mark, and at noon the following day Goeben and Breslau were once more off the Bosphorus.

Royal Navy[edit]

While the consequences of the Royal Navy′s failure to intercept Goeben and Breslau had not been immediately apparent, the humiliation of the "defeat" resulted in Admirals de Lapeyrère, Milne and Troubridge being censured. Milne was recalled from the Mediterranean and did not hold another command until retirement at his own request in 1919, his planned assumption of the Nore command having been cancelled in 1916 due to "other exigencies". The Admiralty repeatedly stated that Milne had been exonerated of all blame.[14] For his failure to engage Goeben with his cruisers, Troubridge was court-martialled in November on the charge that "he did forbear to chase His Imperial German Majesty′s ship Goeben, being an enemy then flying." The charge was not proved on the grounds that he was under orders not to engage a "superior force". However, he was never given another sea-going command but did valuable service, co-operating with the Serbs on the Balkan and being given command of a force on the Danube in 1915 against the Austro-Hungarians. He eventually retired as a full Admiral.[15]

Long-term consequences[edit]

Although a relatively minor 'action' and perhaps not widely known historical event, the escape of Goeben to Constantinople and its eventual annexation to Turkey ultimately precipitated some of the most dramatic naval chases of the 20th century. It also assisted in helping to shape the eventual splitting up of the Ottoman Empire into the many states we know today.

General Ludendorff stated in his memoirs that he believed the entry of the Turks into the war allowed the outnumbered Central powers to fight on for two years longer than they would have been able on their own, a view shared by historian Ian F.W. Beckett.[16] The war was extended to the Middle East with main fronts of Gallipoli, the Sinai and Palestine, Mesopotamia, and the Caucasus. The course of the war in the Balkans was also influenced by the entry of the Ottoman Empire on the side of the Central Powers. Had the war ended in 1916, some of the bloodiest engagements, such as the Battle of the Somme, would have been avoided. The United States might not have been drawn from its policy of isolation to intervene in a foreign war.

In allying with the Central Powers, Turkey shared their fate in ultimate defeat. This gave the allies the opportunity to carve up the collapsed Ottoman Empire to suit their political whims. Many new nations were created including Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and the idea of a Jewish state in Israel was considered for the first time.

Also, the closure of Russia′s at the time only ice-free trade route through the Dardanelles effectively strangled the Russian economy until a railway was constructed in 1915/16 to what would shortly become the town of Murmansk on the coast of the Barents sea to the far north. Difficulties in exporting grain or importing munitions was a significant problem for the Russian economy as well as for the Russian army. Combined with the German decision to release Vladimir Lenin in 1917, the sealing off of the Black Sea was one of the important contributors to the "revolutionary situation" in Russia, which would explode into the process leading to the October Revolution.

In fiction[edit]

The alternate history short story "Tradition", written by Elizabeth Moon, imagines Admiral Christopher Cradock in place of Admiral Troubridge as commander of the cruiser and destroyer force to the east of the Straits of Messina;[17] in the story, Cradock ignores Admiral Milne′s instructions to guard the Adriatic Sea and instead intercepts the Goeben and Breslau north of Crete. In the ensuing battle, his fleet loses two of the four armoured cruisers and six of his eight destroyers, but manages to destroy both German ships before they reach their goal of Constantinople. In reality, Cradock was not present in the Mediterranean, but died three months later at the Battle of Coronel after challenging a larger German force, a decision reputedly made in part because he wanted to avoid Troubridge's presumed ignominy in allowing Goeben and Breslau to escape.

See also[edit]

Media related to Pursuit of Goeben and Breslau at Wikimedia Commons

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Tuchman, Barbara W. The Guns of August. New York: Macmillan, 1962, p. 187.
  2. ^ Lumby. The Mediterranean. p. 146. 
  3. ^ Churchill, Winston (1930). The World Crisis I. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons. pp. 252–253. 
  4. ^ Massie, Castles of Steel, p. 31, who in turn cites McLaughlin, p. 49.
  5. ^ Massie. Castles of Steel p. 34.
  6. ^ Massie. Castles of Steel, p. 36.
  7. ^ a b Massie. Castles of Steel, p. 39.
  8. ^ Massie. Castles of Steel, pp. 40-41.
  9. ^ Van Der Vat p140-141
  10. ^ Van Der Vat p135-136
  11. ^ Massie. Castles of Steel, p. 44.
  12. ^ Massie. Castles of Steel, pp. 48–49.
  13. ^ Massie. Castles of Steel, pp. 22-23.
  14. ^ "Admiral Sir A. B. Milne" (Obituaries). The Times (London). Wednesday, 6 July 1938. (48039), col D, p. 18.
  15. ^ "Admiral Sir Ernest Troubridge" (Obituaries). The Times (London). Saturday, 30 January 1926. (44183), col A, p. 12.
  16. ^ Ian F.W. Beckett (2013). "Turkey’s Momentous Moment". HistoryToday. Retrieved 1 November 2014. 
  17. ^ Moon, Elizabeth. "Tradition." Alternate Generals. ed. Harry Turtledove. 1996

Bibliography[edit]

External links[edit]