A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Turkey Enters the War: The Flight of Goeben and Breslau to Constantinople, Part I

Recently, we looked at how, as Europe descended into war a century ago, Winston Churchill's seizure of two Turkish dreadnoughts under construction in British shipyards inadvertently provided support for the Ottoman Minister of War, Enver Pasha, in his efforts to form a Turkish alliance with Germany. The treaty was signed on August 3, but Turkey was not yet willing to acknowledge it publicly, as Germany would have preferred. The next steps in the road to war with Turkey involved an epic naval chase across the Mediterranean an  tense moment in the Turkish Straits, but forced Turkey to tilt openly towards the Central Powers. This was the famous pursuit of the Goeben and Breslau,  and it took place a century ago this week..

The story has been frequently told. It occupies its own chapter in Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, in Robert K. Massie's Castles of Steel, in David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace, and in many general histories of the Great War in general or the war in the Middle East in particular, A leas one whole book in English, Dan Van Der Vat's The Ship That Changed the World: The Escape of the Goeben to the Dardanelles in 1914, not to mention works in Turkish and German. It produced a whole new front in the emerging war and led to a celebrated British Admiralty Court of Inquiry.

During the treaty negotiations on August 1, Enver, but not the other Turkish negotiators, ha held a private meeting at the German Embassy in Constantinople with Ambassador von Wangenheim and Geman Military Mission Chief Liman von Sanders (for all three men, see he earlier post.) The three men felt that deploying Germany's small Mediterranean fleet to the Black Sea could strengthen Turkey's (and Bulgaria's) position against Russia.

This first post introduces the ships and the Dramatis Personae. Part II later this week will deal with the chase across the Mediterranean, and Part III early next week with the aftermath in Constantinople.

Admiral Wilhelm Souchon
The secret treaty between Germany and Turkey had been signed on August 3. Germany was already at war with France and Russia and Britain's ultimatum to Germany was to expire at midnight. Early on August 4, the German Admiralty signaled to the German Mediterranean Division (consisting of only two ships) that the treaty with Turkey ha been signed, and ordering the commander, Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, to proceed to Constantinople. That was rescinded when it became clear Turkey was not about to announce the treaty and enter the war, but Souchon was about to do it anyway. Souchon had at his disposal the new, fast, well-gunned battle cruiser SMS Goeben, smaller but as well-armed and faster than a dreadnought, and the smaller cruiser SMS Breslau.
SMS Goeben

The strongest fleet in the Mediterranean was France's, with several modern battleships, since Britain's Royal Navy had pledged to protect Frances Channel and Atlantic coasts, allowing the French fleet to protect the movement of goods and troopships between North Africa and Toulon.

SMS Breslau
Austria-Hungary had a strong fleet on paper, but it spent the war in port in Pola at the head of the Adriatic (today Pula in Croatia). Italy had declared armed neutrality, so its fleet was not in play. With the French fleet protecting the lines of communication with North Africa, that left the British and Germans.

Admiral Sir Berkeley Milne
Souchon's ships have been mentioned. The British Mediterranean Fleet, based in Malta, had no battleships (those were in home waters) but three battle cruisers, HMS Inflexible, Indomitable, and Indefatigable. any one of which was a more or less even match for Goeben, as well as four armored cruisers, four light cruisers, and 14 destroyers. This force was commanded by Admiral Sir Archibald Berkeley Milne, son and grandson of admirals and well connected at Court, but not highly respected in naval circles.

Vice Admiral Sir Ernest Troubridge
Milne was to stay with the three battle cruisers during the campaign as his first squadron,  keeping his flag on Inflexible, while the second squadron, consisting of battle cruisers, light cruisers, and destroyers, was under the command of Rear Admiral Sir Ernest Troubridge. Troubridge had had a great-grandfather who served under Nelson at Cape St. Vincent and he Nile, so he too had a naval heritage; he has also been naval attache in Japan at the time of Tsushima and had seen what modern warships could do.

Neither Milne nor Troubridge was exactly a Nelson, but the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, had muddled thingss further on the eve of war; our earlier post noted how he was well out ahead of the Cabinet in preparing the Navy for war. On July 30, aware that war was likely, sent this order to Milne:
Your first task should be 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.
"Do not at this stage be brought to action against superior forces, except in combination with the French, as part of a general battle." What those words meant would be debated later by a Court of Inquiry and a Court Martial.

 Churchill kept sending Milne orders. On August 2, "Goeben is to be shadowed by two battle cruisers." On August 3:
Watch on mouth of Adriatic should be maintained, but Goeben is your objective. Follow her and shadow her wherever she goes, and be ready to act on declaration of war which appears probable and imminent.
Milne assumed, and London probably assumed, that the German ships had three likely destinations: 1) to interfere with the French troop transports in the western basin of the Mediterranean; 2) to escape via the Straits of Gibraltar into the Atlantic; and 3) to enter the Adriatic and join he Austrian fleet at Pola. The idea of  flight to the Turkish Straits does not seem to have been considered a likely scenario by the British side.

On August 1, as Milne prepared to leave Malta,he ordered Troubridge's cruisers to watch the mouth of the Adriatic, a light cruiser, HMS Chatham, to watch the Strait of Messina, and two of his battle cruisers, Indomitable and Indefatigable, to head west toward Gibraltar. Britain, remember, was still at that point three days from entering the war.

One of the German ships (note flag) with pursuing British
Souchon had indeed been at Messina, but left before Chatham arrived. On August 3, learning that Germany was at war with France, Souchon steamed towards Algeria.to try to intercept the French. But at 2 am on August 4 he received the previously-mentioned order to "proceed at once to Constantinople." Rather than wait for the French transports, he contented himself with shelling the Algerian coast; Goeben shelling Philippeville (now Skikda) while Breslau shelled Bone (now Annaba). The two ships headed back to Messina. They were spotted by Indomitable and Indefatigable, but Britain was not yet in the war. The ultimatum was to expire at midnight, but the German ships escaped to Messina, where they planned to coal from German ships due to Italian neutrality. Aware that Britain could enter the war at any time, Souchon laid on steam to outrun his pursuers, in the end shadowed by the light cruiser HMS Dublin.

Meanwhile, Milne had been ordered to strictly respect Italian neutrality to the point of remaining at least six miles from the Italian coast. Since at its narrowest point the Strait of Messina was less than two miles wide, that barred him from the Strait.

Milne decided to guard both exits from the Strait, since by morning Britain and Germany were at war. But Milne assumed Souchon would head west; Troubridge's cruisers were guarding the Adriatic and no one suspected Goeben was aiming for Constantinople.

HMS Dublin
So he kept the battle cruisers at the northern exit into the western Mediterranean, he stationed Inflexible and Indefatigable there, and sent Indomitable to fuel at Bizerte in Tunisia.

HMS Gloucester
To patrol the southeastern exit, he assigned the light cruiser HMS Gloucester as the only guard. Its Captain, Howard Kelly, was ironically the brother of the Captain of HMS Dublin, John Kelly, who had earlier been part of the pursuit and would be again..

Throughout August 4 and 5, the British maintained the watch on the exits. Meanwhile, though Enver had asked for German ships, Berlin learned that the Grand Vizier and the rest of the Turkish Cabinet were balking, and rescinded the "Proceed to Constantinople" order. But Souchon was given the option to decide on his destination, and he did not want to end up in Pola under Austrian command. He chose to head for Constantinople anyway.

In Part Two: the Chase.

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