A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, December 19, 2014

Britain Raids the Syrian Coast: HMS Doris at Alexandretta 1914

We have previously talked about the British proposal at the outset of the Great War in the Middle East for an amphibious landing at Alexandretta (İskenderun today); that post looked at the strategic importance of the port, and future posts will delve further with the fate of the landing project; but in the meantime, it's time to talk about Britain's naval operations on the Syrian coast a century ago.

Since the feared Turkish attack on the Suez Canal had not yet shown any sign of happening (it would come in late January), it was decided to use naval assets to reconnoiter and if possible raid the Syrian/Palestinian coast of the Ottoman Empire.

HMS Doris
The ships would be HMS Doris, a British protected cruiser (a light cruiser with an armored deck), commanded by Captain Frank Larken, and the Russian protected cruiser Askold, Captain Sergey Ivanov. Askold had been serving in the Far East,  but after the defeat of the German raider Emden was transferred to the Mediterranean. Since Turkey had closed the Straits, Askold could not reach Russian ports in the Black Sea, so she operated with British and French fleets.

Askold was unusual in the Russian fleet for its five funnels, which gave it an easily identifiable silhouette.

At the beginning of December 1914, Askold was sent to reconnoiter the coast and at Haifa cut out a German steamer (also named Haifa) and captured it.

Admiral Richard Peirse
She then proceeded to Port Said. There Vice Admiral Richard Peirse, Commander-in-Chief of Britain's  East Indies (southeast Asia) station had recently arrived in Egypt to defend the Canal. On December 11, Peirse was instructed to dispatch Askold and Doris to the Syrian coast for reconnaissance and other operations. Askold left first, followed by Doris after an air reconnaissance confirmed that Turkish troops around Beersheba (Beersheva) had not left their camps to threaten the canal.

Askold proceeded to Beirut, where she sank two Turkish steamers; she landed landing parties for reconnaissance in several places.

HMS Doris,  meanwhile, proceeded up the coast for what the British Official History calls "a series of remarkable adventures."

The Naval Review, Volume III, No. 4 (1915) contains a rather detailed account entitled "Three Months on the Syrian Coast," available free online from either Google Books or from The Naval Review website. The article, which has no byline but was clearly done by someone aboard the ship or with access to her logbooks, begins on page 621; I draw much of the rest of my narrative from it, as well as from the British official histories, ground forces and naval.

The Eastern Mediterranean in 1914
On December 13 Doris began her voyage up the coast, bombarding a Turkish fortification around al-‘Arish in Sinai. On the 15th she bombarded a Turkish position about two miles south of Ascalon and put a landing party ashore which occupied the position "and removed certain objects of military value or antiquarian interest." Turkish troops soon arrived but the landing party withdrew unscathed under the protection of Doris's guns.

Proceeding up the coast, Doris' seaplane carried out reconnaissance at Jaffa and again at Haifa. The Naval Review article tells a tale about the local official in Jaffa that reads a bit like wartime propaganda but deserves to be repeated anyway:
While off Jaffa and Haifa, seaplane reconnaissances were carried out by Bimbashi Herbert, late of the Egyptian Survey, and Lieut. Destrem, of the French Flying Service. At the former place the arrival of the seaplane caused terror and affright; the Kaimakam, a notorious prosecutor of enemy non combatants, fled headlong from the Serail and concealed himself in a foreigner’s cellar. His Excellency emerged only when seaplane and ship were alike out of sight. He then blustered forth and sought to divert attention from his own unimpressive conduct by ordering the arrest of a number of old women, who, not having cellars in which to hide, had innocently put up umbrellas or parasols to fend off the anticipated shower of umbrellas or parasols to fend off the anticipated shower of bombs. These unfortunate ladies were soundly beaten by the unchivalrous Kaimakam for having “signalled” with these umbrellas to the seaplane.
["Bimbashi Herbert," mentioned here, was the ship's intelligence officer; "Bimbashi" is the rank of major in the Egyptian service. This is apparently one J.R. Herbert, not the far better known intelligence operative Aubrey Herbert, who this same week was settling in at British HQ in Cairo with T.E. Lawrence and others of the intelligence section, which I'll be talking about soon.]

The airmen flew as far as Ramla but neither around Jaffa nor later around Haifa did they spot any Ottoman troop concentrations. Proceeding up the Lebanese coast another landing party went ashore near Sidon to cut the telegraph lines to Damascus:
On December 18th a party under Commander K. Brounger landed about 9 a.m. at a point about four miles south of Sidon. The coastal telegraph line (five wires) and the telephone to Damascus were carefully removed for a distance of nearly three quarters of a mile, the posts being cut down and in many cases sawn in three. As the road bridge within the area occupied had already been cut off from the road to the north by the action of the river, no time was wasted in its destruction. A number of the inhabitants stopped ploughing in order to converse with members of the party and a Turkish mounted gendarme rode up and down at furious speed some two miles away towards Sidon. There was no fighting, but an elderly Maronite, who had been to New York, was temporarily deprived of a fowling piece, which was likely to be highly dangerous to its possessor, and a number of tortoises and two rare frogs were brought off. The latter were subsequently presented by their captor, Bimbashi Herbert, to the Cairo Zoological Gardens.
After the specimen collection, the Doris headed north to Alexandretta, where her target was the railroad. After dark on the 18th she sent a party ashore:
On arriving after nightfall off Alexandretta the Doris experienced one of the savage squalls which haunt that area, and for some time it was doubtful whether a boat could get away. At 11.15 p.m. however the weather moderated enough for Lieut. R. S. Hulme-Goodier, R.N.R. to land with a party at a point about two and a half miles along the coast northward from Jonah’s Pillar (Bab Yunus) and some eight miles in an airline from Alexandretta. Along this part of the coast the rail way runs only a few yards from high-water mark. A couple of rails were loosened and the telegraph wires were cut. The party, working in darkness and as silently as possible escaped observation from the Turkish patrols, but regained the ship with great difficulty owing to the heavy weather. Less than an hour after their return, a train was seen approaching at some eight  miles an hour from the north, and many officers were specially called in order to see the expected fireworks, the ship being at the time less than 2,000 yards from the shore which is fairly steep-to all the way round that part of the gulf. Unfortunately the train was not loaded with ammunition. The engine jumped the damaged section and escaped into Alexandretta with terrified trumpetings. The train however was derailed, many of the trucks being telescoped and the contents, chiefly consisting of live camels, were spilt about.
At dawn another train was observed to be endeavouring to retire from the scene of the disaster and fire was opened on a railway bridge to the northward in order to cut off its retreat. The bridge, like so many on this branch of the Baghdad rail way, was built of steel girders and reinforced concrete, on which shell fire makes impression with difficulty. There was also a considerable sea running. The bridge was damaged, but not fatally, and fire was then directed upon the engine, which was wounded by two 12-pounder common in its Vitals. Proceeding southward, some of the trucks of the derailed train were observed to be on fire, and an immense tethered camel was seen apparently writhing in the flames. The sea had got up, and although every effort was made to put the poor beast out of its pain, it was unavailing until the creature ate the rope which tied it and so escaped.
This was in the morning of December 19, 100 years ago today.

At this point Captain Larken sent an ultimatum demanding the surrender of all railway engines and munitions of war or face bombardment; the local qaimaqam was given until 9 am the next day to reply. The Naval Review account continues:

In the afternoon of the same day, an ultimatum was presented to the Kaimakam of Alexandretta, Fahtin Bey, in which 'the surrender, for purposes of immediate destruction, of all railway engines and munitions of war then in Alexandretta, was insisted upon under penalty of a bombardment of the railway and harbour works and the principal Government buildings. The ultimatum which could not have been drawn in a more stately manner had the surrender of the entire Ottoman Empire been demanded, was handed to His Excellency in person by Lieut. Pirie-Gordon, the Intelligence Officer, at 3 p.m. and he was informed that an answer would have to be forthcoming at 9 o'clock next morning.
[This intelligence officer was apparently Harry Pirie-Gordon, who before the war had made a survey of the coast around Alexandretta and would later serve with the Arab Bureau.]
During the interval unceasing squalls flayed the bay, and although searchlights were played on the town, the rain was so heavy that little could be seen. It was afterwards learnt that the Turks had taken the opportunity to remove such stores as were still in the town under cover of the storm, but owing to the measures taken by the ship they were unable to smuggle out their engines. Next morning, with an eflrontery inspired by the best Prussian traditions, the Turkish Commander-in-Chief in Syria, Djemal Pasha, replied to the ultimatum threatening to massacre one or more British subjects from among the many civilians detained (contrary to international custom) by the Turks, for every Ottoman, combatant or non-combatant, killed in the bombardment, and utterly declining to surrender either engines or stores. Furthermore the United States Acting Consul, Mr. Bishop of the Standard Oil Company, (who very ably filled the difficult position of mediator throughout the whole of these negotiations) was allowed by the Turks to bring off telegrams from his Ambassador in Constantinople and from the British prisoners in Aleppo and Damascus requesting Captain Larken not to bombard Alexandretta. To this fantastic attempt at bluff the captain returned a short answer and informed Djemal Pasha that if he attempted to execute his infamous threat, he, his staff, and every one else who might have obeyed his orders to that end would be specially handed over by the terms of any Treaty of Peace to the British Government for trial and punishment both in person1 and property. A few hours’ grace was accorded for this threat to sink in, and the engines were demanded by 9 o’clock next morning.
While awaiting that answer, Doris made a quiet sortie to the north to destroy a railway bridge.
During the interval the Doris headed north and landed a party under the Commander at the mouth of the Euzerli Chai near the town of Deurt Yol (four roads), which the Armenians call by its equivalent in their language, Chokmerjumen. The Turks opened fire at about 150-200 yards’ range from a trench in front of a small hut, after very kindly allowing the party to land unmolested. The slope of the beach here provided an excellent breastwork from behind which our people returned the Turks’ fire while the ship shelled them out of their trench. The party then advanced in open order to the railway bridge over the Euzerli Chai, over which it was carried by a two-span bridge of steel girders on reinforced concrete abutments. This was carefully blown up by Lieut. Edwards in such a way that one span was twisted and canted over at an angle of 15° as well as being shifted more than three feet out of the true, and the two northern piers were much damaged.
revealing the treasures within. An inspection of the telegraph reel showed that the stationmaster had been doing his duty up to the very moment of surrender, as an unfinished message to the nearest military post was found, in which the Doris was described as a destroyer. The telegraph instruments and the cash were seized in the King’s name by the Intelligence Oflicer, and Herbert removed certain notice boards as souvenirs. The three Armenians volubly insisted on being taken away as prisoners, explaining that the German railway authorities had made the Turks hang two stationmasters the previous day because the Doris had derailed a train, and they feared worse things if they were to be caught after their bridge had been blown up. They were taken on board where they provided exact and valuable information about the Turkish supplies and reinforcements which had passed through their station. Before retiring, a good many shots were fired into the station water tank, from which the water squirted in a most diverting manner through the bullet holes. Some telegraph poles were battered down. The casualties were Private A. H. Brimson, R.M.L.I. [Royal Marine Light Infantry], and one Turk wounded.
After this side venture, Doris returned to the standoff at Alexandretta and the demand for the railway engines.
Next morning, December 22nd,. the Turks agreed to sacrifice their engines and produced two machines which the owners valued at £15,000. They were French built and are believed to have belonged to the old British company which had worked the Mersina-Adana railway before it was taken over by the Germans a few years ago. The Kaimakam, however, explained that he had no explosives and asked if some dynamite could be lent to him by the ship. Captain Larken very obligingly provided some gun-cotton, regretting that he had no dynamite to spare. Lieut. Edwards with a party of torpedo men, specially selected for the size of their beards (it being a Moslem town), was sent, with the Intelligence Oflicer and Staff-Paymaster F. J. K. Melsome as interpreters. The Turks stood on their dignity and declined to allow our people to have anything to do with the explosion. It was explained to the Kaimakam that if the gun-cotton were lent to the Turks without skilled supervision they might (a) hurt somebody by letting it off too soon, or (b) omit to use it for the purpose for which it had been ostensibly borrowed. The former danger was somewhat real, as the German railway engineer upon whom the Turks relied to blow up his own engines for them, declined with almost vulgar emphasis to do anything of the kind, whereat the Kaimakam blandly confessed that he had no one else who would dare, or even knew how, to do the job. Anxious however to oblige, when he found that his proposal to postpone the explosion until the German should be in a more tractable frame  of mind was not entertained, he suggested that if the Doris’s torpedo-lieutenant were to lay the charges satisfactorily to himself, as representing His Britannic Majesty, he could then proceed to fire them, if lent for the purpose to the Ottoman Navy, in order that the actual explosion might be caused by an oflicer duly authorized to represent the Sultan. This proposal was readily accepted, and Mr. Bishop, the United States Acting Consul was witness that Lieut. Edwards, R.N., was rated as a Turkish Naval Officer for the rest of the day. Enjoying this dual capacity Lieut. Edwards afterwards superintended both sections of the explosions, although the actual firing, owing to the inaccessible position of the fuzes, was done by an agile Turkish quarryman under his immediate instruction. The rest of the day was deliberately wasted by the Turks, who exhausted every expedient in hopes of wearing out the patience of the British so as to induce them to agree to a postponement of the operation. Finally after an abrupt threat of bombardment within ten minutes, followed by the vigorous shaking of an unmannerly Ottoman officer of gendarmes, the harbourmaster, a prince of procrastinators, was cast into a shallow part of the sea. Almost immediately after this the matter was put through. The two engines, which had been running about, mournfully whistling from time to time, were caught by the exertions of a squad of cavalry which chased them in the dark. and held in the place of execution under the ship’s searchlights. They were then duly blown up.in the presence of Mr. Bishop, who attended Lieut. Edwards throughout to see fair play, as that officer was unable to speak Turkish and no other officer was allowed to approach the engines. The operation was one of some danger, as after the explosions, bits and bolts rained down over a con siderable area. When at last the party was able to put off, a final laugh was raised among its cold and hungry members when the harbourmaster, pathetically bootless, swordless, and wet, ambled up out of the darkness and remarked in a polite but melancholy voice, “I beseech you go away, the people are excited, oh please to go away, I implore, oh go away.” The party had been some eight hours on the beach on a bleak day, covered the whole time by the rifles of a considerable force of Turks who were posted behind walls and in houses commanding the various piers and cambers whereon the somewhat humorous events of the afternoon and evening were taking place.
After the charade of a British naval lieutenant being officially a Turkish soldier for the purpose of destroying the engines had been duly witnessed by the neutral American Acting Consul (an oilman), the Doris left Alexandretta. Her adventures on the Syrian coast would continue, however, and I'll be providing Part Two soon.

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