A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, December 12, 2014

December 13, 1914: Submarine HMS B11 Sinks Turkey's Mesudiye in the Dardanelles

A fanciful portrayal as B11 was submerged
Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the first loss of a major warship in naval action in the Middle East in the First World War. Smaller river patrol craft had been lost in the Mesopotamian campaign, and some Russian vessels in Admiral Souchon's Black Sea Raid, but on this day the British submarine HMS B11 (Lt. Norman D. Holbrook, Commanding) sank the Turkish battleship Mesudiye (Maj. Beşiktaşlı Arif Nebi Bey, Commanding, but with Captain Üsküdarlı Rıfat Bey in acting command during the attack) as she was moored to protect minefields at Sarısığlar Bay off Chanak (Çanakkale), at the narrowest point in the Dardanelles.

It looked nothing like the fanciful sketch above, however, since His Majesty's Submarine B11 remained submerged at periscope depth throughout the entire attack

The achievement earned for the 26-year-old Lieutenant Holbrook the first Victoria Cross ever awarded to a submariner, and the first naval VC of the war. The VC is of course Britain's highest military honor.

Holbrook souvenir card
Holbrook even became a celebrity of sorts for a while, as the trading card at right shows; and in 1915 the Australian town of Germanton in New South Wales, feeling "Germanton" was not suitably patiotic, changed its name to Holbrook (who was English); and today, Holbrook, NSW houses the Holbrook Submarine Museum (though it is not on the coast). and features a scaled-down model of B11.

Scale model of HMS B11 in Holbrook, NSW
The war would see far more dramatic instances of submarine warfare, but the war in the Middle East was still new and in need of heroes.

Mesudiye after her refit
B11's daring was real enough (she also appears as B.11, B-11,  etc.), but Mesudiye was very much a sitting duck, anchored as a floating battery to defend the minefields. Her captain and officers had vigorously protested this role, but she was old and slow and the Ottoman Navy was now under German command, and Souchon and the Germans insisted.

Mesudiye was old (launched in 1874) after being built, ironically given her ultimate fate, at the Thames Iron Works in Britain. She was originally rated as a central-battery ironclad. In 1903 she was sent to Genoa for a complete rebuild and refit, and was subsequently classed as a pre-Dreadnought battleship, though her tonnage was less than half of that of the modern battle cruiser Yavuz (ex-Goeben). Worse still, her two big central guns had never been installed. 

B11, decks awash
HMS B11 was a British "B"-class sub launched in 1906. With her sister boats B9 and B10, she had been based in Malta since 1912 and was now operating from Tenedos with her sister boats and three French submarines as the sub force attached to the British flotilla patrolling the Aegean and blockading the exit from the straits since the flight of the Goeben and Breslau. Lt. Holbrook had taken command of B11 in December 1913.

Here's a period newspaper illustration; the narrative of the battle follows below.

Let's begin with the British side first. From the History of the Great War - Naval Operations, Volune 2, by Sir Julian Corbett (himself a distinguished sea power theorist), we find the details of Lieutenant Holbrook's attack:
So great was the demand for destroyers at home to meet the submarine menace that he [Admiral Carden] was only allowed to keep the six he had on his urgent representation that the six boats the French had sent were of too old a type to deal with the modern Turkish ones. The Goeben moreover was soon active again. From December 7 to 10 she had been out in the Black Sea with the Hamidieh escorting troops and transports, and had bombarded Batum for a short time. At the same time the Breslau had been detected apparently laying mines off Sevastopol, but had been met by bombing aeroplanes. In the Dardanelles was another cruiser, the Messudieh, guarding the minefield below the Narrows. Without more cruisers it was therefore impossible to maintain a blockade of Smyrna and Dedeagatch, and at the same time guard the flying base which had been established for the flotilla at Port Sigri, in Mityleni. The French, however, came to the rescue by sending up two ships, the cruiser Amiral Charner and the seaplane carrier Foudre, which, having left her sea-planes in Egypt, had been doing escort duty on the Port Said-Malta line. They were still on their way when a brilliant piece of service was performed, which did something to relieve the Admiral's anxiety and much to brighten the monotony of the eventless vigil.
For some time the three British submarines (B.9, 10 and 11) and the three French, had been itching for a new experience. There were known to be five lines of mines across the fairway inside the Straits, but Captain C. P. R. Coode, the resourceful commander of the destroyer flotilla, and Lieutenant-Commander G. H. Pownall, who commanded the submarines under him, believed that by fitting a submarine with certain guards the obstacle could be passed. Amongst both the French and the British submarine commanders there was keen competition to be made the subject of the experiment. Eventually the choice fell on Lieutenant N. D. Holbrook, of B.11, which had recently had her batteries renewed and had already been two miles up the Straits in chase of two Turkish gunboats.
On December 13, having been duly fitted with guards, she went in to torpedo anything she could get at. In spite of the strong adverse current Lieutenant Holbrook succeeded in taking his boat clear under the five rows of mines, and, sighting a large two-funnelled vessel painted grey with the Turkish ensign flying, he closed her to 800 yards, fired a torpedo and immediately dived. As the submarine dipped he heard the explosion, and putting up his periscope saw that the vessel was settling by the stern. He had now to make the return journey, but to the danger of the mine-field a fresh peril was added; the lenses of the compass had become so badly fogged, that steering by it was no longer possible. He was not even sure where he was, but taking into consideration the time since he had passed Cape Helles, and the fact that the boat appeared to be entirely surrounded by land, he calculated that he must be in Sari Sighlar Bay.
Several times he bumped the bottom as he ran along submerged at full speed, but the risk of ripping open the submarine had to be taken, and it was not till half an hour had passed and be judged that the mines must now be behind him that he put up his periscope again. There was now a clear horizon on his port beam, and for this he steered, taking peeps from time to time to correct his course since the compass was still unserviceable. Our watching destroyers noticed a torpedo-boat apparently searching for him; but after he had dived twice under a minefield and navigated the Dardanelles submerged without a compass, so ordinary a hazard seems to have escaped his notice. It was not till he returned to the base, having been nine hours under water, that he learned that the vessel he had torpedoed was the cruiser Messudieh. Such an exploit was quite without precedent. The Admiralty at once telegraphed their highest appreciation of the resource and daring displayed. Lieutenant Holbrook received the V.C, Lieutenant S. T. Winn, his second in command, a D.S.O., and every member of the crew a D.S.C. or D.S.M. according to rank. (The Turks state that the Messudieh was placed in this exposed position by the Germans contrary to Turkish opinion. They also say she was hit before she saw the submarine or could open fire, and that she turned over and sank in ten minutes. Many men were imprisoned in her, but most of them were extricated, when plant and divers arrived from Constantinople and holes could be cut in her bottom. In all 49 officers and 587 men were saved. The casualties were 10 officers and 27 men killed. She sank in shoal water and most of her guns were afterwards salved and added to the minefield and intermediate defences.)
Encouraged by this success Admiral Carden asked for one of the latest class of submarines. He was sure that if fitted like B.11 she could go right up to the Golden Horn. But as the Scarborough raid had just taken place and the High Seas Fleet showed signs of awakening none could be spared, and the blockade settled down again to its dull routine. Though there were constant rumours of a coming destroyer attack in retaliation for the loss of the Messudieh, the indications were that at the Dardanelles the enemy's only thought was defence.
It may be worth mentioning that B11 was operated by a crew of two officers and 11 men. In these early days of submarine warfare, it is worth noting how frequently the accounts note with some wonder that B11 remained submerged for nine hours. At this time surface vessels had no sonar and no way of detecting submarines unless they spotted the periscope. Even if spotted, they had no depth charges, while the sub had the torpedo.
Mesudiye after sinking
 To offer the Turkish perspective, I am quoting this from the website Turkey in the First World War's page on Major Naval Opeations: I urge you to visit their site. They quote the Mesudiye's acting commander in the course of the account:
The Allies were planning first to cross the straits with submarines, which would make the warships’ job easier in the subsequent phases of the war. However, crossing the straits was not an easy job, not only because of the mine barrages, coastal barriers, observers and projectors, but also because of the strong currents and differences in water density. The first Allied submarine to be sighted by the Turks was the French Faradi, which, on November 23, approached the entrance of the Dardanelles, but had to retreat as the Turkish batteries at Seddülbahir opened fire. A few days later, the British submarine B-11, commanded by Lt Cmd Norman Holbrook was given the task to attempt to force the Dardanelles.B-11 set sail from Tenedos during the early hours of December 13, 1914. Successfully passing under five mine barrages, she arrived at the Sarısığlar Bay where she sighted Mesudiye at around 11:30 am. B-11 fired two torpedoes. Mesudiye immediately opened fire with her remaining guns, but this was to no avail. In ten minutes the battleship capsized and sank in shallow water. In his memoirs, Captain Üsküdarlı Rıfat Bey, who was the acting commander of Mesudiye at the time of the attack, wrote about the details of the event: “There was no point in continuing to fire. I had to think about the personnel, so I ordered ceasefire to be followed by an order to leave the ship. The first torpedo of the enemy submarine hit a little above the ammunition storage of Mesudiye’s stern guns. If it were only 15-20 cm below, it would be a direct hit on the ammunition storage and the ship would blow up in the instant. We had replaced the removed guns with sand and chains in order to keep the balance. If that had not been done, the ammunition storage would be elevated and that would result in a direct hit.”

As B-11 returned to its base, the Turkish transport Bolayır rescued 48 officers and 573 men from Mesudiye. Some sailors were trapped inside the ship and it took 36 hours to release them. Total Turkish losses were 34, including ten officers and 24 men. The guns salvaged from Mesudiye were installed at a coastal battery named after the ship itself.

The loss of Mesudiye was a psychological blow for the Turks, which forced them to strengthen the defenses of the Dardanelles. New mine barrages were erected by Samsun and Nusrat. By the end of 1914, there were nine lines comprising of a total of 324 mines inside the Dardanelles. On the Allied side, encouraged by B-11’s success, Vice Admiral Sackville Carden asked for more submarines to be deployed in the area, although his request could only be fulfilled to a limited extent by the Admiralty. Carden also decreed that no Allied submarine would sail on patrol without his express permission.
As for the aftermath, I've mentioned the naming of Holbrook, New South Wales, at the beginning. Holbrook rose to the rank of Commander during the war. He returned to England after the war and lived in Sussex until his death in 1976, aged 87. After his death his widow donated his VC to the town named for him. At last report it was on loan to the Australian War Memorial.

Even the sunken Mesudiye would have a measure of revenge. As the accounts above note, one reason that so many were rescued was that it went down in shoal-depth. As a result, her guns were also salvaged, and they were installed ashore in a shore battery also named Mesudiye.

Mesudiye's Guns'  Revenge: Bouvet sinking, March 1915
Ironically, Mesudiye's guns would be responsible for gaining a measure of revenge. During the Allied attempt to force the Strait on March 18, 1915, the beginning of the Dardanelles campaign, the Mesudiye shore battery provided some of the fire that sank the French battleship Bouvet.

At least one of her guns is still reportedly on display at Gallipoli (left).

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