A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Turkish Attack on the Suez Canal, 1915, Part II: The British Defenses, 1: Naval and Air Units

Yesterday I began this series on the Ottoman attack on the Suez Canal in January/February 1915 with a look at the Ottoman plans and order of battle. Today  we will look at the British defense preparations. The British preparations are recorded in much more detail, and today I want to begin with looking at naval and air deployments. On Monday, we'll look at the British/Indian/ANZAC ground force deployments. (Other than a few machine-gun units and some logistical support, the Egyptian Army was not used; Egypt was not a recognized belligerent.)

The Royal Navy

Admiral Richard Peirse
While both sides in the Canal battle had ground troops and a handful of aircraft, Britannia still ruled the waves, and the Royal Navy is considered the senior service, so it is appropriate to begin with the naval defense of Britain's vital naval lifeline to India. As we noted last year, the Commander-in Chief of Britain's East Indies Station in the Indian Ocean to Southeast Asia, Vice Admiral Richard Peirse, had transferred his command to Port Said in order to defend the Canal.

HMS Swiftsure
His flagship, HMS Swiftsure, a pre-Dreadnought class battleship, was based at Port Said. and the other British battleship on the scene, HMS Ocean was at Suez at the southern end of the Canal. The other heavy battleship, the French Requin, was an older ship built in 1885 and now classed as  coastal defense ship. It was birthed in a dredged birth in Lake Timsah, in mid-Canal.

Besides the capital ships, there were two protected cruisers, HMS Minerva and the French cruiser D'Entrecasteaux, the British sloop Clio, the British Armed Merchant Cruiser Himalaya (to be transferred fully to the Navy later), and the royal Indian Marine Ship RIMS Hardinge, in the naval service of British India.

The British plan was to deploy these vessels along the length of the Canal, particularly in those areas where their big naval guns could be brought to bear against attackers from the East Bank. There were certain limitations. As the official Naval History notes:
Though the canal provided excellent lateral communication, its advantage was a good deal discounted by the fact that in many places the sand dunes on the east bank were too high for the shell of the heavy guns to clear. This was specially the case from El Ferdan to Lake Timsah, also with all the centre section from Timsah to Deversoir, and finally the four miles between the southern end of the Bitter Lake and Shallufa. This difficulty also necessitated special arrangements for indirect fire wherever the gunlayers could not see over the banks, and their work was further hampered by the almost continuous mirage in the desert. A minor direct fire, however, was obtained by mounting light quick-firing guns and Maxims on the tops. The patrol boats could, of course, in no case fire over the banks, but they had power to enfilade any trenches the enemy might try to establish on the banks themselves.
The ships were deployed along the length of the Canal, a key support for the Infantry and Artillery Forces deployed along the Canal. As the Turkish force approached, the Royal Navy moved to their assigned stations along the Canal.

HMS Swiftsure moved from Port Said to take station just north of Qantara. As noted, she was also the flagship.

HMS Clio
A bit further south at the Ballah Ferry, the sloop HMS Clio took up station.

French coastal defense ship Requin
The French Requin was already berthed in Lake Timsah near Ismailia, as mentioned.

Now the French protected cruiser D'Entrecasteaux moved to take position near the Requin,  also in Lake Timsah, but subsequently was moved south to Deversoir near the Great Bitter Lake.

RIMS Hardinge
Near that place the RIMS Hardinge, the aforementioned Royal Indian Marine Ship, was already deployed.
 It stood to the northwest of D'Entecasteaux.

HMS Minerva
The cruiser HMS Minerva took position at the Little Bitter Lake.

To the southward, the armed merchant cruiser Himalaya took position at Shallufa.

HMS Ocean
And finally, anchoring this line of naval power on the south just as Swiftsure was on the north, the other battleship, HMS Ocean, took position at El Shatt, where a major road across Sinai crosses the Canal near Suez.

The British and French aircraft presence

Air power was still very new in January 1915. The Wright Brothers first flew in 1903 and sold an aircraft to the US Army in 1909. In 1911 during the Italo-Turkish War in Libya, Italy became the first country to use aerial bombing in wartime. (They also used Zeppelins.) In the Suez campaign, British land-based aircraft and French seaplanes proved invaluable in detecting and tracking the Ottoman advance across Sinai, thus denying the Turks the element of surprise. As I already discussed that role in a January 13 post,  for completeness' sake I am simply going to quote what I said then, and the passages I quoted then, and the photo I ran then:

The British had only a handful of reconnaissance aircraft available in Egypt, along with some French seaplanes. The British Official History (Military Operations Egypt and Palestine) describes the situation:
Egypt was watchful and fairly well informed. The British aeroplanes available were incapable of long flights. [The detachment under Major S. D. Massy, 29th Punjabis, consisted of three Maurice Farmans sent from Avonmouth in November, two Henri Farmans taken over in Egypt, and one B3.E2a which arrived from India in December. The aerodrome was at Ismailia, with a landing ground at Qantara. For long reconnaissances into Sinai it was found necessary to send out troops to prepare temporary landing grounds some miles east of the Suez Canal. The longest flight ever carried out was 176 miles, for which a specially large petrol tank had to be fitted to the machine. This, however, was after the Turkish attack on the Suez Canal.] The French seaplanes, put at Sir J. Maxwell's disposal in November, of which there were seven in the Aenne Rickmers - a captured cargo steamer equipped as a seaplane carrier at Port Said, were better, though far from powerful enough for the work they were called upon to perform. Hard driven Jan, by an energetic commander, Lieutenant de Vaisseau de l'Escaille, they carried out reconnaissance flights which were remarkable, particularly in view of the fact that the forced descent of a seaplane on land meant almost certain death for pilot and observer. [Thus in December Lieutenant de Vaisseau Destrem, with a British officer as observer, on two occasions flew up the Wadi Arabi from Aqaba and strove to surmount the steep range east of the valley, in order to reconnoitre Ma'an, on the Hejaz Railway. The task was beyond the power of the 80 h.p. engine, but attempts were continued by him and others until Sir J. Maxwell ordered them to stop, fearing that they would cost him one of his invaluable pilots. In the same month Lieutenant de Vaisseau Delage took off from the Doris off El Arish, flew over Gaza, then turned south-east to Beersheba. On his return his engine stopped while he was still ten miles from the sea. The wind just carried the seaplane over the water, but it was in a sinking condition when the Doris steamed up from El Arish (a distance of 35 miles) to its rescue.] From information obtained by them and from the reports of agents it became clear that the attack would not be much longer delayed, and almost certain that it would come through Central Sinai. It was known to the headquarters of the Force in Egypt that a large force, including the 10th, 23rd, and 27th Divisions, was assembled close to the frontier about Beersheba.
A report by General Sir John Maxwell, the overall commander in Egypt, discusses the air situation before and during the attack on the Canal:
Part of 30th Squadron Royal Flying Corps, under the command of Brevet Major S. D. Massy, I.A., with Headquarters at Ismailia, carried out daily reconnaissances without a single important accident. 
The French Naval Seaplane detachment, with Headquarters at Port Said, under the command of Capitaine de Vaisseau de-l'Escaille, whose services were placed at my disposal for Intelligence purposes, was continually employed in reconnoitering the Syrian, and Anatolian Coast from the requisitioned vessels "Raven" and "Anne" The results of their work were invaluable. The "Anne" was torpedoed near Smyrna during an armistice while employed by the Royal Navy, but was fortunately able to reach Mudros, where she was patched up and returned to Port Said. I cannot speak too highly of the work of the seaplane detachment. Lengthy land flights are extremely dangerous, yet nothing ever stopped these gallant French aviators from any enterprise. I regret the loss of  two of these planes whilst making dangerous land flights over Southern Syria.
The air reconnaissance capabilities may have been limited, but they gave the British ample warning that the Turkish Army was moving into Sinai.

HMS Anne (ex-German Aenne Rickmers); 2 seaplanes either side of rear mast

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