A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, April 4, 2014

Meet the Little Turkish Minelayer that Decided the Outcome of the Gallipoli Campaign a Month Before the Landings

This morning, I posted a photo quiz of this vessel and asked about its importance in Middle Eastern history:
Nusret (all photos Wikipedia)
The first commenter guessed either the Goeben or the Breslau, which did change a great deal but which were respectively a battle cruiser and a cruiser, serious capital ships. I've written about them before. But this is no big-gunned dreadnought. The second commenter, labeling himself or herself "The Turk." got it right: this is the little Ottoman minelayer Nusret, which laid 26 mines that may have decided the Gallipoli campaign several weeks before the landings on April 25.

Winston Churchill, at the time First Lord of the Admiralty, had a thing about the Mediterranean that would persist into the next World War as well. He conceived a daring plan to break the stalemate on the Western Front, knock one of the Central Powers out of the war, and provide a warm-water supply line to Russia by forcing the Turkish straits, and taking Constantinople/Istanbul. The Royal Navy still controlled the seas, and a British and French flotilla was duly sent to try to force the Dardanelles.

The plan seems crazy in retrospect, especially in view of the ten months of carnage in which British commanders kept throwing Australian and New Zealand troops against entrenched Turkish positions, the latter commanded in part (and eventually entirely) by Mustafa Kemal. If it ever had any hope of success, that surely lay in a quick naval victory, not in infantry landings. And that, originally, was the plan. The flotilla arrived off the Dardanelles in February and began shelling the Turkish forts on both sides of the strait, and using minesweepers to clear the minefields that filled the passage. The plan was, after softening up the forts and clearing the mines, the Royal Navy and its French allies would force the straits and sail right up to the Topkapi.

As daring as it seems, the Ottomans took it seriously. The US Ambassador to the Porte, Henry Morgenthau, recorded that archives and critical documents were being crated up to be moved deeper into Anatolia. (Note that just a few years later, the capital was moved to Ankara.) The Ottoman forts were nearly out of ammunition, the minefields were largely cleared, and there seemed to be little standing between the Allied flotilla and the Golden Horn.
The Allied Flotilla in the Dardanelles, 1915
Except for the little minelayer that could. Nusret would become a legend in Turkish naval history. Only 40.2 meters (131 feet) from stem to stern,she was no match for the battleships in the Allied flotilla.

And it's said that the 26 mines she carried were the last mines available to the Turkish Navy.

On March 8 (a month and a half before ANZAC Day), Nusret slipped down the Dardanelles by night into areas controlled by the Allied fleet, and laid those 26 mines close inshore in Eren Köy Bay on the Asian side where she hoped the Allied minesweepers wouldn't find them. It's said that at the end of her mission her captain died of a heart attack from the stress.

Ten days later, the Allied naval assault began. On March 18, the attempt to run the straits began.

Line No 11 is Nusret's Minefield
Now, the Royal Navy had a low opinion of the Turkish fleet and the Admiralty insisted on keeping all the most modern, Dreadnought-class battleships in home waters in case the German High Seas Fleet came out. The flotilla in the east were older, pre-Dreadnought vessels, slower and less thickly armored. As if that wasn't enough, the commander, Admiral Carden, took ill the day before and his deputy, Rear Admiral John de Robeck, who had serious doubts about the venture anyway, took command.

Bouvet Afire
As the flotilla moved into the Çannakale Strait, the narrowest part of the Dardanelles, the French battleship Bouvet suddenly exploded. Within minutes she capsized and sank with the loss of her captain and all hands.

It soon got even worse. The battle cruiser HMS Inflexible and the battleship HMS Irresistible struck mines; the first was beached, the second evacuated and left adrift; both apparently sank. Several other ships were damaged. For a total Turkish loss of 118 men, Nusret's mines and the shore guns had sunk three Allied capital ships and crippled another.

Bouvet Capsizing and Sinking
Though the Turks were still bracing for a renewed attack, de Robeck was shocked by the losses, and at this point London made what was arguably the decisive mistake that transformed Gallipoli from a daring naval raid that failed into a symbol of the meat-grinder tactics of the Great War: they decided to suspend the naval operations until ground troops could be landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

HMS Irresistible Proves it was Misnamed
That would not take place until the date we  today know as Anzac Day: April 25. The naval battle was March 18. In the intervening weeks, Turkey would rush ammunition, artillery shells, mines. and troops (and Mustafa Kemal) to turn the Galipoli Peninsula into a hardened fortification. A campaign aimed at bypassing the carnage of the trench warfare on the Western Front would recreate that carnage on a barren peninsula in the Aegean.

The element of surprise had been lost. The Turks were ready.

As for little Nusret, whose 26 mines sank three men of war and arguably saved the Ottoman Empire for another three years, not to mention derailed Winston Churchill's political rise for some time, she stayed in service for years, spent some time at the bottom of the sea but was later raised; as she was much remodeled through the years. a better sense of what she looked like in 1915 is provided by this modern reconstruction at a museum in Çannakale:

No comments: