A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

January 13, 1915: The British Detect the Turkish Advance Toward the Canal: Air Reconnaissance in Egypt 1915

Continuing our tracing of the centennial of the First World War in the Middle East, we are approaching the most serious threat the Ottomans made on Egypt during the war, the failed attack on the Suez Canal. This had long been anticipated, and the British were prepared. But intelligence about Turkish movements was dependent on aerial reconnaissance, and the aircraft available in January 1915 were limited in range.

Given the dominance of British seapower and the long logistical  lines across Sinai, Jemal Pasha's attack on the Canal depended heavily on the element of surprise. The fliers of the Royal Flying Corps and the French Navy, operating over Sinai, deprived them of that element.

On January 11 the Egyptian press had been told than an attack was imminent. The British had determined that three Turkish divisions were massed at Beersheba, and a small advance force had taken Nakhl in Egyptian Sinai. (Britain had decided against a forward defense of the Sinai border, preferring to defend closer to the Canal where naval guns could bear.) On January 13, the British reported troops moving through al-‘Arish and al-‘Auja on the Sinai border.

HMS Anne (ex-German Aenne Rickmers); 2 seaplanes either side of rear mast
In coming weeks I will be describing the British defenses and the Ottoman advance in considerable detail, but today I want to devote to intelligence gathering.In my earlier post on HMS Doris' raid on the Palestinian and Syrian coast in December, I noted that she regularly put landing parties ashore and also used a seaplane to try to determine Ottoman movements. 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.

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