British Submarines in the Sea of Marmara During World War I
by Edward C. Whitman
Of all the campaigns of the First World War, perhaps the one that inspires the most lasting fascination was the Allied attempt to break through the Turkish Straits and invest Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) in 1915. Originally conceived by then-First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, the Dardanelles initiative was intended to open a supply line through the Black Sea to the beleaguered Russians and simultaneously drive Ottoman Turkey out of the war with one decisive blow. After a combined fleet of French and British warships failed to force their way through the Straits in an all-out assault on 18 March 1915 - losing three capital ships to mines in the process - the high command concluded that seizing the Gallipoli Peninsula was the only way to breach the Dardanelles. Thus, on 25 April 1915, an invasion force of Australian, New Zealand, British, and French troops landed at three points on the peninsula itself and at one location on the opposite Asian shore to begin the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign. Almost immediately, the land attack bogged down into a bloody stalemate in which the Allies could neither enlarge their several beachheads nor the Turks drive them back into the sea. By the time the invaders withdrew in defeat nine months later, the two sides had suffered over a half million casualties.
The success of the Turks in frustrating Allied designs on Constantinople and the role of Gallipoli in defining the nationhood of both Turkey and Australia has overshadowed one little-known aspect of the campaign in which the Allies achieved remarkable success - the penetration of British submarines into the Sea of Marmara by running the gauntlet of the Dardanelles and then disrupting Turkish supply lines to the front. The early years of submarine warfare offer few more exciting and unusual stories.
To appreciate the achievement of these daring submarine pioneers, consider the geography of the Dardanelles, the narrow, southwest-northeast strait that connects the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara, with Asia to the south and the Gallipoli Peninsula - Europe - to the north. From its entrance between Cape Helles and Kum Kale, the Dardanelles stretches for forty miles to the town of Gallipoli (Gelibolu in Turkish), where it widens into the Sea of Marmara. Constantinople lies at the far end of the Marmara, 110 miles to the northeast. For the most part, the strait is several miles wide, but 14 miles upstream at the Narrows opposite the town of Canakkale on the Asian shore, the passage necks down to only 1,600 yards and veers sharply north, then east again, with a depth of approximately 200 feet. Complex and unpredictable cross currents and the layering of salt and fresh water further complicate a submerged transit. In 1915, the Narrows were well protected by formidable masonry forts on both the European and Asian shores, as well as multiple minefields, searchlights, and both fixed and mobile artillery. German military advisors to the Turkish Army had trained the gunners, and the overall defense was under the command of German General Liman von Sanders.
In December 1914, even before the Dardanelles operation had been conceived, the first naval Victoria Cross of the war had been won by LCDR Norman Holbrooke, RN, who took the British submarine B-11 12 miles up the Straits and through the minefields at Sari Siglar Bay, where he sank the venerable Turkish battleship Messudieh at anchor. In mid-January 1915, the French submarine Saphir attempted to penetrate even farther, but she was lost with all hands just beyond the Narrows.
Then, in late March 1915, three Royal Navy E-class submarines - E-11, E-14, and E-15 - were sent out from England to join the armada assembling in the eastern Mediterranean to support the forthcoming invasion. From Australia, came another E-class boat, AE-2, procured in England less than a year earlier and manned by British officers and a half-Australian/half-British crew. Of these units, E-11, commanded by LCDR Martin Dunbar-Nasmith, and AE-2, under LCDR Harry Stoker, were sidetracked briefly in Malta for repairs. Thus, E-14 and E-15 were the first to arrive at the Allied naval base at Mudros on the Greek island of Lemnos, 50 miles west of the entrance to the Straits, in mid April. By the time Nasmith and E-11 arrived at Mudros on 18 April to complete their repairs, E-15, under LCDR T.S. Brodie, had already been lost in an unsuccessful attempt to "run" the Dardanelles on the night of the 16th, when she ran aground under the Turkish guns at Kephez Point. Brodie and three of his crew were killed outright, and the rest were captured.
Stoker and AE-2 arrived at Mudros on 21 April and after one attempt cut short by a breakdown, entered the Dardanelles at 0300 on the morning of 25 April, only a few hours before the initial Allied landings on Gallipoli. Proceeding at periscope depth to avoid the Turkish searchlights, Stoker crept up to the minefields, where he was spotted and fired upon. He dived under the mines, as mooring lines scraped against AE-2's hull, and returned to periscope depth near the Narrows, where he managed to torpedo a Turkish gunboat before going aground under the enemy guns near Canakkale and then again on the opposite shore. Extricating his boat both times, Stoker succeeded in dodging patrol boats and artillery fire until well north of the Narrows, where he decided to put AE-2 on the bottom to lie low for the rest of the day. Surfacing at 2100 that evening, he sent a radio message to the Allied command to report his success in penetrating the Straits.
Stoker's report came at an opportune moment for British General Sir Ian Hamilton, commanding the Gallipoli operation. The landings of the Australia-New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) at what would later be called ANZAC Cove on the Aegean coast across the peninsula from the Narrows had not gone well, and the on-scene commanders were recommending an immediate evacuation. It was only the news that AE-2 had penetrated the Straits that hardened Hamilton's resolve and caused him to order the ANZAC force to dig in and persevere. They would remain at ANZAC Cove for eight months. AE-2 entered the Sea of Marmara early on 26 April and proceeded to harass Turkish shipping, initially avoiding attack by hostile escorts.
Next it was the turn of LCDR E.C. Boyle in E-14. He entered the Straits early on the morning of 27 April, intending to attempt a surface transit, but was soon driven deep by enemy searchlights and guns. Boyle stayed down until he thought he had passed the Kephez Point minefields and then came to periscope depth for his passage of the Narrows. Unfortunately, E-14's periscope "feather" was easily visible, and she sustained heavy shelling from the batteries at Canakkale, as well as attempts by the crew of a Turkish patrol boat to snare her periscope whenever it appeared. Nonetheless, Boyle successfully evaded his pursuers, and he reached the Sea of Marmara after a transit of 12 hours, most of it submerged.
On 29 April, Boyle and E-14 rendezvoused with AE-2 in the western Marmara, and he and Stoker agreed to meet again the next day off Kara Burnu Point. Unfortunately, when AE-2 arrived at the appointed time and surfaced, the Australian submarine was immediately spotted and pursued by Turkish forces. When she crash-dived to escape and then sought to recover from an excessive depth excursion, an unanticipated density layer caused her bow to broach, and the submarine was immediately holed by gunfire from the Turkish torpedo boat Sultanhiser. Stoker and all his men abandoned and scuttled the ship, and as AE-2 settled to the bottom, they were taken prisoners of war. Interestingly, the wreck of AE-2 was rediscovered in the Sea of Marmara in 1998, and discussions are ongoing between the Turkish and Australian governments about raising her as a relic.
In any event, Boyle and E-14 had much better luck, and they operated successfully against the Turks in the Marmara for three weeks before returning to the Aegean on 18 May, the first boat to complete a successful round trip up the Straits and back. During this first patrol, Boyle sank two gunboats and two transports, the most important of which was an ex-White Star liner that had been carrying a battery of artillery and 6,000 Turkish troops to replace losses on Gallipoli.
By the time E-14 returned, there had been another Allied loss in an attempt on the Straits. On 1 May, the Turks reported that the French submarine Joule had been sunk with all hands, only a day after she departed Mudros. This setback did not discourage LCDR Nasmith in E-11, however. With his repairs completed and the benefit of Boyle's experience on E-14, he entered the Dardanelles in the pre-dawn darkness of 19 May. Within 16 hours, he had surfaced in the Marmara after a fleeting encounter with the Turkish battleships Turgut Reiss and Heirreddin Barbarossa near Nagara Point, where he was too hard-pressed to develop a firing opportunity.
Nasmith's ensuing patrol, which lasted two and a half weeks, became a wild rampage among Turkish shipping in the Marmara and was so successful that it earned him the Victoria Cross. Starting out with only ten torpedoes, E-11 sank four large steamers - one with a demolition charge - two ammunition ships, and a torpedo gunboat; but was unsuccessful in stalking Barbarossa a second time. On two occasions, Nasmith recovered his own expended torpedoes on the surface and brought them back aboard to use again. For several days, he commandeered a Turkish sailing ship and lashed it to E-11's landward side for cover, and he was only prevented from destroying a paddle steamer he drove onto the beach by the timely arrival of a troop of Turkish cavalry, with whom the submarine's crew exchanged small-arms fire before withdrawing.
Nasmith achieved his most spectacular feat early on 25 March, when he entered the harbor of Constantinople itself at periscope depth and after dodging one of his own torpedoes in a circular run, succeeded in sinking the large transport Stamboul at the Arsenal Quay just outside the Golden Horn. Before Nasmith could even confirm a hit, E-11 was suddenly caught up in the confused welter of cross-currents and density layers just south of the Bosphorus, lost depth control, bumped the bottom, and did at least two complete circles before escaping back to the Marmara. However, the effect on the Turks was electric, as the vulnerability of their capital to an attack from the sea sank home. Crowds rioted in the streets, all activity ceased on the docks, and reinforcements for the Gallipoli front were re-routed. Meanwhile, Nasmith and his men resumed their adventures for another ten days before exiting the Dardanelles on 6 June, sinking another large transport above the Narrows on the way out with a last, re-cycled torpedo.
Both Nasmith and Boyle made two more successful trips into the Sea of Marmara, and they were joined by other submarines under other captains. In mid-July 1915, the Germans suspended an enormous steel anti-submarine net across the Narrows, reaching down 220 feet and watched by patrol boats with depth bombs, but although E-20 became tangled in it and forced to surrender, most of the others were able to batter a way through and continue their marauding. Many of the boats were able to extend their patrols by seizing supplies from captured Turkish sailing ships, and with the addition of deck guns, they bombarded arsenals and powder mills on the shore. There were high-spirited and colorful incidents, such as shelling military camel caravans on the coast roads, and the cutting of the Constantinople-to-Baghdad railway by Nasmith's second-in-command, LT Guy D'Oyly-Hughes, who swam ashore and blew up a key viaduct. On that same patrol, Nasmith was to repeat his earlier exploit by sinking a collier at the dock in energy-strapped Constantinople and then - finally - ambushing and sinking the battleship Barbarossa in the Narrows.
Before the Gallipoli campaign wound down in early 1916, 13 Allied submarines took part in the Dardanelles operations, and although eight were lost, 27 successful passages were recorded. Turkish losses included two battleships, a destroyer, five gunboats, 11 transports, 44 steamers, and 148 sailing boats. Nasmith himself accounted for 101 sinkings and set the record for the longest patrol: 47 days. (He would later become the Second Sea Lord prior to World War II and died in 1965.) Beyond the losses of ships and materiel, however, the effect on the Turkish supply lines was catastrophic. By the end of 1915, virtually all of the Gallipoli traffic was forced onto primitive roads along the Sea of Marmara or sent for a round-about railway journey of some 600 miles. Although the Turks were ultimately to prevail ashore, their resulting dependence on tenuous land routes into the peninsula had reduced them at one point to less than 160 rounds of ammunition per soldier. If the Allies had more fully appreciated the logistics implications of their undersea victory or followed up on D'Oyly-Hughes' daring one-man commando raid by cutting the Bulair Isthmus to the north, the outcome of the Great War could have been very different.
Photographs are used by permission of the Trustees of the Imperial War Museum, London.
Dr. Whitman is Senior Editor of UNDERSEA WARFARE magazine.
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