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Wings Over Turkey Churchill, Aviation, and the Dardanelles

Sterling Michael Pavelec, Airpower Over Gallipoli, 1915–1916, Naval Institute Press, 2020, 215 pages, £23.42/$40.00. ISBN 978–1612510231

Review by W. Mark Hamilton

With the publication of Airpower Over Gallipoli, 1915–1916, the Naval Institute Press has added another title to its relatively new series, The History of Military Aviation; the first book in the series was published in 2015. Airpower Over Gallipoli aptly fits the purpose of the series, which, according to editor Paul J. Springer, is “to explore previously ignored facets of the history of airpower.” In his book, historian Pavelec has contributed the missing airpower facet to the well-known and lengthy studies of the naval and army actions in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli campaigns.

A professor of airpower history at the Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, Pavelec’s focus on the role of early military airpower in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli campaigns during the First World War is an important one. Given the birth of airplanes very early in the Twentieth Century, this battle—which took place on land and water in the then-Ottoman Empire—marks one of the first instances of military airpower.

The Great War pitted allies Great Britain and France against the Ottoman Empire in a conflict that Pavelec reminds readers was much smaller than that taking place on the Western Front. Called “the sick man of Europe” because of its persistently declining military and economic strength, the Turkish Empire depended on German military support, especially regarding its airpower ambitions. Due to their lack of an industrial base, the Turks were not able to build airplanes, nor could they provide pilots to fly them. In March 1915, Germany acceded to Turkish requests by delivering a small number of German planes to Turkey by train through Bulgaria, which was then neutral. The parts for the planes were transported unassembled and packed in crates intentionally mislabeled as “medical supplies” to avoid alerting the British and French that Bulgaria was aiding Germany. (On one occasion, the airplane parts were shipped by circus train.) The airplanes were assembled once they arrived in Turkey.

War had been raging on the Western Front since August 1914, and in February 1915 First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, who was prescient in his understanding of the possible impact of airpower during war, ordered an air squadron (the Royal Naval Air Service) to Turkey. Britain’s first seaplane carrier—HMS Ark Royal—was dispatched to the Mediterranean Sea with eight aircraft for scouting and mapping missions; France contributed an additional four seaplanes. Pavelec notes that the seaplanes all required large cranes to raise and lower them into the water, from where they took off. Returning planes had to land in the water beside the ship and be lifted back onto the ship. When the seas were rough, preventing the planes and ships from crashing into each other required nerves, skill, and luck. The book contains excellent photographs of the cranes lifting the seaplanes on and off the ship.

Pavelec depicts an inauspicious beginning to the Allies’ use of aircraft in the fight against the Ottoman Empire. The British had to overcome the challenges of long supply lines from England, primitive communications, and bad weather conditions from time to time. When the Allies were finally able to establish an airfield on the island of Tenedos in the Aegean Sea, the housing conditions for its pilots were poor, and the ubiquitous sand and dirt caused the airplane engines to suffer continual maintenance issues.

The Dardanelles campaign was primarily a naval operation, and Churchill initially thought land troops would not be necessary. Once it was clear that the sea campaign was failing, the Allies regrouped to fight on land. It was only after Allied troops landed on Gallipoli beaches that airpower came into its own. Unfortunately, the military commander on the ground at the time, Sir Ian Hamilton, had little understanding of combat airpower or the challenges of fighting on the beaches of Gallipoli. The result: a debacle in which thousands of men died at Gallipoli. Further, Field Marshall Kitchener, Secretary of State for War from the time the Great War began in 1914 through his death in the spring of 1916, viewed the war against the Ottoman Empire as a “sideshow” and was reluctant to commit planes or pilots to the conflict.

The spring and hot summer months of 1915 proved disastrous for the Anglo–French Gallipoli campaign. Churchill increasingly took the blame for the total failure at the Dardanelles and was forced to resign in May 1915, only to be replaced by Arthur Balfour, who lacked interest in Gallipoli and in airpower. Though the Gallipoli campaign was coming to an end, Churchill’s strong belief in the efficacy of airpower had not gone unnoticed, nor had the constraints on its use by Lord Kitchener and others. It was during the Gallipoli campaign that night bombing started as well as air attacks on Turkish ships and submarines, but Pavelec describes the results as disappointingly minor. Even though the total Allied airpower in August 1915 was about fifty airplanes, in effect the tally amounted to just a handful of planes and pilots on both sides.

Pavelec notes that it was not until September 1915 that Anglo-French planes had an actual air fight with the Turks over Gallipoli. Also in September 1915, a British pilot attacked a large touring car on the Turkish side, which he later learned had carried Mustafa Kemal “Atatürk.” The future leader of modern Turkey survived the air bombing attack—with unfavourable consequences for the Allies.

As Lord Kitchener’s impatience with the Allies’ lack of success grew, he communicated to General Hamilton his belief that the Allies should withdraw all troops. Hamilton, a close personal friend of Churchill’s, was recalled for failure in October after only eight months in command of the Gallipoli campaign. To add to the Allies’ pessimism, neutral Bulgaria now joined Germany and her allies. After a personal visit to Gallipoli, Lord Kitchener advised the War Cabinet to “cut losses and leave Gallipoli,” and in December 1915, the British Cabinet ordered an evacuation.

Airpower did not have a significant impact on the evacuation of troops and ships, as only limited cover was needed because the evacuation was conducted mostly at night and without casualties. In fact, the evacuation was done so quietly that the Ottoman–Turks were not aware for some time that the Allied operation was permanently leaving. Instead, they mistakenly believed that their enemy troops simply were being repositioned.

Not only does historian Pavelec provide a valuable narrative of airpower in one of its first uses in military conflict, he highlights the important pilots (mostly Allies but a few Turks as well) with biographical sketches, the airplanes involved, and his own research challenges on airpower in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli campaigns. He reports that the British records are the most complete; thus, they form the basis of the book. He also explored French, German, and Turkish archives, but Pavelec discovered that all of them were extremely limited, which he avers reflects the lack of official and government interest in the military use of airpower. Even the official British Dardanelles Commission investigation (at which Churchill was called to testify) contains only four mentions of airpower, he notes with surprise.

Though Pavelec’s Airpower Over Gallipoli examines and explains only one small part of the campaign against the Ottoman Empire, given the great future of airpower in warfare, the book makes an important and original contribution. He should be congratulated for explaining in an in-depth manner such a narrow subject. His discussion of the all-important German assistance to the Turks is fascinating, and the brief biographical sketches of key individuals most helpful. The book helps fill in the gaps of a long-neglected subject area in the extensive naval and army history of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli campaigns.

Though some readers would surely welcome more information on Churchill’s role, it is undisputed that Churchill’s major role in the fight against the Ottoman Empire was in the Dardanelles campaign, and his significance for Gallipoli began to fade as the disaster of the Dardanelles unfolded. Nevertheless, the book portrays Churchill’s constant energy in understanding airpower’s potential and using it at every opportunity.

Mark Hamiltonis author ofThe Nation and the Navy: Methods and Organization of British Navalist Propaganda, 1889–1914 (1986).

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