SIR MARTIN GILBERT CBE
FINEST HOUR 126, SPRING 2005
Sir Martin is the official biographer of Sir Winston Churchill, a regular attendee at our conferences, and a CC honorary member.
THIRTEEN QUESTIONS often asked about the Dardanelles have their answers in the Official Biography and subsequent research. And the answers are illuminating.
What about the Dardanelles?” This hostile question was hurled at Churchill on public platforms throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Herein I shall try to answer thirteen frequently-asked questions about Churchill’s involvement in the naval attack on the Dardanelles in March 1915.
1. When did Churchill first speak of sending troops against Turkey?
Even before Turkey entered the war, Churchill saw the possibility of striking at the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) from the south: from the Black Sea coast and the Danube basin. On 4 September, a month after Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, while Turkey was still neutral, but clearly about to enter the war on the side of the Central Powers, Churchill telegraphed to the British Admiral commanding the Greek navy: “The right and obvious method of attacking Turkey is to strike immediately at the heart.”
2. What troops did Churchill have in mind?
Churchill favoured the use of Greek troops. According to his strategic concept in September 1914, would be necessary for a Greek army to seize the Gallipoli Peninsula under superiority of sea predominance.” The effect of this would, in Churchill’s view, be dramatic: to open the Dardanelles and admit an Anglo-Greek Fleet to the Sea of Marmora, “whence the Turco-German ships can be fought and sunk, and where in combination with the Russian Black Sea Fleet and Russian military forces the whole situation can be dominated.” The “Turco-German ships” were the German warships Goeben and Breslau, which, having evaded the Royal Navy, had reached Constantinople, and, flying the Turkish flag, bombarded the Russian Black Sea ports (on 29 October 1914). It was this that brought Turkey into the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary.
3. In these early discussions, did Churchill seek a source of troops other than Greek to attack Gallipoli?
At the beginning of September 1914 Churchill asked the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, to press the Russians to undertake a military landing on the Gallipoli peninsula. “There is no need for British or Russian anxiety about a war with Turkey,” he wrote on 6 September. “Even if the Greek army were paralysed by Bulgarian and Turkish attack, a Russian Army Corps could easily be brought from Archangel, from Vladivostok, or, with Japanese consent, from Port Arthur, round to attack the Gallipoli position. No other military operations are necessary. The price to be paid in taking Gallipoli would no doubt be heavy, but there would be no more war with Turkey. A good army of 50,000 men and sea-power—that is the end of Turkish menace.”
Note Churchill’s words: “No other military operations are necessary”: that is, no British or Empire troops would be needed: either Greek or Russian.
4. What action made an eventual attack at the Dardanelles inevitable?
On 29 September 1914 the Dardanelles waterway was mined by Turkey and closed. Russia lost her only all-year, ice-free link with her allies. British military supplies could no longer reach Russia except by the hazardous northern route to Archangel. Russian wheat, on which the Tsarist exchequer depended for so much of its overseas income—and arms purchases—could no longer be exported to its world markets.
5. Was Churchill alone in wanting an attack on Turkey?
On 31 October the Prime Minister, Asquith, explained to his friend Venetia Stanley: “Few things would give me greater pleasure than to see the Turkish Empire finally disappear from Europe, and Constantinople either become Russian (which I think is its proper destiny) or if that is impossible neutralised and become a free port.”
6. What did Churchill ask his Eastern Mediterranean Admiral for, and what was the Admiral’s response?
Churchill had just acquired a new First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir John (Jackie) Fisher. On 2 November, with Fisher’s approval, he telegraphed to the British commander in the Eastern Mediterranean, Admiral Carden, asking if something could be done at the Dardanelles. The Admiral answered that it could.
Churchill then replied, again with Fisher’s approval: “Without risking the ships demonstration is to be made by bombardment on the earliest suitable day by your armoured ships and the two French battleships against the forts at the entrance of the Dardanelles at a range of 14,000 to 12,000 yards. Ships should keep under way approaching as soon after daylight as possible; retirements should be made before fire from the forts becomes effective. Ships guns should out-range older guns mounted in the forts.”
On 3 November 1914, in accordance with Churchill’s instructions, Carden’s squadron, assisted by two French warships, bombarded the outer forts on either side of the Dardanelles for a period of ten minutes, at a range of slightly more than seven miles. A shot that hit the magazine of the fort at Sedd-el-Bahr destroyed almost all its heavy guns.
7. Did the bombardment of 3 November alert the Turks to the larger implications?
No serious work was done on the Turkish fortifications between the initial bombardment and the Allied attack more than four months later. The principal Turkish problem at the Dardanelles after 3 November was a severe shortage of guns, mines and ammunition. Even before the Allied bombardment of the outer forts, the majority of all supplies reaching Turkey was sent direct to the Dardanelles.
The installation of three torpedo tubes at Kilid Bahr was not the result of the bombardment of 3 November, but of a suggestion that Churchill’s own representative with the prewar Turkish navy, Admiral Limpus, had made while he was responsible for advising on the naval defences of the Dardanelles.
8. Did Churchill overrule his advisers as the subsequent full-scale naval attack was being planned?
The effects of the bombardment of 3 November were studied by a member Churchill’s Admiralty War Group, Admiral Jackson, early in the New Year, and used by him to form the basis of plans for a major naval assault. Intelligence revealed that the damage done to the magazine and heavy guns at Sedd-el-Bahr was not repaired. No one at the Admiralty questioned the main implication of the bombardment, that naval guns were capable of demolishing land forts. Since the outbreak of the war many conventional theories and expectations of war had been challenged.
“Like most other people,” Churchill told the Dardanelles Commissioners in 1916, “I had held the opinion that the days of forcing the Dardanelles were over; and I had even recorded this opinion in a Cabinet paper in 1911. But this war had brought many surprises. We had seen fortresses reputed throughout Europe to be impregnable collapsing after a few days’ attack by field armies without a regular siege.”
Another member of Churchill’s Admiralty War Group, Admiral Oliver, had witnessed, and been impressed by, the impact of German guns on the massive forts of Antwerp only a month earlier.
9. Did any added factors influence the newly created inner Cabinet, the War Council?
The very first meeting of the War Council, on 25 November, was given Military Intelligence reports that a large Turkish army was moving south through Palestine to attack the Suez Canal. The Secretary of the Cabinet, Colonel Hankey, recorded the subsequent discussion: “Mr. Churchill suggested that the ideal method of defending Egypt was by an attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula. This, if successful, would give us control of the Dardanelles, and we could dictate terms at Constantinople. This, however, was a very difficult operation requiring a large force.”
If Gallipoli were considered “impracticable,” Churchill told his colleagues, then they might consider a feint at Gallipoli, “conveying the impression that we intended to land there,” with the real point of attack at Haifa, or some point on the Syrian coast. Churchill then pointed out that in 1909 the Committee of Imperial Defence had recommended that a Turkish invasion of Egypt “could best be met by a landing at Haifa.”
Admiral Fisher then intervened in the discussion to ask whether Greece “might not perhaps undertake an attack on Gallipoli on behalf of the Allies.”
Churchill stressed the need for a large military force in any operations against the Dardanelles. To this end, he wanted troop transports gathered in Egypt for 40,000 men. Kitchener replied: “I will give Admiralty full notice,” after which he wrote to Churchill: “I do not think transports need to be detailed in Egypt yet.”
10. Did Churchill underestimate Turkish potential resistance?
On 7 November a British force landed at the head of the Persian Gulf. The Turkish port of Basra was captured on 22 November and Kurna, at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, on 7 December. There then occurred a tiny but influential episode. In the Eastern Mediterranean, off the Turkish port of Alexandretta (now Iskenderun), on 20 December, under threat of bombardment from the six-inch guns of a British light cruiser, Doris, the local Turkish authorities agreed to blow up their two railway engines and several military stores. Having no explosives, they asked the British naval captain to send some of his own sailors and explosives explosive charges. The Turks then supervised the actual destruction, under the beam of the cruiser’s searchlights. Later that evening, Doris sailed away.
This incident, with its an almost comic cooperation between attacker and attacked, appeared proof that the Turks were not serious opponents, and encouraged the belief that no great military effort would be needed to force Turkey out of the war.
“What kind of Turk was this we were fighting?,” Churchill testified. “I must say that it was always in my mind that we were not dealing with a thoroughly efficient military power, and that it was quite possible that we could get into parley with them.”
11. Why did Churchill seek the passage of the Dardanelles by ships alone?
On 1 January 1915 the Russian Commander-in-Chief, Grand Duke Nicholas, appealed for a British demonstration against the Turks to relieve the Turkish military pressure against Russia on the Caucasus Front. Kitchener passed on this appeal to Churchill, telling him (since Churchill was in charge of the Royal Navy) that “The only place that a demonstration might have some effect in stopping reinforcements going east would be at the Dardanelles.” Other than that, Kitchener added, Britain would not be ready “for anything big, for some months.”
Churchill summoned his Admiralty War Group on the morning of 3 January. There was general pessimism, which he shared, about the feasibility of a purely naval attack. Were such an attack to take place, it would have to be with old battleships not needed by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe in the North Sea. Before the war, Churchill had allocated some of his Naval Estimates to maintaining these old ships in a fit state to fight.
This gave the Admiralty War Group confidence that a plan might be worked out for naval action within the next few months, assuming the commander of the Blockading Squadron at the Dardanelles, Vice-Admiral Carden, felt that the enterprise had some chance of success. Churchill telegraphed to Carden shortly after midday on 3 January: “Do you consider the forcing of the Dardanelles by ships alone a practicable operation? It is assumed older battleships fitted with mine-bumpers would be used preceded by colliers or other merchant craft as bumpers and sweepers. Importance of results would justify severe loss. Let me know your views.”
Carden’s reply, received early on the afternoon of 5 January, stated: “With reference to your telegram of 3rd inst., I do not consider Dardanelles can be rushed. They might be forced by extended operations with a large number of ships.” “They might be forced” were the crucial four words.
The War Council met an hour after Carden’s telegram was received. When Kitchener pressed his colleagues for action at the Dardanelles, Churchill was able to give him some support by reading Carden’s telegram, received an hour earlier. When Churchill returned to the Admiralty after the War Council he found that the “extended operations” Carden favoured were supported both by Admiral Oliver and Admiral Jackson. Jackson, who had been impressed by the effects of the bombardment of 3 November, believed that a systematic bombardment from the sea, fort by fort, would enable ships alone to force the Dardanelles even though the operation might take some time.
On the following afternoon, 6 January, Churchill telegraphed to Carden: “Your view is agreed with by high authorities here. Please telegraph in detail what you think could be done by extended operations, what force would be needed, and how you consider it should be used.” From then on, it was a question of logistics and timing: the naval attack would go ahead.
12. Did Churchill ignore or overrule his advisers with regard to the despatch of British warships to the Dardanelles?
The warships that Churchill’s Admiralty War Group had in mind for the naval attack at the Dardanelles had all been launched before 1906, when the launching of the first of the new Dreadnought class meant that older ships would be a liability in any engagement with a Fleet which had Dreadnought-class ships. The pre-Dreadnought battleships sent to the Dardanelles were Majestic (launched in 1895), Prince George (1896), Canopus (1899), Ocean (1900), Irresistible and Vengeance (1901), Cornwallis, Swiftsure and Triumph (1904). Also sent were Agamemnon, Inflexible and Lord Nelson (all three launched in 1908), all of pre-Dreadnought design.
On 12 January the Admiralty War Group discussed every aspect of Carden’s proposals. Neither Jackson nor Oliver, who subsequently criticised Carden’s plan before the Dardanelles Commission, did so that day. Fisher made no protest. Jackson not merely concurred in the proposals, but urged their rapid implementation. Each member of the War Group realised the enormous difficulties involved; each turned his own considerable knowledge and expertise overcoming the difficulties.
The victory at the Falkland Islands six weeks before, by completing the destruction of the German naval power outside German waters, released large numbers of ships for the new enterprise. Realizing this, it was Fisher who suggested that in addition to the old ships that Carden considered sufficient, the newest and most powerful ship in the fleet, HMS Queen Elizabeth, should be sent out to the Dardanelles. Her 15-inch guns had not yet been fired but could be tested, Fisher proposed, not on dummy targets in the North Sea, but on the Turkish forts at the Dardanelles.
“This had not occurred to me before,” Churchill told the Dardanelles Commissioners in 1916, “but the moment it was mentioned its importance became apparent. We all felt ourselves in the presence of a ‘new fact.’ Moreover the Queen Elizabeth came into the argument with a cumulative effect.”
13. Did Churchill force the Admiralty War Group’s plan through the War Council?
Churchill sent copies of Carden’s proposals to Asquith and Kitchener on 12 January. The next day the War Council discussion was on how to help the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in Flanders, Sir John French, by naval action along the Belgian coast, culminating in the seizure of Zeebrugge.
It was not until after sunset that the War Council turned its attention to the Dardanelles, and Churchill outlined the details of Carden’s plan. He explained that the battleships Carden believed necessary could be spared for the task “without reducing our strength in the main theatre of war.” He described the discussions that had already taken place at the Admiralty, and expressed his belief, based on the views of his senior advisers, that a plan could be made for systematically reducing all the forts “within a few weeks.” The effects of this action would, he believed, be impressive: “Once the forts were reduced, the minefields could be cleared and the Fleet would proceed up to Constantinople and destroy the Goeben.”
The Cabinet Secretary, Colonel Hankey recalled in his memoirs: “The idea caught on at once….The War Council turned eagerly from the dreary vista of a “slogging match” on the Western Front to brighter prospects, as they seemed, in the Mediterranean.” According to Hankey’s actual minutes of the meeting, Lloyd George declared that he “liked the plan,” and Kitchener said that he “thought it was worth trying.”
Discussion then turned to other matters. Grey wanted the Navy to attack the Austrian ports of Cattaro on the Adriatic, in an attempt to influence Italy to join the Allies. Lloyd George raised the question of a major attack on Austria. He had in mind barges built for a British naval assault up the Danube. Everyone was agreed that plans must be made to cover new points of attack: the Dardanelles, the Adriatic, Holland, Salonika and the Danube each came into the discussion.
It was Asquith who drafted the War Council’s conclusions. They included the sentence: “That the Admiralty should also prepare for naval expedition in February to bombard and take the Gallipoli peninsula, with Constantinople as its objective.”
This constituted Churchill’s authority for action. From that point, everything hinged on timetables, methods and combinations. The First Lord and his Admiralty War Group went “full steam ahead.”