Finest Hour 163, Summer 2014
By Winston S. Churchill
Meanwhile in the Mediterranean a drama of intense interest, and as it proved of fatal consequence, was being enacted….” Our author’s dramatic account of the first naval action in World War I makes for exciting reading a century later—even though he lost.
In a feat of seamanship even Churchill was forced to admire, the German battlecruiser Goeben eluded Royal Navy hunters and sailed to Constantinople, where she was presented to the Ottoman Navy and renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim. usually shortened to Yavuz. By bombarding Russian Black Sea facilities she brought Turkey into the war on the German side. Remarkably, she remained the flagship of the Turkish Navy until 1950, and was not scrapped until 1973, after the West German government declined an invitation to buy her back.
The event which would dominate all others, if war broke out, was the main shock of battle between the French and German armies. We knew that the French were counting on placing in the line a whole army corps of their best troops from North Africa, and that every man was needed. We were informed also that they intended to transport these troops across the Mediterranean as fast as ships could be loaded, under the general protection of the French Fleet, but without any individual escort or system of convoys.
The French General Staff calculated that whatever happened most of the troops would get across. The French Fleet disposed between this stream of transports and the Austrian Fleet afforded a good guarantee. But there was one ship in the Mediterranean which far outstripped in speed every vessel in the French Navy. She was the Goeben.
The only heavy ships in the Mediterranean that could attempt to compete with the Goeben in speed were the three British battle-cruisers. It seemed that the Goeben , being free to choose any point on a front of three or four hundred miles, would easily be able to avoid the French Battle Squadrons and, brushing aside or outstripping their cruisers, break in upon the transports and sink one after another of these vessels crammed with soldiers. It occurred to me at this time that perhaps that was the task she had been sent to the Mediterranean to perform.
For this reason as a further precaution I had suggested to the First Sea Lord as early as July 28 that an additional battle-cruiser, the New Zealand, should be sent to reinforce our squadron. When it came to the pinch a few days later, Admiral Boué de Lapeyrère, the French Commander-in-Chief, adopted a system of convoys; and on August 4 he prudently delayed the embarkation of the troops until he could organize adequate escorts. But of this change of plan the Admiralty was not advised.
On July 30 I called for the war orders of the Mediterranean command and discussed them fully with the First Sea Lord. These orders, issued in August 1913, had had to take into consideration a variety of political contingencies, viz. Great Britain at war with Germany only, with Germany and Austria only, or with Germany, Austria and Italy; and Great Britain and France allied together against each or any of the three aforesaid opponents. The course to be followed differed somewhat in each case. Briefly, if Britain found herself single-handed against the whole Triple Alliance, we should temporarily have to abandon the Mediterranean and concentrate at Gibraltar. In all other cases the concentration would be at Malta, and if the French were allies our squadrons would join them for a general battle. It now seemed necessary to give the Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean some more specific information and directions.
Admiralty to Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean. July 30, 1914:
It now seems probable should war break out and England and France engage in it, that Italy will remain neutral and that Greece can be made an ally. Spain also will be friendly and possibly an ally. The attitude of Italy is however uncertain, and it is especially important that your Squadron should not be seriously engaged with Austrian ships before we know what Italy will do. Your first task should be to aid the French in the transportation of their African army by covering and if possible bringing to action individual fast German ships, particularly Goeben, which may interfere with that transportation. You will be notified by telegraph when you may consult with the French Admiral. Except in combination with the French as part of a general battle, do not at this stage be brought to action against superior forces. The speed of your Squadrons is sufficient to enable you to choose your moment. You must husband your force at the outset and we shall hope later to reinforce the Mediterranean.
Earlier that same day the following, initialled both by the First Sea Lord and myself, was also sent to Sir Berkeley Milne from the Admiralty: “ Goeben must be shadowed by two battle-cruisers. Approaches to Adriatic must be watched by cruisers and destroyers. Remain near Malta yourself. It is believed that Italy will remain neutral, but you cannot yet count absolutely on this.”
At 12.50 a.m. on August 3, I emphasized the importance of the Goeben compared with all other objectives by a further telegram, which I drafted myself, to Sir Berkeley Milne: “Watch on mouth of Adriatic should be maintained, the Goeben is your objective. Follow her and shadow her wherever she goes and be ready to act on declaration of war, which appears probable and imminent.”
Early on the morning of August 4 we were delighted by the following news from the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, to the Admiralty: “Indomitable, Indefatigable shadowing Goeben and Breslau 370 44′ North 70 56′ East.”
We replied: “Very good. Hold her. War imminent.” (This to go now.) “ Goeben is to be prevented by force from interfering with French transports.” (This to await early confirmation.) “If Goeben attacks French transports you should at once engage her. You should give her fair warning of this beforehand.”
he Goeben of course did not attack the French transports. In fact, though this we did not know at the time, she was steaming away from the French transport routes when sighted by the Indomitable and Indefatigable. Even if, however, she had attacked transports, the decision of the British Cabinet would have prevented our battle-cruisers from interfering. This decision obviously carried with it the still more imperative veto against opening fire on the Goeben, if she did not attack French transports, during the hours when we had her in our power. I cannot impeach the decision. It is right that the world should know of it. But little did we imagine how much this spirit of honourable restraint was to cost us and all the world.
At about the same time I received the following minute from the First Sea Lord: “First Lord. August 4. In view of the Italian declaration of neutrality, propose to telegraph to Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, acquainting him and enjoining him to respect this rigidly and not to allow a ship to come within six miles of the Italian coast. B [Prince Louis of Battenberg].”
Bearing in mind how disastrous it would be if any petty incident occurred which could cause trouble at this fateful moment with Italy and approving of the First Sea Lord’s precaution, I replied in writing: “So proceed. Foreign Office should intimate this to Italian Government.”
Thereupon at 12:55 p.m. the following telegram was sent by the Admiralty to the Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean: “Italian Government have declared neutrality. You are to respect this neutrality rigidly and should not allow any of His Majesty’s ships to come within six miles of Italian coast.” This certainly as it turned out was destined to complicate the task of catching the Goeben; but not, as it will appear, in a decisive manner.
Throughout this long summer afternoon [August 3rd] three great ships, hunted and hunters, were cleaving the clear waters of the Mediterranean in tense and oppressive calm. At any moment the Goeben could have been smitten at under 10,000 yards range by sixteen 12-inch guns firing nearly treble her own weight of metal. At the Admiralty we suffered the tortures of Tantalus.
At about 5 o’clock Prince Louis observed that there was still time to sink the Goeben before dark. In the face of the Cabinet decision I was unable to utter a word. Nothing less than the vital safety of Great Britain could have justified so complete an overriding of the authority of the Cabinet. We hoped to sink her the next day. Where could she go? Pola seemed her only refuge throughout the Mediterranean. According to international law nothing but internment awaited her elsewhere.
The Turks had kept their secret well. As the shadows of night fell over the Mediterranean the Goeben increased her speed to twenty-four knots, which was the utmost that our two battle-cruisers could steam. She increased her speed still further. We have since learned that she was capable for a very short time of an exceptional speed, rising even to twenty-six or twenty-seven knots. Aided by this, she shook off her unwelcome companions and vanished gradually in the gathering gloom.
Admiral Souchon, the German Commander, having outdistanced our shadowing cruisers in the darkness of the night, pursued his course to Messina, where he arrived with the Goeben and Breslau on the morning of August 5. He had already received, as we now know, a telegram sent from Nauen at 1:35 a.m. on the preceding day by the German Admiralty. This message gave him all-important information. It stated that an alliance had been concluded between Germany and Turkey, and directed him to proceed to Constantinople immediately. Of this treaty we knew nothing. All our reports were of an entirely different tenor; nor was it till long afterwards that we learnt the true attitude of Turkey at this hour.
The British Commander-in-Chief had left the Malta Channel in his flagship the Inflexible after midnight of August 4, and at about 11 a.m. on August 5 he had assembled all his three battle-cruisers and two light cruisers off Pantelleria island, midway between Sicily and the African coast. According to his own published account, he had learned on the 4th that the German mail steamer General was remaining at Messina at the disposition of the Goeben. He therefore believed throughout the whole of the 5th that “the Goeben, Breslau and General were all at Messina.” His belief was correct.
One of his battle-cruisers, the Indomitable, had to coal. He sent her to Biserta. This was an important decision. Considering that he believed that the Goeben was at Messina, and that he intended himself to watch to the Northward with two battle-cruisers, some authorities have held that it would have been a sensible precaution to let this third ship coal at Malta, where facilities were certain and instant, and whence she could so easily move to close the Southern exit from Messina, or join Rear-Admiral Troubridge in the mouth of the Adriatic, as that officer had been led to expect. By sending the Indomitable to coal at Malta, he could have placed two battle-cruisers watching the Northern exit and one at the Southern. But the Commander-in-Chief decided to keep all three battle-cruisers together in his own hand and to patrol off the Western end of Sicily between Sardinia and Biserta. The Southern exit was therefore left completely open to the Goeben: and a severe action was reserved for Rear-Admiral Troubridge if, as seemed likely, she ran up the Adriatic.
I had not myself been concerned in initiating or drafting the telegram about rigidly respecting Italian neutrality, it was not specially in my mind. Had it been put to me I should at once have consented. This was no petty incident and the prize was well worth the risk of vexing the Italians. In fact, permission to chase through the Straits was given by the Admiralty unasked to Sir Berkeley Milne, as soon as it was realized that the Goeben was escaping unblocked to the Southward. It was then too late.
In pursuance of the orders he had received from Germany, Admiral Souchon with the Goeben and Breslau, having at length completed coaling and made his will, steamed out of Messina harbour at 5 p.m. on August 6, cleared for action and with his bands playing. He no doubt expected to encounter at least one and possibly two of the British battle-cruisers as soon as he was outside territorial waters. In view of the fact that, as he was aware, his position must have been accurately known to the British Commander-in-Chief for many hours, this assumption was not unreasonable. Unhappily, as has been described, every one of the three British battle-cruisers was otherwise engaged. Thus when the German Admiral rounded the Southern point of Italy and turned Eastward, the only three antagonists whose combination of power and speed he had to dread were already far astern.
By 6 o’clock therefore on the morning of August 7 the Goeben, already the fastest capital unit in the Mediterranean, was steaming on an unobstructed course for the Dardanelles, carrying with her for the peoples of the East and Middle East more slaughter, more misery and more ruin than has ever before been borne within the compass of a ship.
Again, it has been urged that the sentence, “Your first task should be to aid the French in the transportation of their African army,” imposed upon Sir Berkeley Milne the duty of placing all three of his battle-cruisers west of Sicily. Thus wrested from their context and from the whole series of Admiralty telegrams, these directions have been made to serve as an explanation. Against them must be read the full text. On July 30, “Your first task should be to aid the French in the transportation of their African army by covering and if possible bringing to action individual fast German ships, particularly Goeben.” And again, on August 2, “Goeben must be shadowed by two battle-cruisers.” And again, on August 3, “Goeben is your objective. Follow her and shadow her wherever she goes, and be ready to act on declaration of war, which appears probable and imminent.”
Certainly if the Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean had in reliance upon these dominant and reiterated instructions managed to put one battle-cruiser each side of the Straits of Messina, instead of all on one side, and if in consequence he had brought the Goeben to action, as would have been inevitable, and if he had thus protected the French transports in the most effectual manner by fighting the Goeben, no one could have found fault with him on the score that he had exceeded his orders.
he reader is now in a position to form his own judgment on this affair. I have indicated plainly the point on which the Admiralty was in fault, namely, in not spontaneously lifting the prohibition to enter Italian waters the moment we learned the Goeben was at Messina. The conduct of Rear-Admiral Troubridge was subsequently investigated by a Court of Inquiry composed of the three Commanders-in-Chief of Portsmouth, Devonport and Chatham. As the result of their report, he was tried by court-martial at Portland in September and honourably acquitted of all blame. His career in the Navy was, however, at an end, the general feeling of the Service not accepting the view that the four armoured cruisers and other vessels at his disposal ought not to have fought the Goeben. In view of his acquittal he was appointed to take charge of the naval guns which we sent with a mission to Serbia. In this capacity his work was distinguished and successful. He gained the confidence and respect of the Serbians and their Government, and he proved on various occasions that whatever might be thought of his reasons for not attacking the Goeben, want of personal courage was not among them.
In all this story of the escape of the Goeben one seems to see the influence of that sinister fatality which at a later stage and on a far larger scale was to dog the enterprise against the Dardanelles. The terrible “If ‘s” accumulate. If my first thoughts on July 27 of sending the New Zealand to the Mediterranean had materialized; if we could have opened fire on the Goeben during the afternoon of August 4; if we had been less solicitous for Italian neutrality; if Sir Berkeley Milne had sent the Indomitable to coal at Malta instead of Biserta; if the Admiralty had sent him direct instructions when on the night of the 5th they learned where the Goeben was; if Rear-Admiral Troubridge in the small hours of August 7 had not changed his mind; if the Dublin and her two destroyers had intercepted the enemy during the night of the 6th-7th—the story of the Goeben would have ended here. There was, however, as it turned out, one more chance of annulling the doom of which she was the bearer. That chance, remote though it was, the Fates were vigilant to destroy.
At 1 a.m. on August 8 Sir Berkeley Milne, having collected and coaled his three battle-cruisers at Malta, set out at a moderate speed on an Easterly course in pursuit of the Goeben. At this juncture the Fates moved a blameless and punctilious Admiralty clerk to declare war upon Austria. The code telegram ordering hostilities to be commenced against Austria was inadvertently released without any authority whatever. The mistake was repaired a few hours later; but the first message reached Sir Berkeley Milne at 8 p.m. on August 8 when he was half-way between Sicily and Greece. His original war orders had prescribed that in the event of a war with Austria he should in the first instance concentrate his fleet near Malta, and faithful to these instructions he turned his ships about and desisted from the pursuit of the Goeben.
Twenty-four hours were thus lost before orders could reach him to resume it. But the Goeben herself had come to a standstill. Admiral Souchon was cruising irresolutely about the Greek islands endeavouring to make sure that he would be admitted by the Turks to the Dardanelles. He dallied thirty-six hours at Denusa and was forced to use his tell-tale wireless on several occasions. It was not till the evening of the 10th that he entered the Dardanelles and the Curse descended irrevocably upon Turkey and the East.
Souchon’s ships made it to Constantinople and were admitted into the harbour by the Turks. The German diplomats reminded the Turks that Great Britain had recently broken a contract to supply two new battleships to the Turkish government (which the British Admiralty had decided to keep for its own use as war loomed), and offered to sell them the Goeben and the Breslau. The Turks agreed on August 16 and eventually joined Germany’s side on October 30. The ships were renamed the Yavuz Sultan Selim and the Midili, retaining their German crews; Souchon was made commander-in-chief of the Turkish Navy. Milne served out the rest of the war on half-pay and retired in 1919.
Despite being outclassed by the German warships Troubridge still intended to engage them, but was convinced otherwise by his flag captain, and them to escape to Constantinople. He and his commanding officer were heavily criticised for their failure to intercept the German ships, particularly when it appeared that they became influential in the Turkish decision to enter the war. Troubridge was court-martialled and acquitted, but his reputation had been damaged. Troubridge never had another seagoing command, but did command naval detachments and flotillas on the Danube during the Balkan campaigns, winning the respect of Serbian Crown Prince Alexander.
Reprinted from The World Crisis 1911-1914 by kind permission of the Churchill Literary Estate and Randolph Churchill. Additional paragraphing has been added.