5. The Collapse of the August Offensive - M30 at Sulva and Helles


The Suvla Plain in 1996 had hardly altered since 1915. This photo was taken from Lala Baba looking north over the Salt Lake to the Kiretch Tepe  

“If fortune had favoured Ian Hamilton at Suvla Bay, the war might have ended at the Battle of the Somme in May, 1916.”
Reginald, Viscount Esher, The Tragedy of Lord Kitchener

“The one fatal error was inertia. And inertia prevailed.”
Despatch of General Sir Ian Hamilton, GCB, 11 December, 1915


The success of the April landings had been threatened by lax security and General Hamilton was determined that the August enterprise should not be imperilled in the same way. Planning, therefore was carried out in conditions of the greatest secrecy which were carried to absurd lengths: General Stopford, for example was not given details of the operation he was to command until 15 days before he led his troops into action and many of the other senior officers, who were not briefed until 30 July, “never saw a map of the Suvla area before landing”. (1)

Keyes and his naval planners worked under the same restrictions as their Army counterparts and were under orders not to mention dates, times and places of landings, even at staff conferences. Given this situation, it is quite clear that Lt.Cdr.Lockyer and his Number One knew nothing of the offensive, and M30’s projected part in it, before the ship arrived at Mudros on 5 August; indeed, it is quite possible that the crucial orders were issued in Port Kephalo on the day the offensive began.

Those who planned the great combined operation of D Day, 1944, ensured that the men of all arms were trained in their specialised roles and were well briefed before battle. Looking back at the Gallipoli campaign, it is hard to believe that M30 was sent into action as soon as she arrived in the war theatre, her guns untried, her crew unpractised in the art of ship-to-shore gunnery and after what must have been, at best, a perfunctory briefing if, in fact, there was a briefing at all. Yet such was the case and there is evidence that her experience was not unusual for many men, ashore and afloat, fought at Suvla without the detailed orders they needed and, indeed, any clear conception of the general plan:

“No unit was given any idea of what was required of it; maps were not handed out until the evening of August 6 and no one except the generals and admirals was informed of the destinations.” (2)

M30 left Kaphalo at 11 p.m on 6 August in company with the sloop Jonquil which was carrying General Stopford and Admiral Christian, the military and naval commanders of the Suvla operation. During the short passage of just over an hour Stopford entertained his fellow passengers with one more repititious account of the difficulties he had to face: it is not recorded that Christian said much in reply – difficulties of his own lay ahead.

As the 2 ships steamed onward through the warm, dark night (the moon did not rise until 2.30 a.m), the thunder of the guns from Helles could be heard quite clearly, while, away to starboard, bright flashes lighting up the sky marked Anzac where Moslem and Christian had been killing each other with the utmost ferocity for the past 5 hours. M30 and Jonquil had joined an armada heading north eastward – horseboats, trawlers, drifters, excursion steamers, ferry boats, even Thames barges – while far astern steamed the troopers carrying the men of the Xth. Division from Mudros and Mityleni.

The Suvla and Anzac Areas

Up ahead, an hour before M30 left port, the destroyers and motor lighters (3) which had sailed from Port Kephalo at sundown, had separated as Suvla Bay opened before them, 7 ships leaving Nibrunesi Point to Port as they headed for the shore and 3 destroyers steaming into the heart of the Bay itself.

At B beach everything went well. The ships crept to the shore in total silence then, as 7 anchors plunged into the sea:

“Seven motor launches shot out and landed 3,500 men at one rush, the returned to their destroyers and landed another 3,710 men with equal celerity. Thus 7,210 men were landed dryshod in half and hour without a single casualty.” (4)

The lighters then made for the bulged cruisers Theseus and Endymion which had followed the destroyers in from sea carrying 1,000 men apiece. Soon the sloop Astor, and 7 trawlers with their tows, appeared off the Point to make their contribution to the expanding force ashore. By midnight 10,000 men and 16 guns had been landed without loss of life.

At A beach there was disaster. The destroyers, confused in the darkness or misled by their one written order which was “so vague as to be incomprehensible” (5), anchored in the wrong order south of The Cut some 1,000 yards from the intended position. Worse was to follow for the lighters went hard aground on their first trip 50 to 100 yds. from the shore, forcing the heavily laden men to wade ashore up to their necks in water, harried by bullets and shrapnel, the white armlets they used for indentification making them easy marks for the expert Turkish snipers.

Each motor lighter was accompanied by a picket boat, commanded by a midshipman, from one of the immobilised capital ships whose function was to keep the clumsy landing craft at rightangles to the beach while the soldiers scrambled ashore. Midshipman Denham, of Agamemnon, wrote:

“We got a grass line from our stern to the lighter’s stern and, by occasionally going ahead, kept her bows on to the beach. In doing this we got our bows on to the rifle fire, which went on for a couple of hours as strong as ever. - - - and so by the time the lighter was cleared it must have been well past midnight.” (6)

Soon the initial landing at A beach was falling well behind schedule and, although strenous efforts were made to refloat the lighters or replace them with reserve craft, the last men of the 34th. Brigade did not get ashore until 5 a.m. Meanwhile the Bay was filling with troopers and storeship bringing men and supplies for the dawn attack.

The men of the 32nd. and 33rd. Brigades at B beach started well, taking Lala Baba at bayonet point and at heavy cost, but they had been on their feet for 17 hours and without effective leadership from General Hammersley, who was nursing his phlebitis, the attack lost momentum.

The 34th. Brigarde, at A beach, had been told that their first objective, Hill 10, lay 700 yds. straight inland from their landing point but, having been put ashore at the wrong place, they found it impossible to locate the small hillock in the impenetrable darkness:

“General Sitwell when he landed seized a sand dune in front of him, and believing it to be Hill 10, seems to have waited for the 32nd. Brigade from Nibrunesi to join up.” (7)


"Howitzer country" - Irish troops on the Kiretch Tepe.

Nevertheless, despite the confusion and Sitwell’s lack of initiative, one dauntless battalion of the Manchester Regiment, without waiting for further orders, set off diagonally across the Plain and established themselves on a high point of the frearsome Kiretch Tepe ridge.

Sergeant Hargreave, RAMC, of the Mudros contingent of the Xth. Division, remembered the astounding dawn of 7 August all his life, writing:

“The clouds changed in colour second by second from shell pink, strawberry and blush rose to rippling streamers of cochineal, azalea, champagne – rhubarb, and fuschia until the whole sky – diarama melted into a cerulean blue overhead.” (8)

However Admiral de Robeck and Commodore Keyes, who arrived in Suvla Bay at dawn in the cruiser Chatham, spent little time admiring the beauties of nature. They could see that there were enough landing craft gathered together to carry the Mityleni contingent ashore in one lift, but that they were lying idle alongside the transports. The exasperated CinC asked Christian in Jonquil why there was a delay and was told that A beach was now considered “impracticable” and that orders were being given for the men from Mityleni to be landed at B and C beaches instead.

Keyes realised immediately that the new orders would condemn the troops concerned to a 3 mile march under fire along the sea shore before they could reach their objective, the Kiretch Tepe, and he set off immediately, in his usual energetic way, to find an alternative landing point within the Bay – a task that Christian should have taken in hand long since. Almost at once Keyes found 2 suitable, if constricted, coves (afterwards known as A East and West) near Suvla Point at the foot of the Kiretch Tepe and came racing back with the news to Jonquil. Stopford and Christian then conferred, finally deciding that it was too late to countermand the orders given to the troops from Mityleni to land at B and C beaches, but agreeing that the force from Mudros should land at the coves discovered by Keyes. Thus the Xth. Division was split in two, “its organisation was broken up and confusion set in”. (9)

At day break, or soon afterwards, the ships of the 3rd.Squadron stationed in Suvla Bay opened fire on Chocolate and W Hills in support of the troops who, without firm leadership or clear orders, were spread out across the Plain. But relief was to come for the heroic Manchesters, still isolated on their hilltop, for, as the sun rose, the 4” gun of Foxhound and the 2 6” guns of M30 spoke in their defence. There is difficulty in following M30’s exact movements on this day for her log merely states that she was on her “Cruising Station off the Dardanelles”, a statement which suggests a mobile rather than a static role, and, gathering together scraps of evidence from other sources, it is possible to propose, with some confidence, that she was standing well out into the Gulf of Saros, to obtain the necessary elevation for her guns (the Kiretch Tepe rises from 400’ to 660’ at the highest point), firing on a diagonal line at groups of Turkish soldiers as they appeared and disappeared on the skyline, the usual range being given as 12,000 yds. (6 sea miles). As the morning wore on the Manchesters were replaced by men of the Munster Regiment, who had landed on A West and East, led by an aggrieved General Mahon who had seen the major part of the division he had trained split up and assigned to other commanders. Foxhound and M30 kept up a spasmodic cannonade throughout the day so that the Official History, “Naval Operations”, was able to record that, with these 2 ships “searching the ground ahead - - - General Mahon was able to push along the ridge until the beach was practically safe.” (10) What this statement conceals, of course, is that the original plan for 7 August envisaged that, by the end of the day, not only would the Suvla beacheads be secure but that the whole of the Anafarta and Kiretch Tepe ridges would be in Allied hands. Unfortunately, by the time the sun went down, no British soldier had set foot on the Anafarta and our troopson the Kiretch Tepe, fighting with bravery in fierce heat against well trained opponents occupying ideal defensive positions, had been able to advance only 2 miles along the ridge.

During her first day in action M30 fired 108 6” shells (53 of them filled with the new Lyddite explosive) but her officers and men found that they were handicapped in providing accurate support for the infantrymen fighting on the hilltops by the inbuilt characteristics of the guns, determined by pre-war naval policy, with which their ship was equipped.

Ignoring the lessons of the Napoleonic and Crimean Wars, the Royal Navy, as it moved into 20th. Century, decided to concentrate all available resources on developing the accuracy of “direct fire” (at targets visible from the firing position) leaving the intricacies of controlling “indirect fire” (at targets out of sight from the firing point) to the Royal Artillery. Naturally, the targets which the Navy intended to overwhelm with accurate direct fire were to be enemy ships, probably moving at high speed, so that the guns supplied to the Fleet of 1914 all shared a common quality in that they fired a shell at a high velocity on a flat trajectory. Unhappily, the guns best suited for shore bombardment and indirect fire needed exactly the opposite qualities to those used by the Navy, for what was required was a weapon which fired a shell of low velocity on a high trajectory, i.e. a howitzer. Winston Churchill, with his usual military prescience, had suggested that the monitors should be equipped with such guns but, unusually, his idea was ignored, either because of the technical difficulties involved (11) or because of the general shortage of guns of all calibres in 1915. M30’s guns had been despatched to Harland and Wolff from the Navy’s reserve stock and were brought into action for the first time in circumstances which suited them not at all, firing at targets high above them moving in the “broken ground” of the spiky Kiretch Tepe – a situation which cried out for the plunging fire of the howitzer. M30’s gun crews, like those of other ships of the Eastern Mediterranean Squadron, cut the muzzle velocity of their weapons by reducing the power of the cordite propellant charge, but this was a tactic which produced difficulties of its own and which in any case, was only a partial solution to what was, basically, an insoluble problem. A Royal Naval Air Service observer summed up the situation in simple words:

“The target was very often behind a range of hills and the Navy aren’t very good at that. You see you don’t have hills in the sea. You see your target, there’s nothing in the way, you just fire at it. With us sometimes you would report that the shell was a few yards short and then the next shell was a few miles over because it just cleared the top of the hill and it was a long time before the shell came down. They hadn’t anything like a howitzer. All the naval guns had much too flat a trajectory for that sort of work.” (12)

Although Chief Gunner Martin had drilled his gun crews assiduously during the outward voyage in the best gunnery school manner, the guns themselves had not been fired since the trials in Belfast Lough when proof shells had tested the reliability of the breech mechanisms and little else. Out in the Gulf of Saros M30 rolled and yawned in her usual way and, also, as Lt.Cdr.Lockyer complained, drifted rapidly down to leeward, away from the firing position, in the lightest of breezes, rarely providing the stable platform which allowed the gun aimers and layers to keep their sights firmly fixed on the point of aim. Experience, and the adoption of various ploys to counteract the waywardness of the ship, brought M30’s gunnery to a high standard later but on her first outing it is doubtful whether her fire was accurate, but this is not to say that it wasn’t effective. It was the great Napoleon who believed that the importance of the “moral to the material” stood in the ration of 3 to 1, and the sight and sound of M30’s 6” shells falling in the enemy territory ahead of them encouraged the infantrymen fighting their way along the Kiretch Tepe, while the Turks, believing their right flank to be anchored impregnably on the steep cliffs which swept precipitously down to the Gulf, found their positions enfiladed from the sea.

The road taken by Turkish reinforcements for Suvla

As darkness fell on 7 August, M30 returned to her allotted station and the dawn of a new day found her “Cruising slowly in Ejelmer Bay”. Soon the 6 pdr. was engaging targets on the shoreline at 500 to 1,000 yds. range (it was believed that the enemy had an ammunition dump hidden somewhere on the beach) firing 22 rounds in all. The 6” guns fired for 33 minutes in the morning, commencing at 10.27 a.m, and for 80 minutes in the afternoon from 5.15 p.m onwards, the target for 41 shells, “spotted by SS Manica”, being given in the log as the village of Turshun Keui some 4 miles inland down a river valley. “Spotting” – the observation of the fall of shot so that corrections can be made to range or deflection – was not an easy matter for M30 without assistance from the shore or from the air, as her spotting position on the bridge was only 20’ above the level of the guns. On this day, however, the ship’s gunners had assistance from an experienced observer (Manica had been involved in the Gallipoli campaign since 9 April ), perched high above them in the balloon’s basket, passing telephone messages down to the deck of his parent ship from when they were transmitted to M30 by flag or light – a process slow but sure in good weather.

As has been mentioned, the Official History, “Naval Operations”, does not say why M30, Manica and Foxhound were ordered to Ejelmer Bay (as it happened the destroyer remained in the Gulf of Saros, stationed off Suvla Point) nor does it describe or explain the monitor’s bombardment of Turshun Keui, a village far from the fighting front. However, evidence from other sources suggests that M30 and Manica, operating in isolation, could potentially, have played an important part in the struggle for the dominating Anafarta ridge and hence, for the possession of the whole Suvla region.

General Liman von Sanders, the German commander of the Turkish Vth. Army, knew that a fresh Allied offensive was to be launched in August, 1915, but, like the competent soldier he was, he kept his reserves well back until his enemy’s intentions were clearly revealed. On learning of the landings in Suvla Bay, von Sanders sent reinforcements marching hotfoot from Bulair, some 35 miles to the north, along a road which crosses the head of the peninsula to reach the Sea of Marmora at the town of Gallipoli where it follows the shoreline for a short distance before snaking back to Turshun Keui where it ends. Tracks from the village lead up the reverse slopes of the Anafarta ridge to the summit at Tekke Tepe which, unoccupied when the Allied landings were made, should have been the primary objective, as General Hamilton observed in his diary.

The advance party of the Turkish reinforcing detachment arrived in Turshun Keui in the morning of 8 August (did their presence provoke M30’s first bombardment ?) to be met by von Sanders who, enquiring anxiously about the progress of the main force, was told that it was still marching, footsore and weary, many miles to the north. The greater part of the relieving army approached Turshun Keui in the afternoon (M30’s 2nd. bombardment was delivered at about this time) but camped outside the village, passing through in the dark of the night to climb the Anafarta and reach the summit a short time before the arrival of a small party of the East Yorkshires, which was annihilated. The subsequent devastating Turkish dawn attack swept British troops back down to the Plain, thus extinguishing any hope of a successful conclusion to the Suvla operations.

Vice Admiral de Robeck’s forceful Chief of Staff, Commodore Keyes, obviously knew something of the route the Turkish reinforcements would take for he arranged for 2 submarines, E11 (1 12pdr.) and E14 (1 6pdr.) to rendezvous off the town of Gallipoli to shell the enemy soldiers as they marched down the shoreside road. The submarines, submerging and re-surfacing repeatedly, caused temporary confusion in the Turkish ranks until they were driven off by a concentration of field pieces. Keyes writes that he stationed 2 vessels in the Gulf of Saros in case the enemy reinforcements “used the old road” (13) but he does not name the ships nor give any other details about their deployment. Keyes and other commentators praise the courageous efforts of the submarines but ignore the potentially more damaging, if unsuccessful, attempts at interception made by M30 and her attendant balloon ship.

Manica’s log cannot be found, but it seems that she stayed in Ejelmer Bay for another 2 days although her balloon remained on deck, probably because of the attentions of a German aircraft which made repeated visits, dropping bombs on each occasion despite being engaged by M30’s 6pdr. HA weapon. The monitor’s main armament spoke again on 10 August, the forward gun being fired for an hour in the morning and the after gun for a similiar period in the afternoon. The log does not specify a target but, as the range is given as 4 ½ miles, it is likely that Turshun Keui was bombarded once again in an attempt to close the stable door after the horse had bolted.

By 11 August M30 was short of fuel and had consumed over half of her outfit of 6” shells so that she returned to Kephalo to top up supplies. But this was only a fleeting visit for 24 hours later she was at sea again, having been ordered to stand off the left flank of the troops fighting on the Helles front.

It was intended that the attack delivered at the southern tip of the Gallipoli peninsula, which opened the August offensive, should be purely diversionary but the local commanders at Helles, as at Suvla, were given a dangerous freedom to develop their own ideas and the most influential man at VIII Corps HQ, the absurdly optimistic Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Street, believed that he had been presented with an opportunity to capture Krithia and, indeed, to overrun Achi Baba itself, that lowering hill which had already claimed so many lives. Street’s optimism was fed by the quiescence of the Turks on his front at this time although, in fact, they were conserving ammunition to meet the assault that they were sure was soon to come. Thus, when the soldiers of the 88th. Brigade of the 29th Division leapt from their trenches on 6 August they met shattering fire from enemy artillery, and by nightfall 2,000 of the 3,000 men who had set out so bravely were casualties. Despite this setback another attack was mounted on the following morning with equally dismal results. Within 2 days Street’s grandiose scheme had been overthrown and had failed, even as a holding operation, for the Turkish reserves held at Helles were quickly transferred to meet the real threat at Anzac.

When M30 arrived on the scene on 12 August, the battle had been lost but fighting continued and the Turkish guns mounted on the commanding slopes of Achi Baba still posed a threat to the Allied positions. The monitor’s targets were “S and D” (?) batteries, accordingly to the log, and if these were the mobile howitzers which were the bane of the Army and the Navy then they were elusive: while weapons like these dominated the Straits the defending minefields could not be swept and passage upstream was denied to our ships – the story of the Gallipoli crusade in a nutshell.

M30 continued her shelling of Achi Baba for another day, possibly in company with Abercrombie (2 14”guns), but her hull was affected by the recurring blast and recoil of her 6” guns and she had to head for port, first for Kephalo and then to Mudros where she awaited her turn to go alongside the grossly overworked repair ship Reliance for the decks to be strengthened. There was a cheerful reunion with chummy ship M31, which was also being modified by the skilled artificers of Reliance at this time in order to counter a weakness which afflicted all the monitors of the M29 class and which Rear Admiral Nicholson, of the 2nd Squadron, attributed to the speed with which the ships had been built, although even a layman, if gifted with hindsight, might suspect that, rushed construction or not, difficulties would arise when such powerful guns were merely bolted to so frail a hull. While under repair M30 took onboard a few members of the Royal Marine Light Infantry from the cruiser Europa who would help to man the 6pdr. and the Maxims. (14).

The repairs took a month to complete so that it was not until the 16 September that M30 left Mudros and the Gallipoli peninsula behind her to sail for the Greek island of Mityleni and join the force blockading part of the coast of Asia Minor which was known as “The Smyrna Patrol.” The monitor’s intervention in an ill starred campaign had been of short duration and of neglible influence upon the outcome but her guns had been bloodied while she was learning her trade and she was a representative of a class of vessel which had arrived in the Dardanelles at “our moment of greatest need”, as an officer of one of the immobilised battleships commented. (15)

Notes

1. Rhodes James. “Gallipoli”
2. Fuller. “The Decisive Battles of the Western World.”
3. These motor lighters, known as “beetles”, were built by Fisher for his Baltic operation. Amazingly some of them turned up in WW2 during Wavell’s desert offensive.
4. Keyes. “Naval Memoirs.”
5. Rhodes James. “Gallipoli.”
6. Denham. “Dardanelles – A Midshipman’s Diary.”
7. Corbett. “Naval Operations”, Vol.3
8. Hargrave. “The Suvla Bay Landing.”
9. Fuller. “The Decisive Battles of the Western World.”
10. Corbett. “Naval Operations”, Vol.3
11. The armament of the 3 monitors built by Vickers for Brazil included howitzers and Humber used hers to some effect in the Gallipoli campaign.
12. King. “Royal Naval Air Service, 1912 – 1918.”
13. Keyes. “Naval Memoirs.”
14. From 1862 until 1923 the Royal Marines were divided into 2 distinctive corps – the Royal Marine Light Infantry (known as “Red Marines” from the colour of their uniforms) who manned light guns and formed landing parties, and the Royal Marine Artillery (“Blue Marines”) who fought heavy guns in capital ships. It was not unusual for detachments of the RMLI to be drafted from underworked capital ships to smaller vessels during the Gallipoli campaign.
15. Denham. “Dardanelles – A Midshipman’s Diary.”

No comments:

Post a comment