6. The Smyrna Patrol

Mityleni town harbour 

“The operations undertaken against Smyrna attracted very little attention while in progress, and are now almost completely forgotten."
Vice Admiral C.V.Usborne, Smoke on the Horizon

“You see there are really two Navies: Big Ship Navy and Small Ship Navy. The former is all gold lace and etiquette, the latter junior and jovial. In the former a post-captain is fairly important, in the latter a lieutenant is lord of all he surveys.”
Oswald Frewen, A Sailor’s Soliloquy

At the outbreak of war, the only enemy submarines based in the Mediterranean were 6 obsolescent Austrian boats working from Cattaro in the Adriatic, although this force was soon strengthened by the arrival of a privately developed craft and the capture of the French vessel Curie. Admiral Souchon, who had taken Goeben and Breslau to Constantinople and had become German commander of the Turkish Navy, suggested that his Austrian ally, Admiral Anton Haus, should detach a small force of underwater craft to assist him, but Haus, uncertain of the continuing neutrality of Italy, preferred to concentrate all his forces in defence of his homeland, thus forcing the Germans to devise some way of introducing their submarines into the battle area.

The ingenious reaction of the German command was to send small submarines of the UB and UC types overland, in 3 sections, to Pola, where they were re-assembled. The UB craft, known to their crews as “tin tadpoles”, were tiny, being under 100 ft. in length and of 127 tons surface displacement: their sole armament was 2 45 cm torpedoes. The UC type submarines, slightly larger than their sisters, were minelayers, although they were of use also in carrying small quantities of vital war material to the beleaguered Turks. The overall plan was for these small boats to sail from Pola to Constantinople from where they would operate against the Russians in the Black Sea, although en route they would attack Allied shipping in the approaches to the Dardanelles or in the Straits themselves. Orak, near Budrum, on the Turkish Asiatic shore, was made available as a staging post where oil and stores could be supplied and, occasionally, Smyrna was used as a temporary refuge.

The impact of the UB and UC craft was slight, although the trooper Royal Edward was sunk in August, 1915, with severe loss of life and the Southland damaged in the same month. Of more moment to the Allied commanders was the German decision to send larger, and more dangerous, U boats into the Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar. This was a possibility which had been foreseen long before U21 made her dramatic appearance off Gallipoli in May, 1915, and the British naval staff anticipated that the arrival of the larger craft would be coupled with the establishment of a permanent base for them somewhere in the Aegean. In fact the Germans had no such intention – their U boats were quite capable of operating from Cattaro for 3 or 4 weeks at a time without additional support from alternative supply bases – but scarce Allied naval resources were deployed for long periods in searching for, and blocking up, possible bolt holes for enemy submarines.

If a permanent submarine base was to be set up in the eastern Mediterranean, as the British naval commanders feared, then Smyrna would be the ideal choice for this establishment as the city (population 400,000) had many of the facilities which would be required including a horseshoe shaped, well protected harbour which lay at the end of a gulf 40 miles long and 15 miles wide at the entrance. Accordingly, to forestall what was seen to be an inevitable development, the Admiralty sent a telegram on 2 March to Admiral Pierce, CinC of the East Indies Fleet, then lying at Port Said:

“It is desired to bombard and destroy the forts at Smyrna so that the port can be blocked and prevented from eventually becoming a submarine base.

You are to take charge of the bombardment and should proceed with all despatch in your flagship to a rendezvous in lat.38° 35’ N, long. 26° 35’ E informing Admiral Carden of the time when you will arrive. You will be joined at the rendezvous by two battleships detailed from Admiral Carden’s force. Bombard deliberately, making use of superior range of your guns, and destroy the batteries without injury to the town.

There is not to be a landing. When operation is finished return to Egypt and detach Carden’s ships to rejoin him.

Acknowledge, despatch is necessary. Admiral Carden has been informed." (1)

The bombardment was duly carried out but was unsuccessful, and subsequent parleys with the Vali of the city, intended to induce that wily gentleman to surrender the town, failed also, not surprisingly. The lessons given by the Turks to the bombarding ships were repeated in the Dardanelles. Lieutenant (N) J.H.Godfrey, RN, of Euralyus, (2) wrote:

“We can’t help feeling disappointed in the result of the last two days operations. There being no means of spotting the fall of shot by reconnaissance aircraft, kite balloons or flank spotting ship, we do not know if we have knocked out any of their batteries except some field guns on the beach. The seaplanes on which we were building such great hopes have failed us, and the minesweeping has been far from successful. In fact, even assuming that a channel is swept, what is to happen then? Their batteries could give us a bad time if we approached nearer than 6,000 yards and we have no means of gauging the effect of our replies."”(3)

Despite the failure of the bombardment and the negotiations, Admiral Pierce considered that his sortie had been successful because the Turks, uncertain of the intentions of the attacking force, had sunk a line of their own blockships across the harbour entrance, thus rendering it unusable by submarines in the Admiral’s opinion. Furthermore, to complement the Turkish efforts, the minelayer Gazelle laid a minefield, under fire, across the harbour entrance from north to south.

The sinking of Triumph and Majestic at the end of May produced another severe attack of “submarinitis” in the Eastern Mediterranean Squadron and the thoughts of the naval staff turned once more to the dangers of an enemy operational submarine base being set up at Smyrna on the flank of the fleet; after all, sunken blockships could be raised and undefended minefields swept. Ships could not be spared for further bombardments which, in any case, were unlikely to be successful so it was decided to isolate Smyrna by blockading the city. Accordingly, an official blockade, under the terms of the Declaration of London, was declared over an area which stretched from the island of Samos northwards to the Dardanelles but with particular attention being paid to the section from Cape Baba (north of the island of Mityleni) to latitude 38° 30’ North which covered the entrance to the Gulf of Smyrna.

Blockade was, of course, an age old weapon of naval power, but the definition of contraband and the question of the rights of neutral shipping in wartime had long been issues which had bedevilled relations between combatant nations and uninvolved states. An attempt had been made to codify the conduct of blockading operations at a conference in Paris in 1856, but nothing more of importance was done in the matter until the Hague Peace Conference was concluded in 1907. Then the British government called together a group of international experts to consider the legal aspects of sea warfare and, in particular, to study the linked questions of contraband and blockade so that they could be brought within the agreed limitations of international law. The recommendations of the lawyers were enshrined in the Declaration of London, but this proved to be a feeble and confusing document and none of the powers which were to tear each other apart a few years later ratified the Treaty. Nevertheless, the Liberal majority in the House of Commons confirmed that they would abide by the terms set out in any future conflict.

Under the Declaration, cargoes were divided into 3 categories. First was “absolute contraband” which consisted of listed goods, used exclusively in war, consigned to enemy ports: these could be seized outright. Then came “conditional contraband” comprising goods, such as food or fodder, which might possibly be used for war purposes: these could be seized if bound for enemy ports but could not be impounded if consigned to a neutral harbour, even if their eventual destination was clearly an enemy country. The final category was “free goods”, which were not contraband at all and these included, fatuously enough, metallic ores, textiles and specified items of machinery and manufactured articles.

Under the Declaration, then, the whole question of contraband remained extraordinarily complicated and, indeed, ridiculous. But it was clear that, even if some of the most ludicrous sections of the document were ignored (4), a neutral ship passing through a blockaded area had to be boarded and searched and the manifest examined before it could be determined whether she was carrying any category of contraband. Consequently, when the blockade of Smyrna was announced, a squadron of ships had to be assembled to patrol the area and a nearby base found for them.

The base selected for what was to become known as the “Smyrna Patrol”, was the large island of Mityleni (now Lesbos), which lay 4 miles off the Turkish coast some 25 miles north of the entrance to the Gulf of Smyrna. Renowned as the birthplace of the 5th. Century poet Sappho, and reputed to have had Aristotle as a lecturer in its School of Philosophy, Mityleni measured 28 miles across, was 43 miles in length and was approximately 630 square miles in area. This pleasantly green island boasted a turbulent history having been despoiled by Phoenicians, Romans, Persians, Syrians and Turks. In 1915 it was a Greek possession once more for the first time since the 15th. Century having been wrested from the ancient enemy at the conclusion of the first Balkan War in 1912.

Like Lemnos and Imbros, Mityleni was made available to the Allies through the goodwill of the Greek Prime Minister, Venizelos, but although the majority of the residents were emphatically pro-Allied, there were some followers of Gounaris, the leader of the royalist, pro-German opposition party and this presented a problem to British counter intelligence. Nor was this the only problem: Mityleni was notorious for the mix of nationalities in the population and the “the passport difficulty was four times as difficult as anywhere else in the world.” (5) Compton Mackenzie, then a Royal Marine intelligence officer, highlighted this cosmopolitan quality in an official memorandum describing a spy ring:

“The gang consists of Heinrich Muller, the German Vice Consul; his son Henri, a Belgian subject; Andrea, a Greek, the Austrian Consul; Arturo Esposito, an Italian subject, the Commissionaire of the Italian Consulate; Franz Fraz, a Hungarian photographer; and two female German typists.” (6)

Everywhere on Mityleni, begging and starving, were Greek refugees, driven from mainland Turkey and the islands off the coast. Some camps had been organised for them but the massive influx overwhelmed the slender resources of the civil authorities. Surely, amongst the crowd of refugees, there were Turkish agents, infiltrated by a crafty foe – or so the British intelligence service thought – but how were they to be weeded out?

Unlike the situation on Lemnos and Imbros, a façade of neutrality was maintained on Mityleni initially, with the Austrian, German and British consulates pursuing openly their countries’ legitimate interests but also working energetically in the murky underworld of espionage. No less enthusiastic were the local inhabitants who took money from, and lied to, all parties indiscriminately. The head of British Intelligence in the area was Mr Heathcote-Smith, nominally the Vice Consul, who, true to intelligence service traditions, was the best known and most easily identified Englishman on the island.

To add a Gilbertian touch to a situation which already had farcical elements, Captain Compton Mackenzie, RM, arrived on Mityleni in July, 1915, charged with the task of convincing the Turks that a military attack was to be made on Smyrna by a force which would be arriving on the island shortly. Heathcote-Smith, not privy to the deception plan, looked on aghast as Compton Mackenzie strode around seeking information about camp sites and water supplies able to serve an army of 40,000 men, even confiding in the Nomarch, a known German sympathiser. In supposed confirmation of Compton Mackenzie’s story, 6 battalions of the 10th. (Irish) Division, earmarked for the Suvla Bay landings, were first despatched to Mityleni.

From the naval point of view, Mityleni’s prime asset was the fine spacious harbour of Port Iero in the south east which, lying at the end of a long, winding creek, could be easily protected against submarine attack. Here was to be established the main base of the Smyrna Patrol, and here arrived, in July, the pre-Dreadnought Canopus to take over as headquarters ship.

The old warhorse Canopus had been scheduled for scrapping in 1915 but, reprieved on the outbreak of war, she spent a brief period escorting the BEF across the channel before being ordered to join Rear Admiral Craddock’s North American and West Indies Squadron to which, it was thought, her 2” guns would give a decisive advantage if Von Spee’s elusive East Asiatic Squadron was brought to bay. Craddock saw the largest ship in this force twice only before he fought the battle of Coronel and on each occasion she was labouring to keep the rendezvous. Canopus had been designed to reach a top speed of 18 knots, but by 1914 she could steam at only 12 knots, or so her Engineer Commander declared, and was troubled by frequent bouts of “condenseritis”. Actually, brought to the verge of a nervous breakdown by the stresses of war, the engineer officer was over solicitous of his engines and, as the old ship showed subsequently, she could steam at 15 ½ knots once a leaky piston gland had been repaired. In the event, Craddock fought his disastrous action (in which the cruisers Good Hope and Monmouth were lost) with Canopus lagging 250 miles astern but she was to feature prominently in the recriminations which followed the battle. Should the Rear Admiral have waited for his dilatory squadronmate before engaging the enemy, as Winston Churchill thought? (“With the Canopus, Admiral Craddock’s squadron was safe”) (7), or was the whole idea of sending an obsolescent battleship to chaperon the cruisers misconceived, as Admiral Bacon later claimed (“Anything more futile could hardly be imagined”) (8). One fact was clear: Craddock, 2 of his ships and 1600 of his mean lay at the bottom of the ocean.

After the battle had been fought, Captain Grant took his ship to the Falklands where, expecting the victorious German ships to appear at any minute, he prepared for a last ditch defence of the wireless and coaling base. Camouflaging his ship to match the landscape, Captain Grant beached her on the Port Stanley mud and established an effective lookout and communication system ashore. However, it was not the Germans ships which appeared in the offing on 7 December but the massive hulls of the British battle cruisers Indomitable and Inflexible, sent post haste from England on a revenge mission, accompanied by the cruisers Bristol, Carnavon, Cornwall and Kent. The German squadron arrived off the island on the following morning and, their presence having been reported by Captain Grant’s lookouts on Sapper Hill, the grounded Canopus fired the opening shots in the overwhelmingly victorious Battle of the Falkland Islands. One of the ship’s officers described the occasion:

“ - - - a word was passed that we would carry out a practice shoot the following morning to show Doveton Sturdee how we had overcome the problem of firing ‘blind’ over the land at a target out to sea. The after turret’s crew, in order to get one up on their deadly rivals in the fore turret, crept out privily by night and loaded with practice shell. Next morning they found it was a real battle and there was not time to unload. The result of this naughtiness was interesting; the Gneisenau was well outside our extreme range, and live shell from my turret, the fore turret, burst on impact with the water, while those from the after turret richocheted and one of them scored a hit.” (9)

If this story is true, the practice shell which struck the base of the German flagship’s mainmast probably decided the course of the whole battle for it persuaded Von Spee to turn away instead of attacking Port Stanley where the British force, still coaling, was at his mercy. One by one Doveton Sturdee’s squadron left harbour to pursue the fleeing Germans until, by nightfall, Von Spee and all his ships, with the exception of Dresden, (10) had been destroyed: Craddock has been avenged.

With the American trade no longer threatened, Canopus returned to England, but was soon on the move again, this time to join the Eastern Mediterranean Squadron manoeuvring in the Dardanelles. Here the old ship played a full part in the early bombardments and, during the night of 10 March, penetrated deeper into the Straits than any battleship had done previously, or was to do thereafter, her mission on that occasion being to protect the minesweepers nad eliminate the search lights which hindered their work. Canopus came under heavy fire from all directions but:

“The fire was very wild and the Canopus was not hit, but for all the good we did towards dowsing the searchlights we might just as well have been firing at the moon.” (11)

Two months later Canopus came under heavy fire again when she went to the assistance of the battleship Albion which had run aground near Gaba Tepe. With Captain Grant displaying fine seamanship and stout defiance, Albion was refloated, her relieved ship’s company cheering their saviour to the echo.

So, with her adventures in the South Atlantic and the Dardanelles behind her, Canopus came to rest in the calm waters of Port Iero, her suave and hospitable captain assuming the title of Senior Naval Officer, Mityleni. At “P.I.”, as it was sometimes known, Captain Grant became commander, mentor and nursemaid of the Smyrna Patrol, while the aged Canopus, in a static role, was to be supply vessel and minor repair facility for the small ships which depended on her. Alas, such are the ways of the Navy, not even her fighting history could preserve her from the tongues of the patrol sailors who revived, with glee, the hoary story and the battleship aground on her own gin bottles.

To provide a capital ship to oversee the Patrol from those, largely inactive, at Mudros did not present a particular difficulty, but to find small ships to carry out the everyday work was no easy matter. In “Jacky” Fisher’s first term as First Sea Lord, his ruthless elimination of outdated vessels scattered around the world led to the creation of a compact, modern Navy, but, from 1914 onwards, there was revealed in every theatre of war a shortage of small ships which even the obsolete craft sent to the scrapyard might have eased if they had been available. Consequently, it was a scratch force, hastily assembled, which was placed under Captain Grant’s command consisting initially of 2 destroyers (Rattlesnake and Kennet), a fleet minesweeper (Gazelle), an armed boarding steamer (Carron), 2 motor gunboats (Penelope and Mary Rose), an armed yacht (Anzac) and 2 trawlers. But, as Vice Admiral de Robeck struggled to meet the naval demands of the Gallipoli campaign (until January, 1916) the Salonica front (from October, 1915) the intensifying U boat war and the defence of his Aegean bases, the composition of the Smyrna Patrol changed constantly and only the gunboats, and the armed yachts which came to be associated with them, provided a permanent element – a useful little force within a force.

Penelope and Mary Rose were trim little craft 60 ft. long armed with 2 3pdr. guns, and capable of a top speed of 11 knots. Built by Thorneycroft for the Turkish Navy these vessels were requisitioned by the Admiralty and shipped out to Mudros, along with the motor yacht Oomala, from where the tiny flotilla sailed for Port Iero to be strengthened by the arrival of Anzac from Suez and of the motor yacht California, the personal property of the redoubtable Commander Morton Frere, RNVR.

In the spacious pre-war days Morton Frere had been a popular doctor and an enthusiastic amateur sailor and in 1911, then Commodore of the Motor Yacht Club, he offered his services, and those of many friends, to the Admiralty, suggesting that they and their yachts should form the nucleus of a new naval reserve to be called the Motor Boat Patrol. Nonplussed by this novel idea the naval authorities were slow to respond and, no positive reply having been received by the outbreak of war 3 years later, Morton Frere went off to serve as a Surgeon in the Royal Navy. But all was not lost: the original scheme had not been rejected altogether by the Admiralty and word of it somehow reached the First Lord, who reacted with enthusiasm. As with all ideas in which Winston Churchill expressed an interest, action soon followed and Morton Frere, hastily recalled, was commissioned in the RNVR and appointed a founder member of the Motor Boat Reserve. Leaving his black bag behind him, the former doctor, in his boat California, co-operated with the Army on the canals and waterways of France and Belgium but, finding this work unexciting, he applied to de Robeck, a former patient, for a transfer to the Mediterranean theatre. When his request was granted, the newly created Commander, RNVR, sailed his yacht up the Seine to Rouen and Paris and then along the inland waterways to Marseilles where, taking to the sea, he hugged the coast, calling at Genoa, Naples, and Messina, before striking out for Mudros and, finally, Mityleni.

The first task allotted to the motor boats was to patrol the mine nets which had been laid across the north and south entrances to Aivali, which stood on the Turkish mainland only 4 miles from Mityleni, and which was always suspected of harbouring German submarines. This was dangerous work for it was carried out close inshore under the threat from enemy guns but, despite the risks, the men of the RNVR – city workers, solicitors, architects – set about their task with an insouciance which demanded respect. For Commander Stephenson, of Canopus, this was a first sighting of the Wavy Navy and he liked what he saw, with some reservations:

“Mind you they were quite undisciplined – there was no telling what they might do next; you might give them a certain job to do and they would be quite likely to shoot off at right angles if they saw something of marked interest elsewhere.” (12)

Some 25 year later, “Puggy” Stephenson, now sporting the single broad gold ring of the Commodore, RN, and based in the old steamer HMS Western Isles at Tobermory, had hundreds of RNVR officers pass through his hands as he goaded and guided them to reach the high standard he required in his fearsome “working up” routine. Despite the furrows which the temporary sailors brought to his brow, “Puggy” never lost his first amused and exasperated affection for them.

All the motor boats were involved in Heathcote-Smith’s intelligence operations at some time but it was Oomala which was seconded to the Consular Service, a matter which caused constant friction with the Navy. Was this craft, commanded by naval officers, albeit reservists, under the control of SNO, Mityleni, or was she always to be at the beck and call of the mercurial Heathcote-Smith? It did not help Morton Frere to achieve administrative conformity within his flotilla that Oomala’s skipper, the ruddy faced ex-Macedonian farmer Lieutenant Hadkinson, RNVR, insisted on naming member of his cut throat crew after the outlaws of Robin Hood’s band.

The most useful ships under Captain Grant’s command were, of course, the 2 destroyers officially attached to his force, but he could rarely depend on their presence. Ships of this type were in great demand, and in short supply, on every station in the world where the Royal Navy stood guard so that SNO, Mityleni, often found that his destroyers were whisked away to meet a greater need elsewhere. But, deprived of these ubiquitous craft, Captain Grant was left without a ship “mounting a gun heavier than a 12 pounder to engage enemy guns in the neighbourhood” (13) and, consequently, the decision was taken to reinforce the Patrol with small monitors, although their design made them far from ideal for this type of work. As Captain Grant reported later, rather ungratefully for the little ships stuck doggedly to their task:

“These ships are, under bad weather conditions, useless for patrol work on account of their slow speed against a head wind and sea.” (14)

The Smyrna Patrol Area – Boundary

M22, mounting her single 9.2” gun, was the first of the monitors to arrive in Port Iero on 14 September, and from this date onwards there was always one or more of these small vessels serving with the Smyrna Patrol. Captain Grant looked forward to Lt.Commander Lockyer’s ship joining his command for he wrote:

“- - - when M30 arrives it will enable one of the monitors to patrol the Adramtyi Bay and keep down any fire from the vicinity of Aivali that may be directed at the trawler in charge of nets and also enable the offensive to be taken in various places where gunfire has been located from the enemy.” (15)

And so it was with some eagerness that M30’s arrival was awaited as, with dawn breaking on 17 September, 1915 she steamed northabout round the island which was to provide her future base and then sailed south through the Mityleni Channel where, close on her port beam, the green hills of Turkey rolled down to the sea, overtopped by the blue, distant heights of the mountains of Asia Minor. Turning to starboard, M30 negotiated the narrow, tortuous channel, lined with tree capped cliffs, which led to the glittering stretch of water, 5 miles long and 4 miles wide, which was Port Iero. Surrounded by olive green hills, dominated by Mount Olympus (which local legend claimed as the winter playground of the Gods), the waters studded with the white sails of Greek fishing craft, Port Iero presented a pleasant and peaceful aspect with only the squat shape of Canopus, the ships of the Patrol gathered around her, providing a reminder that a bloody war was in progress and that enemy territory lay close at hand.

M30’s officers and men had little time to savour the delights of Mityleni on this their first visit, for within 24 hours there were at sea again and on patrol. Relieving M22, and taking her interpreter aboard, the little monitor’s beat ran from Tuz Burnu, the southern tip of the Gulf of Adramyti, down to Cape Hydra, the northern limit of the Gulf of Smyrna (this stretch became known as “B Patrol”) (16), a distance of about 30 miles as the crow flies, but very much further if the indented coast is followed. So began a period which lasted nearly 6 months during which the usual routine was for M30 to spend 3 days at sea, the limit of the ship’s endurance, followed by 2 days in harbour. Conditions on board were rarely comfortable for during the autumn days the decks grew hot enough to burn the feet (the temperature often rose to 110° in the captain’s cabin) while, conversely with the onset of winter even the crowded messdecks were bitterly cold. However, the ship’s work was carried out amidst some of the most beautiful coastal scenery in the world and in circumstances, often close inshore, which honed the officers’ skills in pilotage and ship handling. Furthermore, for the classically minded aboard the coastline carried constant reminders of the glories of ancient Greece and Rome.

The steamship traffic in the Smyrna Patrol’s area was light consisting, in the main, of Greek mail steamers and coasters making their leisurely way from one neutral port to another, so that there was little of the excitement of the chase and interception of a blockade runner. In fact, from September, 1915, to February, 1916 the men of M30 boarded and searched only 8 ships and of these, just one, the Macedonian, was escorted into Port Iero fur further examination while from another, Daphne, a suspected spy was removed and arrested. Was she the glamorous lady Commander Stephenson, of Canopus, found later entertaining French aviators stationed on Mityleni?

However, the coasting steamers were not the only vessels subject to the blockade for there was a considerable trade between the Greek islands and the Turkish mainland carried out in small, locally owned and manned sailing craft, and this had to be suppressed without, it was hoped, upsetting unduly the neutral Greek government. The ships of the Patrol were instructed not to treat the locals “with harshness at first” (17) and that:

“If the cargo does not consist of munitions of war, oil, sulphur, etc, the boat for the first offence may be turned back with a caution. But if trading becomes excessive it will become necessary to confiscate the boats, which may then be sunk if it is inconvenient to send them to Mudros.” (18)

Despite the watchfulness of M30, and the other ships operating from Port Iero, it was never possible to halt the local trade entirely for many livelihoods depended on it. To gather intelligence for the Patrol, paid informants were placed on a number of islands, their functions being to report illicit trading, keep an eye on Turkish troop movements on the mainland and to watch out for enemy underwater craft. The reports of these “guards”, anxious to earn their wages, were not always reliable – in particular phantom submarines were often mentioned thus feeding the ever present suspicion that U boats were being succoured in the area – but they had to be followed up and the circumstances investigated. In maintaining contact with the guards, and supplying those who were placed on islands where the inhabitants had been removed or had fled the Turk, M30 was often to be found standing off and on scattered islets or threading her way through the narrow channels between them.

The blockading of an enemy coast may be seen as a purely defensive measure, but the assumption of a merely passive role did not sit well with Vice Admiral de Robeck or Captain Grant and the ships of the Patrol were encouraged to dominate the coast of Asia Minor within their area and to disrupt enemy communications whenever opportunity offered. Unfortunately, the universal shell shortage in 1915 cast as long a shadow in the Aegean as it did on the Western Front, so that for M30’s main armament to be brought into play the permission of SNO, Smyrna Patrol, (Captain Grant’s new title) had to b obtained. Nevertheless, the ship’s 6” guns were in action from time to time, notably on 25 September, when M30 came under fire from a hidden battery in the Gulf of Sandarli, and on 2 November when a full blooded bombardment was mounted against the defences of the town of Chesme on the direct orders of Captain Grant. The 6pdr. was also used, the little gun shelling enemy observation posts, telegraph stations, unwary groups of soldiers and, on one occasion, a slow moving camel caravan making its way, laden with military supplies, round the Gulf of Adramtyi.

It was, of course, during WWI that aviation first made an impact on land and sea warfare so that during 1915 the roar of aero engines began to be heard over the Aegean Sea. Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, had refused a request to send landplanes to Gallipoli in his usual brusque manner, but the Admiralty, who saw a future for aircraft as handmaidens to the Battle Fleet, despatched the seaplane carrier Ark Royal to the Dardanelles. The performance of the float planes was disappointing; they could only take to the air when sea conditions were ideal, their unreliable engines had difficulty in taking them to a satisfactory height for artillery spotting and air-to-sea communication was untrustworthy depending, as it did, on newly designed wireless sets which could transmit but not receive. Nevertheless, notwithstanding all the difficulties, some progress was made in the novel science of directing ships’ guns from aircraft before Ark Royal, whose slow speed made her vulnerable to underwater attack, was, like many other ships, confined to harbour on the arrival of the first U boat off the Dardanelles in May.

Ark Royal’s successor as a mobile seaplane carrier was the much faster ex-Isle of Man ferry Ben-My-Chree which had been acquired by the Admiralty, and converted to assume a new role in January, 1915. Ben-My-Chree (her name meant “Woman of my Heart” in the Manx language) was sent to the Aegean and arrived in Port Iero in June carrying a mixture of 2 seater Short and single seater Sopwith Schneider float planes along with 4 pilots and 1 trained observe to man them. The lone observer was Lieutenant Robert Erskine Childers, RNVR, whose seminal spy thriller, “The Riddle of the Sands”, caused a sensation when it was published in 1903 and is still read today (19). While the Schneiders flew an occasional armed reconnaissance for the Smyrna Patrol, the Short pilots were hard at work in Port Iero’s calm and expansive harbour learning the technique of torpedo drooping from the air, the exercises demanding that, in order to compensate for the weight of the 14” weapon, all ”unessential equipment” (a phrase which encompassed the observer and half the normal fuel supply) should be jettisoned.

After a month at anchor in Port Iero, Ben-My-Chree steamed deep into the Gulf of Smyrna to carry out a unique experiment. At dawn on 12 July 2 planes were lowered over the side:

“Both aircraft were tossed about on a choppy sea as their pilots struggled to keep station on the ship, awaiting first light and permission to take off. Each Short carried a torpedo intended for a ship at anchor in Smyrna harbour. During the take off run the torpedo, which was carried between the floats barely clear of the water, was torn from each aircraft in turn. The first attempt to employ air-launched torpedoes had failed.” (20)

It was to be another month before the next aerial torpedo attack was attempted, a period which Ben-My-Chree spent, for the most part, at Rabbit Island, south west of Cape Helles, her aircraft spotting for the monitors bombarding the Turkish Asiatic shore of the Dardanelles, and in the Gulf of Saros in company with the cruiser Cornwall. Here, at 4.30 a.m on 12 August, while the parent ship was lying at the very head of the Gulf, Short No.184 (Flight Lt.Dacre, RNAS) and Short No.852 (Flight Lt. Edmonds, RNAS) were hoisted out, the pilots being under orders to cross the narrow neck of the Gallipoli peninsula and attack enemy shipping in the Sea of Marmora. Poor Edmonds could not get his seaplane “unstuck”, thus leaving Dacre to carry out the first successful strike by a torpedo carrying aircraft in the history of warfare. True, the stationary ship Dacre torpedoed was found later to have been beached following an attack by the submarine E17 but this hardly effected the subsequent celebrations and, in any case, 5 days later Dacre and Edmonds returned gleefully from another sortie, Edmonds having set a steamer ablaze and Dacre having sunk a large tug after, amazingly, skittering across the surface of the sea on his approach run. It was evident that a “new weapon to be reckoned with had been introduced”, as Vice Admiral de Robeck commented but, despite the elation, the congratulations and the award of well deserved medals, it was clear that the Short 184 had not the power to be successful torpedo bomber and it was not used in this role again.

Soon Ben-My-Chree’s seaplanes were in demand as artillery spotters and reconnaissance aircraft so that the ship quartered the Aegean, sometimes paying short visits to Mityleni to assist the Smyrna Patrol. For example, on 24 August, while on passage to Port Iero, 2 Shorts and a Schneider were hoisted out and despatched to Aivali to investigate a report that a U boat was in the harbour. Of course the report was false, as always, but the pilots obtained a little bombing practice by attacking an olive oil factory being used as a barracks, Flight Lieutenant Dacre’s puny 20lb. bombs being followed to earth by a shower of empty bottles, his usual calling card. On the day following a planned reconnaissance flight over the Gulf of Smyrna was abandoned because of engine failure, and Ben-My-Chree set out on her travels until October when she came to rest in Mudros harbour to undergo an overdue re-fit. Not all the pilots were to be idle during the re-fitting period, however, for Flight Sub Lieutenant Wright, RNAS, 4 air mechanics and “enough armaments and spares to have a private war if the opportunity should arise” (21) were shipped aboard the cruiser Euralyus which was bound for Port Iero.

The Short Type 184 was a heavy aircraft which made great physical demands on the pilots (on one occasion Flight Lt.Dacre, halfway through a sortie 150 miles long, had to alight on the sea to ease his aching muscles) and the 260 hp water cooled engine did not perform well in hot weather and could rarely drive the machine forward at the accredited top speed of 88 ½ nor upward to the reputed ceiling of 9,000 ft. Each flight of a maximum duration of 2 ¾ hours, was a hazardous affair and, whenever possible, a seaplane was accompanied by a surface ship whose duty was to pluck the aircrew from the sea in the worst case or tow a stranded, crippled aircraft back to base.

During Wright’s week long stay in Port Iero, M30 was assigned to the air-sea rescue team so that dawn on the 5 October found her anchored on the Caledonia Shoal, off Aivali, in company with M22 and the motor boats Anzac and Mary Rose, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the lumbering Short No 852. Flight Lt.Wright, delayed by engine trouble, did not appear overhead until 8 a.m. but then carried out a successful reconnaissance, during which 2 bombs were dropped, reporting on return to base “that it would appear very unlikely that Aivali has been used as a submarine base.” (22). Despite Wright’s report, and many others like it, made from different quarters before and after his visit, it seems that the Navy were never able to accept that the Germans, in the course of their damaging Mediterranean U boat campaign, did not intend to use the little harbour so close to Mityleni and, in consequence, many wearisome hours were spent by the ships of the Patrol plying up and down the anti-submarine nets which hemmed in the port. To give but one example from M30’s log, the ship spent 2 chilly December nights off Aivali burning her searchlight from time to time in the hope that an unwary submarine would be caught in the beam.

After Wright’s first successful flight another sortie was planned for the following day to reconnoitre Port Ali Agagh with the destroyer Jed and M30 stationed in the Gulf of Sandarli as guardians and shepherds, but the ships waited in vain for “seaplane failed to get up due to engine trouble and later in the day again broke down when attempting a trial flight.” (23) However, in the morning of 8 October, with the escorts once more on station, Short No.852 came winging low over the Gulf of Sandarli to be met with a burst of ill directed anti-aircraft fire over Port Agagh. Neither Wright’s observer nor the anxious watchers on M30’s bridge could locate the exact position of the guns, which were positioned behind the town, but the monitor fired 5 shells from the foremost 6” weapon to distract the enemy artillerymen while the seaplane dropped 2 tiny bombs before continuing with her reconnaissance. Qualified RNAS observers were in short supply in the Aegean at this time and, until lightweight midshipmen could be recruited and trained, intrepid officers from surface ships were pressed into service. Flight Sub Lieutenant Wright’s colleague in the sally over Port Ali Agagh was Lieutenant (N) John Godfrey, of Euralyus, who after being surprised by the amount of equipment which had to be carried (“binoculars, camera, notebook, wireless set, four 20 pound bombs, two bottles attached to chunks of wood for dropping messages, a rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition in case we meet anything hostile”) (24) was thrilled by the experience which he described as “being the most exhilarating two hours I have even spent” (25) despite the fact that Short No.852, her engine failing once again, had to land in the Mityleni Channel and be towed back, ignominiously, to Port Iero by the minesweeper Gazelle.

With her re-fit completed, and with Wright and his seaplane back aboard, Ben-My-Chree put to sea again on 13 October to support the ships operating off Salonica and Gallipoli before making one last visit to Port Iero to render her most important service to the Smyrna Patrol. From deep in the Gulf of Smyrna, the ship’s pilots flew a series of sorties over the associated city from 29 December to 10 January, 1916, observing and plotting the defences – flights which were made without mishap (the Sunbeam engines performed better in the cold winter air) and which were crucial to the success of the operations which are described in the next chapter. With her final mission for the Patrol completed Ben-My-Chree left Port Iero astern to join the East Indies and Egypt Seaplane Squadron, the first aircraft carrier group in naval history.

It was the duty of the First Lieutenant of any warship to have the ship’s company so organised that a group of trained men was available to meet any eventuality, so M30’s “Jimmy” had detailed a landing party, formed around the small RMLI contingent, which was drilled from time to time by the Chief Gunner. The possibility that men of the monitor would be landed on enemy territory seemed remote until Vice Admiral de Robeck and Captain Grant hatched a scheme “to encourage the idea that serious landing operations were under consideration” on Turkish soil. (26) The full ramifications of the deception plan will be reviewed in the next chapter but M30’s initial part in the project was to be responsible for cutting the telegraph lines which linked Smyrna to Constantinople, and which ran round the Gulf of Adramtyi, thus isolating the local enemy commanders temporarily and promoting the idea that Smyrna was to be attacked.

Captain Grant was determined that this part of the overall plan should be carried out efficiently and on his orders Lt.Commander Lockyer exercised M30’s ship’s company to ensure that everyone was working “on the top line”; unfortunately, the Full Speed Trial which was carried out showed that the ship could travel at only 7.5 knots under full power. On 7 February, 1916, carrying a whaler and 3 wirecutters borrowed from Euralyus, M30 set out for the Gulf of Adramtyi as though on a normal A patrol, communicating with the guard on Gymno island and strafing snipers on Mosko with the 6 pounder; but after dark, and away from prying eyes, the whaler pulled from the ship on a practice run, putting the landing party ashore on the uninhabited island of Kalamo. Throughout the following day, to convince watchers that the usual patrolling routine was being followed, M30 steamed slowly eastwards along the southern shoreline of the Gulf before, as the shadows lengthened, reversing her course to the island of Pyrgo where the landing party was drilled once more, 312 rounds of revolver ammunition being fired in one last fusillade. Now the ship, her engines still and silent, drifted down to leeward until, at 11.15 p.m Lt.Commander Lockyer gave the order “Half ahead both, steer North 26° East” and course was set for a point near the village of Chipneh on the Gulf of Adramtyi’s heavily wooded northern shore. With M30 anchored 200 yds. offshore, the whaler’s crew conveyed the landing party, under the command of the First Lieutenant, to the gently shelving beach and then waited silently for their shipmates to return. Moving cautiously Lieutenant Hanna led his men through the dense groves of olive trees until, when the telegraph system was reached, the whole party set to work cutting down 4 parallel lines of wire and removing insulators and posts over a distance of 180 yards. Still undiscovered, the saboteurs made their way back to the whaler and then to the ship, having spent just 40 minutes in the enemy’s domain. Lt.Commander Lockyer was pleased with his men’s efforts as he made clear in his report to SNO, Smyrna Patrol, and Captain Grant, for his part, commented in a letter to Vice Admiral de Robeck, that “this operation was carried out most efficiently by a landing party under Lieutenant Francis C. Hanna.” (27)

The photographs displayed in holiday brochures always show the Aegean in a calm mood, serene under a blue sky, and these reflect the weather conditions which obtain, often enough, in May and June when light airs play above the surface of the water. But in early July, or at “the rising of the Dog Star” as Herodotus put it, the Melteni begins to blow, a wind born of the air pressures over Cyprus and the Middle East, which springs up at noon each day occasionally reaching Force 7 on the Beaufort Scale before dying away in the evening although sometimes, without warning, it continues to blow, with undiminished strength, throughout the night. Over most of the Aegean the Melteni blows from a northerly direction, but it swings to the west in the Turkish gulfs, Adramyti, Kabakum, Sandarli, Smyrna – which were the cruising grounds of the Patrol, so creating a “lee shor” for M30 and the other small monitors, which as has been seen, were not at their best butting into a head wind and sea.

M30 joined the Smyrna Patrol at the end of the Melteni season and, apart from hauling the trawler T48 off the rocks of Gymno island in something of a blow, enjoyed fair weather for the first 2 months that she was working out of Port Iero. However, as autumn turned to winter the bald, matter of fact entries in her log begin to reflect the deteriorating conditions, as the following extracts show:

“15.11. Sailing postponed until weather moderates.
17.11. Anchored under lee of Baftah Point until weather moderates.
25.11. Sighted T706 ashore off Skammia and succeeded in getting her off.
12.12. Ship rolling heavily. Under lee of Mityleni ship stopped labouring.
21.12. Ship rolling heavily. Searchlight broke adrift and front glass broken. Ship became unmanageable.
Proceeded under lee of Baftah Point until weather moderates.
24.12.Ship rolling heavily. Anchored under lee of Eleos.
26.12. Anchored between Merminga Rocks and Gavatha Point until weather moderates. Lost overboard by accident 1 engineer’s rule, 1 pair handshears, 1 shifting spanner.
5.1. Anchored in Mityleni Bay until weather moderates.
13.1. Ship rolling heavily.”

The log entry for the 26 December, which was signed by Chief Gunner Martin, may well be an example of the time honoured practice of using a gale as an excuse to write off items which, unaccountably, had “gone adrift” at some previous time. There is a well known naval story, possibly apocryphal, which tells how an expensive, numbered chronometer, reported as being lost over the side in a storm, was subsequently discovered in a pawn shop in Portsmouth!

During M30’s initial spell of 146 days with the Smyrna Patrol from 17 September, 1915, to 9 February, 1916, the ship spent just over half of her time at sea (74 days). A summary of her activities shows that in the course of 18 patrols, 8 steamships were searched as well as many caiques; the main armament was fired on 4 occasions, a total of 17 6” shells being used; the 6 pdr. was fired on 4 occasions 88 rounds being fired; refugees were evacuated from Pyrgo island; the stranded trawler T48 was hauled off rocks in the Mityleni Channel and guards were landed and maintained on several islands, including Eleos, St George’s and Gymno. Outside routine patrol duties M30 bombarded Chesmé (firing 26 6” shells), spent 3 days and 2 nights off Aivali on a special mission, was at sea for 3 days on air-sea operations, made one passage to Long Island with the Intelligence Officer Heathcote-Smith and his entourage, provided cover while elements of the ship’s company made a landing on enemy territory and finally, taking her turn in maintaining Captain Grant’s supply and communication links with the Eastern Mediterranean Squadron’s main base, steamed 6 times to Mudros, on one occasion towing the motor boat Oomala for repair and on another assisting the stricken trawler T706 aground off Cape Skammia. All in all, the entries in M30’s logs for this period show a range of activities which hardly support Lt.Commander Lockyer’s comment that “patrolling became dull” (28). Perhaps, like many another naval officer serving in the Mediterranean, M30’s captain felt that, as the “Westerners” at home commented, he was supporting a “sideshow” and that the place of honour for a small ship man was with the hard pressed Dover Patrol or the ever aggressive Harwich Force, with whom excitement was always present and naval action a possibility. However, in her unpretentious way, M30 was making a contribution to the Navy’s sometimes unspectacular policy of confronting and confining the enemy whenever and wherever opportunity offered. And the little monitor’s fortunes were to change for, on 10 February, 1916, she ceased “patrolling” and set out for Long Island, in the Gulf of Smyrna, to take up once again the function for which she had been designed.


1. ADM 186 618.
2. Godfrey was an able but unlucky officer. As a Vice Admiral he was Director of Naval Intelligence from 1939 to 1942 when he was sacked, many said unfairly. His tenure of command of the Royal Indian Navy ended in 1946 after a mutiny for which he was in no way responsible.
3. Beesley. “Very Special Admiral.”
4. Orders-in-Council amending the Declaration of London were approved on 20 August 1914, and 4 February, 1915.
5. Compton Mackenzie. “Gallipoli Memories.”
6. Ibid.
7. Churchill. “The World Crisis.”
8. Bacon. “The Life of Lord Fisher of Kilverstone.”
9. Bennett. “Coronel and the Falklands.”
10. Dresden was scuttled when cornered in Cumberland Bay, Chile, in March, 1915.
11. Keyes. “Naval Memoirs.”
12. Baker. “The Terror of Tobermory.”
13. ADM 861/120.
14. ADM 137/363 XC 11773
15. ADM 920/120
16. “A Patrol” covered Aivali and the Gulf of Adramtyi, “B Patrol ran from Tuz Burnu to Cape Hydra and “C Patrol” guarded the entrance to the Gulf of Smyrna.
17. ADM 137/1144.
18. Ibid.
19. Erskine Childers became an ardent Irish nationalist. Opposed to the Treaty of 1921, he joined the Republican Army, was arrested court martialled and shot.
20. Burns. “Over the Wine Dark Sea, Pt.2 – Operations of HMS Ben-My-Chree from June, 1915, to January, 1916.” Published in “Over the Front”, the Journal of the League of WWI Aviation Historians, Vol.9, No.2.
21. Ibid.
22. ADM 116 1433
23. Ibid.
24. Beesley. “Very Special Admiral.”
25. Ibid.
26. ADM 137/363 XC 11773
27. Ibid.
28. E.Keble Chatterton. “Seas of Adventure.”

No comments:

Post a Comment