- A.N. Other
- Biographies and personal histories, History - WW1, WWI operations
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- September 2021 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By CMDR Max Speedy DSC RAN Rtd
Captain Arthur Edward Dunn CBE RD ADC RNR was married to my great-aunt and as a result I have his voluminous papers and many photos. They chart his life as an apprentice through to master mariner and being called to command a minesweeper sent to the Dardanelles. His story is varied and interesting and he was recognised for a number of exploits, becoming an Equerry to King George V, and later Marine Superintendent of the New Zealand Shipping Company. As a result, I have learnt much about the Dardanelles Campaign and its disastrous outcomes.
Captain Dunn took part in the Dardanelles landings of 25 April 1915, transporting troops ashore and receiving the wounded but the role of his ship HMS Gazelle at Gallipoli ended once the landings had progressed. He was then ordered to the Gulf of Smyrna laying the first mines in the Aegean close under the Turkish Smyrna forts, earning praise on a number of fronts. The operation was conducted with the French minelayer Casablanca until she was lost and then continued alone. Work was also undertaken with the submarine HMB B-11 on the Asia Minor coast, and was part of the 1st Detached Squadron examining steamers off that coast.
In February 1916, he went to the aid of Taide, an Italian minesweeper which had broken down. This prompted Il Contrammiraglio Mapornayla [sic], Commando Della 3 Divisione to: …thank you for your promptitude with which you have acceded to my request…
Gazelle was also involved in the evacuation of some 180,000 Serbian troops from Durazzo, the removal of Austrian prisoners from Velona Bay, and until June 1917, carrying many despatches around that part of the world, covering some 30,000 miles. For his services he received the Greek Order of the Redeemer.
The RN in the Great War
At the beginning of the Great War, the British Grand Fleet’s principal objective was to lure the German Kaiserliche Marine (High Seas Fleet) out of Kiel and destroy it. Both sides had mined each other’s coasts and before the two fleets could come to grips they needed plenty of sea room.
In a short handwritten note of 4 November 1914, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill had written: My Dear [Admiral] Sturdee…The destruction of the German Squadron concentrated on the West Coast of South America is an object of high and immediate importance; I propose to entrust this duty to you…You should hoist your flag in whichever of [Invincible or Inflexible] you choose and proceed with all despatch…to bring the only strong enemy squadron…to action at the earliest opportunity… Plenty of sea room there and a satisfactory outcome! But around the British Isles, it was far more congested.
When the war began, the RN requisitioned a vast number of fishing vessels as minesweepers. Bigger ships such as Dunn’s Gazelle were for minelaying. Besides the regular flotillas, in Home Waters there were about sixty armed yachts and over five hundred trawlers and drifters, and twenty more yachts with a hundred more trawlers and drifters being fitted out.
These figures did not include the minesweepers, boom defence vessels, or motor-boats, so that with the fifty trawlers eventually at the Dardanelles the total number of auxiliary small craft in commission was well over 1,500.
Before the end of 1914, the Admiralty was increasing the number of armed trawlers at many places of strategic value in regard to the expected German submarine threat. These trawlers were armed with one or more guns and an explosive sweep, and organised into divisions of six trawlers to the unit. From each unit one trawler was selected as divisional leader and placed under the command of a lieutenant of the Royal Naval Reserve. This person was frequently the skipper of the once fishing boat.
With admirable zeal and energy, a new navy had been created in a few weeks which already exceeded, in numbers, those that flew the White Ensign at the beginning of August. In spite of the haste with which the ships and men were assembled and sent to their strange duties, and the dangers from weather, fogs, submarines, and mines, only half a dozen trawlers and drifters had been lost during this initial period.
Dunn was present for the opening rounds of the contest for the North Sea but when the Dardanelles campaign was conceived he was sent there. Before the war his ship Gazelle had been one of three owned by the Great Western Railway, on the Channel Islands run. A note on the back of one of his photos says: …the bridge [is] cased in iron plating and my cabin is underneath on the opposite side to that part which is in the main wireless cabin. The poop used to be cased with iron plating and the mine rails under. The ship is 235 feet long and 27ft 6 inch beam. Her armament two 12 pdr and 50 mines.
The Dardanelles as an idée fixe
There are many sources available on the Dardanelles operations which mostly concentrate on the RN’s big guns. There is almost a blow-by-blow description of most of the big ships’ exploits in Sir Julian Corbett’s World War I at Sea. We now know there was no secrecy in this campaign and the blame has been laid in many places for its ultimate failure.
Though technically neutral, from September 1914 Turkey had begun mining the Straits across the Narrows just short of the Sea of Marmara. The RN had been at the Dardanelles since November 1914 and had telegraphed its intentions by a desultory ten-minute bombardment of a few of the forts guarding the straits. With German direction the Turks were quick to strengthen the forts and by February 1915 completed laying 377 mines in ten lines.
At the War Council meeting on 28 November, Churchill advanced the idea of the Dardanelles to take the Turkish Army away from Egypt and the Suez Canal to reduce the risks to Empire shipping and its vital supplies for Britain. There were also about 120 merchant ships trapped in the Black Sea, exacerbating the general shortage of allied shipping.
On 2 January 1915, the British Ambassador in Petrograd sent a telegram to Foreign Minister Lord Grey stating that the Russians were very hard pressed in the Caucasus and on their behalf, asking if: …a demonstration against the Turks would be made in some other quarter. The reply, drafted in the War Office, was sent the next day to assure the Russians that: …a demonstration would be made against the Turks…but it would be unlikely to affect the enemy withdrawal from the Caucasus.
On this same day (3 January) Churchill sent a message to Vice Admiral Carden: Do you think it practicable to force the Dardanelles by ships alone?… older battleships would be employed…minesweepers preceded by colliers or other vessels as sweepers and bumpers. The importance of the results would justify severe loss. Let me know what your views are.
Carden replied on 5 January: …I do not think the Dardanelles can be rushed but they might be forced by extended operations with a large number of ships. On 6 January, Carden receives Churchill’s response: High authorities [author’s emphasis] here concur in your opinion. While there are no reservations expressed by Carden and the ‘high authorities’ are not defined, it seems on balance that First Sea Lord Fisher did express doubts and Churchill ignored them. But Carden, believing now that he had the benefit and support of the high authorities, felt happy to proceed. But even before Carden’s response had been received, Churchill ordered staff to commence plans: …on forcing the Passages of the Dardanelles and Bosporus by Allied Fleets in order to destroy the Turko-German squadron and threaten Constantinople without military co-operation.
With a long introduction to the Dardanelles Campaign, Corbett writes: …the War Council met again in the evening [28 January 1915]. In the course of the discussion on the committee’s report it became obvious that the weight of military opinion was so much averse to diverting any troops to the Mediterranean at the present juncture that the idea for the time being was dropped. The Admiralty, however, were authorised to construct twelve more monitors for use on the Danube in view of possible future developments.
The idea of a naval attack on Zeebrugge [Belgium] was also abandoned. Unless some pressing need arose the Admiralty had come to the decision to confine operations to aerial attack until the heavy monitors which were under construction were ready.…The older battleships were required elsewhere for the Admiralty, [and] as the First Lord [Churchill] now announced, [he] had decided to take the risk of attempting to force a passage.
Dardanelles defences showing minefields in March 1915
First Sea Lord Admiral Fisher opposed the naval venture to Churchill but remained silent at the Committee for Imperial Defence (renamed the War Council in June 1915). When questioned later by the Dardanelles Inquiry in 1916, he stated: …We were the experts there who were to open our mouths when told to. Q. Nothing else? – A. Nothing else! In the same exchange, Fisher says that when asked about losses, he said twelve battleships most likely. Although Fisher threatened to resign in an attempt to change the minds of Churchill and the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, he was talked out of it and effectively sidelined himself. At the same time (January 1915) Kitchener warned General Birdwood that as the Turks had 40,000 men in the peninsula, it was not a sound military operation to land 10,000 men in the face of them till the passage was forced by the fleet, in which case the peninsula would probably be evacuated. Kitchener did, however, authorise him, if it could be done without compromising the troops, to employ part of his force …to secure hold of forts or positions already won and dominated by ship fire.
February 19 was held as the day the attack was to commence. The combined force of British and French ships was nine battleships, five battle-cruisers, 25 pre-Dreadnoughts, 19 cruisers, 28 destroyers, eight monitors, five sloops and 13 submarines, two sea plane carriers plus minesweepers, minelayers and later in March, Commander A. E. Dunn RNR with Gazelle.
The day of choice was full of omen, though as is the case with most of history, seen only in hindsight. It was the anniversary of the day on which Admiral Duckworth had rushed the Straits unopposed in 1807 to Constantinople. But on his way out, was harried by the Ottoman Fleet and his ships were all severely battered by the coastal batteries. Though blamed for indecisiveness, Duckworth announced that: …without the cooperation of a body of land forces, it would be a wanton sacrifice of the squadrons to attempt to force the passage [by] sending five or six men-of-war, without soldiers, to the Dardanelles; [or similarly] 5000 soldiers, without a fleet, to Alexandria.
But in 1915, according to Admiral Carden the operation was certain to be of a very different nature. It was based on seven main phases:
- Reduction of the defences at the entrance to the Straits, in Bashika Bay and on the north coast of Gallipoli.
- Sweeping the minefields [ten lines of 377 mines] and reducing the defences up to the Narrows.
- Reduction of the Narrows.
- Sweeping the principal minefield. [Same as No. 2]
- Silencing the forts above the Narrows.
- Passing the fleet into the Sea of Marmara.
- Operations in the Sea of Marmara and patrolling the Dardanelles.
On the first day (19 February) the ships fired 139 twelve-inch shells at the forts and though having many hits, the Turks were still returning fire at day’s end. Bad weather then forced a stop to the bombardments for nearly a week. From 25 February and over the next two weeks there were more attempts to complete Phase 1 generally from outside Turkish gun range, but every time the forts appeared to be destroyed and the Fleet came within range the Turkish guns opened fire and the ships were forced to retire. Churchill in London didn’t mind if a few ships were lost but Carden on the spot was far less inclined.
Naval landing parties achieved some success ashore by night following up on guns and bridges that had been damaged. The high ground would have allowed vastly more accurate gun spotting for the Fleet had the Army been used in a joint operation from the start but Lord Kitchener strictly forbade any Army troops to land and while they might have held the ground won by the ships, the thought of a combined Navy/Army operation was too much to contemplate. On 6 January, Carden had said he could force the straits, so now he had to prove it.
Despite having General Birdwood and other Army staff available to the Navy, there was a strong naval opinion that with a reorganised sweeping flotilla brought to a high state of efficiency, they could rush the Straits without reducing the batteries, and establish a powerful force in the Sea of Marmara. Given the Turkish Army’s resistance the Straits would certainly be closed behind the Allied Fleet, and an enforced return when supplies were exhausted might well mean a disaster, placing the whole expedition in jeopardy. All so obvious now but why not so then? There may have been some progress with the outer forts but many more were to come and the minefields hadn’t yet been touched.
With the outer forts evacuated by the Turks by 26 February, the ships began several days of attacks on the second and third layers of defence. Here, geography took an opposing hand. In the Aegean, the ships had plenty of manoeuvring space and could fire from outside the range of Turkish guns. The narrowness of the Straits, however, confined the ships and put them in the range of artillery fire from both shores. Although this was not enough to sink the bigger ships, it was nonetheless disconcerting.
It made the next task of clearing of the minefields at the Narrows even more difficult. To do this, Carden’s trawlers, equipped with minesweeping gear and steel plating and manned by naval reserves (aka fishermen) were now front and centre. These fishermen had performed well in Home Waters but had not been under fire. Now, already disheartened knowing the draft of their ships was deeper than the minefields, they were discouraged by the howitzer fire their battleship protectors were unable to silence. To circumvent this, Carden put the minesweepers to work at night, but Turkish searchlights were powerful enough to illuminate the slow-moving sweepers, and at night the battleships were even less effective at silencing the howitzers. These attempts were repeated several nights in a row with disappointing results. On the seventh night Carden took a different approach, the minesweepers, which could only make 2-3 knots going against the current steamed past the minefields, turned, and swept them coming back downstream. Seven trawlers set out but four of the crews were so agitated by the surrounding gunfire that, when the time came to begin sweeping, they did not even extend their gear. One pair swept and then exploded two mines and the last struck a mine and was destroyed. All the while, 6‑inch howitzer shells rained down around them. The next night, the trawlers were sent completely unprotected, in an attempt to ‘surprise’ the Turks. This time, all the trawlers turned and fled the instant they took fire.
During the night of 8-9 March, observant Turks laid another minefield. The ships always turned starboard to leave after their bombardments of the Narrows Forts. These 20 mines, parallel to the Asian coast some distance south of the major minefields were to become the perfect foil.
On 13 March, Carden made his last attempt to sweep the fields at night. Seven trawlers were sent up the Straits, this time preceding them with two hours of naval gunfire directed at the searchlights and howitzer batteries. The Turks, having seen this tactic before, trained searchlights on the trawlers and rained gunfire upon them. The result was again predictable: two trawlers had their gear shot away; one had its entire crew killed; two rammed one another, drawing concerted fire while drifting powerless; while only a few mines were swept. In the meantime, the battleship HMS Amethyst was hit in her steering gear and then in a mess deck, killing 24 and wounding 36. Thus ended Carden’s attempts to sweep at night, and indeed his attempts altogether. The Admiral fell ill, being diagnosed with a dangerous ulcer; he was also on the verge of a nervous breakdown, due to constant worrying about mines, weather, howitzers, and the Admiralty. Carden retired to his cabin (signing orders slipped under the door), and noted in his journal that: …on the morrow I expect to be replaced,and resigned four days later on 17 March. He was replaced by Rear Admiral John Michael de Robeck.
De Robeck opted to continue with Carden’s plans the next day (18 March). He did so, bringing a total of eight 15-inch and thirty-two 12-inch guns to bear on the forts. After nearly five hours of heavy bombardment and sensing some achievement, he brought one line of ships forward while another retired. As the French Bouvet turned to starboard, she was rocked by a tremendous explosion, heeled over and in one minute was gone and of her 718 crew, only 75 survived. Now all ships retiring, Irresistible and Ocean were next to be sunk and Inflexible, Suffren and Galois were severely damaged. Even so, later that day the minesweepers were sent in, but the Turks’ howitzers opened up and forced them to limp back out of the Straits.
Poor weather the next day (19 March) and for days to follow, prevented any bombardments while back in London, the War Council told de Robeck to continue if he thought it fit to do so. De Robeck however did not know what had caused the loss of the ships. It was not until after the War that he learned of the eleventh minefield parallel to the Asian shore south of the other ten lines across the Straits.
At a meeting on 22 March in Queen Elizabeth, de Robeck announced that the Fleet could no longer force the Dardanelles on its own. General Sir Ian Hamilton, newly arrived and to command the peninsula once the navy had forced the Straits, reached the same conclusions and had so advised Kitchener. Churchill strongly opposed a joint operation. Now finally, with the War Council, Admiralty and Army in some agreement both at the Dardanelles and in London, de Robeck and Hamilton waited until the necessary troops for the task could be assembled, but the troops could not be landed until the end of April, a full month away.
When it failed!
The Dardanelles Campaign went wrong even before it began. It should never have been seen as a tactic for taking pressure off the Western Front. The strategic value of Turkey and good relations with her was of infinitely greater value than just forcing the Dardanelles and having access to the Black Sea. But the War Council, supposedly reporting to the Cabinet, was in the hands of two men, Kitchener and Churchill; both were warriors and certain of everything they did. Once the war began there was no place for the diplomacy of Foreign Secretary Sir Earl Grey or the chairmanship of Prime Minister Asquith. Whether they and the other members of the War Council and the Cabinet gave, or had taken from them, their place of inquiry, of decision making, and of ensuring the best interests of the people, we can never know. We do know that from 3 January, Churchill had the bit between his teeth.
Opportunities not lost, just ignored.
Greece could never have agreed on Constantinople being Russian had the British fleet got that far – the Greek King was christened Constantine with quite specific plans in mind for him. Neither Britain nor France ever gained strong support from either the Greeks or Russians. Then there were the Balkan States which were the meat in the sandwich between Germany, Austria/Hungary, Turkey, Italy, Romania and Russia. The Balkans, and Serbs especially, received minimal attention from Britain or France until the dying days of the war.
Britain had in August 1914 confiscated two ships under construction in Britain and paid for by public subscription in Turkey, with Turkish sailors in Britain waiting to join their ships. These acts did not promote good relations. Turkey was in a position to stop German ambitions east through the Balkans and then on via Turkey to supplant British interests in Persia.
Decisions not overseen
Wars might not be best handled by politicians alone any more than generals and admirals can manage international affairs single-handedly but from the very first days of the Great War, from 28 July 1914, decisions were made by Churchill and Kitchener that had not been overseen by Government (Cabinet at least) nor received its approval. Once it started that way, it became as good as impossible to change.
Questions such as those posed by Dr Schroden in his critical 2011 analysis of the comparison between the Dardanelles and a possible Straits of Hormuz closure became increasingly impossible to ask. How could a fleet take a peninsula? How could a fleet occupy Constantinople? Importantly, how could the fleet apply its least capable assets, the minesweepers, against the most difficult aspect of the campaign under intense fire – the minefields?
Aside from the strategic and political aspects, some of the tactical military aspects should also have been examined by the commanders on the scene. It might be possible for Admiral Duckworth in 1807 to be forgotten but there were more recent and relevant experiences where some of the players in 1915 had been present. In 1877, in a display of power, and despite Turkish protests, Admiral Sir Geoffrey Hornby forced his fleet through the Dardanelles Straits in an attempt to deter Russian aggression in the Russo-Turkish War. Jackie Fisher was in Hornby’s Mediterranean Fleet at the time. In 1906–07, when British and Turkish relations had been strained, both the Army General Staff and the Admiralty’s Director of Naval Intelligence had agreed that great risks would be involved even in a joint naval and military enterprise against the Gallipoli Peninsula.
For Julian Corbett and other authorities, it had become an almost fundamental principal that a naval attack on these forts without military aid would be unproductive. Next there was Japan’s Admiral Togo at Port Arthur in 1904 where Russian and Japanese mining operations against each other confirmed the value of mines. Russia in this case had the edge because protection of the minefields was enhanced by its shore batteries while the Japanese trying to blockade were harassed by the Russian batteries. The 1905 decisive Japanese victory over the Russian Fleet in the Battle of Tsushima may have clouded this lesson but General Ian Hamilton had been present with the Japanese Army in Manchuria for some time as the British Military Attaché, watching all that was going on. Amongst other things, he had witnessed first-hand the use and value of machine guns in trench warfare at the Battle of Mukden against Russian troops. He will surely have been aware of the 1904 mining at Port Arthur. Then a Captain, and later Second Sea Lord in 1916, Somerset Gough-Calthorpe was the British Naval Attaché in the Russian Fleet observing from that angle but was not at the Dardanelles.
Much faith had been placed in the might of one new ship – Queen Elizabeth. There had been advances in her armaments while the pre-Dreadnoughts had poorer guns and armour and were acceptable losses in war. Queen Elizabeth had been meant to arrive in the Dardanelles on 15 February but gales had delayed her transit and making matters worse, she had stripped some engine turbine blades and could only make 15 knots.
The 1916 Dardanelles Commission put in place to investigate the failures did so, but by predominantly inquiring no higher than the admirals and generals at the scene of action. The Commission did discuss how the War Council itself, composed of Prime Minister, politicians and the military, managed the navy’s and army’s war plans for the British Empire and the expectations of its people. Of these issues there were many who wanted answers but this was a step too far so the Commission allowed its deliberations to be tempered with the likes of Churchill.
Ironically mine warfare was to account for the all-powerful Field Marshall Lord Kitchener while taking passage in HMS Hampshire. On leaving Scapa Flow on 5 June 1916 the ship struck a German mine and sank with the tragic loss of all but 12 of the 750 personnel on board. Lord Kitchener’s body was never found.
This momentous event was used to advantage in Churchill’s Antonian valedictory of Kitchener: …All-powerful, imperturbable, reserved, he dominated absolutely all our counsels at [the] time. The Commission then went to say that if Kitchener was to …be held to have committed some errors of judgment, the fact cannot in any way obscure the very distinguished services he rendered this country.
Of how the War Council itself operated: [It] did more than advise. It decided…[and] was composed of the Prime Minister as President, with usually the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretaries of State for War [Kitchener from Aug 1914 – Jun 1916], Foreign Affairs and India [Sir Earl Grey], and also the First Lord of the Admiralty [Churchill]…The Committee of Imperial Defence was in fact, for all practical purposes, a committee of the Cabinet with some experts added. But as we have seen, the PM (Asquith) and Foreign Secretary (Grey) absented themselves leaving Kitchener and Churchill to decide affairs in isolation of broader oversight.
If some actual impartial oversight of the operations had been conducted, it might have asked important questions to prevent what today is called ‘mission creep’. Just because there has been so much effort expended is no good reason to continue – as hard as that might be, cutting losses has to be rationally approached. But the question must be allowed to be asked. Kitchener and Churchill weren’t going to let that happen in London any more than it seemed to be happening in the ships’ operations rooms.
On de Robeck taking command, he was asked (18 March) whether the operation should continue. Until then there had been hardly any losses to cut. The next day he lost six ships. Here was another chance to be even more critical about potential success, let alone the powerful and still intact minefields now in everyone’s faces. If the mines were not appreciated before 18 March, they should have been now! On any one of those days, had there been any oversight of the operations, a halt could have been made.
Even on the Anzac Day landings, 25 April, General Birdwood’s troops were already in trouble and he was calling for a withdrawal. Fickle Fate played a mean hand here though, the Australian submarine AE2 had reported in late that evening that she had run the Narrows successfully and was in the Sea of Marmara. How AE2 could tip the balance of forces was not analysed, Birdwood’s troops were told to stay ashore and the submarine was lost anyway.
A coup de grâce
Following the signing of the armistice between the Allies and Turkey on 31 October 1918 a squadron of minesweepers was employed in mine clearance in the Dardanelles. HM Trawler Renarro snagged two mines and was sunk attempting to free herself with the loss of 12 lives on 10 November 1918, the day prior to the official end to the Great War.
The idea for this paper came from having a large number of original documents and photos of CAPT A. E. Dunn. While he recounts that he was at Gallipoli for the landings and was certainly involved in historic events, he was like thousands of others just doing his duty, not making any of the calamitous decisions that are the Dardanelles and Gallipoli disasters we know today.
With the exception that the title ‘Mission Creep’ must be attributed with thanks to Dr Jon Schroden, all my latter-day interpretations and the errors that may go with them are entirely mine, for which I take full responsibility.
Owing to space constraints footnotes have been omitted from this paper – a complete edition with footnotes is available from the Editor.
Corbett, Sir Julian, World War I at Sea, Naval Operations, Volume 2, December 1914 to Spring 1915, Longmans Green & Co, London, 1921.
Dardanelles Commission First Report Part 1, HMSO, 1917, accessed through National Library Australia https://nla.gov.au:443/tarkine/nla.obj-6258397
D’Enno, Douglas, Fishermen Against the Kaiser: Shockwaves of War, 1914-1918, Pen & Sword Maritime, Barnsley, 2010.
Schroden, Jonathan, A Strait Comparison: Lessons Learned from the 1915 Dardanelles Campaign in the Context of a Strait of Hormuz Closure Event, 2011, Center for Naval Analyses, Arlington, VA, USA.
University of Birmingham, Dissertation (MA History of War), Kevin Broucke, Triumph in the Balkans, Anglo-French Co-operation in Macedonia during the First World War, 12 September, 2014.