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Battle of the Dardanelles - March 1915

On November 3, 1914, Churchill ordered the first British attack on the Dardanelles following the opening of hostilities between Turkey and Russia. The British attack was carried out by battlecruisers of Carden's Mediterranean Squadron, Indomitable and Indefatigable, as well as the obsolete French battleships Suffren and Verite. This attack actually took place before a formal declaration of war had been made by Britain against the Ottoman Empire.

The intention of the attack was to test the fortifications and measure the Turkish response. The results were deceptively encouraging. In a twenty minute bombardment, a single shell struck the magazine of the fort at Sedd el Bahr at the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula, displacing (but not destroying) 10 guns and killing 86 Turkish soldiers. Total casualties during the attack were 150, of which 40 were German.

The Dardanelles were defended by a system of fortified and mobile artillery arranged as the "Outer", "Intermediate" and "Inner" defences. While the outer defences lay at the entrance to the straits and would prove vulnerable to bombardment and raiding, the inner defences covered the Narrows, the narrowest point of the straits near Çanakkale. Beyond the inner defences, the straits were virtually undefended. However, the foundation of the straits defences were a series of 10 minefields, laid across the straits near the Narrows and containing a total of 370 mines.

What was to become the Battle of Gallipoli, a 10-month battle of attrition, began at 7.30am on February 19, 1915. Two destroyers were sent in to probe the straits. The first shot was fired from Kumkale by the Orhaniye Tepe battery's 24cm Krupp guns at 7.58am. The battleships Cornwallis and Vengeance moved in to engage the forts and the first British shot of the campaign proper was fired at 9.51am by Cornwallis. The day's bombardment lacked the spectacular results of the November 3 test.

HMS Canopus fires a salvo from her 12-inch (30,5 cm) guns against Turkish forts in the Dardanelles.

Another attempt was made on February 25. This time the Turks evacuated the outer defences and the fleet entered the straits to engage the intermediate defences. Demolition parties of Royal Marines raided the Sedd el Bahr and Kum Kale forts, meeting little opposition. On March 1, four battleships bombarded the intermediate defences.

Little progress was made clearing the minefields. The minesweepers, commanded by Carden's chief of staff, Roger Keyes, were merely un-armoured trawlers manned by their civilian crews who were unwilling to work while under fire. The strong current in the straits further hampered the sweeping process. This lack of progress by the fleet strengthened the Turkish resolve which had wavered at the start of the offensive. On March 4, raids on the outer defences were resisted, leaving 23 British marines dead.

The Queen Elizabeth was called on to engage the inner defences, at first from the Aegean coast near Gaba Tepe, firing across the peninsula, and later from within the straits. On the night of March 13, the cruiser HMS Amethyst led six minesweepers in an attempt to clear the mines. Four of the trawlers were hit and the Amethyst was badly damaged with 19 stokers killed from a single hit.

Finally on March 15, Admiral Carden resigned and was replaced by Rear Admiral John de Robeck who was granted approval to make an all-out assault by daylight with the minesweepers operating under the direct protection of the entire fleet.

The event that decided the battle for the Dardanelles took place on the night of March 18 when the Turkish minelayer Nusret laid a line of mines in Eren Köy Bay, a wide bay along the Asian shore just inside the entrance to the straits. The Turks had noticed the British ships turned to starboard into the bay when withdrawing. The new line of between 20 and 26 mines ran parallel to the shore, were moored at 2.5 fathoms (4.5 m) and spaced about 100 yards or meters apart.

The British plan for March 18 was to silence the defences guarding the first five lines of mines which would be cleared overnight by the minesweepers. The next day the remaining defences around the Narrows would be defeated and the last five minefields would be cleared.

The battleships were arranged in three lines, two British and one French, with supporting ships on the flanks and two ships in reserve.

The first British line opened fire from Eren Köy Bay around 11am. Shortly after noon, de Robeck ordered the French line to pass through and close on the Narrows forts. The Turkish fire began to take its toll with Gaulois, Suffren, Agamemnon and Inflexible all suffering hits. While the naval fire had not destroyed the Turkish batteries, it had succeeded in temporarily reducing their fire. By 1.25pm the Turkish defences were mostly silent so de Robeck decided to withdraw the French line and bring forward the second British line as well as Swiftsure and Majestic.

At 1.54pm Bouvet, having made a turn to starboard into Eren Köy Bay, struck a mine, capsized and sank within a couple of minutes, killing 600 men. The initial British reaction was that a shell had struck her magazine or she had been torpedoed. Most reports state that they remained unaware of the minefield, however mines in the string had been spotted earlier that morning, and their sighting relayed to Admiral Robeck. No action was taken to protect the battleships.

Irresistible abandoned and sinking.

The British pressed on with the attack. Around 4pm Inflexible began to withdraw and struck a mine near where Bouvet went down, killing 30 men. The battlecruiser remained afloat and eventually beached on the island of Tenedos.

Irresistible was the next to be mined. As she began to drift helplessly, the crew were taken off. De Robeck told Ocean to take Irresistible under tow but the water was deemed too shallow to make an approach. Finally at 6.05pm Ocean struck a mine which jammed the steering gear leaving her likewise helpless. The abandoned battleships were still floating when the British withdrew. A destroyer returned later to torpedo the stricken vessels but despite searching for four hours, there was no sign of them.

March 18 was a significant victory for Turkey. Nevertheless, there were calls amongst the British to press on with the naval attack, and de Robeck initially planned to do so after several days. With the exception of the Inflexible, the ships that were lost or damaged were old, ill-equipped for modern naval combat and, in the eyes of some, expendable. There have been theories that the Turkish forts had nearly exhausted their ammunition so that if the naval attack had resumed, the Allies would have met little opposition. Moreover the crews of the sunken battleships had replaced the civilians on the trawler minesweepers, making them much more willing to keep sweeping under fire, and the fleet had several modern destroyers fitted with 1 1/2" minesweeping hawsers that could have handled the task with ease.

De Robeck was reported to be distraught from the lossesFirstwordwar.com, his intention to continue the attack as above not withstanding, and it is possible that he was overwhelmed by the scale of the loss - he had been in charge of a fleet that had suffered the most serious loss to the Royal Navy since Trafalgar.

French Battleship Bouvet sinks

Turkish gun at Canakalle

Where a naval shell bounced off the barrel

Where the shell exploded out

German postcard of the Dardanelles