Being the Biography of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Keyes of Zeebrugge and Dover
G.C.B., K.C.V.O., C.M.G., D.S.O.
THIS is the story of a man whose name had become a legend of audacity even while he was still alive. A passionate exponent of the value of the offensive in war, he expunged the word "impossible" from his dictionary, and difficulties to him were a challenge and even an invitation. In China in 1900, while still a young Lieutenant, he captured with thirty bluejackets a Chinese fort which Russian and German Generals, with four thousand men at their disposal, had deemed it too dangerous to attack. Throughout his service he was in the van of naval progress, and was the first to grasp the offensive potentialities, in turn, of destroyer flotillas, of ocean-going submarines, and of the Fleet Air Arm. In the First World War the organiser and hero of the immortal raid on Zeebrugge, he was largely responsible, at a critical hour, for saving this country from the desperate menace of the U-boats. In the Second World War, while Director of Combined Operations, he endowed the first Commandos with his own offensive spirit. His vision and forceful initiative induced and animated the early design and construction of the all-essential landing-craft, without the timely provision of which the greatest operations of the Allies could not have been undertaken. So high was his reputation for courage and resource that I am assured by one of his shipmates, himself a V.C., that numberless young officers, who had never even seen him, when faced with a difficult problem in the last war, would ask themselves, "I wonder what Keyes would have done ?" It was his eldest son, a Lieut.-Colonel at the age of twenty-four, who lost his life and won the V.C. in his raid on Rommel's headquarters.
I first met Roger Keyes at the Dardanelles in 1915, when, as Chief of Staff to the naval C.-in-C, his serene confidence at a moment of acute strain was a flame of inspiration to those around him. We were friends ever after, even though we seldom met, and it was with keen satisfaction that I watched him rise to the highest rank in his profession, and exhibit those qualities which, as Mr. Churchill has placed on record, "seemed to many to revive in our own generation the vivid personality and unconquerable spirit of Nelson." . . .
The Battle of March 18th
AS the Allied Fleet steamed into the Dardanelles on the morning of L March 18th, Keyes was in his element. The real business was about to begin at last. Weather conditions were ideal. The sky was clear, the sea smooth, and visibility perfect. The task ahead, with all its obvious risks, had the Admiralty's full approval. "The operation," Mr. Churchill himself had telegraphed, "should now be pressed methodically and resolutely. . . . Unavoidable losses must be accepted. . . . Time it precious." Admiral de Robeck, who had helped to frame the plan, and was now to carry it out, had agreed that it was wise and practicable; and his rock-like face, as Keyes stood beside him on the compass-platform of the Queen Elizabeth, was a study in resolution.
The general plan of action was to silence simultaneously the forts at the Narrows and the batteries protecting the Kephez minefield. As soon as these defences had been dominated, the mine-sweepers would advance to clear a channel through the Kephez mines, continuing the work, if possible, throughout the night. Next morning, as soon as it was light enough, the Fleet would destroy the Narrows forts at close range; the remaining minefields would then be swept; and if all went well, the Marmara would be reached in the course of the second day.
The attacking Fleet had a total strength of seventeen battleships and one battle-cruiser. Three battleships and the battle-cruiser were modern. The remaining fourteen battleships (ten British and four French) were old.
The battle was to begin with a long-range bombardment by the four modern ships (Line "A") at a range of some eight miles. These ships were to be followed by the four old French battleships (Line "B") which, at the special request of the French Admiral, had been allotted the place of honour and, at a given moment, were to pass through Line "A" and engage the forts and batteries at a gradually diminishing range. After being in action for four hours the French squadron was to withdraw and to be relieved by British vessels.
The foundation of the whole scheme was that battleships should only be employed in waters that were known to be free of mines. With this object, the whole of the Straits to a line 8000 yards below the Narrows -above which line the Kephez minefield began—had been constantly examined and was reported to be absolutely clear. But here the plan was based on calamitously incorrect data. One fatal row of twenty mines had not been discovered by the trawlers. This line, which, as is now known, was laid during the night of 7th-8th March, had been placed, unlike the others, not across the Straits but lengthways down the channel, some three miles south of the Kephez minefield. It thus extended right across the head of Eren Keui Bay, in which as carefully noted by the Germans, the battleships had been accustomed to man-ccuvre during the earlier bombardments. Never was devil's work more deftly done. Not only was this single row of unsuspected mines in a few hours' time to be responsible for the complete collapse of the British plan; by its shattering effect it lengthened the Great War by two years, and led the world to subsequent measureless disaster.
Despite heavy and accurate Turkish fire, the attack at first made good progress. By 1.45 p.m. the forts were almost silent, and though the fire of the enemy's howitzers and field guns was still heavy, their colossal expenditure of ammunition had achieved so little material damage that Keyes was convinced that they could safely be disregarded. Many of the ships had been hit repeatedly, but only the French ship Gaulois had been seriously crippled, and the total casualties were trifling. The minesweepers were now ordered to begin sweeping the Straits north of the 8000 yards line, and British battleships moved forward to relieve the French squadron.
In point of fact, the situation at this moment, as learnt from enemy sources after the war, was even more favourable than the British flagship realised. The Turkish official account of the day reads:
By 2 p.m. the situation had become very critical. All telephone wires were cut, all communication with the Forts was interrupted; some of the guns had been knocked out, others were half buried, others again were out of action with their breech mechanism jammed. In consequence the artillery fire of the defence had slackened considerably.
The mine-sweeper crews were still short of that calm discipline which comes from long training and enables men to withstand enemy fire. Met by the fire of 6-inch guns as they approached Kephez Point, they again turned tail and headed south for Helles; and at this moment occurred the first disaster of the day. The French battleship Bouvet, retiring through Eren Keui Bay, struck one of that fatal row of mines. A gigantic explosion followed, and a minute later the vessel heeled over and sank . . .