Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Goeben and the Naval War in the Black Sea. Part I of II

By Steve McLaughlin

Prelude: The Pursuit of the Goeben and Breslau to Constantinople

"I shall crush the Russian Black Sea fleet." This was Kontre-Admiral Wilhelm Souchon's answer when Enver Pasha inquired what he intended to do with his two ships, the battlecruiser Goeben and the cruiser Breslau, recently arrived in Constantinople.

Souchon seemingly had good reasons for this confident boast. Having thumbed his nose at the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean by unexpectedly slipping up the neutral Dardanelles, Goeben was now the most powerful warship in the Black Sea, a 22,000-ton dreadnought battlecruiser capable of more than 25 knots and armed with ten 28cm (11-in) guns. Unlike her British contemporaries, she was also well protected, with a waterline belt almost 11 inches thick. Breslau was a modern light cruiser, completed in 1912 and armed with 12 10.5cm (4.l-in) guns. With a maximum speed of 27.5 knots, she was one of the fastest ships in the Black Sea.

Better than any technical advantage, though, was one of morale. German intelligence had recently assessed the military capabilities of the Black Sea Fleet as negligible, citing the "poor discipline of its crews and its obsolete ships."

SMS Goeben

So, on the morning of 29 October 1914, Goeben (now officially renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim, but her crew and commander remaining German and among themselves still using the ship's German name) stood off the Russian naval base at Sevastopol. It was Souchon's intention to bombard the harbor works and ships in port, although war had not yet been declared and some ministers of the Turkish government still opposed this action.

The Russians had warning—the Turkish torpedo boats Mouavenet and Gairet had already attacked Odessa, sinking the old gunboat Donetz and damaging several other ships. So as Goeben steamed into range of the coast defense batteries at Sevastopol, they opened fire without hesitation. In the action that followed, Goeben fired 47 shells from her main battery, damaging a few buildings ashore, principally a hospital. In return, she was hit three times by the shore batteries, forcing her to withdraw under cover of a smoke screen laid by her two attendant Turkish torpedo boats. It was the Germans' first taste of Russian gunfire, and the accuracy was an unpleasant surprise.

On her way back to the Bosporus, Goeben encountered the elderly Russian minelayer Prut (completed in 1879) and three torpedo boats, Leitenant Pushchin, Zharkii and Zhivuchii. In an attempt to protect the slow and nearly defenseless Prut, the three torpedo boats attacked the Turko-German force, but the fire of the Goeben's secondary battery of 15cm (5.9-in) guns drove them off after severely damaging Leitenant Pushchin. The officers of the Prut thereupon scuttled her to prevent her falling into enemy hands.

Meanwhile, Breslau (officially renamed Midilli) had laid mines off the Kerch Strait and shelled the harbor and an oil tank farm—warning the nearby municipal  authorities, so that civilians could be evacuated from the target areas.

Admirals Souchon and Ebergardt, the Respective Fleet Commanders

Souchon had succeeded in bringing Turkey into the war on the side of the Central Powers, but he had not harmed the Russian Black Sea Fleet in any material way. The Russian commander opposing Souchon was Vitse-Admiral Andrei Avgustovich Ebergardt, one of the many officers of Swedish descent in the tsar's navy. Ebergardt's battle line was composed of five pre-dreadnought battleships. The oldest were Tri Sviatitelia and Rostislav, both completed in 1898; next came Panteleimon (the former Kniaz Potemkin Tavricheskii renamed after her crew's mutiny in 1905), completed in 1903, and finally Evstafii and Ioann Zlatoust sister ships completed in 1910. All were armed with four l2 in. guns except Rostislav, a small and unsuccessful ship that carried only four of 10 in. She was also the slowest ship of the line, barely capable of 15.5 knots; the other ships were all a full knot faster. Not one of these could have engaged Goeben with any reasonable chance of success.

Before the war, Turkey had ordered two super-dreadnoughts from British shipyards, intended for delivery in mid-1914. The Russians had three powerful dreadnoughts under construction at Nikolaev, but none would be ready for sea before mid-1915 at the earliest. Ebergardt was well aware of this one-year Turkish advantage in delivery times; if war came during that period, his pre-dreadnoughts would have to face a far superior force of enemy dreadnoughts. He therefore trained his captains to maneuver their ships in close formations and to act in mutual support As long as the squadron stayed together, Ebergardt could hope to face individually more powerful enemy ships.

The threat of the British-built Turkish dreadnought disappeared in August 1914 when the Royal Navy confiscated the just-completed ships and added them to the Grand Fleet. But the arrival in Constantinople of Goeben and Breslau largely made up for that loss. So now Ebergardt found himself facing the sort of situation for which he had been preparing his fleet.

The Black Sea Fleet Takes to Sea

Two weeks after war came to the Black Sea, Ebergardt began his first offensive. Because the roads of Anatolia were few and poor, the Turks were forced to rely on coastal traffic to transport supplies. Most of this was done by small sailing vessels. The Russian fleet sailed from Sevastopol on 15 November 1914 and carried out a sweep along the Anatolian coast, shelling Trebizond and picking off any of the small coastal ships they came across. On hearing of the Russian action, Souchon took Goeben and Breslau out to sea, steering a course intended to cut the Russians off from Sevastopol.

The sea south of the Crimea was covered by patchy fog on the morning of 18 November; the Russian battle fleet was steaming in line ahead, led by Ebergardt's flagship, Evstafii, on a course west by northwest following her were Ioann Zlatoust, Panteleimon, Tri Sviatitelia and Rostislav. A cruiser screen steamed ahead of the fleet. At 1140 hours, the leading cruiser, Almaz, sighted smoke, and at 1210 reported "I see the enemy straight ahead."

The Goeben was steaming straight for the Russian fleet, with Breslau off her starboard quarter. Souchon was apparently intent on closing quickly, perhaps hoping to cripple one or more of the Russian ships while the theirs were shrouded in fog. The Russian squadron turned south to open up its full broadside firing arcs and Breslau continued straight for the Russians on an east-by-southeast course. Both sides opened at a range of about 8,000 yards. At 1224 Evstafii hit Goeben with a 12-in shell. Other bits followed, and things were clearly not going as Souchon had expected; he altered course southward, now steaming parallel to the Russians to open up his full broadside. Because of poor visibility, the battle was virtually a duel between the Goeben and the Evstafii, during the brief action—the two sides fired for a total of 14 minutes— Goeben was hit by three 12-in and 11 8-in and 6-in shells, including one hit amidships that started a large fire in the ready-use ammunition of her secondary battery. Souchon decided to break off the engagement. The slower Russian fleet made no attempt to pursue.

The Russian gunnery had been excellent. On Goeben, 105 men were killed and 59 injured. The ship had come perilously close to even greater damage—the fire started by the Evstafii's hits had almost reached the 15cm magazines, but they had been flooded just in time to prevent an explosion. Evstafii had been hit four times, with 33 men killed and 25 wounded.

The next month passed relatively quietly for the two navies. Goeben and Breslau served as convoy escorts for troopships and freighters supplying the Caucasian front, where Enver Pasha was planning his first offensive. Ebergardt was also busy planning, with two objectives in mind—one, the mining of the Bosporus, would bar the Turko-German ships from entering the Black Sea, while the second, using old freighters filled with stones as block ships, would obstruct the port at Zonguldak. This town, about 140 miles east of the Bosporus, was Turkey's main source of coal.

Russian minelayers secretly planted 585 mines off the Bosporus on the night of 21–22 December. The simultaneous effort to block Zonguldak was foiled by the untimely appearance of the Breslau, and the block ships were hurriedly scuttled far out to sea. The crew of one block ship was captured by Breslau, but the others were taken off by the Russian escort ships.

Goeben had meanwhile been operating in the eastern portion of the Black Sea. She rendezvoused with Breslau on Christmas Day and shared course for the Bosporus. The next afternoon, as she neared her destination, the great ship was rocked by a powerful explosion. Two minutes later another blast shook her. She had struck two of the Russian mines laid a few days before. She limped through the Bosporus, having taken on 600 tons of water.

Repairs were a problem there were no docks in Turkey big enough to handle the crippled battlecruiser. Workers were sent from Germany, and a cofferdam was built. This was essentially a wooden box that was fitted to the curve of the ship's hull; once it was in place, the water was pumped out, forming a dry working space right down to the ship's bottom. This technique had been developed by Admiral Stepan Osipovich Makarov at Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War. While under repair, Goeben twice anchored in Beikos Cove in the Sea of Marmara, ready to use her undamaged artillery if the Russians appeared off the Bosporus. Her repairs were completed by 1 May 1915.

The Russians had meanwhile begun a series of raids along the Anatolian coast, shelling shore batteries, planting mines and capturing or sinking several steamers and dozens of small cargo schooners. On 9 May 1915 Ebergardt steamed for the Bosporus, intending to bombard its fortifications. On the morning of 10 May he sent the battleships Panteleimon and Tri Sviatitelia close inshore to shell the forts, while  Evstafii, Ioann Zlatoust, and Rostislav stayed out to sea as a covering force. Two cruisers, the Pamiat Merkuria and Kagul were posted further out as pickets. Also accompanying the fleet were the seaplane carriers Imperator Aleksandr I and Almaz, plus several destroyers and minesweepers.

The Bosporus at the Time of the War

As Ebergardt's ships took up their positions off the Bosporus, Goeben was on her way back after a patrol off Eregli, 115 miles east of the Bosporus. About 0700 she came upon Pamiat Merkuria one of Ebergardt's pickets. Goeben set off in chase of what looked like a lone Russian ship. Pamiat Merkuria immediately headed at full speed for the main body, signaling to the flagship as she dodged shells from the German battlecruiser. Ebergardt immediately recalled Panteleimon and Tri Sviatitelia from their bombardment mission and ordered them to join his other three battleships at full speed.

At 0753 Souchon once again found himself face to face with the Russians. Evstafii, Ioann Zlatoust, and Rostislav had formed a line, while Panteleimon and Tri Sviatitlelia were still some two miles away, racing to catch up. Goeben opened fire at a range of 18,800 yards, and the Russians soon replied. Ebergardt slowed his three engaged ships, giving the Panteleimon and Tri Sviatitelia a chance to catch up; by the time the Russians formed their full battle line, the range had dropped to 16,000 yards. The two forces were now steaming on slightly converging courses. Panteleimon's second salvo scored a hit on Goeben, two more hits followed, and the battlecruiser sheered off, using her superior speed first to get out of range and then work her way around the Russians to get back to the safety of the Bosporus.

The action had lasted 23 minutes, during which the Russians fired 169 l2-in and 36 8-in shells, hitting Goeben three times. The latter had fired 160 11-in shells but scored no hits. Goeben had been lucky; she suffered no casualties. Once again, the excellent Russian gunnery had forced the German ship to withdraw; once again, Goeben's superior speed made escape possible.

Part II continues tomorrow, 9 February 2020,  in Roads to the Great War

This article originally appeared in the Fall 1992 issue of Relevance: The Journal of the Great War Society

1 comment:

  1. Excellent account.
    And a too rare sign of Russian competence in WWI.