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

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Goeben and the Naval War in the Black Sea, Part II of II

Russian Battleship Imperatritsa Mariia

By Steve McLaughlin

(Part I of this article was presented yesterday, 8 February 2020, in Roads to the Great War)

The next few months saw only a few minor actions. The Russians continued to snap up Turkish shipping on the Anatolian coast, and during one of these sweeps the destroyers Derzkii and Gnevnyi had a brief encounter with the Breslau off the Bosporus on the night of 11 June. Gnevnyi was disabled by the cruiser's gunfire, but Derzkii managed to cut across the Breslau's stern and rake her, scoring three hits that killed seven men and wounded 15. Derzkii had to tow Gnevnyi back to Sevastopol. On 18 July, Breslau struck a mine, which put her out of commission for several months. That same month the strength of the Russian fleet was considerably increased by the completion of the Imperatritsa Mariia, a 23,000-ton dreadnought with a battery of 12 l2-in guns. Although Imperatritsa Mariia was far more powerful than Goeben, she was a couple of knots slower. A sister ship, Imperatritsa Ekaterina Velikaya, joined the fleet in October.

The Russians had by mid-1915 achieved a commanding position in the war in the Black Sea. Dozens of Turkish steamers and hundreds of sailing ships had been captured or destroyed, seriously interfering with both the coal supply to Constantinople and the support of the army in the Caucasus. Goeben made few appearances in the Black Sea for the rest of the year. The appearance of German U-boats in July, however, forced the Russians to be more cautious in their operations against the Turkish coast.

1916 opened with a brief encounter between Goeben and lmperatritsa Ekaterina Velikaya off Zonguldak on 8 January. Both sides had been drawn there by the same thing—a freighter full of coal, bound for Constantinople. Goeben was sent out to convoy her safely to the capital, but the freighter had already been sunk by Russian destroyers by the time Goeben arrived. Goeben chased the destroyers and suddenly found herself confronted by the new Russian dreadnought. Both big ships opened fire at a range of more than 20,000 yards, but neither side scored any hits and once again Goeben's speed got her out of trouble. In a somewhat similar encounter in April, Breslau managed to escape from some accurate salvos from Imperatritsa Mariia.

Cruiser SMS Breslau

In spite of the growing submarine menace, the Russian Black Sea Fleet was able to provide gunfire support for the army on the Caucasus front and also carried out two successful amphibious landings that aided the Russian drive toward the important port of Trebizond, which was captured in April.

In July, Admiral Ebergardt was replaced by Vitse-Admiral Aleksandr Vasilievich Kolchak. Although successful in containing the Goeben and in disrupting Turkey's seaborne logistics, Ebergardt had apparently had arguments with army commanders over supporting the Caucasian offensives and there was dissatisfaction with his handling of the U-boat threat. Kolchak was a young, aggressive commander who had acquired a great deal of experience with mine warfare in the Baltic. One of his first actions was to begin a mining offensive against both the Bosporus and the main U-boat base at Varna, in Bulgaria. These efforts were remarkably successful—in September and October, four U-boats were lost, virtually ending the German submarine threat in the Black Sea. The only Russian setback in this period came on 20 October, when Imperatritsa Mariia blew up in Sevastopol harbor. Unstable ammunition was the cause, although it was widely rumored that the ship had been sabotaged by German agents.

Even with this loss, however, the Black Sea Fleet had a decisive margin of superiority over the Turko-German fleet. In fact, the Russian offensive against the coal transports between Zonguldak and Constantinople had been so successful that the Goeben and the Breslau spent most of the latter part of 1916 riding at anchor in the Sea of Marmara, practically immobilized. The old Russian battleships provided valuable support not only on the Caucasus front but also to the collapsing Romanian Army, their only opposition coming from increasingly active (but as yet merely annoying) German aircraft.

Vitse-Admiral Aleksandr Vasilievich Kolchak

With Goeben contained and the U-boat problem under control, the Russians now had almost complete command of the Black Sea; ambitious officers at Stavka turned their thoughts toward that ancient Russian desire, seizing the Bosporus and capturing Constantinople. The idea had already received the blessing of Russia's allies in secret agreements, and given the military situation at the end of 1916, a successful amphibious assault could have been decisive. It would almost certainly have knocked Turkey out of the war and, more important for Russia's tottering economy, opened the Straits to Allied cargo ships. Tsar Nicholas II himself informed Kolchak of these plans. Troops were assembled at Odessa and transport ships gathered.

All this came to naught. The February Revolution that overthrew the tsarist government also led to military and political confusion; the assault on the Bosporus was forgotten as Kolchak struggled to maintain the fighting efficiency of his fleet. The Baltic Fleet had already been wracked by mutiny and the murder of officers, but the Black Sea Fleet continued its operations throughout the spring. By summer, however, the effects of the revolution were making themselves felt. Strikes and industrial disruption had left many ships languishing for want of repairs and slowed the supply of mines to a trickle. Worse, revolutionary sailors from the Baltic Fleet had arrived and were goading their Black Sea brethren to throw off the aristocratic oppression of the officer corps. In June 1917, the Council of Soldiers, Sailors, and Workers passed a resolution ordering officers to surrender their personal weapons. Enraged, Kolchak berated the crew of his flagship, pointing out that even the Japanese had allowed him to keep his sword while in captivity during the Russo-Japanese War. With that, he flung overboard his golden sword—given him for bravery in the war with Japan—and resigned his command. Kontre-Admiral Veniamin Kostantinovich Lukin took command of the fleet, but by then there was no real fighting force left to command.

As the Russians collapsed, Goeben and Breslau continued to support the Turkish war effort. On 20 January 1918 they steamed out of the Dardanelles for a daring raid on the British blockading force, based at Imbros. The monitors Raglan and M.28 were sunk, but Breslau was sunk in a British minefield and Goeben was damaged by three mines. She limped back into the Dardanelles, ran aground, and was subject to numerous attacks by British aircraft before she was finally got off and limped back to Constantinople.

Battleship Panteleimon (former Potemkin)
In March 1918, Goeben achieved her pinnacle of glory—she steamed into Odessa harbor with an armistice commission aboard, and a few days later she was in Sevastopol, supervising the disarming of the Russian ships there. This triumph was short-lived—the Turks agreed to an armistice with the Allies on 31 October 1918. Shortly after, the Goeben's German crew departed, and the ship, for the first time crewed by Turkish officers and men, was immediately disarmed. She had a long, sleepy career in the Turkish Navy as Yavuz Sultan Selim (later renamed simply Yavuz) and was finally scrapped in the mid-1970s.

As for the Black Sea Fleet, it became "Ukrainian" when the Germans seized the Crimea. The Armistice in November led to a German withdrawal but brought little peace to Russia. During the Civil War most ships joined the White cause, but British observers noted that the crews were disaffected and the officers arrogant and sometimes cruel. With the collapse of General Baron Petr Nikolaevich Wrangel's White army in November 1920, the remnants of the once-powerful Black Sea Fleet ferried some 145,000 refugees from the Crimea to Turkey, then steamed on to Bizerte in French Tunisia. There, in October 1924, the St. Andrew's flag was raised for the last time—until Boris Yeltsin ordered the Black Sea Fleet to hoist it once again in 1991.

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

Drashpil, Boris. "Re: Goeben," Warship International, 30 June 1971.

Greger, Rene. The Russian Fleet, 1914–1917.

Nekrasov, George. North of Gallipoli: The Black Sea Fleet at War, 1914–1917.

Photos from the collection of the late R.D. Layman

1 comment:

  1. Another great account. Thank you for sharing it.

    Kolchak will go on to have quite a role in the Russian Civil War.

    And a Russian landing against C-ple! What an alternate history to consider.