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

Friday, September 10, 2021

Naval Gunfire Support at Gallipoli


HMS Queen Elizabeth Points Her Main Batteries
at the Gallipoli Peninsula

James A. Smith, Norwich University

The Allied amphibious assault on the Gallipoli Peninsula on 25 April 25 1915 was the first major amphibious assault of the modern era. It was not an auspicious beginning. On two of the five assault beaches, Turkish infantrymen and machine-gunners, unfazed by inadequate and ineffectual pre-invasion shore bombardments, poured fire on disembarking assault troops, causing heavy casualties. On all five assault beaches, the difficult terrain of the Peninsula, coupled with fierce Turkish resistance, made it impossible to expand the initial beachheads, and left the Allied positions exposed to Turkish counterattacks. After a major Allied effort in August 1915 featuring attacks from ANZAC Beach on Sari Bair and a landing at Suvla Bay failed to break the deadlock, the Allies abandoned the campaign.

As the world’s armed forces sought to absorb the lessons of World War I, Gallipoli was the natural starting point for those interested in the study of amphibious operations. While it was clear that the naval gunfire support which the Allies had provided their assault troops had been poorly planned and executed in a number of respects, a more rounded view of the role of naval gunfire was now possible, based on information from “the other side of the hill” revealing how effective that fire had been at certain times in the course of the campaign. . .

25 April 1915

In order to preserve pre-dawn tactical surprise, no preliminary bombardment was planned for the Anzac landing at “Z” beach  Moreover, although the assault on “Y” beach was scheduled for daylight, the British believed (correctly) that the Turks would not be expecting a landing at this location; therefore, no preparatory naval bombardment was provided for it, either. Thus, the British were called upon to provide pre-invasion gunfire support for four beach heads, “S,” “V,”“W” and “X.”  At each of these locations, the pre-invasion bombardment was scheduled to last for half an hour. As the troops approached the shores, the bombardment was to lift onto ‘the first  objective of naval fire,’ the Turkish artillery located some miles from the beach.  Because of ammunition conservation concerns, the heaviest calibers were limited to 20 rounds per gun. 

Location of the Cape Helles Landing Beaches

Precise details concerning the manner in which the British planned to conduct the pre-invasion bombardment are difficult to come by and must therefore be inferred from the actual events. It is, however, known is that prior to the departure of the invasion force, Admiral Weymess  had circulated an order directing fire to be concentrated on the beaches, but that shortly  before the invasion itself, in a conference on board Weymess’ flagship,  Euryalus, Weymess’ own chief of staff called this order into question, stating “You will never be able to pick up the ranges quick enough.” Weymess then left the matter to the judgment of his individual captains, a fact which goes far to explain the great disparity in technique and result between the preparatory fires at the various beaches during the actual landings.

The landings took place early on Sunday 25 April 1915. At all four Cape Helles beaches, the bombardment commenced at 5:00 a.m.  That may have been the only uniform thing about the landings. For each landing point, the nature of the beach, the Turkish defenses, the weight and conduct of the bombardment, and the amphibious assault results must be assessed separately. . .

Click on Image to Enlarge

Naval Assets and Landing Scheme at W Beach

From the naval gunfire support perspective, each of the Gallipoli beaches had a different lesson to teach. “S” beach demonstrated the salutary effect of a bombardment supported with ample force. “V” beach demonstrated the penalty to be paid for an entirely inadequate  bombardment. “W” beach demonstrated that naval intervention could make a difference in whether an assault succeeded or failed. Finally, “X” beach demonstrated the power of close-in bombardment.

[Most instructive for future amphibious operations was the failure at "V" beach. ]

HMS Albion Was the Sole Battleship Supporting
the V Beach Landing

The force assaulting “V” beach, two and a half battalions, was the largest of any at Cape Helles. Under Hamilton’s invasion plan, as modified by [29th Division Commander] Hunter-Weston, this was to be the main British thrust. The naval support for this thrust, however, was the weakest provided to any of the Cape Helles beaches that morning, consisting solely of the battleship Albion, mounting four 12-inch guns and six 6-inch guns. Circumstances conspired to make a bombardment weak on paper even weaker in practice. A haze veiled the shore, presenting targets from being seen distinctly, and when, at dawn, the order to fire was given, the sunrise directly behind the hills through the shore into shadows, so that picking a target or accurate spotting was impossible. The actual bombardment lasted only 40 minutes, and was not continuous; the initial effort was from 5:04 5:20 a.m., ten minutes before the landing force was supposed to arrive. The landing force, however, was late, so fire was resumed at 6:00 a.m., only to be suspended at 6:25 a.m. upon receipt of news that some of the fire was falling among British troops at “Y” beach.

V Beach from the Defender's Position

Moreover, this bombardment was conducted at long range, and there was no close-in fire support as the assault force approached the beach.

The assault on "V" beach was a disastrous failure. One battalion of the assault force (1st  Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers) was transported to the beach in open boats, as at the other beaches; a second battalion (1st  Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers) and two companies of the 2nd  Battalion, Hampshire Regiment, were embarked aboard a converted collier, the  River Clyde, which was to be grounded on the beach. Turkish fire discipline was excellent. Not a shot was heard until the  River Clyde grounded at 6:22 a.m. At that point, "hell was let loose.”  The Dubliners, in their open boats, were wiped out by rifle and machine gun fire. Moreover, the  River Clyde grounded too far from the beach for the soldiers on board to reach it directly. A bridge of lighters at first went adrift; restored through heroic action by the Navy officers present, it proved to be a passage only to death. Turkish gunners slaughtered infantrymen trying to get across it.  The situation remained no better for the entire duration of the day. Only under cover of darkness that evening were the remaining 1,000 troops aboard the  River Clyde disembarked without loss. The main initial assault had failed, and with it, arguably, the campaign.

In the succeeding days of the campaign, [naval] gunfire played an important role, especially against troops in the open. Naval gunfire was effective against the Turkish flanks, and instrumental in hindering the movement of reinforcements. Turkish counterattacks had to be staged at night rather than during the day because of the effectiveness of the  Navy’s guns. The German commander, Liman von Sanders, testified that “the artillery effect of the hostile battleships constituted a support of extraordinary power for the landing army. . .  The most beneficial aspect of that support at Gallipoli had been the continuing support rendered to the invading troops well after the initial assault.

Cruiser HMS Talbot Lending Effective Fire Support
Later in the Campaign


Naval gunfire at Gallipoli also exhibited a number of technical weaknesses. The flat trajectory of naval guns made it difficult to search out the reverse slopes and deep valleys which characterized the Gallipoli battlefield.

Moreover, naval armor-piercing ammunition intended to sink ships in sea battles was poorly suited to dealing with land targets where a higher explosive content was desirable. Often, messages from forward observers took too long to reach the ships.

Further, the big ships, when tied to the support of the beachheads, themselves became targets. On 18 May a Turkish destroyer, making good use of a fog bank, sank battleship Goliath.  On 25 May German submarine U-21 sank battleship Triumph; two days later, she claimed a second victim, battleship Majestic. After this, the big ships were withdrawn. Their withdrawal was not as significant an event as might first appear. It had not been their main batteries which had performed the yeoman work of the bombardment, but rather, their secondary and tertiary armaments. Operating close to the beaches, light cruisers and destroyers were able to provide adequate support; on 28 June fire from light cruiser Talbot and four destroyers destroyed the Turkish front-line trenches in support of the Allied assault on the Turkish right, allowing them to be easily overrun and the second-line trenches occupied. That night, a Turkish counterattack was detected by the searchlights of two destroyers and swept away by their guns. Thus, the utility of destroyers to provide ongoing support to forces once ashore was also a lesson of Gallipoli.

Source: Excerpted from "Naval Gunfire Support from Gallipoli to Tarawa" by James A. Smith.  Download the full paper HERE

Thanks to Andrew Melomet for bringing this article to our attention

1 comment:

  1. My grandfather was here with the Royal Navy, and was sunk at least once. Then he manned boats that ferried troops ashore. He was shocked by how soon the troops were cut down by gunfire.