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

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Eyewitnesses: Watching Three Battleships Sink at Gallipoli

18 British and French Capital Ships Approaching
the Straits on 18 March 1915

On 19 February 1915, British and French ships began a naval assault on the Dardanelles. The fighting culminated in a heavy setback for the Allies on 18 March when an assault by 18 battleships was broken with the sinking of three pre-dreadnought capital ships.  I've previously presented an overview of the action HERE. The article includes a graphic at the bottom which summarizes my understanding of why the attack failed. Recently, I have discovered historian Peter Hart's collection of firsthand accounts of the sinkings of the three battleships, which I think provides additional insight on the reasons behind the failure that day.

Now, here are of some of the accounts of how things went badly wrong for the Allies that day with some additional commentary from Peter Hart:

At 13.45, [the assault had begun about 10:45] De Robeck judged that the Turks' fire was slackening and so ordered the mine-sweepers to begin moving up to clear the channel through which the fleet were to approach to decisive range. The reserve British division was also ordered up to relieve the French in Line 'B' who were inevitably beginning to suffer severe damage. But as the British ships began to move forward the first real disaster occurred. This  moment could be seen as the beginning of the end for the Allied attack…

The French ships, still firing, started retiring. At 2pm a small cloud of yellowish smoke, which turned black afterwards, came out of the starboard quarter of the Bouvet

Lt. Douglas Claris, HMS Queen Elizabeth

French Battleship Bouvet

I noticed the Bouvet was heeling to starboard & said so to McB. & even as I spoke she was listing more & more & it was evident she was badly wounded. She was steaming quite fast & went over & over until she was on her beam ends & her masts went into the water, a lot of smoke & steam rolled out but no explosions took place & she turned bottom up for a few seconds. I saw a few figures on her bottom and then she disappeared. The whole thing didn't take two or three minutes at the most. I had no idea a ship could disappear so quick.... This rather shook us all for a moment I know I  felt a bit staggered but tried to keep the fore top party from thinking about it. I told the faithful Popperwell to hand me my swimming collar - which made them all laugh.

Commander Worsley Gibson, HMS Albion 

At 16.14, the HMS Irresistible struck a mine. 

About 4 PM a great shock was felt which lifted the whole ship up. She at once listed to starboard, having been struck in the starboard engine room, which filled up very quickly  & a Warrant Officer & three men being drowned. The bulkhead between the two ERs gave way & she righted a bit. The order was given for everyone to come on deck.  Everybody came up from below & started throwing everything that would float overboard, as we thought that we should have to swim as there were not any destroyers or anything near. We were subjected to heavy fire from the forts. . . We were hit twice by shells, one lydite on the after conning tower & another which entered  the Commander's upper deck cabin after passing through the officers' WCs.

Midshipman Owen Ommaney, HMS Irresistible 

From the Albion the plight of the Irresistible was painfully obvious. 

The batteries got the range of her & began to drop shell all around her & occasionally hit her. It was simply damnable to see her drifting helplessly along there with her crew quietly standing about or throwing planks & anything that would float overboard'.

Commander Worsley Gibson, HMS Albion

Captain Arthur Hayes-Sadler, of the Ocean was ordered to take the Irresistible in tow if  necessary, while the Albion did everything she could to provide covering fire. The destroyer  HMS Wear played a vital role in bringing assistance and managed to take off 28 officers and 582 crew while the captain and a few selected volunteers remained aboard to prepare the  ship for towing. The Wear unloaded the rescued crew aboard the Queen Elizabeth and reported to De Robeck that the damage had been done by a mine. . . By the time the Wear returned, the Irresistible was under heavy fire from the forts of the  Intermediate Defences, as well as various mobile batteries, and the remaining ships of Line  'B' were also now withdrawing. 


I could see no sign of life on board the Irresistible when the Wear ran alongside her at  5.20pm. and concluded that the captain had decided to abandon her and go aboard  the Ocean, as an hour had passed since she was disabled, and the Ocean seemed to  have no intention of taking her in tow. This was shortly afterwards confirmed. Under  the circumstances, I think the captain of the Irresistible was justified.

Commodore Roger Keyes,  HMS Amethyst 

HMS Irresistible Going Down

The Irresistible was still drifting towards the Asiatic shore and if there was to be any chance at  all of saving her she would have to be pulled into the current moving down the Dardanelles. As time was pressing, Keyes attempted to force the issue and signaled to the Ocean to take  Irresistible in tow, to which the Ocean replied that there was insufficient water to do so.  Keyes was not happy, but Hayes-Sadler was his senior and he could not issue an order in his own name.

As it was evident that the captain of the Ocean still did not think it possible to take the Irresistible in tow, and she was steaming about firing rapidly to no purpose, since there was nothing to be gained by expending ammunition except for a definite object, I  signalled: "If you do not propose to take Irresistible in tow, the Admiral wishes you to withdraw"

At this stage Keyes turned his attention back to the damaged Irresistible.

She had lost her list, was practically on an even keel, and though down by the stern, she seemed still to have plenty of buoyancy and was apparently no lower in the water than when I had arrived nearly an hour previously. So I decided to leave her and go full  speed to the Admiral to suggest that trawlers might try and tow her into the current after  dark. The Ocean was still steaming about blazing away at the forts much to my  anxiety, as it was obvious that the enemy had some unpleasant form of mine about, and it seemed only a question of time before she hit one.

Commodore Roger Keyes,  HMS Amethyst 

Rescued Crewmembers from HMS Ocean

Almost inevitably as soon as the Ocean finally began to withdraw at 18.05 she also struck a mine, followed a moment later by a heavy shell, and the shock penetrated to the 12-in  magazine below the water line. 

I was about to hand out a charge for the loading tray, when bang!! The force of the  blow lifted me off the floor with the charge in my arms. We didn't need ask what it was. The order came, "Close magazines and shell rooms". The men all went up the trunk  from my magazine, but it was my duty to see all the ventilators fastened and water tight  in case they wanted to flood the magazine to avoid an explosion. It only took a few  minutes but it seemed such a time to me, but at last it was finished. There was only  one way to get out and that was through the shell-room escape hatch. To my joy it was  open. I was soon through and closed it behind me. But my troubles were not over.  Supposing the other hatch above me was closed? Anyone seeing it open in passing  would close it. I lost no time. Just as I reached the ladder I heard someone raising the  catch to let it down. I yelled, and whoever it was didn't stop to argue. I was soon  through.

 Petty Officer George Morgan, HMS Ocean 

It was obvious there was no hope; at least so it appeared to Captain Hayes-Sadler, who was not, it seems, an optimistic man concerning the possibilities of salvaging crippled pre-dreadnoughts. The nearby destroyers were immediately ordered to close to rescue survivors, and their promptness meant that the crew were safely taken of and she was finally abandoned at 19.30. By this time the fleet had withdrawn, but Keyes was still confident that both the Irresistible and Ocean could be saved and returned to report this view to De Robeck. Having done this, and obtained De Robeck's permission to torpedo them if his attempt failed, he then boarded the destroyer HMS Jed and re-entered the Dardanelles. However, by the time he arrived in Erin Keui Bay, both ships had disappeared, having sunk during the night. . . 

The reality of 18 March was that it had been a severe defeat for the Allied fleet. Of the 16 capital ships engaged, three had been sunk and three more put out of action for a prolonged period. Yet almost nothing had really been achieved. Although the forts had been heavily damaged, they  had the great advantage of not having to stay afloat. Repairs could, and would, be made. The Bouvet, Irresistible, and Ocean were irrecoverable at the bottom of the sea. The sinking  of the Bouvet in particular had highlighted the speed with which these "expendable" old pre-dreadnoughts could sink, leaving no opportunity to rescue their invaluable crews. 

Source: Gallipoli: The War at Sea: An Overview by Peter Hart, Imperial War Museum and Australian War Memorial 

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