Friday, 8 August 2014

Escape of SMS Goeben and Breslau

SMS Goeben
It was 2.45am on 6th August 1914, and conditions on Rear Admiral Troubridge's flagship Defence were tense as in a little over three hours the first Cruiser squadron of the Mediterranean fleet consisting of the light cruisers Black Prince, Duke of Edinburgh, Warrior and Defence, with a screen of destroyers would be engaging the German battle-cruiser Goeben and her escort Breslau.

Throughout the night the squadron's men were preparing themselves mentally for the roar of the guns, explosions and the very real possibility that they could be killed and this was something that was preying on the mind of Captain Fawcett Wray when he stepped into the Admiral's chart room.

"Are you going to fight sir? Because if so the Squadron ought to know." He asked.

"Yes, I know it is wrong but I cannot have the name of the whole Mediterranean squadron stink" came the reply.

Obviously concerned by the answer Captain Wray, normally over confident and sure of his abilities voiced his concerns about the one sided nature of the upcoming battle. Goeben had almost twice the displacement of each of his cruisers, a slightly less weighty broadside but she was faster with bigger guns with longer range. Wray had been looking at these sums and that in daylight Goeben could rain down her 11" shells well out of range of the British squadron and use her superior speed to stay out of the British range. Wray finished his evaluation with the icy observation;

"It seems to me it is likely to be the suicide of your squadron."

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Goeben and Breslau had been in the Mediterranean since 1912 patrolling the Balkans during the recent conflicts and flying the flag for Germany in the region. Goeben was a relatively new design having been completed in 1911 and dispatched before her sea trials had been completed and she had some on going boiler issues. Breslau, a light Magdeburg class cruiser was also constructed in 1911 and was similarly dispatched with the duty of escorting Goeben.

HMS Indefatigable one of three cruisers that could have sunk Goeben
As tensions grew in Europe grew Admiral Souchon the C-in-C of the Mediterranean squadron put into Pola, the Austro-Hungerian main Naval base and had his vessels overhauled and formed strategy with his counterpart Admiral Haus. It was decided on the outbreak of hostilities that the German and Austro Hungarian fleet would sail to the West of the Mediterranean and intercept the French XIX army corps that would be undoubtedly be transported by individual ships and covered by the French fleet spread out across the 3-400 miles route.

The German fleet had put into Messina on 2nd August to re-coal for a patrol and found facilities severely lacking. Souchon confiscated the German liner General and moved her crew over the Goeben  as well as a sizable chunk of coal whilst removing any unnecessary equipment from his vessels and stowed them. They pulled out of the harbour on the 3rd August at 1 am, slipped around the north coast at 16-17 knots heading for the ports of Phillipeville and Bône. At 6pm they received confirmation that Germany was at war with France. They accordingly divided then and headed for their targets.

The French fleet had also left port at Toulon on the 3rd August to escort the XIX army corps, however Admiral Lapeyrère had deployed his fleet into three sections to escort the transports in convoy rather than forming a broad front.

The Royal Navy under Admiral Archibald Berkeley Milne had also divided its forces with Rear Admiral Troubridge being dispatched with the first cruiser squadron to watch the Adriatic in case the Austro-Hungarian fleet should leave Pola. Milne was directed to remain with his other ships (Chatham, Weymouth) in case Admiral Souchon turned west or headed for the Atlantic. None of those were Milne's decisions, they came directly from London in a telegram on the 2nd August.

The lengthy message outline what Milne should do completely. His primary duty was to protect the French convoys, bring to action any individual fast ships but not to engage a superior force without French support.
Troubridge made clear to Milne that he believed that Goeben was a superior force to his cruisers, Milne was not worried.
"That question won't arise as you will have Indoubtable and Indefatigable with you."
Indeed the two I class cruisers with their 12" guns gave Troubridge an edge should battle with Goeben occur, they could engage her in a gun duel whilst the smaller cruisers and destroyers got closer for their guns and torpedoes. Their presence would also make the Austro-Hungarian fleet think twice. So with those two vessels, the cruisers Duke of Edingburgh, Black Prince, Defence, Warrior, the light cruiser Gloucester, and eight destroyers at 8pm on 2nd August.

The Germans made the first move. Despite receiving a telegram from his superiors in Berlin maked "Urgent" Souchon decided to press ahead with his original orders, which the new orders did not countermand. Goeben bombarded Phillipeville with fifteen shells before withdrawing. These were no transports laden with troops, no docked warships, no stocks of ammunition. Breslau found the same at Bône so Souchon ordered the withdrawal to save ammunition. He feinted westward before changing course north before looking at his new orders. Admiral Tirpitz was ordering his force to head east for the Bospherous with all due haste and then on to Constantinople. The idea behind it was to present the new ships to the Ottoman Empire replacing the two British build dreadnaughts that were confiscated by the admiralty before hostilities began.

At 10:30am, three and a half hour's before Great Britain's ultimatum was delieverd to Germany, Goeben and Breslau encountered Indomitable and Indefatigable, who had been ordered by the Admiralty (via Milne) to reverse course and head for Gibraltar in case the German squadron was heading west. As the two squadrons passed their main turrets turned to face each other and with each side eying each other suspiciously none of the customary courtesy signals were sent. As Goeben passed the two Royal Navy cruisers turned to pursue at a distance but keeping enough speed in reserve. Admiral Souchon must have intercepted the message from the Admiralty to Captain Kennedy about the British Ultimatum to Germany because he ordered more speed. In the Goeben's boiler room on a hot summer day the German stokers toiled so hard that they began to suffer from heat exhaustion, many passing out over their shovels and being carried out to lay on the relative cool air of the deck then at a critical moment there was a mechanical failure that released a cloud of red hot steam that scalded four men to death, but the orders held and the officers continued to press their men on. Slowly but surely she made headway over her pursuers who although of a comparable speed were in need of engine maintenance and their bellies scraping and they were unable to keep pace, even the light cruiser Dublin who managed another hour was forced to give up the chase sending the following signal to Milne at 7.37pm.

"Goeben out of sight now, can only see smoke, still daylight."

Later that night Admiral Milne was informed that both German ships had entered Messina harbour which threw up some new problems for the Royal Navy.

The good news was that they knew where Goeben was. The bad news was that he didn't know where they would go. The rumour of a German collier in Majorca weighed on his (and the Admiralty's) mind and the belief that the German ships would ignore the heavily defended French convoys and head out to terrorise the unprotected merchant ships in the Atlantic.

His hands were then tied by the Admiralty with a signal at 18:00 with the announcement of Italy's declaration of neutrality and banning any of His Majesty's ships from going within six miles of the Italian coastline, this would stop him from sailing down the straits of Messina or face violating international law. The best he could do was to deploy his ships at each end of the straits. Admiral Fisher (later First Sea lord) Commented afterwards that;

(Milne) "had no excuses whatever for not surrounding Messina with all his entire force right round the harbour mouth - close up! As if international law mattered a Damn! and the Italians would have loved him forever!"

Indeed when it came to international law the Royal Navy did not hesitate when it came to the Battle of Más a Tierra when HMS Kent and Glasgow violated Chilean neutrality to sink SMS Dresden which only led to the German consulate complaining. Although Italy was not Chile and the British government did not wish to provoke Italy despite their stance against Austria. However Milne lacked the flare to act independently, as was his right as the C-in-C on the spot.
 
Admiral Souchon in Turkish uniform
They pay me to be an Admiral, they don't pay me to think.

So Milne stuck rigidly to the orders he was given by the Admiralty in London. Troubridge was left at the mouth of the Adriatic watching for the Austrian fleet which he was capable of holding or slowing and waiting for Milne's squadron for reinforcements as long as the Austrian dreadnaughts did not sail.

Milne spread his I-class cruisers between Sicily and Tunisia in case the German Division did make aGloucester waited at the other end of the strait of Messina ready to tail the Germans.
move towards the French transports whilst he patrolled the North coast of Sicily with his other ships. The superior French fleet which could have decided the outcome could not be contacted and remained and unquantifiable. HMS

Souchon was having to make some hard choices as well. The Italians had given him a strict twenty four hour deadline and the coal stokes were severely lacking, there would not be enough to make it to Turkey. He confiscated as much coal as he could from any and all of the German vessels present ripping up their deck plates to speed up the process but it was still not enough. He also knew that the Royal Navy would be surrounding Sicily the situation was getting tough. He also received a signal saying that the Turkey order was not definite and that his reception was not guaranteed. Logically only the Austro-Hungarian fleet was safe, but how long before the Allies came for them and they were trapped in the Adriatic?

He decided to roll the dice and Goeben and Breslau slipped out of port at nightfall on the 6th August heading south through the straits and arranging to meet a collier in the Aegean islands. Milne heard that they had left and immediately redeployed his vessels heading west and then south to catch the Germans as they sailed around Sicily and slipped west which the Admiralty was certain they would do.

Souchon didn't know where the Royal Navy was and was concerned that with the amount of time needed to coal up he could find his small fleet being caught in the islands where they couldn't manoeuvre and taken apart. Goeben's engines were also playing up as they had been pressed hard in the last pursuit and he could not guarantee they could reach that speed again. There was another more pressing problem. He was being pursued by HMS Gloucester.

The light cruiser was dogged in her pursuit holding at 26 knots she refused to budge and even steered between Goeben and the shore to force the Germans to make a wider turn and slow down further. Breslau quickly dropped back fearing a torpedo attack on the lead German vessel and started making threatening passes and looking like she might fire at any time. Realising that the Germans could easily disable his vessel Captain Kelly ordered his ship to pull back and using the moonlight keep watch and signal Admiral Milne of their position. Admiral Troubridge was ordered to bring his fleet of cruisers, the light cruiser Dublin and his destroyers to intercept the Germans. At first confused by the heading and Goeben's feint Troubridge delayed his departure thinking he was going to turn north towards him but when it became clear from Captain Kelly's updates that the German's were still heading south east he ordered the fleet to make all due haste to meet them. According to estimates he should arrive in the vicinity of Goeben and Breslau at 6.30am. He signalled Dublin and Gloucester which arrived at 2.54am;

"First Cruiser squadron position 2.30 am 38 ̊ 25'N, 20 ̊ O'E Course south 20 knots. Am endeavouring to cross Goeben's bows at 6am."

Now Admiral Troubridge was waiting for his Navigator and said to Wray;

"I cannot turn away now, think of my pride!"

"Has your pride got anything to do with it sir? It is your country's welfare which is at stake" came the measured response.

After listening to the navigator with Captain Wray as they discussed the chances of his fleet getting through the up coming combat. It didn't look good. It was as they feared, the chances of them being able to get close enough to the German battle cruiser which had proved so amazingly fast against the two I-class battle cruisers just a few days before was very small. It seemed Wray's evaluation was correct. With tears in his eyes Troubridge ordered the end to the pursuit at 4am on the 7th August. Wray commented that;

"That was the bravest thing you have ever done in your life."

It is debated by historians and by the Admiralty in the enquiry and Troubridge's court martial as to whether he had done the right thing. Arguably with luck and a good amount of skill Troubridge could have damaged Goeben enough to slow her down or in best case scenario sunk her. The problem was how many of the Royal Navy ships would have gone down with her? Wray's theory might very well have come true and with Breslau running interference it could have become very dicey. There was also the confirmation that without the I-class cruisers that Goeben constituted a "superior force" as outlined by the Admiralty's prior orders, if anything Troubridge was following orders which is why he was eventually acquitted. At the battle of Jutland in 1916 HMS Defence did come into combat with German warships and was sunk after receiving seven strikes. Also at Jutland was Seydlitz, a similar vessel to Goeben took twenty-two 12" shells and thirteen to fifteen 15" shells which was a lot more powerful than the 9.2" guns Defence and the rest of Troubridge's squadron were sporting. In the enquiry Milne was asked what he considered were the most important factors to naval combat and he argued it was: "Gun power, weather and speed" so didn't consider armour worthy of note but it would have been the deciding factor for Troubridge's squadron.

At 4.49 am Troubridge signalled Milne to request orders and to report his decision.

"Why did you not continue to cut off Goeben? She only going 17 knots, and so important to bring her to action." was the reply.

For the first time Troubridge explained his actions in a very lengthy message at 8.30am:

"With visibility at the time I could have been sighted from twenty to twenty-five miles away and could never have got nearer unless Goeben wished to bring me to action which she could not have done under circumstances most advantageous to her. I could never have brought her to action. I had hoped to have engaged her at three thirty in the morning in dim light but had gone north first with the objective of engaging her at the entrance of the Adriatic.
I was too late to intercept her when she altered course to the south. In view of the intense importance of victory or defeat at such early stages of a war I would consider it a great imprudence to place Squadron in such a position as to be picked off at leisure and sunk while unable to effectively reply. The decision is not the easiest of the two to make. I am well aware."

Elsewhere that morning as Souchon's men had been unable to jam Kelly's transmissions the Breslau took positive steps to shake off their pursuer and with a need to shake them before coaling. She began weaving across the path of Gloucester as if laying mines. Captain Kelly ordered his 6" guns to fire on the German ship hitting with one shell beneath the waterline. Breslau began to rain down accurate fire upon the smaller British ship but unperturbed Captain Kelly urged his vessel to close the range so he could use his full broadside and torpedoes on the light German vessel. Pin pricks of light on the silhouette of Goeben meant only one thing and as two white columns of water confirmed Captain Kelly's fear, Souchon had ordered his vessel to slow and turn and bring his long range guns to bear on him. Kelly knew the odds and ordered his vessel to drop back signalling Milne at 2.45pm that:

"Have engaged at long range with Breslau and retreated when Goeben turned. I am now following again."

Souchon must have been very worried as with a light cruiser pushing at his fleet it could only mean that the Royal Navy were closing in on him. He must have been relieved to see Gloucester drop away at 4pm low on coal and following orders from Milne not to go further than Mataban and sent a final signal registering the German's course for the Aegean.

It wasn't until the early morning on the 8th August, some twenty four hours later that Admiral Milne would set off from Malta, 460 miles to the west with his three I-class cruisers and Weymouth to find Goeben. He would later site that HMS Indomitable which had been ready to sail on the 7th could not have gone alone as she was suffering from boiler issues and waited for his force to go en-masse. Still thinking Souchon was feinting took his time sailing at 10 knots awaiting the Admiralty to tell him good news.

Admiral Souchon met up with a collier in the Greek islands and began the lengthy process of fully coaling up for the last leg to the Bospherous, all the time listening to the Royal Navy's W/T transmissions getting closer and closer. Luckily for him the indecision of Admiral Milne and Troubridge's returning to the Adriatic meant he had enough time to carry out the operation without harassment on the 9th August. They made off at full speed and reached the Dardenelles on the 10th August at 5pm and received an escort through the minefield up to Constantinople, transferring his vessels to the Turkish navy on the 16th. It was a close run thing as Milne's vessels smoke could be seen coming over the horizon as they entered the Turkish mine fields. When Milne did arrive he was refused permission to give chase and was forced to stop.

The pursuit was viewed as a victory in the British press and celebrated as an example of the Royal Navy sweeping up the Mediterranean and the cowardly Germans running for safety rather than standing and fighting Milne's vessels. The Admiralty were not of the same opinion. The investigation into Troubridge's actions warranted a court martial for failing to engage but he was eventually acquitted due to the Admiralty's foggy order not to engage a superior force and what a superior force consisted of. Although considered blameless Troubridge and Milne's careers never recovered and they soon lost their posts being promoted sideways. Souchon however was promoted to Commander in Chief of the Turkish fleet on 23rd September 1914 and by November Turkey had joined the Central powers in their war against the Allies which led to the Gallipoli campaign as well as Britain's war in Mesopotamia and Palestine causing more deaths and casualties.


Condensed from the (hopefully) upcoming Kindle book "Evaders; Spee and Souchon against the Royal Navy" by C. Sams

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