South African Military History 

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Our speaker on 12 March 2015 was our vice chairman, Mr Alan Mountain, whose topic was the naval actions which took place in the Dardanelles in February 1915.


He started by looking at the state of the Turkish Empire in 1914. The Turkish or Ottoman Empire was founded by the Oghuz Turks under Osman Bey in northwestern Anatolia in 1299. In 1453 Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, was captured by Mehmed the Second and the Ottoman state expanded into the powerful, multi-national, multi-lingual and multi-cultural entity known as the Ottoman Empire, which included much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa and the Horn of Africa.

During the 19th century, the Empire went into a steady decline, weakened by political instability, continued civil strife and military defeat. Turkey became known as the "sick man of Europe". In 1908, power was seized a group of young officers, the Young Turks, who installed Mehmed V as sultan. They started to reform and modernize the outdated political and economic systems of the empire. The most committed party in the Turk Revolution was the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) who followed a nationalistic ideology that was xenophobic and exclusionary. This threatened to undo the fabric of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. Taking advantage of the political turmoil after the 1st Balkan War of 1912, the CUP seized power in January 1913. In the 2nd Balkan War the CUP brought parliament under its influence and total control.

Leadership of the Young Turks was vested in the Three Pashas - Ismael Enver (Minister of War), Mehmed Talaat (Minister of the Interior) and Ahmed Djemal (Minister of the Navy). Turkish foreign policy had favoured alliances with Great Britain and France but they moved towards a secret military accord with Germany. Even so, by late August 1914, there was no certainty that Turkey would join the war - no one threatened her and she had no need for a war. Both the Allies and the Central Powers preferred a neutral Turkey, which was in no condition to go to war. In the five years prior to 1914, Bulgaria had become independent, Salonika, Crete and the Aegean islands had gone to Greece, Italy had grabbed Tripoli and the Dodecanese while Britain had annexed Cyprus and created a Protectorate of Egypt.

Politically, the situation was chaotic. The Young Turks had started well enough with widespread support from progressive Turks. But five years of Balkan wars and internal trouble had been too much. The Pashas were heavily involved in the struggle for their own survival and the promotion of their Pan-Turkish ideas. Militarily Turkey was in a mess. The defeats in the Balkans had done great harm. Many of the soldiers had not been paid for months and morale had sunk to the point of mutiny. The army was ragged, hungry and short of the weapons needed in modern war. The Fleet was hopelessly out of date. The garrisons along the Dardanelles were very weak and equipped with obsolete guns which could not withstand attack from any of the great powers.

This helplessness made the Turks turn to the outside world for allies - in effect, a choice between Germany and Britain. The Kaiser was eager for a German alliance and was in a position to put the Turkish Army back on its feet. But the Germans were not liked and most Turks preferred the English, who had the money, the command of the seas and France and Russia as allies. The Pashas preferred to compromise with the Allies, but the English were not too keen on this. The Germans gained influence in the Army and preferred a neutral Turkey with German control over military and political power. The Young Turks looked to Britain for a counter-balancing ally. The British miscalculated. In 1913, Turkey had ordered two battleships from British shipbuilders. The population contributed to the cost of this patriotic venture. In August 1914, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill informed the Turks that these ships would not be delivered and the ships were taken over by the Royal Navy. The Turks were enraged and the Germans moved swiftly. They promised the Turks a battle-cruiser - the Goeben - and the light cruiser Breslau. These ships avoided Allied patrols in the Mediterranean and reached Constantinople, much to the chagrin and embarrassment of the Allies. On 30 October the British, French and Russian ambassadors delivered a twelve-hour ultimatum to the Turkish Government. This was ignored, and Turkey was now at war on the side of the Central powers.


By the end of November 1914 the war had been in progress for barely three months and the casualties were huge. Blood and mud mixed in the frontlines while the antediluvian generals of both sides, locked into the concepts of 19th century fixed formation warfare, sent their troops forward against barbed wire and machine guns to be slaughtered, hoping that a break-through might happen and more of the enemy could be killed. This was - in the opinion of the aged generals who could not conceive any other strategy - the right thing to do.

Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the British War Council, pointed out that the armies were now dug in from the North Sea to Switzerland and suggested that the time had come to break the impasse by making a broad flanking movement, maybe through the Balkans or Turkey. This idea had been discussed by a number of politicians and others. It was fiercely opposed by the French and British generals with their antiquated ideas of warfare and their fixation with slogging it out with the German Army on the sprawling plains of France and Flanders. Not one man could be spared from the vital theatre of war in the west. To move part of the army for some expedition in the east would endanger the safety of their position in France and expose England to the risk of invasion and ultimate defeat. Kitchener, the Secretary for War, agreed with this but changed his mind when informed that the Russians were in danger because of the advance of Enver Pasha's army in the Caucasus. Kitchener and Churchill agreed that a show of force in the Dardanelles would have the effect of stopping reinforcements going to Enver Pasha's army.

The Dardanelles expedition would have to be a naval affair as Kitchener insisted that no army troops could be spared from France. Lord Fisher suggested that old pre-dreadnought battleships of the obsolete Canopus and Majestic classes be used to force the straits. There were ideas of bringing the Balkan states into the proposed campaign but the most important point was that the aid provided to the Tsar was vital. Forcing the Dardanelles and taking Constantinople would enable the transport of arms and ammunition to Russia across the Black Sea; free Russian merchant ships bottled up in the Black Sea and enable the export of Russian grain. Churchill sent a message to Vice Admiral Sackville Carden, commanding the squadron off the Dardanelles, to ask him if forcing the straits was possible. He replied that it was possible if it was not rushed and many ships were used. Up to that point both the Admiralty and War Office had not made up their minds, but, with Carden's positive response, they asked him to formulate a plan. This was submitted to London on 11 January 1915. Fifteen battleships were required, along with other ships, including twelve minesweepers. The forts at the entrance of the Dardanelles would be bombarded at long range and by indirect fire. Then, led by his minesweepers, he would sail directly into the range of the Turkish guns and demolish them. Much ammunition would be needed with subsidiary bombardments along the base of the Gallipoli peninsula and on Gaba Tepe. This was estimated to take a month. The Admiralty approved but added the new battleship Queen Elizabeth with 15-inch guns, the first of a class of five new battleships.

Kitchener agreed to the plan, noting that no troops would be taken from the Western Front. The French sent a further four battleships to join the British.


From the air the Dardanelles looks more like a large river than a part of the sea. It is 65 km long and, at the mouth at Cape Helles, 2 km wide. It then widens to 6 km and, 22 km further, narrows to 1.5 km. From the Narrows to the Sea of Marmara just above the town of Gallipoli, it varies from 2.5 to 4 km in width.

At the Narrows, in the town of Chanakkale on the Asiatic side, is the fort of Chimenlik. Directly opposite, on the European side, is the fort of Kilitbahir. Here were the main Turkish defences. These comprised of 10 lines of anchored mines, batteries protecting the minefields and other batteries on both shores. Mobile batteries of guns and mortars lined both shores from Cape Helles to the Narrows. In addition there were eleven forts with 176 guns and torpedo tubes so placed that they could fire at ships coming upstream. Other heavy guns were placed at KumKale and Seddulbahir at the entrance to the Dardanelles. While this was impressive, few of the guns were modern in design and the ammunition stocks were low.


The British force comprised 14 old battleships (mostly with 12-inch guns) and 2 semi-dreadnoughts, 1 battle-cruiser and HMS Queen Elizabeth (brand new), besides cruisers, destroyers, minesweepers and others. The French provided 4 battleships. All-in-all a powerful force.


Admiral Carden deployed his force in three divisions - the first being Queen Elizabeth (flagship) and two others, the second including five British battleships and the third including the four French battleships.

There were three parts to Carden's plan - a deliberate long-range bombardment of the forts at the entrance to the Dardanelles, a medium-range bombardment of defences along the shores of the Dardanelles and then close-range firing at specific shore installations. Minesweepers would clear the channel up to the entrance of the straits. Action commenced at 0951. At 1400 Carden closed to 6,000 yards and, at 1645, three ships went in closer. Two small forts opened fire on these three ships. None of the other defences participated. The day's efforts were not really satisfactory. Rough sea conditioned had impaired firing accuracy. It was clear that they would need to go in much closer and engage individual batteries and guns. Five days of rough weather prevented any further action.


On 25 February Vice Adm de Robeck led an attack right up to the entrance of the straits. The Turkish and German gunners withdrew to the north. Follow-up was prevented by bad weather but landing parties were landed on both sides of the straits to destroy any undamaged guns. Adm Carden reported to London saying that he hoped to get to Constantinople within two weeks, given good weather. There was elation in London.

But the weather did not play along. It held off the ships and allowed the Turks to drive off landing parties, re-establish their previous positions and regroup, while their morale was boosted by the successful outcome of the fighting up to this point. At the same time the battle changed from long-range bombardment to closer-range rapid firing, giving the Turks more success with their howitzers and small mobile guns. When each bombardment from the fleet ended, the Turks would relocate their guns, so that the batteries the British thought they had silenced would have to be dealt with all over again. This created problems for the minesweepers especially at night in the narrow seas around Chanakkale where they were picked up by searchlights. The mines could not be swept until the guns were silenced and the battleships could not get near enough to destroy the Turkish guns until the mines were swept. Carden began to lose his nerve and became hesitant and uncertain.

His Chief-of-Staff, Commodore Keyes took on the problem. The crews of the minesweepers were North Sea fishermen not used to combat. They were replaced by volunteers from the fleet and, on 13 March, they swept the mines. By morning, all but three of the sweepers had been sunk but the minefield had been partially cleared. The fleet could attack the Narrows by 17 or 18 March. Admiral Carden was ill and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He resigned his post, ending his career in the Navy. Vice Admiral de Robeck took over.


On the morning of 18 March, a light mist hung over the Straits. This cleared and de Robeck led his fleet into the Straits. His first line included Queen Elizabeth and Inflexible, with four other battleships (Line A). The second line consisted of four French and two British battleships and the third line had four British battleships. The remaining six battleships with the destroyers and minesweepers waited their turn.

At 1030 the first ten ships entered the straits and came under fire from both banks, replying with their lighter guns. Just after 1100 Line A reached their position 13 km downstream from the Narrows. Queen Elizabeth fired at the forts at Chanakkale and Inflexible, Agamemnon and Lord Nelson took on the forts at Kilitbahir on the opposite bank. The Turkish and German gunners realized they were outranged so did not fire and endured the bombardment. But the lighter guns and howitzers hidden along the cliffs and shores could reach the ships and fired, causing light damage to the unprotected superstructures of the ships.

The Turkish gunners became demoralized and their fire died away. De Robeck decided to bring in his remaining battleships and to retire the French squadron. They commenced their retirement at 1400, sailing along the Asiatic shore of Eren Keui Bay. The Bouvet shook, there was an enormous explosion and, moving at speed, she drove underwater at full-power along with 640 of her doomed crew members still below deck. Heartened, the Turks opened fire again and, for the next two hours, there was non-stop firing. But by 1600 the Turks were effectively silenced.

The mine sweepers were called in and started sweeping. The Turks opened fire on them and the crews panicked and fled. At 1611, the Inflexible listed to starboard and reported that she had struck a mine not far from where the Bouvet had sunk. Listing heavily, she steamed for the mouth of the straits, with the cruiser Phaeton escorting her. The crew managed to get their ship back to Tenedos. Less than five minutes later the Irresistible was struck. She was close to the Asiatic coast and the Turks poured their fire into her. HMS Wear took off 600 of her crew and she was left drifting and under fire from the Turkish shore batteries. Why had this happened? The area in which the fleet had been operating all day had been swept many times. The admiral decided that the Turks must have floated mines down the Dardanelles from the Narrows, so he broke off the action for the day and retired to Tenedos.

Commodore Keyes was ordered to take HMS Wear and the battleships Ocean and Swiftsure to try to tow the ailing Irresistible back to the base on Tenedos. Some destroyers had also been attached to his command. It was decided that Ocean and Swiftsure could tow Irresistible to safety. But there was a violent explosion and Ocean took a heavy list. A shell hit her steering gear and she began to turn in circles. Her crew was taken off by the destroyers and Keyes retired to consult with the Admiral. He was sent back to sink the two ships to prevent their capture by the Turks. For four hours Keyes searched for the two ships but found nothing. The sea had claimed both of them.

For the Turks, the attack on the Dardanelles could not have come at a worse time. Nothing had gone well for them in the first five months of their war. The empire was in tatters. Basra in the Persian Gulf had been taken by the British. The expedition into Egypt was a complete disaster. Enver Pasha's attack on the Russians through the Caucasus in mid-winter had been a disaster. There was no money left in the Treasury and the Germans were becoming more and more alarmed with their ally, which was becoming a heavy burden. The bombardment of the Dardanelles caused panic in Constantinople. Even the destruction of the city was planned as a last-ditch defensive measure by the Turks.

At the Narrows, the last obstacle between the Fleet and the Sea of Marmara, the Turks and their ally Germany were reaching the end of their resources. Ammunition was running out. The attack on 18 March had been devastating, but their courage had not gone. Under the direction of Baron Otto Liman von Sanders, a resourceful officer, the Turks and Germans repaired guns and built new emplacements for them. The Turks were caught up in the emotion of this unusual event and their morale rose rapidly. But there was little ammunition. Von Sanders was convinced that the Fleet would be back on the 19th and only a miracle would stop the British from taking Constantinople and opening a warm water sea route to Russia. The weather turned bad and the Fleet used the time to ready the ships and prepare a fresh minesweeping force. Everyone was ready to return to the fray. De Robeck was however troubled - he had lost five major ships and this to him was unacceptable.

He reported results to London, sure that he would be relieved of his command. The Admiralty urged him to carry on, informing him that four battleships would be sent as reinforcements. He was encouraged to complete his task.


Churchill was the main instigator of the Dardanelles operation. His personality and powers of persuasion were sufficient to get his way. But the winter was exceptionally cold with strong winds and heavy snow and this delayed the naval operations. This rankled with the politicians and bureaucrats who were sceptical of the whole thing. Lord Fisher became an advocate for army participation. It was agreed to send General Sir William Birdwood to assess the situation and report back. His report was disturbing. He did not believe that the Navy could go it alone and win. Kitchener then appointed General Sir Ian Hamilton to lead the Army in Gallipoli. He was present on 18 March, observing the naval action, and reported to Kitchener that only a combined Army-Navy attack would succeed. Kitchener agreed.

The navy felt that they could succeed on their own but the army was convinced that a joint operation was needed. On 22 March a meeting attended by Vice Admirals de Robeck and Wemyss and Generals Birdwood, Hamilton and Braithwaite was held on Queen Elizabeth. The Navy agreed that their attack would be postponed until 14 April 1915, when the Army would be ready. This delay served the Turks and Germans well as it gave them time to re-stock their ammunition supplies, replace missing mines and re-entrench their gun emplacements at the Narrows and along the shores of the Dardanelles. Any advantage gained by the Allies on 18th March was now lost. Churchill continued to urge the Navy to continue with their naval attacks as soon as possible but Admiral de Robeck did not agree and nor did General Hamilton. They carried the responsibility. There was now no chance of a speedy victory - the result was a draw.

If one assumes that the Turks won the battle of the Dardanelles, the person responsible for this victory must be Lieutenant Colonel Geehl, a Turkish military engineer and mine expert. He was responsible for the inexplicable loss of three battleships and the crippling of two more. On the night of 8 March, he took an insignificant little steamship named Nousret (today a national monument in Turkey) into Eren Keui Bay and there, parallel to the Asiatic coastline and just inside the calm waters of the bay, he laid a new line of 20 mines. He did this because he had seen British warships manoeuvring in the bay on the previous day. Somehow in the ten days before the attack on the 18th March, the British minesweepers never found this line of mines and aerial reconnaissance had also missed them. It was Geehl's foresight, his ability to think out of the box and his well-placed line of mines that prevented the largest modern fleet hitherto ever assembled in the Mediterranean, from clinching the victory that was within their grasp.


There are a number of questions that historians should ask regarding the naval attack of 18 March. Did Admiral de Robeck too easily accept that the sinking of Bouvet, Irresistible and Ocean and the crippling of Inflexible and Gaulois were due to floating mines? Did they not find it odd that none of the ships positioned in the dangerous middle of the Dardanelles, with its strong currents, were hit by floating mines? The damage done was concentrated at the entrance to Eren Keui Bay, a backwater on the Asiatic coast where the water was calm and the currents weak. The debriefing and review of the day's events should surely have picked up that the possibility existed that tethered mines could have been present.

Were the dictates of rigid 18th and 19th century Royal Navy codes of behaviour, control and practice with absolute authority, control and responsibility resting in one man appropriate to multi-dimensional, capital intensive, mechanized industrial warfare? Was this still practical? In the case of this operation a tired admiral missed the obvious and the advantage was thrown away and ultimately failure was the result.

With hindsight we might question the suitability of the individual appointed for the task at hand. Rank does not necessarily correlate with appropriate experience and capability. Carden was essentially a bureaucrat without relevant combat experience - hardly the right man for the job. He suffered a nervous breakdown 48 hours before the major assault scheduled for 18 March.

His replacement was de Robeck, described as a "gentleman and a cautious officer". Had his training and experience led him to think deeply on the larger aspects of strategy and tactics? He, like Carden, hated to lose ships. Churchill, the main supporter of the Dardanelles operation was of the opinion that the importance of the result was worth severe losses. The Admirals were not. De Robeck was the wrong man for the task but he was appointed because of his rank and the naval conventions of the day. How different the world could have been had the British naval campaign succeeded in its aims by breaking through to Constantinople and opening the sea route to the Black Sea. With the Turkish-German Fleet destroyed, Constantinople captured and a warm water sea route opened to Russia, the horror of the First World War could have been foreshortened. With the recovery of the Russian economy Germany would have been hard pressed on three major fronts far earlier, which was the whole point of the Dardanelles campaign. The war could have ended earlier with the saving of thousands of lives and needless destruction. Also the Revolution in Russia may not have taken place, communism might have never taken over Russia and Lenin's doctrines may never have flourished. America would not have entered the war and the Treaty of Versailles may have been more lenient and workable.

Adolf Hitler may have remained an unknown eccentric painter who once lived on the streets of Vienna and survived on charity. We can also ask, would World War 2 have taken place and would all the anti-communist wars after 1945, including our own Border War, have occurred?

After a lively question and answer period, the Honorary Treasurer, Bob Buser, thanked our speaker for a well-researched, thought-provoking and interesting talk and presented him with the customary gift.



Fellow-member Dr Brian Stockland took critically ill during January of this year, and was hospitalized, but had recovered sufficiently to be able to move around freely. The members of the Cape Town Branch want to wish him well and that he will make a full recovery, to be able to resume his professional duties and his research projects on military aviation.



Members are reminded that the Annual General Meeting will take place prior to the April lecture. The date is April 9, 2014. Members not paid up by that date, will not be eligible to vote.




A native of Somerset in the West Country of England, Dr Dean Allen's long association with South Africa began in the mid-1990s when he began his studies at Stellenbosch University. Having recently taken up an appointment as a Senior Lecturer at Bournemouth University in the UK. Dean was up until now based at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town. He has taught at Universities in South Africa, Australia, Northern Ireland and England and is widely published in the areas of sports history and sociology. It was during research for his Master's Degree (that focused on Sport during the Anglo-Boer War) that Dean first visited Matjiesfontein and a fascination for the history of this region led to a PhD that was completed in 2008. His long-awaited book, Empire, War and Cricket in South Africa: Logan of Matjiesfontein, published by Penguin Random House (Zebra Press), will be released early in April 2015.

13 MAY 2015: THE BATTLE OF SALDANHA BAY, 1781 by Rear-Admiral (JG) André Rudman

The Battle of Saldanha Bay (21 July 1781) took place against the broader canvas of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780-1784) during which the Netherlands became involved in the American War of Independence by joining France and Spain in declaring war on England. A planned invasion and capture of the Cape of Good Hope by a British naval force under commodore George Johnstone, was thwarted when a French naval force under Adm the Bailli de Suffren, en route to the Indian Ocean, managed to reach the Dutch settlement first to give timeous warning for its occupants to take adequate defensive measures to discourage a British occupation. In an effort to safeguard their westbound merchant fleet, laden with goods, the governor at the Cape, Baron Joachim van Plettenberg, directed the East Indiamen to anchor in Saldanha Bay where they would be concealed from the preying eyes of the British fleet. This proved not to be the case, as the presenter will explain in his lecture. He will also elaborate on the British interest in the Cape, as well as on the inconclusive clash between Johnstone and Suffren's fleets at Porto Playa in the Cape Verde Islands on the 16th of April 1781, as a lead-up to the turn of events of the 21st of July, 1781.


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

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