Sea power at Suvla, August 1915: Naval aspects of the Suvla Bay landings and the genesis of modern amphibious warfare
By Richard Pelvin
On 6 August 1915, the Royal Navy, with the advantages that command of the sea confers, landed five divisions of troops at Suvla Bay to attempt to break a stalemate between the Allied and Turkish armies that had existed since the April landings on the Gallipoli peninsula. From the naval point of view, the Suvla landings were far more successful than those carried out in April. This paper firstly discusses the evolution of the naval force that landed the troops at Suvla from that which supported the April operation, outlines how the Navy mounted and supported the landing and makes some assessment of its performance .
Early in 1915, it had been hoped that the Dardanelles might be forced by ships alone, but this hope foundered when battleships struck an unsuspected Turkish minefield in the straits. The need for a landing on Gallipoli had been foreshadowed and an expeditionary force consisting of the 29th division, the ANZAC troops and French forces was already on the way.
At the original Gallipoli landings, the troops were to be landed from unprotected ships' cutters and lifeboats. Although they could be towed part of the way by steam picket boats, the final approach had to be made under oars as they had since time immemorial. On this occasion, however, the troops would be faced for the first time by magazine rifles, machine-guns, barbed wire and quick-firing artillery.
The Navy supplied beach parties, each major warship contributing men. These parties would assist in placing buoys and moorings and getting stores ashore. There, their role was to carry out the beaching and launching of boats. A naval base station was to be established on the beach. Signal stations attached to this station relayed communications from the Army, especially artillery forward observers, to the ships.
The story of the landings of April 25th is well-known. Where landings were opposed, the ships' boats became death traps and severe losses were suffered. Despite these appalling casualties, the troops were eventually able to consolidate positions ashore and, despite Turkish counter-attacks, maintain them. However, successive offensives between April and August made only minimal gains.
To support the Army, much had been expected of the firepower of the ships' guns. However, they were to prove something of a disappointment. Much of the fire support was provided by old battleships and their obsolete fire control, combined with unsuitable ammunition, limited the effectiveness of their guns, especially against dug-in troops. The ships had difficulty maintaining their positions, which made target registration difficult. Often messages from forward observers took too long to reach the ships. The flat trajectory of naval guns made it difficult to search out the reverse slopes and deep valleys which characterised the battlefield. The flat trajectory also made targets that could be registered difficult to hit, compared with high-trajectory howitzers. As a result, the naval guns had to use a greater number of rounds. However, ammunition was short and a reserve had to be kept for the advance to Constantinople. The Turkish gunners took cover in trenches when fired on, so batteries were only silenced, not destroyed. The batteries were then moved to alternative positions overnight.
Despite these problems, the naval guns were still quite effective, especially when firing on troops in the open. Naval gunfire was most effective against the Turkish flanks, and on 6-8 May, Turkish front-line trenches on the left flank at Helles were destroyed. The ships' guns were also instrumental in hindering the movement of reinforcements, and Turkish sources attest to the damage caused to roads and transport leading to the firing line. The guns also had a considerable effect on the Turkish troops' morale. Turkish attacks on 1 and 2 May had to be conducted at night for fear of naval bombardment. Although it was difficult to destroy Turkish artillery positions, batteries were silenced by forcing their crews to take cover and compelling them to move the guns, thus degrading their effectiveness.
A German officer present reported that "the ships' guns, assisted by great searchlights, maintained a terrible fire against the Turkish lines." Liman von Sanders, the German commander of the Turkish forces, testified that "the artillery effect of the hostile battleships constituted a support of extraordinary power for the landing Army."
Fire control techniques were improved with practice. From the earliest days, spotting for the ships was carried out by aircraft operating from nearby islands and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, as well as by kite balloon. In the beginning, aerial observation was dogged by untrained observers, imperfect wireless telegraphy equipment and lack of experience in the ships of aerial fire control and searchlight signalling to aircraft.. That rapid strides were made in equipment and techniques was demonstrated by a string of successes against gun positions on the Asian shore in May. Turkish officers commented on the efficiency of aircraft in sighting their gun positions, the need for effective camouflage and the need to cease firing when an aircraft was sighted. Kite balloons were flown from the kite balloon ship HMS Manica, later joined by HMS Hector. Although the kite balloons experienced some difficulty due to their distance from the target, and the irregularity of the terrain, their effectiveness is attested to by their effect on Turkish morale and the amount of attention paid to them by Turkish guns and aircraft.
Until May, heavy gunfire support was provided by battleships and cruisers. This quickly changed when, on 25 May, U-21 announced her presence by sinking the battleship HMS Triumph. Two days later, she sank the battleship HMS Majestic. However, quickly adopted anti-submarine measures, such as constant patrolling and heavy anti-submarine indicator nets, were generally effective. Major fleet units were only exposed when absolutely essential and transports were no longer brought to the beaches but transshipped their cargoes at the forward base of Mudros to smaller vessels.
Now the routine support tasks for the Army were carried out by destroyers and small craft. While the withdrawal of the large ships was a fillip to Turkish morale and was a depressant to that of the Allies, it was not operationally disastrous. For it was not the great guns of the battleships that had been the primary bombardment weapons of the fleet, but rather their secondary and tertiary armaments of 6-inch and 3-inch guns respectively. Operating close to the beaches, the destroyers were still able to provide quite adequate support. For example, for the assault on the Turkish right on 28 June, the only support provided was by the light cruiser HMS Talbot and four destroyers. Even this limited support destroyed the Turkish front-line trenches nearest the sea, allowing them to be easily occupied and the second line quickly overrun. A Turkish counter-attack that night was detected by the searchlights of the destroyers Scorpion and Wolverine and "was swept away by their guns."
Most of the battleships soon departed the theatre for other duties, although some remained at base at Mudros as a covering force. There was still a need for long-range heavy gunfire off the beaches, and so the monitor was introduced to the theatre to replace the more complex, manpower-intensive and vulnerable battleships in the heavy bombardment role. The monitors were the most austere vessels that could be built around a given armament, which, in the case of the ships at the Dardanelles, was two American-built 14-inch guns. They were of shallow draught and featured a heavily bulged hull, which provided a steady gun platform and protected the ship against submarines. Even if sunk, their loss was not as disastrous as that of a battleship. In addition, smaller coastal monitors were taken over from foreign construction or quickly built and armed with one or two available guns, usually 9.2-inch or 6-inch. The large monitors had severe limitations. They were slow and unmanouevrable, with steering engines too weak for them to operate in Dardanelles' currents without the help of tugs. The bridge personnel of the smaller monitors were exposed to funnel gases and they were subject to deck weaknesses. Monitors usually fired from a mooring enclosed by anti-submarine nets.
By the end of July, four big gun and four smaller monitors had arrived. Unlike the battleships, these vessels did not carry large secondary and tertiary batteries. Now, gunfire in the medium calibres was provided by four "bulge cruisers". These were obsolete cruisers which, like the monitors, had been fitted with bulges for anti-submarine protection. Though the bulges reduced the cruiser's speed, which was of little moment on bombardment duties, they also made them a more stable firing platform. The bulge cruisers were armed with twelve 6-inch guns.
It was the monitors and bulge cruisers, along with the destroyers, that were to provide the fire support for the Suvla landings.
The Suvla landings were undertaken to break the stalemate that had existed on the peninsula since April. It was planned to land five new divisions to reinforce the Anzacs and effect a landing at Suvla Bay to capture Koja Chemen Tepe, the highest point on the Sari Bair range, then cross the peninsula from Gaba Tepe to Maidos.
The Navy initially wished to land all the troops on the well-surveyed beaches south of Nibrunesi Point. The Army, however, pointed out that control of Suvla Bay, essential to the Navy so that its ships might have a safe-netted anchorage, involved the taking of the Karakol Ridge. This, in turn, required a landing within Suvla Bay itself. So the Navy, if it wished to use the bay, was forced to agree. A brigade was to be landed north of the entrance to the salt lake. However, the beaches there were, unlike Nibrunesi, unsurveyed and the Navy was concerned that there would be difficulties getting ashore.
The Navy now involved itself in the strategic concentration of the troops for the operation. Since the advent of U-boats, the Navy had evolved a system whereby ships were initially brought to Alexandria. They then proceeded via protected channels to Mudros where, safely behind the heavy boom, they were decanted into a variety of smaller craft for movement to the peninsula. This was a roundabout route, adding considerably to the time taken for troops to reach the front. For the Suvla operation, the concentration of the force was greatly facilitated by the use of the large cunarders, Mauretania and Aquitania. These huge liners were capable of 25 knots, making them an almost impossible target for the submarines of the day, so they were permitted to proceed direct to Mudros. Carrying nearly 6,000 men each, the two giants could make the trip from the United Kingdom to the Dardanelles in a week, compared to a fortnight taken by other transports sailing via Alexandria. In just one month, Aquitania had transported nearly 12,000 troops in two voyages directly to Mudros.
At Mudros, the troops were transferred to warships, requisitioned cross-channel steamers or mail packets for transport to the beaches. Conditions in these ships were often appallingly overcrowded and hot: one soldier described the ships as "ill fated furnaces".
The Navy had learnt from the April landings. Troops were no longer to be put ashore in vulnerable ships' boats. They would be taken in armoured motor lighters, "each capable of carrying 500 men, they were designed for running close to a beach and disembarking men or animals over a prow fixed to the bows." These vessels, known colloquially as "beetles", had materially altered the problem of landing a large force on an open beach since the days of the landing at Cape Helles and Anzac. The lighters were by no means perfect. An observer described them as
flat bottomed, of shallow draft, and they chugged along under a single engine at a speed of some five knots. The slightest puff of wind on the beam or quarter was enough to drive them broadside on to the beach when they touched down. As they were so unhandy, a picket boat was required to hold them bows on to the shore while the troops were disembarking over the ramp and to haul them off afterwards.
These were the ancestors of the ubiquitous landing craft, such as those we have seen recently in the landings in East Timor.
Destroyers were to tow in the lighters and their supporting picket boats before casting them off for their run to the beach. After the lighters landed their troops they embarked another load from the destroyers and then returned for more loads from other ships. The motor lighter crews were hard worked during the day. A soldier who landed in the afternoon recalled that the lighter,
shook like an ancient motor bus. The skipper was drunk with weariness and could hardly see or hear. He tried to lose his temper with his junior but was too tired to raise his voice to swear. I have never seen a man so utterly overworked and exhausted. His face and hands were black with oil and grime. He began to munch a thick and oily sandwich listlessly.
At Nibrunesi beach, the landing went like clockwork. The lighters cast off from their towing destroyers at 8.10 pm and approached the beach in excellent weather and sea conditions. In an hour they had discharged two battalions and were returning to the destroyers to load the next wave. This wave landed before midnight, after which the lighters landed the troops carried aboard the supporting cruisers. By 1.30 am, the troops were ashore with their guns and horses and the cruisers were proceeding to take up their fire support positions. There were no casualties.
Landings inside unsurveyed Suvla Bay were, as predicted, difficult. Owing to unfamiliarity the troops were landed at the wrong beach and the lighters grounded one hundred yards (100 m) out. Later attempts to land on an alternative beach to the north led to delays, confusion and difficulties in bringing in water supplies. Eventually, with close support by destroyers and monitors, the position was stabilised.
As the Army attempted to move inland, gunfire support was provided by cruisers, small monitors and destroyers. The large monitors fired on more distant targets. The usual tactics when supporting an advance were for most of the ships to fire a barrage on the flanks of the advancing troops while one provided counter battery fire. On other occasions, targets of opportunity, such as batteries or trenches were engaged.
As previously in the campaign, the gunfire support had mixed results. For example, on 12 August, HMS Grafton engaged enemy batteries throughout the day, but this did not prevent the Turkish guns maintaining an accurate bombardment of the roadstead, fire hitting four warships and causing 46 casualties. However, Turkish sources note the effectiveness of the ships' fire in halting the movement of reinforcements and causing heavy casualties.
The cruisers had a useful effect on the troops morale. One soldier described a cruiser belching broadsides at the hills by Suvla Cape. The din was terrific, and the very water seemed quivering and aflame with the blast of her guns. Huge mauve and yellow spurts of smoke and sand burst up, six at a time, where the shells went home. They were searching for a Turkish battery hidden in the scrub. Salvo after salvo did she fire, and at last the battery ceased firing. We could no find no trace of it the next day.
The destroyers were particularly effective, as they had been since the start of the campaign. They operated close inshore. One soldier standing on a coastal height stated that "a destroyer [was] anchored almost at our feet." A destroyer was kept constantly on the flank day and night ready to open fire on any target of opportunity. At night, their searchlights played in front of Army positions to discourage attacks.
The destroyer HMS Colne took part in a clever ruse to seize a formidable Turkish redoubt, No. 3 Old Post. At the same time each night for several nights, Colne shone her searchlight on the Turkish position and bombarded it for ten minutes. After a short interval, the bombardment was repeated. Becoming used to this, the Turks retired to cover as the bombardment hour approached. One night, however, the New Zealanders advanced under cover of the bombardment and took the empty trenches without loss.
In another typical action, on 16 August, the destroyers Grampus and Renard, in the Ejelmer Bay area, afforded valuable fire support to troops on Kiretch Tepe. Rapid fire with high explosive and shrapnel rounds prevented Turkish counter-attacks. As a postwar Turkish account stated, "gunfire from destroyers caused heavy losses during the attacks and reinforcements could only come up singly on account of naval gunfire."
The large monitors fired smoke to cover an advance on Achi Baba and engaged other targets on that hill and also around Krithia, although with less success. They also guarded against Turkish naval intervention.
At Suvla, the same conditions that had limited the effectiveness of ships' gunfire throughout the campaign still prevailed. There were still ammunition shortages, especially for the monitors' 14-inch guns, which were not a standard Royal Navy calibre. The problems of low trajectory guns were unsolvable. Fire control, although improved since April, was still limited by the technology available. Ships occasionally fired on their own troops and the Army was chary of having ships fire on enemy trenches, as their own were nearby.
An Army/Navy committee met on 11 August to consider naval fire support. The committee concluded that generally a big ship was too slow in taking up position to fire. They were best used in support of a flank engaging heavy batteries, using a seaplane or kite balloons, as the vision of the shore observers was very limited. Destroyers provided a quicker response but they were slower in opening fire than a land battery.
But for all this, it must be remembered that the Army never had enough guns or ammunition ashore to provide sufficient fire support. Naval gunfire, despite its limitations, was absolutely vital and, as shown, was often very effective.
While these operations were proceeding in the Aegean, behind the Turkish lines in the Sea of Marmara, the Navy was adding to the Turks' problems by waging a highly successful submarine campaign. From 25 April, when the Australian submarine AE2 demonstrated the feasibility of forcing a passage of the Dardanelles, the Navy had maintained a submarine presence in the Sea of Marmara. Land communications with the Gallipoli peninsula were primitive. There were few roads. The Turkish armies had no trucks and it was left to pack animals, camels and ox wagons to get supplies to the front, only a few tons at a time. By June, the depredations of the submarines in the Sea of Marmara meant that large steamers had practically disappeared, with sea communication now maintained by small ferries and sailing craft with all the inefficiencies that entailed. The submarines continued the campaign through the Suvla offensive and beyond. Eventually, the supply of water to Gallipoli was crippled and the passage of troops by sea entirely ceased. To reach the peninsula, reinforcements faced a railway trip followed by a three day march. Even the land communications were attacked by the submarines. Although the material damage inflicted on them may not have been great, many Turkish soldiers were employed in their protection. The official German naval historian wrote: the activity of hostile submarines was a constant and heavy anxiety. They dislocated very seriously the conveyance of reinforcements to the Dardanelles and caused many disagreeable losses. If communication by sea had been completely severed, the Turkish Army would have been faced with catastrophe.
But the Navy's efforts were in vain. For when the troops were ashore, Stopford stopped and allowed the Turks time to consolidate. Despite their extraordinary efforts, the soldiers were unable to advance far against the Turkish defences. The savagery of the fighting caused heavy casualties and arrangements to evacuate the wounded came under considerable strain. Normally, the wounded were transported to hospital ships and hospital carriers stationed off the island of Kephalo. Hospital carriers were transports specially fitted out for carrying wounded but did not have the protection of the Geneva Convention, therefore could not be risked in the waters off the peninsula. Between 6 and 21 August, no less than 30,890 wounded were removed from the peninsula's beaches. These quickly overstretched the hospital facilities in Alexandria and Malta. Again the great liners demonstrated their value. Aquitania was quickly fitted out as a hospital carrier and evacuated 2,400 wounded quickly and directly to hospitals in Britain. Other liners were similarly fitted out for the purpose.
As the August assault petered out, the naval presence was reduced. Until the end, however, ships remained on station to provide fire support when required and there are signals testifying to its effectiveness. Finally, in December, the Royal Navy performed the last of its roles at Gallipoli and brought the Army off the peninsula in a faultless evacuation.
How are we to assess the naval achievement at Gallipoli? I think that it is a positive one for the Royal Navy. In April, it landed the Army on a hostile shore and in August it transported troops thousands of miles for a second landing. It maintained the Army for over seven months and, in the end, safely evacuated it. In doing so, it met and overcame a number of challenges brought about by new technology. It provided fire support which, while not as effective as anticipated, was still essential. With the aircraft, monitor and the motor lighter, the Royal Navy introduced new technology to solve specific problems. By sound defensive measures it continued to operate in the face of a submarine campaign. At the same time, it mounted its own submarine campaign in difficult conditions and caused serious interruption to the Turkish lines of communication.
In the Suvla operation the Navy showed a level of sophistication compared to the April landing that was the difference between an old style amphibious operation and the start of
of modern amphibious warfare.
To a greater or lesser extent, the Gallipoli experience was evaluated and used to develop amphibious techniques that were to be reflected in the great amphibious operations carried out in the Second World War and beyond. The British nearly, but never quite, forgot the lessons. Gallipoli influenced Japanese Army planning of landings in the Pacific.
But it was the United States Marine Corps, searching for a role to distinguish itself from the Army after World War One, who studied the campaign, isolated what they believed to be causes of failure, and drew lessons from it. The doctrine so derived was the seed for the great amphibious operations of the Second World War.
Even today, the students at the United States Marine Command and Staff College study the campaign and visit the battlefield.
Acknowledgement: I am grateful for the input of Dr Peter Stanley and Mr Ian Smith of the Australian War Memorial. Any errors are my own, however.