Wartime 50 Feature Article: Turkish machine-guns at the landing

It has long been believed that Australian troops faced machine-guns at ANZAC Cove, but is it another myth?

By Chris Roberts

All accounts of the landing at ANZAC describe the Australians coming ashore under heavy rifle and machine-gun fire. Bean, in volume one of his Official history, speaks of machine-guns firing from Plugge’s Plateau and Ari Burnu above ANZAC Cove, from the Turkish fort at Gaba Tepe some 2.7 kilometres south of the cove, from a fold just north of the cove, and from the vicinity of Fisherman’s Hut, 1200 metres north of the cove. The 10th, 11th and 12th Battalion war diaries record landing under heavy rifle and machine-gun fire, while the 9th Battalion’s diary simply records heavy rifle fire. Personal accounts vary: some speak only of rifle fire while others record coming ashore under machine-gun fire. A famous personal account, that of A.B. Facey in A fortunate life, records the 11th Battalion’s experience in vivid detail.

The boat touched bottom some thirty yards out from shore ... The Turks had machine-guns sweeping the strip of beach where we landed – there were many dead already when we got there. Bodies of men ahead of us were lying all along the beach ... the Turkish fire was terrible and mowing into us. ... Men were falling all around me.

There is a major problem with Facey’s version of the landing. His service record shows he arrived at Gallpoli on 7 May 1915, 12 days after the battalion landed, and thus his account has to fabricated. Bean records the action began with a single rifle shot followed by “a second or two of silence … four or five shots as if from a sentry group. Another pause – then a scattered irregular fire growing very fast.” Nonetheless, there are some soldiers who landed that morning and who mention machine gun-fire.

But emerging Turkish sources dispute this account and indicate there were no machine guns covering the beaches.

A Turkish infantry regiment in 1915 comprised three battalions of riflemen and a machine-gun company of four Maxim machine-guns. There were no machine-guns in the battalions. The order of battle of the 9th Turkish Division, responsible for the defence of the southern peninsula, shows only two of its three regiments had a machine-gun company, due to a severe shortage of these weapons. One of the two was the 27th Regiment responsible for defending the ANZAC area. The 2nd Battalion of the 27th was deployed along 8.8 kilometres of coastline, from the Aghyl Dere, north of ANZAC Cove, to Semereli Tepe, south of Gaba Tepe, in a series of small independent posts, with the strongest position at Gaba Tepe. According to Sefik Aker, the regimental commander of the 27th, his other two battalions and the machine-gun company were in reserve near Maidos, about 7 to 8 kilometres inland from Gaba Tepe. This is consistent with German doctrine, under which the Turks were trained; the machine-guns were controlled centrally by the regimental commander, allowing them to be deployed to that part of the battlefield where they would produce the greatest effect once the battle developed.

The Turkish Official history records that a platoon of approximately 80 to 90 men was at ANZAC Cove, another platoon was located at places the ANZACs nicknamed Fisherman’s Hut and No. 1 Outpost, and a third platoon was in reserve on Second Ridge further inland. Further south, a series of small posts covered Brighton Beach and the remainder of that company was located around Gaba Tepe. This strong point contained two Nordenfelt guns. These were old multi-barrelled weapons operated by a horizontal lever that fed rounds into the barrel chambers and fired them each time the operator moved the lever backwards and forwards. They were produced in various calibres and different numbers of barrels; the rates of fire varied considerably but were generally lower than that of a Maxim machine-gun, which automatically fed and fired rounds as long as the trigger was held.

At the direction of General Liman von Sanders, the German commander of the 5th Turkish Army on Gallipoli, the Turks adopted what Bean described as a “trip wire” defence. This involved defending with lightly held posts on the coast and holding strong reserves in central locations inland. Once the location of the main British landing was known, the reserves would then move to the threatened point and concentrate the greatest possible strength against the landing in the shortest time. This was a more sensible approach than having all their forces strung along a very long coastline when the British were likely to land at one point. Indeed, the Turks did not expect the British to land at ANZAC Cove, which came as a complete surprise to them, so why would they have deployed scarce and valuable machine-guns covering a location where they didn’t expect the enemy to land?

The first Turkish reinforcements to reach the battlefield were Sefik Aker’s reserve battalions and machine-gun company. These came into action against the advanced Australian parties on Third Ridge, not at the landing; and the action took place at around 8.30 am, some four hours after the initial landing.

So why are there such conflicting accounts? If we accept the Turkish history, could the Australians be mistaken?

It is noteworthy that Bean’s history speaks ofhearing” machine-guns, while one account mentions “seeing flashes in the dark”from a machine-gun on Plugge’s Plateau. Neither Bean nor any first hand account mentions actually seeing a machine-gun or any of its accessories. Nor did the ANZACs capture a machine-gun or its accessories on 25 April – as would be expected, given the speed with which the high ground overlooking the beach was secured. Furthermore, such weapons were prized captures and were always recorded, even in 1918 when they were far more commonplace.

Compared with many modern machine-guns, the Maxim was bulky and awkward, typically requiring a four- to six-man team to operate it. The gun, its sled mount and water cooling system weighed 69 kilograms, making it a heavy load to carry, especially up the steep slope from Ari Burnu to Plugge’s Plateau. The Maxim gun could fire up to 500 rounds per minute. At ANZAC Cove some 60 to 80 riflemen would have been shooting as the troops landed and they were capable of firing 15 to 20 rounds per minute, or 900 to 1600 rounds per minute for the platoon opposing the initial landing. With either Maxim or rifles the numbers of rounds fired per minute would have been similar, and the noise of such heavy firing would have made it hard to distinguish between rifle and machine-gun fire.

A possible explanation for the contradictions between the Turkish and Australian accounts lies in the relative inexperience of the ANZACs themselves. It is well known that there is a tendency to exaggerate the number of enemy and the amount and type of enemy fire being received, particularly among inexperienced troops. The Germans at Mons in 1914 are rumoured to have mistaken heavy British rifle fire for large numbers of machine-guns. Even experienced soldiers exaggerate this. At Magdhaba in 1916, experienced lighthorsemen believed several machine guns were firing at them from different locations, but when they captured the entire garrison only “one broken up machine-gun” was found. At the landing, many of the Australians had little or no experience of being under enemy fire and it is quire possible they assumed the fire they received was from machine-guns. It is true a few had fought in the South African War, but most Australians arrived there after the principal Boer armies had surrendered and took part in the guerilla campaigns that followed. Their experience under heavy fire would have been limited, and the Boers were not flush with Maxim guns.

People who have never been in action argue that one can tell the difference between machine-gun and rifle fire, due to the vastly different rates of fire. This is true – in part. Judging from my own experience in action, and from speaking with other veterans, the difference between weapons is discernible when the firing is relatively light. But as the volume of fire increases it becomes more difficult to distinguish different small arms fire. As one veteran said, “The last thing you are thinking about is trying to distinguish between weapons.”  On the receiving end of relatively heavy enemy fire, all had a recollection of a very loud and often overwhelming noise rather than the distinct fire of different types of weapons. It is possible that due to the sheer weight of rapid fire from 60 to 80 Turkish riflemen, the inexperienced Australians confused heavy rifle fire with machine-gun fire.

Another explanation may be the furphy factor. Rumours are rampant in armies; when one man mentions machine-gun fire, the news is usually accepted as true and passed on, spreading like wildfire. Some accounts from men of the 2nd Brigade speak of coming ashore under machine-gun fire, which would have been impossible, as the 3rd Brigade had already captured the high ground overlooking the cove well before they neared the shore. They may have been referring to the Nordenfelt guns at Gabe Tepe, but these would have been firing at extreme range. Or perhaps, after hearing from 3rd Brigade soldiers that machine-guns were present, they may have simply repeated what they heard in their letters. Nor can we ignore the fact that some liked to embellish their accounts to the family back home.

In fact, there were machine-guns at the landing. Each steam pinnace that towed the landing boats close to shore had a Vickers machine-gun placed in the bow, with orders to fire only if the landing was opposed. Bean records that at least one these guns fired at the Turkish rifle flashes on the high ground as the landing boats rowed to the beach, and it is highly likely that other pinnaces opened fire with their Vickers guns. It is possible that, being relatively close to the guns, some Australians heard this fire and mistook it for Turkish machine-guns.

If the Australians did land under machine-gun fire one would expect considerable casualties, as is often depicted in paintings and accounts of the landing. Five photographs taken of the beaches on the morning of 25 April show an absence of bodies and discarded weapons and equipment associated with wounded and dead on a battlefield. The beaches are remarkably clear. Only one photo shows one body, lying close to the waterline. If machine-guns were covering the beaches, the photographic evidence shows them to have been quite ineffective. When the troops came ashore it was still dark, 25 minutes before there was enough light to discern shapes. So the Turks were firing blind and by the time it got light, the Australians were on Plugge’s Plateau and the Turks had withdrawn. Most historians accept the Australian casualties in the initial rush were very low and it is known at least one was killed by Australian fire. In ANZAC to Amiens, published in 1946, Bean concedes, “Neither then nor at any time later was that beach the inferno of bursting shells, barbed wire, and falling men that has sometimes been described or painted. A hot rifle fire struck sparks from the shingle in the dark.”

Before the war German doctrine held that machine guns were to be employed in pairs and it is highly likely they trained the Turks to do likewise. This is probably the reason the Turks allotted two range finders to each four-gun machine-gun company. Several period photos also show Maxim guns deployed in pairs. Besides two guns at Fisherman’s Hut, Bean cites at least three dispersed machine-gun locations around ANZAC Cove during the landing. If the Turks had followed the pairs doctrine, that would have given them twice the number of guns in the 27th Regiment’s machine-gun company – and all located at the northern end of the 2nd Battalion’s 8.8-kilometre defence line in an area where the Turks were not expecting the British to land. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely the Turks would have placed guns on Plugge’s Plateau as it was not a suitable site for machine-guns. A gun so placed had no fields of fire. The ground in front of it and to the flanks was in defilade: that is, they could not fire on enemy troops in those areas. They could only engage troops at very long range on the beach to the north or out to sea – and then only with plunging fire, which is not the best use of a machine-gun.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence supporting the Australian view was the experience of four 7th Battalion boats that landed in daylight at about 5.20 am near Fisherman’s Hut, 1200 metres north of the cove. They landed under heavy fire and of the 120 men in the boats, only about 40 had not been hit by the time they were huddling behind a small sand ridge; these heavy casualties are cited as evidence that it must have been the work of machine-guns. Major A. Jackson’s report says, “When about 200 yards from the shore the enemy, who were entrenched on a knoll behind the Fisherman’s Hut and a knoll about 500 yards south-east, opened fire on the boats with machine-guns and rifles.” Jackson noted that there “appeared to be two machine-guns”. However, the Turkish platoon commander of that post stated he only had 90 riflemen with him. So which account is correct? Some simple calculations may provide a clue.

In each of the four boats, there were about 30 men, of whom roughly 20, or two-thirds, were hit; probably more in some boats and fewer in others. The Turks opened fire when they were about 180 metres from shore. At best they would have taken two minutes to row to shore, a reasonably fast stroke for heavily laden lifeboats, particularly as they had to change rowers who were hit. It is likely the rowing could have taken longer, perhaps three minutes or more, but for the rough calculations let us assume two minutes.

When riflemen are firing rapidly, and having to reload after each shot and take aim again, they produce a scattered pattern of shots that fall in a wide area around the target; they achieve a much lower strike rate on the target than if they are firing slowly and carefully. Under such circumstances, a strike rate as low as five to 10 percent is not unusual. On the other hand, the fall of shot from a machine-gun is more concentrated, falling in a narrow cone along what is known as the beaten zone of the gun. Once a machine-gun finds the range of its target, the fall of shot on the target is heavier and a considerably higher strike rate is achieved, especially in the confined space of a packed lifeboat.

Not all of the 90 Turkish riflemen would have been able to fire on the boats, but let us assume 60 of them did and that they fired an average of 15 rounds per minute. Together they would have fired 900 rounds per minute, or 1800 rounds over the two minutes it took the Australians to row ashore. Spread over four boats this was an average of 450 rounds per boat. Assuming a low strike rate of 5%, this would result in 22 bullets finding their target, or 0.75 bullets per man in each boat. A strike rate of 10% would double this to 1.5 bullets per man. It is evident that 60 or more riflemen could have inflicted the heavy casualties sustained by Jackson’s men at Fisherman’s Hut.

Although the Maxim gun could fire up to 500 rounds per minute, let us assume the guns at Fisherman’s Hut averaged 400 rounds per minute. Thus two Maxim guns would have fired 1600 rounds over the two minutes it took the boats to reach the shore, or an average of 400 rounds per boat. Although they would have had a much higher strike rate, let us say it was a low 20%, as the first couple of bursts probably missed their target. This means 80 rounds would have struck home in each boat, or a rate of 2.6 rounds per man. Together with the 22 rifle bullets, an average of 102 rounds would have hit men in each boat, or 3.4 rounds per man. With one Maxim and the rifles firing, the result would be 2 rounds hitting each man in the boats. But it has to be borne in mind that once a Maxim gun had found its target, the result on men packed into such a confined space would have been shocking and devastatingly quick. Had one Maxim been firing it is reasonably certain Jackson’s casualties would have been higher than he experienced. With two Maxims, it would have been a massacre.

These rough and conservative calculations are not conclusive evidence but they tend to support the Turkish platoon commander’s claim that he only had 90 riflemen and no machine-guns with his group.

With such conflicting evidence and no veterans of the landing alive today, we shall never know whether or not there were Turkish machine-guns at the landing. Nonetheless, it seems the view that the ANZACs landed under machine-gun fire on the morning of 25 April may be another myth which is unravelling as more Turkish sources become available and a pragmatic analysis of the available evidence is undertaken.

© Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts is a retired Brigadier who served in South Vietnam with the 3rd Special Air Service Squadron and later commanded the SAS Regiment and Northern Command. He holds an honours degree in history and now works as a volunteer in the Memorial’s Military History Section.

Further reading:

Harvey Broadbent, “Gallipoli’s First Day: Turkish Documents separating myth and reality”,  Wartime 46.
Chris Roberts, “The landing at ANZAC: a re-assessment”, Journal of the Australian War Memorial 22.