Battles - The First and Second Naval Bombardment of the Dardanelles, 1915

Sir Winston ChurchillWith Winston Churchill having (as First Lord of the Admiralty) succeeded in securing War Cabinet backing for action in the Dardanelles (see overview for details), he lost no time in implementing a blueprint for a purely naval bombardment of the Dardanelles Straits in February 1915.

A purely naval bombardment of the Straits had long been recognised in professional naval circles as a most difficult undertaking.  Some eight years earlier, in 1907, a British study had concluded that an attack upon the Straits was feasible only so long as the operation was a combined naval/ground undertaking.

However Churchill, impatient for action, demanded that Sir Sackville Carden - the British naval commander in the Mediterranean - provide him with a proposal for a naval-only offensive upon the Straits.  Carden obliged - although without appending a personal endorsement of the plan - and it was this plan that Churchill brought to the British War Cabinet in mid-January 1915.

The Straits - 65km in length and 7km in width aside from 'The Narrows' where the banks were as little as 1,600 apart - were overlooked by steep and heavily fortified cliffs (the Gallipoli peninsula to the northwest and the coast of Asia Minor to the south).  Navigation through the wildly varying current was additionally deemed problematic.

Sir Sackville CardenCarden's plan was three-fold.  He recognised that simple bombardment of the overlooking Turkish fortresses was impractical.  For one thing, naval artillery could not be expected to achieve the necessary steep trajectory required to knock out the forts.

He proposed instead that the forts' outer guns should first be neutralised via long-range gunfire, the battleships out of effective range of the fortress guns.  This accomplished an Allied fleet would progress further up the Straits (to The Narrows) to enable medium-range artillery to destroy shore batteries while minesweepers wiped out probable minefields blocking their path.  The final phase envisaged the destruction of the inner forts.

Success would provide a path to Constantinople, thereby knocking Turkey out of war, and - importantly - open a supply lane to the Sea of Marmora and Britain's ally Russia.

Such was Carden's plan.  Grave problems remained.  Even should the naval bombardment prove successful the absence of ground troops would prevent the British from gaining command of the shorelines - and in the absence of supplies from the shore the naval fleet would necessarily have to return home to refuel and restock.

Nevertheless Churchill's plan was formally approved by the War Cabinet at the end of January 1915.  The British war minister, Lord Kitchener, ordered that the only available division of infantry be placed in readiness should the naval endeavour prove successful.  The First Sea Lord, Admiral John Fisher, was initially mute in his opposition to the exercise (in which he had no faith), but his opposition was to grow over time and ultimately lead to both his and Churchill's resignation.

Admiral John FisherMeanwhile the French government, in the form of incoming naval minister Jean Augagneur, was reluctant to cede the possibility of a purely British naval success in the Mediterranean.

Ignoring professional advice therefore Augagneur committed four French pre-dreadnoughts to add to the British fleet.  He further came to an understanding with Churchill that should the expedition give signs of failure the 'demonstration' would be abandoned without loss of prestige.

Churchill was optimistic however.  A previous demonstration of naval force by Carden on 2 November, using long-range guns (and ordered by Churchill), had inflicted notable damage upon the outer Turkish forts - chiefly as a consequence of lucky targeting.  Nevertheless it served as encouragement to Churchill - and, to a lesser extent, to Carden.

Churchill set a date of 19 February for the opening of the naval bombardment.  The combined British and French fleet consisted of the new battleship Queen Elizabeth, 3 battlecruisers, 16 pre-dreadnought (including four French vessels), 4 cruisers, 18 destroyers, 6 submarines, 21 trawlers plus the seaplane carrier Ark Royal.  Overseeing the effort was Carden.

Pounding the outer fortresses Cape Helles and Kum Kale from long-range on 19 February the British and French attack proved ineffective in the face of an efficient Turkish defensive system and poor Allied gunnery, although greater damage was inflicted than the bombarding naval forces realised.  Unbeknown to the Allies the Turkish defenders were also critically short of ammunition.

A renewed bombardment from closer range the following week (following a pause for adverse weather), on 25 February, was similarly unsuccessful.  While the outer forts were themselves seized by marines the Allied force could not effective silence the 24 Turkish mobile batteries that poured shellfire from the heights and served as highly effective protection for the elaborate minefield defence set in place in The Narrows.

Without neutralising the minefield the fleet could not move forward: and without destroying the mobile batteries the minefields were adequately protected.  While stage one of Carden's plan had therefore been accomplished serious difficulties impeded an advance to the second stage.

Still, the relative lack of progress of the first two naval bombardment attempts did not deter Churchill from ordering Carden to try again, this time via a determined effort to force The Narrows and remove the minefield threat.  This duly took place on 18 March 1915 amid heavy failure.

In the meantime plans were afoot in London for the despatch of an expeditionary ground force under Sir Ian Hamilton, thereby fully committing Allied resources to the region.

To view maps detailing the progress of the Gallipoli campaign click here; and here; and here; and here.

Click here to read a summary of events in February and March 1915 by noted journalist Henry Nevinson.

Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website

A "British warm" was a heavy issue greatcoat for officers.

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