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Pursuit of Goeben and Breslau
The pursuit of Goeben and Breslau was a naval action that occurred in the Mediterranean Sea at the outbreak of the First World War when elements of the British Mediterranean Fleet attempted to intercept the German Mittelmeerdivision comprising the battlecruiser SMS Goeben and the light cruiser SMS Breslau. The German ships evaded the British fleet and passed through the Dardanelles to reach Constantinople where their arrival was a catalyst that contributed to the Ottoman Empire joining the Central Powers by issuing a declaration of war against the Entente.
Though a bloodless "battle", the failure of the British pursuit had enormous political and military ramifications — in the words of Winston Churchill, they brought "more slaughter, more misery and more ruin than has ever before been borne within the compass of a ship."
Dispatched in 1912, the Mittelmeerdivision (Mediterranean Division) of the Kaiserliche Marine (German Navy), comprising only the Goeben and Breslau, was under the command of Rear Admiral Wilhelm Souchon. In the event of war, the division's role was to intercept French transports bringing colonial troops from Algeria to France.
When war broke out between Austria-Hungary and Serbia on 28 July, 1914, Souchon was at Pola in the Adriatic where Goeben was undergoing repairs to her boilers. Repairs were incomplete when Souchon began moving out into the Mediterranean. He reached Brindisi on 1 August but Italian authorities made excuses to avoid coaling the ship; Italy, despite being a signatory to the Triple Alliance, was still neutral. Goeben was joined by Breslau at Taranto and the division sailed for Messina where Souchon could obtain coal from German merchant ships.
Meanwhile, on 31 July Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, had instructed the commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Sir Berkley Milne to cover the French transports taking the XIX Corps across the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean Fleet, based at Malta, comprised three fast, modern battlecruisers, HMS Inflexible, HMS Indefatigable and HMS Indomitable, as well as four armoured cruisers, four light cruisers and a flotilla of 14 destroyers.
Milne's instructions were for "covering and if possible bringing to action individual fast German ships, particularly Goeben." However, critically Churchill's orders also instructed "do not at this stage be brought to action against superior forces" without explicitly stating which "superior force" — Churchill had been referring to the Austrian fleet which counted eight capital ships including two Dreadnought battleships.
Milne assembled his force at Malta on 1 August and on the following day received instructions to shadow the Goeben with two battlecruisers while maintaining a watch on the Adriatic, ready for a sortie by the Austrians. Milne disobeyed, sending Indomitable and Indefatigable, along with a cruiser squadron commanded by Rear Admiral Ernest Troubridge , to cover the Adriatic. He sent one light cruiser, HMS Chatham , to search the Straits of Messina for the Goeben. However, by this time, on the morning of 3 August, Souchon had departed Messina heading west. Milne now detached Indomitable and Indefatigable, sending them west in search of Goeben.
Without specific orders, Souchon had decided to position his ships off the coast of Africa, ready to engage when hostilities commenced. He planned to bombard the embarkation ports of Bône and Philippeville in Algeria. Goeben was heading for Philippeville while Breslau was detached to deal with Bône. At 6 pm on 3 August, while still sailing west, he received word that Germany had declared war on France then, early on 4 August, Souchon received orders from Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz reading "Alliance with Turkey concluded August 3. Proceed at once to Constantinople." So close to his targets, Souchon pushed on and his ships, flying the Russian flag as a ruse, carried out their bombardment at dawn before breaking off and heading back to Messina for more coal.
Under a pre-war agreement with Britain, France was able to concentrate her entire fleet in the Mediterranean, leaving the Royal Navy to ensure the security of France's Atlantic coast. Three squadrons of the French fleet were covering the transports, however, anticipating that the Goeben would continue west to intercept, the French commander, Admiral Augustin de Lapeyrère , sent no ships to make contact and so Souchon was able to slip away to the east.
In Souchon's path were the two British battlecruiers, Indomitable and Indefatigable, which made contact at 9.30 am on 4 August. Unlike France, Britain was not yet at war with Germany, the declaration would not be made until later that day, following the start of the German invasion of neutral Belgium, and so the British ships commenced shadowing the Goeben and Breslau. Milne reported the contact and position but neglected to tell the Admiralty that the German ships were heading east and so Churchill still expected them to threaten the French transports — he authorized Milne to engage the German ships if they attacked the transports.
The rated speed of the Goeben was 27 knots however her damaged boilers meant she could only manage 24 knots, and this was only achieved by working men and machinery to the limit; four stokers were killed by scalding steam. Fortunately for Souchon, both British battlecruisers were also suffering from problems with their boilers and were unable to keep the Goeben's pace. The light cruiser HMS Dublin maintained contact while the Indomitable and Indefatigable fell behind. In fog and fading light, Dublin lost contact off Cape San Vito on the north coast of Sicily. The Goeben and Breslau reached Messina by midnight on 4 August, by which time Britain and Germany were at war.
The Admiralty ordered Milne to respect Italian neutrality and stay outside a six-mile limit from the Italian coast which precluded the passage of the Straits of Messina. Consequently he posted guards on the exits from the straits. Still expecting Souchon to head for the transports and the Atlantic, he placed two battlecruisers, Inflexible and Indefatigable, to cover the northern exit (which gave access to the western Mediterranean) while the southern exit of the straits was covered by a single light cruiser, HMS Gloucester . Furthermore, Milne sent Indomitable west to coal at Bizerte, instead of at Malta.
For Souchon, Messina was no haven. Italian authorities insisted he depart within 24 hours and still refused him coal. To provision his ships required ripping up the decks of the German steamers and manually shovelling coal into the bunkers. By the evening of 6 August, he had only taken on 1,500 tons which was insufficient to reach Constantinople. Further messages from Tirpitz made his predicament even more dire. He was informed that Austria would give no naval aid in the Mediterranean and that Turkey was still neutral and therefore he should no longer make for Constantinople. Faced with the option of seeking refuge at Pola, and probably remaining trapped for the rest of the war, Souchon chose to head for Constantinople anyway, his purpose being "to force the Turks, even against their will, to spread the war to the Black Sea against their ancient enemy, Russia."
When Goeben and Breslau emerged into the eastern Mediterranean on 6 August, they were met by Gloucester which, being out-gunned, began to shadow the German ships. Milne chose to keep his battlecruisers in the west, dispatching Dublin to join Troubridge's cruiser squadron which he believed would be able to intercept the Goeben and Breslau.
Troubridge's squadron included the four armoured cruisers HMS Defence, HMS Black Prince , HMS Warrior and HMS Duke of Edinburgh. With 9.2-inch guns versus the 11-inch guns of the Goeben, Troubridge's squadron was out-ranged and he considered his only chance was to locate and engage the Goeben in favourable light, at dawn with Goeben east of his ships. When by 4 am on 7 August he had failed to locate the German ships, Troubridge knew he would not be able to attack in favourable conditions. Mindful of Churchill's ambiguous order to avoid engaging a "superior force", Troubridge withdrew.
Milne ordered Gloucester to disengage, still expecting Souchon to turn west, but it was apparent to Gloucester's captain that Goeben was fleeing. Breslau attempted to harass Gloucester into breaking off — Souchon had a collier waiting off the coast of Greece and needed to shake his pursuer before he could rendezvous. Gloucester finally engaged Breslau, hoping this would compel Goeben to drop back and protect the light cruiser. The action broke off without any hits being scored. Finally Milne ordered the Gloucester to cease pursuit at Cape Matapan .
Shortly after midnight on 8 August, Milne took his three battlecruisers and the light cruiser HMS Weymouth east. At 2 pm he received an incorrect signal from the Admiralty stating that Britain was at war with Austria — war would not be declared until 12 August — and chose to guard the Adriatic rather than seek Goeben. Finally on 9 August Milne was given clear orders to "chase Goeben which passed Cape Matapan on the 7th steering north-east." Milne still did not consider that Souchon was heading for the Dardanelles, and so he resolved to guard the exit from the Aegean, unaware that the Goeben did not intend to come out.
Souchon had replenished his coal off the island of Denusa on 9 August. At 5 pm on 10 August he reached the Dardanelles and awaited permission to pass through. Germany had for some time been courting the Young Turks government and they now used their influence to pressure the Turkish Minister of War, Enver Pasha, into granting the ships passage, an act that would outrage Russia which relied on the Dardanelles as its main all-season shipping route. In addition, the Germans had Enver order any pursuing British ships to be fired on.
On 16 August, having reached Constantinople, Goeben and Breslau were transfered to the Turkish Navy, becoming respectively the Yavuz Sultan Selim and the Medilli, though they retained their German crews with Souchon still in command. This gesture by Germany had an enormous positive impact with the Turkish population; at the outbreak of the war, Churchill had caused outrage when he "requisitioned" without compensation two newly completed Turkish battleships, the Sultan Osman I and the Reshadieh, that had been financed by public subscription. (These ships were commissioned in the Royal Navy as HMS Agincourt and HMS Erin respectively.)
In August, Germany, still expecting a swift victory, was content for the Ottoman Empire to remain neutral. The mere presence of a powerful warship like Goeben in the Sea of Marmara would be enough to occupy a British naval squadron guarding the Dardanelles. However, following German reverses at the First Battle of the Marne in September, and with Russian successes against Austria-Hungary, Germany began to regard Turkey as a useful ally. Tensions began to escalate when Turkey closed the Dardanelles to all shipping on 27 September, blocking Russia's exit from the Black Sea — the Black Sea route accounted for in excess of 90% of Russia's import and export traffic.
Continued diplomacy from France and Russia attempted to keep Turkey out of the war but Germany was agitating for a commitment. Finally on 29 October, the point of no return was reached when Admiral Souchon took Goeben, Breslau and a squadron of Turkish warships into the Black Sea and raided the Russian ports of Odessa, Sevastopol and Feodosia. Russia declared war on Turkey on 2 November and Britain followed suit on 5 November. With the Ottoman Empire at war, new fronts were opened at Gallipoli, the Sinai and Palestine, and in Mesopotamia. The course of the war in the Balkans was also influenced by the entry of the Ottoman Empire on the side of the Central Powers.
While the consequences of the Royal Navy's failure to intercept Goeben and Breslau had not been immediately apparent, the humiliation of the "defeat" resulted in Admirals de Lapeyrère, Milne and Troubridge being censured. Milne was recalled from the Mediterranean and sent into retirement. For his failure to engage the Goeben with his cruisers, Troubridge was court-martialled in November on the charge that "he did forbear to chase HIGM's ship Goeben, being an enemy then flying." On appeal he was acquitted, arguing that he was under orders not to engage a "superior force", but he was never given another command at sea.
- Tuchman, Barbara (1962). August 1914. Constable. ISBN 0333698800.
- Keegan, John (2003). Intelligence in War. Hutchinson. ISBN 0091802296.
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