SMS Breslau and SMS Goeben

SMS Breslau and SMS Goeben

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SMS Breslau and SMS Goeben

The Madgeburg class light cruiser Breslau is the four funneled ship to the left. The Moltke class battlecruiser Goeben is the two funneled ship to the right. The two ships were given to Turkey in 1914 as part of German efforts to push the Ottoman Empire into the First World War.

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 Triple 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." Ώ]

The Flight Of The ‘Goeben’ And The ‘Breslau,’ An Episode In Naval History

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 consisting of 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 they were eventually handed over to the Ottoman Empire. Renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim, the former Goeben was ordered by its German captain to attack Russian positions, in doing so bringing the Ottoman Empire into the war on the side of the Central Powers.

Though a bloodless “battle”, the failure of the British pursuit had enormous political and military ramifications. In the short term it effectively ended the careers of the two British Admirals [one of whom is the author of this book] who had been in charge of the pursuit. Writing several years later, Winston Churchill - who had been First Lord of the Admiralty - expressed the opinion that by forcing Turkey into the war the Goeben had brought “more slaughter, more misery, and more ruin than has ever before been borne within the compass of a ship.”


On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg, were murdered by an assassin of Serbian nationality named Gavrilo Princip as the heir to the Habsburg throne of Austria-Hungary conducted a royal progress through the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. At least one other assassin, also of Serbian nationality (although like Princip, a Bosnian and therefore an Austro-Hungarian subject), had evidently been involved in the plot, throwing a fuse-bomb at the royal motorcade about an hour before the fatal shots were fired (in fact, there were seven plotters in all, as would later be discovered). Proclaiming that the “threads of the conspiracy came together at Belgrade,” the hitherto hesitant Habsburg foreign minister Berchtold, after receiving a “blank cheque” of diplomatic support from Berlin, drew up a sharply worded forty-eight-hour ultimatum to Serbia, which was delivered in Belgrade on July 23. When Serbia, having received its own “blank cheque” from Russia, herself having been assured of French backing for a strong line against Austria-Hungary, refused full compliance with Berchtold’s terms two days later, Europe’s military doomsday machine cranked methodically into motion. Serbia and Austria-Hungary mobilized against one another, even as a secret Russian pre-mobilization began in support of Serbia, directed not only against Austria-Hungary but also her German ally. When Tsar Nicholas II decreed Russian general mobilization on July 30, 1914, it seemed only a miracle could avert a European war that would bring in its wake—in the tsar’s own words from the night before, when he had agonized over the decision—“monstrous slaughter.”

Considering the centrality of Ottoman affairs in the First Bosnian Crisis of 1908–9, the Tripolitanian war of 1911–12, and the Balkan Wars of 1912–13, it is curious that, at first glance, Turkey played so little a role in the July crisis of 1914. As recently as the third week of June, the diplomatic chatter in Europe had been focused on the threat of a Third Balkan War between Greece and the Ottoman Empire. But the Sarajevo incident, and resulting diplomatic showdown between the Great Powers, seemed to overwhelm all the recent drama in the Balkans, rendering both Turkey and Greece mere afterthoughts in the Great Power capitals as the countdown to war began.

If we look more closely, however, we can see hints that the Ottoman question remained central to Great Power strategy as the July crisis reached its terrible climax, especially in St. Petersburg and Berlin. As early as June 30, just two days after Sarajevo, Russia’s foreign minister demanded up-to-date information from the Naval Ministry regarding the war-readiness of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Sazonov had himself chaired the February planning conference at which Russia’s military service chiefs had vowed to speed up the arrival of the first “echelon” of amphibious troops dispatched to Constantinople (comprising about 30,000 men, or roughly an army corps, including one division’s artillery component) from mobilization day (M) + 10 to M + 5. As the foreign minister later recalled in his memoirs, the reason for urgency was that everyone present “considered an offensive against Constantinople inevitable, should European war break out.” On June 15, 1914, with tensions between Turkey and Greece peaking, Ambassador Girs had warned Sazonov that Russia must be prepared to launch “immediate counter measures” to seize the Straits if a Third Balkan War broke out. Now, after Sarajevo, with a broader European war appearing possible if not likely, Sazonov asked Russia’s naval minister, I. K. Grigorevich (the “K” stood, appropriately, for the patronymic Konstantinovich), in a “very secret and urgent request,” whether the first Russian troops could now be put ashore at the Bosphorus within “four or five days” of mobilization.

In Berlin, meanwhile, the still undeclared partnership with the Sublime Porte acquired an importance beyond price once the extent of Germany’s diplomatic isolation began to come into focus toward the end of July. On Friday, July 24, the day after Austria-Hungary dispatched her ultimatum to Serbia, Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered his ambassador in Constantinople, Wangenheim, to reopen alliance talks. The first Ottoman draft for a bilateral military agreement was wired to Berlin on Tuesday, July 28, only to be drowned out in the clamor over Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia, announced at noon that day. On Friday, July 31, with Russia’s general mobilization under way and signs that Britain was leaning toward belligerence against Germany, things looked so desperate in Berlin that Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg took time to wire to Constantinople, asking Wangenheim whether Turkey, in exchange for Germany signing her draft alliance treaty, was prepared to “undertake some action worthy of the name against Russia.” On Saturday, August 1, after Germany’s ultimatum asking Russia to cease mobilizing had expired, Bethmann’s resistance crumbled further: now he would sign the Ottoman treaty simply on Liman’s assurance that Turkey’s army was “battle-ready,” with no guarantee of action against Russia.

Meanwhile, Russian statesmen were gearing up for an armed clash with Turkey, which they assumed would follow immediately on the outbreak of war in Europe. On July 27, two days after Serbia rejected Vienna’s ultimatum but one day before Austria-Hungary declared war on her, Russia’s chief of army staff, N. N. Yanushkevitch, issued top secret orders to Nikolai Yudenich, chief of staff at Russia’s Caucasian Army command in Tiflis, to mobilize against the Ottoman Empire. That same day, Girs sent a top secret memorandum to Sazonov warning that if Russia backed down against the Austro-Germans in Europe, it would signal such dangerous weakness in Constantinople and across the Near East that “[we] might be forced to take the initiative ourselves in waging war [against Turkey].” On July 29, even as Tsar Nicholas II was hesitating, Hamlet-like, over whether to issue the final, irreversible order for general mobilization (he actually did issue it around 9:00 p.m., only to change his mind and rescind the order less than an hour later), Yanushkevitch was assuring Yudenich that he should proceed with the mobilization of the Caucasian Army according to variant 4, for a European war in which “Turkey does not at first take part.” On July 30, after the tsar had finally overcome his scruples and given the fateful general mobilization order, Sazonov wired urgently to his ambassador in London, Count Benckendorff, that he intervene to cut off the imminent handover of the dreadnoughts Sultan Osman I and Reshadieh to the Ottoman Empire (Turkish crews were in fact scheduled to take them over on August 2). Back in May, Benckendorff had requested to His Majesty’s foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey—very, very carefully—that this be done, only for Grey and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, to object on the grounds that Britain’s government did not have the right to interfere in private business contracts. Now, with European war about to break out in a matter of days, if not hours, Sazonov could not afford to stall any longer. “These ships,” he insisted that Benckendorff admonish Churchill and Grey, “must be retained in England.”

As if reading Sazonov’s mind (although in fact knowing nothing of the latest Russian request, which had not yet reached him), Winston Churchill now injected himself into the story with one of his most controversial actions in a career full of them. On Friday, July 31, with Russia’s general mobilization under way (although he apparently did not know this either) and Germany about to issue her ultimatum to St. Petersburg, the First Lord of the Admiralty ordered English naval crews to board the dreadnoughts Sultan Osman I and Reshadieh, so as to prevent Turkish crews from raising the Ottoman flag. With this flagrantly illegal act, Churchill bought Britain added insurance against the German High Seas Fleet in the war that now seemed unavoidable (to him, at least). He also, entirely unwittingly, fulfilled one of Russia’s primary strategic objectives—denying the Ottoman navy its lusted-for dreadnoughts, with which she might seize control of the Black Sea from her—while offering a priceless gift to hawks in the Ottoman government, not to mention German leaders trying desperately to bring Turkey into the war.

Enver Pasha was not a man to let an opportunity like this slip by. With German chancellor Bethmann’s terms for signing a formal alliance with Turkey having softened, in his increasing desperation, from a promise of “action worthy of the name” against Russia on Friday, July 31, to Turkey merely being “battle-ready” by the following afternoon, the Ottoman war minister decided to split the difference. Saturday morning, Enver learned that British crews had forcibly commandeered the two Ottoman dreadnoughts (although Churchill’s action had not yet been endorsed by the British cabinet, nor announced publicly). Thinking fast, on Saturday afternoon Enver promised Ambassador Wangenheim that in exchange for a generous alliance treaty, he would turn over to Germany the Sultan Osman I (the idea was to dock it at a German port on the North Sea—though how it would evade the massive British fleet en route was left unsaid, as was the fact that the ship, as Enver knew, was no longer his to dispose of!)

After comparing this offer to Bethmann’s latest instruction that he insist only that Turkey show herself “battle-ready,” Wangenheim decided that Enver had met the chancellor’s terms. At 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, August 2, 1914, the ambassador therefore wrote his signature alongside that of Said Halim Pasha, the Ottoman grand vizier and foreign minister, on a secret bilateral defense treaty, valid until December 31, 1918, in which Turkey promised to join Germany if the latter went to war with Russia on behalf of Austria-Hungary, in exchange for a promise by which “Germany obligates itself, by force of arms if need be, to defend Ottoman territory in case it should be threatened.” Wangenheim also promised to expedite to Berlin Enver’s urgent request that Germany’s Mediterranean squadron, composed of SMS Goeben and her support cruiser, the Breslau, be ordered to Constantinople. Unaware that he had been deceived by the Ottoman war minister into signing a devious treaty on false pretenses, Wangenheim wholeheartedly seconded Enver’s idea, pointing out helpfully to Berlin that “with the Goeben, even an [Ottoman] landing on Russian territory would be possible.” On hearing the news, Liman von Sanders then issued mobilization orders for the German officers in his military mission to the Ottoman army, now seventy-one strong.

Not unreasonably, Liman, along with Moltke at the German army command and Grand Marshal Tirpitz at the Admiralty, concluded that Wangenheim had won a binding pledge from Enver that the Ottoman Empire would shortly enter the war against Russia. This erroneous belief was bolstered by the fact that Enver had decreed Ottoman general mobilization against Russia on Saturday, August 1 (an order confirmed by the Turkish cabinet on Sunday), and then ordered, on Monday, August 3 (though without cabinet authorization), the mining of the northern entrance to the Bosphorus and the southern entrance to the Dardanelles. Moltke, with his hair-trigger mobilization plan, requiring a lightning advance on Paris, already falling behind schedule owing to Russia’s secret early mobilization and Belgium’s decision to resist the German violation of her territory, began bombarding Wangenheim with requests for prompt Ottoman intervention against Russia—and, he hoped, Britain and France as well. Once a state of war between France and Germany was confirmed on Monday afternoon, August 3, it became imperative for the German Admiralty to find a safe anchorage for SMS Goeben and the Breslau before Britain declared war and the superior Allied Mediterranean fleet blew them out of the water. Disinclined to look Churchill’s gift horse in the mouth and believing in Enver’s promises, Tirpitz ordered Souchon, in the small hours of Tuesday, August 4, 1914, to proceed forthwith to the Ottoman capital.

Admiral Wilhelm Souchon had been born for this moment. The idea of sending his powerful warship into the Bosphorus to contest Russian control of the Black Sea was not a new one. In fact Souchon had docked there back in the first week of May, making such a strong impression in the Ottoman capital that CUP leaders like Cami Baykut began openly clamoring for the Goeben to be impressed into Ottoman service. The warm welcome Souchon had received in Constantinople provided a striking contrast to his reception in other Mediterranean ports of call, where the long-dominant British fleet was in the habit of docking the minute he left in order to erase any positive impression he made (or as the kaiser liked to say, to “spit in the soup”). The Russians knew all about Souchon too. In the wake of the Liman affair in January, Sazonov had lodged warnings in Berlin that the Goeben must not be impressed into Ottoman service. With Russia’s Black Sea Fleet still two years or more away from launching its first operational dreadnought, the arrival of any dreadn’ought-class vessel in Ottoman territorial waters threatened to tip the naval balance on the Black Sea in Turkey’s favor, rendering well-nigh impossible any Russian amphibious strike on the Bosphorus.

When Souchon decoded his orders from Berlin just past 3:00 a.m. on Tuesday, August 4, 1914, he was approaching the French Algerian port of Philippeville, where colonial troops were embarking for the western front. Having learned at 6:00 p.m. on Monday, while steaming southwestward from Sicily, of the German declaration of war on France, he was at last nearing his target and could already, as he later recalled, “taste that moment of fire so ardently desired by us all!” Disregarding Tirpitz’s summons to Constantinople—for now—Souchon continued on course for Philippeville. Just past 6:00 a.m., SMS Goeben opened fire on the French troopships while the Breslau shelled the nearby port of Bone. Although the shelling did not cause significant casualties or great physical damage to either the troopships or the port, the German attack concerned the French fleet commander, Vice Admiral Augustin Boué de Lapeyrère, enough that he ordered his squadron to form escort convoys, a laborious process that would take several days. By thus delaying the dispatch of French Algerian soldiers to the front, Souchon had succeeded in his object. Satisfied, he withdrew his ships and turned back toward Sicily, hoping to coal there before proceeding to Constantinople, some 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) distant.

Now the hard part began. While the panic he had sowed at Philippeville and Bone had dissuaded the French commander from pursuing him, Souchon had still to reckon with the British Mediterranean fleet, headed by three large battle cruisers, the imposingly named Inflexible, Indomitable, and Indefatigable, all of the “Invincible” type launched in 1907. While none of the three was current dreadnought class—each displaced only 18,000 tons, compared with the 23,000 tons of SMS Goeben (itself just barely registering as a last-generation dreadnought)—the British battle cruisers mounted eight 12-inch guns and could make 25 or 26 knots, as fast as all but the latest dreadnoughts. In theory, the Goeben, launched in 1911 and mounting ten 11-inch guns, could run its 5,200-horsepower engines, at full thrust, to a speed of 28 or 29 knots. But, as Souchon (although not his British pursuers) was painfully aware, with three of his twenty-four boilers out of action and others leaking, his ship was incapable of such a feat. On Monday, August 3, Churchill, by way of Admiral Sir Berkeley Milne, commander of Britain’s Mediterranean fleet, had ordered HMS Indomitable and HMS Indefatigable to hunt down SMS Goeben and then “follow and shadow her wherever she goes.” At 10:32 a.m. on Tuesday, August 4, following the shelling of Philippeville and Bone, the lookouts on the Indomitable, proceeding toward Algeria in a belated attempt to repulse Souchon’s attack, caught sight of the Breslau off the starboard bow, “steering to eastward at high speed.” Within seconds, the Goeben was spotted off the port bow—bearing almost directly at the Indomitable. Both ships were in firing range, but, as Britain and Germany were not yet at war, Captain Kennedy, commander of the Indomitable, could do little but turn to starboard, cutting off Souchon’s attempted pass and forcing him to diverge slightly from his course. Souchon had dodged his first bullet.

He was not safe yet, however. With Indefatigable joining the chase, the mood at the British Admiralty was ebullient. Churchill, who, owing to a garbled transmission, mistakenly thought Souchon was heading southwest, toward Algeria, wired just past noon that Admiral Milne was to “hold” the German ships and to engage them if they “attacked French transports,” after giving “fair warning.” Even this somewhat equivocal order, however, was rescinded two hours later, after Churchill was rebuked in the cabinet: now Milne was to hold his fire until war was declared on Germany. Adding uncertainty to these confusing orders, back on July 31, Churchill had instructed Milne to “husband your force at the outset” and that it must “not at this stage be brought to action against superior forces.” Unaware of the difficulties Souchon was having with his boilers, Churchill and his fleet commanders still thought of her as the fastest, most powerful ship in the Mediterranean. Milne therefore had every reason for caution.

Whether or not the British were authorized to engage him, Souchon could not afford to be complacent. Hoping to outrun the Indomitable and Indefatigable to Messina, the nearest “neutral” port on the leeward side of Sicily, Souchon ran his boilers at full capacity all afternoon, nearly killing his stokers in the process but inching the Goeben up to nearly 23 knots and slowly distancing himself from his pursuers. At around 4:00 p.m., the British warships fell out of firing range. At 4:35 p.m., with a thick fog descending, the Goeben and Breslau disappeared from Milne’s view off the Sicilian coast. By the time Britain’s ultimatum to Germany (demanding that she evacuate Belgian territory) expired without a positive reply at midnight (11:00 p.m. London time), creating the state of war that would finally have allowed the British to fire, Souchon was well out of range, approaching the neutral waters of the Straits of Messina. Under the laws of neutrality, after docking at Brindisi, he would have only twenty-four hours in port.

A furious diplomatic struggle now began over the fate of SMS Goeben. To begin with, Souchon was enraged that the Italian authorities were “shameless enough in their treachery” to put him on the clock, despite Italy being nominally a member of the Triple Alliance alongside Germany and Austria-Hungary. Showing where the true sympathies in the country already lay, the port authorities even refused him coal. Souchon had to waste precious time wiring the Foreign Ministry in Rome to overcome local obstruction. With no other German warships in the Mediterranean, the only chance for an escort lay with the Austrian Adriatic fleet at Pola. But Souchon’s plea that she “come and fetch Goeben and Breslau from Messina as soon as possible,” wired to the Austrian Admiralty at 2:00 a.m. on August 5, went nowhere. Admiral Milne had posted British warships at both entrances to the Straits of Messina, observing the “six mile” rule of neutrality, but ready to fire as soon as Souchon’s ships breached the limit. The Austrians saw nothing to gain from risking an engagement, not least because Austria-Hungary and Britain were not yet at war. Adding to Souchon’s frustration was a cryptic message from Tirpitz in Berlin, wired on Wednesday, August 5, but deciphered only at 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, that “at the present time [your] arrival in Constantinople not yet possible, for political reasons.”

Undeterred by these bad tidings, Souchon pressed his men to the limit of their powers. With no hope of rescue, the Goeben and Breslau would need enough coal to race through what he could only assume was a heavy British screen. So Souchon pressed every hand available into the effort, exhorted on by “music in the form of martial airs, extra rations, stirring speeches, the example of those officers who worked with them, and my own encouragements.” On the quay, Sicilian touts hawked souvenirs and postcards to the Germans who, as in the old Roman gladiatorial salute, were “about to die.” On and on Souchon’s men labored, with dozens of men collapsing from exhaustion or sunstroke in the August heat. When one stoker fell, he was hustled belowdecks and another was pressed into his place. Other coalers, beginning to slip, were “plied with cool drinks and baths.” But time was short, and only 1,580 tons of coal could be loaded onto the Goeben, and 495 tons onto the Breslau, before the last man standing collapsed Thursday afternoon, August 6. It was not enough to reach the Dardanelles. But it would have to do. Souchon gave his men a much-needed rest and ordered them to prepare for departure at 5:00 p.m.

Although Ottoman permission to enter the Dardanelles had been withdrawn, Souchon did have one other option. After rounding the boot of Italy, he could head up the Adriatic to hole up at Pola with the Austrian fleet—the same one that had refused to rescue him. But doing this would have consigned Souchon, and his beloved Goeben, to a passive war “waiting on events,” penned in by the superior British fleet. Accepting such a fate would have gone against every grain of his stubborn, irascible character. And so Souchon decided, entirely of his own volition, “not to waver from my duty to break out into the eastern Mediterranean . . . hoping that I could later reach Constantinople and thereby be able to bring the war into the Black Sea.”

Souchon’s plan, though foolhardy, was not entirely senseless. Expecting to be followed anyway, he made sure to depart before nightfall, so that the British spotters would see him heading northward up the Adriatic. Once darkness fell and he—hopefully—fell out of enemy sight, he would “make a wide turn to starboard, surreptitiously”—heading east toward the Greek islands, where a German collier was waiting at Cape Malea to resupply the Goeben and Breslau with enough coal for the onward journey to Constantinople. Still, Souchon knew that he would need to continue his run of good luck if he was to evade his pursuers.

His British opponents proved more than obliging. At the Admiralty, Winston Churchill was so little clued in to the importance of Constantinople that he had commandeered the powerful dreadnoughts Ottoman strategists had been dreaming of for years—for the purchase of which a public subscription had been opened, to great popular fanfare. Neither Churchill nor Admiral Milne so much as suspected the possibility that Souchon might make a dash for the Dardanelles. Milne was so certain the Goeben would head west, for Gibraltar and the open waters of the Atlantic, that he posted only a single light cruiser, the Gloucester, at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Messina (although he did have a squadron commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Ernest Troubridge guarding the Adriatic in case Souchon headed for Pola, consisting of four armored battle cruisers, with eight destroyers held in reserve).

When Souchon exited the Straits of Messina early on the evening of Thursday, August 6, the inferior Gloucester could do little more than follow at a safe distance, radioing the German position (whenever Souchon did not succeed in jamming it) to Admiral Milne, who passed it on to the Adriatic squadron. Troubridge, in ideal position to intercept Souchon, set out southward just after midnight, hoping to engage the Goeben and Breslau before first light at dawn. When, around 4:00 a.m., he had still not found them, Troubridge had second thoughts. His destroyers, sent off to coal, had still not come up. Fearing that all four of his (slightly) inferior battle cruisers could be blown out of the water by the guns of SMS Goeben in a daylight encounter, and with Churchill’s orders not to engage “superior forces” echoing in his ear, Troubridge called off the chase. Souchon had escaped another bullet.

Lucky in his principal antagonists, Souchon had still to reckon with Captain Howard Kelly, commander of the Gloucester, an Irishman nearly as stubborn as he. In a classic illustration of the importance of temperament in the fluid situation of combat, Kelly was just as determined to exceed his orders as Troubridge was to shirk them. After learning that his Adriatic squadron had broken off the chase, Milne had wired Kelly, at 5:30 a.m. on Friday, August 7, that he was “to drop astern and avoid capture.” Displaying irascibility worthy of the man he was chasing, Kelly refused to pull back, even though Troubridge had left him utterly exposed to the Goeben’s superior guns. At midday on Friday, Souchon, unable to outrun the Gloucester in the Goeben owing to his leaking boilers (and the inferior coal loaded at Brindisi, which caused his ships to belch black smoke), ordered the Breslau to draw his pursuer away, figuring that the British captain would prefer to follow a ship more his size. By 1:30 p.m., the Goeben had begun to distance herself, although the Gloucester had closed to 11,500 yards behind the Breslau. At 1:35 p.m., Kelly ordered his six-inch fore guns to fire from the bow. At least one hit was scored (although it did little damage). The Breslau fired back a series of ranging shots, which missed, but threw up a tremendous spray all around the Gloucester. Souchon, aboard the Goeben, now reversed course and fired off a torpedo salvo at the Gloucester from long range, which likewise missed. As if terrified that his renegade captain might actually damage a German ship, Milne now ordered Kelly to back off, ordering that he not proceed past Cape Matapan into the Aegean, lest he risk an ambush in the Greek islands. Souchon had escaped once again.

Meanwhile, the political struggle in Constantinople was heating up. In the initial rush of enthusiasm after the conclusion of the German alliance treaty on August 2 and Wangenheim’s promise to send him the Goeben, Enver had not only mined the upper Bosphorus but ordered the requisitioning of Russian merchandise in Ottoman ports, including oil and grain. Once Said Halim Pasha got wind of this on Wednesday, August 5, however, he objected to the illegal requisitions just as furiously as the Russian embassy did. The grand vizier was concerned, in the first instance, that no agreement with Bulgaria had been reached to ensure the safety of Thrace in case Turkey and Russia went to war. But he was hardly in a rush to come to terms with Sofia. Playing a subtler game than his young, headstrong war minister, Said Halim Pasha reasoned that, with SMS Goeben and Breslau surrounded by hostile squadrons patrolling the Mediterranean, Souchon really had nowhere else to go but Constantinople. While the Germans were coaling at Brindisi, the grand vizier decided to put the squeeze on. Before the Ottoman government would allow Souchon’s ships free passage through the Dardanelles, he informed Ambassador Wangenheim on Wednesday, August 5, Germany must satisfy six conditions, including support for the abolition of the Capitulations—the holy grail of Ottoman diplomacy for decades—and firm pledges to help Turkey recover Aegean islands from Greece and to expand her Caucasian border eastward so as to “place Turkey into direct contact with the Muslims of Russia.” It was this piece of diplomatic blackmail that lay behind the cryptic wire Souchon had received from Tirpitz on Brindisi, informing him that his arrival in Constantinople was not yet advisable for “political reasons.” Under duress, and not wishing to jeopardize Souchon’s precarious position still further, Wangenheim agreed on Thursday, August 6.

Souchon, unaware of these negotiations and knowing only that matters in Constantinople remained murky, made his rendezvous at Cape Malea on Friday evening, August 7, with his collier, the Bogadir, which had adopted Greek disguise to evade detection. A second collier, the General, had also rejoined him after setting off in a separate direction from Messina. Had he known that the supercautious Admiral Milne had called off British pursuit, Souchon might have coaled his ships right at Cape Malea. Instead he ordered his colliers to follow him deeper into the Aegean until they found a deserted coastline that seemed safe from enemy view, off the island of Denusa. All weekend on Saturday and Sunday, August 8–9, 1914, the Goeben and Breslau took on coal while keeping a steam up, in case they would be forced to depart on short notice. A special lookout post was erected at the highest point on the island to keep watch for the British. Souchon was now less than two hundred miles from the mouth of the Dardanelles, a distance he could cover in a day’s steaming—if permission to enter was granted. But he could not risk wiring Constantinople, because a signal strong enough to reach the Ottoman capital would betray his position to the British fleet. With the political situation still unclear, Souchon once again chose the boldest course of action, dispatching the General Saturday night to the Ottoman port of Smyrna (Izmir) to transmit the following message to Captain Hans Humann, German naval liaison at the Ottoman Admiralty:

Urgent military necessity requires an attack on the enemy in the Black Sea. Go to any length possible to arrange for me to pass through Straits immediately with the permission of the Turkish government, without formal approval if necessary.

Back in Constantinople, Ottoman negotiators, with their negotiating leverage vis-à-vis the Germans increasing by the day, were thoroughly enjoying themselves. Even Enver, despite his earlier rashness, was cottoning to the game. On Wednesday, August 5, the same day the grand vizier was putting the screws on Ambassador Wangenheim, while Souchon was torturing his stokers in the heat of Brindisi, the Russian military attaché in Constantinople, Generalmajor M. N. Leontiev, called on Enver at the Ottoman War Ministry. What the war minister told him was astonishing. In exchange for Russia signing a five- or ten-year defensive alliance with the Ottoman Empire and helping to broker a new Balkan settlement at the expense of Vienna (the idea was for Turkey to regain western Thrace from Bulgaria and several Aegean islands from Greece, with Greece compensated with Albania, and Bulgaria given parts of Macedonia by Serbia, who would herself win Bosnia-Herzegovina), Enver promised to withdraw the IX and XI Corps of the Ottoman Third Army from eastern Turkey, so as to allow Russia to send the Army of the Caucasus to reinforce her European fronts against Austria and Germany. The day such a treaty was signed, this supposedly Germanophile Ottoman war minister promised Leontiev, he would expel Liman von Sanders and the entire German military mission from Turkey.

To this day it is not known how serious Enver’s trial balloon for a Russian-Ottoman alliance was. It does not seem to have originated with the Ottoman Foreign Ministry, although Said Halim Pasha eagerly took up Enver’s idea as soon as he heard of it, as did Talât, at the Interior Ministry (notably, in that Talât had himself traveled to Livadia, on the Crimea, back in May, accompanied by Ambassador Girs, to propose something broadly similar to Tsar Nicholas II). All weekend from Friday, August 7, to Sunday, August 9, 1914, even as Admiral Souchon, holed up at Denusa, was desperately waiting for permission to enter the Dardanelles, a series of increasingly detailed alliance talks proceeded in Constantinople between Ottoman diplomats and Ambassador Girs, with Leontiev meeting Enver on the side. Whether or not Enver’s offer had been made in good faith, it was certainly so taken by Girs and Leontiev, who both recommended that Sazonov take up the Ottoman proposal.

On Sunday, matters came to a head. At about noon, Admiral Milne, after delaying pursuit once again owing to an erroneous report that Austria had declared war on England (thus threatening, in very theoretical theory, to descend on the Adriatic and cut his squadron off from Malta), resumed chasing the Goeben with his three main battle cruisers (although he would not actually reach the Aegean until nearly midnight). Souchon’s urgent request, wired to Humann from Smyrna early Sunday morning and decoded in Constantinople around the same time Milne was renewing pursuit, drove home to the Ottoman government that time was running out on the Goeben. Still the grand vizier stalled, fobbing off Ambassador Wangenheim with a story about an impending Ottoman-Greek-Romanian neutrality pact which must not be prejudiced by the arrival of an armed German warship. Although Said Halim Pasha did not, for obvious reasons, mention this, alliance talks with Russia were also nearing their climax on Sunday—Ambassador Girs sent two urgent wires to Sazonov this day requesting that he sign immediately (alas, Sazonov received his own urgent message this afternoon, from Yanushkevitch at Russian military headquarters, advising that alliance talks with Turkey must be cut off before they were leaked to the press, lest they be interpreted across the Near East “as a sign of [Russian] weakness”). In order to keep his options open a little longer, Said Halim Pasha suggested to Ambassador Wangenheim that Souchon be allowed into the Dardanelles—but only if the Goeben was disarmed and converted into an “Ottoman” ship “by means of a fictitious sale.” It was not, exactly, an invitation. But it was all Souchon was going to get.

At 1:00 a.m. on Monday morning, August 10, 1914, the General, from Smyrna, wired the following message to the Goeben: “Enter and demand surrender of the Dardanelles forts.” Two hours later, while he was still mulling over this strange instruction, Souchon picked up wireless signals from the British squadron, entering the Aegean in force. At 6:00 a.m., having received no clarification of his instructions, he decided he could wait no longer, setting off for the Dardanelles. Toward noon, when he was about halfway there, Souchon decoded another wire, sent overnight from the Admiralty in Berlin: “It is of the greatest importance, that the Goeben enter the Dardanelles as soon as possible. Acknowledge.” Neither this nor the transmission from Smyrna specified that permission to enter had been granted by the Ottoman government, for the excellent reason that it had not, in fact, been given. Souchon could only guess what this meant: was he to force his way in or simply put on a show of doing so in order to give the Turks an excuse for letting him in? At any rate, he would soon find out, as, on current course, he would reach his destination by nightfall.

In a week of mounting tension, the afternoon of Monday, August 10, was the most dramatic yet. At 4:00 p.m., steaming at a steady 18 knots toward the Dardanelles, Souchon sighted Tenedos and Imbros. The fate of SMS Goeben and the Breslau, along with the German campaign to force the Ottomans to honor the terms of the August 2 alliance treaty and enter the war against Russia, now depended on the reaction of the southern shore batteries at Cape Helles and Kum Kale once Souchon’s ships came into range. Would they fire? Having received no clear orders from the War Ministry, as soon as the German ships were sighted approaching just past 7:00 p.m., the commander at the great fortress of Chanak (Çanakkale) wired Constantinople for instructions. Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein, meeting with Enver at the War Ministry, recalled the conversation that followed. Enver initially refused to give an answer without first consulting the grand vizier, but Kress pressed hard for a decision. Enver then fell silent for what seemed to Kress like an eternity. At last he said, “They should be allowed to enter.” Kress was still not satisfied. “If English warships come in after the [Goeben],” he demanded to know, “will they be fired upon?” Again Enver hedged, protesting that he could not possibly decide a critical matter of war and peace without consulting the other ministers. But Kress insisted on an answer. “In that case,” Enver replied at last, “yes.” At 9:00 p.m., a Turkish torpedo boat sent out to meet the Goeben gave the long-awaited signal, “Follow me.” With a sense of profound relief, Souchon followed the Turkish pilot through a safe channel of the well-mined Dardanelles into the Sea of Marmara.

News of the arrival of SMS Goeben in Ottoman territorial waters was instantly telegraphed across Europe. Following a week that had seen Souchon narrowly escape the incompetent pursuit of a vastly superior British fleet, the coup was almost immediately recognized as a critical blow to the Entente position in Constantinople. To be sure, we have to be wary of the distortions of hindsight in accounts published long after the fact, which give off a strong whiff of literary license. At the time, Milne and Churchill continued their borderline-farcical misreading of the situation, issuing orders that the Dardanelles be blockaded at the mouth in case Souchon tried to come out. Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, a bit more perceptively but still all but dripping with condescension, told the cabinet, “As we shall insist that the Goeben should be manned by a Turkish instead of a German crew, it doesn’t much matter: as the Turkish sailors cannot navigate her—except on to rocks or mines.”

British insouciance aside, there is no mistaking the critical nature of Enver’s decision to let in the German ships and block entry to British and (by implication) French warships—a decision confirmed at 10:00 p.m. in a wire from Humann to the German Admiralty in Berlin. For good measure, Ottoman shore batteries allowed in two German civilian support ships Tuesday morning, including the General (fresh in from Smyrna) and the Rodosto, even while the growing armada of British and French vessels arriving in Besika Bay to watch the Dardanelles could only drop anchor and wait.

Whether or not the Ottomans had entered the war, they had clearly breached the laws of neutrality—and let a very powerful wolf into the diplomatic sheepfold at the Sublime Porte. As Souchon wired Tirpitz on August 12, 1914, “The Turkish government has welcomed the Goeben and Breslau with enthusiasm. Collaborative work with the Ottoman fleet is proceeding. I intend to begin operations in the Black Sea as soon as possible. Please send ammunition immediately. There is enough coal here.” With or without Turkish permission, Souchon was ready to bring the war into the Black Sea against Russia.

Service history

Breslau was ordered under the contract name " Ersatz Falke" and was laid down at the AG Vulcan shipyard in Stettin in 1910. At her launching ceremony on 16 May 1911, she was christened by the mayor of Breslau, the ship's namesake. After her launching, fitting-out work commenced and lasted until mid-1912. She was commissioned into the High Seas Fleet on 20 August 1912. [6] [7]

Following her commissioning, Breslau was attached to the German Mittelmeerdivision (Mediterranean Division) along with the battlecruiser Goeben under the command of Rear Admiral Wilhelm Souchon. The German Navy decided it needed a permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars that began in 1912. [8] Karl Dönitz, the future Grand Admiral during World War II, served aboard Breslau from 1912 to 1916. [9]

World War I

At the outbreak of World War I, Breslau and Goeben were to interdict French transports transferring troops from Algeria to France. On 3 August 1914, Souchon's two ships were steaming off Algeria shortly after 06:00, Breslau bombarded the embarkation port of Bône while Goeben attacked Philippeville. The attacks caused minimal damage, however, and Souchon quickly broke off and returned to Messina to replenish his coal stocks. Although the British were not yet at war with Germany, the two British battlecruisers HMS   Indomitable and Indefatigable shadowed the German ships while en route to Messina. After partially replenishing Goeben ' s coal on the 5th, Souchon arranged to meet a collier in the Aegean. [10] Goeben and Breslau left port the following morning bound for Constantinople, pursued by the British Mediterranean Fleet. [11] That evening, the 1st Cruiser Squadron, commanded by Rear Admiral Ernest Troubridge, intercepted the Germans Breslau briefly exchanged fire with the light cruiser Gloucester before Troubridge broke off the attack, fearing Goeben ' s powerful 28   cm (11   in) guns. [12]

On 8 August, Goeben and Breslau met the collier off the island of Donoussa near Naxos, and two days later they entered the Dardanelles. To circumvent neutrality requirements, Germany transferred the two ships to the Ottoman Navy on 16 August, though the supposed sale was simply a ruse. On 23 September, Souchon accepted an offer to command the Turkish fleet. Breslau was renamed Midilli while Goeben was renamed Yavûz Sultân Selîm their German crews remained with the ships and donned Ottoman uniforms and fezzes. The British did not accept the sale of the ships to the Ottoman Empire and stationed a blockading force outside the Dardanelles with orders to attack the ships if they appeared, regardless of the flag they flew. [13]

Ottoman service

On the evening of 27 October 1914, Midilli and the rest of the Ottoman fleet left the Bosporus and steamed into the Black Sea, ostensibly to conduct maneuvers. Instead, the fleet split into four groups to attack Russian bases on the other side of the Black Sea Midilli and another cruiser were tasked with mining the Strait of Kerch and then attacking the port of Novorossisk. [14] Midilli laid sixty mines in the Strait, [15] which later claimed two Russian merchant ships, [16] and then joined the other ship in bombarding Novorossisk. They set the port's oil tanks on fire, damaged seven merchant ships, and sank Nikolai of 1,085   gross register tons   (GRT) . [15] Although the damage inflicted on the Russians was relatively light, it forced the Russians to declare war on the Ottoman Empire, bringing the country into the war on the side of Germany. [17]

In early November 1914, while Midilli was operating in the eastern Black Sea and covering Ottoman transports, she was detached to shell the Russian port of Poti in retaliation for Russian attacks on Turkish shipping. [18] On 17 November, she sortied with Yavûz Sultân Selîm, under the command of Souchon, in an attempt to intercept the Black Sea Fleet as it returned from bombarding Trebizond. Midilli discovered the Russian ships off Cape Sarych, the southern tip of the Crimea in poor visibility at short range. In the resulting engagement, Souchon ordered Midilli to assume a safer position to Yavûz ' s rear, but she was engaged by the pre-dreadnoughts Tri Sviatitelia and Rostislav without effect before Souchon ordered the Turkish ships to disengage shortly afterward. [19] The cruiser spent the rest of the month escorting shipping to Trebizond. On 5 December, she escorted a small raiding party to Akkerman, Bessarabia, that was intended to attack railroad installations. On the return voyage, Midilli bombarded Sevastopol, damaging some minesweepers at anchor. [20]

A month later, on 23 December, Midilli sortied to rendezvous with Yavûz Sultân Selîm off Sinope, and in the darkness the following morning she encountered the Russian transport Oleg, which was intended to be sunk as a blockship in Zonguldak. Midilli quickly sank Oleg but was forced to turn away after spotting Rostislav. She then encountered another blockship, Athos, and forced her crew to scuttle the ship. She then briefly engaged Russian destroyers before moving ahead of the Russian fleet to monitor their progress. Ottoman coastal guns forced the remaining blockships to scuttle in deep water. [21]

Midilli conducted a series of sorties against the Russians in early 1915, including an operation in concert with the cruiser Hamidiye in January, during which they inadvertently came into contact with the Black Sea Fleet. Midilli scored a hit on the battleship Evstafi ' s main battery turret before the Ottoman ships withdrew. [22]

On 3 April, the Ottoman fleet sortied to attack Russian transports off Odessa. Midilli and Yavûz Sultân Selîm provided the covering force for the attack, which failed after the cruiser Mecidiye struck a mine and sank off Odessa. The Russian fleet attempted to intercept the Turkish force, but Midilli and Yavûz Sultân Selîm were able to escape undamaged. The two ships, joined by Hamidiye, conducted a sweep to attack Russian transports on 6 May, but found no targets. [23] Later that month, detachments of naval infantry from Midilli and Yavûz Sultân Selîm were landed to assist in the defense against the Allied landings at Gallipoli. [24] On the night of 10/11 June, Midilli encountered the Russian destroyers Derzki and Gnevny off Zonguldak. In a brief firefight, the cruiser crippled Gnevny with a hit in her starboard engine compartment that broke the main steam line to the engines, but was forced to turn away when Gnevny fired five torpedoes at her. Midilli was hit seven times herself with only slight damage and Gnevny was towed back to Sevastopol the following day by Derzki. [25] [26]

Midilli struck a mine on 18 July as she sailed from Constantinople to escort a merchant ship through the minefields defending the capital. The explosion under No. 4 boiler room killed eight crewmen and she was flooded with over 600   t (590 long tons) of water. The ship made it to port at İstinye and an inspection revealed that she was not badly damaged. Hampered by a shortage of trained personnel and material, however, the ship's repairs took quite a long time. [27]

The ship did not return to service until February 1916, and the opportunity was taken to replace two of her 10.5   cm guns with 15   cm pieces. On 27 February, she was used to quickly transport 71 officers and men of a machine-gun company and a significant stock of supplies and munitions to Trebizond, which was then under heavy pressure from the Russian army. While en route on the night of the 28th, she encountered the Russian destroyers Pronzitelni and Bespokoiny. Midilli evaded the Russians and reached Trebizond. On 2 March, she attempted to attack a pair of destroyers north of Zonguldak, but she was unable to catch them. The ship then returned to the Bosporus. On 11 March, Midilli made another run, this time carrying 211 soldiers and twelve barrels of fuel and lubricating oil, which were successfully landed on the 13th. She then stopped in Samsun, where she picked up 30   t (30 long tons 33 short tons) of flour, one ton of maize, and 30   tons of coal, before returning to the Bosporus. [28] [lower-alpha 2]

A third supply operation followed on 3 April, when the ship brought 107 men, 5,000   rifles, and 794   cases of ammunition to Trebizond. After making the delivery, the ship met the U-boat U-33 and proceeded to attack Russian forces. Midilli shelled Russian positions at Sürmene Bay, where she set the minesweeper T.233 on fire, which was then destroyed by U-33 ' s deck gun. Midilli then turned north and sank a Russian sailing vessel off Tuapse before running into the powerful dreadnought battleship Imperatritsa Ekaterina Velikaya. Midilli fled at high speed after being straddled several times, though she was not damaged. [30] [lower-alpha 3] In early May, the cruiser laid two minefields, each of 60 mines. The first of these was laid off the Chilia branch of the Danube River and the other off Cape Tarkhankut in the Crimea. On the second trip she bombarded Yevpatoria after laying her mines. Midilli transported more troops to Sinope and Samsun on 30 May, returning with grain and tobacco as deck cargo. [29]

In July, Midilli and Yavûz Sultân Selîm sortied to support the Ottoman counterattack at Trebizond, which broke the Russian lines and advanced some 20   km (12   mi) . Midilli sank a pair of Russian ships off Sochi on 4 July and destroyed another that had been torpedoed the previous day. She then rejoined Yavûz Sultân Selîm for the return to the Bosporus, during which the two ships evaded strong Russian forces attempting to intercept them. Later that month, on 21 July, Midilli attempted to lay a minefield off Novorossisk, but Russian wireless interception allowed the dreadnought Imperatritsa Mariya and several destroyers to leave port and attempt to cut Midilli off from the Bosporus. The two ships encountered each other at 13:05, and Midilli quickly turned back south. Her stern 15   cm gun kept Russian destroyers at bay, but the ship only slowly drew out of range of Imperatritsa Mariya ' s heavy guns. Several near misses rained shell splinters on the deck and wounded several men. Heavy use of smoke screens and a rain squall allowed Midilli to break contact with her Russian pursuers, and she reached the Bosporus early the following morning. By the end of 1916, a severe coal shortage prevented Midilli and Yavûz Sultân Selîm from conducting offensive operations. [31]


In May 1917, Midilli laid a minefield off the mouth of the Danube while there, she destroyed the wireless station on Fidonisi Island and captured 11 prisoners. The minefield she laid later sank the destroyer Leytenant Zatsarenni on 30 June. While Midilli was at sea, a Russian force including Imperatritsa Ekaterina Velikaya, which had by then been renamed Svobodnaya Rossiya, raided the Bosporus. Returning to port, Midilli was spotted by the Russian fleet, which attempted to cut her off from the safety of the Bosporus. Midilli raced toward port, while salvos from Svobodnaya Rossiya fell around her. The destroyer Gnevny closed to attack, but Midilli ' s 15   cm guns drove her off. The cruiser managed to reach port without damage this was the last engagement of the war between the former German warships and the Russian fleet. [32] [lower-alpha 4] On 1 November, Midilli left the Bosporus to conduct a sweep for Russian warships. The Russians observed the departure and attempted to attack the cruiser with Svobodnaya Rossiya and the new battleship Volya, but mutiny aboard Svobodnaya Rossiya prevented the force from intercepting Midilli before she slipped back into port that night. [34] [lower-alpha 5]

On 20 January 1918, Midilli and Yavûz Sultân Selîm left the Dardanelles under the command of Vice Admiral Hubert von Rebeur-Paschwitz, who had replaced Souchon the previous September. Rebeur-Paschwitz's intention was to draw Allied naval forces away from Palestine in support of Turkish forces there. [36] Outside the straits, in the course of what became known as the Battle of Imbros, the two Ottoman ships surprised and sank the monitors Raglan and M28 which were at anchor and unsupported by the pre-dreadnoughts that should have been guarding them. Rebeur-Paschwitz then decided to proceed to the port of Mudros there the British pre-dreadnought battleship Agamemnon was raising steam to attack the Turkish ships. [37] While en route to Mudros Midilli struck a total of five mines and sank [38] Yavûz hit three mines as well and was forced to beach to avoid sinking. [39] Three hundred and thirty of Midilli ' s crew were killed in her sinking, [6] 162 survivors were rescued by British destroyers. [40] According to Hildebrand, Röhr, and Steinmetz, only 133 men were rescued from the ship. [2]

Nazi German battlecruiser KMS Goeben

The Nazi German battlecruiser KMS Goeben (German: KMS Goeben) is a KMS Moltke class battlecruiser of the Kriegsmarine. She was originally SMS Goeben ("His Majesty's Ship Goeben"), the second of two SMS Moltke class battlecruisers of the Imperial German Navy, launched in 1911 and named after the German Franco-Prussian War veteran General August Karl von Goeben. Along with her sister ship SMS Moltke, Goeben was similar to the previous German battlecruiser design, SMS Von der Tann, but larger and with increased armor protection and two more main guns in an additional turret. Compared to their British rivals in the Indefatigable class battlecruiser, SMS Goeben and SMS Moltke were significantly larger and better armored.

Several months after her commissioning in 1912, SMS Goeben, with the light cruiser SMS Breslau, formed the German Mediterranean Division and patrolled there during the Balkan Wars. After the outbreak of World War I on 28 July 1914, SMS Goeben and SMS Breslau evaded British naval forces in the Mediterranean and reached Constantinople.

SMS Goeben was scuttled during the scuttling of the Imperial German fleet in Scapa Flow on 21 June 1919 after the end of World War I. She was salvaged in the 1930s and reconstructed as KMS Goeben, a battlecruiser of the Kriegsmarine. During World War II, she was a flagship and engaged in the Baltic Sea campaigns (1939-1945) against the Soviet Baltic Fleet.

The Pursuit of the Goeben and Breslau

In honor of our recent discussion of the early battlecruisers, I'm reposting the story of possibly the most influential capital ship of the First World War. The battlecruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau formed the German Mediterranean Division, stationed at Pola, the main Austrian naval base. They had been sent in 1912, to project German power into the region, with the wartime mission of disrupting the flow of troops from French North Africa (modern Algeria) to France. Two years later, they would play a major role in the opening days of the First World War.

The British Mediterranean fleet, composed of the battlecruisers Inflexible, Indefatigable and Invincible, four armored and four light cruisers and a flotilla of destroyers, was ordered on July 30th 1914 to cover the French transports, and on August 2nd, to shadow Goeben while maintaining a watch on the Adriatic in case of a sortie by the Austrians. Admiral Souchon, in command of the German force, had already sortied, but was spotted in Taranto, Italy, by the British consul, who reported the findings to London. The Admiralty ordered Indomitable and Indefatigable sent to Gibraltar to guard against a sortie into the Atlantic, presumably an attempt to return to Germany. Souchon, however, was headed for Bone and Philippeville, embarkation ports for French troops in Algeria. On the evening of the 3rd, after having slipped through the Straits of Messina ahead of British searchers, he was informed that the Germans had signed an alliance with Turkey, and he was to head for Constantinople immediately. He ignored these orders, and bombarded the ports (doing very little damage) at dawn on August 4th before heading back to Italy to coal again. Shortly thereafter, Indomitable and Indefatigable sighted Goeben, but the British had not yet entered the war, and they did not engage. Admiral Milne, the British commander, reported the contact, but did not tell the Admiralty (headed by Winston Churchill) that the Germans were heading east, and Churchill continued to believe they would attempt to interfere with the French troop movements.

Both Goeben and the British ships were having boiler problems, reducing Goeben’s speed from 27 to 24 kts, although this was still faster than the British ships could manage. The light cruiser Dublin managed to stay with the Germans for a while, until she lost them in a fog. By the next morning, the Germans were safe in the neutral port of Messina, and the British had declared war after the invasion of Belgium. Because of the need to stay well outside Italian territorial waters, Milne was forced to cover both sides of the strait. Inflexible and Indefatigable were placed on the north side of the strait, while the light cruiser Gloucester was sent to cover the south, due to the continued British misunderstanding of the German plan. Indomitable was sent to coal at Bizerte, Tunisia, instead of at Malta, another unfortunate choice.

The Germans had problems, too. The Italian authorities were slow to supply coal, and Souchon had to take coal from German merchant ships in the port. However, he wasn’t able to get enough to allow him to reach Constantinople before the Italians ordered him out of the port entirely on the evening of the 6th. The Ottomans had decided not to join the war yet, and the Austrians (not yet at war with France and unsure of their fleet) were unwilling to help Souchon, making his situation worse. For some reason, Souchon was allowed to decide where to go, and he chose Constantinople, hoping to force the hand of the Turkish government.

Milne assumed that Souchon would go either west for the Atlantic, or head into the Adriatic, which was already patrolled by a squadron under Admiral Troubridge, composed of the armored cruisers Defence, Black Prince, Warrior, and Duke of Edinburgh, escorted by 8 destroyers. Goeben would have had a massive advantage in a gunnery duel, leading Troubridge to plan a night attack in the entrance to the Adriatic where superior numbers would tell. However, he was under specific orders not to engage a superior force, which had been intended to mean the Austrian fleet.

When Souchon left Messina, he was shadowed by Gloucester. 1 The cruiser reported that the Germans appeared to be headed for the Aegean instead of the Adriatic. Troubridge headed south, hoping to intercept Souchon at dawn, where he could close and use his destroyers to launch a torpedo attack. Unfortunately, only three of his eight destroyers had sufficient coal to keep up on his dash south, and at around 4 AM on the 7th, it had become obvious that he would not reach the intercept in time. He thus applied his orders about not engaging a superior force, and turned back.

Souchon didn’t know he was now safe, and that the battlecruisers were far to the west. He continued to strain towards a rendezvous he had set up with a collier off of Greece. Gloucester briefly engaged Breslau, but neither side inflicted serious damage, even when Goeben fired at long range. Finally, on the afternoon of the 7th, Gloucester, her coal nearly exhausted, broke off at Cape Matapan as the German ships entered the Aegean.

Souchon met his collier on the 9th, while the British were distracted by miscommunications about the situation with Austria. It wasn’t until midnight on the 8th that Milne took the battlecruisers west, and he still thought it was all an elaborate feint, and took station off the entrance to the Aegean until the early hours of the 10th, when Souchon, alerted by the increase in radio traffic, set off again at dawn after coaling for 24 hours. 2

By the time he reached the entrance to the Dardanelles, columns of smoke from the British were visible on the horizon. Souchon, uncertain of how the Turks would respond, requested a pilot, and the Turks decided to allow him through. The British were denied entrance, and the pursuit was over. To avoid the legal complications inherent in then-neutral Turkey allowing the ships to pass into the Black Sea, they were officially transferred to the Turkish Navy on August 16th, and renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim and Midilli respectively, although they retained their German crews. Souchon was made commander-in-chief of the Ottoman Navy.

Goeben in the Bosporus

The gift of the two ships did much to swing Turkish public opinion in favor of the Central Powers, particularly after the British seized two ships building for Turkey and paid for by public subscription. On October 29th, Souchon, under the guise of taking his ships to sea, and with the concurrence of some Turkish officials, raided the Russian coast. Goeben 3 bombarded Sebastopol, while Breslau shelled the grain port of Novorossiysk. Damage was fairly minimal, but it did force the Ottomans into the war a few days later.

Burning oil tanks following Breslau's bombardment

There was a short battle off Cape Sarych on November 18th, where Goeben engaged five Russian pre-dreadnoughts. The results were inconclusive, and Goeben took a hit which killed 13 men and damaged one of her secondary guns, while doing light damage to one of the Russian ships. Goeben struck two mines on December 26th, which was only partially repaired during the war, due to the absence of drydocks that would fit her. She bombarded Allied positions at Gallipoli, which brought her into brief contact with Allied battleships. May 10th saw another inconclusive encounter between Goeben and the Russian fleet, while the new Russian dreadnought Imperatritsa Ekaterina Velikaya engaged the ship on January 8th, 1916 with no results on either side. A coal shortage limited operations in 1917, until the armistice with the Russians late in the year.

On January 20th, 1918, Goeben and Breslau sortied again, this time into the Aegean. They sunk a pair of British monitors 4 , and were preparing to attack the base of the pre-dreadnought covering force when they ran into a minefield. Breslau sank, while Goeben took three hits. She was beached just outside the Dardanelles, and crippled for the rest of the war.

Goeben was originally to have been transferred as a prize to the RN, but the Turks held onto her. She was in bad shape, but a new floating dock was purchased, and she was finally repaired in 1930. She remained in service until 1950, undergoing further refits. The Turks offered to sell her to the West German government in 1963, but the Germans declined, probably because of her poor material condition. She was towed to the breakers in 1973, the last dreadnought outside of the United States. 5

1 There was a full moon, allowing the chase to continue through the night. &uArr

3 I’m going to continue to use the German names for simplicity. &uArr

4 Specialized coastal bombardment ships, with heavy guns but low speed. &uArr

The Sinking of SMS Zenta 16 August 1914

France did not declare war on Austria-Hungary until 12 August 1914, with Britain following suit the next day. Vice Admiral Augustin Boué de Lapeyrère, the commander of Anglo-French naval forces in the Mediterranean was ordered to take the offensive against the Austro-Hungarians. His initial task of protecting French troops moving from North Africa to France had by then been largely completed.

The French navy’s war plans had assumed that it would be fighting both Austria-Hungary and its ally Italy, so it had no plan to fight only Austria-Hungary. An attack on the enemy’s main base at Pola, now Pula in Croatia, was thought to be too risky.

De Lapeyrère decided that a sweep into the Adriatic to relieve the Austro-Hungarians blockade of Montenegro might provoke the enemy’s main battle fleet into coming out to fight. This would give the Allies an opportunity to win a decisive victory.

The Austro-Hungarian fleet was heavily outnumbered by the Allied one, which consisted mostly of French ships, but included a few British cruisers and destroyers. The British Mediterranean Fleet’s battlecruisers were watching the Dardanelles in case the German battlecruiser SMS Goeben and light cruiser SMS Breslau came out. Other British ships had been sent to the Red Sea in case German cruisers attempted to attack troopships heading from India to Egypt.

De Lapeyrère’s plan was to take his main battle fleet, showing no lights, along the Italian coast as far as the latitude of the Austrian base at Cattaro, now Kotor in Montenegro. They would then head towards Cattaro and destroy the Austro-Hungarian blockade force, which would have been driven towards them by a force of light cruisers commanded by the British Rear Admiral Ernest Troubridge.

The trap swung shut on 16 August, but caught only the small and old Austro-Hungarian light cruiser SMS Zenta. It fought gallantly but was overwhelmed and sunk in ten minutes. The action was sufficiently close to the coast that the survivors were able to make the shore. A destroyer escaped.

Unsurprisingly, the Austro-Hungarian fleet did not come out to face an enemy that heavily outnumbered it. Paul Halpern notes that ‘[a] curious feature of many prewar plans was the near total absence of what to do next if the enemy fleet did not come out to do battle.’[1]

The Austro-Hungarian naval plan was to maintain a fleet in being. The Allies were hampered by a lack of bases and the French navy’s shortage of colliers and oilers to fuel a fleet that consumed 5,000 tons of coal and 1,000 tons of oil per day.[2] De Lapeyrère was forced to rotate his ships between the Adriatic and Malta.

[1] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 59.

SMS Breslau and SMS Goeben - History

23,730 yards @ 22.5° (13.4 miles)
666 lb. AP shell
Rate of fire 3 RPM

19,250 yards @ 30° (10.9 miles)
99.8 lb. HE shell
Rate of fire 5-7 RPM

12,030 yards (6.8 miles)
22 lb. HE shell
Rate of fire 6 RPM

Coaling at Messina, Italy when Italy declared it's neutrality. Goeben and SMS Breslau
sailed under the overall command of Rear Admiral Wilhelm Anton Souchon to intercept
the repatriation of French troops from North Africa.

Bombarded the port Philippeville, Algeria (Breslau bombarded Bone), after which he
receives orders from Admiral von Tirpitz to head for Constantinople, Turkey. While en route
to refuel in Messina HMS Indomitable and HMS Indefatigable located the two German ships,
but at this time Britain was not at war with Germany so the British ships were ordered to
shadow the two German ships. War was declared later in the day, but by then the German
ships had outrun the British. They arrived in Messina on the 5th. but as was was declared
on the 4th the German ships were now considered belligerents and were allowed only 24
hours at a neutral port. Italy also refused to coal the ships and Souchon was forced to
have coal removed from German merchant ships that were in port.

HMS Gloucester attempted to engage Goeben in the Straits of Messina by firing on Breslau
in an attempt to make Goeben slow down and assist Breslau, however this failed and both
ships continued without further action. Gloucester broke off the chase near Cape Matapan
as she could not keep up with the German ships.

Arrived off Constantinople, Turkey, but the ships were denied access to the Turkish port
until given permission by Ismail Enver (AKA Enver Pasha), the Minister of War on Aug. 12.
This action ultimately led Turkey
into war with Russia.

Sold to Turkey and renamed TCG Yavuz Sultan Selim.
(It appears this "sale" was in name only, the ship retained it's German crew and
continued to operate under German orders.)

Souchon and a squadron of ship including Goeben and Breslau (now named Midilli) sorted
into the Black Sea and bombarded the Crimean ports of Sevastopol, Odessa and Theodosia.
Goeben is hit 3 times by coastal batteries. While returning to Turkey engaged four Russian
ships, 3 destroyers and the minelayer Prut. The destroyer Leitenant Pushchin was badly
damaged and Prut had to be scuttled. Goeben received no damage from the battle.

Battle of Cape Sarych, engaged in battle with the Russian battleships Rostislav,
Tri Sviatitelia, Pantelimon and Evstafi. Goeben is hit by one 12" shell in the #3 port
casemate, 13 of her crew are killed and 3 are wounded. Evstafi received four hits from

Hit two mines while entering the Bosporus (Istanbul Strait), one mine on port side and
one on the starboard side. Under repair until late March 1915.

Engaged Russian battleships Evstafi and Ioann Zlatoust in the Bosporus, Goeben received
2 or 3 hits from 12" shells while scoring no hits on the Russian ships.

Engaged Russian battleship Imperatrica Ekaterina II. Apparently no hits were scored by
either side.

Surprised by Russian ships near the Bosporus, Goeben escaped due to her superior speed
and errors made by the Russians.

Hit a mine while en route to attack British troop transports in the Mediterranean. Goeben
and SMS Breslau (TCG Midilli) were attacked by HMS M-28 and HMS Raglan off Imbros
(Gökçeada) Island, Turkey in the Aegean Sea. Both M-28 and Raglan were sunk. Following
this battle the operation was cancelled, but returning to base Breslau hit five mines and
sank. Goeben hit two mines and was attacked by RAF aircraft, she was finally grounded
to avoid sinking in the Dardanelles narrows. She was attacked several more times by the
RAF until she was refloated on Jan. 26.

Modernized and repaired by Chantiers & Ateliers de St Nazaire (Penhoet) at Izmir. A
floating drydock was specially constructed by Flenderwerke, Lübeck, Germany and taken
to the site in Izmir for the repairs as there was no drydock there large enough to accommodate a ship of that size.

Carried the body of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Republic of Turkey and
Turkey's first President, from Istanbul to Izmit for burial.

Removed from the navy list. The German government attempted to purchase the ex-Goeben
but Turkey refused to sell the ship.

The Epic Voyage of SMS Goeben Part I

I had intended for the next post in the Naval War sequence to be a discussion of how the great Naval building race affected Germany and Great Britain, both in terms of cost and the breakdown of international relations between the two countries. I have decided to use that discussion as a wrap-up topic for the Naval posts. Therefore, its time to get on with the war! (I can hear some of my readers cheering)

Before I start, I want to familiarize everyone with a few terms I intend to use in all the upcoming discussions.

Grand Fleet- The main striking arm of the Royal Navy, this contained most of the modern Battleships and Battle cruisers throughout the war. The fleet had 3 main bases Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, Rosyth where the main Battle Cruiser force under Beatty was based, and Cromarty. However, the facilities at these bases were not in good order financial difficulties had kept the Royal Navy from spending the needed funds on their infrastructure. The big problem was that the built up fleet bases were at Portsmouth and Chatham, but these spots were not anywhere near the German bases or the areas that needed to be patrolled.

Hochseeflotte-The Imperial German High Seas Fleet-the main striking arm of the German Navy, concentrated at Kiel, Wilhelmshaven, and Cuxhaven. The entrance to this area of bases was protected by the heavily fortified island of Helgoland. Using the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal, the fleet could quickly switch back and forth to the Baltic very easily to counter Russian moves, and for training purposes. Some older armored cruisers, cruisers and destroyers were detached to defend the Baltic coastline of Germany.

SMS-Seiner Majistat Schiff-The German equivalent of HMS

Battlecruiser-I have talked about this ship-type in an earlier post, and remarked that the Germans used the term Grosser Kreuzer to describe their Battlecruisers. To make things easier, German Grosser Kreuzers will be referred to as Battlecruisers.

As the clock ticked down in the last few days of peace, the Germans and the British eyed each other warily across the North Sea. The Germans fully expected that when and if war was declared between the two countries, the Royal Navy would sally forth to engage the German fleet in battle. This would have been standard British practice developed through years of experience in blockading the ports of the Dutch, French, Danish, and Spanish Navies throughout the long ages of European wars. But as the Germans prepared for “Der Tag” (the Day) a funny thing happened Der Tag never came! The British had decided to conduct a long range blockade from their fleet bases that controlled any possible breakout into the North Atlantic, while their quick reaction force of cruisers and destroyers at Harwich would conduct a closer blockade, as well as patrolling the English Channel. The British would instead concentrate on sweeping German detached squadrons and merchant ships from the seas. The Germans had a Far East Squadron based in China, a cruiser off the coast of German West Africa, and the MittleMeer (Mediterranean) Squadron composed of the Battlecruiser SMS Goeben, and the light Cruiser SMS Breslau.

The Mittlemeer Squadron was Germany’s contribution to an International force that was formed to intervene in the First Balkan War in 1912, mainly to protect European and American civilians. The Squadron stayed on because there was another Balkan war in 1913. The chaos and destruction we have seen in our lifetimes in the Balkans is nothing new it dates back centuries.

After the war, the Squadron continued its mission of visiting all the various ports in the region, a process known as “Showing the Flag.” The British and French did this too it was a means of reminding local governments what good friends or powerful enemies these nations could be. The British had a habit of following every visit by the Germans with one of their own. The Kaiser rather delicately referred to this as “pissing in the soup.” And in the spring of 1914, the Goeben escorted the Imperial yacht Hohenzollern, which was taking the Kaiser and the Empress on a spring cruise of the area.

After two years of this with no refit, the Goebenwas a worn ship. She had over 9000 boiler tubes that needed replacing, and could make no more than 20 knots. In fact, she was scheduled to be replaced by her sister ship SMS Moltke, but the constant upheavals in the Balkans and Turkey caused the Germans to keep Goebenon station.

When Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated, Admiral Souchon, the commander of the German squadron, recognized instantly the potential gravity of the situation. He made for the Austrian naval base at Pola. The German Admiralty had sent thousands of new boiler tubes to Pola, and skilled workmen to replace the bad ones. By the end of July, over 4500 had been replaced, which eased, but didn’t end, the problem. Yet the Goebenleft port, to rendezvous with Breslau.

Allied Forces, Neutrals, and Key events

At this point I am going to stop the clock right on the edge of war. To put the voyage of the Goebenin context, we need to see what she and Breslauwere facing, and to touch on a bit of the politics going on at the time.

The French had the largest force in Mediterranean waters, with 16 battleships, including several Dreadnoughts, 6 cruisers, and 24 destroyers in varying states of availability for action. It was not the most efficient fleet, with many of its ships requiring repairs. None of the French heavy ships could achieve the speed of either Goeben or Breslau. The British had 3 Battlecruisers, 4 armored cruisers, 4 light cruisers, and 14 destroyers in the area. All 3 Battlecruisers were of the older, 12 inch gunned variety, but they should have had the speed to maintain contact with Goeben.

The Austrians had 3 Dreadnoughts, with a 4th still building, and several good armored cruisers, but they were more or less bottled up in their home bases. The Italians had several Dreadnoughts, but they were neutral. Although Italy was allied to Germany, the alliance only covered a situation where Italy would commit to war if Germany was attacked by France. Thus, the only threat to the Allies in the area was the German Mittlemeer Squadron. So the principal tasks of the French and British fleets were to protect at all costs the French ships bringing the French Colonial divisions from Tunisia to France, and to hunt down the Germans.

The only other major Player in the area was Turkey, a/k/a the Ottoman Empire, a/k/a the Sick Man of Europe. Although historically allied with England since the Crimean War of 1854, England had allowed the alliance to fade into the background. They actually did not put much of a value on Turkey’s fighting powe or importance. Her army had not shown particularly well in the First Balkan War, and her Navy was very small, consisting of several old ex-German pre-Dreadnoughts. But Turkey was not as dead as people thought. The “Young Turk” revolt of 1908 which overthrew the Sultan was rejuvenating the government and military. And Turkey had contracted with Britain to build two Dreadnoughts, the Sultan Osman, and the Reshadiah. The vast sums to purchase these two ships had come largely from public subscription, so all of the Turkish population had a hand in buying these ships. Yet strangely, in 1911, England turned down Turkey’s request for an alliance, largely due to the efforts of Winston Churchill. Churchill appears to have considered that England could gain the benefits of such an alliance by bullying and intimidation, without having to commit to anything in return.

This blunder by Churchill opened the door for the Kaiser, and he not only opened it, he kicked it in completely. The Germans sent a military mission to reorganize the Turkish army, which maddened and frightened the Russians so much that it almost started a war. But in probably the greatest diplomatic achievement by the Kaiser, Turkey’s rulers began to adopt a pro-German attitude. This was the beginning of what would become a vast wave that would sweep through history, and is still with us today.

The 28th of July is an incredibly important date to our story. Seeing the way the wind was blowing in the current crisis, Turkey formally asked Germany for an offensive and defensive alliance that would go into effect if either nation was attacked by Russia. And in case any of the Young Turks were wavering or having second thoughts, on that day, Winston Churchill decided to commit an act of piracy. He formally seized the two Turkish battleships that Turkey had paid for, incorporating them into the Grand fleet, and confined the Turkish crews that were waiting to take possession of the ships. He even ordered the Admiralty to resist with force any attempt by the Turkish crews to take over their ships. Sir Edward Grey did not even mention compensation when he informed the Turkish government of what had occurred. The two ships became HMS Agincourt, and HMS Erin, and fought with the Grand Fleet throughout the war.

So the stage is set. The French Navy is concerned with covering the transports of the troops returning to France. The British are proposing to help the French. Both Allies consider that they have more than enough force to destroy a single German Battlecruiser and her Light Cruiser squadron mate. They would position their ships to watch the embarkation ports and ship routes, to watch approaches to and from the Austrian bases, and to watch any attempt by the Germans to break out into the Atlantic and return home. That the Germans may have had another destination entirely never crossed their minds.

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Watch the video: SMS Goeben - Guide 042 - Special Human Voice