British Submarines and the Dardanelles

British Submarines and the Dardanelles

The Dardanelles campaign is often considered to have been a disaster for the British, but many historians argue that the success of the British submarines was a significant silver lining for the British military.

During the campaign, Britain sent submarines to the Sea of Marmora as part of the strategy of the Allied nations to defeat Turkey. Their main task upon arrival in the sea was to disrupt Turkish supply lines by targeting any supply ships that entered the Sea of Marmora, but they also created a blockade against the German heavy cruisers based nearby.

The latter task was extremely important as it was possible that the cruisers would be able to leave the port of Constantinople/Istanbul and attack a local British fleet based at the island of Lemnos before anything could be done. However, when it was known that submarines were nearby the commanders were too worried about losing their ships to risk leaving.

The Dardanelles has become a good example of how little the Admiralty wanted to adjust its methods, and regularly attempted to bypass the topic of introducing submarines as a firm part of the Royal Navy. By the time the Dardanelles campaign was beginning, it had been 13 years since submarines were introduced as part of the British naval fleet. However, the Admiralty decided to send five B-class subs rather than their more advanced counterparts. The Submarine Service was baffled by this decision; weighing just 313 tons and travelling just 600 hp, the B-class submarines were no match for the treacherous Sea of Marmora. An officer wrote:

"To expect a B-class submarine to penetrate the most difficult of sea-traffic routes seems now as ambitious as to expect to cross the Sahara in a 1909 Ford."

Some argue that the Admiralty made this decision as they were the submarines that were closest to the area. However, many others argue that they were simply attempting to sabotage the the submarines reputation by sending subs unable to withstand the water. In fact, the Admiralty famously felt that the issue of submarines simply distracted from the ‘real’ issues, and so favoured the use of battleships.

In December 1914, two B-class submarines were sent to the Dardanelles including B11. The size of B11 gave it a limited time underwater, but thanks to Commander N Holbrook and his crew it still managed to sink Turkish battleship “Messudieh” in the Straits. The success was hailed as a huge victory and a major blow for the Turkish forces, despite the fact that it was an old battleship.

Despite this success, it was clearly too small for the jobs and Admiral Garden, the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, requested E-class submarines. However, this was turned down by the Admiralty, who only sent them over to the Dardanelles after Carden had resigned.

It was actually an Austraian submarine that was the first to reach the Sea of Marmora; AE-2 was commanded by Lieutenant Commander Stocker and boosted the morale of the Allies, who hoped it would disrupt Turkish shipping. Despite this belief, the bloodshed continued on the beaches of Gallipolli and the submarine failed to turn the campaign around. In fact, it was the work of E11 and E14 that were causing the most trouble for the Turks, having picked off many Turkish merchant ships who soon stopped sailing in the Sea of Marmora.

Other successes included the sinking of the 5,000 ton “Gul Djemal” by E14, which took care of 6,000 troops and a battery of artillery. Although this was a valuable prize, the Turks responded by developing a 260 miles road and rail network, which provided a connection between Constantinople and the front. Most of the supplies were subsequently transported on this route.

For the most part, the impact the submarines had on the Dardanelles campaign was psychological. In fact, there was a period when there were only four submarines in the Sea of Marmora, with two of them lost, but the Turks always believed that there 11 operating in the region. When E11 was spotted in Constantinople harbour on 25 May 1915, it marked the first time in 500 years that an enemy ship had been seen there. as a result, the city broke into turmoil and the destruction of a merchant ship didn’t help. A month later, E7 also attacked the city, targeting the Zeitum Powder Mills. While the gun did little damage, the psychological impact of the attack had a huge impact on the city. Speaking in “H M Submarines”, P Kemp said:

"The city was in uproar. The realisation that an enemy submarine had been in the harbour again was too much for the Turkish authorities. All troops on board the transports were hurriedly disembarked and returned to barracks. All sailings were cancelled, and the shops were ordered to shut."

British submarines also targeted other land targets. E11’s number 2, for example, went on land and destroyed almost 50 metres of the Berlin to Baghdad rail line. However, the Turks subsequently became even more vigilant and the rail line was heavily guarded from then on. However, as the campaign drew to a close, the E-class submarines were fitted wth twelve pounder guns, which were used to attack land and sea targets. To guard against these, the Turks were forced to place artillery along the coastal routes where it was possible submarines could surface. This ultimately ended the submarine tactics of the British.

Overall, it’s unlikely that submarines changed (or could have changed) the outcome of Dardanelles, but they did prove they were valuable weapons and easier to maintain than their dreadnought counterparts.

MLA Citation/Reference

"British Submarines and the Dardanelles". 2023. Web.