Goeben and Breslau entering the Dardanelles

The escape of the Goeben and Breslau in their mad-cap dash across the Mediterranean to the safety of the Dardanelles has become part of the folklore of the First World War. The escape was astonishing; the consequences staggering. Mainstream historians claim that from the German perspective it was a blessing that verged on a miracle; for the British it was a great embarrassment. Churchill ranted that it was a ‘curse.’ [1] The truth is somewhat different. Evidence now proves that the British Foreign Office and the Admiralty in London knew precisely where the German warships were in the Mediterranean and, crucially, where they were headed. Far from attempting to destroy the Goeben and Breslau, the Secret Elite in London took active steps to keep them from harm and ensure their safe passage to Constantinople. Had the sinking of the German cruisers been the real objective, neither the Goeben nor Breslau would have survived.

Having bombarded the French embarkation ports on the Algerian coast at around 6 am on 4 August 1914, the German cruisers set off, as ordered, on a desperate 1200 mile race across the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas to Constantinople. Every opportunity the Royal Navy had to catch and destroy them was apparently bungled in a series of incredible errors that were later put down to incompetence. Barbara Tuchman, the Pulitzer Prize winning American wrote, ‘No other single exploit of the war cast so long a shadow upon the world as the voyage accomplished by their commander during the next seven days.’ [2] As eminent a seafarer as he was, Admiral Souchon could not have escaped the clutches of the British unless aided and abetted by powers he did not comprehend.

 One of the four Courbet Class French Dreadnoughts 1914Consider the facts. Souchon’s original orders were to attack and destroy French troop transport ships plying between the North African and French coasts. The bombardment of two embarkation ports in French Algeria, Bone and Phillipsville was a very public announcement of their presence, yet the French navy did not give chase. Goeben and Breslau rendezvoused north of Bone and set off back east for Messina, completely unmolested by the mighty French fleet which was on its way south from Toulon, and fast approaching that very spot. The question remains, why did the French fleet, which included 4 recently commissioned dreadnoughts, not go for the jugular and wipe out the German cruisers which were the only threat to their transport ships in the Mediterranean?

Around 9.30 am while heading east, Admiral Souchon was doubtless expressing incredulity that his cruisers had not been attacked, when two British heavy cruisers appeared on the horizon. They were heading at full speed directly towards him. Indefatigable and Indomitable, which had been steaming west all night to intercept the German cruisers, encountered them off Bone. Their precise co-ordinates, 37.44 North, 7:56 East, were immediately telegraphed to the Admiralty in London but the crucial information regarding the direction in which the German cruisers were headed, was not passed on. Churchill, allegedly, ‘assumed they were heading west with further evil intent upon the French.’ [3] That was utter nonsense. As we shall see, Churchill and the Admiralty knew that the German ships were heading east, and that their ultimate destination was Constantinople.

Every British naval action that followed literally channeled the Goeben and Breslau east towards the Dardanelles. Indomitable and Indefatigable held fire on sighting their ‘prey’. Churchill had telegraphed a caution to all British warships, ‘The British ultimatum to Germany will expire at midnight GMT, 4 August. [4] No acts of war should be committed before that hour …’ [5] That being the case, Indomitable and Indefatigable passed within close range of Goeben and Breslau, the Admirals eyeing each other from their bridges. [6] The British cruisers swept round and followed closely in their wake. They were later joined by the light cruiser, HMS Dublin. Given her defective boilers, the three predators were theoretically faster than the Goeben and should easily have been able to stay on her tail. Admiral Milne, C-in-C of the Mediterranean fleet, was reminded by London that ‘the speed of your Squadrons is sufficient to enable you to choose your moment,’ [7] and with their 12-inch guns could have sent her to the bottom.[8]

Goeben remained just ahead of the British pack throughout the entire day. In the mid-summer heat of the Mediterranean, many of her stokers collapsed, and four died, horrifically scalded by steam blasting from faulty boiler tubes. Let there be no doubt that the Goeben toiled to survive ahead of a formidable pack. At the 11 pm deadline, Churchill ordered the Admiralty to signal all ships, ‘Commence hostilities at once with Germany …’ Prior to the given order, the gap between Goeben and the pursuers widened and she disappeared into the night. The official excuse later proffered was that the British warships had been unable to maintain their course due to a shortage of stokers. [9] What rotten luck.

Straits of Messina - Note how easily it could have been blockedHaving defied the odds to reach Messina in north-east Sicily, Admiral Souchon was given 24 hours by the neutral Italians to load coal and clear out. German merchant ships, which had previously been ordered to rendezvous with Goeben at Messina, had their decks ripped open and railings torn away to enable the transfer of coal. Every crew-member was pressed into action. By noon on 6 August 1,500 tons had been transferred manually to Goeben and Breslau. Men fainted with exhaustion in the summer heat and ‘blackened and sweat-soaked bodies lay all over the ship like so many corpses.’ [10] 1,500 tons of coal was sufficient to reach the Aegean Sea, where Souchon had arranged, through the Greek government, to meet another merchant collier.

With Goeben and Breslau in Messina it was a relatively simple task for Admiral Milne to bottle them in. He had a large fleet at his disposal, including three battle cruisers together with four heavy cruisers from Admiral Troubridge’s squadron, and a further four light cruisers and sixteen destroyers. Souchon knew his ships were sitting ducks at Messina. The massed British fleet could either move in and force their surrender, or wait for them to emerge and blow them out the water. Trapped in the tight channel between Sicily and the toe of Italy, there was only one narrow exit north from Messina leading to the western Mediterranean, and one narrow exit to the east. On 5 August the German authorities asked the Austro-Hungarian fleet to leave its base in the Adriatic and head south to help Goeben and Breslau break out of the Messina Strait, but the naval commander, Anton Haus, declined. The mobilization of his fleet had not been completed. Furthermore, the Austrian foreign ministry had instructed him to avoid action with the British or French fleet and so he remained in port. [11] In truth, it would have been a fool-hardy act since Austria was not yet at war with Britain. [12]

Admiral Milne knew Goeben and Breslau were trapped, but received orders from London to strictly observe Italy’s neutrality. British warships were specifically ordered not to enter neutral Italian waters or approach within six miles of the Italian coast. How odd. Here were the Germans caught in flagrante. Technically, Souchon was abusing Italian neutrality by coaling within her waters, but we are asked to believe that the combative, blood-roused Churchill was suddenly overcome by diplomatic nicety.

Admiral Souchon

Having allowed his men five hours rest, the German Admiral ordered steam. Aware of the overwhelming forces ranged against him, he ran the gauntlet at 5 pm. All day excited Sicilians crowded the quays selling postcards and last souvenirs to ‘those about to die.’ Extra editions of the local papers were headlined ‘In the Claws of Death.’  [13] Goeben and Breslau headed down through the eastern outlet of the Messina Strait with an all-pervading sense of doom. But where was the British fleet? Logic dictated that Milne put sufficient warships at both exits from the Messina Strait to render Souchon’s escape impossible but incredibly, he had posted only one light cruiser to cover the eastern escape route. His heavy cruiser squadron had been stationed to the west of Sicily, and in consequence, could do nothing as Souchon escaped. Meantime, Admiral Troubridge with his four armoured cruisers, was lying just off Cephalonia to prevent Goeben entering the Adriatic.

Weighing only 4,800 tons and carrying 2 six-inch guns against the might of the Goeben, HMS Gloucester, under Captain Howard Kelly, watched the German cruisers exit the Messina Strait, and immediately telegraphed their position to Milne. Other than that he could do nothing but stay out of harms way as they headed off. Souchon made a feint to the north as if heading for the Adriatic, but once darkness fell changed course to the east for the Aegean. Troubridge took his four cruisers south from Cephalonia to intercept Goeben, but soon turned back. He had been ordered by Churchill not to engage a ‘superior force,’ and he deemed  Goeben superior to his four armoured cruisers and their accompanying eight destroyers. [14] The genie was out of the proverbial bottle, and had been channeled inexorably towards the Dardanelles and Constantinople.

Rear-Admiral TroubridgeEach morsel in the charade of the Goeben and Breslau ‘escape’ becomes harder to swallow. There were no circumstances in which four cruisers could have failed to do serious damage to the Goeben as she steamed eastwards. That two large squadrons of the mighty British navy failed to prevent a couple of German cruisers escape was, and is to this day, explained as a fiasco of tragic blunders attributable to the ‘listless and fumbling’ conduct of Sir Ernest Troubridge and Sir Archibald Berkeley Milne. [15] Oxford historian, Sir Hew Strachan claimed that the escape rendered the actions of every British naval commander in the Mediterranean, with the distinguished exception of  Captain Kelly of Gloucester, ‘incompetent’. [16] So there you have it. The Goeben’s great escape to the Dardanelles was entirely down to listless, fumbling incompetence; oh, and too few stokers. No-one appears to have considered how very convenient it was to have two German gunboats safely protecting Constantinople. As our next blog will demonstrate, the ‘escape’ proved a triumph of subtle British manipulation which protected their real interests.

Please Note that for the duration of our blogs on Gallipoli we will publish two per week each Wednesday and Friday.

[1] Winston Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911-1918, vol. p. 209.
[2] Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, p. 137.
[3] Ibid., p.150.
[4] When it was pointed out that there was a one hour time difference between London and Berlin, this was changed to 11.pm GMT.
[5] Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol III, p. 30.
[6] Edmond Delage, The Tragedy of the Dardanelles, p. 2.
[7] Tuchman, Guns of August, p. 146.
[8] Alan Moorehead, Gallipoli, p. 26.
[9] Arthur J Marder, From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, p 23.
[10] Tuchman, Guns of August, p. 152.
[11] Hew Strachan, The First World War, Volume 1; To Arms, p. 650.
[12] War was not declared between Britain and Austria until 12 August.
[13] Tuchman, Guns of August, p. 153.
[14] CRMF Crutwell, A History of the Great War, p 71.
[15] Ulrich Trumpener, The Escape of the Goeben and Breslau, Canadian Journal of History, September 1971, p 171.
[16] Strachan, The First World War, Volume 1, p. 648.