The "Goeben" and the "Breslau"
By Park Benjamin
[The Independent, February 9, 1918]
About a year before war was declared Germany sent two ships, the "Goeben" and the "Breslau" into the Mediterranean. They were exceptional vessels in their respective classes. The "Goeben" was a battle-cruiser and the best of that type which Germany possest, for she combined the swiftness of a destroyer with the armament of a battleship. She could make without pushing 28½ knots per hour and in her turrets she carried ten 11-inch guns. In her electric steering and turret turning gear she was the last word, in the application of electricity to marine warfare. The "Breslau" was a small cruiser armed with twelve 4-inch guns, but her speed was nearly the same as, that of the "Goeben." The two ships could therefore work together, and as they were faster than any potential enemy ship in the Mediterranean they could undertake raiding expeditions and, if pursued, could run away from any assailant likely to be encountered. Nobody seems to have foreseen the resulting possibilities, or to have taken effective measures to counteract them. Nor did the assignment of an admiral of distinguished reputation and especially familiar with Turkish affairs to so small a command apparently prove suggestive.
In May, 1914, these vessels anchored off Constantinople and proceeded to establish remarkably friendly relations with the Turks, whose officials welcomed them with enthusiasm. "'Goeben' days" and "'Goeben' fêtes" were arranged, visitors on board were lavishly entertained and when one of the periodical fires in the city broke out the German crews were landed to extinguish it. All of which went to show, as was then rumored, that Germany had completed an unusually altruistic transaction in selling the ships to the Turks, who wanted them to offset the purchase by the Greeks of our "Idaho" and "Mississippi" and so to elevate their navy above the condition of floating junk of which it was mainly composed.
As we now know, the visit really marked the culmination of the intrigue which secured Turkey as the Kaiser's ally, two months before the war started.
Meantime a division of opinion among the German naval authorities not in the secret began to appear: some opposing the stationing of so small a naval force in the Mediterranean, others contending that should trouble ensue these ships added to the combined fleets of Austria and Italy (the latter country then being expected to throw in her lot with the Central Powers) would aid materially in challenging British and French supremacy in southern waters.
The German ships received news of the first declaration of war against France while at sea on August 3d, four hours before it was known to the French fleet then mobilized at Toulon. There were at that time in the Mediterranean two British battle-cruisers, seven cruisers and about a dozen destroyers, all in the vicinity of Sicily and Malta. The German admiral promptly made for the Algerian coast, and the "Goeben" bombarded Bona and Phillippeville and then steamed westward. He did not mention where he was going—and the fact that he was steering toward Gibraltar was certainly not suggestive that his real objective was the Dardanelles. At all events, speculation exhausted itself in wondering whether he meant to attack the Rock or get out into the Atlantic.
Between Tunis and Sardinia he fell in with the British cruisers "Indefatigable" and "Inflexible" accompanied by the light cruisers "Weymouth" and "Gloucester." As this was twelve hours before England declared war, no hostilities took place. The two squadrons passed each other in grim silence, without salutes and cleared for action. The British vessels swung into formation astern of the Germans and manifested an intention to follow. The German admiral, seeing that they were the more powerful force, proceeded with all possible celerity to part company. "For twenty-four hours," writes one of the "Goeben's" officers, "everybody on board, including officers and warrant officers, took his turn at stoking and coal trimming. In the afternoon we had worked up to a speed of thirty knots and I thought every moment the ship would blow up. The 'Goeben' shook and trembled as she went thru the water, but, by evening, the British were out of sight and the harbor of Messina was safely reached."
But here the finish of the German ships seemed inevitable. England had declared war and the British cruisers quickly beleaguered the port. The Italians ordered the Teutons to leave within twenty-four hours and surrounded them with a cordon of destroyers to see that they did it. To go out meant certain destruction, to stay meant internment for the war. The German admiral and his officers brought ashore their wills and their valuables, and gave them to their consul, for Berlin had radiographed "His Majesty expects the 'Goeben' and the 'Breslau' to succeed in breaking thru." And then, with their colors aloft, their bands playing and their men stripped at the guns, they steamed forth to meet—not the assembled array of Britain, but a single little cruiser, the "Gloucester," upon which they contemptuously refrained from opening fire, nor even blocked her wireless warnings to the other British warships, which for some unaccountable reason had suddenly left their posts and gone to the Straits of Otranto.
When the British admiral was court-martialed for thus withdrawing his squadron when the enemy was obviously in his power, he was acquitted on the astonishing showing that he had received by wireless orders directly from the Admiralty commanding him so to do, which orders in fact had never been sent. How German spies in the very heart of the Admiralty office managed to get hold of the secret signal code and to surround the forged official dispatch with all the cryptic safeguards of identification may perhaps come to light after the war. But the mischief was done and the court-martial was satisfied.
The brave little "Gloucester," however, had no notion of being ignored, even if the Germans did show a strange desire to avoid her company and rush to the eastward. She launched a torpedo at the "Breslau" as that ship swept by her, which missed, and then hanging on at the rear she poured in such a savage fire that the great "Goeben," which could blow her out of water with a single salvo, showed symptoms of slackening her pace and turning back to demolish her. Only then did discretion become the better part of valor, and before her huge antagonist could complete the turn, the "Gloucester" made her escape. Of course the "Goeben" could have caught her, but being desperately short of coal prevented any chase. There was not enough fuel in the bunkers of the German ships to carry them to the Dardanelles, and to make matters worse, they learned by wireless that the affection of the Turks had cooled. The Sublime Porte seemed to have forgotten their existence and was stolidly showing a disposition not to let them enter the Straits. So they went to an unfrequented Greek island where nobody lived except some fishermen who had not heard of the war and there received their coal. They also stayed there fuming with anxiety, for the British were searching for them and getting dangerously nearer all the time.
At last, in utter despair, they decided to force a passage to Constantinople no matter what the Turks might do to prevent. When they reached the Dardanelles another surprize awaited them. Instead of a hail of big shells from the forts which guarded the entrance, they found a small steamer flying the signal "Follow me." Four hours later the British pursuers arrived to discover their entry refused and the Turks, under German direction, busily at work strengthening the defenses. Next day the "Goeben" and the '"Breslau" lay in the Bosphorus off the Dolma Bagtché palace with the city of Constantinople under their guns.
Not that it can be positively averred that the German admiral actually intended to resort to the last of arguments, but the hesitancy of the Turks this time in welcoming him contrasted painfully with the earlier love-feast, and besides indicated a certain weakness of backbone which needed tonic treatment, and of course in this particular nothing would yield better results than the immediate reinforcing of the Turkish navy by two such fine vessels as the "Goeben" and the "Breslau." Had not the perfidious British grabbed the "Reshadiê" and the "Sultan Osman," two powerful battleships which they had been building for the Turkish people, who for convincing reasons had patriotically subscribed their hard-earned savings to acquire them? Should this perennial bully of little nations thus confiscate the proceeds of a Turkish popular loan? "What more noble or generous conduct could there be on the part of Turkey's ancient and faithful friend than to repair this robbery by depriving herself of her whole Mediterranean force—for a reasonable consideration?
The Turks melted with warm gratitude and incidentally forgot that their new purchases could not get put of the Dardanelles. They renamed them, the "Goeben" becoming the "Sultan Selim" and the "Breslau" the "Midullu'." "With much ceremony the banner of the Crescent replaced that of the Iron Cross, and the rubicund Teuton mariners donned the red fez. They also remained on board and systematically refused to let any Turk go below the berth deck.
Great Britain, France and Russia sent a sharp demand to Turkey for the repatriation of the German crews which, needless to say, was not heeded. Germany continued all kindness in her offers of help and instruction and before long the bought warships were put to work in the Black Sea, chiefly convoying colliers and creating great interest in the Russian fleet there stationed, which then comprised ten battleships, two cruisers, twenty-two destroyers, eleven submarines and a lot of miscellaneous craft—an array of eighty-seven vessels in all.
But they did not get the "Goeben" and the "Breslau." The former came to grief almost immediately (fall of 1914) by picking up a cable connecting two mines which exploded on opposite sides of her hull, tearing huge holes in it but not sinking her. That laid her up for three months in the little harbor of Stein on the Bosphorus, where her men were made to cultivate a farm. The nearest she came to capture was when she tackled a Russian squadron and caught a salvo of four 12-inch shells squarely against her side. But, as usual, her speed saved her and she disappeared in the prevailing fog. The "Breslau," after losing heavily in men, got away from a combined attack of Russian destroyers. From time to time reports of other fights with Russians have been published and also of bombardments of Black Sea ports, but neither ship has been put out of action, nor did either leave the Dardanelles until their fatal venture, of a fortnight ago.
"Why they finally tempted fate has not yet been explained—perhaps may never be. One day at dawn the British destroyer "Lizard," patrolling northeast of the Island of Imbros, sighted them steering northerly with the "Breslau" in the lead. Single handed the "Lizard" attacked, opening fire at 11,000 yards, Then some British monitors hove in sight, to which the "Goeben" devoted her attention, the "Breslau" continuing the fight with the "Lizard," which was unable to close into torpedo range because of the accuracy of the "Breslau's" fire. Meanwhile another British destroyer, the "Tigress," arrived and pitched in with the others. The monitors steadily got the worst of it, tho fighting doggedly. The destroyers tried to screen them with great clouds of black smoke, but finally the largest monitor, the "Raglan," sank and a smaller one blew up. The German ships ceased firing and once more relying on their speed tried to shake off the destroyers. The "Breslau" ran into a mine field, keeled over, and went down. The "Goeblen" circled once around the grave of her comrade and then headed for the Dardanelles. Four Turkish destroyers and an old Turkish cruiser emerged from the Straits only to be torn and ripped by fierce fire of the "Tigress" and the "Lizard" until they turned and ran back.
Now over the "Goeben," driving at full speed southward, appeared the British aeroplanes—far faster than herself and making the water around her white with their dropping bombs. To avoid them she essayed to swing into the channel of the Dardanelles, missed her course and struck a mine. The great wound crippled her, for after that she crawled, water-logged. The airmen followed. The Turkish destroyers closed around her and tried to help her as she painfully surged onward. The "Lizard" and the "Tigress," who had stayed behind to rescue the survivors of the "Breslau," were now seeking a chance to deliver their torpedoes, but spying a submarine periscope and knowing that the "Goeben" could not escape, started off on the new trail. The great ship, with the water in her hold steadily rising, staggered thru the narrows at Chanak and then unable to float any longer, beached herself beside the lighthouse at Nagara Point.
So ends the epic. The "Goeben" and the "Breslau" played their parts in the drama of German intrigue which dragged Turkey unwillingly into the Great War. They helped in confining the Russian fleet to the Black Sea, outwitted their enemies more than once, showed what could be done offensively by powerful cruisers of superior speed acting independently of the battle fleet, demonstrated the importance of getting information ahead of the enemy—and last, tho perhaps not least in the Hun estimation—brought to their owners a handsome commercial profit.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald