• Shaun Lewis

Put yourself into the shoes of a hero


Imagine yourself onboard the last HMS Queen Elizabeth in April 1915. It’s a hot day off the island of Lemnos, in the eastern Mediterranean. You’re seated in the cabin of the Chief of Staff to Vice-Admiral Roebuck, the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet. There’s no air conditioning, but you’re not feeling drowsy. You’re on edge. You’re the commanding officer of a submarine and you’ve just made the long voyage from England. Why? What’s the nature of the special operations you’ve been told to expect?

The Chief of Staff is Commodore Roger Keyes. Until February he was in command of all Royal Navy submarines and earned a reputation for offensive zeal. He sees his appointment as Chief of Staff to the Admiral as a backwater and is keen to take the fight to the enemy. Six months earlier he sent three submarines into the Baltic to support the Russians in sinking German convoys of Swedish iron ore. Some considered it impossible and suicidal to attempt to penetrate the narrow and shallow, heavily defended strait into the Baltic, but it was achieved, nonetheless.

‘Gentlemen,’ for there were no ladies present. Keyes continues. ‘Study the charts and you will observe that there is no road transport to supply the Gallipoli peninsular. The Turks have two choices to bring up troops and supplies. They rely on a single track railway from Constantinople or another line to a port on the southern coast of the Sea of Marmara and then a sea crossing. If we can disrupt their shipping, many of the troops will have to march and bring up their ammunition on mules and camels.

‘I want one of you to volunteer to take your submarine through the Dardanelles Strait and into the Sea of Marmara. There you will run amuck. The French are going to have a crack at it, but I want an Empire boat to be the first to succeed.’

Hang on a minute, you think. The Commodore has certainly grabbed your attention. You study the charts and note that the strait is a maximum of 4 miles wide and narrows to only one mile. The Turks have searchlights and artillery forts either side of the channel. You could make yourself invisible by travelling underwater, but the water is too shallow in parts. There are treacherous shoals around, too, so how are you going to navigate blind? No problem, I’ll go through at periscope depth, you say, but you know that isn’t going to help much. The surface current will be up to 5 knots against you and on battery power your maximum speed will be only 3 to 4 knots. Even at this speed, your periscope is going to produce a tell-tale ‘V’ in the water and, whether it be daylight or at night, the Turkish searchlights and gunners will spot you. Oh - just to make the passage more interesting, I hope you noticed that the Turks have laid at least ten barriers of anti-submarine nets and mines. You did spot that didn’t you? You will have to dive beneath each net to avoid entanglement and hope you don’t hit a submerged mine. The nets are heavily patrolled and marked with floats, so if you hit one, the Turks will see the floats wobble and drop mines onto you.

And one other thing. The strait is 40 miles long and your battery won’t last that long. You’ll have to surface to recharge the battery somewhere along the way. Of course, you have to get back, too, and the Turks will be expecting you this time. You’d have to be insane to consider such an undertaking and no wonder you don’t volunteer. Fortunately somebody else does.

#authors #Dardanelles #WW1 #submarines

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Lancashire, UK

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