Just after dawn today, the first ten battleships of de Robeck’s Anglo-French fleet moved off from Tenedos for what it was hoped would be the decisive attack on the Dardanelles, leading to forcing the Narrows on the 19th.
De Robeck had been forbidden by the Admiralty to attempt to ‘rush’ the Narrows (this would have been suicidal). The plan today was simultaneously to silence the shore guns protecting the first, Kephez minefield, and batter the forts at the Narrows from a fairly safe distance, enabling the minesweepers to clear a channel forwards. Next day the forts would be destroyed at close range and the minefield at the Narrows cleared.
At 10.30 this morning, in beautifully clear weather, lines A and B, comprising six British ships followed by four French, entered the straits and came under fire from Turkish mobile guns on either side. They steamed on to about eight miles downstream of the Narrows and at 11.25 the British ships in line A started pounding the fortresses at Chanak and Kilid Bahr on either side. These did not bother to reply, although the ships met a continuous barrage of howitzer and field gun fire from the nearer shores.
At noon, the French squadron B moved forward to close the range, whilst enabling line A to carry on firing astern of it. The forts at the Narrows now started firing at the French, who took some bad hits, but the attack continued and seemed to be succeeding: by 2.00 p.m. the forts had fallen silent. A Turkish General Staff report described the situation at this point as ‘very critical’.
Then things unravelled. As the French squadron began to retire on the Asian side to allow the six British battleships of line C to come forward, the Bouvet hit a mine in the counter-intuitive string laid by Geehl (see my post of 8 March). It sank in two minutes with the loss of 640 men. Line C closed range again, the guns at the Narrows sprang back to life, but by 4.00 p.m. were once more dimmed. The minesweepers were now called in, got to work, but suddenly panicked and withdrew. Then the Inflexible hit another of Geehl’s mines and limped from the field. Within five minutes, the Irresistible hit another, six hundred crew and casualties were taken off, and it drifted towards the Asian shore under heavy fire. Naturally, no-one in the Fleet knew what was ‘attacking’ them. The only possibility seemed to be mines being released into the current, or torpedoes from undetected shore tubes. ‘Deeming it impossible to keep his fleet in the Straits in face of this new and unknown danger,’ de Robeck ‘decided to interrupt the operations’ (Official History).
Just after 5.00 p.m. the Fleet withdrew, leaving Commodore Roger Keyes to attempt to salvage the Irresistible with a squadron of his own. In the course of this, the Ocean hit yet another of Geehl’s mines. All the crew were rescued, but later that evening she sank along with the Irresistible.
Altogether, then, today three battleships were lost and three others put out of action. In effect, it meant that the Fleet’s strength had been reduced by a third. De Robeck, however, was all for resuming the attack after reconsidering his plan, and Keyes thought that neither the forts nor the mobile field guns were now a menace, all that had to be addressed was the mines. The War Council informed de Robeck on 19 March that five more battleships were on their way to replace those lost, and the Admiralty confirmed that he could continue the assault on the Narrows if he saw fit.
Sir Ian Hamilton, however, who had observed the second half of today’s attack from inside the Dardanelles, wired his patron Lord Kitchener that he no longer believed the Straits could be forced by naval action alone.
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