The war beneath the waves is not a commonly known story of the Gallipoli campaign. It was fought mainly by Entente submarines, which performed a number of missions up the Dardanelles, the long thin waterway between the European and Asiatic land masses, which closes to as little as 1600 yards at its narrowest point (Chanak to Kilid Bahr). Coupled with the numerous minefields and strong current from the Black Sea to Aegean Sea, the submariner’s war was very dangerous.
The first submerged foray was led by an Australian, Lieutenant Norman Holbrook, who was in command of British submarine B11 which as early as 13 Dec 1914, made a perilous five hour journey, passing through 6 minefields before launching a torpedo attack on the Turkish battleship Mesûdiye at anchor, hitting her in the stern resulting in her capsizing in ten minutes.
Mission accomplished, the B11 successfully returned to port. For this audacious attack, Lt. was awarded the Victoria Cross, the first awarded for service in a submarine.
Emboldened by the success of B11 raid the French submarine Saphir made a similar attempt on 15 January 1915, passing through a more treacherous ten minefields before running aground with the loss of the vessel and half her crew. Not to be deterred, the British made a further attempt several months later in the week before the Gallipoli landings in HMS E15, but she too ran ground in a strong current, with the loss of the submarine and several of her 31 man crew. The submarine was subsequently destroyed after numerous attempts to prevent her falling into Turkish hands. The submariner’s lot was not becoming an enviable one against an alert enemy.
Australia had two submarines when the war broke out; AE1 and AE2. AE1 was lost in Pacific waters but the AE2, “the silent ANZAC”, was dispatched to the Dardanelles for operations, arriving in March 1915 under the command of Lieutenant Commander Henry Stoker.
On the eve of the Gallipoli landing, 24 April, Stoker’s submarine was instructed to sink any enemy minelayers located in the Narrows and in support of the morning landings was to ‘generally run amok’ around Channakale causing maximum disruption to the Turks. He conducted a treacherous night journey up the strait and emerged out of the ‘Narrows’, all the while having had to surface several times exposing the AE2 to enemy fire.
Over the course of the next three days, true to his orders, he fired several torpedoes and caused much consternation in the Turkish command, at one point directly causing a Turkish battleship to cease fire at the invasion force to avoid the submarine. The AE2 successfully made its way to its designated rendezvous point (with E14) in the Sea of Marmara on the 30 April, but was forced to surface due to an encounter with a Turkish warship, resulting in the scuttling of the submarine and the crew being taken into captivity.
With the AE2 not yet returned HMS E14 sailed into the Dardanelles straits on the 27 April. Breaking through to the Sea of Marmara (where she rendezvoused with AE2) she then embarked on a highly successful two week campaign creating all manner of chaos for the Turkish defenders, sinking much tonnage and causing significant communication and morale issues for the Turks. The sub’s commander, Lieutenant-Commander Boyle, also received a Victoria Cross, such was the recognition of how dangerous it was to engage the enemy in the confined spaces of the Dardanelles in a submarine.
Not to be out done, the French launched their own submarine Joule on a raid on 1 May, but sadly the submarine struck a mine and was lost with all hands.
Continuing with further raids, HMS E11, under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Nasmith, commenced the first of three highly successful missions, the first between 18May – 11Jun. Amongst the 11 Turkish ships sunk or disabled was the enemy cargo ship Stamboul off Constantinople itself. He returned safely back to port and became the third recipient of the Victoria Cross for a ‘most hazards duty’. The E11 was to return two more times to the enemy held waters amassing a total enemy haul of 27 steamers and 58 smaller vessels. This constant submarine warfare caused the Turks to divert significant resources to counter the threat and played an important part in the Gallipoli campaign.
The submarines of Australia, Britain and France however were not the only submersibles to gain success. Several German U-boats supported the Ottoman campaign effort with U-21 successfully sinking two British battleships, HMS Triumph and HMS Majestic as they were bombarding the Ottoman positions on the Gallipoli peninsula. Though not as extensive as the Entente submarine warfare effort the loss of two capital ships were major successes for the Ottoman cause, causing the British to withdraw all capital ships to protected anchorages thereby denying their land forces of vital naval gunfire support.