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December 1914

The Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military award, has been won by a total of 14 Royal Navy submariners In both world wars. The VC, a bronze cross simply Inscribed “For ValoW”, compares with the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor. This Is Part I of an eight-part series on British submariner VCs.

The Gallipoli Campaign, conducted by British, Australian, New Zealand and French forces from the end of 1914 to the beginning of 1916, was fought on and around the Turkish peninsular bounded by the Dardanelles Strait on the east and the Aegean Sea on the west.

As perceived by Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, the object was to open an Allied seaway to Russia from the Eastern Mediterranean through the guarded and mined Dardanelles channel winding northeastwards to the late-lite Sea of Marmara, and thence up through the slim Bosporus neck of water, bordered by the Turkish capital Constantinople, to the great land-girt Black Sea and Russia. This route, hitherto inaccessible to the Allies, would be used to supply and assist Russia in fighting the central European powers; to dispose of Turkey as an ally if Germany; and thereby to relieve a major threat to Egypt and the Suez Canal.

However (and remembering that no air reconnaissance was yet available) the Dardanelles passage was by no means plain to view from where the Allied fleet was gathered at the Mediterranean mouth by the end of 1914. Somebody bad to look round the tint comer to see what was there, and gauge the defenses. The blockading submarines-three British and three French-were the answer for that. They were nominally helping to prevent the reemergence of the German battleship GOEBEN and cruiser BRESLAU which bad escaped the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean fleet and sped to Turkey, but the youthful submariners would welcome more immediate excitement.

The three British boats were of the B class, designed for no more than coastal deference; and they were already obsolescent, albeit only nine years old, such was the speed of warship technology. They had recently been transferred eastwards from Malta whither they had deployed, long before the outbreak of hostilities, some 2000 miles from England: they clattered along, creditably under their own power, with single 600 bhp 16 cylinder WolseleyVickers gasoline engines, at an economical eight knots. No modem submersibles were yet available outside home waters.

The potential performance of HMS B9, B10 and B11 was undeniably limited, nor could it be claimed that their crews, each comprising two officers and thirteen men, were truly ready for war: practice-attach in peacetime were scarcely encouraged for early submarine boats because there had been too many collisions and accidents since their arrival in 1901. Exercises were seldom realistic; and the results were apt to be fudged by submariners and destroyer men alike. Indeed, even basic submarining was still quite a novel art, more dependent on individual skills or sheer knack than on consistent service-wide training. The Royal Navy’s Submarine Service was, after all, only just reaching its teens when called to battle.

Thus practically any warlike operation, especially one so far from a friendly coastline, was bound to be adventurous-but adventure was very much bow submarine officers thought about fighting in 1914. War consisted of going on jolly good stunts (the enemy, by contrast, perpetrated spasms); crews were O’! the grin when they sailed for patrol while those who stayed behind were poor brutes to be pitied; and the important thing, when unforeseen dangers and difficulties arose, was not to be a pompous ass.

Lieutenant Commander G.H. Pownall was the Royal Navy’s Senior Submarine Officer in the Dardanelles arena; and he naturally determined that the British half of the Franco-British submarine flotilla should outdo the French, with whom a healthy (sic) rivalry existed. When one of the Frenchmen poked bis nose past Sedd-el-Bahr on the northwestern shore of the entrance, Lieutenant Norman Douglas Holbrook, 26 years old and commanding HMS B11, capped the feat by (somewhat fatuously) chasing a Turkish torpedo gunboat a few miles beyond Kum Kale at the southeastern point.

Minor stunts like these did nothing except dispel boredom; but they did demonstrate that the submarines were in working order. They also suggested that the straits, overlooked by numerous guns, searchlights and torpedo tubes, and thickly sewn with mines-an assembly which could well make the passage too risky for surface vessels-might be penetrated underwater if only the grave danger of mines could be avoided. Accordingly Pownall sketched a
design for submarine mine-guards to push mine moorings aside.

Given these guards, permission was soon forthcoming from Admiral Carden in the combined fleet flagship for a submerged submarine to test the device on the Turkish minefield which sealed the strait with five successive parallel lines (373 deadly eggs in all) from four miles short of the well-named Narrows (the ancient Hellespont at the middle of an S-bend) and up to a ~e or so short of their sluicing commencement abreast Chanak (Canakkale), a fishing port on the Asiatic side. If the field was navigated successfully it should be possible to gauge the worth and practicality of further ventures.

Of course, all the British and French captains were keen to be first. But Holbrook won the competition when be told Pownall: “It will be a pretty heavy strain on the battery (against a current varying from two to four knots) and B9 or BIO couldn’t possibly look at it with their old boxes. We got a new set of cells (IS9 for the complete battery) at Malta recently and B11 is the only boat that can do it. I’m all for having a try.”

It was a bold statement-possibly brash-because there is no evidence that the proposition was evaluated properly (the pompous ass syndrome coming into play, perhaps), but Holbrook and his Second Captain (Exec) Lieutenant Sydney Winn surely perused the plot with care when they got down to business.

The mines, making allowance for current, lay at depths between 16 and 30 feet where they would catch big surface ships. The normal maximum diving depth fur a B-boat was SO feet (measured at the surface waterline) consistent with Vickers’ shipyard guarantee of safety down to 100 feet. Bil could therefore dive below danger; but unfortunately the 16-30 feet mine-bracket was just where she would need to be when using the periscope for taking fixes-obviously a frequent necessity on this trip. Moreover there was a severe trimming hazard which was not precisely known: close to the surface the water was thought to be nearly fresh due to rivers running into the strait; but at some depth, estimated at 8-10 fathoms (48-60 feet), it was salt or brackish and more dense. Passing from one stratum to another would create havoc with the delicate trim, and a 316 ton B-boat’s pumping system-supplied by two bilge pumps of 25 hp and IS hp respectively-was feeble. The suspicion of a deep counter-current added another complication. Local legend related that the Sultan, presumably on a tour of his southern estates, tired of one of his wives, put her in a sack and dumped her upstream in the strait. It was a recognised and definitive method of disposal from palaces at Constantinople and elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire; but here in the Dardanelles, to the Sultan’s dismay and irritation, the package returned of its own accord to sender. Such is the stuff of Naval Intelligence…

With her new battery B11 was capable of 6.S knots submerged (top speed) for three and-a-half hours (22 miles) or 4.S knots for SO miles. If forced to surface, in the face of 11 well armed Turkish forts with 72 guns in all, the petrol engine might be coaxed to drive the five foot three.bladed propellor at 400 rpm, giving 12 knots-but there could be no question of recharging the battery which was a slow process even when, with no energy needed for propulsion, the maximum 143 volts could be applied. Meanwhile, depth-keeping was never easy; it depended mainly on the after band-cranked rod-rack-and pinion diving rudders which were supplemented by hydroplanes at the bows: the latter required 23 turns of a control room handwheel to put them from hard-a-rise to hard-a-dive, that is, through SO degrees. Planesmen, the coxswain and second coxswain at diving stations, worked very hard indeed for their submarine pay.

The magnitude of the task which lay ahead for B11 is apparent. In traditional submariner’s terms the escapade was going to be fraught with interest.

A jumping wire and streamliners for the hydroplanes forward were extemporised on board the ad hoc tender BLENHEIM at the island of Tenedos. A heavy sinker, suspended by a wire, was then hung out underwater from her main derrick: B 11 charged this several times and each time the wire was pushed aside without tuning at the derrick. Good enough: Holbrook optimistically convinced himself that if the submarine fell foul of a minemooring the mine would not be pulled down to strike the hull.

Early in the morning of Sunday, 13 December 1914 B11 slipped and got underway on her main engine. By 0415 she was three miles from the gateway to the Dardanelles. Just before dawn Sydney Winn trimmed the boat and dived. Nobody on board had any doubts about what the submarine was undertaking; every man had written a letter home and left it in the support ship-only to be posted if B 11 failed to return.

Alone in the tiny conning tower, Holbrook watched through the scuttles: the grey light of pre-dawn gradually shaded to dark green as the boat slid below the surface. The shore was just distinguishable through the rudimentary periscope which had a fixed forward looking ocular box: this, while allowing a viewer to remain stationary in the confined space while the periscope was trained (either by a geared hand wheel or a one-half hp motor), caused the image to rotate from a normal horizontal right ahead to upside down astern-a great help, captains averred, to judging the relative bearing of a target. It was theoretically possible to raise and lower the instrument by means of a chain drive from a two hp motor, but it is probable that the periscope was kept permanently up in action: it was easier for the submarine itself to change depth to expose or dip the stick. In any event, though, a considerable footage of the four inch periscope was bound to be exposed for quite long periods.

On this occasion the lens seemed to be shaking more than usual when the boat dived, and when Holbrook climbed down to the control room be could feel the deck vibrating beneath bis feet. Something was loose, and it bad to be outside the hull.

The Turkish searchlights were switched off at 0500 and full daylight was approaching: if Holbrook bad to rise it was now or never. He ordered main ballast to be blown, opened the hatch, and clambered down on to the casing. Sure enough, the tubular steel guard on the port forward hydroplane bad come loose and was twisted into a hook, ideally shaped to catch mine-wires. Two artificers fatalistically disengaged the entire structure with spanners and dropped it over the side: the port hydroplane thereupon became a mine-trap, but Holbrook was not about to tum back now.

Meanwhile, it was certain that B 11 was being watched with interest from the sombre shore. Mentally shrugging, Holbrook gave the order to flood main ballast, and by 06000 the submarine was on her way again, keeping about 1500 yards from the European shoreline.

The plan was to stay down at 50 feet, to avoid mines, except for an excursion to periscope depth every three-quarters of an hour to check position. Precious amps were wasted on the pumps at every change of depth, due to the dramatic change of densities, while the boat struggled along at four knots against the current, making good no more than an estimated two knots over the ground. The after hand-worked planes were abominable stiff, but Pownall had lent the Spare Crew Coxswain (most likely on the you will volunteer principle) to work in shifts with B11’s own Coxswain.

Life in a B-boat was once described as “like living under the bonnet of a motor car”, but there were a few creature comforts. A breakfast of cold tea. cold ham, bread, butter and jam was consumed with relish while Holbrook himself enjoyed half a cold lobster which one of the French officers bad generously given him at the last minute.

By 0830 one-third of the battery capacity had been used. Nevertheless B11 was on schedule and was now approaching the first known row of mines, stretched between Kephez Point and the European side. Holbrook and Winn took a careful fix-no speedy matter relating relative bearings, called down the tower from the periscope, with the ship’s head mirrored into the hull through a projector tube from the external magnetic compass on the cuing above and corrected for variation and deviation. The boat was then taken deep to 80 feet. The next hour was uneventful, but the movement of the minute band on the control room clock was said to be painfully slow.

At 0940 Holbrook’s EP showed he was nearing the Narrows: coming shallow again he found that B 11 bad made better headway than expected and he had cleared the minefield. Over on the starboard bow lay Chanak. The port was empty; but the indentation which formed Sara Siglar Bay to the right was occupied-by a battleship. It was the Turkish MESSOUDIEH at anchor.

The huge target was on the submarine’s quarter about 2000 yards distant when sighted (the periscope had no ranging graticule) so an approach would not be difficult-were it not for the current sweeping Bl l across the line of sight. Due allowance has to be made for that current when firing one of the two bow tubes: it was imperative to steal closer to minimise its effect.

Holbrook turned towards, went deep, and speeded up for five minutes to halve the range. When next he looked he was 1000 yards away and a little abaft the target’s beam. During a torpedo’s running time-about one minute-the current would take it some 200-300 feet towards the battleship’s stem; so Holbrook manoeuvred carefully to point his tubes exactly at the target’s bow. Then: “Stand by One … Firel” and an 18 inch torpedo was on its way. Winn, at the trim, overcompensated for the sudden loss of weight and the periscope was dipped when, less than 60 seconds later, a violent explosion shook the boat.

The single torpedo was sufficient. When Holbrook could look again it was obvious that the giant was mortally stricken, although all guns that could be brought to bear opened fire on the periscope at point blank range. Holbrook put the helm to starboard, dipped the stick deliberately, and swung away while the battleship started to settle by the stern.

Now things started to go wrong. Shells exploding on the water had fogged the compass projector tube; and shore batteries were soon joining in; there were no distinguishing marks on shore to assist navigation, yet Asia was unpleasantly close to port. Then the submarine hit the bottom with the depth gauge showing 38 feet.

Holbrook reasoned that if he bad got into trouble by turning in one direction he might as well try another, so be reversed the helm to port and cheerfully went on to full speed, noting that “the submarine was frequently touching bottom from 1010 to 1020, when we got into deeper water”. Just as B11 ceased to bump and grind the last glimmer of light from the compass disappeared. Murphy, mercifully rather late in the day, was exercising his implacable Law.

The solution, of course, was to keep the periscope exposed and con by verbal orders to the helmsman-it was unlikely that, when B11 was in mid-channel, the comparatively distant forts would see the tip sufficiently well to aim their guns. However, there was no choice but to pass through the mined area deep at 80 feet, and simply hope that the boat was steering a straight course the while.

When, eventually, it was safe to surface, the hatches on B11 had been shut for nine hours-much too long for a tiny B-boat when some of the crew were engaged in strenuous activity: the air was so foul that the engine would not fire until the ventilation fans had run for half-an-hour.

Holbrook was award the Victoria Cross-the first submariner to win the highest honour and every member of the crew was suitably decorated. Even better, the Prize Court agreed that they were all entitled to prize bounty stemming from an Act of Parliament dated 1708 (which cynics might argue bad a good deal to do with Britannia ruling the waves for the last two centuries). The possibility of financial reward did not enter Holbrook’s mind in December 1914, but he received £.601 10s 2d in due course for sinking MESSOUDIBH (equivalent to about $75,000 today); and able seamen were each awarded £120 6s 1d (say $15,000 to-day)-a veritable untaxed fortune amounting to at least two years’ pay. (What a splendid encouragement to submariners it would be if Prize Bounty were revived: Congress and Parliament please note.)

Norman Holbrook was not outstanding in terms of peacetime promotional reports. Nor, with the exception of Martin Nasmith whose story is told next, were any of the Royal Navy’s 14 submariner VCs deemed to be exceptional by normal naval standards. However, in action, they proved supreme. Foremost amongst those wartime winning qualities, so well exemplified by Holbrook, was determination: maybe this single word covers pretty much all that was, or is, essential for a first class submarine captain.


CAPT John W. Haizlip, USN(Ret.)

Robert L. Swart

Naval Submarine League

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