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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 Valor, compares with the Congressional Medal of Honor. This is Part 2 of an eight pan series on British submariner VCr.

Submarines have influenced land battles to a marked degree. One of their first victories was won in the Dardanelles between November 1914 and January 1916. British, Commonwealth and Allied forces were engaged in an (arguably misconceived) Eastern Mediterranean undertaking to negate Turkey’s help to Germany, to support Russia, and to divert a threat by the Central Powers towards the Middle East and the Suez Canal. The situation and geography are described in Daring the Dardanelles in the January 1997 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.

The youthful politician Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, enthusiastically advocated a bombardment by battle- ships to neutralise Turkish troops on the Gallipoli peninsula followed by a dashing naval drive up the Dardanelles channel-through the ancient Hellespont separating Europe from biblical Asia Minor-to the Sea of Marmara and the Turkish heartland. Professional alarms sounded by admirals such as the redoubtable Jacky Fisher were disregarded. Churchill had actually visited the area three years before; but it is safe to assume that his supporters in government had no conception of the terrain. Certainly they did not have in the mind’s eye a picture of the steep cliffs and hills surmounted by enemy guns behind what were to become landing beaches; nor could they visualise the defile through which ships would have to steam.

The dashing drive by heavy ships was frustrated, in March 1915, by unacceptable losses in a minefield at the foot of the Dardanelles and the sinking in May of the British battleships TRIUMPH and MAJESTIC by U-21 (Kptlt Otto Hersing) nearby. The Turks would not now be driven out of the strategic strip of land by naval guns alone.

Admiral Carden was obliged, despite misgivings, to make appropriate plans for a landing on the peninsula with mainly Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) troops.

Even if beachheads were established, the rocky countryside beyond was not conducive to a rapid advance. On the other hand the defending Turkish army was precariously placed by reason of its lengthy supply and reinforcement lines. These depended upon direct shipborne transport from Constantinople across the Sea of Marmara to Gallipoli from which the peninsula extends south- westwards, like a finger pointing to the Aegean. Alternative road and rail communications around the oval, lake-like Marmara were tenuous to say the least.

No unit, other than a submarine, could make its way through the 50 mile Dardanelles channel from Cape Belles to Gallipoli and break out into the busy Marmara. But could a submarine not only penetrate the heavily guarded straits but remain long enough in the Marmara, entirely unsupported, to inflict worthwhile damage on the shipping lanes?

Staff officers had their doubts : the submerged endurance of the modem E class was 65 miles at 5 knots-against a current racing up to 4 knots, and averaging 1.5 knots . The passage, except on a dark night {when navigation would be extremely tricky) would imply a prudent boat remaining dived for some 35 miles. One of the newest surface ships, say a turbine-driven destroyer, could theoretically speed from the Aegean to the Marmara in less than a couple of hours, if unopposed; but the opposition-searchlights, guns, mines torpedo-tubes-was far too formidable. A submergible stood a better chance-one of the despised brood whose upper-deck (and quite often upper-class) naval officers themselves descended into the oily bowels of their tubes and dirtied their hands, just like engineer officers …

Nonetheless, with a best underwater speed of 7 or 8 knots for one hour and a submerged speed made good of 3 or 4 knots against the current for no more than a few hours, an E-boat-the best of its kind in the teenage Submarine Service-would creep agonisingly slowly towards its destination. And where exactly were those rows of deadly eggs? At what depth? And what about the intelligence report of anti-submarine nets? How many patrol vessels were on the lookout? Could wireless messages pass over the high hills of the peninsula to and from the C-in-C? (No, they could not; but in due course a transmitting ship was stationed in the Gulf of Xeros, safely outside the battle zone but facing a gap in the mountains.) Would torpedoes cope with shallow draft targets? (No; but deck guns-albeit puny six pounders extracted from the army-were promised before long: meanwhile submarines would have to board small ships to blow them up with demolition charges.) Were the Admiralty charts of the area reliable? (Good question; give us another.) How did the Turks treat prisoners? (Why do you ask?)

Despite compelling reasons for doing nothing whatever, other than drinking duty-free gin in the makeshift depot ship, the submariners decided upon action.

Lieutenant De Fournier in the French SAPHIR made an attempt, unauthorised, to force the Dardanelles in January 1915 and quickly met disaster. HMS E15 (T.S. Brodie) commenced a properly planned expedition in March. “I wish you God speed in your hazardous enterprise”, signalled Churchill; but the boat grounded before reaching the Narrows and was subsequently destroyed by friendly forces-no easy task-to avoid capture of the wreck.

At the end of April the gallant Australian AE2, captained by the Royal Navy’s Henry Stoker, an ebullient Irishman, became the first Allied vessel to reach the Marmara; but after a few days Stoker was forced to scuttle his beloved boat, the victim of careless submarine drills abetted by density layers and possibly a faulty tank valve: all hands were saved and made prisoners of war. Unfortunately, Revenel, captain of the French TURQUOISE, did not scuttle when he ran his undamaged boat aground in the inland sea, under the guns of a Turkish fort, a few months afterwards: nor did he destroy secret papers which told of a forthcoming rendezvous with HMS E20 which was duly, and fatally, kept by the Turks.

The sad fact about Australia’s AE2 was that, due to time lost by urgent repairs (she was forever breaking things), there had been no proper work-up for the raw but enthusiastic crew. Come to that, few of the submariners in 1914 had been adequately prepared by their navies for war: satisfactory training depended, individually, upon exceptionally keen and clear-sighted commanding officers.

It was well that the challenge of technology, the glimpse of early command, substantially more pay, and a loathing of gas-and-gaiters gunnery officers in big ships, encouraged sufficient men of quality to join the fledgling submarine service of the Royal Navy in the dozen years before war broke out.

Two such men, both exceptional but different in character, made their immortal marks in the Marmara. They were Edward Courtney Boyle, commanding HMS El4, and Martin Eric Nasmith (to become, adopting a family name, Admiral Sir Martin Dunbar-Nasmith) of Ell . Both were awarded the Victoria Cross for their penetration of the Dardanelles and the devastation which they wreaked on the Turkish supply lines beyond.

When AE2 gleefully reported her arrival in the Marmara, before Nemesis struck, the quiet, competent Courtney Boyle was invited to follow forthwith in HMS El4. Boyle had been a submariner from 1903, virtually from the start, and he was painstakingly familiar with The Trade’s nuts and bolts. Never a thruster, never demonstrative but always steady in the Nelsonian sense, he had quickly gained the confidence of his people who were a good deal younger than their captain’s grandfatherly 33 years.

The passage up through the straits was not expected to be without incident, especially since the bulk of it was to be made on the surface under cover of darkness. Boyle stood on the tiny bridge by himself, shouting conning orders down the tower, with all loose gear unrigged so that the submarine was instantly ready to dive. The engines made a horrible din by night between steep cliffs: a fore-endman said the noise was like “a full brass band in a railway cutting”, but Boyle stayed up to conserve the battery for as long as possible.

He dived through the gorge at Chanak, taking a successful potshot at an enemy gunboat enroute, but was suddenly deprived of sight through his search periscope. Hastily raising the attack periscope he found a Turkish sailor leaning over the side of a picket boat and clutching the primary instrument’s lens with both hands. Boyle mentally awarded the man full marks for effort, and wound on more speed. A stray shot from a small destroyer, soon after he gained the Marmara, shattered the top window of the same periscope; but, apart from those trivial incidents, E 14 miraculously escaped damage.

The continual appearances of patrolling vessels had little effect on Boyle’s conduct; but they were irritating because the two officers, and most senior ratings, worked a tedious watch-and- watch system: calls to diving stations forced those off watch, getting their heads deservedly down for a bare couple of hours, to turn out yet again. No creature comforts were abundant for the ship’s company of 37: the practically non-existent foul weather protection and the troglodytic sleeping arrangements were inherited from a niggardly 18th century Admiralty. Leading Stoker John Thomas Haskins noted in his private diary on the 7th and 17th days of the patrol: “we were allowed a wash.”

Boyle’s genius lay in cool-headedness and meticulous attention to detail. His exploratory 21 days in the Marmara were exemplary. The most significant sinking was the transport GUJ DJEMAL carrying 6000 troops and a battery of field guns to Gallipoli; but the greatest value of E14’s patrol was deterrence-in the true submarine sense that has too often been forgotten. The mere presence of a submarine athwart the Turkish lines of communication was demonstrably disruptive; and therefore, after all torpedoes had been fired, Boyle was ordered to remain on patrol where he deliberately allowed the submarine to be sighted at every opportunity. He even contrived a dummy gun from a pipe, an oil drum and a few yards of Admiralty-pattern grey canvas. The contraption looked lethal enough to deceive several ships; and on 13 May E14’s formidable appearance prompted an impressionable Turkish steamer to panic and beach herself.

Boyle’s activities greatly worried the Turks and their German supporters: they started sending a proportion of reinforcements and supplies to the Peninsula armies by the longer and very much slower rail-and-road alternative route rather than through the shortcut Sea of Marmara.

On El4’s return the French flagship’s band played “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “God Save the King”. Admiral Guepratte kissed Boyle on both cheeks and called him a “a lovely boy”. Boyle dined that night on board the British flagship and managed to keep awake for long enough before tumbling into his bunk-only to be roused by a signalman who informed him that he had been awarded the highest decoration.

Martin Nasmith, captain of Ell and already noted as an outstanding submarine officer brim-full with new ideas, was another guest at dinner with the admirals on the evening that Boyle came back. As soon as he had garnered the latest intelligence, he returned to E 11 and set off to follow in E 14’s wake, and widen it.

Nasmith, unlike Boyle, was ambitious: he knew where he was going in the Navy, and he was determined to get there. He was also inventive: for example, he produced the first sensible mechanical aids to attacking. This was at a time when the aim-for torpedoes was judged by eye, and it was being said that if an officer was good at shooting snipe be would probably become a good submarine captain.

One of the Staff directives was to .. go and run amok in the Marmara”. Nasmith would do just that, but Boyle’s exploits had sent most of the bigger ships scurrying for port; and there was as yet no gun to deal with the smaller fry. Realising that some of his torpedoes would inevitably miss or run beneath light targets, Nasmith devised an illegal plan for restocking with tinfish.

By international law torpedoes were set to sink at the end of a run if they failed to explode against a target; but Nasmith ordered the automatic sinking-valves on El’s fish to be blanked off so that any torpedoes which missed would surface. He was twice able to recover errant weapons thereby. On the first occasion he himself dived into the water to render the warhead safe, by removing the firing pin, before the torpedo was hoisted inboard by the standard derrick and lowered down through the fore-batch into the fore-ends on rails-a problematical procedure because the submarine could not dive while the rails were erected. Next time he trimmed the boat down aft and sent D’Oyly Hughes, his more expendable Second Captain (Exec), to lead a team of six swimmers and coax the quiescent two-thirds-of-a-ton cylinder back into the stem tube.

Some of Nasmith’s doings in the Marmara, where he carried out three long patrols in 1915, smack of gambling; but he took no more than calculated risks, and he discussed every plan with his officers. The morale of his men and the state of his battery were constantly on his mind. While successes mounted spirits were high, but welfare was notably absent in the stinking confines of an E-boat. He therefore permitted hands to bathe, three at a time for 10 minutes, in a quiet comer of the sea which was fast becoming his. If a swim was not practicable in a particular part of the Marmara he gave the crew a make-and-mend-half a day off-for washing clothes (in seawater}, relaxation and a spot of Swedish drill.

As for the battery, Ell stayed on the surface whenever possible. Once, Nasmith captured a small sailing vessel, lashed the submarine alongside and trimmed right down so that only the conning tower was visible. The submarine’s engines then charged the battery, with little chance of E14 being recognised from afar, while a sailor kept watch from the involuntary host’s high mast.

Chance did not always favour E11 despite her phenomenal total of 122 (mostly small) enemy vessels destroyed and a railway line blown up by a landing party (commanded by the seemingly expendable Exec) between May and December 1915. A pugnacious little gunboat took a torpedo in her guts but retaliated with extraordinarily accurate gunfire before she went down: one shell passed through the submarine•s exposed periscope (now exhibited in the Imperial War Museum, London). Nor did the crew invariably match Nasmith’s exacting standards: when the wireless failed, and it became apparent that the operator had been negligent, lower deck was cleared in the control room where the criminal was publicly addressed by the captain:

“I consider a man of this type more deserving of the death penalty than the unfortunate individual who, from work or fatigue, drops asleep at his post duty … (he) is a menace to this shipmates and a traitor to his cause.”

The transmitting apparatus was repaired with unprecedented speed, and thereupon the disciplinary matter was dropped-not least because Nasmith openly admitted his own shame: “Owing to my inefficiency I am unable to tell this man how the repair should be made.”

On the morning of 24 May a small steamer hove to under rifle fire. When E11 slid alongside to board a nonchalant figure on deck introduced himself as Mr. Raymond Gram Swing of the Chicago Daily News; he was glad to make the acquaintance of British submariners, but he had paid for a passage to Gallipoli where he intended to do some war reporting. Nasmith expressed his regrets for the interruption, and ensured that the reporter had a place in one of the ship•s boats which pulled back to Constantinople. There, Gram Swing did nothing to contradict reports that 11, yes, 11 British submarines were roaming the Marmara: the figure was in error by a margin of 10 at the time, but the rumour helped further to discourage Turkish shipping-another example of inexpensive deterrence!

Nasmith’s Victoria Cross was announced on 23 June 1915. The award was nominally for E11’s first Marmara patrol; but a detached observer might reflect that it was deserved again and again for the missions which followed. Nasmith was the perfect example of thoroughly professional daring. Who else would have taken his submarine into Constantinople harbour to make torpedo attacks in the very heart of the Turkish Empire, throwing the capital’s organisation into wild confusion? And take there, in sepia-tone, the first-ever periscope photographs of real merit?

The impertinent intrusion was made with only one-third of the crew closed up for action, while the remainder rested-doubtless allowing more space in the control room for the captain to get on with his business without overmuch fuss and noise. A contemporary had once criticised Nasmith, earlier, for a tendency to “hold on to the ball for too long” -that is, for wanting to be a one man band. The critic had a point: but so?

Nasmith was undoubtedly the leading light in a minor submarine campaign that brought about major strategic results.

However, the virtual nullification of Allied surface seapower by the underwater threat of mines and torpedoes and appalling casualties amongst the armies spelled disaster for the Allied Dardanelles expedition. Evacuation of the Allied troops was ignominiously but efficiently completed, from their last toehold on Cape Helles, by 8 January 1916.

The withdrawal left scant pride in the combined fleets at the end of a dismal day; but the honour of the Royal Navy was at least partially redeemed by a small band of submariners who proved their ability to create havoc in enemy waters where surface ships could not, or would not, dare to go.


Leonard E. Adcock

RADM Raymond H. Bass, USN(Ret.)

George D. Cooksey, Jr.

CDR Charles F. Donaghy, USN(Ret.)

CDR Edward Frothingham, Jr., USN(Ret.)

LT Robert S. Northrop, USN(Ret.)

CAPT Frederick B. Tucker, USN(Ret.)

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