30 October 1915 – The Emerald Sea

When the French Navy began to lay down six Émeraude (emerald) class submarines in 1906, they were among the most advanced in the world, boasting range and speed second to none. When the Saphir (sapphire) sank in the Sea of Marmara this January, however, mechanical age and fatigue were a factor, while the state of the art had already moved on. Even though the Dardanelles offensive has been suspended for months, her sister ship Turquoise is also operating in the Sea of Marmara today. After penetrating the Turkish minefields and submarine nets, surviving a detonation and dodging torpedo boat attacks, shore fire holed the periscope, flooding it. During the eleven-day mission, a small fire has been quickly contained, but left the center section in darkness, while the steering has short-circuited and the diving rudder has suffered a transmission failure. Adding to the misery, a faulty seal creates a constant drip inside the boat.

When his all-important gyrocompass threatens to stop working, Lieutenant Commander Léon Ravanel has had enough. Despite not sinking any ships, he has sown chaos, fought off a patrol boat, and attacked an outpost in the island of Khairsiz-Ada with his 37mm deck gun, so now he turns around for the dangerous trip back to the safety of Mudros. It is too late, for the damaged navigation equipment results in his crew run aground at Nagara Point, very near to where their sister ship found a watery tomb. The above photograph was taken from the deck of an approaching Turkish boat; you can see Ravenel and his crew on the conning tower deck, a unique feature of the Émeraude class. But you can also see a Turkish rifleman holding his fire on the right, perfectly summarizing the dangers faced by submarine crews when they are caught helpless in 1915.

Underlining this point, Ravenel fails to destroy his codebook or secret orders, and is unable to transmit a message to higher command. As a result, the British submarine arrives to meet the Turquoise in the Dardanelles as scheduled on November 5th only to be ambushed by a torpedo from the UB-14. Lacking modern submarines of their own, the Ottoman Navy re-floats their captured French vessel as the Müstecip Onbaşı, but they are unable to complete repairs or commission it for service. Notably, when she is returned to France in the postwar Armistice, Turquoise is scrapped along with her four surviving, but leaking and worn-out sister ships.


A propaganda photograph of the captured and re-floated Turquoise, which never sailed into battle again

When she was laid down in 1900 at Newcastle for the Cork Steam Ship company, the 688-ton steamer SS Avocet was not designed with combat survival in mind, only the rigors of regular round-trip service to Rotterdam, yet she has already sailed longer and harder than the entire Émeraude class ever will. Just after eleven o’clock this morning, she is bound for Liverpool with cargo about two miles off the West Hinder lightship when three German seaplanes attack. Over the next half-hour, they make multiple passes at the defenseless civilian ship with bombs and machine guns, striking only once but leaving the decks littered with shrapnel. Upon arriving in port, Captain Frederick Brennell tells the Journal Commerce that one of the aircraft is larger than the others, referring to the design as a ‘battle plane.’ In fact, he is describing the emerging class of fighting aircraft known as ‘bombers’ or ‘attack’ planes:

They then took up a position off the port beam and opened fire on the bridge with machine guns, the ship’s side and decks being struck by bullets. The Battle Plane attacked with great skill, from a height of from 800 to 1,000 feet, flew ahead of the steamer, suddenly turned, and came end on to meet her. When parallel bombs were dropped so as to make sure of a hit.

Captain Brennell ordered the helm to be put hard to starboard and as she swung round to port, three bombs just missed the starboard bow and three the port quarter. Had the vessel continued her course the bombs would have rained on her, dropping on the forecastle and poop deck as the aeroplanes passed over her.

Importantly, the German airplanes never obey any ‘cruiser rules’ or give Brennell’s crew an opportunity to abandon ship before opening fire. The year has seen quite a bit of diplomatic drama over ships torpedoed without warning, forcing the Kaiser to restrain his u-boat commanders from attacks-without-warning that his pilots are still free to conduct. One may argue that no such opportunity for quarter exists given the technological limitations of airplanes in 1915, but this is the same argument made by the German Navy about their u-boats — and the example of the Turquoise demonstrates their point.


An artistic portrayal of the attack on the SS Avocet today via the London Illustrated News