18 March 1915 – Best Laid Plans

When Admiral Sir Sackville Carden came up with his plan to force his way through the Dardanelles Strait, he was limited from requesting any of the state-of-the-art battleships serving in Britain’s Grand Fleet. Instead, the Admiralty saw the operation as an opportunity to make use of older, obsolete vessels carrying big guns. This was acceptable in Paris, for the French Navy lacks those more modern boats, but has several older pre-dreadnought battleships available in the Mediterranean, including the Bouvet (see above). Although Admiral Carden stepped aside two days ago suffering from a nervous breakdown, the operation continues today with seaplane support from the Ark Royal.

The plan seems simple enough: while sailing back and forth in the widest part of the narrows north of Erenkoy Bay, the armada is supposed to hit the Turkish fortifications on both sides hard enough to force the gunners to abandon their positions, reduce the fortifications, and leave the narrows safe for minesweepers to clear the way to Constantinople. As in prior operations, landing parties are expected to follow-up and permanently destroy the defenses, but no one believes landings in force to be necessary…yet.

Today will change that calculus, for as the action begins at about 8:15 AM, none of the allied captains are aware that the minesweepers have failed to discover and remove a string of twenty mines waiting along the southern side of the channel.

An operations map of the naval campaign for the Dardanelles. Via the South African Military History Society

A map of the the Turkish defenses, including the line of mines laid ten days before

Although the fleet takes a heavier pounding from the shore guns than they expected, things seem to be going well until 2:15 PM. Suddenly, the Bouvet — which has already had one turret put out of action by shore fire — is rocked by an exploding sea mine which wraps the vessel in a thick column of smoke. Just a moment later, there is a secondary explosion, apparently centered in an ammunition compartment. The old warship sinks in under two minutes; despite the best efforts of torpedo boats and small craft supporting the expedition, only fifty of her 660 crewmen survive the disaster.

Top: the Bouvet, struck by a mine; bottom: the Bouvet sinking just moments later

Top: the Bouvet right after striking a 178-lb explosive charge. Bottom: the Bouvet sinking just moments later

As the fleet reacts to the loss of Bouvet, no one understands that a mine has caused the explosion which killed her. Only an hour later, as mines begin popping to the surface behind the trawlers dragging chains to unmoor them from the sea floor, does anyone understand the threat. At 4:30, the battleship Inflexible strikes a mine on her starboard bow, killing every man in the affected compartment and causing her bow to drop perilously close to the waves. While her captain is able to limp back to the safety of Tenedos, his ship is in need of docking and repair before she can return to the fight.

Almost simultaneously, her sister ship Irresistible strikes a mine halfway down her starboard side — a direct hit under the engine room bilge at the center of the boat. The compartment floods so quickly that only three men escape, and then the water pressure buckles the bulkhead, flooding the portside engine room and leaving Irresistible listing dead in the water. When the shore guns see this, they redouble their fire on her, incurring more casualties as 28 officers and 582 men abandon ship.

By the time Vice Admiral John de Robeck becomes aware that mines are responsible for the debacle, the HMS Ocean is already beside the crippled Irresistible, which is now listing too far to be saved. Seeing that the Irresistible must be adandoned, de Robeck issues the “General Recall” signal at about 6 PM. But as the Ocean withdraws under heavy fire from both shores, she also hits a mine. Then a shell strike floods the tiller-room and the starboard steering, jamming her rudders hard to port and making repairs impossible. With his ship listing badly, Captain Hayes-Sadler signals three nearby destroyers to close in and rescue the crew as he abandons ship.

Along with the Irresistible, Ocean serves the Turkish gunners with an easy target for another hour before both elderly battlewagons finally sink. Of the sixteen capital ships that began the day’s operations, three are destroyed, and three more are too damaged to continue. As a result, Vice Admiral de Robeck determines that he cannot force the Strait by naval power alone.

A map of the day's operations. You can see the full-size version at Naval-History.net

A map of the day’s disastrous operations. You can see the full-size version at Naval-History.net