When in future years the story of Helles and ANZAC and Suvla is weighed, it will, I think, appear that had the necessary air service been built up from the beginning and sustained, the Army and the Navy could have forced the Straits and taken Istanbul.
So wrote the Chief of Air Staff of the Royal Air Force in 1922. Air Vice Marshal Frederick Sykes was commander of all aircraft at Gallipoli from August until the withdrawal in December/January. It will undoubtedly come as a surprise to most that as many as 100 aircraft of all shapes and sizes flew over the ANZAC battlefields throughout the Gallipoli campaign. The world’s first aircraft carrier operated off the coast from February 1915, supporting a menagerie of seaplanes, aeroplanes, balloons and blimps. Sykes was supported in his prescient opinion on the potential of air power by the official British air historian, H.A. Jones, who controversially concluded his examination of the Gallipoli air war by writing:
Had these two weapons [Allied submarines and aircraft] been on the spot, in sufficient numbers to attack decisively the precarious Turkish communications to the peninsula, the enemy could not have stood his ground. Inadequate as they were, they nearly did prove decisive.
The story of the Gallipoli air war has lain neglected for almost 100 years. Yet over 2000 missions were flown by the early aviators of both sides, engaging in bombing, reconnaissance, naval gunfire correction and torpedoing of enemy vessels. It was a dangerous occupation pursued by adventurous young men in flimsy craft often several thousand feet above enemy territory without the reassurance of a parachute. The diligence and passion of this small group of aviators also ensured the future of air intelligence, the information they both collected and conveyed challenging the excuse of ‘failures in intelligence’ proffered by British generals for their own disastrous failures of command. By contrast, ANZAC officers who saw these extraordinary craft grasped the opportunities they offered to learn what the enemy was doing on ‘the other side of the hill’. Air intelligence was folded into the landing on 25 April and, more effectively, in the brilliant ANZAC withdrawal in December 1915. Among the intrepid aviators were dashing young Australians who flew over Anzac Cove as their compatriots landed in an amphibious assault that was to forever mark their nation’s history. Indeed, the last Australian to die at Gallipoli was an Australian aviator. This is the story of those aviators who played a crucial, albeit largely unrecognised, role in the Gallipoli campaign as the eyes of those on the ground who could see no further than the next ridgeline.
I have used my (limited) experience as an Intelligence Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force to cast this story. Given my experience, my focus is naturally on both the story of pioneering aviation and its clever use, and the intelligence gained from the shrewd employment of what was then cutting-edge technology. Gallipoli Air War is the story of the triumph of this technology, and equally a tale of frustration and disappointment, of luddites and naysayers who refused to embrace this new weapon of war and stuck steadfastly to the ways of old, with the inevitable tragic consequences.
Like the campaign itself, this story is fast and pacey— indeed, almost breathless at times. Unlike the campaign, this story is easy to read. It is a deliberate departure from the traditional take on the Gallipoli narrative, which I have somewhat modernised to broaden its appeal and breathe new life into what has become, for some, a stale and hackneyed tale. For the most part, I have dispensed with cumbersome military titles and used first names so as to create a sense of identification with the people whose story this is. I have tried to erase the barrier of almost 100 years of intervening history to bring these men to life. The pages are populated by Harry, Charles, Herb and the like. Aviators, pilots and aircrew are an informal bunch. They rate people by their ability to perform under stress; they are (and were) largely unimpressed by titles or ranks. In this they had much in common with the Australian digger, that great disparager of military rank.
This is the story of real people who lived and breathed just as surely as you and me. Their lives were vastly different, but their passions, perceptions and frustrations often strikingly familiar. The story of the aviators and the Gallipoli air war they waged so long ago is now ripe for the telling.
In the beginning: February 1915
Harry Strain was a regular chap. He fished on weekends and worked in an office in London before the war. How he became mates with a bunch of baggy-arsed Australians living atop the cliffs of Anzac Cove is a story worth telling. It’s an unusual story that will also tell the tale of the air battle fought over the Gallipoli Peninsula. Harry, who flew seaplanes from the world’s first aircraft carrier, had a decisive role in the survival of many hundreds of young men sheltering in the trenches of Steele’s and Courtney’s posts from April to December 1915.
Harry kept a detailed diary. After each mission he would describe the events he had witnessed 1000 feet below the canvas wings of his seaplane. He also visited the trenches and described the struggles he saw from the air. Harry was later joined by more than 100 pilots and observers who crewed all sorts of aircraft types: seaplanes, aeroplanes, several balloons and even a large blimp. Their voices are added to this account as they arrive at Gallipoli.
Harry was a capable airman but a terrible poet. He wrote some lines in his diary before he joined the British Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) as an aircrew observer:
There’s a time when the silvery salmon is lost to the rod and the dish, when a trout can’t be bought e’en by Mammon: There’s an annual close time for fish.
But in August the rod, gun and rifle are taken from the cupboard and case, and many a promising life’ll end through the chance of the chase.
Now a new sort of game is in season, the close time for Germans is o’er; from August the fifth for good reason we may bathe, if we please, in their gore.
So let’s shoot at their rocketing airmen, let us fish for their submarines sly, in the Game Book let’s enter as ‘Vermin’ the total of Teutons who die.
Then Harry went off to war.
The ‘shooting fest’ in Europe in August 1914 prompted the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey) to begin military mobilisation. Young men were called up for training across the country just in case war should reach their shores. While the ‘Game Books’ in Europe filled with the dead, Turkey remained teetering on the verge of neutrality for the next three months. Then dastardly ‘Teutonic’ diplomacy encouraged the Turks to sign a secret alliance.
Harry and I have something in common. We are both nuts about flying and we both worked in military intelligence. Harry fought at Gallipoli in 1915; I was in the Iraq War in 2003. Harry, and several pilots like him, had a profound effect on the battles that raged below on that broken promontory called the Gallipoli Peninsula. They told the generals what the enemy was doing on the other side of the hill. Descriptions of the role of intelligence will be added to the chattering of machine-guns and shriek of bombs that punctuate this story simply because intelligence was the most important element of that whole sordid campaign—as it was supposed to be in Iraq in 2003.
In 1914 the entry of two German warships through the Dardanelles, Goeben and Breslau, and their ‘sale’ to the Turkish navy further upset the balancing act in Istanbul. In London, the Admiralty and the Naval Intelligence Department were immediately concerned by the ships’ lurking presence, as they had the potential to sortie into the Mediterranean, guns blazing, and sink Allied shipping. In the following weeks the Naval Intelligence Department in London received daily reports from spies on the movements of these two powerful warships.
Harry put away his fishing rod and said his goodbyes in his favourite London pub. By 14 August he was a commissioned officer in the RNAS. Harry was already a qualified civilian pilot, gaining his licence in May 1913:
Flying in the early days had all the elements of sport. There are few thrills like doing one’s first solo flight . . . in the air alone and that it depends entirely on oneself whether you get back onto the ground whole or as a haggis.
To avoid delay (training depots, periods of waiting and the usual boredom), Harry joined as an observer rather than retraining as a naval pilot, hoping to join the fast track to Hun-killing. But while he happily completed a quick course in semaphore, Morse, wireless, bomb-dropping and ship recognition at Eastchurch aerodrome, a new menace was developing.
The Admiralty informed British diplomats on 21 September by SECRET cipher in Istanbul that war was a breath away:
For safety of our ships off Dardanelles would it not be well to inform Turkish Government that all Turkish ships of war and aircraft approaching them will be treated as hostile?
The Naval Intelligence Department wanted to deploy men like Harry to report on Turkish activity from the unique perspective that only an aircraft can provide. The concept of using aircraft for reconnaissance had been considered before war was declared, and was realised soon after the uneasy silence was broken by naval gunfire. Harry Strain was about to be swept up into something more horrible than the gutting board.
Then, in October 1914, the Turks closed the Dardanelles to sea traffic. Mines were sown and the ‘Turkish Governor Dardanelles informed officially Foreign Consuls, Dardanelles, that straits have been closed for shipping’. The British Consul at Channakale, a port astride the Narrows, was already aware. He was a spy, and he was sending coded cipher to the British warships lurking outside the mouth of the Dardanelles. He recorded the placement of each row of sea mines, giving the location and bearing of each of the 198 deadly ‘pineapples’.
The uneasy silence ended on 28 October 1914 with the smashing of Turkish naval shells into Russian shipping in the Black Sea. A FLASH signal from the British Ambassador in Istanbul told London the news: ‘Turkish Fleet bombarded Russian unfortified town of Theodosia and sank a gunboat in Odessa harbour yesterday morning.’ The Allied declaration of war was immediate. There was a flurry of diplomatic activity, a withdrawal of foreign missions and a formal declaration of war by the Entente powers on 31 October 1914. But the dapper, bowtie-wearing Winston Churchill was ready. He sent a FLASH signal to the British warships lurking off Gallipoli:
Commence hostilities at once against Turkey.
As confirmation of this state of belligerence, Vice Admiral Sackville Carden’s Eastern Mediterranean Squadron bombarded the outer forts guarding the mouth of the Dardanelles. Carden sent a quick report, but suspected that not all was well. They could not actually see the destruction of Turkish forts at long range:
INDEFATIGABLE fired 46 rounds 12 inch at Helles Fort. Forts replied. Some projectiles fell in the neighbourhood of the Squadron but only one alongside. No ships were hit. Material damage impossible to estimate but large explosion with dense volumes of black smoke at Helles Fort. Range 13,000 yards.
Britain’s response to Turkish attacks on Russia’s Black Sea shipping took the form of a bombardment on 3 November of the outer forts that barred passage through the Dardanelles. The Admiralty in London built false hope on the ability of naval gunfire to destroy the 35 Turkish forts that were known to protect the straits.
But Vice Admiral Sackville Carden was no fool. Digging deeper on 12 November, he sent further updates, thus bringing Harry to Gallipoli:
With 12 inch guns there is not much that can be done . . . endeavouring to locate guns . . . which could be dealt with [by] reduced charges or smaller guns. Also it may be possible to attack No.1 Fort and the new guns on Cape Helles from a position to the north west. The service of a seaplane would be valuable.
A plan evolved in London to end the ‘foolhardy’ Turkish venture into modern warfare. The plan involved deployment of a naval squadron to subdue the forts along the Narrows with the assistance of an aircraft carrier. The squadron would then proceed up the straits towards Istanbul. While Harry Strain visited a tailor and ordered a blue naval jacket with two gold stripes (he had been appointed a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve), unnamed naval staff officers were typing his fate in triplicate.
The use of aircraft in the looming fight over the Gallipoli Peninsula had been under consideration for quite some time. Rear Admiral Arthur Limpus, the head of the British naval delegation to the Sublime Porte, had considered using aircraft as early as August 1914 during the search for Goeben and Breslau. In a letter sent to the Admiralty, Limpus noted that, while aircraft could have been used for observation, they could have done little else lest they provide the ‘Teutons’ an excuse to complain during the three months of Turkish neutrality.
But now war had come to Turkey. So British naval intelligence began to submit formal requests for aeroplanes to undertake surveillance flights over the Dardanelles to assist Sackville Carden’s ‘blind’ naval squadron. There was also a need for high grade intelligence, as key members of the diplomatic staff including Arthur Limpus and the Vice Consul at Channakale, Mr Charles Palmer, had ceased reporting. The Director of Naval Intelligence pursued the deployment of aeroplanes, sending a request to the Secretary of Foreign Affairs seeking permission to build aerodromes on the Aegean islands just off the Gallipoli Peninsula.
This proposal was endorsed by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. On the SECRET pink file, Churchill wrote a question in green crayon: ‘Can Tenedos be used?’ The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Sir Edward Grey, replied that Tenedos was in Greek hands and offered to approach its government via diplomatic means. Greece had seized Tenedos (now Bozcaada) from Turkey in 1912. The island was ideally situated, lying some 30 kilo-metres off the coast of the Gallipoli Peninsula. Having secured permission for the use of Tenedos, Sir Edward Grey also gained approval from the Greeks for the use of the islands of Lemnos and Imbros for the blockade of the Dardanelles. Vice Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss was appointed Governor of the port of Mudros on the island of Lemnos.
On the other side of the peninsula, Hauptmann Erich Serno was the face of the enemy. A 29-year-old Prussian, Serno had been appointed to head the fledgling Turkish Air Service in January 1915. He had joined the German Army as a cadet in 1906 before commissioning in the 171st Infantry Regiment. He had much in common with pioneering British aviators such as the RNAS’ Charles Samson and Richard Davies—like them, he too had left the mainstream of the military. Serno had gained his pilot’s licence on a grass airstrip outside Berlin on 9 October 1912 before pursuing a career as a feldfleiger. At the outbreak of war he served over France in Abteilung 2 before being recalled for ‘other duties’. In October, following the alliance with Turkey, Serno joined General Otto Liman von Sanders’ Military Mission in Istanbul, arriving for duty at the training school at Yesilkoy Air Station outside Istanbul to greet his staff of 32 mechanics and 12 pilots. In November 1914, Serno was promoted to the rank of major in the Turkish Army. His war on this new front was about to begin.
While Turkey was proud of the calibre of its own pilots, they desperately needed the technical expertise of the Germans to continue flight operations now that the war had severed all trade with France. Turkey had bought a French Deperdussin aeroplane and two Bleriots. The Bleriot was an early attempt at sustained flight, a monoplane with a tiny 50hp Anzani engine. Approximately the size of a modern suburban ride-on mower, the Anzani engine pulled a wire-caged monoplane through the air. The wings suggested the shape of a bird’s with gently rounded edges. The Turkish Army had bought the Bleriot after an impressive aviation demonstration in December 1909. It had then been overused as a trainer. The army’s next purchase was the two-seater military version, with both pilot and observer sitting up high in the boxed forward section. The tail was attached to the forward section by bracing wires.
Germany had committed to equipping the Turkish Army with 24 modern aeroplanes. However, some difficulty was encountered in despatching these, along with their maintenance personnel and aircrew, across neutral Bulgaria.
In short, the rules of Bulgarian neutrality prohibited this. Undeterred, the Germans packed the aeroplanes in rail freight wagons and sent them to Turkey under the ‘protection’ of the Red Cross. This was both ingenious and illegal. Most shipments passed successfully, labelled innocuously as medical equipment.
Meanwhile, the Turkish Air Service had achieved some small victories. In January 1915, following the shelling and blockade, Turkey’s two older aeroplanes were shipped across the Sea of Marmara to the Dardanelles port of Channakale on the open deck of a freighter. Channakale Fortress Command was crying out for reconnaissance.
On 3 January the Admiralty signalled Sackville Carden and his blind Eastern Mediterranean Squadron asking whether it would be feasible to attempt to break through the Dardanelles, steam into the Marmara and threaten Istanbul. Carden, however, did not fancy his squadron’s chances of surviving a pounding by 35 Turkish forts along the Narrows (or the underwater hazards of five layers of sea mines). He was well aware of the risks, drawing on the latest intelligence in his wood-panelled office aboard HMS Indefatigable.
The first aeroplane flight in theatre was launched on 20 January 1915. The Turkish Air Service flew a reconnaissance mission from Channakale to Tenedos to report on enemy warships. A Turkish pilot, Captain Cemal, flew this first mission in the ageing Bleriot. A further two cross-ocean flights were conducted, the third flight because of reports of a submarine in the Aegean. Cemal looked down from his Bleriot on the newly arrived Australian submarine AE2 before the Anzani engine considered it had achieved what had been expected of it and Cemal was forced to dash for home.
During Carden’s first phase of attack on 17 February, Cemal desperately attempted to get his machine into the air. He ran the machine at full throttle along the grass strip outside Channakale, but the Anzani engine would not catch properly. Had it fired as required, Cemal may have met Harry in the air, each armed only with politeness.
By February 1915 the derelict training school outside Istanbul was operational. Six aviation tents were erected with a functioning workshop to repair the two elderly school machines. Misfortunes occurred. German bombs, hidden in drained beer kegs (to fool Bulgarian customs) were discovered when railway workers sought a quiet drink after work. The beer kegs had been included as medical supplies as beer was considered a ‘restorative’. The bombs were confiscated. Three airframes had been smuggled into Turkey in direct contravention of the Articles of War. A British intelligence coup caught wind of the second attempt to hide aeroplanes under Red Cross banners and the machines were confiscated. It was now a matter of urgency that the growing naval threat outside the Dardanelles be met, and German pilot Frank Siedler responded, flying his Rumpler B1 over Bulgaria, direct to Turkey.
Carden, the Admiralty and the Naval Intelligence Department had corroborative intelligence of high quality from the former British Vice Consul concerning the Turkish defences blocking the Narrows. When Vice Consul Charles Palmer fled his post at Channakale he was carefully debriefed by Carden and his naval staff. A report which clearly described the threat was sent in triplicate to London. It was highly detailed, providing descriptions of the 35 forts, concealed gun batteries and troop locations while also supplying compass bearings showing the placement of the deadly sea mines. These were anchored to the muddy bottom of the straits and hung in underwater curtains. Palmer wrote:
Line A has 29 mines
Line B has 22 mines
Line C has 26 mines
Line D and E have 50 mines
Line F has 27 mines
An additional 45 mines were laid in various places to close channels making a total of 199. Four exploded, leaving a total of, as far [as] is known, 195. These are all contact mines.
Carden’s reply to the Admiralty signal concerning an attempt to break through the Dardanelles and threaten Istanbul was sanguine. He told London that the Narrows could not be rushed but might be forced by extended operations using minesweepers and large numbers of ships. Despite his cautious response, Carden was directed by Churchill to develop a plan: ‘The Admiralty should prepare for a naval expedition in February to bombard and take the Gallipoli Peninsula with Constantinople [Istanbul] as its objective.’
Carden’s solution to Churchill’s insistence on a plan was a seven-phase attack involving the methodical destruction of the outer forts, followed by domination of the inner forts and minesweeping of the Narrows. The attack would be launched by the naval squadron, assisted by aircraft reconnaissance. Harry was now committed to the coming battle.
Excerpted from Gallipoli Air War by Hugh Dolan. Copyright © 2013 by Hugh Dolan.
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