Target: Constantinople!

I've been reading a little about the Dardanelles campaign of 1915; not the famous landings in April but the failed naval campaign which preceded them in February and March. The basic idea was that British and French forces would sweep the Bosphorus clear of mines, knock out the Turkish naval guns on either side of the straits, proceed to Constantinople and then receive Turkey's surrender. In the event, the first two parts of this plan failed rather spectacularly (three battleships were lost to mines in a single day), but even if they hadn't, just how a fleet of warships was supposed to make a country surrender has never been very clear, at least not to me.

It's tempting to see this as a sort of naval knock-out blow. Constantinople, the Turkish capital, would be under the guns of the Allied battleships. Turkey had no significant navy of its own, besides the ex-German battlecruiser Goeben which would have been hugely outnumbered, so the city would be open to a devastating naval bombardment. So perhaps the sheer moral effect of this would cause a collapse. And it seems the Turks feared this. On 18 March, the day of the attempted breakthrough, according to Robert Massie:

Meanwhile, in Constantinople, the government and the populace were convinced that the Allied fleet would break through. All Turks respected the near legendary power of the British navy; no one believed that a collection of ancient forts and guns at the Dardanelles could bar its way. Accordingly, word of the massive bombardment precipitated an exodus from the capital. The state archives were evacuated and hidden; the banks were emptied of gold; many affluent Turks already had sent their families away. The distance from Gallipoli to Constantinople was only 150 miles; most Turks expected that less than twelve hours after they entered the Sea of Marmara, British battleships would arrive off the Golden Horn.1

So if a moral effect was intended, it seems like it was starting to work. But as I say, it's frustratingly unclear in the histories and biographies I have to hand just what the Allies expected was going to happen. There's a suggestion that Kitchener thought the morale of the Turkish army would break; maybe there would be another revolution; or maybe the soldiers eventually landed at Gallipoli could have been used to take Constantinople instead. Of course, there would have been other benefits from forcing the straits: opening the sea lanes to Russia, foremost among them.

Whether or not the Dardanelles operation was supposed to have been a naval knock-out blow, it may have had some influence on the development of the aerial knock-out blow. Frederick Sykes was a relatively early believer in the power of strategic bombing, as far as the RAF was concerned, but even the exhaustive semi-biography by Eric Ash doesn't pin down when he did adopt it. (Ash suggests before the war, but doesn't really show this.) But from July 1915, Sykes was the commander of the RNAS in the eastern Mediterranean, including the Dardanelles. He would have been aware that Constantinople was the ultimate objective of the campaign, and he did in fact propose bombing the city from the air to undermine Turkish morale and interdict supply.2 Perhaps this problem of how to get at Constantinople, and maybe rumours of the panic in March, got him thinking about the potential power of the bomber in ending a war? The same applies to P. R. C. Groves, who was Sykes' chief of staff, and would again be his subordinate in 1918 when they were the RAF's Chief of Air Staff and Director of Flying Operations respectively, and were very keen to bomb Germany as hard as possible. I've looked at Groves' papers, however, and there's not enough evidence there to say whether he believed in anything like the knock-out blow before late 1917. All I can say is that the lure of Constantinople could have been one influence on the air extremism of Groves and Sykes.


  1. Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), 464. 

  2. Eric Ash, Sir Frederick Sykes and the Air Revolution, 1912-1918 (London and Portland: Frank Cass, 1999), 82. 

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13 thoughts on “Target: Constantinople!

  1. Erik Lund

    I think that the hope might have been for a rerun of 1878. Of course, the Royal was much more welcome off Istanbul in 1878, but there's a key point here that people tend to overlook. For those who make policy by newspaper headlines, it seemed obvious enough that since the Turkish Empire, had no right to exist, a beneficient Nature would fold it up and throw it in the dustbin of history the moment that stern and forceful measures were taken. That fantasy did not really die even at Chanak, is my reading of citations from Tedder's journal in Victor Orange. (Tellingly, it is Churchill who gave the idea up, and the supposedly more clear-sighted Tedder who held on to it.)
    In a practical light, the strategic objectives of the operation could only be achieved by clearing the Bosphorus, something for which the plan made no provision whatsoever. I've a feeling that the strategists wre right in assuming that having British battleships in Istanbul harbour would be a good thing, but the thinking here _does_ seem a little woolly to me.

  2. Gallipoli was also important from the perspective of air power in Combined Operation. Rightly or wrongly it became the practical example for the Staff Colleges in the inter-war period. Whether or not it brought out the right point is debatable, however, it the first post-war Combined Operation exercise at Camberley the Army Staff College's Commandant, Major General Anderson, argued that the lessons of the First World War, and in particular Gallipoli, was that Combined Operations ‘…will in the future have to be considered as a combined operation involving all three services..’ This led to a considerable amount of theortical debate in the inter-war years on the application of air power in Combined Operations.

    Here is a thought does Gallipoli mark the end of the idea of the naval knock out blow? Is there such a thing in he 19th Century?

  3. Jakob

    Is the naval parallel to the knock-out blow the idea of a decisive battle to destroy an enemy's fleet-in-being? Jellicoe being able to lose the war in an afternoon and all that. I don't know my Mahan or my naval history well enough to say. Although I suppose in all cases this is a case of navies fighting one another rather than striking a blow at the civilian populace.

  4. JDK

    I think they were hoping for a re-run of 'The Shortest War' ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Zanzibar_War ). Send gunboats, foreigners quit.

    Apparently there were theories that different foreigners had different degrees of stiffness, but the RN was superior to all, dontcherknow.

    In modern English use, I'd tend to distinguish between 'morale' and 'moral' 'self-belief' vs 'rightness'. Which of us is being pedantic, old fashioned or wrong? (There, that's poisoned the well...)

  5. There was also, presumably, the recognition that such Turkish industry as there was at the time was concentrated around the capital, and that getting into the Straits would cut off communication between the European and Asian parts of Turkey, i.e. also cutting off any help from the Central Powers. Arguably the operation might have succeeded; there were only about 50 mines in the Straits, and the RN later got its minesweeping better organised, and the Turks were close to running out of ammunition for the big guns after the 18th.

    It's also worth pointing out that Turkey only very narrowly came down on the side of the Central Powers in the first place, and they may have hoped for something more of a "diplomatic-military operation" to strengthen the pro-Allied faction than the epic struggle it turned into.

  6. Erik Lund

    The idea of taking a fleet of battleships through a long strait less than a mile wide in places, and none too wide even at the greatest (IIRC) is, and was, _insane._ Battleships might carry a great deal of armour, but they are eminently sinkable by a battery of field artillery, given time. The fact that the whole discussion ignores the point that the Bosphorus would have been an even toughter nut to crack suggests that no-one has really thought this through.
    I'm glad to hear that someone finally has.

  7. Chris Williams

    Were they planning to force the Bosporous (which is north of Constantinople)? Even parking in the Golden Horn would be a bit hardcore: you could bring Constantinople under fire from the middle of the Sea of Mamora, so why bother?

  8. Erik Lund

    What I understand from my Oscar Parkes is that not all areas of a battleship are equally well protected, and that aft of the forward bulwark, they aren't protected at all, and this is nearly equally true of the far stern. As a result, naval architects epected sinking to ensue --eventually-- if the bow and stern were riddled by shell fragments. It's an issue of waterlogging resulting in hull working, so it would not happen during a battle, but could easily occur during the return to port.

  9. Post author

    Alex:

    I thought that too. But I couldn't find any evidence (in my admittedly brief trawl) that anyone was thinking about cutting supply lines across the straits at the time, or even claimed that in retrospect. Of course, the Allies were hoping for a quick knock-out blow, and the effects on the Turkish armies in Asia would take a long time to manifest. But it might have been thought that the prospect of losing the empire to the Russians and British would make the Turks cave.

    Turkey entered the war in October 1914 so diplomacy wasn't a factor.

    Alan:

    I've got Prior's book now. He addresses the exodus from Constantinople I mention in my post, but calls it a rational reaction to the possibility of bombardment rather than panic. And notes that much the same happened in Paris a few months earlier but nobody suggests that France was about to surrender. He also argues that the Turkish guns were not running low on ammo, and that the naval attempts to pierce the straits were exceedingly stupid ...

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