Tuesday 28 April 2015

Submarine under the Dardanelles, exactly a century on

The Dardanelles in the early hours of 27 April 1915, exactly a hundred years ago yesterday morning. Here Agamemnon and the Greeks landed for the attack on Troy. Here Xerxes had ordered the sea to be lashed for destroying his invasion bridges. Here Lord Byron swam against the Hellespont current.

Now it was the very portals of the Ottoman Empire for the crew of the British submarine E14, staring silently into the darkness from the small conning tower, eight feet above the waves. It meant mines, forts, searchlights and wire submarine nets. It meant a formidable current pouring fresh water over strange and unpredictable layers of salt water up the 38 mile passage from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Marmora, and through one narrow point only three quarters of a mile wide. It meant undertaking possibly the longest dive ever contemplated in a submarine.

It also meant passing the wreckage of the submarines that had tried to pass that way in the days and weeks before, the French submarine Saphir and the British E15, lying wrecked and battered on a sandbank off Kephez Point, their dead buried on the beach, their survivors in captivity.

The sea was absolutely smooth and there was only a breath of air from the movement of the submarine itself. The canvas screens around the bridge had been removed to make the conning tower less visible. The electric batteries that would power their motors underwater had been charged to their highest pitch, as they waited in their harbour of Tenedos with its medieval castle, its windmills and its Greek sailing caiques, just a few miles from the site of ancient Troy.

E14 had weighed anchor at 1.40 in the morning. There was no escort for their lonely voyage. The goodbyes had been said. They had written their farewell letters, knowing that the chances were now against their survival, and given them into safekeeping.

The submarine’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Courtney Boyle, had written three – to his wife, his parents and his solicitor – in the three hours warning he had been given at Mudros harbour the day before. Now he stood in his navy greatcoat, holding onto the rail, his binoculars around his neck, staring ahead in the blackness at the navigation lights of the allied warships, the greens and reds slipping away behind him.

Next to him, his navigating officer, Lieutenant Reginald Lawrence, only 22 years old, a reserve officer from the merchant navy, who had been there just a year before in peacetime. Below, the executive officer, Edward Stanley, was supervising the control room, listening to the rhythmic pulse of the engines.

It was a flat calm and there was no moon. From the northern shore in the distance ahead of them came the boom of guns and the flash of high explosive, a reminder that British, Australian, New Zealand and Indian troops were now dug in on the beaches, after their dramatic and perilous landings 48 hours before. Closer to the invasion beaches, they could see the shimmer of tiny glows from the trenches, the cigarette ends and makeshift fires of the soldiers dug into the dunes.

On their left hand side, there was a huge searchlight by the Suan Dere river; Boyle’s first objective was to get as close as possible to the estuary there before diving. Beyond that, he could see searchlights on both shores, sweeping the sea ahead of them. He and Lawrence reckoned the one past the white cliffs on the southern shore must be Kephez Point, where E15 had come to grief and, further ahead, a more powerful yellow light, was the great fort at Chanak.

One diesel engine drove them ahead, and the noise and the fumes were horribly apparent to anyone on the conning tower, where the exhaust pipe was. Boyle was as experienced a submarine commander as any other afloat, but he was aware that he had not quite earned his commander’s confidence. The calculations about speed, battery endurance, current and all the rest had been going through his head constantly since the dramatic meeting in the fleet flagship just two weeks before when – like all but one in the room – he had judged the venture impossible. The single dissenting voice was now dead.

But Boyle did have a plan. It was to get as far as possible to conserve their battery before diving, to dive as deep as possible under the obstructions, but to rise to periscope depth as often as possible in the most difficult sections of the journey, where the current was most unpredictable, to make sure the submarine did not drift He was acutely aware that his own skill and experience was now the determining factor, above all others, in his survival, the survival of the other 29 men on board, and of course of the success or otherwise of the mission.

They passed a brightly lit hospital ship, with its red crosses illuminated under spotlights, and then they were alone at the mouth of the Dardanelles. The crew were sent below and the engine room hatch was closed as a precaution. The Suan Dere searchlight loomed ahead, swept over them and then came back. Had they been seen? It flashed away again. It was not clear either how much the stripped down conning tower was visible.

Then the searchlight was back and this time it stayed on them for 30 seconds. Lawrence gave a strained laugh. They had been seen. Boyle sent Lawrence below and ordered diving stations. By the time the hatch had been shut behind them, and they had swept down the iron ladder into the control room, two shots had been fired.

Lawrence settled down with his notebook in the control room. “Now we had really started on our long dive,” he wrote later. Everything now depended on the captain’s skill and the resources of their electric batteries to drive them underwater...

Find out what happened next in my book Unheard, Unseen (£1.99) (also paperback version).

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Iain King said...

There was a great TV documentary on at the weekend, with details about the Gallipoli landings. They cited a previous submarine, which had been shelled and captured, killing the captain, en route through the Dardenelles. Curiously, they suggested the mission's failure might have been deliberate, since it allowed a diplomat to be captured, and give false information about the landings to the Turks. Absolutely fascinating.

David Boyle said...

Iain, thanks so much. That was E15, and I don't think it was deliberate - it was a precaution taken just in case the diplomat fell into enemy hands.