Somewhere in the Black Sea....An Account of a Naval Action of Historic Importance by Thomas Royston.
On the morning of November 28th a substantial force of Turkish and German warships was heading East into the Black Sea with the twofold intention of conducting shore bombardments and the laying of minefields in support of the land based operations currently underway in the area and to restrict Russian naval interference of the same. Russian naval activity had thus far been primarily concerned with the disruption the Turkish coastal coal trade. Due to the lack of a coastal railway link, most of Turkey’s coal had to be transported by sea so any interruption of this supply would have a far reaching effect on the Ottoman ability to wage war. Already a number of coastal freighters had been sunk by the Russians and so the Turkish Navy was obliged to regularly patrol the shipping lanes to ensure a safe passage for these vital shipments.
The combined Turkish/German force, under the command of Rear Admiral Wilhelm Souchon onboard the battle cruiser Yavuz Sultan Selim, had just cleared the furthermost coaling harbour when smoke was spotted on the horizon. The squadron at his command consisted of the battle cruiser Yavuz Sultan Selim; the cruisers Midilli, Hamidiye and Mecidiye, the old battleships Turgud Reis and Hayreddin Barbarossa and an escort of two destroyers- Muavenet-i Milliye and Yadigar-i Millet - and four torpedo boats – Samsun, Yarhisar (operating on the southernmost beam), Tasoz and Basra (operating on the northerly beam). The three cruisers were deployed in a screen roughly three miles ahead of the main body in an arrowhead formation, centred on the Midilli with the Hamedye to the north and the Mecidiye to the south. The two flanking cruisers were roughly three miles off of the rear port and starboard quarters respectively of the Midilli. The Yavuz Sultan Selim had the two destroyers as close escort – one on either beam - and following her in a line ahead were the old battleships Turgud Reis and Hayreddin Barbarossa. The torpedo boats were split evenly with two operating on either beam of these old ships. The fleet had from the early morning mist and was just about to increase speed when the first shells from the Russian battle line began falling uncomfortably closely to the flagship. Reacting instantly, the Yavuz Sultan Selim accelerated to her best speed whilst swing the helm over hard a starboard. The cruiser screen was ordered to fall in behind her thus providing a link with the slower battleships bringing up the rear. The whole formation was to turn to the south and retrace its steps back to the West and to take advantage of the lingering bank of sea mist from which they had only recently emerged. The quantity and accuracy of the Russian fire convinced Souchon that he was facing the enemy’s entire strength and so a withdrawal would be the safest course of action – particularly bearing in mind the relative slowness of his two battleships. This was the plan of action – a sound one to be sure – but it was to be fatally compromised by the actions of the Russians.
Whilst Souchon and the Turkish fleet were executing their withdrawal from the action, the Russians had exercised a commendable tactical ploy that took the Turks completely by surprise.
The Russian formation approaching from the south east was disposed of thus: the battleships Evstafi, Ioann Zlatoust, Pantelejmon, Tri Sviatitelia and Rostislav in a line ahead with the first two ships heading in a north westerly direction and the remaining three heading due west. The two cruisers; the Kagul and the Pamiat Merkurija had adopted forward flanking positions in their screening role, located some 3 miles off the forward port and starboard quarter of the flagship, the Evstafi. The Pamiat Merkurija was the northernmost of the two cruisers. Directly behind either cruiser followed the destroyers and torpedo boats deployed as follows: following the Kagul came the Bespokoinyi, Gnevnyi, Leitenat Pushchin and Zavetnyi and behind the Pamiat Merkurija came the Gromkiy, Pospeshnyi, Zavidnyi and the Zhivoy. The three battleships and four torpedo boats had only just reunited with the Evstafi and her consorts as the Rostislav had experienced engine trouble that had delayed their departure by several hours. Ordinarily the five battleships would operate as a single formation but in a moment of inspired thinking, Vice Admiral Eberhardt ordered the Pantelejmon division to continue heading on a westerly course, thereby splitting the formation but hopefully catching the Turks between two fires.
As soon as the Yavuz Sultan Selim had turned to starboard and was heading in a south westerly direction she was hit by the twelve inch guns of the Evstafi in one of the port side secondary emplacements, wrecking the gun, killing or wounding most of the gun crew and causing a small ammunition fire which was quickly brought under control. The ten eleven inch guns of the Yavuz Sultan Selim quickly opened their account with a long range hit scored against the Evstafi by way of returning the salutation. The Ioann Zlatoust also opened fire on the Turkish flagship but without success although the Yavuz was surrounded by a veritable forest of shell splashes. Not to be outdone by their larger compatriots both of the Russian cruisers opened fire against the nearest Turkish target, in this case the cruiser Midilli. Despite being the target of a blizzard of shellfire the Turkish cruiser managed to avoid any major damage although she was hit in one of the coal bunker spaces. Her retaliatory fire was both rapid and effective as she overwhelmed the Pamiat Merkurija with a deluge of four point one inch shells. The shot-riddled cruiser staggered out of line, belching smoke and flames and painfully limped off to the north east and away from the action.
The great looping turn of the Yavuz Sultan Selim had taken her across the face of the Evstafi and the Ioann Zlatoust, together with their escorts. She had the two destroyers accompanying her as well as the cruiser Midilli in her wake with the slower cruisers Hamidiye and Mecidiye falling in behind her. This was to prove to be fatal to both the Turkish cruisers as they passed in range of both the two Russian Battleships and given the fact that the Yavuz Sultan Selim was no longer a valid target, they gave the hapless Turks several salvoes of concentrated heavy fire. When the smoke and spray had cleared the Hamediye was down by the bows; battered and sinking and the Mecidiye was effectively out of action and in imminent danger of joining her compatriot.
Whilst the Turkish cruisers at the rear of the line were being mercilessly hammered by the Russian battleships the Yavuz Sultan Selim had made out the looming shape of three other enemy heavy units and so immediately opened out her starboard turn to engage the lead ship – the Pantelejmon. Once again, the ten eleven inch guns opened fire and succeeded in straddling and hitting the lead Russian ship with her opening salvo. The heavy blows sustained by the Pantelejmon were not to have been in vain though as they served to lure the Turkish battle cruiser into a fatal trap.
Mention should be made at this stage of the two old battleships: Turgud Reis and Hayreddin Barbarossa. They had instantly reacted to the opening of the action by turning as tightly as possible and at their best speed in order to conform with the frenzied manoeuvring of the flagship and the leading elements of the fleet. They managed to do this but in doing so were left behind by their escorting torpedo boats as they raced off in support of the flagship.
The Evstafi and Iaonn Zlatoust turned to the West with the obvious intention of engaging the two Turkish battleships and in order to give them something to think about the four escorting destroyers were unleashed in order to attack them at their best speed. In doing so the two Russian battleships passed within range of the still burning Mecidiye and it fell the Ioann Zlatoust to administer the coup de grace on the hapless and helpless Turkish cruiser.
Meanwhile, The Pantelejmon and her escorts raced ahead at their best speed in order to engage the still turning Yavuz Sultan Selim. In doing, the line became extended – mainly due the Rostislav being unable to keep up with her faster compatriots. The Leitenant Pushchin and Zavetnyi, racing ahead as they did managed to get within four thousand yards of the Turkish flagship and immediately attacked her with torpedoes. All but one of these deadly weapons missed but their bravery was rewarded with the sight of a large explosion against the hull of the giant battle cruiser. Such gallantry soon reaped its inevitable reward as the secondary batteries of the Yavuz Sultan Selim poured a withering fire into the two hapless torpedo boats and they disappeared under a welter of five point nine and three point four inch shells. At a range of less than five thousand yards the great battle cruiser then turned her attention to the Panteljmon and opened fire with all her main guns. In a single salvo the old battleship was stoved in, burning, riven and torn asunder as great gouts of flame shot skywards from her wounds and smoke poured from every opening. She went down fighting, with her flag flying proudly and her guns still firing. The Yavuz Sultan Selim was rocked by several explosions as her gallant adversary sold herself dearly and landed some damaging hits on the great battle cruiser.
The Turkish ship; no doubt inspired by her recent telling shots at the lead Russian battleship and her subsequent demise then decided to administer more of the same against the second ship in the line – the Tri Sviatitelia. At this moment she was having a battle all of her own against the two Turkish destroyers that had managed to move into the gap in the Russian battle line and was thus able to threaten both the Tri Sviatitelia and the Rostislav. Luckily for the Russians no torpedo hits were scored and the Turkish destroyers were engaged and damaged by the remaining two Russian torpedo boats.
To the north the two Turkish battleships had problems of their own as they gallantly fended off the attentions of the four Russian destroyers whilst the Evstafi and Ioann Zlatoust moved up in support. Whilst the destroyers were retiring to regroup, long range shots were traded with two of the small Turkish torpedo boats and these small ships were quickly overwhelmed and sunk. The clash between the two lines of battleships was not long delayed as once the Russian destroyers had cleared the scene the great guns on both sides opened up at a range of some twelve thousand yards. The gallant Evstafi sustained further damage whilst the Ioann Zlatoust emerged scot free from the fray. Of the two Turkish ships The Hayreddin Barbarossa was unscathed in this exchange; not so the Turgud Reis as she was wracked from stem to stern with an assorted fusillade of varying calibre shells from the Ioann Zlatoust that left the old ship down by the bows and burning furiously.
The end was in sight. The Yavuz Sultan Selim, rather than beat a retreat to fight another day chose instead to engage the Tri Sviatitelia at a murderously short range of less than four thousand yards. The great battle cruiser opened fire with everything she had and in minutes the ancient battleship was a pulverised and shattered wreck. Her sinking came at a high price though, as the old battleship fought back magnificently and poured shot after shot into the Yavuz Sultan Selim. In a matter of minutes she also staggered to a halt, blazing furiously and with great rents in her once proud hull. She was finished as a warship and with her damage control parties and pumps a chaotic shambles of twisted and tortured fire blackened metal, the order was given to abandon ship. The last acts of the drama were being played out as the remaining Turkish torpedo boats - Samsun and Yarhisar - attempted to escape the debacle but to no avail as they ruthlessly despatched by the Russian destroyers in a very one sided combat. The Midilli made good her escape by virtue of her speed and the Hayreddin Barbarossa, despite being the slowest vessel on either side managed to make the edges of the mist and so was soon lost to sight. The Russians then contented themselves with picking up survivors and tending to the wounded.
By any standard imaginable this defeat was a catastrophe for the Turks and the Germans. Although a high price was paid by the Russians in respect of the loss of two battleships and a pair of torpedo boats the threat of Turkish naval activity in the Black Sea has, at a stroke, been removed. The Russians conducted themselves magnificently throughout the action and the plan adopted by Vice Admiral Eberhardt was in the finest traditions of Nelson himself. A worthy and historic victory gained by determination, courage and singlemindedness.
THREE CHEERS FOR OUR GALLANT RUSSIAN ALLIES!!!
A series of maps and illustrations to support this account will be made available in a special edition of this journal at a later date. Please see your newsagent for details.