The Black Sea in World
Because of the aura surrounding the German battlecruiser
Goeben and the epic of its escape to Constantinople (Istanbul) at the outbreak of the war in 1914,
there is often an assumption the Central Powers dominated the Black Sea. The Goeben certainly was
important, but the reality was the Russians had the upper hand there - and
exploited their advantage.
Turkish entry into World War I is a complex and often
misunderstood topic. The main factor was the Ottoman government decided to back
the seeming winners, when they saw their traditional enemy Russia being beaten by Central Powers' armies
in the east front battles of 1914. It was the German-led Turkish navy that
opened hostilities for Constantinople, with a surprise attack on the Russians on 29 October.
Turkish ships laid mines at key ports, including the main Russian
naval base at Sevastopol. The German light cruiser Breslau, two old Turkish cruisers and some destroyers, attacked
Russian shipping and shelled harbor installations. Goeben led a major attack on
the harbor at Sevastopol with a dawn bombardment. The intention
was presumably to draw out the Russian fleet into the minefields. Instead; the Goeben took
three hits from Russian shore batteries and had to fight off aggressive Russian
The attack on Sevastopol achieved little of real value. A few
transports, a gunboat and a minelayer were sunk, and there was damage to some
shore installations, but it was just the beginning of the naval war.
In the early stages of the war the Russian high command was
concerned about the Turks landing around the vital Black Seaport of Odessa. It is doubtful the Central Powers
could have seized Odessa, but Petrograd pressured the Russian commander in the
Sea, Adm. Ebergard, to act cautiously. That
was a shortsighted policy, as the Russian pre-dreadnoughts were only effective
if they concentrated for striking a major blow on the offensive. Dispersed to
defend different harbors along the littoral, they would have been easy targets
had the Goeben
led the Turkish navy on a sweep of the Black Sea. Ebergard
thought the better option was to pressure the Turks,
and his objective was to blockade the Bosphorus and
cut Turkish sea communications.
The Russians, however, did not have the resources for a permanent
blockade of the Turkish coast. The pre-dreadnoughts had a limited range of
operations, only being able to remain at sea for about four days. It would take
them a day to get to the Turkish coast, which meant only two days on blockade
duty. Ebergard’s plan was therefore to establish
minefields at key points.
The Battle of Cape Sarych
On 17 November, Ebergard was at sea with
his five pre-dreadnoughts, shelling the port of Trebizond. Goeben sailed, hoping to pick off isolated Russian ships as they were
returning to the Crimea. Instead, on the 18th, she encountered the
squadron off Cape Sarych. Visibility was poor, and when the
Russian flagship Evstafi,
leading the line, finally spotted the Goeben they were only 8,000
yards apart. None of the ships following could spot the target, and finally Evstafi
opened fire on her own.
It came down to a brief skirmish between the Goeben and the Evstafi.
was hit at least once, probably from Evstafi’s first salvo. That hit knocked out a port
secondary gun and started an ammunition fire that caused a magazine to flood. Goeben
altered course and steamed away at full speed. Evstafi took four hits but was
not seriously damaged
Russia on the Offensive
In December the Russians launched naval operations against
both the Bosphorus and Zonguldak.
Extensive minelaying took place off the former, and
they attempted to block the harbor of the latter with four old ships. Breslau was on patrol and, learning
of the raid, moved to intercept. Two of the Russian ships were sunk and the
others were scuttled.
Goeben had led a lucky life so far, but that
was about to change. She was also out at sea and returning to the Bosphorus when she hit two mines on 26 December. Damage was
considerable and the ship spent three months undergoing repairs, which was not
helped by the absence of a suitable dry dock. Engineers were sent from Germany to facilitate the repairs, filling
breaches in the hull with concrete.
1915 also saw two Russian seaplane carriers in action. While
relatively ineffectual as attack aircraft, the seaplanes proved useful for
reconnaissance. In response to the increased Russian aggressiveness, the
Germans and Turks launched a major raid on Russian shipping. The raid
backfired, as the old cruiser Medjidieh hit a mine off Odessa and was sunk. The Russians actually
managed to salvage that ship and put it back into service in October as the Prut.
In February 1915 the British and French launched their
operation against Gallipoli. The Allied objective was to force the Bosphorus, make an amphibious landing outside the Ottoman
capital, and then seize Constantinople. Unfortunately for the Allies, the operation quickly bogged
down as Turkish resistance stiffened. Throughout April and May 1915, the Russians
raided the area around the Bosphorus in support of
Goeben came out again on 9 May to try to pick
off isolated ships, and on the 10th nearly caught two
pre-dreadnoughts, two seaplane carriers and some light ships that were engaged
in bombardment operations. But the German ship was spotted by a screening
cruiser, and the Russians concentrated two pre-dreadnoughts against her. The Goeben
ought to have had the upper hand, but German gunnery did not live up to its
reputation and, amazingly, failed to score a single hit on the Russian ships,
despite ideal conditions. With considerable skill, Ebergard
brought two more pre-dreadnoughts to bear, and the Goeben took several more hits before fleeing.
In October 1915, the Russians brought into service the first
of their eagerly awaited modem battleships, followed three months later by a
second. Each was a match for the Goeben, well armored and with heavy firepower. The Goeben’s
only advantage was her superior speed, which gave her the opportunity to avoid
combat. The Russians now formed two battle groups, one around each of the new
battleships and a third based on the pre-dreadnoughts. The balance was turning.
The Shipping War
Sea transport in the Black Sea was important for the Turks due to the
lack of roads and rail lines along their coasts. There was extensive commercial
shipping, and sea transport was also essential for moving troops and supplies
to the Caucasus front. The port of Zonguldak on the Black Sea shipped most of the coal used in Constantinople. So the Russians devoted much effort
to raiding shipping along those routes. The Turks could do little about it as
their navy was unsuited for escort duties.
The Russians started raiding with four large, fast
destroyers, and by 1915 more were entering service. The Turkish merchant fleet
was steadily worn down and the loss of coal in particular was a major setback
to the economy. That, in turn, limited naval operations as the Central Powers’
ships needed coal to fire their boilers.
Convoy raiding was not entirely one sided. Goeben and Breslau were occasionally sent out to attack Russian shipping or to
bombard enemy ports. Those raids achieved little except to act as a morale
Some relief came with the arrival, in June 1915, of several German
U-boats in Constantinople. Fearing their pre-dreadnoughts were vulnerable to undersea
attack, the Russians pulled back. As a result, Ebergard
was dismissed from his command in July. But that was no help for the Central
Powers, as his replacement was the highly competent and even more aggressive
Kolchak launched a major minelaying
campaign that severely restricted U-boat access to the Black Sea. Goeben narrowly avoided being
torpedoed by a Russian submarine in November 1915. That incident made Souchon even more reluctant to risk his ship unless it was
for a vital mission. That led to some friction with the Turkish command as they
wanted a more aggressive role for the German battlecruiser.
The Russians launched a seaplane carrier raid against Zonguldak on 6
February 1916, sinking a large collier. The coal crisis became so critical Goeben
spent an increasing amount of its time at sea on convoy escort. On 8 January 1916, Goeben
was pursuing two Russian destroyers when she ran into one of the new Russian dreadnoughts,
the Imperatritsa Ekaterina. The Russian gunnery was good and
bracketed the German ship with shells at a range of 20,000 yards. Unable to
challenge the far more powerful Russian ship, the Goeben fled undamaged.
As 1916 opened, the Russian navy focused on supporting army
operations on the Caucasus front. There they built up Batum
as a base for small warships. In January 1916, the Rostislav and some light
escorts bombarded Turkish positions on the coast. The Turks, outgunned, had to
fall back. There were also destroyer raids between Trebizond and Batum.
Interestingly, while the disastrous Allied
Gallipoli operation has gotten much historical attention, Russian amphibious
operations proved much more successful. The Russians adapted coastal merchant
vessels then operating in the shallow waters of the Sea of Azov into landing craft.
Using those ships,
they landed 2,100 men behind
the Turkish lines in March 1916. Again, Rostislav and escorting ships
provided gunfire support. And again, the operation forced the Turks to pull
back. Following up, the Russians seized the small port of Rize. While neither of those operations
encountered much opposition, they were well executed and a fine example of the
Russian ability to exploit naval superiority and mobility.
During April the Russians shipped into Rize
major reinforcements from Novorossiysk. It was a well organized operation
involving 22 transports with proper beach control, clearly marked channels
swept for mines, aerial reconnaissance from seaplane carriers, anti-submarine
patrols, and offshore screening battle groups. The pressure was sufficient to
force the Turks to abandon Trebizond, and Russian troops seized that town
Things Go Wrong
The Russians suffered a major setback in October 1916 with the
loss of Imperatritsa Maria. The battleship was moored in Sevastopol when an explosion in the forward
magazine tore through her hull. The ship was scuttled at her mooring to prevent
further explosions. There were the inevitable claims of sabotage, but the
explosion was probably an accident.
The strategic situation as 1917 opened was not good for the Allies
in the East. The Russian army was beginning to disintegrate in the face of
massive casualties and battlefield defeat. Talk of revolution spread throughout
the ranks, and plans for a new offensive against the Ottoman Empire had to be scrapped. The first Russian
revolution overthrew the Czar in March 1917, replacing the Romanovs
with a provisional government. The provisional government wanted to stay in the
war, and the fleet continued to operate, albeit at a lower level of efficiency.
In April 1917 the Russians carried out mine laying and a series of
bombing attacks around Sinope in Rumania. The latter were launched from an
expanded fleet of seaplane carriers. While the raids were too weak to do much
damage, they were a harbinger of things to come and demonstrated the
willingness of the navy to adopt new techniques.
Disintegration in the East
Despite its relatively successful operations, the morale and
discipline of the Russian Black Sea Fleet started to collapse. It is a measure of the
leadership of Ebergard and Kolchak
that the fleet’s sailors were among the last to give way to the November
revolution, which swept the Bolsheviks into power and triggered the great Russian Civil War. As a result, the Russians continued
to dominate the Black Sea throughout the year and Goeben and Breslau could still venture out only for the occasional raid.
The final Russian collapse came just in time to save the
Turks. Their economy was crumbling under the pressure of the blockade and
defeats on land. From late 1917 the Germans and Austro-Hungarians steadily
occupied Russia, and in May 1918 they entered Sevastopol. The best of the Russian warships fled
to other ports, while the Germans captured some of the older ships. In June
1918 some of the newer Russian ships, including the Volya, were taken over by the Germans and sailed back to Sevastopol. The rest were scuttled, including the
Svobodnaya Rossiya. The Germans never had the chance to
use the captured ships, as their own collapse in November 1918 ended the war.
It would not have made much of a difference anyway—the German navy did not have
the crews to man captured vessels.