The Black Sea in World War One

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 torpedo boats.

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.


Russian Response

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 Black 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. The Goeben 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 the operation.

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 boost.

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 Adm. Koichak.

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.


Russian Dominance

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 in May.


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.