Meanwhile the Royal Navy was active in submarine matters, and the waters off the coast of Turkey seemed like fertile hunting grounds for British submarine skippers.
In December, 1914, Lt. Norman D. Holbrook attempted the first penetration. At the approaches to the Dardanelles Holbrook gave the order for his submarine, the B-11, to submerge, knowing that because of danger from patrol craft and shore batteries he would not be able to expose his periscope as he navigated into the Turkish strait. His objective was to pass completely through the 37 miles of the Dardanelles without surfacing. He had to do this entirely by dead reckoning in a passage which narrowed at one point to a width of only a mile, and in which the surge of currents was strong and variable. With stopwatch, compass, and chart, Holbrook directed his B-11 to the north.
On December 12 Holbrook's calculations indicated that his submarine had passed through the Dardanelles and should be in the Sea of Marmara, with the Turkish capital and principal port of Constantinople (Istanbul) only a few hours of surface cruising ahead. Carefully Holbrook brought the B-11 up to periscope depth and scanned the horizon. On all sides there was nothing but open water. He gave the orders to bring his submarine to the surface.
Approaching Constantinople, Holbrook observed the shipping which plied the waters near the port. Sailing craft, steamers, ferries, fishing boats — all passed before the glass eye of the B-11's periscope before Holbrook saw the target he wanted: the Turkish naval ship Messudiah , a large but aged guard ship.
A single torpedo from the B-11 ended the Messudiah's forty-year career, and Turkey was shaken by the realization that its supposedly secure port had been penetrated by an enemy submarine.
After torpedoing the Messudiah, the B-11 went aground on an uncharted shoal. Holbrook, unable to back the submarine off, decided that there was only one other way to take it out of its predicament — go forward under full power. Answering the drive of its propellers, the B-11 ground slowly ahead, but as it moved forward it also moved higher on the shoal, until it was fully exposed above the surface.
Turkish shore batteries opened fire and their gunners groped for the B-11's range. In the submarine Holbrook and his men were grim and silent as their boat scraped forward with shells exploding around them.
After minutes that seemed hours, the B-11 dragged itself over the shallows and into deep water, where it immediately submerged. Returning through the Dardanelles underwater, Holbrook made it safely back to his base in Egypt, where he was awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest decoration for heroism.
Holbrook was not the only submarine captain to win the VC in Turkish waters. Five months after the B-11 penetrated the Dardanelles and sank the Messudiah, Lt. Martin E. D. Nasmith, the thirty-two-year-old Scottish commanding officer of the newer E-11, followed Holbrook's track and sank a troop transport on May 25, 1915, within sight of Constantinople, causing heavy loss of life among the six thousand troops aboard.
The E-class submarines such as Nasmith's were far advanced over Holbrook's older B-11. Displacing 725 tons, they were capable of a surface speed of 15 knots and a submerged speed of 8 knots. Four torpedo tubes permitted quicker action against enemy ships.
After sinking the troop transport, Nasmith continued to attack shipping in the Sea of Marmara, using his deck gun in most actions. However, as his presence was well known to the Turks, he found it increasingly difficult to approach suitable targets. His submerged speed was not great enough to overtake a modern ship, and when on the surface he could be seen in time for ships to speed out of range. Nasmith solved this problem by capturing a Turkish sailing vessel and lashing it securely to the E-11's side. More than one Turkish ship failed to notice until too late that what seemed to be a second mast on a sailing ship was in fact the periscope of a British submarine alongside.
Nasmith sank ninety-six ships in ninety-six days and won the Victoria Cross. In his naval service after the war he reached the rank of admiral, and died at eight-two in 1965.
Not all the British submarines which attempted the dangerous passage through the Dardanelles were as lucky as the B-11 and the E-11. The E-15, a sistership of Nasmith's submarine, ran aground in the passage and was unable to work itself off. Under continuous fire from Turkish shore batteries, the E-15's captain burned his code books and surrendered. The Turks were unable to make use of his submarine, though. In a daring foray, two British high-speed steam launches dashed upstream into the Dardanelles, zigzagging to dodge shellfire all the way, and destroyed it with their own guns.
Still another VC-winning submarine captain was Lt. E. C. Boyle who took his submarine, the E-14, into Constantinople harbor and sank a ship loaded with guns and troops destined for the Turkish defenses at Gallipoli. Boyle disrupted Turkish supply routes in the semi-desert land along the western shore of the Sea of Marmara by surfacing and shelling camel caravans.
As an inducement to its submarine crews the British Admiralty authorized the payment of bonuses that quickly became known as " blood money ." Blood money was paid on the basis of five pounds sterling for every man on a ship sunk, with the total bonus to be divided among the members of the British submarine's crew. Thus if a British submarine sank a destroyer with a complement of two hundred men, a bonus of £5 would be paid for each of the two hundred enemy sailors, for a total of £1,000. This sizable sum would then be divided among the twenty-five to thirty-five crewmen of the successful submarine.
(A "blood money" proposal was made by two American businessmen, Benjamin and Anderson Gratz, of St. Louis, soon after the United States entered the war in 1917. The Gratz brothers offered $500 to the "first American merchant ship to destroy a hostile submarine." The offer was politely declined by Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, who said that "money rewards for such bravery are not in keeping with the spirit of the day." )
All told, thirteen British submarines penetrated the Dardanelles and operated in the Sea of Marmara. Of these, eight were captured or destroyed. The passage was made twenty-seven times, and the submarines sank 148 sailing craft, 44 steamers, 11 transports, 5 gunboats, 1 destroyer and 1 battleship.
Thanks to the successes of its own submarines, and to the lesson of the losses being inflicted on its shipping by German U-boats, Britain became sharply aware of the submarine's value. Where only ten years before it had been necessary for a British first sea lord to hide funds for a submarine construction program in his budget estimates for other ships, now the Admiralty rushed pell-mell into a crash program of submarine construction.
With rash judgment as faulty as the conservative judgment of ten years before, it planned a new class of submarines, designated by the letter K, which were to be the largest and fastest in the world. The first was laid down in greatest secrecy in a British shipyard in 1915. Prototype of the K class, it was 339 feet long and displaced 1,600 tons. It mounted two 4-inch guns and one 3-inch gun on its deck. On the surface its steam engines could power it at a phenomenal 24 knots.
Between August, 1916, and May, 1918, seventeen were commissioned, and it has been said that
"no class of modern warship of the Royal Navy, or any other navy, has ever suffered so much calamity. . . ."
The seventeen suffered sixteen major accidents and countless smaller ones. Three of the cumbersome giants were lost after collisions. One sank on trials, and another disappeared entirely, never to be heard from again.
The K boats succeeded in achieving the high surface speeds for which they were designed, but they were dangerously apt to ship seawater in their low funnels, dousing boiler fires and incapacitating their engines.
In addition to the problems of steam propulsion in the K-class boats (and they were to prove once and for all that conventional steam power and submarines do not mix), the monsters were abominably slow in submerging. At best they took at least five minutes to go under, and often longer than that.
Moreover, the basic plan for the use of the K boats was faulty. Whereas Germany almost from the beginning had seen the submarine as a weapon to be used either independently of other friendly warships or in company with a limited number of friendly submarines, Britain on the other hand — perhaps because its naval thinking was firmly rooted in memories of classic fleet actions such as the victory at Trafalgar a century before — saw the submarine, or at least the K-class submarine, as an adjunct to its surface fleet. K boats were designed for high speeds so that they could stay in company with surface ships and harass enemy warships participating in great surface battles. Except for the battle of Jutland, though, there was never to be another grand battle between opposing surface fleets again in World War I, and no K boat took part in the battle of Jutland. In fact the K boats scored no successes at all. Only one of them even encountered an enemy vessel. The K-7 found the German U-95 on the surface on June 11, 1917, and managed to hit it with a torpedo — which failed to explode.
The British Admiralty, succumbing to the bureaucratic temptation to hide the catastrophic record of the K boats beneath a cloak of military security, let the public know very little about them until fully forty-five years after the end of the war. Within the British submarine service, though, the problems of the submarine giants that grew up too fast were well known, and even the bravest of British submariners dreaded being assigned to any of them.
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