SUPERIOR FORCE : The Conspiracy Behind the Escape of Goeben and Breslau © Geoffrey Miller



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SUPERIOR FORCE : The Conspiracy Behind the Escape of Goeben and Breslau © Geoffrey Miller




Chapter 16




The Terrible ‘Ifs’




SMS Breslau in Turkish waters

SMS Breslau in Turkish waters


With a view to lessening his own responsibility, Churchill sought to invoke a higher defence: that it was all meant to happen. In a famous passage from his apologia, The World Crisis, Churchill reasoned thus:

In all this story of the escape of the Goeben one seems to see the influence of that sinister fatality which at a later stage and on a far larger scale was to dog the enterprise against the Dardanelles. The terrible ‘If’s’ accumulate. If my first thoughts on 27 July of sending the New Zealand to the Mediterranean had materialized; if we could have opened fire on the Goeben during the afternoon of August 4; if we had been less solicitous for Italian neutrality; if Sir Berkeley Milne had sent the Indomitable to coal at Malta instead of Biserta; if the Admiralty had sent him direct instructions when on the night of the 5th they learned where the Goeben was; if Rear-Admiral Troubridge in the small hours of the 7th had not changed his mind; if the Dublin and her two destroyers had intercepted the enemy during the night of the 6th-7th — the story of the Goeben would have ended here. There was, however, as it turned out, one more chance of annulling the doom of which she was the bearer. That chance, remote though it was, the Fates were vigilant to destroy.

                At 1 a.m. on August 8 Sir Berkeley Milne, having collected and coaled his three battle-cruisers at Malta, set out at a moderate speed on an Easterly course in pursuit of the Goeben. At this juncture the Fates moved a blameless and punctilious Admiralty clerk to declare war upon Austria...[1]

Certainly the Goeben episode was unusual for the extraordinary number of chances that might be ascribed to ‘fate’; Churchill in fact did not cover all the possible “if’s. To the ones already mentioned could be added the following:

IF            the British battle cruisers had been able to maintain their trial speed;

IF            the French fleet had left Toulon on Sunday afternoon, 2 August;

IF            Goeben and Breslau had come out of Messina on the night of 5/6 August when Troubridge was ready and waiting to attack;

IF            Souchon had decided to go to the Adriatic as a result of the signal from Berlin advising him it was impossible to put into Constantinople for the moment;

IF            Milne had not recalled Gloucester on the afternoon of the 7th;

IF            Milne’s flagship Inflexible had also picked up the signal on the 7th that Goeben was calling Constantinople;

IF            Milne had been directed to resume the chase earlier after having been diverted to the Adriatic;

IF            Churchill’s War Staff at the Admiralty had acted in the way it was supposed to have;

IF            Venizelos had not authorized the supply of coal to Goeben and Breslau;

IF            Milne had accepted, and acted upon, the signal of 7/8 August that Goeben was ‘near Syra’.

However, a closer examination of all these if’s, including Churchill’s, reveals not the workings of a malign Fate, but the hand of man. To take them in sequence, Churchill’s first ‘if’ – the question of sending the battle cruiser New Zealand to reinforce Milne’s squadron – was considered by a conference at the Admiralty on 28 July, when it was decided against as Milne’s forces were deemed to have been sufficient to contain Souchon’s division while the French were allocated the Austrians. That Britain did not declare war sooner, Churchill’s second ‘if’, owed much to the natural reluctance of Liberal statesmen to enter the fray and then only after prolonged and emotional debate. Nevertheless, having decided upon that course by the evening of Sunday 2 August the Cabinet had to wait for Grey’s speech in the House the following day before forcing the issue by sending the ultimatum to Berlin. It is conceivable that this could have been sent, and timed to expire, earlier. Again a reluctance to take the final, irrevocable, step explains the delay. If Churchill had been apprised early enough on Tuesday 4 August of the consular report that, during the bombardment of the French North African ports that morning, the German ships had fired upon and damaged a British ship, he might have been able to push through that day a demand that Milne be authorized to open fire. But the report came too late; it was not held up deliberately, the explanation this time being found in pressure upon the telegraphic services. Indeed, just after noon that day, Churchill had sent – without full Cabinet authorization – a signal to Milne that he could open fire on the German ships if they attacked the French transports. Two hours later, in the face of Cabinet opposition, the order was retracted until the ultimatum to Germany had expired. Bearing in mind Churchill’s powers of persuasion it is difficult to imagine the Cabinet being so punctilious if they had been informed that a British ship had been fired upon; in any event, Churchill was not, at that time, unduly perturbed.[2]

                Churchill’s third ‘if’ is a clear example of a human decision having fateful consequences: Battenberg’s desire to avoid any ‘petty incident’ with Italy by enjoining Milne rigidly to respect a six mile territorial limit. This unnecessary order placed out of bounds the one location vital to Milne’s attempts to ensnare Goeben and Breslau — the Straits of Messina. Nevertheless, Battenberg had the best of intentions on 4 August and, in any event, sought Churchill’s approval before sending the order. It was perhaps understandable, as evidence pointed to a German collier in the Balearics, that Souchon might not risk returning to Messina where there was a possibility his ships could be interned, but where the First Lord was at fault was in not countermanding the order in time when it became apparent that Souchon had, after all, returned to Messina. Admiral Milne must also share some of the blame, for not using his initiative, although it could be argued that he assumed the Admiralty was in receipt of far more information on the delicate international situation than was available to him and that, therefore, there was a sound basis for the order; also, Battenberg was aware that Milne was not the sort of officer who would deliberately chose to disobey an order.

                Next, Churchill made great play of Milne’s decision to send Indomitable to coal in Bizerta instead of Malta: ‘This was an important decision’, he maintained as, in Malta, Indomitable would have had assured coaling facilities and could ‘so easily move to close the southern exit from Messina, or join Rear Admiral Troubridge in the mouth of the Adriatic, as that officer had been led to expect.’ There was, indeed, some confusion over who was to get the battle cruiser. Troubridge was certainly of the opinion that, upon the outbreak of war, Milne – as senior admiral in the Mediterranean and thus outranking the French C-in-C – would return to England in his flagship leaving the two remaining battle cruisers attached to himself. He was reinforced in this opinion by the coincidence of his having been the C.O.S. in 1912 at the time when the Mediterranean dispositions were being formulated. Equally, however, he should have been aware that, in his informal briefing with Milne on 2 August, he was not promised the battle cruisers and that, so long as Milne remained on the station, the battle cruisers were his (Milne’s) to do with as he pleased. Churchill also overlooks the fact that, in attempting to maintain the tenuous link with the French, Milne had a pressing reason for dispatching Indomitable to Bizerta so that Captain Kennedy could establish contact with the French C-in-C. The subsequent delay at the port was due entirely to Kennedy. Besides, the detachment was entirely consistent with Milne’s belief, of which he made no secret, that Souchon would attempt to break west. This merges into Churchill’s fifth ‘if’ — that, when it became apparent that Milne would do nothing unless instructed to, the Admiralty, realizing this, should have sent him direct orders. This was nothing if not poor staff work, yet it was precisely to implement a naval war staff that Churchill had been sent to the Admiralty in the first place.

                Number six on Churchill’s list was ‘if Rear-Admiral Troubridge in the small hours of August 7 had not changed his mind.’ It is true the unfortunate Admiral did change his mind but this was almost entirely due to his insistence on not disobeying Churchill’s order not to engage a superior force. Troubridge had originally meant to attack; that he later did not could be laid almost directly at Churchill’s door. There is, however, one aspect which might also have weighed on the Admiral’s mind that night: he was one of only a handful of serving officers to have witnessed the devastating effect of modern naval guns as an observer during the Russo-Japanese war. It would not take much imagination to picture the effect that Goeben’s excellent heavy guns would have upon his lightly armoured cruisers. While in no way suggesting that Troubridge’s actions stemmed from motives of personal cowardice, it is one more link to be fitted in the bewildering chain of events attendant upon the escape. Then there was Dublin’s attempted interception: although Gloucester, doggedly shadowing the battle cruisers, was able to give a good idea of Goeben’s position, the night-time interception was always going to be a difficult operation, which was not helped by the initial confusion aboard Dublin as to which ship her captain at first believed he had located — Goeben or Breslau.

                In many ways the premature dispatch of the Austrian ‘war’ telegram is the most curious in a line of curious incidents. The whole episode lends itself to conspiracy theory: the telegram was already prepared and was sent by a humble Admiralty clerk at the precise moment when it was calculated to do the most damage, that is, just as Milne had reached the halfway point with his battle cruisers on the run to the Aegean. In this instance Milne was, initially, blameless: his war orders gave him no choice but to head for the Adriatic and a rendezvous with Troubridge’s division. For conspiracy theorists it would not be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby, once it was realized that, at last, Milne was giving chase in the right direction, an unknown hand in London waited for the duty officer to go to his lunch before sending off a bogus telegram designed to divert Milne from his quarry. Unfortunately for this theory, it was standard practice to have war telegrams already drafted and while it can never be proved that there was no sinister motive behind the sending of the telegram the mistake was rectified as soon as it was discovered. Milne could have resumed his chase within a matter of hours, still in time to catch Souchon. It was then only a combination of a fatuous telegram later that afternoon, sloppy staff work and, yet again, Milne’s punctiliousness that caused him to remain in the Adriatic. Had more care been taken in wording the ‘negative’ telegram and if, at the same time, Milne had been actively put back on the trail the whole episode would have resulted merely in the waste of a few hours. Milne still could have caught Souchon as Goeben and Breslau coaled at Denusa on Sunday, 9 August.


Now, to examine the subsidiary list. The battle cruiser as a concept – large enough to overwhelm any known cruiser, fast enough to escape from any known battleship sufficiently powerful to destroy it – owed its birth to Admiral Fisher, for whom speed and gunpower were paramount. This concept was fine so long as Britain alone possessed battle cruisers. The trouble arose when other countries began to construct the same class of warship and, especially, when they proved better at it than the British. The Admiralty had made the mistake, in their second generation ships, of repeating an unsatisfactory design; with the advantage of a later start the Germans quickly caught up and their early battle cruisers were better ships than their British counterparts. After months in the Mediterranean all the battle cruisers, British and German, suffered from various defects, particularly fouling. Souchon, however, grabbed his opportunity in the period following the Sarajevo assassination and before the outbreak of war; while little could be done to remedy the fouling, at least boiler tubes could be replaced so that the ship had a decent turn of speed, if only for a short time. On the other side, Milne had nonchalantly continued his summer cruise, despite the fact that at least one of his battle cruisers was long overdue for repairs. Souchon also had the crucial advantage of starting with a higher trial speed so that, even if all the ships were slower than designed, he would still have the edge. Fisher’s theory of fast, powerful ships had been stolen and used against him. As Battenberg was later to comment, ‘The outstanding feature of this interesting operation, in which the enemy played the part of a harmless fugitive, is the marked superiority in speed of Goeben over our battle-cruisers’.[3]

                Although Souchon, by virtue of his speed, could have avoided action if he so desired, the French Fleet would certainly have been better placed to intercept the German ships had they left their base at Toulon earlier. That they did not was the result of Admiral Lapeyrère’s questioning of orders he did not like, exacerbated by the mental collapse of the French Minister of Marine. The French inaction owed more to petty jealousy and friction within the command structure than any deliberate act of policy. Next, having decided on his own initiative to steam for Constantinople, Souchon recognized the necessity for re-coaling. His options were limited: either put in at Messina and hope to be able to obtain coal there but run the risk of internment in view of Italy’s desertion of the Triple Alliance, or place everything upon hoping to find coal in the Aegean. In the circumstances, Souchon had little option other than to stop at Messina on the 5th (whereas Troubridge expected him to sail right through on his presumed run up to the Adriatic). Once he did stop to coal, someone in the waiting British ships might have asked himself the question, why the need to take on so much coal? This could indicate a break west, or even east, towards Suez for example; what it should have eliminated is the thought that Souchon needed all that coal just for the short trip to the entrance of the Adriatic where he would, presumably, come under the protection of the Austrian fleet. Troubridge’s excuse was simple, if hardly credible: he maintained that he was unaware that Goeben had coaled this time.[4] The fourth ‘if’ on the subsidiary list is easily disposed of: Souchon had a fair idea what life in the Adriatic would be like. Better then to risk the unknown in Constantinople. During the months of frustration as Turkey remained resolutely neutral Souchon lamented that if he really had wanted to do nothing he would have gone to the Adriatic. Ultimately his decision to steam east was spectacularly vindicated; but it was his decision.

                When Milne recalled Gloucester on the afternoon of Friday 7 August he lost touch with the enemy, never to regain it. Gloucester had reported at midnight on 6/7th that she had 700 tons of coal left and was using it at a rate of 350 tons a day;[5] in other words, she had the capability, in theory, of steaming until late on Saturday evening before completely exhausting her bunkers. Yet it was not as simple as that. Milne appreciated that, once low on coal, the reserve bunkers would have to be used, making it difficult for the cruiser to maintain a high speed and, therefore, all the more easy for Goeben to turn on the small vessel and run her down. There was also the concern that Souchon might attempt to trap his pursuer, which is exactly what he had in mind. Why then did not Milne detach a cruiser from Troubridge’s squadron to take Gloucester’s place? Milne was quizzed on precisely this point by the Admiralty who singled out Dublin as a ship that could have performed this all-important function.[6] Milne argued that, in view of his orders and of Press reports that the Austrian fleet had left Pola, Dublin could not be spared due to the importance of maintaining an effective watch on the Adriatic: ‘I did not consider it advisable to deprive the Rear Admiral of the only fast ship he had available for this important duty.’[7]

                The sixth subsidiary ‘if’ raises a fascinating question: if Milne had received the report that early on the afternoon of 7 August Goeben was heard signalling Constantinople, would it have altered his pre-conceived notions as to what Souchon was likely to do? The answer would have to be a qualified ‘no’. Souchon might simply have been seeking information — for example, what was the latest news of the Austrian fleet, or was there any danger of the Russian Black Sea fleet steaming out into the Aegean and blocking his route? The clearest indication of Milne’s thinking was contained in his report to the Admiralty wherein he admitted, with characteristic finality, that ‘the idea that belligerent ships would proceed into a neutral port and there be sold did not enter into my calculations and, I submit, could not reasonably have been guarded against.’[8] In the event, Dublin’s report of having intercepted the signal was logged on other ships throughout the fleet but not by the one it was specifically directed at — Milne’s flagship Inflexible. Again this was not an unusual occurrence. W/T was still in its infancy and the saga of Goeben and Breslau is replete with messages which were not received; this problem, it should be remembered, also affected Souchon. The following day (Saturday 8th) Indomitable did not receive the Austrian ‘war’ telegram and the surprise was, therefore, all the greater when the ship did receive the ‘negative’. In addition, unless specifically requested (and the ‘negative’ telegram was an example of this) there was no automatic procedure for acknowledging receipt of signals.

                Milne’s pre-conceived ideas are also bound up with the next ‘if’: when he was diverted, unintentionally, to the Adriatic on the afternoon of the 8th it was not until late the following morning that the realization dawned in the Admiralty War Room that he had not resumed the chase after receiving the ‘negative’ telegram. Part of this débâcle was caused by confusion in the Admiralty over the sequence of telegrams, but it is not going too far to suggest that an additional factor was the cult of the weekend. The events of the ‘fateful’ 24 hours occurred during a Saturday afternoon and evening and a Sunday morning. Would the performance by the War Staff have been quite as dire had it been a weekday? It would seem that, given his two tasks — watching the Adriatic and destroying the German ships — Milne placed them equal in terms of importance. Another Admiral might have gambled all on sinking the German ships first which would then allow him to turn the bulk of his forces to the other task. Milne was not like that. Once he had chased Souchon into the Aegean he had the German ships, or so he believed, trapped. He was also wary of pulling forces away from Troubridge to assist in the search of the Aegean in the belief that Souchon was acting as a decoy for the Austrians by luring the British away and thereby opening the gate of the Adriatic; and, never far away, was the possibility that Souchon might double back to the West. If the thought of Souchon going to Constantinople ever crossed Milne’s mind at all it was only in the context that, once there, the German ships would be interned and so, he presumed, no longer able to participate in the war: it would be a defeat for Souchon rather than a victory for Milne, but the result would be the same.

                That Milne thought thus raises the next ‘if’: although there were clear indications in London with regard to the political situation in Turkey no warning was ever passed on to Milne. Here the Foreign Office was just as much to blame: reports were received and minuted, each comment reflecting the particular bias of the writer, but that was as far as it went. Even so, this does not entirely absolve the Admiralty. Churchill, who must have anticipated the reaction that would follow after he had embargoed the Turkish ships, had talked openly during the first week of August of a coming break with Turkey. An apposite analogy of Churchill during that period might be of a Chess-master playing a number of games simultaneously. Having made his early moves in one game with a view to setting up the conditions for a win, he moves on to the next, hopeful that when he eventually returns to the first game nothing will have been done to upset his carefully laid plans. For Churchill the first game was the Mediterranean: he made his dispositions in the last days of July, set the trap to catch Souchon and contain the Austrians and then moved on to another game — the North Sea and the transport of the B.E.F. This explains the flow of instructions being passed to Milne up to the outbreak of war, and the dearth thereafter: Churchill’s attention was elsewhere. Nevertheless it should have worked; that it did not owes just as much to the skill of the opponent. Souchon not only extricated himself from check but was then able to play for a draw and eventually checkmate his opponent.

                Churchill had created the War Staff and then robbed it of its functions: too many decisions were taken by the First Lord and rubber stamped by the unfortunate Battenberg, who had a bad start to the war. Battenberg’s reputation remains intact as a ‘brilliant’ strategist unfairly dismissed, yet this reputation was made against mediocre opposition and failed him badly at the onset of war; he was also not the man to stand up to Churchill (on the other hand, who was?). Additionally, by seeking to envelop the 1912 Staff talks with the French and the abortive 1914 talks with the Russians in an unwarranted aura of mystery Battenberg cast a shadow in whose ill light rumour and supposition abounded. Not only would Churchill delegate unwillingly, he compounded this fault by having at the Admiralty officers unsuited for the posts they occupied. The War Staff had atrophied and had been caught out, never more so than in the dismal performance of the 8th and 9th of August 1914. Equally, Milne also cannot be entirely absolved: one of the C-in-C’s last peacetime duties had been his visit to the Sultan of Turkey during which the British were rapturously received. Although Djemal assiduously played down the importance of Goeben’s visit the previous month it beggars belief that, in his meetings with Embassy personnel, Milne was not briefed on the current political situation. The Embassy’s Annual Report for 1913, which made a point of highlighting German infiltration, had only just been completed. Nevertheless, whatever he was, or was not, told Milne still clearly believed that the Turks would maintain a rigorous neutrality.

                The final two “if’s” return the spotlight to Greece. Why did Milne not pay any attention to the accurate signal received shortly after leaving Malta, early on the morning of the 8th, that Goeben was ‘near Syra’? Instead of heading off in hot pursuit, his three battle cruisers commenced a leisurely sweep towards the Aegean. Again Milne’s preconceptions had come into play: once in the Aegean, where could Souchon go? As well, albeit with hindsight, Milne might also have argued (as, indeed, he did in a slightly different context) that even if he had set off from Malta at maximum speed his ships would just have been approaching Cape Matapan when he received the spurious Austrian ‘war’ telegram in which case, in accordance with his war orders, he would still have had to put his ships about and make for the Adriatic. The outcome would have been the same.[9] That this signal became corrupted to read subsequently that Goeben was coaling at Syra (a possibility Milne dismissed), combined with Venizelos’ decision to supply coal to the German ships, indicates that something was afoot in Athens.

                While it is unlikely in the extreme that there existed an organized conspiracy to allow the German ships to escape involving any or all of the Foreign Office, Admiralty, Milne or Troubridge, there is a strong case for believing that factions in Athens, knowing of the Turco-German alliance and the destination of the ships, actively conspired to ensure their escape. The alliance became common knowledge in Athens after the telegram from Theotokis, the Greek Minister in Berlin, was received on 4 August. Any doubts entertained by King Constantine and Admiral Kerr as to its authenticity should have been dispelled by 7 August when it became apparent that the German ships had passed into the Aegean and were heading north-east, confirming the Dardanelles as the most likely destination. For Venizelos the realization came even earlier, to precisely the moment when, at 2 o’clock on the morning of 6 August, he was roused from his sleep by the German Minister who was anxious to secure coal for Souchon, to which request Venizelos readily agreed. By the end of that week, the King, Admiral Kerr and the Prime Minister could have been in no doubt as to where Souchon was heading.

                In the light of this evidence Gottlieb could come to just one conclusion: ‘William II informed the King of Greece that the two ships would join the Turkish Navy for combined action, and the communication was transmitted to the Chief of the British Naval Mission in Greece [Kerr], who must obviously have sent it on to London.’[10] Except that Kerr did not; while Venizelos did, but in a severely emasculated form, referring only to rumours of a ‘military convention’ rather than a full-blown alliance, and not mentioning the destination. When Venizelos saw Erskine, the British Chargé, on the morning of 5 August – after having received the telegram from Theotokis – the Prime Minister even attempted to undermine the possibility of the existence of a military convention. According to Erskine’s report to London, Venizelos could ‘not see what inducements could be offered to Turkey unless at the expense of Greece, but thinks that possibly Greek Minister [Theotokis] may have been deliberately misled by German Government as to convention in order to frighten Greece into compliance with their wishes.’[11] Why did Venizelos not make even a passing reference to Goeben and Breslau? Why did he then supply coal to the Germans and attempt to cover his tracks after so doing? And why supply coal knowing that Souchon’s squadron was making for the capital of his bitterest foe, Turkey?

                Venizelos could not have been naïve enough to suppose the Turks would simply intern the ships so it follows he must have actively wanted them to become an adjunct to the Turkish fleet. In short, the Prime Minister had three possible motives. First, the prospect that Souchon, finding himself with insufficient coal to guarantee his passage to the Dardanelles with a margin for error, might have put into Piraeus instead must have been alarming to Venizelos, to say the least. The combination of constant pressure from Berlin to join the Triple Alliance, a Germanophile King in Athens, and the guns of Goeben trained on the capital would have wrecked his policy of alignment with the Entente on his own terms. Wherever Venizelos might have wanted Souchon to go, it was most certainly not in his own backyard. Why then simply not pass on the information to the British and hope that Milne’s squadron succeeded in destroying the German ships? Possibly because Venizelos could not guarantee that this would be the result as Souchon might have wished to avoid battle, an option always available to him with the faster ships he commanded; besides, the destruction of the Mittelmeerdivision would also have impinged upon Venizelos’ other two motives.

                Second, his forward policy also ran the risk of being undermined by the war-weariness of the Greek population. The Prime Minister needed a rallying cry in the shape of a clear indication that the Turks could pounce at any moment. Venizelist organs in Athens quickly began to take up just such a call: as soon as Turkey’s ‘purchase’ of the ships became known, the Patris cited this as a move directed against Greece, and called for Greek entry into the war. Why, though, assist in arming you worst enemy? This may be explained by Venizelos’ third possible motive: he was not arming the Turks against the Greeks, but rather the Turks against the Russians. Venizelos must have reasoned that as soon as Souchon entered the Dardanelles the British and French squadrons would blockade his ships inside; Souchon’s only outlet would be the Black Sea, his only opponents the Russians. The Russian Black Sea fleet could not hope to launch an assault against the Ottoman capital once the Turkish fleet had been augmented by Goeben and Breslau and, with Turkey fully committed, militarily and navally, in the east against the Russians the way was left open for a Greek move on the Turkish rear, with the ultimate objective being the capture of Constantinople.

                Grey subsequently admitted that, in the period from August until November 1914, the offers of Greece to join the allies were ‘embarrassing’ to Britain while Turkey remained ostensibly neutral; once Turkey did enter the war the situation was even more fraught. Then, Grey recorded with typical understatement, ‘the Russian sensitiveness about Constantinople made these Greek offers of help a very delicate matter’.[12] That Venizelos’ plans did not reach fruition owed more to the ambivalent attitude of Bulgaria — he dare not move until he could be assured which way the Bulgarians would lean. The question of Balkan rivalries was to dog all the attempts of Venizelos to push through his goal of alignment with the Entente Powers; even so, he was playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship. Grey further maintained, with considerable hindsight, that not knowing of the Turco-German alliance did not especially affect British actions: ‘Knowledge of the treaty would not have made much difference; we feared the worst even without knowing of the treaty.’[13] This must stand, however, as too sweeping a judgment, particularly when applied to the first week in August. It is inconceivable that, had knowledge of the treaty and the destination of the German ships become available in London on 5 August – as was possible – Milne would have been allowed to flounder for the following four days.

                The Greek Prime Minister was not privy to this intelligence in isolation, yet any of the strictures that applied to Venizelos’ motives for not wishing to inform the Entente did not apply to Rear-Admiral Mark Kerr. At any time from the 4th to the 9th of August Kerr could have caused a message to be sent to the Admiral Superintendent, Malta to be relayed to both London and Milne, that the Turco-German alliance had been concluded and that Goeben and Breslau were making for Constantinople. He chose not to; in fact, until the evening of 7 August, Kerr appears to have done nothing at all. Then, only after Greek warships had apparently obtained a W/T ‘fix’ on Goeben which placed her near Syra, did he act. On duty at the British Legation in Athens that night was the Third Secretary, George Rendel, who later recounted that he ‘received a confidential message from a senior officer of the British Naval Mission [Kerr] that Goeben was known to be off the island of Syra and sailing North-Eastwards.[14] We were able to send a most immediate telegram to the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, and we spent the next two days anxiously expecting news of her destruction. Instead the news suddenly broke on us that both ships had passed through the Dardanelles.’[15] If Kerr felt that the information he had, at last, passed on was still not clear enough, why not mention at least the possibility that the ships might be heading for Constantinople? No blame would then attach to Kerr if the authorities chose not to act on his information. Instead he seemed more intent on keeping the Russians abreast of the latest intelligence.

                Mr Erskine, the Counsellor and Chargé at the Legation in the absence of the Minister, admitted on the morning of 9 August that he was ‘in constant communication with Intelligence Officer Malta respecting movements of German ships’ and that he was secretly being aided by Kerr; but not once had the Admiral deigned to tell the Chargé of the alliance or of Souchon’s destination. Kerr was presumably aware that Venizelos had raised the possibility of a Turco-German ‘military convention’ with Erskine, which Kerr knew to be of more serious import than the Prime Minister made out; he was thus ideally placed to alert Erskine to the real danger. A malevolent hand was also at work in Erskine’s telegram to London that morning: as originally drafted Erskine referred to the fact that the Greek Government thought Goeben was ‘going into Black Sea’. For some reason this was watered down, and appeared in the final version as ‘Greek Govt think she may contemplate[16] going into Black Sea’ — a much less definite proposition. Also, the specific mention of Kerr was deleted which, one must assume, could only have been at the Admiral’s own request.








Petersburg Tel. No. 247


Petersburg Tel. No. 247


Your tel No. 112


Information is correct


I am in constant communication with Intelligence Officer Malta respecting movements of German ships referred to & am being helped by Admiral Kerr with wireless telegraphy of Greek Ministry of Marine. Latest news of Goeben was off Syra night of Aug 7. Greek Govt think she is going into Black Sea. They have warned Greek fleet not to expose themselves to possible danger.


I am in constant communication with Intelligence Officer Malta respecting movements of German ships referred to & am being secretly helped by wireless telegraphy of Greek Admiralty. Goeben was believed to be near Syra evening of Aug 7. Greek Govt think she may contemplate going into Black Sea & have warned Greek fleet not to expose themselves to possible danger.[17]


Kerr’s motives for remaining silent, or at best divulging the least amount of information consistent with his position, are harder to ascertain. They range from the speculative – the Admiral was keen to see Turkey enter the war allowing him to assume his place in battle as C-in-C of the Hellenic Navy – to the implausible — Kerr as a secret agent feeding disinformation to the Kaiser only for the whole scheme to go disastrously awry when the Admiral fell under the spell of King Constantine. Kerr had certainly allowed himself to become firmly entangled in the affairs of the King, though this aspect of his make up was entirely characteristic. The Admiral had a deeply emotional side which was no more in evidence than when he pleaded with Battenberg for help and encouragement in December 1913, in anticipation of war with Turkey over the fate of the Aegean islands, and declared his readiness to change his nationality and fight for the Greeks. ‘I know it means ruin for me afterwards’, he conceded,

but I have a strong feeling that I should do so. I would not feel so, except for the fact that they will be so weak, having no-one who knows how to work a flotilla & I may make the difference of victory or defeat. I am quite serious about this & only ask you to be so good as to find out the legal point. I prefer not to be an outlaw, & I prefer to be able to come home some day…Please let me know the legal way of doing this thing & I think I may have to do it. Ever yours, aff[ectionately].[18]

Although the anticipated Greco-Turkish war did not break out, the letter is still extraordinary for the extent of the emotional attachment Kerr had developed towards Greece in only a matter of months since his arrival there as the summer of 1913 was drawing to a close.

                Similarly, Kerr was quickly accepted into Court circles, and reciprocated to the full. In the Admiral’s opinion King Constantine, although no diplomat, was

an absolutely straight and honest soldier, with a great strategical and tactical brain for war. He was truthful to the last degree and loathed intrigue. He thought as much about the good of the rank and file, perhaps even more, than he did about the upper classes. He despised injustice, and was easily touched by sorrow or misfortune. His only ambition was for his country and the prosperity of its people…[19]

Unquestionably, in the fevered atmosphere of August 1914 in Athens, Venizelos sought to align Greece, conditionally, with the Entente, while the King advocated neutrality. Nevertheless, in view of the requirements that had to be fulfilled for Venizelos’ offer to take effect, particularly the guarantee of Bulgarian intentions, the Prime Minister’s stance was also tantamount to neutrality; but it was a stance in which he could adopt a certain amount of sanctimonious posturing. This route was not open to the King. When Constantine became aware, on 4 August, of the Turco-German alliance and the destination of Goeben and Breslau what was he to do with this information? If he passed it on to the British or French, the likely outcome, he might have reasoned, would be the destruction of the Mittelmeerdivision, greater pressure upon Turkey to act, and the creation for Greece of an enemy – Germany – of immense power. This last consequence would have been even more fraught if, in addition to Turkey, Germany was also able to enlist the services of Bulgaria: in that event, the prospects for Greece were bleak.

                Constantine realized that the Kaiser’s boast was meant as a threat: join with me or suffer the consequences. Equally he realized there was nothing he could do openly with this information, of which Kerr was also now aware, except to disguise the source so that, if a disaster befell Souchon, it would not be possible with any certainty to ascribe the blame to the King. This is, I would suggest, where Mark Kerr came in. From the 4th to the 7th of August Kerr, I believe, was acting under a vow of secrecy imposed upon him by the King, until the time at which the information could be relayed to the British fleet as if coming from the wireless intercepts of the Greek navy. It is also significant that Constantine waited until the 7th before replying to Wilhelm’s appeal. Whatever Kerr’s particular motives or displaced loyalties, opinion in the Foreign Office in London later came to accept that Kerr was responsible for the fact that Greece did not join the Entente.[20]

                Venizelos, Constantine and Kerr all, therefore, had their reasons for not divulging their knowledge of the Turco-German alliance to the Entente ministers in Athens. One intriguing aspect remains: Kaiser Wilhelm, who knew Kerr personally, was surely aware both of Kerr’s position as C-in-C of the Greek Navy and of his close relationship with the King which extended to his being a confidant of Constantine. Did he not expect Constantine to pass the information on to Kerr or did he simply, in the heat of the moment when making his threat on 4 August, forget all about Kerr?


The escape of Goeben and Breslau can be traced backwards from their arrival off the Dardanelles on 10 August through a chain of events stretching back to the turn of the century. Each link in this chain was forged by the hand of man: that the overall result was one of such complexity is manifest evidence of the bewildering nature of human motivation. Fisher’s nascent ideas regarding the desirability of speed and firepower led to the development of the battle cruiser. The Committee of Imperial Defence, from Balfour’s grand ideals, withered under Asquith’s premiership into a technical co-ordinating body. The much heralded Naval War Staff became a department in name only, its higher functions usurped by Churchill and Battenberg. The culture of late Victorian England bred an officer such as Sir Archibald Berkeley Milne: not quite as bad as sometimes made out, but clearly unsuited to the requirements of the fast moving situation that developed in the Mediterranean in August 1914. Troubridge, a slightly later product, did not benefit from the revolution in early twentieth century naval warfare; in fact, just the reverse. His witnessing of the naval actions off Japan left a firm and lasting impression of the devastating effect of modern, long range, large calibre weaponry while his time as the first Chief of the War Staff was not only not crowned with success but had its own deleterious effect in the assumptions it produced, and which would be acted upon, during the first week of August 1914.

                The combination of motives, assumptions and intrigues was all in place by 4 August. Events followed from this combination. It was not fate that caused a telegram to be sent in error and another one not to be received; it was not fate that Souchon disobeyed his orders and then found the coal he needed; it was not fate that Churchill and Battenberg drafted telegrams whose subsequent interpretations were to prove so disastrous. All these, and more, were the products of human egos and frailties; of errors of commission and omission; of the sheer frightfulness of what was happening around the various participants. More than one observer spoke of the period as if it were a dream. Yet the two dark, foreboding shapes pushing through the ancient sea towards the Straits were no spectres. Goeben, which, if the German Admiralty Staff had had their way, would not have been in the Mediterranean at all, was 23,000 tons of metal built but with one purpose: to deliver an 11-inch high explosive shell on a target. On Monday, 10 August 1914 she carried more than her shells, her crew, her Admiral; in the words of Winston Churchill she also carried, ‘for the peoples of the East and Middle East more slaughter, more misery and more ruin than has ever before been borne within the compass of a ship…’[21]Please click to go to the top of this page





[1]Churchill, The World Crisis, p. 152.

[2]See chapter 3, above.

[3]Minute by Battenberg, 27 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/879; Lumby, no. 378, pp. 230-2.

[4]Court Martial, Statement for Defence, Lumby, p. 371.

[5]Gloucester to C-in-C, (2339), 6/7 August 1914, NSM,B.

[6]Admiralty to Milne, 25 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/879; Lumby, no. 375, p. 222.

[7]Milne to Admiralty, 26 August 1914, ibid.; Lumby, no. 376, pp. 223-6.


[9]Milne used this argument to answer an Admiralty inquiry as to why he did not send Indomitable in hot pursuit direct from Bizerta, rather than instructing her to return to Malta as the other two battle cruisers coaled. Milne to Admiralty, 26 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/879.

[10]Gottlieb, Studies in Secret Diplomacy during the First World War, p. 44.

[11]Erskine to Grey, no. 137, 5 August 1914, PRO FO 371/2162/36270.

[12]Grey, Twenty-five Years, vol. II, p. 172.

[13]Ibid., p. 164.

[14]The crucial information in this message was not Goeben’s approximate position, but the fact that she was headed in a north-easterly direction. This was vital as Kerr was aware that Milne believed the German ships had gone ‘eastward’ which thereby discounted Constantinople as a possible destination

[15]Sir George Rendel, The Sword and the Olive, p. 19 [my emphasis]. Towards the end of his life, when recalling this period, Rendel remembered that ‘Our own naval authorities very pleased – had the impression they would be sterilized there [Constantinople] – out of action.’ [I am most grateful to Miss Rosemary Rendel for providing a transcript of these taped conversations with her father.]

[16]My emphasis.

[17]Erskine to Grey, no. 140, sent 11.45 a.m., 9 August 1914 — see chapter 12, above.

[18]Kerr to Battenberg, 9 December 1913, Battenberg mss., IWM DS/MISC/20, reel IV, item 257.

[19]Kerr, Land, Sea, and Air, p. 194. By contrast, Kerr considered Venizelos ‘a born intriguer’ who was not to be bribed by money, ‘but his weakness lay in his overweening vanity’.

[20]Battenberg to Hamilton, 19 March 1916, Hamilton mss., NMM HTN 125. Kerr’s responsibility did not cover this period only, but extended to September and his negative reply to Churchill’s inquiry regarding Greek assistance which effectively put paid to the promotion of such schemes.

[21]Churchill, The World Crisis, p. 152.



First Class Battleship HMS Magnificent

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SUPERIOR FORCE : The Conspiracy Behind the Escape of Goeben and Breslau © Geoffrey Miller

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As the range of our activities is so diverse, we have a number of different websites. The site you are currently viewing is wholly devoted to the first of the three non-fiction books written by Geoffrey Miller, and deals specifically with the escape of the German ships Goeben and Breslau to the Dardanelles in August 1914. The main Flamborough Manor site focuses primarily on accommodation but has brief details of all our other activities. To allow for more information to be presented on these other activities, there are other self-contained web-sites. All our web-sites have a LINKS page in common, which allows for easy navigation between the various sites. To find out where you are, or to return to the main site, simply go to the LINKS page.


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