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 18









Milne, Troubridge and Wray all later wrote justifications for their actions. Wray simply confined himself to a Statutory Declaration in August 1917[1] in an attempt to clear himself; as a result of the Troubridge Court Martial, he argued, ‘my personal honour and my character as an Officer have been impugned by allegations of cowardice and default’. Not without justification, Wray complained that ‘I have been denied opportunity to clear myself of these charges or of setting myself right in the eyes of my brother officers who have received garbled and untrue versions of the incidents which led up to the escape of the Goeben’. Similarly, Troubridge also confined himself to an even later apologia, which he called, in a mood of mock deprecation, a Rough Account of Goeben and Breslau.[2] It was left to Milne to conduct the longest, and most bitter, campaign to right the wrong he believed had been done to him. Ultimately his frequent excursions into print revealed more of himself than of his reasons and actions, no more so than in his short book The Flight of the Goeben and Breslau[3] written in answer to some modest criticisms of him by Sir Julian Corbett in the first volume of Naval Operations, the official history of the war at sea.

                In this welter of words, beginning with the Court of Inquiry and extending to the various exculpatory accounts of the 1920s, two intriguing snippets occur, the first of which is to be found in Vice-Admiral Hamilton’s minute on the finding of the Court Martial:

It must be remembered [the Second Sea Lord wrote] that on the outbreak of war there were three things the Goeben might do:— to take them in order of importance they were:—

(a) To break back to the west and attack the French transports, thereby stopping the passage of the Algerian troops to France; this was considered by everyone the greatest danger and the most likely.

(b) To go up the Adriatic and effect a junction with the Austrian Fleet.

(c) To go east, and either harass our trade in the eastern basin, or go up the Dardanelles. This although discussed was considered the least likely, and the least harmful thing she could do.[4]

Hamilton’s comment on the last option is illuminating as being the ONLY admission that the possibility of Goeben going to the Dardanelles was even canvassed at the Admiralty in the days prior to the escape: either Hamilton’s memory was faulty after the lapse of four months or, which would seem more plausible, some sort of discussion did take place at which the possibility of such an event was dismissed and which, for obvious reasons, none of the participants was keen to reveal until Hamilton’s unguarded comment. Although there was no shame in the Admiralty being proved wrong it would have been inconvenient, to say the least, were it to become generally known that the Admiralty had considered Goeben going to the Dardanelles ‘the least likely, and the least harmful thing she could do’ just as they were trying a senior officer for ‘allowing’ the ship to escape.

                The final, and similarly mystifying, comment on the affair belongs to Troubridge. In his undated Rough Account Troubridge recalled:

                Perhaps one of the most bitter reflections that the Admiralty could have made was that due to the inaction the grievous failure on the part of the Diplomatic Officers at Constantinople [sic]. They should indeed have had sufficient local knowledge or been in such a position to acquire intelligence that the destination of the Goeben should have been known to them.

                But it was worse than that. Captain Vere, one of Armstrong Vickers’ representatives, actually told the Embassy before war was declared that Constantinople was the destination of the Goeben. He told me this personally at Modena where he was Military Transport Officer during the war, adding that his information came direct from the Turkish Minister of Marine and he thought it his duty to communicate it to the Embassy at once. He was told to go about his business.

                The whole course of the affair would have been changed had the Embassy communicated this important item of news to England.[5]

Troubridge’s claim against the ‘Diplomatic Officers’ is hard to sustain. In Mallet’s absence the Chargé d’Affaires, Beaumont, and, in particular, the Military Attaché, Cunliffe Owen, reported exactly what they saw, tempered only by Beaumont’s rather too whole-hearted belief in the power of the Grand Vizier.

                The allegation regarding Captain Vere is of an altogether more serious nature; but can it be relied upon? It was not the first time that Troubridge had learned something after the event which, in however small a way, appeared to mitigate his own actions — the most obvious example being his claim that Admiral Lapeyrère had allegedly seen Goeben’s smoke on the morning of 4 August. In his Rough Account Troubridge went further for, whereas Lapeyrère might have been able to intercept Souchon if he had left Toulon earlier, or steamed at higher speed, it was certain that, had Goeben’s destination been known before-hand as a result of Vere’s supposed information, Souchon’s squadron would have been caught and destroyed. The ‘Vere’ allegation is startling but, ultimately, lacks credibility: it depends on Vere having been given this priceless information by no less than Djemal Pasha which, frankly, beggars belief. The German Admiralty Staff decided only on the afternoon of 3 August – a full day after the Turco-German alliance had been signed – to direct Souchon to Constantinople. Even if Djemal believed before this that the battle cruiser would come as a result of the preceding alliance negotiations he was hardly likely to double-cross his new partners immediately.

                Vere was well known at the British Embassy and would not have been dismissed as peremptorily as Troubridge makes out, especially by a Chargé eager to make a good impression. Even if one accepts this, Vere could still have imparted the information to Admiral Limpus, who was bound to take notice, and finally, if all else failed, Vere could have wired the information direct to England for the attention of the Armstrong’s directors, Ottley and Caillard. Vere was a recognized source of intelligence, while Ottley and Caillard were well known at both the Admiralty and Foreign Office; Caillard would later work in a secret capacity for Lloyd George[6] while Ottley in particular (a past secretary of the C.I.D.) had close contacts with Churchill. Indeed, Ottley saw Eyre Crowe at the Foreign Office on the morning of 6 August to relay the latest, private, information from Constantinople which would have originated from such sources as Vere and Leon Ostrorog (the legal adviser to the Porte up to 1914 but who finished the war as a director of Vickers[7]). Ottley’s warning to Crowe was specific – that ‘Enver Bey and a considerable section of the Turkish public are in favour of joining the Austro-German alliance’ – but did not contain any mention that Goeben’s destination was Constantinople.[8] The most likely explanation is that Vere, in conversation with Troubridge, simply mentioned Goeben’s pre-war visit to Constantinople and, over the passage of time, this became confused in Troubridge’s mind.

                Such statements raise the whole question of Troubridge’s personality: his memory was selective when required, which was certainly the case at the Court Martial. Troubridge had, for example, at first maintained that he could not meet Goeben until 6 a.m. on 7 August and 80 miles from land, a claim he was forced to retract under cross-examination, though he refused to accept the Prosecutor’s assertion that the figure was nearer 40 miles.[9] He claimed also that, having abandoned the chase at 3.47 a.m., the next signal from Milne was not received till 8.30 a.m. and consisted only of what he termed an ‘interrogative’ signal – ‘Why did you abandon the chase’ – which, due to the time delay, he considered justified him ‘in assuming that the Commander-in-Chief did not wish me to continue the chase.’[10] In fact, this signal from Milne actually read ‘Why did you not continue to cut off Goeben. She only going 17 knots, and so important to bring her to action’[11] which was not quite the same thing. And Troubridge studiously ignored the earlier signal from Milne, which was received aboard Defence at 7.31 a.m., in which the C-in-C ordered Troubridge to ‘Endeavour to make sure Goeben has gone to Eastward and not broken back to north or west.’[12] In this signal Milne was ordering Troubridge to obtain corroboration, if possible, of Souchon’s new course by, presumably, steering the same course himself. At the time, however, Troubridge regarded the signal as simply asking for an opinion, which he proceeded to give: ‘I do not think there was any doubt whatever about it. Her movement up north was a feint.’[13] It was little wonder that Troubridge ‘forgot’ this exchange at the Court Martial. If Milne was at fault for sending a loosely worded signal, Troubridge was equally at fault for a very tenuous interpretation.

                Troubridge’s defence made great play of his Sailing Orders of 2 August, which instructed him to leave Malta with two battle cruisers attached to his flag to carry out the Admiralty orders contained therein, including the all important proviso against being brought to action by a superior force. It was, of course, Troubridge’s contention that, against the First Cruiser Squadron alone, Goeben constituted a superior force. These orders, he admitted, were modified by a further signal late that night indicating that the watch on the Adriatic should be maintained while Goeben should be shadowed by two battle cruisers. Commenting on these combined orders, Troubridge considered they were ‘admirably designed to fulfil the objects in view. They were brief, simple and easily understood, and I say, without fear of contradiction, that had they never been departed from, the Goeben would inevitably have been brought to battle.’[14] Troubridge could have aimed this barb at either Milne or the Admiralty, for it was Battenberg’s subsequent signal on the evening of 3 August which contained the first deviation from Troubridge’s ‘admirably designed’ orders by detaching the two battle cruisers and sending them scurrying to Gibraltar to prevent Goeben leaving the Mediterranean.[15] It was as a result of this order that Indomitable and Indefatigable ‘blundered’ into Goeben and Breslau the next morning; however, on the morning of 3 August, some twelve hours before the Admiralty signal that ordered the detachment of the two battle cruisers, Troubridge had already indicated his intention to Milne to send the two ships south round Sicily if Goeben came out of Messina heading north as, given the uncertain attitude of Italy, he would not send the heavy ships through the Straits of Messina.[16] It was Troubridge, therefore, who had first suggested that the battle cruisers be detached from his own flag.

                The question of who controlled the two battle cruisers led to the following exchange during the Court Martial:

859. [Prosecutor to Troubridge] With regard to the orders under which you were working you received orders ‘Goeben is your objective, and the primary consideration.’ If the Goeben was a superior force how do you reconcile those orders with the governing order not to get engaged with a superior force? — Because at that time I had the whole Mediterranean Fleet except Inflexible under my command.

860. Then did the orders become irreconcilable after the two battle-cruisers had left you? — The Goeben was their objective, but when [sic - ?then] they left me to shadow her and then to hold her.

861. Do I understand that you considered the orders that the Goeben was the primary consideration did no longer apply to you after the battle-cruisers had left you? — Certainly I do not…I do not understand the insinuation that because you are told that in [sic - ?is] your objective you are under all circumstances to fight that objective.

862. I suggest that the order that the Goeben was your objective and primary consideration was irreconcilable with the hypothesis that the Goeben was a superior force to the First Cruiser Squadron? — If you suggest it that may be your opinion, but I am not prepared personally to accept it myself.

Troubridge was in a tight spot, which was not helped by Admiral Fremantle’s refusal to let go: Milne had assigned Goeben as Troubridge’s objective and directed him not to get seriously engaged with a superior force. ‘Is it likely’, Fremantle inquired, ‘that the Commander-in-Chief would have given you those two orders if he had considered the Goeben a superior force to you, under any conditions?’ There was only one true answer to the Prosecutor’s question, yet Troubridge avoided it: ‘Yes, I think it is quite likely’ was his feeble response.[17] To lay to rest, finally, the issue of the British battle cruisers and what difference they might have made had they remained with Troubridge, it had become obvious to all concerned, following the chance meeting on 4 August, that the British ships were simply incapable of shadowing Goeben even when she could only achieve a speed some way below her trial best. What is more, Troubridge even refused to admit that Goeben was hampered by her boiler problems; as far as he was concerned she was a 28 knot ship[18] and, to that extent, she was, therefore, a superior force even to the British battle cruisers.

                Troubridge’s defence of his later actions was equally convoluted and equally unconvincing. At 10.53 on the evening of 6 August he signalled visually to the ships in his squadron that he proposed to meet Goeben off Fano Island at daylight, however he entered a caveat ‘I do not intend to engage him in the middle of the Straits my instructions being against it.’[19] This signal had followed a discussion Troubridge had had with Fawcet Wray at which the Flag Captain had advocated taking up a position in the middle of the Straits, to be able then to drive Goeben to either shore. Troubridge demurred ‘as it would necessitate an engagement in the open sea.[20] Yet, at the Court of Inquiry, Troubridge ignored both his subordinate’s contribution and the signal he, himself, had sent to his squadron when he claimed that he (Troubridge) had intended to meet Goeben 20 miles west of Fano Island, that is, ‘in the mid channel nearly.’[21]

                One final example will suffice to demonstrate Troubridge’s dubious recall of events: this concerns the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of the Austrian fleet. Troubridge also laid great stress on his orders to watch the Adriatic to prevent the Austrian fleet emerging unobserved. Information as to the precise location of the fleet was difficult to come by but, at 11.20 p.m. on 6 August, the Senior Naval Officer, Malta relayed an Italian press report of the previous day that the Austrian fleet ‘will leave Pola destination unknown’ and that a torpedo boat was rumoured to have left already, ahead of the fleet, which was probably ‘going to South Adriatic to meet Goeben.’[22] This message was picked up by most of the British fleet between midnight and 12.24 a.m. (7th); the exception was Troubridge’s flagship, Defence. Troubridge was later to use this message by shifting the purported time of its receipt to suit his purposes. In his first report, on 16 August, the signal was said to have been received at 1 a.m. and ‘appeared to throw light on the Goeben’s movements.’ This was 50 minutes after Troubridge had altered course after deciding that Souchon’s movement north had been a feint.[23] By the time of the Court of Inquiry Troubridge testified that he received the signal before he altered course and used it to excuse the fact that he had continued on his north-west course for an hour after receiving Gloucester’s signal that Souchon was ‘altering course to southward.’[24] In this new version the receipt of the signal from Malta, sometime prior to 12.10 a.m., led the Rear-Admiral to believe ‘that a junction was possibly in progress’ so, in the circumstances, he assumed it was Souchon’s alteration southward which was the feint, probably designed to throw off Gloucester.[25] At the Court Martial Troubridge had changed his mind again. In answer to a question on his intended use of destroyers, and the problems they faced through lack of coal, Troubridge now maintained ‘I had the signal at 3 o’clock to say the Austrian fleet were out, which was a very disturbing factor as far as the destroyers were concerned, and I was not prepared that they should take any part in the engagement with the Goeben at daylight’.[26]

                In this last case, the timing became crucial. It was at 3 a.m. that Troubridge decided, albeit reluctantly, that he would, after all, attempt to intercept Goeben at 6 a.m. in broad daylight.[27] Yet, within half an hour, following a further discussion with Fawcet Wray, Troubridge abandoned the attempt. The implication is clear: the receipt of the information that the Austrian fleet was steaming south with all dispatch just at the time his Flag Captain was remonstrating with him about Goeben’s alleged gunnery prowess was a further factor towards absolving Troubridge in view of his orders to guard the Adriatic. So, between August and November, the Admiral claimed to have received this message before 12.10 a.m.; at 1.00 a.m.; and at 3.00 a.m. The mystery is further deepened as the signal was not logged as having been received aboard Defence until 4.42 a.m.[28]

                Troubridge at least appeared to exonerate his Flag Captain at the Court Martial by admitting that he had already decided, or was just coming to the decision, to abandon the chase when Fawcet Wray made his representations, with which he agreed. This should have relieved the unfortunate Wray of the odium of bearing sole responsibility though, as has been seen, this cut little ice with the officials at the Admiralty, who were scathing in their criticism of Fawcet Wray. Troubridge could not have been unaware of this; indeed, it suited him for Wray to be held in some part responsible, so much so that he spent the next two months cautioning Wray against taking any action on his own account to clear his name and honour. Eventually, on 13 January 1915, Troubridge informed Wray that he would make a point of clearing him — at least as far as Churchill was concerned.[29] Troubridge saw the First Lord on 21 January at which meeting Churchill had decided to offer his former private secretary a command in Serbia. Any lingering hopes that, with the passage of time, Churchill’s attitude to his former colleague had softened were soon dispelled. When Troubridge entered the First Lord’s office Churchill was busy at his desk writing; he continued to write ‘for an appreciable time’ without a word of greeting as Troubridge stood uneasily before him. Finally, he stopped: ‘Troubridge, I have an appointment to offer you, but as it is in the forefront of the battle I think you may not care to accept it.’[30]

                Churchill’s manner of making the offer left Troubridge little option but to accept, which was probably the intention. Due to the impetuosity of the Serbian troops, who tended to shoot first at strange uniforms, Troubridge could not even wear his own uniform but had to be content with that of a Serb General.[31] So he was not in the best of humour when, on 28 January, Fawcet Wray made a further approach to see if Troubridge had discussed the matter with Churchill. In Wray’s account, Troubridge contended,

that he had had no opportunity and didn’t see why he should do anything because after all if it had not been for me he would have fought the Goeben. I then asked him if that was the case how could he reconcile that statement with his evidence at the Court Martial. He replied, ‘My dear Wray, by the time you are an Admiral and have a staff of your own you will realise that you must be loyal to your Staff. I did that to save you.[32]


Ambassador Mallet also returned to a cool reception, though not the outright disgrace of the naval contingent, and sought to excuse his performance by shifting the blame to the Grand Vizier, Said Halim, for not heeding his (Mallet’s) warnings. Nevertheless, he enjoyed almost three years of comparative peace until August 1917 when The Times launched an attack on him, laying the blame squarely for the Turkish débâcle on his shoulders, and mentioning ‘imbecile credulity’. Mallet was stung to respond, perhaps an unwise course of action. He now claimed to have been aware of the Turco-German treaty after his return to Constantinople from London in August 1914, and also claimed credit for initiating the policy of keeping Turkey out of the war for as long as possible — a policy which was ultimately undermined by others who ‘let’ the German ships escape. Mallet contended that he had achieved more or less the desired result, but by default. He accepted the Grand Vizier’s protestations uncritically while relying on his own charm and flattery where a more forceful approach might have delayed still further Turkey’s entry into the war. As with Churchill, Mallet also indulged in a game of “if’s”:

Supposing Enver had been murdered (for this omission I have never forgiven de Giers [the Russian Ambassador]) – supposing the German retreat at the Marne had gone a little further – supposing Russia had done a little more – supposing Roumania had ‘come in’ – and one was hoping feverishly all those anxious, humiliating weeks that something of this kind would happen – how differently the future might have shaped itself.[33]

Mallet was later passed over as Rodd’s replacement in Rome, Lloyd George refusing to countenance a man who had been a great failure in Constantinople and who was ‘not at all an able man, but a stupid man’.[34]





[1]    A full account of this declaration, dated 3 August 1917, can be found in the Hamilton mss., NMM HTN/118. An extract appears in Lumby, no. 390, pp. 402-11.

[2]    Lumby, no. 391, pp. 411-22.

[3]    Admiral Sir Archibald Berkeley Milne, The Flight of the Goeben and Breslau, published in London by Eveleigh Nash in 1921.

[4]    Minute by Hamilton, 11 December 1914, Hamilton mss., NMM HTN 125; Lumby, p. 399 [my emphasis].

[5]    Troubridge, Rough Account, Lumby, pp. 421-2.

[6]    Winstone, Illicit Adventure, p. 323.

[7]    Ibid. Note: Ostrorog was initially suspected of being a C.U.P. agent but was cleared by British Intelligence.

[8]    Ottley to Crowe, 6 August 1914, PRO FO 371/2137/38809.

[9]    Court Martial proceedings, qu. 855-8, Lumby, p. 381.

[10]  Ibid., qu. 871, p. 383.

[11]  C-in-C to Rear Admiral, First Cruiser Squadron, (0721), 7 August 1914, NSM,B; Lumby, no. 267, p. 183.

[12]  Ibid., (0616), 7 August 1914, NSM,B; Lumby, no. 266, p. 182.

[13]  Rear Admiral, First Cruiser Squadron to C-in-C, (0650), 7 August 1914, ibid.

[14]  Court Martial Proceedings, Defence Statement, Lumby, p. 368.

[15]  Admiralty to C-in-C, no. 208, 3 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19; Lumby, no. 93, p. 153.

[16]  Rear Admiral, First Cruiser Squadron to C-in-C, (0520), 3 August 1914, NSM,B; Lumby, no. 82, p. 151.

[17]  Court Martial Proceedings, qu. 859-862, 865; Lumby, p. 382.

[18]  See, for example, Court of Inquiry Proceedings, qu. 55, Lumby, p. 269.

[19]  HMS Defence, Signal Log, (2125), 6 August 1914, IWM MISC 64 ITEM 1009.

[20]  Fawcet Wray, Statutory Declaration, 3 August 1917, para. 34, Hamilton mss., NMM HTN 125; Lumby, p. 405 [emphasis in original].

[21]  Court of Inquiry Proceedings, Statement by the Defence, Lumby, p. 257.

[22]  S.N.O., Malta to C-in-C, Rear Admiral, (2220), 6 August 1914, NSM,B; Lumby, no. 258, p. 181.

[23]  Troubridge to Milne, 16 August 1914, para. 8, PRO Adm 137/879, Lumby, no. 373.

[24]  Gloucester to C-in-C, Rear Admiral, (2146), 6 August 1914, NSM,B; Lumby, no. 235, p. 177. This signal was logged as being received on Defence at 11.08 p.m.

[25]  Court of Inquiry Proceedings, Statement for the Defence, Lumby, p. 258.

[26]  Court Martial Proceedings, qu. 910, Lumby, p. 389.

[27]  Troubridge had signalled Gloucester and Dublin earlier [code time 0140 GMT, that is, 2.40 a.m. SMT] that he intended to engage at 6 a.m. (NSM,B; Lumby, no. 251, p. 180). This was not the only signal declaring his intention to engage: the last signal to do so was sent visually, from Defence to the ships in company [code time 0205 GMT, 3.05 a.m. SMT] — see, Signal Log, HMS Defence, (0205), 7 August 1914, IWM MISC 64 ITEM 1009.

[28]  S.N.O., Malta to C-in-C, Rear Admiral, (2220), 6 August 1914, NSM,B; Lumby, no. 258, p. 181.

[29]  Fawcet Wray, Statutory Declaration, 3 August 1917, Hamilton mss., NMM HTN 125.

[30]  Letter by Troubridge’s wife, quoted in, Charles Fryer, The Watch on the Danube, The British Naval Mission in Serbia, 1914-16, The Mariner’s Mirror, vol. 73, no. 3, August 1987, p. 301.

[31]  Ibid., p. 302.

[32]  Wray, Statutory Declaration 3 August 1917, Hamilton mss., NMM HTN 125 [emphasis in original].

[33]  Quoted in, Heller, British Policy, p. 156 [Mallet’s emphasis].

[34]  Quoted, ibid., footnote 99, pp. 212-3.



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