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 5




The Break-out




 HMS Dublin

HMS Dublin

Having rendezvoused with his two other battle cruisers on the morning of Wednesday 5th Milne continued his leisurely progress that afternoon towards Bizerta where he would detach Indomitable to coal before resuming his patrol west of Sicily with Inflexible and Indefatigable. After eluding his forces the previous night, the first hint of the whereabouts of the German ships came from the light cruiser Gloucester which had been detailed to proceed towards the southern entrance of the Straits of Messina.


At 2.36 p.m. she reported that Goeben’s W/T signal strength was 10, followed by a more definite report at 5 p.m. that, from the strength of the signals, Goeben should be in the Straits of Messina. Within minutes, confirmation was received from the consul at Reggio: ‘…men of war are at Messina.’[1] Upon Gloucester’s first report Milne dispatched Dublin with instructions to coal at Malta, then proceed to reinforce Troubridge, while Milne, himself, after saluting the French at Bizerta, calmly steamed north and south along the meridian 10º E with the remainder of his squadron in the considered belief that this would block the German’s only escape route.

                Things were not quite so calm with Troubridge’s squadron. The consul’s report and a signal from Milne that soon followed were interpreted as meaning that Goeben and Breslau were steaming right through the Straits without stopping. In the circumstances it was assumed they would be heading for Pola or Trieste to join the Austrians; Troubridge’s squadron therefore ‘accordingly set a course that should under lucky conditions bring us across her track about midnight.’[2] Defence also was prepared for action — wooden fittings (including the Captain’s office) went over the side and course was altered so that the trail of jetsam should not reveal the ship’s position.[3] At 6.40 p.m., as general quarters sounded in his ships, Troubridge signalled Milne, ‘I am proceeding to endevour [sic] to intercept Goeben and instructing destroyers to do same if they have sufficient coal.’[4] Troubridge’s destroyers had originally been ordered by Milne to return to Malta to coal on the previous afternoon; however, Milne rescinded this order upon receipt of the War Warning telegram and directed the destroyers back to Santa Maura, there to await a collier which would not leave Malta until an hour after Troubridge’s signal, above, was sent.

                Since the outbreak of war the previous night, Troubridge had had to plan for the contingency that Goeben and Breslau might attempt to enter the Adriatic. Early on the morning of the 5th he had signalled his captains visually: ‘In event of Goeben coming through Messina and entering Adriatic the squadron will give him battle. But as the Goeben’s guns outrange our guns at least 4,000 yards I shall endeavour to retreat at full speed to a position just inside Paxos Island where I would endevour [sic] to fight at a range that permits of our gun fire being effective. I do not know if Goeben has passed Messina but it is possible.’[5] Later that day Troubridge informed Milne of his intentions: ‘…If we encounter her I will attempt draw her into narrow waters when I can engage her at our range.’[6] Milne replied by informing Troubridge that he was sending Dublin to assist (after she had coaled in Malta), and added, ‘In case she [Goeben] should come out use destroyer flotilla night work.’ Milne later maintained that, by this signal, he meant the destroyers were to have the ‘first chance’. When asked if this were misleading he replied, ‘The Rear-Admiral would know from that signal that my idea was that it would be better for the destroyers to attack, being less visible than the cruisers; but certainly it would leave it open to the Rear-Admiral to attack if the destroyer attack failed. He would be in a position to know this from the senior destroyer.’[7] Unfortunately, this was not the impression received by Troubridge (or so he later claimed) who now thought that he was to use only the destroyers for night work and not the cruisers — though it should be noted that this apparent prohibition did not cause Troubridge to alter his plans for the attack he hoped to launch that night with his cruisers.[8] For his part, Souchon did not greatly fear destroyer attacks as he believed that, in the prevailing conditions of full moon and clear weather, they could be beaten off.[9]

                In Messina on the 5th the German ships continued the loathsome task of coaling; it would be another 24 hours before they departed. Unaware of this and thinking they had come through the Straits without stopping, Troubridge calculated they would be off Cape Calonna about 11 p.m. and it was here he decided to fight a night action, using heavy armament and torpedoes, with the aid of the moon.[10] ‘The weather was calm and very clear’, he recorded, ‘and down the full moon nearly as bright as day.’ At 6.58 p.m. Troubridge flashed his orders to his captains: night action stations were to be exercised throughout the night; salvo firing only was to be employed; the first salvo fired by Defence to be the signal to open fire; searchlights to be fully manned for one side only but not switched on till Defence opened fire; preparations should be made to develop a rapid torpedo fire; and, when nearing the point, absolutely no smoke to be made (which would entail a reduction in speed).[11] But his task was immediately complicated by a report from Gloucester that three Italian destroyers had emerged from Messina and were steaming north-east up the coast; the last thing Troubridge would have wanted was an unnecessary clash with these in a confused night action.[12]

                Troubridge continued for four hours on his abortive mission. The moon was so bright that the searchlights on his ships were depressed for fear of reflecting it. ‘I hoped it might be possible’, he recalled, ‘that she [Goeben] would run up the coast, that I would be the dark side of her, that they might mistake my Squadron for destroyers, which is very easy in the dark with those low ships, that they would open fire with a light armament, to which I would reply with a heavy armament and torpedoes. The ships are low, and the dark by the land rendered this quite a feasible operation. They were all delighted with it in my Squadron, and I think it might have been successful, but she did not come out.’[13] By 10 p.m. the Rear-Admiral was reasonably certain, following a further signal from Messina, that Goeben was still in the harbour so that, even if she had had steam up and was about to sail, there was no longer any chance of meeting her in darkness. Coupled with the presence of the Italian destroyers in the area he was steering for, Troubridge had little option but to alter course and ‘carry out usual practice retiring to southward during the night.’[14] As the Captain’s clerk on Defence explained:

In the night we ran across due West to cut them off if they ran for the Adriatic. Our only chance is to catch them at night as they outrange us by about 4,000 yards, as well as having about five knots speed on us. In the dark we might get within range of our 7.5 [inch gun] before being discovered. If we meet them in the day time we will run for the Greek Islands and try to make them engage us among them where we might be able to choose our own range. Unfortunately they didn’t come out and so we have to go back again…[15]


Dawn broke on Thursday 6 August on another cloudless day; later, a slight haze would descend, while the temperature would remain in the upper 70s (°F) throughout most of the day. It was the second day of Souchon’s enforced visit to Messina, though he now knew he must depart by nightfall. What would he face? The light cruiser Gloucester still patrolled the southern exit and could be seen from the German ships; Souchon probably reasoned on her being able to summon up reinforcements at short notice. To the north, nothing could be seen, though again Souchon must have assumed that, if not already in position, his way would soon be blocked by either a British battle cruiser or possibly an advance echelon of the French fleet (despite his reassuring message to his Austrian colleagues that the French had not arrived).[16] What would his thoughts have been had he known that the way to the north, out of the Straits, was unguarded while, to the south, Gloucester patrolled alone?

                Having missed his chance the previous night when the German ships stayed put, Troubridge spent an anxious day on the 6th waiting for Milne to steam east to effect a junction with him before Messina: ‘The Goeben had a speed of 3½ knots above the battle cruisers’, Troubridge would later argue in contradiction to his earlier advice, ‘so that what was wanted to bring her to action was a broad front in narrow waters.’[17] Milne had formed the opinion, however, that if Goeben and Breslau had come out on the night of 5/6 August it would not be for the purpose of making for the Adriatic, as Troubridge assumed, but rather to steer west to attack the French transports. Milne believed that, in this eventuality, Souchon would avoid the French North African coast and so would pass close to Sardinia instead. Throughout the night, therefore, he patrolled with his flagship and Indefatigable (while Indomitable coaled at Bizerta) along the meridian 10° E., between Bizerta and Sardinia. In this position he was satisfied that he had Souchon covered whether the German Admiral chose to break west, via the north coast of Sicily, or first south out of Messina and then west, through the Malta Channel.[18] As he steamed slowly on his patrol line, Milne was again handicapped by lack of information, especially as regards the French. He had been informed the previous day that mines had been laid in the Dardanelles and Bosphorus – these had already claimed their first victim, the British merchant ship SS Craigforth[19] – which could have reinforced his belief that, as the Dardanelles were now apparently closed, Souchon had only two options: the Adriatic or to strike west. Milne instinctively rejected the former: ‘Undoubtedly her object, or where she could do the most damage was with the French transports…I always had this in my mind, and it was in the Admiralty orders, that they were to be protected.’[20] But where were the French?

                The responsibility of liaising with them now fell to Captain Kennedy, who had arrived at Bizerta in Indomitable on the evening of Wednesday 5 August after being detached by Milne. Once anchored, the Captain went on shore as his ship prepared for coaling; unfortunately, the French tugs had brought lighters alongside filled with unsuitable “briquettes” which the authorities thought would be preferred to Welsh coal. Fortuitously, also in port was a British collier, the Ganges, loaded with what was thought to be ‘a suspiciously large cargo – over 5,000 tons – consigned on German account to Jiddah and Basra.’ This was not news to the C-in-C, however, as Ganges was originally believed by Milne to be one of Goeben’s colliers, but having intercepted the ship and established its bona fides he thoughtfully ordered it to Bizerta where, it was felt, ‘it may prove a great help to us.’[21] Yet Kennedy apparently did not know of this despite a signal from Milne earlier in the evening that, if considered advisable, he should wait for the arrival of the collier and employ native labour ‘as requisite for maximum dispatch’.[22] Instead, Kennedy signalled to Milne late that night that the collier had never been to Bizerta before and that the master allegedly did not know the reason for the large cargo: 5,300 tons of best Admiralty steam coal. Kennedy requested permission to take the cargo, punctiliously informing Milne that the demurrage would be £30 per day.[23] At least Kennedy exhibited some initiative as, before receiving the reply, he ordered that coaling should commence from the mysterious Ganges. The coaling would continue until 2.40 on the afternoon of the 6th, by which time 1,550 tons had been taken on board; it had been a slow effort as the dockyard hands supplied ‘were willing in spirit [but] proved to be weak in the Flesh.’[24] The opportunity was also taken to prepare the ship for action, with superfluous woodwork either being put into the empty lighters to be taken ashore or, more simply, just thrown overboard.[25]

                Kennedy’s first signal to Milne regarding the French contained little information of real use other than informing him that they were not watching the passage between Cape Corso, on the northern tip of Corsica, and the Italian mainland.[26] As Milne had not encountered the German ships during the night he decided at first light on Thursday 6th to commence a slow sweep eastwards towards Cape Vito on the north-west tip of Sicily but, before doing so, he requested that Kennedy should ascertain the ‘exact position of French Fleet today, and when first transports will leave Algeria.’[27] Kennedy’s initial response was a vague signal that the first transport had left the Algerian coast but, as a second shipment appeared necessary, the French Fleet would probably not be free till 10 August.[28] This left Milne no clearer as to the whereabouts of the French and perhaps heightened his apprehension regarding the covering of the transports. It was not until the afternoon that Kennedy finally sent more definite intelligence:

                                                Indomitable to C-in-C                                             Rec’d. 2.15 p.m.

Your 0435 of 6th. Last position of French Fleet known here Wednesday 5th 3 p.m. Courbet at Algiers, 6 p.m. 2nd Squadron left Algiers conveying seven transports, Thursday 6th 8 a.m. squadron of eight cruisers left C. de Fer for Philippeville. French information from Rome Wednesday night Goeben and Breslau at Messina, 16 Austrian ships at Pola. (1227)[29]

Kennedy was not doing very well: Lapeyrère, in Courbet, had in fact left Algiers on the 5th with two battleships to search the Balearics; while, with regard to the squadron of cruisers bound for Philippeville, Milne evidently intercepted a message from Bizerta to Indomitable that four ironclads and three armoured cruisers had left Philippeville at 8 a.m. bound for Ajaccio in Corsica.[30] Did this refer to the same squadron of cruisers? Almost in desperation, Milne signalled back to Kennedy that he would continue his sweep to the east till 6 p.m., when he would reverse course, and that if the Germans were not sighted by the following morning he would assume they had gone north round Sardinia or Corsica. Milne instructed Kennedy to inform the French Admiral (Dartige de Fournet) of this and to add, ‘I am ready to come with two battle-cruisers and 1 light cruiser to assist on transport line if you wish. Please reply quickly.’[31]

                This message was received aboard Indomitable at 4.33 p.m., precisely eight minutes after, having at last finished coaling, the battle cruiser had slipped from the buoy and proceeded out of Bizerta harbour with a pilot on board. In view of Milne’s instructions Kennedy stopped and anchored just outside the breakwaters and, while the hands began to clear the stokeholds of ashes, he went back ashore ‘to try to get a reply sent quickly.’ Instead, de Fournet kept him waiting some time before finally admitting that he was not at all sure Lapeyrère would reply to Milne’s offer of assistance. The coup de grace then delivered aptly sums up the appalling state of Anglo-French co-operation: ‘Does not your Admiral know’, replied the French Admiral casually, ‘that we have all our fleet with the transports? They are quite safe.’ Incredibly, within hours, the French offered to put four of their own cruisers at Milne’s disposal, to give the ships some employment while Lapeyrère was busy transporting troops.[32] Milne replied that he would be much obliged if they could patrol between Marsala and Cape Bon.[33] It would be difficult to decide with whom the C-in-C was more exasperated: the French or Captain Kennedy. Milne had been badly served by Kennedy, whose mission to Bizerta had been an abject failure. Not only had Kennedy taken an inordinate amount of time to coal his ship, but his signals to Milne regarding French dispositions had been either confusing or unenlightening.

                After the farcical interview with de Fournet, Kennedy did not get back to his ship until 8 p.m., hardly fulfilling Milne’s orders for maximum dispatch. Meanwhile, two hours earlier, having heard no further news of Goeben and Breslau, Milne decided not to reverse course, but to continue his sweep east and close the northern end of the Straits of Messina, sending Chatham on ahead to scout. In doing so he admitted that he was prepared to accept the risk that Souchon might already have sailed north out of Messina and made good his escape. At 6.15 p.m. he informed Admiral de Fournet of his new course; precisely one minute later, to confound at once his new intentions, Milne’s flagship logged a message from Gloucester, watching the southern exit of the Straits, that Goeben had emerged from that exit and was now steering east.[34] However, with his passage barred through the Straits by virtue of Battenberg’s prohibition regarding Italian neutrality and believing Souchon’s move might be a feint and that he still intended to double back west through the Malta Channel to attack the French transports, Milne altered course at 7.13 p.m. to come round south, via the west coast of Sicily, to cut off the Germans.[35] Despite this manoeuvre, the prospect of battle soon receded as Gloucester continued to report Goeben steaming east until, after rounding Cape Spartivento, she then changed course to the north-east and Milne was reluctantly drawn to the conclusion that her destination must be, after all, the Adriatic. In the circumstances, he decided to hold his new course and proceed to Malta to coal Inflexible and Indefatigable. The former, which had done no high speed steaming, required only 900 tons of coal, while the latter needed 1,450 tons of coal and 50 tons of oil fuel.[36] Almost unbelievably, Milne also ordered Indomitable, now fully coaled, to rendezvous with him at Malta rather than proceed directly to support Gloucester. The three battle cruisers, with attendant light cruisers, did not reach Malta till noon on Friday, 7th; Indomitable had so much coal already that it was ‘rather a job’ to stow the small additional amount taken on. By that time the drama to the east, and Troubridge’s fatal error of judgment, had already been played out.

                One final irony for the British C-in-C that night (though it would not be the last unfortunate signal from the Admiralty, which had kept fairly quiet through Thursday 6th) was the message Milne received at 10.54 p.m. as he was making his way, south of Sicily, back to Malta: knowing that Goeben and Breslau were at Messina, believing that Milne was north of Sicily steering east, and realizing the difficulty placed on Milne by his earlier prohibition, Battenberg now decided that any possible affront to Italy was worth the prize. He therefore informed Milne, ‘If Goeben goes south from Messina, you should follow through the Straits, irrespective of territorial waters.’[37] It was already too late, but would it have made any difference? By the time Milne received the message his new course had taken him so far west that it was quicker for him to continue on that course to Malta, south of Sicily, rather than to have reversed course yet again and gone north round Sicily and through Messina. In that case, given his ever-present fear that Goeben and Breslau could always break west, taking the two battle cruisers to Malta was a justifiable action; what is harder to explain, however, is his insistence on keeping Indomitable with him rather than detaching her either in hot pursuit of the Germans or else to reinforce Troubridge’s line.


                When, on Tuesday 4th, Goeben had run away from Indomitable and Indefatigable towards Messina, Milne had, in the absence of any knowledge concerning the French, withdrawn the battle cruisers and ordered them to patrol the line Bizerta-Sardinia, to act, more or less, as a barrier against a German breakthrough west. This inevitably attracted criticism that he should have closed the northern exit of the Straits with the two chasing battle cruisers while he, himself, closed the southern exit in Inflexible. His first response to such criticism was to maintain, unhelpfully, that he had not done so ‘Because I considered the disposition I made was the best.’ When pressed, Milne stood by his assertion that the dispositions adopted blocked Goeben which ever way she went and he pointed out, in addition, that if the British battle cruisers had been patrolling slowly north and south of Messina, but had not been able to close the Straits due to Battenberg’s orders, Goeben could have worked up to her top speed (which he also put at 3½ knots above his own ship) and could have come surging out, past the waiting hunters before they could get up speed. If Goeben had run under the guns of the British it would have been for a short time only.[38]

                The situation on the evening of Thursday 6th was now different: Milne was under the impression that the latest convoy of seven French transports had left that morning, covered by the French Second Battle Squadron,[39] and so were safe, but, by not having closed the Straits of Messina, Souchon had now broken east at a speed estimated, incorrectly, by Gloucester to be 26 knots. The German ships were apparently tearing up the Italian coast towards Troubridge, the Adriatic, and the safety of the Austrian ports. Although Milne’s pre-war orders – stipulating that Goeben must always be shadowed by two battle cruisers – were still in force, he chose to concentrate all three at Malta, a decision he would later have to explain to the Admiralty. He responded on two fronts: first, when Indomitable eventually left Bizerta, some two hours after Gloucester’s signal that Goeben had emerged, the British ship was still some 350 miles away and could not have made up the distance in the time available; and, second, his continued fixation with the French transports. Until about 11 p.m. (local time) on the night of Thursday, 6 August he maintained:

there was no reason to suppose that the German ships would go Southward [out of Messina]. When they did do so my chief care was to ensure their not returning (i) westward to attack the French transports or escape from the Mediterranean, or (ii) northward to attempt again to enter the Adriatic…Under these circumstances, I considered it advisable to keep the Indomitable with the other two battle-cruisers to continue the chase of the Goeben and Breslau immediately all ships had sufficient coal to do so, or to be in readiness to ensure the Goeben being brought to action by the battle-cruisers should she be turned westward by the First Cruiser Squadron, which I believed to be in a position to engage him. I had always to bear in mind that Goeben had three knots speed over the battle-cruisers.[40]

Later still Milne would answer in more general terms:

At this time the international situation, as regards Italy, was very difficult, and any act on the part of England which might wound the susceptibilities of Italy might make Italy place herself on the side of Germany and Austria. That is one great reason for not sending the battle-cruisers through the Straits of Messina. Further, I was not at all sure, in my own mind, that the Goeben would go up the Adriatic. My impression was that it was quite possible he might break back to the southward or alter course to the southward and come through the Malta Channel to the westward. Undoubtedly her object, or where she could do the most damage was with the French transports which were taking the 19th Army Corps to Marseilles and Toulon. I always had this in my mind, and it was in the Admiralty orders, that they were to be protected…[41]

Battenberg, at least, was satisfied:

On leaving Messina to the south and east, the Germans made, as was expected, for the Adriatic, their only friendly locality, where the Allies were in force — why they went east after a while is beside the point. Admiral Troubridge with 4 powerful armoured cruisers and a flotilla was in such a position that he could bar the passage to the Adriatic as well as to the Aegean to the two Germans. Admiral Milne placed his 3, slower, battle-cruisers in the best position for barring the passage west. The enemy being prevented from going north (into Adriatic), east (into Aegean) or west (at the French transports) could only go south (Egypt), where a superior force could follow him. There was therefore no particular object in detaching one of the 3 battle-cruisers (Indomitable) to the eastward.[42]

What Milne did not mention was that, soon after midnight on 6/7 August, as he proceeded to Malta, he had at last received definite word not only that the French transports were safe but also that the French had spare ships to put at his disposal, which Milne promptly directed to patrol between Marsala on the west of Sicily and Cape Bon on the North African coast, thus cutting off the Malta Channel.


When Goeben came out of Messina, spewing heavy clouds of smoke as a result of the inferior coal she was now forced to use, the chase was taken up by the only available ship, Gloucester, a light cruiser whose captain, Howard Kelly, had been until March the Naval Attaché in Paris. It was Kelly who, alarmed at the extent of the secret Anglo-French naval agreement, had confronted the Admiralty; it was Kelly who had tried to warn Troubridge (when the latter was Chief of the War Staff) of the importance placed by the French upon the safe passage of the Algerian Corps — only to be dismissed by a wave of Troubridge’s arm. If time had permitted, perhaps Kelly could have reflected on the irony of the present situation with a faint glimmer of satisfaction; but he now had more important things to worry about. His ship, in common with most on the station, was no longer capable of her maximum speed and, at best, could achieve 23 to 24 knots;[43] however, he had received the signal the previous day from the C-in-C that Goeben and Breslau had made 26 knots on the 4th. Kelly had no immediate reason to doubt the veracity of the speed attributed to Souchon’s squadron and, indeed, the message ended, ominously, ‘Warn Gloucester.’[44] To Kelly, this ‘was not an agreeable piece of information’ and, although he admitted afterwards that the Germans ‘had strained their engines in doing this [on the 4th] and were not able to go much more than 20 knots as the result’, nevertheless, at the time, he perpetuated the myth of the flying Germans by signalling their speed, as he took up the chase, as being 26 knots.[45] Was Kelly, like Kennedy before him, afraid to contradict Milne or did he simply accept the fact of the warning message without question only to find that, regardless of the contradictory physical evidence, he unconsciously confirmed the suggestion that had been planted by Milne’s signal? Whatever the reason, the fact that Kelly reported chasing at 26 knots, which was one knot faster than his own ship’s trial speed – which in any case she was no longer capable of making – should have alerted someone to the fact that this was an exaggeration.

                Anticipating that, if they made their break south, the Germans would depart about sunset, Kelly had begun closing the Straits in Gloucester at 12 knots when Goeben emerged, hugging the coastline, followed by Breslau, 2 miles astern. Kelly worked up to 23 knots and settled down on a parallel course, 16,000 to 18,000 yards distant. As the light faded he closed the distance until, after 7 p.m., the enemy became difficult to make out; when they reached Cape Spartivento they could not be seen. It was here, Kelly thought, that Souchon might try to double back either to throw him off or to break west, yet if he dropped astern he might lose Goeben altogether. On the other hand, if Souchon maintained a north-easterly course with Gloucester off his starboard quarter, when the moon rose at 7.45 p.m. Kelly’s ship would be silhouetted while Goeben remained hidden by the land.

                ‘There seemed to me’, Kelly wrote, ‘to be only one way of dealing with the situation, which was to alter course 90º towards the place where the enemy should be. This we did at 7.40 p.m. and increased speed to 24 knots.’[46] It was a brilliant manoeuvre. By steaming 16,000 yards and then resuming his original course, Kelly had managed to reverse the position and place himself between Goeben and the coast: now it was the German who was reflected in the wan light of the moon. Souchon directed that Breslau should attempt to drive off Gloucester and, at 9.10 p.m., the German light cruiser was seen to haul off towards the land. Kelly mirrored this manoeuvre to maintain his advantageous position but it was soon obvious that he would run out of sea room and also risked losing sight Goeben. He therefore regained his position with relation to the battle cruiser at the expense of now being on the wrong side of Breslau. Twenty minutes later Breslau altered course again to cross the bows of Gloucester with the intention, Kelly believed, of opening fire; this was certainly not far-fetched and Commander Kettner on Breslau’s bridge would soon regret he had not done so. Gloucester immediately pushed over towards the land to get inside of Breslau and the ships passed at 3,000 to 4,000 yards, with Breslau continuing on her new course: south-east. Kelly resumed the shadowing of Goeben which continued to maintain a north-easterly course and whose position and speed he regularly reported by W/T, despite occasional jamming (resulting in his delightful signal at 7.26 p.m., ‘Am being deliberately interfered with.’[47]). Just before 11 p.m. Souchon at last made his move, altered course to the south-east – towards Cape Matapan – and commenced jamming as hard as possible. By shifting his wavelength Kelly was successful in transmitting a signal of the change of course which was received by Milne at 11.15 p.m.; Kelly then settled down for the night about 6 miles astern of Goeben, at an average speed of 18 knots.[48]

                While Howard Kelly clung to Goeben’s tail, his brother Captain John Kelly, in command of Dublin, was racing to intercept Goeben under instructions to launch a night attack with torpedoes. Dublin had been detached by Milne the previous day to proceed to Malta to coal before joining Troubridge. Coaling had been completed by 1.35 p.m. on the 6th and the ship had slipped and proceeded half an hour later on a north-easterly course, towards the Adriatic. En route, she had received two signals, coded only two minutes apart: the first, from Milne, ordered John Kelly to obtain the position, course and speed of Goeben from his brother and, ‘If possible sink him tonight’[49]; the second, from Troubridge, requested that if Kelly could arrive at the Zante Channel by 4 a.m., he should proceed there with his two attendant destroyers, at full speed.[50] As, at the time (just before 9 p.m.) Goeben still appeared to be heading for the Adriatic, John Kelly signalled to Milne and Troubridge that, on her present course, he would not be in Goeben’s vicinity until half an hour after daylight.[51] In the circumstances, as a daylight attack would be suicidal, Milne relented and replied that Kelly should follow Troubridge’s order; Dublin correspondingly altered course for Zante. No sooner had Kelly done this when Troubridge, still also of the belief that Souchon was making for the Adriatic, requested that ‘If you cannot attempt anything on Goeben during the dark hours shadow her at daylight reporting position and course…’[52]

                At 10.50 p.m., having just intercepted his brother’s report that Goeben was altering course southward, John Kelly realized that Milne’s order could now be fulfilled: Souchon was now no longer steaming away from him but on a course to cross his bows.[53] Howard Kelly, shadowing in Gloucester, now became a tame observer to what he considered would be his brother’s funeral: the attack, he thought, ‘couldn’t have resulted in anything but the loss of the three ships [Dublin and the 2 destroyers] making the attack.’[54] An hour previously, at 9.50 p.m., Breslau had separated from Goeben to make her dash towards Cape Matapan; from that time she was on a converging course with Dublin and the destroyers, Beagle and Bulldog, who took station in line ahead close to Dublin’s starboard quarter. John Kelly evidently thought the two German ships would concentrate before he could effect his interception of the battle cruiser. At 45 minutes past midnight he ordered action stations. Both the destroyers had been flaming visibly from their funnels which not even a reduction in speed would improve and, now, five minutes after ordering action stations, a boiler tube blew out on Beagle shrouding the destroyer in a ghostly cloak of steam, but not seriously affecting her station-keeping. Kelly’s fears that the Germans would be alerted to his presence and so take avoiding action were dispelled at one a.m. (7th) when smoke was sighted off the port bow. It was Breslau.

                John Kelly manoeuvred for an attack, though there was still some doubt aboard Dublin as to whether they had encountered one or both the German ships. The range-taker, Chief Petty Officer Cave, working on the upper navigating bridge, recorded that,

It was very early in the morning and I could only get approximate ranges in that light. Strangely Goeben and Breslau [sic] hadn’t put out smoke screens and we could only assume they hadn’t seen us. When we were within 6,000 yards and positioning for torpedo attack, the two destroyers Beagle and Bulldog were ordered up into position as at a boat race by Captain Kelly shouting through a megaphone from the starboard boat-deck “Back Bulldog”, “Up Beagle”.[55]

Being in an unfavourable position – down the moon of the German – John Kelly endeavoured to cross the enemy’s bows but found he was unable to and settled down for the chase, signalling at 1.30 a.m., ‘Have Breslau right ahead. Is going to join Goeben am following her.’[56] Aboard Dublin the gun crews ‘were itching to justify our winning the Mediterranean Fleet Battle Practice Cup just prior to the outbreak of war. The order of “All guns with lyddite — load” was greeted with cheers from all hands.’ Within seconds all guns reported ready; then came the order to “Flood out bar”, preparing the torpedo tubes for firing.[57]

                An hour later the expected concentration of the two German ships had not taken place and Kelly was certain that the only smoke they could see belonged to Breslau.[58] As Goeben was his chief objective, and ‘knowing from experience…that Breslau could walk away from us whenever she chose’, Kelly determined to attack Goeben; but where was she? He assumed Goeben was astern and north of Breslau on a parallel course. At 2.42 a.m. his ship gave up the chase of his German counterpart and veered off north-east in search of bigger game.[59] The position of the moon would again play an important part in proceedings: Kelly wanted to continue his present course until he believed he had placed himself slightly to the north of Souchon’s intended course, then he would turn 90º to run down on the opposite course with the intention of passing Goeben, who would be illuminated by the moonlight, on his (Dublin’s) port side. Unfortunately this turn, executed at 3.10 a.m., came too soon: Goeben was still some way north and would pass to Dublin’s starboard. Kelly continued on the opposite course, expecting to sight Goeben within 20 minutes. The seconds ticked by, the appointed time came and went, but nothing was seen until five minutes after the anticipated time of sighting when smoke was sighted abaft the starboard beam belonging, in all probability, to the trailing Gloucester; Goeben was some distance ahead.

                John Kelly continued on his course for a further ten minutes without sighting anything; then with the realization that, having missed Goeben, he could now only launch a stern attack and probably could not do that before daylight, he abandoned the chase and made to rejoin the First Cruiser Squadron. As Gloucester had kept Goeben in sight during the night, it should not have been overly difficult for Dublin to have located the battle cruiser; what then had gone wrong? John Kelly attributed the failure to sight Goeben to her having been warned by Breslau of his presence and thereby making an alteration to her course.[60] Subsequently, the Naval Staff Monograph came up with the somewhat fanciful idea that, as Dublin expected to run down Goeben from ahead on the Dublin’s port bow, all the lookouts were trained on that side while Goeben slipped by unobserved on the starboard side.[61] The most probable cause, as ascertained by Howard Kelly in Gloucester, was more prosaic: Dublin ‘turned to intercept the Goeben but owing to a mistake in coding or decoding the message [from Gloucester] giving the position at the time of the worst jamming of our messages, she passed a good deal astern of him.’[62]

                Aboard Dublin, Chief Petty Officer Cave recounted, ‘When we heard the order “Cooks of messes to the galley for cocoa” we knew that we had failed in our chance secretly to approach and damage or sink Goeben. The guns remained loaded but not all the company showed frustration in cursing, some were actually in tears.’[63] Although the first attempted attack that night had failed not everyone was upset — as was clear when Howard Kelly’s fraternal instinct got the better of him: ‘I confess’, he admitted, ‘to having felt immensely relieved when I saw it was impossible for [Dublin] to make contact with the Goeben.’[64] But there still remained Rear-Admiral Troubridge and the First Cruiser Squadron.Please click to go to the top of this page






[1]    S.N.O., Malta to C-in-C, (1556), 5 August 1914, NSM,B; Lumby, p. 168. Diary of Admiral Sir Richard Phillimore (then a Captain on board Inflexible as part of Milne’s staff, Phillimore succeeded Captain Loxley in command of the battle cruiser on 28 August 1914), entry for 5 August 1914, IWM 75/48/3.

[2]    Midshipman’s Journal of A de Salis, HMS Defence, 5 August 1914, IWM 76/117/1.

[3]    Captain’s clerk Lawder, quoted in, Liddle, The Sailor’s War, 1914-1918, p. 33.

[4]    W/T Signal Log, HMS Defence, (1740), 5 August 1914, IWM MISC 64 ITEM 1009.

[5]    W/T Signal Log, HMS Defence, (0610), 5 August 1914, General to Captains from Rear-Admiral, by visual, ibid.

[6]    W/T Signal Log, HMS Defence, (1230), 5 August 1914, ibid.; NSM,B; Lumby, p. 167.

[7]    Court Martial, qu. 375-7, Lumby, p. 315.

[8]    Ibid., Statement by the Defence, Lumby, p. 370.

[9]    Souchon, p. 489.

[10]  W/T Signal Log, HMS Defence, (1645), 5 August 1914, IWM MISC 64 ITEM 1009.

[11]  Ibid., (1758), 5 August 1914.

[12]  Ibid., (1815), 5 August 1914.

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

[14]  W/T Signal Log, HMS Defence, (2110), 5 August 1914, IWM MISC 64 ITEM 1009.

[15]  Captain’s clerk Lawder, quoted in, Liddle, The Sailor’s War, 1914-1918, p. 33.

[16]  Souchon maintained that he did not expect to have to deal with the French (Souchon, p. 489) though this is perhaps tinged with hindsight. The Austrians, however, clearly believed a portion of the French fleet would assume the offensive and it is difficult not to assume that this thought must also have crossed Souchon’s mind. See, Corbett, Naval Operations, vol. I, p. 62.

[17]  Court Martial, Statement by the Defence, Lumby, p. 370.

[18]  Diary of Admiral Sir Richard Phillimore, 5 August 1914, IWM 75/48/3.

[19]  Beaumont, Constantinople to Admiralty, no. 484, 5 August 1914 (rec’d 4 a.m., 6 August), PRO Adm 137/HS19. Deposition by H. F. Towler, master of SS Craigforth, 4 December 1914. PRO Adm 137/881.

[20]  Court Martial, qu. 384, Lumby, p. 316.

[21]  Commander R. Verner, A memoir by Harold Hodge, p. 44

[22]  C-in-C’s Signal Log, Flag to Indomitable, (1851), 5 August 1914, Milne mss., NMM MLN 210/7.

[23]  C-in-C’s Signal Log, Indomitable to C-in-C, (2146), 5 August 1914, ibid.

[24]  Midshipman’s Journal, B B Schofield, 5 August 1914, IWM BBS 2.

[25]  Ibid., 6 August 1914; Corbett, Naval Operations, vol. I, p. 61 and note; Ship’s Log, HMS Indomitable, 5/6 August 1914, PRO Adm 53/44830.

[26]  Indomitable to C-in-C, (2232), 5 August 1914, NSM,B; Lumby, p. 169.

[27]  C-in-C to Indomitable, (0435), 6 August 1914, NSM,B; Lumby, p. 170. Milne to Admiralty, 20 August 1914, para. 22, Lumby, p. 216.

[28]  Ibid.; Kennedy, p. 13.

[29]  Indomitable to C-in-C, (1227), 6 August 1914, NSM,B; Lumby, p. 171.

[30]  Corbett, Naval Operations, vol. i, pp. 61-2.

[31]  C-in-C to Indomitable, (1518), 6 August 1914, NSM,B; Lumby, p. 171.

[32]  French Vice-Admiral to British Fleet, 1.15 a.m., 7 August 1914, C-in-C’s Signal Log, Milne mss., NMM MLN 210/7 folder 5. The French ships offered were: Bruix, Latouche Treville, Amiral Charnier, & Jurien de la Graviere. See also, Kennedy, p. 13; Ship’s Log, HMS Indomitable, 5/6 August 1914, PRO Adm 53/44830.

[33]  British Admiral to French Admiral, 7 August 1914, C-in-C’s Signal Log, Milne mss, NMM MLN 210/7.

[34]  C-in-C to Admiral Dartige de Fournet, (sent 6.15 p.m.), 6 August 1914; Gloucester to C-in-C, Rear-Adl., (1710), 6 August 1914, NSM,B; Lumby, p. 172. see also, Milne to Admiralty, 20 August 1914, para. 23, Lumby, pp. 216-7.

[35]  Milne to Admiralty, 20 August 1914, para. 24, Lumby, p. 217.

[36]  Kennedy, p. 16. The battle cruisers consumed 33 tons of coal per hour at full speed, or 792 tons per day. The engine room logs are given in Lumby, p. 378.

[37]  Admiralty to C-in-C, no. 232, 6 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19; Lumby, p. 173. See also Churchill’s defence, The World Crisis, p. 149: ‘It is a fair criticism on the Admiralty that they did not immediately they knew the Goeben was at Messina authorize the British ships to follow her into the Straits. The point was not put to me either by the First Sea Lord of the Chief of the Staff, and as I had not myself been concerned in initiating or drafting the telegram about rigidly respecting Italian neutrality, it was not specially in my mind. Had it been put to me I should at once have consented. This was no petty incident and the prize was well worth the risk of vexing the Italians. In fact, permission to chase through the Straits was given by the Admiralty unasked to Sir Berkeley Milne, as soon as it was realized that the Goeben was escaping unblocked to the Southward. It was then too late.’ Although technically correct, in that he neither initiated nor drafted the telegram, Churchill was fully aware of its contents. It will be recalled that when shown Battenberg’s suggestion two days earlier Churchill had minuted: ‘So proceed. F. O. should intimate this to Italian Govt.’

[38]  Court Martial, qu. 386-390, Lumby, pp. 316-17.

[39]  Cdr Verner, A Memoir by Harold Hodge, p. 43.

[40]  Milne to Admiralty, 26 August 1914, para. (c), (d), PRO Adm 137/879; Lumby, p. 223.

[41]  Court Martial, qu. 384, Lumby, p. 316.

[42]  Minute by Battenberg, 27 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/879; Lumby, pp. 230-1 [my emphasis].

[43]  Kelly’s “Report of Detached Service”, 28 August 1914, [PRO Adm 137/3105] credits Gloucester with making 26 knots at one point; however, as this contradicts his own private account [Journal as Naval Attaché, Kelly mss., NMM Kel 3, p. 69] and also credits the ship with making one knot better than her trial speed, it would seem to be a mistake.

[44]  C-in-C to Rear-Adl., Defence, Gloucester, (0515), 5 August 1914, NSM,B; Lumby, p. 166.

[45]  Kelly, Journal as Naval Attaché, Kelly mss., NMM Kel 3, p. 67; Gloucester to Rear-Adl. and C-in-C, (1728), 6 August 1914, NSM,B; Lumby, p. 172. Gloucester’s own signal log recorded the speed as being 25, not 26, knots. Dublin compounded the mistake by reporting that, on the afternoon of 4 August, Goeben had achieved a highest speed of 27 knots and Breslau 28 knots. Dublin to C-in-C, (1050), 5 August 1914, NSM,B; Lumby, p. 166. Either the officers attempting to estimate the speed by plotting were all in error or the fleet was struck with a mass hallucination.

[46]  Kelly, Journal as Naval Attaché, Kelly mss., NMM Kel 3, p. 69.

[47]  Gloucester to Rear-Adl., C-in-C, (1826), 6 August 1914, NSM,B; Lumby, p. 173.

[48]  Kelly, Journal as Naval Attaché, Kelly mss., NMM Kel 3, pp. 70-2; HMS Gloucester, Report of Detached Service, 28 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/3105; Lumby, pp. 233-4.

[49]  C-in-C to Dublin, (1843), 6 August 1914, NSM,B; Lumby, p. 173.

[50]  Rear-Adl. to Dublin, (1845), 6 August 1914, NSM,B; Lumby, p. 174.

[51]  Dublin to C-in-C, Rear-Adl., (2000), ibid.

[52]  Dublin to Rear-Adl., (2050), reply by Rear-Adl., (2055), 6 August 1914, NSM,B; Lumby, p. 175.

[53]  Ship’s Log, HMS Dublin, 6 August 1914, PRO Adm 53/40233.

[54]  Kelly, Journal, p. 72.

[55]  Quoted in Peter Liddle, Men of Gallipoli, (London, 1976), p. 25.

[56]  Dublin to Rear-Adl., 1st Cruiser Squadron, (0030), 7 August 1914, NSM,B; Lumby, p. 179.

[57]  Quoted in Liddle, Men of Gallipoli, p. 25. Note: Cave’s account is somewhat confused, referring, for example to Dublin’s 8-inch and 6-inch guns when she in fact only possessed the latter; however I believe the account is trustworthy with regard to incidental information and does no more than reflect the initial confusion felt aboard the cruiser when it was thought they were shadowing Goeben.

[58]  Report of Proceedings, HMS Dublin, 13 August 1914, Kelly mss., NMM Kel 104.

[59]  Ship’s Log, HMS Dublin, PRO Adm 53/40233.

[60]  Report of Proceedings, HMS Dublin, 13 August 1914, Kelly mss., NMM Kel 104.

[61]  Naval Staff Monograph, The Mediterranean, 1914-15, (1923), para. 32, PRO Adm 186/618.

[62]  Kelly Journal, p. 72. Howard Kelly doubted his brother saw either Goeben or Gloucester, though this could refer to an actual sighting, rather than simply the smoke from either ship.

[63]  Quoted in, Liddle, Men of Gallipoli, pp. 25-6.

[64]  Kelly, Journal, p. 72.


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

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