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












Canadian Military History Journal
Book Review Supplement, Autumn 1997

The pursuit of the Goeben and Breslau is a textbook example of how not to conduct a military operation. Faulty intelligence, garbled signals, misleading communications, personal jealousies among commanders, disorganization within Admiralty House, a lack of imagination on the part of senior naval officers – all conspired to allow the two German cruisers to reach Constantinople and perhaps be decisive factors in bringing Turkey into the war on the side of the Central Powers. Through it all, Britain had a rear-admiral in Athens who was apparently apprised of the situation but who, for a variety of reasons, declined to keep his superiors fully informed.

Superior Force (the title is taken from a signal setting out the conditions under which the Royal Navy was permitted to engage the enemy cruisers) certainly does not make light reading. The first part of the narrative is an almost hour-by-hour account of events, with much hanging on the timing of a certain signal or the intent of a certain message. It takes the reader deep into Balkan power politics of the pre-1914 era, a field which is confusing at best, and introduces a cast of characters who have (in some cases deservedly) descended into obscurity. Nevertheless it is an impressive book, and Miller is to be commended for his diligence in piecing together occasionally fragmentary evidence into a convincing argument. Furthermore, he has provided much new grist for people interested in debating the “what might have beens” of the Dardanelles expedition.

Journal of the American Great War Society
Spring 1997
Volume 6 Number 2

Superior Force: The Conspiracy Behind the Escape of Goeben and Breslau, by Geoffrey Miller. Hull, U.K.: University of Hull Press, 1996; 485 + xxiii pp., illus., appendices, biblio., index. ISBN 0-85985-635-9. Available at $25 from Paul & Co., c/o PCS Data Processing Inc., 360 West 31st Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.
Reviewed by R.D. Layman

Innumerable accounts have been written of the flight to Turkey by the German battle cruiser Goeben and light cruiser Breslau during the early days of the Great War, leaving in their wakes recriminations, blighted naval careers and decades of controversy. Into these roiled waters Geoffrey Miller sails again, but retelling the story in such great detail as perhaps to justify his publisher’s claim that this is “the most complete account yet.”

The book is the first of a promised trilogy dealing with long-term British policy in the eastern Mediterranean. Its main title is drawn from the admonition of 30 July 1914 by Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, that the Mediterranean fleet should avoid battle with “superior forces” – a stricture the unfortunate Rear Admiral Sir Ernest Troubridge construed as meaning he should not risk his pursuing cruisers against Goeben’s 11-inch guns, thus allowing her and her consort to escape unscathed.

Fine as Miller’s account is of the events at sea, the book’s meat lies in the allegation in the subtitle, which advances a contention so novel that revisionistic is too mild a term for it. This is that three highly-placed individuals in Athens connived, directly or indirectly, to abet the escape. They were:

King Constantine, who although Germanophile (brother-in-law of Kaiser Wilhelm and an honorary marshal in the German army), was determined that it ,German in the best interests of Greece, war-weary from the two recent Balkan clashes, to remain neutral in the erupting new conflict.

Prime Minister Eleutherios Venizelos, who although pro-Entente, allowed the German vessels to refuel in Greek waters.

Rear Admiral Mark Kerr, a close confidant of Constantine and as head of the British naval mission to Greece the commander-in-chief of that nation’s navy.

Miller casts Kerr as the prime villain in the drama, which developed thusly:

On 4 August 1914, three days into Germany’s war with Russia and on the eve of Britain’s declaration of war, Constantine received via the Greek envoy in Berlin a confidential message from Wilhelm II disclosing the just-concluded Turko-German alliance, revealing the destination of Goeben and Breslau, and asking the king “to order the mobilization of your army, take your place at his [Wilhelm’s] side and march with him hand in hand against our common enemy, Slavism.” This appeal was accompanied by a forceful threat: “If Greece does not range itself on the side of Germany, every link between Greece and the [German] Empire will be broken.”

Constantine disclosed this message to his friend Kerr, who was thereby placed in a dilemma. As a serving British officer he was duty-bound to make the destination of the German vessels known to the Royal Navy, but to reveal the source of the information would violate the king’s confidence and possibly result in dire consequences for Greece.

After considerable vacillation, Kerr hit upon the pretext (although it was in fact true) that the Germans’ location, and thus probable course, had been ascertained through Greek navy radio intercepts. To further disguise the source, he imparted the information to the Russian legation in Athens for transmission to St. Petersburg and thence to the Admiralty in London, where the message was filed away and ignored for many critical hours.

While Kerr was dithering, two critical events had occurred: Troubridge, after declining action against Goeben, had abandoned his chase of her, and Venizelos had, despite an earlier order forbidding sale of coal to belligerents, sanctioned at the urgent request of the German legation the loading of 800 tons of coal onto a German collier that transferred the fuel to Goeben and Breslau – for which British naval forces were now blindly and belatedly searching in the Aegean.

Such are the bare bones of a diplomatic and political story far too complex for a review to do justice to. Suffice to say that Miller’s version of events seems confirmed by his highly impressive research in primary sources. However, whether there was a “conspiracy” in the dictionary definition of the word is questionable. The three principals never sat down together and concocted a plot. Each acted unilaterally for different reasons unbeknownst to the others. The beleaguered Constantine apparently simply sought a friendly shoulder to cry on. Kerr, who seems to have had an almost pathological loyalty to the king, allowed that loyalty to overcome what should have been his duty.

Venizelos’ motives were more complex and varied, but Miller suggests a main one: Once the German ships had strengthened the Ottoman fleet the Sublime Porte would be moved to attack Russia and “with Turkey fully committed, militarily and navally. in the east ... the way was left open for a Greek move on the Turkish rear with the ultimate objective being the capture of Constantinople.” Such reasoning would have been consistent with Venizelos’ pan-Hellenism, which would lead to the Greek debacle in Asia Minor in 1919-22.

So was there a conspiracy? Confusingly, the author asserts on page 276 that there was and there wasn’t: “While it is highly unlikely that there existed an organized conspiracy to allow the German ships to escape ... there is a strong case for believing that factions in Athens ... actively conspired to ensure their escape.” [please see below, where I have addressed this issue]

Readers will have to resolve the contradiction for themselves. But regardless of what conclusion one may draw from the book, it is a valuable contribution to Great War naval literature.
R.D. Layman

Navy News
May 1996

The escape to Constantinople in the first weeks of August 1914 of the German warships Goeben and Breslau exerted a decisive influence upon Turkey’s attempts to remain out of the war.

Among the many reputations that were ruined as a result were those of Admiral Sir Archibald Berkeley Milne. Commander-in¬-Chief of the British Mediterranean Squadron, and Rear Admiral Sir Ernest Troubridge, commanding the First Cruiser Squadron, who abandoned the attempt to intercept them.

Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, managed to escape being tarred with the same brush as his Naval commanders, but harboured a secret enmity towards the Turks whose first manifestation was the order for a futile bombardment of the Dardanelles forts in November 1914 which ended in the horrors of Gallipoli, the biggest single blot on his political career.

Now in Superior Force (Hull University Press £25.00) Geoffrey Miller argues that there was actually an organised conspiracy in Athens behind the affair – involving the British officer at the head of the Greek Navy, Rear Admiral Mark Kerr.

The destination of the ships was common knowledge among the ruling circles here some hours before Britain declared war on Germany, he reveals – yet for three vital days Kerr kept the secret to himself. Then, when it was almost too late he fed the Admiralty clues which were, however. not acted upon.

Miller concludes that Kerr’s motives for remaining silent, or at best divulging the least amount of information consistent with his position are hard to ascertain – but reveals that he had developed an intense emotional attachment to Greece.

This was revealed in an extraordinary letter to First Sea Lord Prince Louis of Battenburg, to whom he had appealed for help and encouragement in December 1911 in anticipation of war with Turkey over the fate of the Aegean Islands.

In this he actually declares his readiness to change his nationality and fight for the Greeks: “I know it means ruin for me afterwards, but I have a strong feeling that I should do so. I would not feel so, except for the fact that they will he so weak, having no-one who knows how to work a flotilla and I may make the difference of victory or defeat.

“I am quite serious about this and only ask you to be so good as to find out the legal point. I prefer not to be an outlaw and I prefer to he able to come home some day.”

A bout of malaria eventual, forced his return to London – but it would be many months before he was re-employed, thanks, his friend Battenberg believed, to a Foreign Office whispering campaign against him.

He was eventually given command of the Adriatic Squadron – and kept conveniently out of reach of a Select Committee inquiry into the conduct of the Dardanelles. When he returned home again on August 31, 1917 the Admiralty transferred him within two days to assist in the formation of the Royal Air Force.

Though he became Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, he received no further honour beyond the CB given him in 1913 – “a conspicuous neglect to recognise his services” that Compton MacKenzie, for one, believed was down to “political indiscretion”.

Today and Yesterday
No.76. June 1996

One of the mysteries of the war at sea during the First World War involved two German warships. the battlecruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau.

These two warships escaped from the British Mediterranean Squadron and having reached Constantinople they exerted a decisive influence on Turkey’s attempt to remain out of the war.

In Britain, the incident in the first weeks of August, 1914, led to a political scandal, with the blame for their escape being laid with various individuals and the Admiralty. But an intriguing book now throws some new light on the whole incident.

In his book, “Superior Force: The conspiracy behind the escape of Goeben and Breslau”, author Geoffrey Miller claims that there was an organised conspiracy in Athens, involving not only the Greek King and Prime Minister but also a senior Royal Navy officer.

Mr Miller says that the conspiracy helped the escape of the German ships.

He says that while Britain was unaware of the warships’ destination, where they were bound was common knowledge in Athens before war was declared!

The author is to be congratulated on exposing the intrigue behind such a famous incident. This fascinating true tale casts doubt on the official story of the ships’ escape, an incident that changed the history of the war.
Publishers: University of Hull Press, Hull HU6 7RX; price £25.00.

Warship World
Summer 1996


Geoffrey Miller (University of Hull Press)

Can anything new be said about the German battlecruiser GOEBEN, the ship which brought Turkey into the Great War and changed the world?

Yes it can – and this book says it. Subtitled ‘The conspiracy behind the escape of GOEBEN and BRESLAU’, it describes in detail the personal, political, diplomatic, communications, bureaucratic, logistical and chronological factors which influenced the actual events out at sea in the Mediterranean in August 1914. Geoffrey Miller draws together and evaluates previously published accounts in the light of more recently available evidence, which itself provides a great deal of new information. Particular emphasis is given to the part played by Greece and that country’s British naval C-in-C (Rear-Admiral Mark Kerr).

There are six appendices (including material on the sinking of HMS RAGLAN and M28 in January 1918) and seventeen pages of sources. There are over fifty pages of notes, many providing interesting additional material. The entries in the nineteen-page index, are useful potted biographies of ships and personalities. There are twenty-two illustrations although two are identical photos of GOEBEN, and the two maps have been transposed. There are some other minor typographical inconsistencies, the most noticeable being in a comparison of chapter headings and the Contents list. But these are minor distractions. Author and publisher are to be congratulated on producing a worthy contribution, not just to naval history, but to World history. Indeed, in an interesting preliminary section, Geoffrey Miller explains how the book is but one part of a grander canvas, which will eventually cover the whole of British policy in the Mediterranean and Middle East in the early years of the Twentieth Century. And I kept looking at the price to make sure it was only £25.00 for such a large, readable and significant work.

The Gallipolian
No. 1, Summer 1996

The University of Hull Press 1996. 458 pages. 20 illustrations, 2 maps.

Sub-titled “The conspiracy behind the escape of Goeben and Breslau” this is one of an intended three volume history of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, and British policy towards the Ottoman Empire from the turn of the century until the inception of the Dardanelles campaign. Winston Churchill was to write of the Goeben that she “was steaming an unobstructed course for the Dardanelles, carrying with her for the peoples of the East and the Middle East more slaughter, more misery, more ruin than has ever before been borne within the compass of a ship.”

Superior Force examines in detail the escape of the two ships, the conspiracy in Athens to facilitate that escape, together with a scheme to form a Balkan Confederation, and the collapse of the plan for Greek participation at the Dardanelles. It investigates Churchill’s claim that malign forces were at work, and concludes with the last sortie of the Goeben, that of January 1918.

Like much else about the Gallipoli campaign the passage of the two German ships across the Mediterranean in August 1914, and our failure to intercept them, has aroused much controversy and debate, and at least four other books including The Flight of the Goeben and Breslau by Admiral Sir Berkeley Milne Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet in 1911, whose “frequent excursions into print revealed more of himself than of his reasons and actions.”

Geoffrey Miller, whose research for his trilogy has been monumental, reveals a tale even more fascinating than previously imagined. Nowhere more so than his revelations concerning the role played by Rear-Admiral Mark Kerr, Head of the British Naval Mission to Greece, and Commander-in-Chief of the Greek Navy 1913-1918. His influence on the Greeks, and especially Eleutherios Venizelos the Prime Minister, was considerable. and effectively removed the chance of Greek cooperation in the offensive against the Turks. “Few men can genuinely be said to have changed history; by his actions in Athens in the summer of 1914, Mark Kerr is one of those few.”

Geoffrey Miller was born in Sydney and after University began a legal career before moving to the computer department of a bank for nine years. Long realising he should have studied history rather than law he subsequently moved to London and spent nearly two years on full time research for his trilogy, although it was 1992 before the manuscript was completed. This is a work of fine scholarship, and the author is to be congratulated for his considerable perseverance in seeking, and eventually finding at the University of Hull. a publisher. One fervently hopes that they will continue with this project which deserves every support by members of the Association.

The [American] Journal of Military History

Superior Force: The Conspiracy Behind the Escape of Goeben and Breslau. By Geoffrey Miller. Hull, England: University of Hull Press, 1996 (distributed by Paul and Company, Concord, Mass.). ISBN 0-85958-635-9. Illustrations. Maps. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xxiii, 458. $25.00.

Naval historians may recognize the main title of Miller’s massive study of the escape of the Mittelmeerdivision to the Dardanelles in 1914. It comes from the ambiguous orders from the First Lord of Admiralty, Winston Churchill, to the British Mediterranean forces to avoid battle with “superior force” except as part of a general engagement in company with the French. The Admiralty probably meant by “superior force” the Austrian and Italian fleets; Rear Admiral Troubridge interpreted it to mean the Goeben and turned away from a possible encounter in which his slower cruisers would be outranged by the bigger guns of the German battle cruiser. The author, while not neglecting the earlier stages of the escape, brings a new slant to the story by his close attention to events after the Germans had passed Cape Matapan and entered the Aegean. As the subtitle indicates, Miller believes there was a “conspiracy” in Athens to delay or obscure intelligence the Germans were heading for the Dardanelles. The two major culprits were Rear Admiral Mark Kerr, head of the British Naval Mission in Greece, and Eleutherios Venizelos, the Greek Prime Minister who facilitated German coaling in Greek waters. The latter hoped the German ships, by forestalling a Russian occupation of Constantinople, would leave the path open for the Greeks. Miller argues King Constantine probably informed or even showed Admiral Kerr the contents of a telegram from his blabbermouth brother-in-law, Kaiser Wilhelm, giving away German intentions. Kerr, reputed to be excessively awed by royalty and a defender of Constantine to the undoubted detriment of his career, may have wanted to shield the Greek King from possible German retaliation and chose to pass on the information in diluted form to the Russian Minister in Athens. The intelligence went to St. Petersburg and then to London where its importance was not appreciated. Miller discovered in the embassy archives that when the Foreign Office sent it on to Athens, thus completing the circle, someone had noted that the intelligence had actually come from Kerr in the first place. Miller’s use of the FO 286 series to supplement the more commonly used FO 371 files is a real contribution. Unlike the “high policy” covered in FO 371, the FO 286 files are cumbersome to use, filled with minutiae, but can on occasion yield valuable clues. One may not always follow the author to the full extent of his interpretations, but at the very least he has demonstrated that Kerr would have had some difficult questions to answer.

The reader should not be put off by the sensational nature of the subtitle. The author has done exhaustive research in a wide variety of British sources … Miller is so skillful in analyzing the numerous errors on the British and French side that facilitated the escape of the Germans that he perhaps unwittingly undermines the importance of his subtitle. Actions in Athens appear to be only a small portion of the long series of mistakes delineated in great detail … This volume is only the first of a planned three-volume series that will cover British policy towards the Ottoman Empire and Mediterranean starting in the 1870s. Miller intends to chart the “many lost opportunities.” It is a daunting task, but British policy was not formed in a vacuum. There were other players in the game and French, German, and Austrian archives are readily available. How will the author know if the “lost opportunities” really were opportunities? It will not be enough to rely on older published works translated into English. No matter how exhaustive the author’s labor, a study limited to documents in the British Isles will be a restricted one. Nevertheless, this first volume on the Goeben episode will be indispensable for future naval historians.
Paul G. Halpern
Florida State University


The Naval Review

by Geoffrey Miller
(University of Hull Press -- £25.00)

The story of the ‘escape’ of Goeben and Breslau in August 1914 from the pursuing Mediterranean Fleet and their arrival in Constantinople has been told many times. It exerts a fascination because, without these powerful reinforcements, Turkey might have remained neutral in the First World War. Russian trade through the Dardanelles might have continued and the fate of the Russian Empire and of the whole of the Middle East might have been different.

Geoffrey Miller not only knows how to make the familiar story exciting, he also reminds his readers of aspects of the escape which other accounts sometimes overlook. There were some Greek officials who wanted to Turkey in the war on the German side so that it could be defeated and the spoils divided. Prominent amongst these, so Miller believes, was Eleutherios Venizelos, the Greek Prime Minister who connived in the coaling of the German ships. There was also the ambiguous position of Admiral Mark Kerr, confidant of the Greek King and head of the Greek Navy. Miller’s account suggests that Kerr delayed sending reports to London of the German ships’ intention to go to Turkey because the information was based on a telegram from the Kaiser which was read to him by the Greek King. The source and the confidential nature of the information, together with Kerr’s delicate position as a British naval officer and head of a foreign navy, all created genuine dilemmas for the admiral. When Kerr did eventually warn London about the Germans’ destination he did so via the Russian government in order to cover his tracks but the handling of this information in St Petersburg and London further delayed British actions.

Kerr was open to criticism for his decisions or lack of them although much of the blame fell on Admiral Troubridge who decided that the four heavy cruisers under his command in the Adriatic were not powerful enough to intercept Goeben and Breslau. Troubridge’s problem was his inability to communicate his judgements clearly to his superiors. This had come out during the Russo-Japanese War when he was supposed, as naval attaché in Japan, to accompany the Japanese fleet into action against the Russians. However, when the government sent Pakenham out to assist him, Troubridge chose to see Pakenham as his replacement. left Japan without orders and refused to return even when his misjudgements were pointed out to him. In August 1914 his inability to communicate his estimate of his weakness and the conclusions he drew from it either to Admiral Milne in Malta or to the First Sea Lord in London had more serious repercussions.

Miller’s account suffers from a misleading sub-title. There was not one but many conspiracies which contributed to the escape of the German ships and, like most conspiracies, the majority proved abortive or had unintended consequences. In any case misjudgements, mistakes and misfortunes played quite as important a part as deliberate conspiracies. The way Miller divides up the book into sections on British warships in the Mediterranean before 1914, on Troubridge, Kerr, Venizelos and others is also confusing. But, despite these reservations, Superior Force is a valuable and readable contribution to naval and diplomatic history.

The Mariner’s Mirror
Volume 83 Number 4
November 1997

SUPERIOR FORCE: The Conspiracy behind the Escape of Goeben and Breslau
The University of Hull Press, Hull, 1996
481 pages. Price £25.00 ISBN 0-85958-635-9

The subject is intrinsically interesting. Goeben and Breslau should have been no match for the naval forces the Royal Navy stationed in the Mediterranean at the outbreak of the First World War, but Admiral Milne’s first task was to assist the French in securing the transport of soldiers from North Africa, and he had to be ready to meet any threat from the Austrian fleet in the Adriatic. Multiple layers of confusion, in command relations between Admiral Milne and Rear-Admiral Troubridge, compounded by the need to co-operate with the French, in signals from the Admiralty and between fleet commanders, and in instructions from the Admiralty where Churchill was First Lord, contributed to the failure to intercept the German ships before they escaped into the Eastern Mediterranean, and eventually into the Dardanelles. Troubridge was acquitted at his court martial for his decision not to force action when he believed to do so would have been suicidal, and contrary to Churchill’s instructions to avoid action with ‘superior force’, and when it was by no means certain that if he succeeded in slowing the ships Milne would be able to finish them off. However, both his and Milne’s careers were blasted by the dramatic failure. Once in Turkish waters, Goeben and Breslau were ‘sold’ to the Turkish government and their presence was instrumental in Enver Pasha’s manoeuvring to join the Central Powers. Only the fearless scouting work of the Gloucester, commanded by Howard Kelly, was of much credit to the Royal Navy.

On the whole the story is well known, primarily because of the work of Paul Halpern, but Miller has deployed the evidence to show a tangled web of conspiracy in Athens, involving King Constantine, Prime Minister Venizelos, and Rear-Admiral Kerr who commanded the Greek Navy and was a confidant of Constantine and was also close to the German Royal Family. Venizelos played a key role by facilitating the coaling of the German ships so that they could safely approach the Dardanelles, rather than be interned in Athens. By avoiding the embarrassing presence of the German ships, he could hope to thwart the Kaiser’s pressure on Constantine. Venizelos was playing a devious game, trying to bring Greece into the Entente before the German army could be defeated in France, so that rewards could be plucked in the Balkans. Kerr was informed by Constantine that the Kaiser had written to him about the plan to steam the Goeben and Breslau to Turkey, but he did not immediately inform Milne because he felt his first loyalty was to his employer, who after all was a king. His effort to get the news to the Admiralty via Russia proved too slow to serve the purpose.

But was this cascade of intrigue, professional judgements of mixed merit, and bumbling the ‘cause’ of Turkey becoming a belligerent? Miller’s account of the ‘real-politik’ of the period may perhaps persuade readers that the blame should be attributed to the cynical manipulation of power by unresponsible aristocracies, ready to set armies rolling in order to change the borders of Europe without regard to the longer-¬term costs to the people who were to pass through fire from one jurisdiction to another. However limited was the Versailles settlement at the end of the war, and however it may have contributed to the renewed outbreak of warfare in the 1930s, nearly sixty years later the world is a better place for the concept of ‘self determination’.

Miller’s account is not quite as extended as it appears because there are only some 360 words to the page, but it is exhaustive … The book is heavy to hold, but easy to read with an attractive type and good illustrations and maps.

University of New Brunswick



Journal of the American Great War Society Review


Following this review, I felt obliged to point out the following to the Journal's Editor:


By taking a quote out of context and omitting a vital section of the sentence you have managed to accuse me of being unable to decide whether or not there was a conspiracy to aid and abet the escape of Goeben and Breslau ...


From page 276 of Superior Force to the end of that chapter I was specifically refuting the contention of W. W. Gottlieb who believed, but could not prove, that there was a conspiracy, but one centred on London. You have quoted me thus in your review:


“While it is highly unlikely that there existed an organized conspiracy to allow the German ships to escape … there is a strong case for believing that factions in Athens … actively conspired to ensure their escape.”


What I actually wrote was this:


“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.”


In other words, Gottlieb was right in essentials but wrong in a crucial detail: there was a conspiracy, but in Athens, not in London.



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