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Tales of the Sea: The Goeben, Part III

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Part I

Part II

Two Royal Navy admirals had a chance to stop, or at least slow, Goeben and Breslau. Admiral Archibald Milne had under his command the battlecruisers Inflexible, Indomitable, and Indefatigable. None could match Goeben, but together they should have been more than enough to stop her. Shortly after Goeben bombarded Phillipeville, Indomitable and Indefatigable made contact. Unfortunately for the British, war had not yet been declared, so the two battlecruisers did not engage. After shadowing for a while, they lost her in the dark. Later, Milne had the opportunity to engage Goeben and Breslau outside of Messina, but declined to do so.

Admiral Milne decided not to continue the chase with his battlecruisers, and drew them back in order to protect the French transports crossing from Algeria. He believed that his primary mission was to protect the channels of communication. Of course, destroying Goeben would also have protected those channels, and the French Navy had assets in the area capable of defending the transports. Milne’s career was later destroyed because of the Goeben fiasco. Had he continued the pursuit with Indomitable and Indefatigable, he might well have been able to force a battle with Goeben. While three British battlecruisers could certainly have handled the German ship, I’m less certain of the chances of only two. German gunnery was vastly superior to British, Goeben was larger than either of the British ships, and British battlecruisers later proved remarkably fragile, while German ships could undergo an immense amount of punishment. It’s possible that Goeben could have destroyed one or both of the Royal Navy ships, although the German vessel would have certainly suffered some damage. In any case, Goeben escaped, and the British battlecruisers retreated.

At the mouth of the Adriatic, another Royal Navy admiral had a chance to engage. Admiral Ernest Troubridge commanded four armored cruisers, Defense, Warrior, Black Prince, and Duke of Edinburgh. Armored cruisers are slower and less heavily armed than either battleships or battlecruisers. Jackie Fisher, First Sea Lord and father of Dreadnought, designed the battlecruiser class specifically to hunt and kill armored cruisers. Battlecruisers could outgun and outrun armored cruisers, meaning that the former could destroy the latter at range without difficulty. Troubridge, however, had four ships to Admiral Souchon’s two. His ships displaced around 13000 tons and carried 9.2″ guns to the 11″ weapons of the Goeben. However, if he could close the range sufficiently, his ships might be able to cripple or even sink Goeben.

Troubridge closed with the German ships, but lost his nerve at the last moment. Rather than engage, he drew his cruisers off and allowed Goeben to escape. He reasoned that the German ship would devastate his cruisers without the possibility of an effective reply. Although Robert Massey disagrees, I believe Troubridge made the right decision. Goeben was not operating at her fullest possible speed, but could still outpace the British ships. The extraordinary accuracy of German guns would likely have finished off one or more of the British ships before they had any chance to bring Goeben within range. Even had they managed to draw close to Goeben, the 9.2″ shells may not have had much of an impact on the German armor. My guess is that Goeben would have sunk or crippled two or three of the British ships, then continued on her way to Constantinople. Lots of British sailors would have died for no good reason. Although the Court of Inquiry decided that Troubridge’s decision was justified, the decision effectively ended his career.

The overall record of cruisers against battlecruisers is, to be fair, mixed. Invincible and Inflexible destroyed the German armored cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau without great difficulty at the Battle of the Falklands in late 1914, although they did expend a considerable amount of their ammunition doing so. The Exeter and two British light cruisers forced the Admiral Graf Spee to scuttle herself off Montevideo in 1939, although the Graf Spee was, in fairness, an armored cruiser more than a battlecruiser. Finally, a group of US Navy cruisers and destroyers managed to force the Japanese battlecruiser Hiei to scuttle off Savo Island in 1942, although they were helped by US aircraft. Anything can happen in a battle, and by forcing action, Troubridge might have been able to damage or cripple Goeben, preventing Admiral Souchon from reaching his eventual destination.

In any case, Troubridge did not engage, and Souchon proceeded to Constantinople. At the mouth of the Dardanelles, Goeben halted. Turkish fortresses guarded the entrance, and the Ottoman Empire remained neutral. Milne had resumed pursuit with his battlecruisers, which were not far behind. From inside the Dardanelles, Turkish destroyers approached. The Turks had, as yet, given no indication as to whether they would allow the entrance of Goeben, or prevent the entrance of the British battlecruisers. Souchon, his ships, and his men faced the possibility of fighting hostile Turkish shore batteries along with hostile British warships.

To be continued.

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