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From the Fall 1992 Issue, Volume One, Number Four:

Goeben, later Yavuz Sultan Selim

Goeben and the Naval War in the Black Sea

By Steve McLaughlin

"I shall crush the Russian Black Sea fleet" This was Kontre-Admiral Wilhelm Souchon's answer when Enver Pasha inquired what he intended to do with his two ships, the battlecruiser Goeben and the cruiser Breslau, recently arrived in Constantinople.

Souchon seemingly had good reasons for this confident boast. Having thumbed his nose at the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean by unexpectedly slipping up the neutral Dardanelles, Goeben was now the most powerful warship in the Black Sea, a 22,000-ton dreadnought battlecruiser capable of more than 25 knots and armed with ten 28cm. (un.) guns. Unlike her British contemporaries, she was also well protected, with a waterline belt almost eleven inches thick. Breslau was a modern light cruiser, completed in 1912 and armed with twelve 10.5cm. (4.l in.) guns. With a maximum speed of 27.5 knots, she was one of the fastest ships in the Black Sea.

But better than any technical advantage was one of morale. German intelligence had recently assessed the military capabilities of the Black Sea Fleet as negligible, citing the "poor discipline of its crews and its obsolete ships."

And so, on the morning of 29 October 1914, Goeben (now officially renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim, but her crew and commander remaining German and among themselves still using the ship's German name) stood off the Russian naval base at Sevastopol. It was Souchon's intention to bombard the harbor works and ships in port, although war had not yet been declared and some ministers of the Turkish government still opposed this action.

The Russians had warning -- the Turkish torpedo boats Mouavenet and Gairet had already attacked Odessa, sinking the old gunboat Donetz and damaging several other ships. So as Goeben steamed into range of the coast defense batteries at Sevastopol, they opened fire without hesitation. In the action that followed, Goeben fired 47 shells from her main battery, damaging a few buildings ashore, principally a hospital in return, she was hit three times by the shore batteries, forcing her to withdraw under cover of a smoke screen laid by her two attendant Turkish torpedo boats. It was the Germans' first taste of Russian gunfire, and its accuracy was an unpleasant surprise.

On her way back to the Bosporus, Goeben encountered the elderly Russian minelayer Prut (completed in 1879) and three torpedo boats, Leitenant Pushchin, Zharkii and Zhivuchii. In an attempt to protect the slow and nearly defenseless Prut the three torpedo boats attacked the Turko-German force, but the fire of the Goeben's secondary battery of 15cm. (5.9in.) guns drove them off after severely damaging Leitenant Pushchin. The officers of the Prut thereupon scuttled her to prevent her falling into enemy hands.

Meanwhile, Breslau (officially renamed Midilli) had laid mines off the Kerch Strait and shelled the harbor and an oil tank farm at Novorossiisk -- after warning the city's authorities, so that civilians could be evacuated from the target areas.

Souchon had succeeded in bringing Turkey into the war on the side of the Central Powers, but he had not harmed the Russian Black Sea Fleet in any material way. The Russian commander opposing Souchon was Vitse-Admiral Andrei Avgustovich Ebergardt, one of the many officers of Swedish descent in the tsar's navy. Ebergardt's battle line was composed of five pre-dreadnought battleships. The oldest were Tri Sviatitelia and Rostislav, both completed in 1898; next came Panteleimon (the former Kniaz Potemkin Tavricheskii renamed after her crew's mutiny in 1905), completed in 1903, and finally Evstafii and Ioann Zlatoust sister ships completed in 1910. All were armed with four l2in. guns except Rostislav, a small and unsuccessful ship that carried only four l0 in. She was also the slowest ship of the line, barely capable of 15.5 knots; the other ships were all a full knot faster. Not one of these could have engaged Goeben with any reasonable chance of success.

Panteleimon (former Potemkin)

Before the war, Turkey had ordered two super-dreadnoughts from British shipyards, intended for delivery in mid-1914. The Russians had three powerful dreadnoughts under construction at Nikolaev, but none would be ready for sea before mid-1915 at the earliest. Ebergardt was well aware of this one-year Turkish advantage in delivery times; if war came during that period, his pre-dreadnoughts would have to face a far superior force of enemy dreadnoughts. He therefore trained his captains to maneuver their ships in close formations and to act in mutual support As long as the squadron stayed together, Ebergardt could hope to face individually more powerful enemy ships.

The threat of the British-built Turkish dreadnought. disappeared in August 1914, when the Royal Navy confiscated the just-completed ships and added them to the Grand fleet. But the arrival in Constantinople of Goeben and Breslau largely made up for that loss. So now Ebergardt found himself facing the sort of situation for which he had been preparing his fleet.

Two weeks after war came to the Black Sea, Ebergardt began his first offensive. Because the roads of Anatolia were few and poor, the Turks were forced to rely on coastal traffic to transport supplies most of this was done by small sailing vessels. The Russian fleet sailed from Sevastopol on 15 November 1914 and carried out a sweep along the Anatolian coast, shelling Trebizond and picking off any of the small coastal ships they came across. On hearing of the Russian action, Souchon took Goeben and Breslau out to sea, steering a course intended to cut the Russians off from Sevastopol.

The sea south of the Crimea was covered by patchy fog on the morning of 18 November; the Russian battle fleet was steaming in line ahead, led by Ebergardt's flagship, Evuta5i, on a course west by northwest following her were Ioann Zlatoust Panteleimon, Tri Sviatitelia and Rostislav. A cruiser screen steamed ahead of the fleet. At 1140 hours, the leading cruiser, Almaz, sighted smoke, and at 1210 reported "I see the enemy straight ahead."

The Goeben was steaming straight for the Russian fleet, with Breslau off her starboard quarter. Souchon was apparently intent on closing quickly, perhaps hoping to cripple one or more of the Russian ships while the theirs were shrouded in fog. The Russian squadron tuned south to open up its full broadside firing arcs and Breslau continued straight for the Russians an east-by-southeasterly course. Both sides opened at a range of about 8,000 yards. At 12:24 Evstafii hit Goeben with a 12-inch shell. Other bits followed, and things were clearly not going as Souchon had expected; he altered course southward, now steaming parallel to the Russians to open up his full broadside. Because of poor visibility, the battle was virtually a duel between the Goeben and the Evstafii, during the brief action -- the two sides fired for a total of fourteen minutes -- Goeben was hit by three 12in. and eleven 8in. and 6in. shells, including one hit amidships that started a large fire in the ready-use ammunition of her secondary battery. Souchon decided to break off the engagement. The slower Russian Fleet made no attempt to pursue.

The Russian gunnery had been excellent. On Goeben, 105 men were killed and 59 injured. The ship had come perilously close to even greater damage -- the fire started by the Evstafii's hits had almost reached the 15cm. magazines, but they had been flooded just in time to prevent an explosion. Evstafii had been hit four times, with 33 men killed and 25 wounded.

The next month passed relatively quietly for the two navies. Goeben and Breslau served as convoy escorts for troopship. and freighters supplying the Caucasian front, where Enver Pasha, was planning his first offensive. Ebergardt was also busy planning, with two objectives in mind -- one, the mining of the Bosporus, would bar the Turko-German ships from entering the Black Sea, while the second, using old freighters filled with stones as block ships, would obstruct the port at Zonguldak. This town, about 140 miles east of the Bosporus, was Turkey's main source of coal.

Russian minelayers secretly planted 585 mines off the Bosporus on the night of 21-22 December. The simultaneous effort to block Zonguldak was foiled by the untimely appearance of the Breslau and the block ships were hurriedly scuttled far out to sea. The crew of one block ship was captured by Breslau, but the others were taken off by the Russian escort ships.

Goeben had meanwhile been operating in the eastern portion of the Black Sea. She rendezvoused with Breslau on Christmas day and shaped course for the Bosporus. The neat afternoon, as she neared her destination, the great ship was rocked by a powerful explosion two minutes later another blast shook her. She had struck two of the Russian mines laid a few days before. She limped through the Bosporus, having taken on 600 tons of water.

Repairs were a problem there were no docks in Turkey big enough to handle the crippled battlecruiser. Workers were sent from Germany, and a cofferdam was built. This was essentially a wooden box that was fitted to the curve of the ship's hull; once it was in place, the water was pumped out, forming a dry working space right down to the ship's bottom. This technique had been developed by Admiral Stepan Osipovich Makarov at Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War. While under repair, Goeben twice anchored in Beikos Cove in the Sea of Marmara, ready to use her undamaged artillery if the Russians appeared off the Bosporus. Her repairs were completed by 1 May 1915.

The Russians had meanwhile begun a series of raids along the Anatolian coast, shelling shore batteries, planting mines and capturing or sinking several steamers and dozens of small cargo schooners. On 9 May 1915 Ebergardt steamed for the Bosporus, intending to bombard its fortifications. On the morning of 10 May he sent the battleships Panteilimon and Tri Sviatitelia close inshore to shell the forts, while Evstafi, Ioann Zlatoust and Rostislav stayed out to sea as a covering force. Two cruisers, the Pamiat Merkuria and Kagul were posted further out as pickets. Also accompanying the fleet were the seaplane carriers Imperator Aleksandr I and Almaz, plus several destroyers and minesweepers.

German and Russian Commanders
Wilhelm Souchon & Andrei Ebergardt

As Ebergardt's ships took up their positions off the Bosporus, Goeben was on her way back after a patrol off Eregli, 115 miles east of the Bosporus. About 7 AM she came upon Pamiat Merkuria one of Ebergardt's pickets. Goeben set off in chase of what looked like a lone Russian ship. Pamiat Merkuria immediately headed at full speed for the main body, signaling to the flagship as she dodged shells from the German battlecruiser. Ebergardt immediately recalled Panteleimon and Tri Sviatitelia from their bombardment mission and ordered them to join his other three battleships at full speed.

At 7:53 Souchon once again found himself face to face with the Russians. Evstafii, Ioann Zlatoust and Rostislav had formed a line, while Panteleimon and Tri Sviatitlelia were still some two miles away, racing to catch up. Goeben opened fire at a range of 18,800 yards, and the Russians soon replied. Ebergardt slowed his three engaged ships, giving the Panteleimon and Tri Sviatitelia a chance to catch up; by the time the Russians formed their full battle line, the range had dropped to 16,000 yards. The two forces were now steaming on slightly converging courses. Panteleimon's second salvo scored a hit on Goeben two more hits followed, and the battlecruiser sheered off, using her superior speed first to get out of range and then work her way around the Russians to get back to the safety of the Bosporus.

The action had lasted 23 minutes, during which the Russians had fired 169 l2in. and 36 8in. shells, hitting Goeben three times the latter had fired 160 11in. shells but had scored no hits. Goeben had been lucky; she suffered no casualties. Once again, the excellent Russian gunnery had forced the German ship to withdraw; once again, Goeben's superior speed made escape possible.

The next few months saw only a few minor actions. The Russians continued to snap up Turkish shipping on the Anatolian coast, and during one of these sweeps the destroyers Derzkii and Gnevnyi had a brief encounter with the Breslau off the Bosporus on the night of 11 June. Gnevnyi was disabled by the cruiser's gunfire, but Derzkii managed to cut across the Breslau's stern and rake her, scoring three hits that killed seven men and wounded 15. Derzkii had to tow Gnevnyi back to Sevastopol. On 18 July, Breslau struck a mine, which put her out of commission for several months. That same month the strength of the Russian fleet was considerably increased by the completion of the Imperatritsa Mariia, a 23,000-ton dreadnought with a battery of twelve l2in. guns. Although Imperatritsa Mariia was far more powerful than Goeben, she was a couple of knots slower. A sister ship, Imperatritsa Ekaterina Velikaya, joined the fleet in October.

Imperatrista Mariia

The Russians had by mid-1915 achieved a commanding position in the war at sea. Dozens of Turkish steamers and hundreds of sailing ships had been captured or destroyed, seriously interfering with both the coal supply to Constantinople and the support of the army in the Caucasus. Goeben made few appearances in the Black Sea for the rest of the year. The appearance of German U-boats in July, however, forced the Russians to be more cautious in their operations against the Turkish coast.

1916 opened with a brief encounter between Goeben and lmperatritsa Ekaterina Velikaya off Zonguldak on 8 January. Both sides had been drawn there by the same thing -- a freighter full of coal, bound for Constantinople. Goeben was sent out to convoy her safely to the capital, but she had already been sunk by Russian destroyers by the time Goeben arrived. Goeben chased the destroyers, and suddenly found herself confronted by the new Russian dreadnought. Both big ships opened fire at a range of more than 20,000 yards, but neither side scored any bits and once again Goeben's speed got her out of trouble. In a somewhat similar encounter in April, Breslau managed to escape from some accurate salvos from Imperatritsa Mariia.

In spite of the growing submarine menace, the Russian Black Sea Fleet was able to provide gunfire support for the army on the Caucasus front, and also carried out two successful amphibious landings that aided the Russian drive toward the important port of Trebizond, which was captured in April.

In July, Admiral Ebergardt was replaced by Vitse-Admiral Aleksandr Vasilievich Kolchak. Although successful in containing the Goeben and in disrupting Turkey's seaborne logistics, Ebergardt had apparently had arguments with army commanders over supporting the Caucasian offensives, and there was dissatisfaction with his handling of the U-boat threat. Kolchak was a young, aggressive commander who had acquired a great deal of experience with mine warfare in the Baltic. One of his first actions was to begin a mining offensive against both the Bosporus and the main U-boat base at Varna, in Bulgaria. These efforts were remarkably successful; in September and October, four U-boats were lost, virtually ending the German submarine threat in the Black Sea. The only Russian setback in this period came on 20 October, when Imperatritsa Mariia blew up in Sevastopol harbor. Unstable ammunition was the cause, although it was widely rumored that the ship had been sabotaged by German agents.

Even with this loss, however, the Black Sea Fleet had a decisive margin of superiority over the Turko-German fleet. In fact, the Russian offensive against the coal transports between Zonguldak and Constantinople had been so successful that the Goeben and Breslau spent most of the latter part of 1916 riding at anchor in the Sea of Marmara, practically immobilized. The old Russian battleships provided valuable support not only on the Caucasus front but also to the collapsing Rumanian army, their only opposition coming from increasingly active (but as yet merely annoying) German aircraft.

With Goeben contained and the U-boat problem under control, the Russians now had almost complete command of the Black Sea; ambitious officers at Stavka turned their thoughts toward that ancient Russian desire, seizing the Bosporus and capturing Constantinople. The idea had already received the blessing of Russia's allies in secret agreements, and given the military situation at the end of 1916 a successful amphibious assault could have been decisive. It would almost certainly have knocked Turkey out of the war and, more important for Russia's tottering economy, opened the Straits to Allied cargo ships. Tsar Nicholas II himself informed Kolchak of these plans; troops were assembled at Odessa and transport ships gathered.

But all this came to naught. The February Revolution that overthrew the tsarist government also led to military and political confusion; the assault on the Bosporus was forgotten as Kolchak struggled to maintain the fighting efficiency of his fleet. The Baltic Fleet had already been wracked by mutiny and the murder of officers; but the Black Sea Fleet continued its operations throughout the spring. By summer, however, the effects of the revolution were making themselves felt Strikes and industrial disruption had left many ships languishing for want of repairs and slowed the supply of mines to a trickle. Worse, revolutionary sailors from the Baltic Fleet had arrived and were goading their Black Sea brethren to throw off the aristocratic oppression of the officer corps. In June 1917, the Council of Soldiers, Sailors and Workers passed a resolution ordering officers to surrender their personal weapons. Enraged, Kolchak berated the crew of his flagship, pointing out that even the Japanese had allowed him to keep his sword while in captivity during the Russo-Japanese War. With that, he flung overboard his golden sword -- given him for bravery in the war with Japan -- and resigned his command. Kontre-Admiral Veniamin Kostantinovich Lukin took command of the fleet, but by then there was no real fighting force left to command.

As the Russians collapsed, Goeben and Breslau continued to support the Turkish war effort. On 20 January 1918 they steamed out of the Dardanelles for a daring raid on the British blockading force, based at Imbros. The monitors Raglan and M.28 were sunk, but Breslau was sunk in a British minefield and Goeben was damaged by three mines. She limped back into the Dardanelles, ran aground, and was subject to numerous attacks by British aircraft before she was finally got off and limped back to Constantinople.

Goeben and Breslau

In March 1918, Goeben achieved her pinnacle of glory -- she steamed into Odessa harbor with an armistice commission aboard, and a few days later she was in Sevastopol, supervising the disarming of the Russian ships there. But this triumph was short-lived -- the Turks agreed to an armistice with the Allies on 31 October 1918. Shortly after, the Goeben's German crew departed, and the ship, for the first time crewed by Turkish officers and men, was immediately disarmed. She had a long, sleepy career in the Turkish Navy as Yavuz Sultan Selim (later renamed simply Yavuz), and was finally scrapped in the mid-1970s.

As for the Black Sea Fleet, it became "Ukrainian" when the Germans seized the Crimea. The Armistice in November led to a German withdrawal, but brought little peace to Russia; during the Civil War, most ships joined the White cause, but British observers noted that the crews were disaffected and the officers arrogant and sometimes cruel. With the collapse of General Baron Petr Nikolaevich Wrangel's White army in November 1920, the remnants of the once-powerful Black Sea Fleet ferried some 145,000 refugees from the Crimea to Turkey, then steamed on to Bizerte in French Tunisia. There, in October 1924, the St. Andrew's flag was raised for the last time -- until Boris Yeltsin ordered the Black Sea Fleet to hoist it once again in 1991.


Drashpil, Boris. "Re: Goeben", Warship International, 30 June 1971.

Greger, Rene. The Russian Fleet, 1914-1917.

Nekrasov, George. North of Gallipoli: The Black Sea Fleet at War, 1914-1917.

Photos from the collection of the late R.D. Layman.

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