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    Posted: 19 Sep 2010 at 18:40

Pursuit of Goeben and Breslau

Naval Pursuit of Goeben and Breslau
Bundesarchiv Bild 134-C2320, Verfolgung deutscher Kreuzer durch britische Marine.jpg
British ships seen following the German ships
Date 28 July - 10 August 1914
Location Mediterranean Sea
Result German victory
United Kingdom British Empire
France France
 German Empire
Commanders and leaders
Archibald Berkeley Milne,
Ernest Troubridge,
Augustin Boué de Lapeyrère
Wilhelm Souchon
3 battlecruisers
4 armoured cruisers
4 light cruiser
14 destroyers
1 battlecruiser
1 Light Cruiser
Casualties and losses
none 4 Sailors

The pursuit of Goeben and Breslau was a naval action that occurred in the Mediterranean Sea at the outbreak of the First World War when elements of the British Mediterranean Fleet attempted to intercept the German Mittelmeerdivision comprising the battlecruiser SMS Goeben and the light cruiser SMS Breslau. The German ships evaded the British fleet and passed through the Dardanelles to reach Constantinople where their arrival was a catalyst that contributed to the Ottoman Empire joining the Central Powers by issuing a declaration of war against the Triple Entente.

Though a bloodless "battle", the failure of the British pursuit had enormous political and military ramifications — in the words of Winston Churchill, they brought "more slaughter, more misery and more ruin than has ever before been borne within the compass of a ship."



Dispatched in 1912, the Mittelmeerdivision of the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial Navy), comprising only the Goeben and Breslau, was under the command of Rear Admiral Wilhelm Souchon. In the event of war, the squadron's role was to intercept French transports bringing colonial troops from Algeria to France.

When war broke out between Austria-Hungary and Serbia on 28 July 1914, Souchon was at Pola in the Adriatic where Goeben was undergoing repairs to her boilers. Not wishing to be trapped in the Adriatic, Souchon rushed to finish as much work as possible, but then took his ships out into the Mediterranean before all repairs were completed. He reached Brindisi on 1 August, but Italian authorities made excuses to avoid coaling the ship; Italy, despite being a signatory to the Triple Alliance, was still neutral. Goeben was joined by Breslau at Taranto and the small squadron sailed for Messina where Souchon was able to obtain 2,000 tons of coal from German merchant ships.

Routes taken by the combatants

Meanwhile, on 30 July Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, had instructed the commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Sir Archibald Berkeley Milne, to cover the French transports taking the XIX Corps from North Africa across the Mediterranean to France. The Mediterranean Fleet, based at Malta, comprised three fast, modern battlecruisers, HMS Inflexible, Indefatigable and Indomitable, as well as four armoured cruisers, four light cruisers and a flotilla of 14 destroyers.

Milne's instructions were "to aid the French in the transportation of their African Army by covering, and if possible, bringing to action individual fast German ships, particularly Goeben, who may interfere in that action. You will be notified by telegraph when you may consult with the French Admiral. Do not at this stage be brought to action against superior forces, except in combination with the French, as part of a general battle. The speed of your squadrons is sufficient to enable you to choose your moment. We shall hope to reinforce the Mediterranean, and you must husband your forces at the outset."[1] Churchill's orders did not explicitly state what he meant by "superior forces". He later claimed that he was referring to "the Austrian Fleet against whose battleships it was not desirable that our three battle-cruisers should be engaged without battleship support."[2]

Milne assembled his force at Malta on 1 August. On 2 August he received instructions to shadow Goeben with two battlecruisers while maintaining a watch on the Adriatic, ready for a sortie by the Austrians. Indomitable, Indefatigable, five cruisers and eight destroyers commanded by Rear Admiral Ernest Troubridge were sent to cover the Adriatic. Goeben had already departed but was sighted that same day at Taranto by the British Consul, who informed London. Fearing the German ships might be trying to escape to the Atlantic, the admiralty ordered that Indomitable and Indefatigable be sent West towards Gibraltar[3]. Milne's other task of protecting French ships was complicated by the lack of any direct communications with the French navy, which had meanwhile postponed the sailing of the troop ships. The light cruiser Chatham was sent to search the Straits of Messina for the Goeben. However, by this time, on the morning of 3 August, Souchon had departed Messina heading west.

First contact

German light cruiser Breslau.

Without specific orders, Souchon had decided to position his ships off the coast of Africa, ready to engage when hostilities commenced. He planned to bombard the embarkation ports of Bône and Philippeville in Algeria. Goeben was heading for Philippeville, while Breslau was detached to deal with Bône. At 6 p.m. on 3 August, while still sailing west, he received word that Germany had declared war on France. Then, early on 4 August, Souchon received orders from Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz reading: "Alliance with government of CUP concluded August 3. Proceed at once to İstanbul." So close to his targets, Souchon pushed on and his ships, flying the Russian flag as he approached, carried out their bombardment at dawn before breaking off and heading back to Messina for more coal.[4]

Under a pre-war agreement with Britain, France was able to concentrate her entire fleet in the Mediterranean, leaving the Royal Navy to ensure the security of France's Atlantic coast. Three squadrons of the French fleet were covering the transports. However, assuming that Goeben would continue west, the French commander, Admiral Augustin de Lapeyrère, sent no ships to make contact and so Souchon was able to slip away to the east.

In Souchon's path were the two British battlecruisers, Indomitable and Indefatigable, which made contact at 9.30 a.m. on 4 August, passing the German ships in the opposite direction. Unlike France, Britain was not yet at war with Germany (the declaration would not be made until later that day, following the start of the German invasion of neutral Belgium), and so the British ships commenced shadowing Goeben and Breslau. Milne reported the contact and position, but neglected to inform the Admiralty that the German ships were heading east. Churchill therefore still expected them to threaten the French transports, and he authorized Milne to engage the German ships if they attacked. However, a meeting of the British Cabinet decided that hostilities could not start before a declaration of war, and at 2.00 p.m. Churchill was obliged to cancel his authorisation to attack.[5]


SMS Goeben

The rated speed of Goeben was 27 knots (50 km/h; 31 mph), but her damaged boilers meant she could only manage 24 knots (44 km/h; 28 mph), and this was only achieved by working men and machinery to the limit; four stokers were killed by scalding steam. Fortunately for Souchon, both British battlecruisers were also suffering from problems with their boilers and were unable to keep Goeben's pace. The light cruiser HMS Dublin maintained contact, while Indomitable and Indefatigable fell behind. In fog and fading light, Dublin lost contact off Cape San Vito on the north coast of Sicily at 7.37 p.m.. Goeben and Breslau returned to Messina the following morning, by which time Britain and Germany were at war.

The Admiralty ordered Milne to respect Italian neutrality and stay outside a 6-mile (9.7 km) limit from the Italian coast—which precluded entrance into the passage of the Straits of Messina. Consequently, Milne posted guards on the exits from the Straits. Still expecting Souchon to head for the transports and the Atlantic, he placed two battlecruisers, Inflexible and Indefatigable, to cover the northern exit (which gave access to the western Mediterranean), while the southern exit of the Straits was covered by a single light cruiser, Gloucester. Milne sent Indomitable west to coal at Bizerte, instead of south to Malta.[6]

For Souchon, Messina was no haven. Italian authorities insisted he depart within 24 hours and delayed supplying coal. Provisioning his ships required ripping up the decks of German merchant steamers in harbour and manually shovelling their coal into his bunkers. By the evening of 6 August, and despite the help of 400 volunteers from the merchantmen, he had only taken on 1,500 tons which was insufficient to reach Istanbul. Further messages from Tirpitz made his predicament even more dire. He was informed that Austria would provide no naval aid in the Mediterranean and that Ottoman Empire was still neutral and therefore he should no longer make for Istanbul. Faced with the alternative of seeking refuge at Pola, and probably remaining trapped for the rest of the war, Souchon chose to head for Istanbul anyway, his purpose being "to force the Ottoman Empire, even against their will, to spread the war to the Black Sea against their ancient enemy, Russia."[6]

Milne was instructed on 5 August to continue watching the Adriatic for signs of the Austrian fleet and to prevent the German ships joining them. He chose to keep his battlecruisers in the west, dispatching Dublin to join Troubridge's cruiser squadron in the Adriatic, which he believed would be able to intercept Goeben and Breslau. Troubridge was instructed 'not to get seriously engaged with superior forces', once again intended as a warning against engaging the Austrian fleet. When Goeben and Breslau emerged into the eastern Mediterranean on 6 August, they were met by Gloucester which, being out-gunned, began to shadow the German ships.[7]

Troubridge's squadron comprised the four armoured cruisers HMS Defence, Black Prince, Warrior, Duke of Edinburgh and eight destroyers armed with torpedoes. The cruisers had 9.2-inch (234 mm) guns versus the 11-inch (279 mm) guns of Goeben and had armour a maximum of 6-inch (152 mm) thick compared to the battlecruiser's 11-inch (279 mm) armoured belt. This meant that Troubridge's squadron was not only out-ranged and vulnerable to the Goeben's powerful guns, but it was unlikely his cruiser's guns could seriously damage the German ship at all - even at short range[8]. In addition, the British ships were several knots slower than the Goeben, despite her damaged boilers[9], meaning that she could dictate the range of the battle if she spotted the British squadron in advance. Consequently, Troubridge considered his only chance was to locate and engage Goeben in favourable light, at dawn, with Goeben east of his ships and ideally launch a torpedo attack with his destroyers, however at least five of the destroyers did not have enough coal to keep up with the cruisers steaming at full speed. By 4 a.m. on 7 August Troubridge realised he would not be able to intercept the German ships before daylight and after some deliberation he signalled Milne with his intentions to break off the chase, mindful of Churchill's ambiguous order to avoid engaging a "superior force". No reply was received until 10 a.m. by which time he had withdrawn to Zante to refuel.[10]


Admiral Milne

Milne ordered Gloucester to disengage, still expecting Souchon to turn west, but it was apparent to Gloucester's captain that Goeben was fleeing. Breslau attempted to harass Gloucester into breaking off — Souchon had a collier waiting off the coast of Greece and needed to shake his pursuer before he could rendezvous. Gloucester finally engaged Breslau, hoping this would compel Goeben to drop back and protect the light cruiser. According to Souchon, the Breslau was hit, but no damage was done. The action then broke off without further hits being scored. Finally Milne ordered Gloucester to cease pursuit at Cape Matapan.

Shortly after midnight on 8 August, Milne took his three battlecruisers and the light cruiser HMS Weymouth east. At 2 p.m. he received an incorrect signal from the Admiralty stating that Britain was at war with Austria — war would not be declared until 12 August and the order was countermanded four hours later, but Milne chose to guard the Adriatic rather than seek Goeben. Finally on 9 August Milne was given clear orders to "chase Goeben which had passed Cape Matapan on the 7th steering north-east." Milne still did not believe that Souchon was heading for the Dardanelles, and so he resolved to guard the exit from the Aegean, unaware that the Goeben did not intend to come out.

Souchon had replenished his coal off the Aegean island of Donoussa on 9 August and the German warships resumed their voyage to Constantinople. At 5 p.m. on 10 August he reached the Dardanelles and awaited permission to pass through. Germany had for some time been courting the Committee of Union and Progress of the imperial government, and they now used their influence to pressure the Turkish Minister of War, Enver Pasha, into granting the ship's passage, an act that would outrage Russia which relied on the Dardanelles as its main all-season shipping route. In addition, the Germans managed to persuade Enver to order any pursuing British ships to be fired on. By the time Souchon received permission to enter the straits, his lookouts could see smoke on the horizon from approaching British ships.

Turkey was still a neutral country bound by treaty to prevent German ships passing the straits. To get around this difficulty it was agreed that the ships should become part of the Turkish navy. On 16 August, having reached Constantinople, Goeben and Breslau were transferred to the Turkish Navy in a small ceremony, becoming respectively the Yavuz Sultan Selim and the Midilli, though they retained their German crews with Souchon still in command. The initial reaction in Britain was one of satisfaction, that a threat had been removed from the Mediterranean. On 23 September, Souchon was appointed commander in chief of the Ottoman Navy.[11]


In August, Germany, still expecting a swift victory, was content for the Ottoman Empire to remain neutral. The mere presence of a powerful warship like Goeben in the Sea of Marmara would be enough to occupy a British naval squadron guarding the Dardanelles. However, following German reverses at the First Battle of the Marne in September, and with Russian successes against Austria-Hungary, Germany began to regard the Ottoman Empire as a useful ally. Tensions began to escalate when Ottoman Empire closed the Dardanelles to all shipping on 27 September, blocking Russia's exit from the Black Sea — the Black Sea route accounted for over 90% of Russia's import and export traffic.

Germany's gift of the two modern warships had an enormous positive impact with the Turkish population. At the outbreak of the war, Churchill had caused outrage when he "requisitioned" two almost completed Turkish battleships in British shipyards, the Sultan Osman I and the Reshadieh, that had been financed by public subscription at a cost of six million pounds. Turkey was offered compensation of £1000 per day for so long as the war might last, provided she remained neutral. (These ships were commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Agincourt and HMS Erin respectively.) The Turks had been neutral, though the navy had been pro-British (having purchased 40 warships from British shipyards) while the army was in favor of Germany, so the two incidents helped resolve the deadlock and the Ottoman Empire would join the Central Powers.[12]

Ottoman engagement


Continued diplomacy from France and Russia attempted to keep the Ottoman Empire out of the war, but Germany was agitating for a commitment. In the aftermath of Souchon's daring dash to Constantinople, on 15 August 1914 the Ottomans canceled their maritime agreement with Britain and the Royal Navy mission under Admiral Limpus left by 15 September.

Finally, on 29 October, the point of no return was reached when Admiral Souchon took Goeben, Breslau and a squadron of Turkish warships into the Black Sea and raided the Russian ports of Novorossiysk, Odessa and Sevastopol. For 25 minutes Goeben's main and secondary guns fired on Sevastopol. In reply two 12-inch (300 mm) shells fired from a Russian fort at an extreme range of over 10 miles (16 km) blew a pair of holes in the ship's aft smoke-stack killing 14 men. On the return journey Goeben hit the Russian destroyer Leiteneat Pushchin with two 5.9-inch (15 cm) shells and sank the Russian minelayer Prut which had 700 mines on board in order to lay a minefield across the battle-cruiser's homeward route.

The attack on Novorossiysk was also an outstanding success, with 14 steamers in the harbour sunk by Breslau's guns while 40 oil tanks were set on fire, liberating streams of burning petroleum that engulfed whole streets. Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire on 2 November and France and Britain followed on 5 November. The first land battles were expected in the Caucasus, and transport steamers started carrying Turkish troops eastwards along the Anatolian coast to Samsun and Trebizond. The Russian Black Sea Fleet sank three of these ships so when another convoy sailed on 16 November Breslau accompanied them as an escort while the Goeben (which had located and severed the Sevastopol-Odessa submarine cable on the night 10/11 November) cruised in the middle of the Black Sea.

Crimean Encounter

On 18 November in a dense bank of fog the Breslau joined her consort and the two German ships were almost on top of the Russian Fleet, a chance gust of wind momentarily stirred the fog, and suddenly the antagonists were in each other's view at less than 4,000 yards range. Instantly the guns of both sides opened fire. Goeben, with Breslau sheltering behind her, found herself sailing past the entire line of the Black Sea Fleet. A 12-inch (300 mm) shell from a Russian battleship tore through the armor of Goeben's 5.9in casement, killing the six-man gun crew and detonating the ammunition. Only swift flooding of a magazine prevented a bigger explosion, but the Russian flagship Evstafi was hit four times by the Goeben, killing 33 men and the Russian battleship Rostislav were badly damaged. The Black Sea Fleet quickly hid itself again in the mist and continued to threaten the Turkish Black Sea coast for the rest of the war.

Troop Transports

During November and December, Breslau and the light cruiser Hamidie undertook frequent troopship escorts to the Caucasus, but the Goeben consumed too much coal for this kind of work, although on 10 December she fired 15 11in shells at the Russian shore defenses of Batumi. Intense Russian wireless activity on 23 December made it evident that the Black Sea Fleet had left the harbor. Goeben and Breslau were sent out to provide escort for some transports and as night fell over a rough, wind-lashed sea the German light cruiser was detached to reconnoitre to the NE. The Russian radios were silent now, and the whereabouts of the Black Sea Fleet was problematical. At 04.00 a.m. Breslau encountered the Russian fleet. Her searchlight illuminated a transport, which was sunk with a single salvo, and then the forbidding silhouette of a Russian battleship was caught in its beam. A second salvo from the Breslau straddled the massive vessel before the light cruiser sought refuge in the darkness.

While returning from another troop transport on 26 December the Goeben was mined off the Bosphorus. The first mine exploded to the starboard beneath the conning tower, which immediately caused a 30º list to port. Two minutes later, the ship hit a second mine, this time off the port wing barbette, where 600 tons of water disabled No. 3 turret and flooded the ship. The stricken battlecruiser was barely able to reach Stenia Creek. The damage was serious and kept the Goeben in port for three months, apart from two brief sorties intended to deter Russian battleships that were apparently approaching İstanbul.

Second Encounter

On 3 April Goeben left the Bosphorus in company with Breslau to cover the withdrawal of the Turkish cruisers Hamidie and Medjidie, which had been sent to bombard Nikolayev. Medjidie struck a mine and sank, so this attack had to be abandoned, but the two German ships appeared off Sevastopol and tempted out the Black Sea Fleet. Although six Russian battleships, supported by two cruisers and five destroyers, were bearing down upon them, Goeben and Breslau sank two cargo steamers and then deliberately loitered about to draw on their pursuers. The Hamidie had to be given time to return to the Bosphorus with survivors from the Medjidie.

When the range had closed to about 15,000 yards (8.5 mi; 14 km) Breslau slipped between her sister and the Russian squadron and laid a dense smoke screen. Under its cover the German ships turned away, but kept their speed down so as not to discourage pursuit. Eagerly the Russians chased after them, the ponderous battleships at their maximum 25 knots (46 km/h; 29 mph). At one point Breslau fell back far enough to draw fire from the Russian line, but she spurted out of range again before any hits were sustained. As darkness fell Goeben and Breslau began to pull away from their pursuers, for Hamidie had radioed that she was almost home, but in the darkness Russian destroyers closed on Goeben, stalking her in her smoke. But their wireless chatter betrayed them and Goeben's four 60-inch (1.5 m) stern searchlights stabbed back down her wake, illuminating the sinister shapes of five destroyers only 200 yd (180 m) astern.

Breslau's guns crashed out, and the first destroyer burst into flames, mortally hit. The second in line suffered a similar fate, the remainder turned tail and fled. None of their torpedoes had found a mark, and at noon the following day Goeben and Breslau were once more off the Bosphorus.

With the Ottoman Empire at war a new theatre was opened, Middle Eastern theatre of World War I, with main fronts of Gallipoli, the Sinai and Palestine, Mesopotamia, and in Caucasus. The course of the war in the Balkans was also influenced by the entry of the Ottoman Empire on the side of the Central Powers.

Royal Navy

While the consequences of the Royal Navy's failure to intercept Goeben and Breslau had not been immediately apparent, the humiliation of the "defeat" resulted in Admirals de Lapeyrère, Milne and Troubridge being censured. Milne was recalled from the Mediterranean and did not hold another command until retirement at his own request in 1919, his planned assumption of the Nore command having being cancelled in 1916 due to "other exigencies." The Admiralty repeatedly stated that Milne had been exonerated of all blame.[13] For his failure to engage the Goeben with his cruisers, Troubridge was court-martialled in November on the charge that "he did forbear to chase His Imperial German Majesty's ship Goeben, being an enemy then flying." The charge was not proved on the grounds that he was under orders not to engage a "superior force". He commanded the naval forces off the Dardanelles before being given command of a force on the Danube in 1915 against the Austro-Hungarians.[14]

Long-term consequences

Although not a widely known historical event now, the escape of the Goeben to Constantinople ultimately precipitated some of the most dramatic events of the 20th century.

General Ludendorff stated in his memoirs that he believed the entry of the Turks into the war allowed the outnumbered Central powers to fight on for two years longer than they would have been able on their own. The war was extended to the Middle East with main fronts of Gallipoli, the Sinai and Palestine, Mesopotamia, and in Caucasus. The course of the war in the Balkans was also influenced by the entry of the Ottoman Empire on the side of the Central Powers. Had the war ended in 1916, that would have meant that some of the bloodiest engagements, such as the Battle of the Somme, would have been avoided. The United States of America might not have been drawn from its policy of isolation to intervene in a foreign war.

In allying with the Central Powers, the Turks also shared their fate in ultimate defeat. This gave the victorious allies the opportunity to carve up the collapsed Ottoman Empire to suit their political whims. Many new nations were created including Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and the idea of a Jewish state in Israel was considered for the first time.

Also, the closure of Russia's only ice-free trade route through the Dardanelles effectively strangled the Russian economy. Unable to export grain nor import munitions, the Russian army was isolated from her allies and slowly began to collapse. Combined with the German decision to release Vladimir Lenin in 1917, the sealing off of the Black Sea was one of the critical contributors to the "revolutionary situation" in Russia which would explode into the October Revolution.


  1. ^ Lumby. The Mediterranean. p. 146. 
  2. ^ Churchill. World Crisis. I. pp. 252–253. 
  3. ^ 'Castles' p.31 citing McLaughlin p.49
  4. ^ 'Castles' p.34
  5. ^ 'Castles' p.36
  6. ^ a b 'Castles' p. 39
  7. ^ 'Castles p.40-41
  8. ^ Van Der Vat p140-141
  9. ^ Van Der Vat p135-136
  10. ^ 'Castles of Steel' p.44
  11. ^ 'Castles' p. 48–49
  12. ^ 'Castles' p.22-23
  13. ^ "Admiral Sir A. B. Milne" (Obituaries). The Times. Wednesday, 6 July 1938. Issue 48039, col D, p. 18.
  14. ^ "Admiral Sir Ernest Troubridge" (Obituaries). The Times. Saturday, 30 January 1926. Issue 44183, col A, p. 12.


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