Victor Sharpe
The ship that changed the Middle East
By Victor Sharpe
July 31, 2011

During World War 1, Winston Churchill was widely blamed for the Gallipoli debacle; the attempt by the British to end the war by striking at Germany's ally, the Ottoman Turkish Empire.

But Churchill's decision to invade the Dardanelles, penetrate Europe's soft underbelly, and force an early end to the war was in large part born out of frustration at the exploits of two German battle cruisers, the Goeben and the Breslau.

These two ships had been sailing in the Mediterranean since 1912 and were to embark on an amazing voyage and desperate chase across the Mediterranean once war began in August, 1914.

Indeed, it can perhaps be said that the main reason the Middle East was to change forever was because of the fate of these ships and one in particular, the battle cruiser, Goeben.

On December 7, 1909, the keel of a powerful new addition to the Imperial German Navy was laid. Named after the German general, August von Goeben (1816-1880), a hero of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the Moltke class capital ship, Goeben, was eventually commissioned in July, 1912.

Boasting an armament of ten 11inch main guns, mounted two per turret with guns that could fire to both sides as well as forward, the Goeben was to become a thorn in the side of the French and British navies in the Mediterranean.

It also became a source of shame for Great Britain, whose fleet failed to intercept it or bring it to battle, instead allowing the Goeben and the Breslau to escape through the Dardanelles and reach Constantinople, now Istanbul.

On June 28, 1914, while the Goeben was anchored off the coast of Haifa, her Admiral, Wilhelm Souchon, along with the ship's officers were enjoying a reception given to them by the German colony.

Word came that Archduke Ferdinand had been assassinated. Admiral Souchon, sensing that war would soon follow, decided to head for the Austro-Hungarian port of Pola in the Adriatic for needed repairs. He telegraphed for the light cruiser Breslau to join him there.

It is interesting to note that on board the Breslau, a Sub-Lieutenant, Karl Doenitz, was serving; the same Doenitz who was to command the German World War 2 U-Boat fleets and who took over command of Germany in 1945 after Hitler committed suicide.

On July 31, 1914, Winston Churchill instructed the commander of the British fleet, Admiral Sir Berkeley Milne, that his first task was to protect the French transports and be ready to bring to action individual German ships, particularly the Goeben. On August 2, 1914, Churchill issued another order saying, "Goeben must be shadowed by two battle cruisers."

Some 12 hours before war was officially declared, Goeben and Breslau thus found themselves flanked by two British cruisers, Indomitable and Indefatigable, which for political reasons were constrained from taking military action.

Britain, fearing that an alliance would be formed between Germany and the Ottoman Empire, known as the "sick man of Europe" had earlier sent the battle cruisers, along with the Inflexible, into the Mediterranean to intercept the two German battle cruisers and eventually sink them. But the German ships were able to give them the slip.

Immediately after war had officially been declared on August 3, 1914, Admiral Souchon in the Goeben took matters into his own hands, even though he had earlier been ordered by Admiral Turpitz to head for Constantinople.

The powerful German ships headed west along the North African coast, bombarding the port of Philippeville in French Algeria. The Goeben tricked the French by running in under Russian flags.

Goeben then briefly dueled with the British light cruiser, Gloucester, which was unable to close because of the Goeben's greater firing range.

For a brief period, the Goeben and Breslau threatened French troopships bringing French-Algerian forces across the Mediterranean to reinforce the French armies fighting on the fast evolving Western Front.

On August 4, 1914, Berlin again ordered both ships to head for the Dardanelles. In the message received by Admiral Souchon, the German Admiralty baldly stated "... alliance with Turkey concluded August 3. Proceed at once to Constantinople."

The German ships changed course but were again pursued by the Indomitable and Indefatigable. They succeeded in out-running the two British battle cruisers but both Goeben and Breslau were eventually tracked to Messina in Sicily where they were taking on coal.

The British cruisers stood off shore waiting for the German ships to come out of port. Incredibly, the Goeben and Breslau slipped through the waiting British net and made for Constantinople. This was not the British Navy's finest hour.

On December 10, the German battle cruisers approached the straits separating European and Asian Turkey. Instead of being fired upon by Turkish shore batteries, as Admiral Souchon had feared, the German Mission advising the Turkish army had convinced the Turks to permit the Goeben and Breslau safe passage through the Dardanelles.

Everything that had happened up to then led to the eventual diplomatic decision by Germany to hand over the Goeben and Breslau to the Ottoman Empire as a gift to Turkey for allying itself with the Central Powers.

Henceforth the Goeben became the Yavuz Sultan Selim, though the German crew by agreement remained to work the ship and control the future military sorties it carried out in both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Sultan Selim was known in history as Selim the Grim (1470-1520). He was the father of Suleiman the Magnificent who built the walls surrounding Jerusalem and was the greatest of all the Ottoman rulers.

The transfer of both German battle cruisers was both a defining moment and deciding factor in bringing Turkey into the war on the side of Germany and Austria (the Central Powers).

On November 4, 1914, the Russians, smarting after the German-Turkish ships had shelled Odessa and Sebastopol, declared war on the Ottoman Empire. The following day, the British and French Governments also declared war on Turkey.

During 1915, initial plans were drawn up by the Entente powers for the eventual dismemberment of the Ottoman Turkish Empire.

In May, 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was discussed by Britain and France with respect to the geographical areas known as Palestine and Syria. The plan was abandoned at the time of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.

Ultimately, the Turkish Ottoman Empire collapsed as British forces, including those drawn from the British Empire, rolled back the Turks throughout the Middle East.

In December 1917, Britain's General Allenby entered Jerusalem at the head of his army. Ottoman possessions throughout the Middle East were subsequently captured and initially set up as British Mandates.

Iraq became independent in 1932 and Trans-Jordan in 1946. Former Turkish areas that came under French control in 1920 also subsequently became independent: Syria in 1943 and Lebanon in 1944.

As a result of Britain's victories over Turkish forces in 1917 and 1918, some ten million Arabs in the Middle East were freed from 400 years of Turkish rule.

It is interesting to note that the area set aside for Arab rule in the region was 1,184,000 square miles while geographical Palestine, the only portion set aside for a Jewish National Home by Great Britain under the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, covered less than 11,000 square miles. That area was further reduced through subsequent political decisions by the British Colonial Office.

For instance the Golan Heights, in Anglo-French wrangling, was torn away by Britain from Palestine in 1923 and ceded to France, which made it a part of Syria. And in 1921, Britain arbitrarily gave away all the territory east of the River Jordan, comprising four fifths of geographical Palestine, to the Emir Abdullah and re-named it Trans-Jordan. Jews were immediately forbidden to live within its territory. But that's another story.

The remarkable fact is that all the subsequent internecine conflicts between the artificially created Arab states in the Middle East, as well as the continuing Arab war of aggression against the existence of a Jewish state in the region, can be traced back to the voyage of the German battle cruiser, Goeben.

Its transfer to Turkey, along with the Breslau, led that nation into war and to a crushing defeat, changing the region's map and transforming the Middle East into what it is today.

The Goeben was thus fated to become the ship that changed the Middle East.

© Victor Sharpe


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Victor Sharpe

Victor Sharpe is a freelance writer with many published articles and essays in leading national and international conservative websites and magazines... (more)


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