Admiral Duckworth and the Dardanelles Operation 1807


The squadron under the command of Sir J T Duckworth forcing the narrow channel of the Dardanelles, February 19th 1807, by Thomas Whitcombe


Destruction of the Turkish Fleet Feby 19th 1807, coloured engraving after Thomas Whitcombe


Nagara Kalesi built in 1807, after Admiral Duckworth’s fruitless expedition through the Dardanelles to threaten Constantinople. Note the low profile of the castle and the cannon embrasures at the water’s edge.

Turkey closed the Straits to Russian vessels in 1806, encouraged by the French victory over the Russians at the Battle of Austerlitz. Britain, alarmed by this development and fearing that the Russians would be distracted from the war against Napoleon by keeping a large army on the Lower Danube, decided to quickly frighten Turkey by intimidating Constantinople – a similar rationale that was to be applied in 1915. The expectation was that a show of force by the Royal Navy and a few well-aimed rounds into the city would be all that was necessary to scare the Turks into submission, rather than commit to the long and difficult process of transporting and landing an army to take the capital. In November 1806, Admiral Thomas Louis, commanding the eighty-gun Canopus, which was accompanied by the frigate Endymion, passed through the Dardanelles unhindered, exchanging a traditional friendly salute by cannon with the forts, and anchored off Constantinople to open negotiations with the Turks. Three other British ships had also arrived and anchored off Canakkale, remaining there until Admiral Louis returned. One of the British requirements was that French Colonel Sebastiani, his engineers and artillerymen, engaged in improving the Dardanelles defences, leave Turkey. The stone forts at the entrance to the Dardanelles and at the Narrows had been freshly painted white in 1805 to convey the impression that they were newly fitted. The demand for the removal of the French colonel and troops was ignored by the Turks, frustrating Admiral Louis and British plans. The Canopus left Constantinople in late December 1806, but Endymion remained until 29 January 1807, when she evacuated the British Ambassador, Charles Arbuthnot, and other British residents.

As diplomacy had failed, so action was required. On 19 February 1807 a fleet of eleven British men-of-war entered the Dardanelles commanded by Admiral Sir John Duckworth: the flagship Royal George (100-gun first-rate), Windsor Castle (98-gun second-rate), Canopus (80-gun third-rate) , Repulse (74-gun third-rate), Thunderer (74-gun third-rate), Pompée (74-gun third-rate), Standard (64-gun third-rate), and the frigates Endymion (40-gun fifth-rate) and Active (38-gun fifth-rate). Two bomb vessels – Lucifer and Meteor – accompanied the rated ships. These were specialized craft with very strong hulls, as each mounted a 10-inch and a 13-inch mortar, the latter capable of firing a 200lb explosive shell to a distance of 2,900 yards. The fleet was fired on by the guns from the entrance fortresses, then from the forts at the Narrows, and again from guns at Abydos and Sestos, but the effects were unimpressive as the forts were inadequately manned. The British ships replied, including the bomb vessels, which also carried 24pr carronades, but the Meteor’s 13-inch mortar burst, rendering the vessel less than capable of carrying out its role to bombard Constantinople.

A jingoistic newspaper article from The Penny Illustrated Paper dated 26 September 1891 describes the action:

The account which I have condensed from a paper of the period is most amusing showing the audacity of the British tars…. The British ships replied with such precision as to astound the Turkish gunners, who were directed by several French officers. The English vessels, while giving broadsides in response to this terrible crossfire, still kept on their triumphant progress, until above the Castle of Abydos on the Asiatic side, they fell in with the Turkish fleet of thirteen vessels (a 64-gun ship, four frigates, four sloops, two brigs and two gunboats), protected by a big battery on shore of thirty-one guns at the point of Pesquies. [This was an anchorage north of Nagara Point. The guns of this battery were destroyed by Royal Marines landed from the ships.]

Sir John Duckworth scarcely took any notice of the Turkish fleet but sailed majestically on, leaving Admiral Sir Sidney Smith, a splendid seaman, with three men-of-war and two frigates (Pompée, Thunderer, Standard, Endymion and Active) to deal with the foe. In less than half an hour the Turks were overcome and their ships were boarded by British tars, a few shells dispersing a body of troops assembled in the rear of the fort…. Of course the fortifications of the Dardanelles are far stronger than they were in 1807 but the exploit of the British fleet at that time, we have not the slightest doubt, could be repeated, if necessary, in 1891.

Although the British ships successfully reached Constantinople, they had sustained some damage and casualties caused by fire from the shore batteries and fighting to capture the Turkish ships and the gun battery. The fleet anchored about 8 miles from Constantinople close to an island named Prota (now Kinaliada), one of the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara, where fresh water was available. Admiral Duckworth did not shell Constantinople, preferring to try to negotiate the surrender of the city from a position of strength or to draw out the Turkish fleet to fight, but neither happened. In fact, Sultan Selim III chose to ignore Duckworth’s demands and the Admiral did nothing further to enforce his presence. Turkish troops briefly occupied Prota and set up a gun battery to threaten the anchored British ships, but the Royal Marines chased them off, taking some casualties and capturing two bronze guns, one of which is now at the Royal Hospital School, Holbrook. After more than a week of frustration, Admiral Duckworth decided to withdraw to the Aegean, knowing that this time the Dardanelles fortresses were better prepared than before. On 3 March 1807 the British ships ran the gauntlet of heavy guns and ancient bronze bombards once again, with those set up at Abydos and Sestos, either side of the Hellespont, being particularly destructive. Most of the vessels were damaged: the mainmast of Windsor Castle was destroyed by a 300kg stone ball from a bombard located at Abydos; Royal George was also hit by a ball from a bombard; and Canopus had its wheel shot away. All of the ships escaped into the Aegean but the fleet had suffered forty-two killed, 235 wounded and four missing during the two-week operation.

There is no record of what damage the British ships inflicted on the forts and shore batteries but it was probably light, if any at all. The heaviest guns in the fleet were the 42prs carried by Royal George, but these can be considered puny compared to the balls fired by the bombards. The exploding shells from the bomb ships could have been effective but the ships would have to have anchored to be accurate, and clearly this was not an option for any ship that day. The Meteor lost its remaining mortar during this engagement, although not through enemy action but again due to bursting.

Admiral Duckworth’s expedition proved to be fruitless as the Turks refused to be terrified by the imposition of British warships in sight of their capital. Retreat was the only option for the Admiral because his ships could not remain unsupported without renewable supplies. With the benefit of hindsight, there was no real value in this incursion into the Turkish waters except in a negative sense: it vividly illustrated that slow-moving warships passing through the narrow Dardanelles without sea room in which to manoeuvre would be at a disadvantage against well-organized shore batteries, and could expect to be damaged, disabled or even sunk. Admiral Duckworth considered the expedition, ‘the most arduous and doubtful that was ever undertaken.’ In a letter to Russian Admiral Senyavin, Admiral Duckworth prophetically stated that, ‘The co-operation of a land force was necessary.’

Duckworth’s ships retired from the Aegean. On 6 March 1807 Admiral Senyavin’s fleet of ten ships blockaded the entrance to the Dardanelles, closing the Strait to all traffic. After two months, food riots broke out in Constantinople, which led to the Sultan being deposed and his replacement, Mustafa IV, ordering the Turkish Navy to sail and break the blockade. A battle took place off the entrance to the Dardanelles in which the Turkish ships were mauled and retired back into the Strait. The Russian ships followed but withdrew because of the heavy fire from the entrance forts and approaching darkness. Another naval engagement occurred in June 1807 near to the entrance to the Dardanelles – the Battle of Lemnos – in which the Turks lost around one-third of their ships. An armistice between Russia and the Ottoman Empire was signed on 12 August 1807. This was later followed by the Treaty of Kale-i Sultaniye between Britain and the Ottoman Empire, which was finally concluded on 5 January 1809.

After the escape of Admiral Duckworth’s ships from the Dardanelles, three new forts were constructed to add additional firepower to the Turkish defences: Nagara Kalesi, close to the battery at Abydos; Boghali Kalesi, on the opposite European shore; and Camburnu, further south on the same side.