British ships seen following the German ships.
On the eve of war, Indefatigable, Inflexible and Indomitable constituted the nucleus of the Mediterranean Fleet, commanded by Admiral Sir Berkeley Milne, supported by four armoured cruisers (Defence, Black Prince, Duke of Edinburgh and Warrior), four light cruisers (Gloucester, Weymouth, Chatham and Dublin), sixteen coal-burning destroyers, sixteen obsolete torpedo-boats and six small submarines.
Milne was an officer totally lacking in initiative; his second-in-command, Rear-Admiral Thomas Troubridge, by his own boast, had never disobeyed an order nor questioned one; and this unfortunate combination would be responsible for the first body-blow to British naval prestige.
The only German warships in the Mediterranean (on 2 August 1914) were the battle-cruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau. There was a powerful French force of sixteen battleships (although only one was of Dreadnought quality), six cruisers and fourteen destroyers.
Everyone knew, without a shadow of doubt, that war was only hours away and that Britain and France would be allied against Germany. Milne had been told by signal, initiated by Winston Churchill, that his (Milne’s) first responsibility was to protect the French transference of troops from north Africa to metropolitan France — but, Churchill added, Milne must also ‘if possible bring to action individual German ships, particularly Goeben’.
The secondary instruction would have confused a commander brighter than Milne. The obvious thing to do was to eliminate Goeben and Breslau (which Fisher would have unhesitatingly ordered, but Fisher was not yet back in office), after which there would have been no threat to the French, but, to baffle Milne further, Churchill warned that the British ‘should not at this stage be brought to action against superior forces, except in combination with the French …’.
‘At this stage’ neither France nor Britain was at war with Germany, but on 3 August the French were. Goeben and Breslau, hoisting Russian ensigns, bombarded the Algerian embarkation-ports of Philipville and Bône, inflicting negligible damage, then ran for Messina to take on coal. That same day the Admiralty had announced that the entire Navy was ‘on a war footing’, which was, however, not quite the same thing as being at war. When, at 0930 on the morning of 4 August, Indomitable and Indefatigable met Goeben and Breslau — steaming eastward — there still remained 13½ hours before Britain’s ultimatum to Germany would expire. The two British battle-cruisers reported the encounter by wireless to Admiral Milne in Malta, refrained from saluting the German pair, and then turned to follow them.
From Malta, Milne told the Admiralty: ‘Indomitable and Indefatigable shadowing Goeben and Breslau 37.44N 7.56E.’ Churchill responded: ‘Very good. Hold her. War imminent.’
It is difficult in retrospect to understand what the phrase ‘Hold her’ was meant to imply. War may have been imminent but it was not yet fact and, indeed, there still remained time for the German Government to agree with British demands, however unlikely this might be. Goeben and Breslau were about their lawful business, for the moment. If this typically Churchillian vagary meant ‘Hold her in sight’, which was the only sensible interpretation, then that was what Indefatigable and Indomitable tried to do.
Aboard Goeben, however, Admiral Wilhelm Souchon had no intention of tamely waiting for 11 p.m. to legalise his destruction. He piled on steam, eastward, passing close to the northern coast of Sicily and heading for the narrow Straits of Messina. The senior British captain, Francis Kennedy, did the same and, for the first time, German and British battle-cruisers were comparing performances. Hour followed hour under a hot August sun, through morning and into afternoon, with the officers on each bridge watching their clocks and the two German ships gradually widening the gap that separated them from Indefatigable and Indomitable. By evening only the light cruiser Dublin remained in touch until dusk and mist closed around Goeben and Breslau. In the stokehold of the German battle-cruiser four men had collapsed and died, but Souchon had reached the neutral Italian port of Messina, sanctuary and coal.
Milne, and consequently Kennedy, had been forbidden to enter neutral waters, which meant the entire length of the Straits of Messina, although such a proscription would not have bothered a Nelson or a Fisher. Earlier, in London, Battenberg had been pleading that it was still possible to destroy the German warships before dark (and this was the man who was to be hounded from office because of his alleged German sympathies), but Churchill, denied by the Cabinet, could make no move except to approve the signal to be despatched at 11 p.m. GMT to all British ships throughout the world: ‘Commence hostilities against Germany.’
In Messina, Goeben and Breslau were coaling. Waiting for them to emerge, Admiral Milne leisurely redeployed his own forces.
Assuming that Souchon did not mean to remain in Messina to be interned, he had the choice of three lines of escape. He could steam westward, in the direction of Sardinia, Gibraltar and sixteen French battleships; he could turn eastward toward the coasts of neutral Greece, Turkey and the cul-de-sac of the eastern Mediterranean; or, finally, he could begin steaming eastward but then turn northward around the toe of Italy into the Adriatic, to join the Austrian fleet in Pola or Trieste.
It did not occur to Milne that the Germans might run for the Dardanelles, which would be against all the rules. He ordered Rear-Admiral Troubridge to patrol the mouth of the Adriatic with his four armoured cruisers, and himself held the three battle-cruisers (Indomitable and Indefatigable now joined by Inflexible) south of Sicily ‘on a defensive line from Bizerta to Sardinia’. When Souchon sailed from Messina at 1700 hours on 6 August he found, to his surprise, only the light cruiser Gloucester waiting for him at the eastward entrance to the Straits.
Milne had miscalculated, but it was not an entirely unreasonable miscalculation, and the situation could still be rescued if he moved quickly. Captain Howard Kelly, commanding Gloucester — the only officer to emerge from the operation with any credit — followed grimly in the wake of the enemy and wirelessed his course to Milne. A little later Souchon edged north-eastward to give the impression that he was, indeed, turning into the Adriatic, and Gloucester reported this, too, to both Milne and Troubridge. Everything seemed to be happening as the British had expected, and Troubridge moved southward to intercept.
Kelly clung to Goeben and Breslau throughout the night of the sixth, keeping his distance from the enemy’s heavy guns and waiting for Troubridge’s heavy cruisers to appear ahead or Milne’s battlecruisers to overtake him from astern, but neither happened. Milne was steaming slowly from the direction of Malta, still convinced that Souchon was bound for the Adriatic, while Troubridge, at 0400 on the morning of the seventh, decided not to continue his attempt to intercept Goeben and Breslau because his force was inferior to that of the enemy, and the Admiralty had earlier expressly ordered that British ships ‘should not at this stage be brought to action against superior forces …’. Since Troubridge’s squadron mounted twenty-two 9.5-inch guns against Goeben’s ten 11-inch, plus fourteen 7.5-inch and twenty 6-inch guns against the enemy’s total of twelve 6-inch and twelve 4.1-inch guns, with the additional advantage of being four ships against two, his reasoning was highly questionable, and to allow that he was only obeying orders is to be generous in the extreme. Winston Churchill would later suggest that his order referred only to the Austrian fleet, but this claim was as inept as Troubridge’s.
Idling until 1000 hours, Troubridge took his squadron into the Greek port of Zante to await further developments — hopefully the arrival of Milne’s battle-cruisers. Milne, however, was three hundred miles to the westward, steaming tranquilly at 12 knots.
Howard Kelly, in Gloucester, was still pounding after Goeben and Breslau, but at 0530 Milne ordered him to ‘gradually drop astern to avoid capture’. Kelly ignored the order and, observing Breslau falling back, presumably to turn him away, decided to engage. Both Breslau and Goeben returned his fire, and Kelly, outgunned, and aware of the importance of his shadowing role, broke off the action but remained in contact. Nothing would be gained by getting Gloucester sunk or disabled, but Kelly was wishing that someone else cared.
For a further three hours Gloucester, alone, clung to the enemy, until Milne ordered categorically that Kelly should not continue beyond Cape Matapan. At 1630, aware of the futility of it, Kelly gave up the chase, and Goeben and Breslau disappeared gratefully among the islands of the southern Aegean.
At 1400 hours on the following day, 8 August, Milne was informed by London that Austria, now, was at war with Britain. The signal was a pre-arranged coded group which an Admiralty clerk had released in error and would be cancelled in due course, but it was sufficient to persuade Milne that the pursuit of Goeben was of secondary importance to the possible emergence of the Austrian fleet. Indeed, if Souchon intended to reinforce the Austrians (Milne was still convinced of this), then there was even more reason for shutting the door to the Adriatic. He ordered Troubridge’s squadron and Gloucester to rejoin him in a position where he ‘could not be cut off from Malta by the possible emergence of the Austrian fleet’. Milne was quite happy to have Goeben and Breslau bottled up in the neutral Aegean ‘to the north’.
It had not remotely occurred to him, nor to the Admiralty, that Souchon would take his ships to Constantinople and turn them over to the Turkish Navy. It simply wasn’t cricket.