The bombardment of the Turkish forts. Original illustration published by H W Wilson, British journalist and naval historian, editor of The Great War: The Standard History of the All-Europe Conflict, a popular part series published by the Amalgamated Press in 13 volumes, 1914 to 1919.
Liman von Sanders, the German officer commanding Turkish Fifth Army, which defended Gallipoli and the Straits against the Allied landings of 25 April, generally anticipated the Allied landing sites quite accurately. However, one other area, Bulair/Saros, at the neck of the Gallipoli peninsula, particularly attracted his attention. This turned out not to be an Allied landing site, but the capture and interrogation of a British naval officer just before the Allied landings helped focus Liman von Sanders’ attention on Bulair/Saros from 25 to 28 April.
Following the end of Allied naval attempts to force the Straits on 18 March, Turkish attention turned naturally to defence against the possibility of Allied landings on either side of the Straits. On 24 March 1915 Liman von Sanders, a German cavalry officer, Inspector of the Turkish Army, commander of the pre-war German military mission to update the Turkish army and commander of Turkish forces in the Caucasus in 1914, was chosen to command Fifth Army, defending Gallipoli and the Asian shore area. Already in January 1915, von Sanders had outlined his ideas for a defensive system. His first point was that the present defensive structure, set up by Enver Pasa, Supreme Military Commander in Istanbul, scattered the Turkish divisions too widely. This was feasible against small landings, but, ‘Against landings of large troop formations, our divisions must be much more concentrated in order to be able to attack the enemy in strength during or after landing.’ This was easily remedied, but here, though, was the central problem, where would the Allies land?
Liman von Sanders suggested three possible landing sites, all based on the assumption that the Allies would land so as to attack Turkish batteries and fortifications from the rear. Starting firstly with the Asian shore, he predicted a landing at either Besike Bay or Kum Kale (where the French landing did actually take place), in order to attack the strong Turkish batteries and fortifications along the Straits’ shore from the rear. Liman von Sanders argued for a defensive counterattack as the enemy troops moved inland from Kum Kale and crossed the Mendere River. Also, 3 and 11 Turkish Divisions were to be combined in a corps stationed at Erenkeui, where they could go in any direction, according to the Allied landing site. Officers were to be stationed where they could judge whether the landings were a feint or a serious operation. Mines were to be laid at Kum Kale, which was to be defended by one battalion. Bridges over the Mendere River were to be prepared for demolition. (As it turned out, the French did not reach the Mendere River, partly because their landing was a feint. On the other hand, the Turkish 3 Division did little, and actually used the Mendere River as a means of protecting themselves!) Secondly, Liman von Sanders turned his attention to what he called the European shore. Here, he predicted landings at either Seddulbahir (Helles) or Gaba Tepe, or both simultaneously, ‘in order to advance against the batteries from the rear.’ The 9 Division was to be moved closer to the middle of the sector, and 19 Division was to be stationed at Maidos. In this sector, Liman von Sanders was prescient, because Helles was the site of the main Allied landing, while Gaba Tepe was just south of the intended Anzac landing site of Brighton Beach. Finally, thirdly, Liman von Sanders identified the Saros/Bulair area. He suggested two aims of a potential Allied landing in this area. One was the rather difficult Allied task of covering the ground necessary to cross the isthmus and disable the Turkish batteries on the Sea of Marmora side. The other was to totally cut off Turkish troops on the peninsula by simply capturing the narrow neck of the isthmus. Without actually saying so, Liman von Sanders revealed his particular bias toward the Saros/Bulair area by assigning three divisions to guard it, 4 and 5 Turkish Divisions, which could be amalgamated, and 7 Division.
This emphasis on the Bulair/Saros area is at variance with Liman von Sanders’ later memoirs, where he claimed that he saw the Asiatic area as the greatest danger, then Seddulbahir, then Gaba Tepe, and last, Bulair/ Saros. But he was quite correct in his memoirs when he identified intelligence reports and rumours out of Turkish embassies or consulates in such places as Athens, Sofia and Bucharest, which gave information on British and French forces preparing to land. Turkish archives actually reveal a bewildering variety of alleged Allied plans. For example, on 22 March it was reported from sources in Italy that a combined Russian, French, British plan was underway. Russians would land on the Black Sea coast, and the French would land an African division at Saros. The British army from Egypt would land near Izmir. The Allied navy would also attack. The aim was the capture of Istanbul. On the same day, the Turkish military attaché in Rome focussed on French intervention. This report said that about 40,000 French would land, including colonial troops from Mauritania and Senegal. The commander was to be General d’Amade. Indian troops and Australians would also arrive from Egypt. Altogether, the force amounted to some 80,000 troops, which the military attaché thought exaggerated. (He was not so far out, since about 75,000 Allied troops did take part in the April landings. And he was correct about d’Amade and the French colonial troops.)
With these various Turkish reports, and many others, it is not surprising that Liman von Sanders was unsure about Allied intentions. Yet, curiously, although his predictions as to where the Allies would land had all been based on the idea that the Allies were aiming to capture or demolish Turkish batteries and forts from the rear, Liman von Sanders was remarkably accurate in forecasting Allied plans, which actually had other reasons behind their choice of landing sites. There was one exception, however, to Liman von Sanders’ accurate predictions, which he tried to play down in later years, and this was the Saros/Bulair area. One probable reason for this emphasis in Liman von Sanders’ mind, was a remarkable incident that took place on 17 April, just eight days before the 25 April Allied landings. On this day, the British submarine E 15, commanded by Capt. T.S. Brodie, tried to run the Straits to get into the Sea of Marmora. The submarine first hit one of the Turkish nets, and then was caught in a strong eddy off Kephez Point, and ran aground on a sandbank. As luck would have it, this was just by the Turkish Dardanos battery, which lost no time in shelling the submarine. One shell hit the conning tower and cut the unfortunate Brodie in half, plus six other crew were killed during the shelling, and the submarine filled with thick smoke. The rest of the crew surrendered, and were taken into captivity, including a certain Lt Palmer. This individual, who was an officer in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, had been the British vice consul at Chanak. After hostilities broke out, Palmer apparently arrived in Athens in early March 1915 to report on the location of Turkish guns in the Straits. Palmer then joined the staff of de Robeck at Gallipoli as an Intelligence Officer. Wishing to see active service, Palmer volunteered to serve on E 15 as an Intelligence officer. After Palmer’s capture, he was interrogated by Col. Djevad Bey, commanding the Straits Forts. Djevad Bey then sent a lengthy cipher to the Supreme Command in Istanbul on 20 April, with the results of Palmer’s interrogation.
Since this cipher message containing Palmer’s interrogation is of critical significance, as it occurred just five days before the Allied landings of 25 April, it is given in full:
Palmer, who was the Consul at Chanak, was captured and made a prisoner of war. He was accused of being a spy for the Allied powers. Also a certificate was found in the submarine showing that Palmer was a reserve officer. But we did not tell him that we had found this certificate. Palmer was told that he was accused of being a spy, and that is why he might be executed. Because no soldier wants to give information openly, Palmer wanted to talk privately. So I promised him that he would be regarded as a prisoner of war. Then, he agreed to give us information. I asked him about the Allied attack that was planned. He said that a British attack would be made against the Dardanelles with a force of 100,000 men, landing under the command of Gen. Hamilton. According to Palmer’s statement, the Allies planned to land at Gaba Tepe. But as soon as they found out that the Turks had learnt of this attack, they changed their plans concerning Gaba Tepe and Seddulbahir [Helles]. Also they did not think that their landing at Seddulbahir would be successful. Consequently, they decided to land in the Gulf of Saros, and in the region of the northern part of the Peninsula. Previously, they had planned to attack Gaba Tepe, Seddulbahir and even Besike. To support their attacks in these regions, they needed the support of their navy. In fact, they planned to make these attacks last Monday [presumably 12 April: the original date for the landings was 14 April], but they have now given up this plan. He does not have any information about the new attack plan. This information has been given by the ex-consul on the condition that his life be spared under this agreement. Please do not give the origins of this information, in order to ensure his safety. I have sent the prisoner of war [Palmer], and his goods that have been taken from the submarine, with this cipher. I beg you to accept him as a prisoner of war.
20 April 1915, the Commander of the Forts, Col. Djevad.
The next day, the Supreme Command in Istanbul, obviously interested in what might be a real Intelligence coup, wanted Palmer to identify the threatened northern area. Djevad Bey replied: ‘The name of the region which is around the Gulf of Saros as mentioned by the ex-consul that I wrote in the cipher, is the region between Imbros and Karacali on the northern coast of the Gulf [of Saros]. 21 April 1915.’
It would seem that Palmer had to think quickly on his feet during this interrogation. On the one hand, he certainly did not want to be shot, but on the other hand, he did not want to give away the real Allied landing sites, which he certainly knew, having been an Intelligence officer on de Robeck’s staff. So he adopted the risky strategy of giving the actual Allied landing sites, but then suggesting these had been cancelled due to a security leak. In their place, Palmer directed Turkish attention north to Saros/Bulair as the new Allied landing area. In his further explanation of what the northern region consisted of, Palmer gave a vague answer, although it did include the Anzac landing zone. As for the 100,000 Allied troops that would land, Palmer probably did not know the exact Allied figure, otherwise the logical solution would have been to minimize the number of Allied troops, in order to cause Turkish over-confidence. On the other hand, Palmer may just have been unable to think quickly enough on the question of numbers, or he did not think the question of numbers was significant. (Ironically, the actual number of Allied soldiers involved in the landings was in fact discovered by Fifth Army through a Turkish wireless intercept on 25 April.) Nevertheless, the timing of Palmer’s capture and interrogation was extremely critical – just five days before the Allied landings on 25 April, although he did not give away this information. Now the question was: would the Supreme Command, and especially Liman von Sanders, be taken in by the Bulair/Saros disinformation from Palmer?
Documents in the Turkish archives do not definitely answer this question, but one message on 22 April, and correspondence between Fifth Army and Supreme Command on 20 April, show that the information was at least disseminated. Other messages suggest a considerable focus on the Saros/Bulair region. For example, Fifth Army reported on 25 April that Allied ships were in Saros, and that help was needed. The next day, 26 April, Fifth Army urgently requested more ammunition for the Saros area. On the other hand, while the Turkish Official History mentions Palmer, it does so without emphasis, and does not claim an Intelligence coup. It is also the case that Liman von Sanders does not mention Palmer in his memoirs. Yet a significant first hand observer of Liman von Sanders at his GHQ on 25 April and following days, Capt. Carl Mühlmann, describes in detail how Liman von Sanders focussed on the Saros/Bulair region to an unusual degree over the next four days.
Mühlmann awoke early on Sunday 25 April, to the sound of gunfire. He was at Liman von Sanders’ GHQ at the town of Gelibolu, when a staff officer rushed in with news of landings at Seddulbahir and Ari Burnu (Anzac), as well as of a transport flotilla in the Gulf of Saros. (This was part of an Allied feint by Hamilton at Bulair/Saros.) Liman von Sanders immediately alerted 4 Division to march to Bulair. Mühlmann takes up the story:
Unfortunately, L[iman] was somewhat nervous and instead of centralizing all telephone connections and remaining at the choke point – GHQ – he swung up on his horse and, accompanied by the two of us [Mühlmann and another staff officer] rode up to the heights near Bulair. Unfortunately, this meant that all reports were delayed 1–2 hours and the entire traffic between us and GHQ was made much more difficult…
Admittedly Bulair was the nearest danger zone to the German GHQ at the town of Gelibolu, but Liman von Sanders could also have headed toward Ari Burnu, or to Maidos, as a more central location to the known landings of Ari Burnu and Seddulbahir. In fact, while Liman von Sanders’ party was at Bulair, news of the Kum Kale French landing came in. Esat Pasa, GOC Turkish III Corps asked permission to move his HQ to Maidos, and this was granted. Yet Liman von Sanders continued to focus on Bulair.
Mühlmann relates that the small party reached the heights above Bulair in time to see a heavy naval bombardment of the fort there. Mühlmann already noted the limited effect of naval fire – the shell craters were immense, but did no damage unless there was a direct hit, although ‘the psychological effect is tremendous.’ Perhaps this influenced Liman von Sanders, because when evening came on 25 April, instead of returning to his GHQ at Gelibolu, Mühlmann commented: ‘to our great surprise, he [Liman] decided to spend the night out here; we could not find out why because we had no telephone line to GHQ.’ Mühlmann was sent on a mission the next day, 26 April, to Maidos with orders to concentrate 5 Division closer to Bulair, while 7 Division was sent to Seddulbahir. However, Liman von Sanders again planned to spend the entire day of 26 April on the heights above Bulair. (Meanwhile, Mühlmann was now down at Maidos, where an Allied submarine, evidently the Australian submarine AE2, fired nine torpedoes at a troop transport and missed, probably because the torpedoes failed to explode. Then AE2 surfaced and hailed a sail boat to ask directions, ‘really an incredible piece of cheek!’ noted Mühlmann. The AE2 sailed into the Sea of Marmora and, according to Mühlmann, did not sink any transports before being forced to the surface and scuttled. A Turkish message notes that the AE2 was followed by the German Capt. Merten, and fired on.) After the submarine episode, Mühlmann returned to Liman von Sanders at Bulair, and was ordered to remain there to observe, while Liman von Sanders went, on 27 April, to check on the situation at Maidos and Ari Burnu.
Mühlmann thought his sojourn at Bulair was over on 27 April, when the fleet disappeared from the Gulf of Saros. Liman von Sanders met Mühlmann at GHQ at Gelibolu and informed him that all was well at Ari Burnu, and that the French were hurled into the sea at Kum Kale, which was, of course, the planned French re-embarkation from Kum Kale. Liman von Sanders had also witnessed the shelling across the peninsula by the Queen Elizabeth of a Turkish transport, usually seen by historians as a significant blow, but Mühlmann remarked ‘Thank God, it was not loaded, and sank within one minute.’ Apparently Liman von Sanders returned from Maidos to his GHQ at Gelibolu by sea on 27 April, aboard the Barbarossa, at which a submarine fired two torpedoes and missed. This was probably the British submarine E14, and a successful torpedo attack would certainly have changed the campaign had Liman von Sanders gone down with this ship. The next day, 28 April, news came into von Sanders’ GHQ that the enemy was being reinforced at both Ari Burnu and Seddulbahir, and so, at this time, 7 Division and most of 5 Division were recalled from Bulair to move south via Maidos. This decision is at variance with Liman von Sanders’ memoirs, where he claimed to have recognized Bulair/Saros as a feint by 26 April.
However, neither Liman von Sanders nor Mühlmann were finished with Bulair. While on his way to a different task on 28 April, Mühlmann,
became despondent when, looking beyond the heights [at Bulair] I saw the transport fleet back in the Gulf of Saros. It was clear to all of us that we were only dealing with a bluff, otherwise they would have landed several days ago – in addition, the ships rode too high in the water to be fully loaded. Of course, L[iman’s] specific concern about protecting his rear at Bulair was to be expected, and therewith came the danger that I was to be left there again.
Mühlmann’s fear was only too accurate, since Liman von Sanders came up, and informed Mühlmann that he would move his HQ to Maidos, but Mühlmann was to be stationed at Bulair as Liman von Sanders’
plenipotentiary and general staff officer. I [Mühlmann] made a deeply disappointed face and explained my wish to him [to get closer to the actual war theatre]. At first, he [Liman von Sanders] did not wish to consider it, because after seeing the enemy fleet, new fears had swelled up in him. But, finally, he gave in…
Thus, it is clear that Liman von Sanders remained heavily preoccupied with the Bulair/Saros area over the period of four days between 25 and 28 April, and was still inclined to worry about this area as late as 28 April, when major Allied operations were obviously focussed at Anzac and Helles. Of course, Liman von Sanders was right to consider Saros/Bulair as a danger area, and in addition there was the Allied naval feint at Saros/ Bulair, but Liman von Sanders also appeared to show an unreasonable interest in this area. It is entirely possible that the capture and interrogation of Lt Palmer just before 25 April, with his disinformation about the Allies choosing Saros/Bulair as their main landing area, helped to confirm Liman von Sanders’ preoccupation with this zone. The documents do not specifically reveal this, but Liman von Sanders’ focus on Saros/ Bulair, and his hesitation in sending the Bulair divisions south, certainly gave the Allied landings on 25 April a breathing space they might not otherwise have expected.