Action off Cape Sarych

by Steve McLaughlin

Leaving aside the Battle of Jutland -- which is in a class by itself -- perhaps no naval incident of the First World War has received as much attention as the escape of the German battlecruiser Goeben and light cruiser Breslau and their subsequent role in bringing Turkey into the war on the side of the Central Powers. But after this these two ships disappear from view for a while, reappearing only for their brief sortie outside the Dardanelles in January 1918.

But in fact Goeben and Breslau had active careers in the Black Sea throughout the war, and on several occasions encountered the Russian Black Sea Fleet. This article will attempt to describe one of these actions, sometimes called the Battle of Cape Sarych -- although at the time it apparently did not receive an "official" name.

The main difficulty in trying to describe this action is the fact that no two accounts agree with one another. However, by comparing the German version with the published Russian accounts -- both from Soviet and emigre sources -- a fairly consistent description of the battle emerges.

I. The Opposing Forces

The German ships were commanded by Rear-Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, with his flag in the battlecruiser Goeben. She was a modern ship, completed in 1912, armed with ten 28cm (11in) and twelve 15cm (5.9in) guns, and had a designed speed of 25.5 knots, although she made 28 knots on trials. Like all German ships, she was well-protected, with a 270mm (10.6in) waterline belt amidships covering her "vitals" -- machinery compartments and magazines. Shortly after her arrival in Constantinople she was "bought" by the Turkish government and renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim, although her crew remained German and continued to refer to their ship by its German name. With Goeben was the modern light cruiser Breslau (renamed Midilli by the turks, but she also retained her German crew); she had a displacement of 4570 tons, was armed with twelve 10.5cm (4.1in) guns, and could make 27 knots.

Opposing Goeben was the Russian Black Sea Fleet, under the command of Vice-Admiral Andrei Avgustovich Ebergard (as it was spelled in Russian; it is also often spelled Eberhard or Eberhardt). In 1911 the Russian government had begun a large building program for the Black Sea that included three powerful dreadnoughts (a fourth ship was subsequently added to the program), but none of these ships was complete when the war began, so the job of containing Goeben would have to be carried out by the five pre- dreadnought battleships already in service. As can be seen from the table, all of these ships were a good 10 knots slower than Goeben.

Vessel Completed Displacement Armament Speed
Evstafii 1911 12,850 tons 4x12in, 4x8in, 12x6in 16 kts
Ioann Zlatoust 1911 12,850 tons 4x12in, 4x8in, 12x6in 16 kts

(formerly Kniaz' Potemkin Tavricheskii

1905 12,900 tons 4x12in, 16x6in 16 kts
Tri Sviatitelia 1897 13,000 tons 4x12in, 14x6in 16 kts
Rostislav 1900 10,500 tons 4x10in, 8x6in 15 kts

Russian pre-war exercises had been directed toward long-range gunnery and concentrating the fire of several ships on a single target. These tactics were to a large degree an outgrowth of the Battle of Tsushima (1905), where the Japanese had been able to concentrate their fire on the leading Russian battleships with devastating effect. The need for concentration of fire became especially urgent when Turkey ordered dreadnoughts from British shipyards; the faster building-times of British yards meant that the Turkish ships would enter service before their Russian counterparts, so there would be an interval when these new Turkish ships could only be opposed by the pre-dreadnought squadron.

Concentration of fire by several ships on a single target was a difficult business (the British didn't develop successful techniques for it until long after Jutland). The Russian method was based on gunnery control by a "master ship" -- ideally, the center ship in a three-ship group. This ship would pass initial range estimates and corrections to her squadron-mates by means of a special radio system; the two "slave" ships would then make the necessary corrections for their positions relative to the "master" ship. Evidence is contradictory as to whether the Russians used a massed simultaneous salvo of all the ships in a group, or rotated the firing between the ships in a group by means of a rigid schedule of firing. In either case, the idea was to have the three pre-dreadnoughts in a group act as a single ship -- a sort of decentralized "dreadnought" with the respectable armament of twelve 12-inch guns.

II. Encounter

The first encounter between the main forces of the two enemies came just three weeks after war broke out between Russia and Turkey on 29 October 1914. On 15 November Admiral Ebergard led the Black Sea Fleet out of its main base, Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula. His objective was a bombardment of Trabizond, a Turkish port on the northern coast of Anatolia important because of its coal mines. The Russian force included all five battleships, as well as three cruisers (all older and slower than Breslau) and thirteen destroyers. On the morning of 17 November the Russians shelled Trabizond, then cruised westwards along the Turkish coast as far as Giresun, searching for enemy shipping. Finding none, they shaped course for Sevastopol.

News of the Russian bombardment was soon received in Constantinople. Goeben and Breslau put to sea at 3:30 in the afternoon, with the intention of finding and engaging the Russian force. Reports of the Russian strength were relatively accurate -- five pre-dreadnought battleships, two cruisers and twelve torpedo boats -- so Admiral Souchon, the German commander, had a pretty fair notion of his enemy's strength. The German actions indicate that they were eager for battle, and not without reason -- the Russian navy had had a poor reputation since the debacle of Tsushima, and the Black Sea Fleet in particular had suffered a series of violent revolutionary upheavals in 1905-1906, including the famous Potemkin mutiny. Morale was reportedly low, the loyalty of the crews suspect, and the officers generally considered inept.

At first the German force steered to intercept the Russians along the northern Anatolian coast, expecting to meet them near Sinop. But new reports indicated that the Russians had turned north and were headed for their main base, Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula. The German force therefore also set a northerly course. Goeben had a maximum speed of more than 25 knots, but on this occasion she was content with 15 knots -- about equal to the maximum speed of the Russian pre-dreadnoughts and several knots faster than their normal cruising speed.

The next morning, as the German ships approached the Crimean coast, Breslau was ordered to increase speed to 18 knots and scout ahead of the battlecruiser. Conditions were misty, visibility was variable but on the whole poor in the patchy fog.

Meanwhile, the Russian force was steaming in its low- visibility formation, with the three cruisers -- Pamiat' Merkuriia, Almaz and Kagul -- fanned out in a scouting line about three and a half miles ahead of the main force. The five battleships were in an open column, led by the flagship, Evstafii, followed by Ioann Zlatoust, Panteleimon, Tri Sviatitelia and Rostislav. The destroyers were in two columns somewhat behind and to one side of the battleships. At about 11:40, when the Russian squadron was passing south of Cape Sarych at the southern tip of the Crimea, the cruiser Almaz, scouting directly ahead of the battleships, sighted smoke and the squadron altered course slightly to investigate. Admiral Ebergard ordered his battleships to increase speed to 14 knots and close up the intervals between ships to 2.5 cables (500 yards). The low speed of the trailing ships, Tri Sviatitelia and Rostislav, meant that they could only close the distance slowly, and in fact the action was over before they even reached position.

The scouting cruisers on both sides sighted each at about the same time -- according to the German official history, Breslau sighted a cruiser to landward shortly after noon, while Almaz sighted the German ships at 12:10. Their jobs accomplished, both Breslau and Almaz quickly fell back on their respective main forces, clearing the ring for the main event. The cruisers would take no further part in the action.

Upon Breslau's sighting report, Goeben turned east by southeast to intercept, and the two forces were now steaming on almost exactly reciprocal courses. The German official history described the feeling aboard the German ships: "At last the long desired opportunity to measure strength with the enemy seemed to have arrived."

But the Goeben could still not be seen aboard the Russian flagship. Captain 1st Rank V.I. Galanin, Evstafii's commander, urged Admiral Ebergard to turn the column immediately so that they could "cross the T" -- greeting Goeben with their full broadsides the moment she appeared out of the mist. But Ebergard hesitated; the sighting report flashed by searchlight from Almaz -- "I see the enemy ahead" -- left him uncertain as to the exact bearing of the German force, and if he turned the wrong way, Goeben would appear abaft his beam. Given the close range and the battlecruiser's greatly superior speed, Goeben could then work around behind the Russian line, threatening Ebergard's weakest ship, Rostislav. The Russian line would be forced to make a second turn to keep its broadsides to the enemy -- a dangerous affair for the slow ships, since it would give the Germans a chance to fire on each Russian ship in succession as they turned. Turning in the middle of the battle would also throw off the Russian gunnery control.

So Ebergard waited until the German ships came into view -- a fact for which he was much criticized in Soviet naval histories. Five or six minutes passed, and then finally Goeben appeared, fine on the port bow. This is what Ebergard had been waiting for; he immediately ordered his battleships to turn eight points (90 degrees) in succession to port, bringing his ships on a course of approximately south-by-southwest. Ranges taken aboard the flagship indicated that the German ship was about 40 cables (8000 yards) away -- very close range indeed.

Now there was another agonizing delay for the Russians -- the flagship had turned onto the new course, but the gunnery "master" ship, Ioann Zlatoust, was 500 yards astern of her and had not yet made the course change. Even worse, due to the patchy nature of the fog, Goeben was clearly visible from the flagship, but not from Ioann Zlatoust; meanwhile, Goeben was now also turning south to bring all of her ten 28cm guns to bear. The range had decreased to about 38.5 cables (7700 yards). Finally, Admiral Ebergard reportedly said: "We cannot wait any longer.... This is not a training exercise. Open fire at once!"

The moment of Evstafii's opening fire is variously reported, from 12:18 to 12:24; she fired a two-gun salvo, apparently using both guns from her forward turret -- an unusual practice, but perhaps necessary on this occasion for some unreported reason. (However, one Russian source says the salvo was from both turrets, i.e., one gun from each turret.) Meanwhile, Ioann Zlatoust had finally started sending fire control information, but due to the bad visibility her first estimates were wildly incorrect, indicating a range of 60 cables (12,000 yards). She and Tri Sviatitelia used this range, and so never came near the target, while Panteleimon never even opened fire -- she never saw the German ships, because of the mist and also, perhaps, because the wind was coming out of the southwest, blowing the funnel smoke of the two leading ships into her path. Rostislav fired a few rounds at Breslau, as Tri Sviatitelia also did with her secondary battery. So only the flagship had a correct fire control solution, and the brief engagement was essentially a dual between this pre- dreadnought and Goeben.

But that's not how it seemed to the Germans. According to the official history, "The Russian salvos were well bunched" -- so well bunched, apparently, that the Germans thought that "The Goeben then lay under the concentrated fire of five battleships" -- in fact Evstafii was the only ship firing on the German battlecruiser. It may be that the numerous splashes from Evstafii's 8in and 6in guns, which soon joined in the action, misled the Germans into thinking they were being subjected to the combined fire of the entire Russian squadron.

Evstafii's fire was very accurate -- at least one shell, and perhaps both, from her opening salvo hit Goeben amidships in the No. III portside 15cm casemate, penetrated the citadel armor and ignited several ready-use charges. (The fact that the shell hit the ship's side proves that Goeben had already turned on to a more-or- less parallel course before the Russians opened fire, not after, as some Russian accounts say.)

According to the German official history, "Both forces opened fire at 12:20 at about the same instant" -- actually, the Russians probably fired first, since there is good reason to believe that Evstafii's first salvo struck before Goeben had opened fire (this will be elaborated later on). Russian accounts state that Goeben opened fire about 50 seconds after Evstafii; it may well be that she had trouble getting a good range, since the Russian ships were difficult to see against the coastline behind them. Her fire, however, was accurate; her first salvo was an "over," although one shell passed through the second funnel and exploded, knocking the flagship's gunnery control radio out of action -- which prevented the flagship from correcting the inaccurate ranging data being used by the rest of the squadron. Goeben's second salvo was short, and with her third she obtained two hits, both on the secondary casemate. Her fourth salvo brought two more hits.

Although the Russian flagship suffered heavy casualties from these hits, she was by no means critically damaged, and, having straddled her enemy, Evstafii was now firing with all the guns that would bear -- four 12-inch, two 8-inch and six 6-inch. It is not clear how many hits she obtained -- Russian accounts say fourteen, with three of them 12in and the rest 8in or 6in shells, but these figures are based on reports from Russian agents in Turkey, and must be taken with a large grain of salt. On the other hand, the German official account is extremely vague about just what damage the ship suffered -- a matter discussed in more detail below.

Whatever the damage was, Admiral Souchon had been unpleasantly surprised by the accuracy of the Russian fire. It is likely that he expected to find the Russians an easy prey; this hope had been shattered by the first Russian salvo. At the opening of the action, according to the official history, Souchon "attempted to draw round ahead of the enemy at high speed" -- when that was accomplished, he would presumably have tried to cripple the leading Russian ships one by one by concentrating his full broadsides on them, while the rest of the Russian squadron was unable to reply effectively.

But now things had changed; he continued the exchange of fire for a while longer, and the range closed somewhat, since the enemies were on slightly converging courses -- at its closest, the range apparently reached only 34 cables (6800 yards). At 12:35, after about fifteen minutes of gunfire, Souchon veered off, turning to port away from the Russians and disappearing into the mist. The German official history is again vague at this point; the reader is given the impression that the mist simply became too thick, and Goeben lost sight of the enemy; no mention is made of a course alteration. But this is belied by a decidedly unofficial source -- a memoir published by one of the ship's radio operators, Georg Kopp. The general tenor of the book may be gathered from this passage about a later encounter between Goeben and the Black Sea Fleet:

Admiral Eberhard, the Russian Commander-in-Chief, was struck speechless when he saw the "devil ship" tear past his whole fighting force. He had expected anything rather than this dare-devil adventure. The Goeben driving past the enemy must have been a supernatural, indescribable apparition.[p. 225- 226]

What Kopp manages to forget in this passage is that at the time Goeben was running away from the supposedly stupefied Russians as fast as her stokers could pile on the steam. At another point, he has Goeben sinking two destroyers in a night action, when in fact none were sunk. So it is clear that he consistently overestimated the achievements of his own ship while denigrating the performance of the Russians.

Taken in that light, the following passage about the ending of the action on 18 November is all the more telling:

Time dragged on in tormenting uncertainty [in the radio room]. The echoes of the fight resounded dully through space. Then the Goeben's hull began to tremble; a rhythmic quiver. So we were at full speed again. Then we heard only the two after- turrets firing. In the forepart the ship was silent. After, the silence became complete.

Kopp has unintentionally let the cat out of the bag; Goeben increased speed and turned away from the Russians, so she was able to fire at them with only her aft turrets. She was running away.

After Goeben pulled her disappearing act, Admiral Ebergard held his southerly course for a few minutes, but found nothing. There was then some alarm over floating debris which the Russians thought might be mines; finally, Ebergard decided that Goeben had successfully slipped away, and he turned the squadron back toward Sevastopol.

As for Goeben, the German official account of her post-battle maneuvers is again vague and misleading:

In the prevailing fog it was unfortunately impossible to pick up the enemy battleships or torpedo-boats and cruisers to renew the engagement. The Goeben had been unable to take advantage of her superior armament and speed at the short range which obtained during the action....

On the assumption that the enemy would return to Sebastopol [sic]... The Goeben remained at sea together with the Peik [a Turkish torpedo boat] until November 20 without, however, sighting the enemy again.

If we accept this account, we must believe that, despite Goeben's greatly superior speed and a correct estimate of the enemy's intentions, Souchon was unable to intercept the Russians before they returned to Sevastopol. This is quite simply insupportable, given the small geographical area involved (Sevastopol was only about 50 nautical miles away). It is clear that Souchon had no wish to resume the action, and very probably avoided the presumed course of the Russian squadron.

All of which leads us to the question of just how badly Goeben was damaged. The official history is again vague, and the Russians had only the reports of spies to work with. The one certain fact is that at least one 12in shell from Evstafii first salvo had struck the ship in the secondary battery; according to the official history,

...the port casemate gun No. III had been put out of action with the entire gun-crew (12 men) and some of the powder magazine personnel died later from gas fumes.

That this may be less than a complete catalog of damage is suggested by another statement in the official history:

[Goeben] had fired only 19 of her 28 c. [centimeter] shells. The secondary armament had not been able to engage.

Why were the secondary guns unable to get into action, despite the short range? The German account gives no reasons. But the most logical explanation is that the damage from Evstafii's first hit was much more serious than the official history cared to admit. This is again confirmed by Kopp's account:

The heavy shell, a 30.5cm., had pierced her armour in the third port casemate, and there exploded. The whole crew of the 15cm. gun was killed. Large pieces of the armour were torn away by the impact. As fate would have it, the whole of the ammunition lying ready in the casemate exploded. The fragments of armour must have detonated the fuses. The cartridges had also taken fire. In a moment an appalling shoot of flame swept through the ammunition hoist below and endangered the magazine in the bottom of the ship.

It was only through the presence of mind of a petty officer that this catastrophe was averted.... he quickly opened the flooding-valves.

So, despite the impression conveyed in the official account that Goeben -- having had only one 15cm gun put out of action during the encounter -- went hunting for the enemy and only failed to find them due to the fog, it seems likely that she had actually been fairly seriously damaged and used her great speed advantage to escape from the unexpectedly effective Russian fire. Her 15cm guns had not joined in the battle due to a serious fire in the battery, the smoke and fumes from which drove the gun crews from their stations, and in fact the ship may have been in danger of a catastrophic explosion in the 15cm magazine, although here Kopp may have been "spicing up" his story a bit -- during the First World War there seem to have been a large number of ships saved in the nick of time by a heroic petty officer in the magazines.

The fact that the secondary battery never opened fire also strongly indicates that the Russians had fired first, contrary to the official history's assertion that the two sides opened fire "at about the same instant" -- the 15cm guns would almost certainly have gotten off a few rounds before being smoked-out if fire had been opened simultaneously.

Goeben was next at sea on 6 December, so apparently no very great damage was done to the ship itself. We may accept the official history's version of this damage:

Since the ammunition at the guns did not explode but simply burned, the material damage was slight.

Her casualties are variously reported; the Russians, again basing their estimates on intelligence reports, claimed that over one hundred officers and men had been killed -- the exact number varies from one publication to another. I have been unable to find a casualty figure based on German sources, although a recent book on the Turkish navy says that sixteen men were killed -- which seems reasonable if we assume the loss of the twelve-man gun crew plus other men who died from the fire's fumes.

As for Evstafii, she suffered four hits and had 33 men killed and another 25 wounded. The Russian ships fired a total of thirty 12in shells, twelve of them Evstafii, six from Ioann Zlatoust and twelve from Tri Sviatitelia. However, since the latter two ships were firing at the incorrect range of 60 cables (12,000 yards), it was Evstafii's fire that mattered, and in fact the engagement was really a duel between this pre-dreadnought and the dreadnought battlecruiser Goeben. Seen in that light, Evstafii's performance was quite remarkable.


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Last Updated: 13 July, 1998

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