Air Effort over Gallipoli: A Brief Look at the Air Campaign over the Dardanelles

On March 1915, with the cloud of an impending invasion in the Dardanelles sector by the Western Allies looming over the Ottoman Empire, the Turks began preparations to repel the invading force. An Army Group was created for the sole purpose of opposing, and eventually, repelling the expected Allied invasion force. On March 25th, 1915 the Turkish 5th Army was formed, it was to be lead by the head of Germany’s military mission in Turkey, Field General der Kavalleri Otto Limon von Sanders. The field headquarters’ for 5th Army was placed in the small town of Gallipoli. At the time of its conception, 5th Army did not possess any air assets in its inventory. Despite constants pleads by their leaders, no aircraft was a tolled to the 5th until mid July 1915. At the time, military aviation was not completely comprehended by either Turkish leader. They failed to fully embrace the promise the aircraft could deliver on the battlefield. As a result, initial requirement for an air component to 5th Army was rather sluggish.

When the land war officially commenced on the Dardanelles Strait in April 25th, 1915 with the landing of British and French forces on the Gallipoli Peninsula, the Ottoman air situation was precarious at best. At the time of the landing, the 5th possessed only three Albatross B.I and one Rumpler B.I aircraft. The Albatross B.I was a reconnaissance aircraft that first enter front-line service in the late 1913. The B.I was one of the first aircraft to be built with the setting of the pilot and observer in a tandem configuration (side-by-side). The idea behind such a radical design was to provide the observer with the same observation environment as the pilot. The fuselage was 28′ 1″ in length with a height of 11′ 6″. The wingspan was 46′ 11″ and the complete wing of the Albatross B.I compromise an impressive 46′ 11″. Its power plant was one Mercedes DI engine capable of generating up to 100hp. The DI provided the Albatross with top speeds of only 60mph. The B.I climb rate was estimated at 200′ per minute. Maximum take-off weight was 1,800lbs and the B.I had an operational range of 400 miles. On the other hand, the Rumpler B.I was one of the first of what Germany called battleship planes. The Rumpler B.I used by the Ottomans over Gallipoli was a Type 4A platform with a length in fuselage of 27′ 6″ and a height of 10′ 1″. Its wingspan covered an area of 42′ 6″. The Rumpler was powered by a Mercedes DI-Krei engine capable of providing the aircraft with 104hp; this power propelled the Rumpler at speeds of around 75-79mph. As it was the case with the Albatross, the Rumpler was manned by a crew of two, but instead of being sited side-by-side, in the Rumpler the pilot sat in the rear of the main fuselage with the observer right behind the main propeller mechanism. The Rumpler initially took to the skies in the summer of 1914 and promptly when on to establish many endurance records for the Imperial German Army. All of these aircraft samples were provided by Germany in an attempt o booster Turkish resolve and moral on the eve of the invasion.

By March 18th, the Allies had assembled an impressive battle fleet near the entrance of the Bozcaada Harbor. There were no less than twelfth battleships, three to four battle cruisers, a small number of repair ships, probably two; and twenty one destroyers and submarines. They were lead into the harbor by a small flotilla of ten fishing boats. Their sole mission was to sweep the harbor of unexploded mines. There, on the morning of the 18th, was where the first air mission of the campaign by the Ottomans took place. The sole Rumpler sample in possession of the Turks took to the air from a recently completed airfield located almost 3km behind the Straits, on a reconnaissance mission to scan the harbor and to monitor the movements of the massive Allied armada. What the German pilots on the Rumpler reported back to their Turkish leaders was to fright them. The Allies were poised to pass thru the Dardanelles at full speed with a much larger fleet than early was estimated. Official Turkish records showed that the combine British and French naval force on the Strait compromised of fourteen front line battleships, four heavy cruisers, two repair ships, two hospital vessels and other minor vessels such as destroyers and submarines (twenty one in all). After the report was made public to top Turkish Army commanders, the full alarm was sounded at 3:35pm on the afternoon of the 18th.

Before the Allies decided to launch their major naval offensive, scouts planes were send out looking for the locations of mines in the Straits. At that time, standard sea mines were located at depth of 26′-3″. They could be easy recognized from altitudes up to 3,280′. Unfortunately for the Allies, during their aircraft recon missions, there were prevailing heavy seas in the operational area. Thus, the aircrews reported back to their home ships that the area appeared to be mine-clear, a tragic mistake that would lead to a massive loss of life in the upcoming hours. The Irresistible, Bouvet, and Ocean were sunk immediately after contact with mines, while the Inflexible, Suffren and Gaulois were heavily damaged. The ships that made thru began a massive naval artillery barrage over Turkish costal defenses. The relative short range of the Ottoman’s costal batteries meant that the Allied barrages were almost uncontested. At around 4:00pm, the Turks launched another scout mission over the Straits. A second sortie, by the Rumpler, took part two and half hours later. Both of these missions were intended to locate Allied ships west of Limni. During the first fly, it was observed that the Allied armada stationed there was commencing retreating maneuvers from that specific area of operations, a fact confirmed by the second patrol aircraft. The next four days saw a grounding of the Turkish aircraft due to bad weather. Activity picked up in the morning hours of the 22nd, when a Turkish artillery shell hit a Royal Navy scout plane, forcing it to crash land at the Bay of Saroz. Another Turkish patrol mission was performed in the early morning hours of the 26th, again to Limni, and again the scout plane reported the Allied pullout of the area. On this same day, the Turkish air forces on the Gallipoli area received two additional B1. Albatross courtesy of the German government.

While the Ottoman’s crude air arm was primarily use as a reconnaissance toll, it provided to the Turks valuable information in regards to the whereabouts of the Allied armada, the French and British air effort was more offensive in its profile. At the beginning of hostilities in Gallipoli, the French stationed a squadron or Escadrille consisting of eight Farman HF.20 aircraft stationed at Bozcaada. The HF.20 was a remarkable simple aircraft to operate and maintain but was terrible under powered. They were design and manufactured by Henri Farman. The HF.20 had a wooden fuselage of 28′-9″ in length with a height of 10′-0″. The wing structure, covered with canvas as was the practice on those days, encompassed 51′-0″. The aircraft was propelled to the air by a Gnome 7A 7 cylinder, air cooled rotary engine capable of generating 80hp. With this engine, the HF.20 reached speeds up to 65mph. Service ceiling was a pedestrian 9,000′. But while the aircraft lacked enough speed to operate against the newest German pursuit planes, the HF.20 had the ability to be airborne for 3hrs and 20mins, and important trait in their mission profile which was primarily scouting duties. In case an enemy aircraft got to close, the 20 was armed with a rudimentary 0.30in machine gun. The plane was operated by a crew of two and its maximum take-off weight was 1,565lb.

The allies were more flexible than the Turks in the use of aircraft. While Turkish commanders halted air operations in case of rain or extensive clouds, Allied aircraft took-off for operations on the same environment. The Allies also were more incline to let its aircraft wander longer distances that their adversaries. Thus enhancing their reconnaissance field area. In addition to these differences, the Allies were more receptive to the use of new technology, especially aerial cameras. Those factors tilted the air campaign in favor of the much prepared French and British pilots. At the beginning of the Expedition, the Allied main aircraft was the Sopwith Tabloid seaplane. The Tabloid was built to compete in the seaplane races spurring all around the British Isles on those days. The Tabloid airframe height was 10′-0″ with a length of 23′-0″. The biplane wingspan covered an area of 25′-6″. A single Gnome Monosoupape 9 cylinder rotary engine capable of producing 100hp was the planes power plant. This engine gave the Tabloid a maximum speed capability of 92mph. Operational range was 315 miles while its top ceiling was 15,000′. The aircraft was manned by only one individual and fully loaded weight it at 1,580lbs. Early versions of the Tabloid were unarmed, but as the type was require entering service, a 0.303″ Lewis machine gun was fitted on it. The Sopwith were ferry to the Gallipoli area by the newest acquisition of the Royal Navy, HMS Ark Royal. The world’s first true aircraft carrier. Beside the Ark Royal, the cruisers Dories and Minerva, as well as the seaplane tenders Hector (a converted balloon tender) and Manica; operated the Tabloid in the area. Seaplane operations were still in its infancies and many accidents were reported in handling these seaplanes, most of them occurred while the plane was lowered to the sea or retrieved from it. The first Tabloids, a contingent of four, were ferry to Bozcaada aboard the Ark Royal in the early days of February. After a brief period in the area, the Ark Royal headed back to the Mediterranean Sea because of the ship captain’s fear of a German U-boat attack.

As the land battle intensifies, the air component was just staring. As stated before, in those early days of the Gallipoli campaign, both side utilized the aircraft as means to gather information on the enemy’s position and possible movements. But as the battles moved forward, the aircraft evolved with it. As early as April 29th, German pilots were dropping hand-held bombs on British positions inland. Although they caused minor, if any, damage, the effect on the troops fighting on the ground was profound. Another Turkish coup occurred when an Albatross flew over HMS Euryalus and drooped three grenade-type bombs. All of them missed the cruiser, but the aircraft was able to relay the location of the ship to its headquarters. Within a few hours, Turkish costal guns were zeroing on the Euryalus. As the land battle grew, the air effort did the same. During much of May and June, both sides tried, unsuccessful, to use the aircraft as a stable bombing platform against their opponent troop concentrations. The situation on the ground was beginning to turn against the invading allies. In late June, the Turks stopped an Allied advance up to the peninsula. The situation on the air also appeared to be in favor of the Ottomans. On July 5th, they received from Germany, the first two samples of the vaunted Gotha Airplane. The aircraft were assigned to Canakkale Fortress Command instead of the Turkish 5th Army Command. The 5th retained the small number of Rumpler and Albatross already assigned to them by Istanbul officials. The arrival of the Gotha created a sense of victory in the part of the Turks and anxiety in the part of the French and British. The Gotha was truly a remarkable piece of hardware. It ranks among the best aircraft ever developed. This group was named the German Navy Special Detachment Naval Aircraft Group. The group’s first commander was Lieutenant Ludwing Preussner, he was soon replaced by Captain Tahsin. On July 13th, the group was reinforced by four new aircraft.

Meanwhile on the ground, both the allies and the Turks and Germans were preparing for the next phase of the campaign. The allied intention now was the cutting off the link between Istanbul and the Ottoman Army. To achieve this, on the late hours of August 6th, the allies landed at Anafartalar and on the northern part of Ariburn. To assist the allied invasion, four Bristol, six B.E. 2cs, and six Morane aircraft joined the 2nd R.N.A.S. squadron. At the same time, the Turks were having air problems. The main situation for them was the allocation of their planes. The Ottomans planned to solve the problem by transferring all air assets from the Germans to the Turks. New German planes will come directly to Turkish formation instead of being allocated to the German military in Turkey. While the Ottoman air force’s administrative situation was being handling. The Turks ground forces faced a three front assault in the Gallipoli peninsula. The first front was at the entrance of the strait in the Rumelian area, the second was at Ariburnu and the third one was at Anafartalar. Thousand of soldiers from both sides were fighting on these narrow areas. On the morning of August 10th, the Anafartalar Front Group, commanded by the famous Mustafa Kemal, opened one of the bloodiest battles in the whole Great War. The ground effort was joined by Fliegerabteilung 1 squadron, which also continued to give close air support to the 5th Army. The squadron, which was composed from a mixture of German and Turkish pilots, made on September 18th, one of the most astonish discoveries of the campaign. The squadron commander, Captain Korner, reported on that morning that he saw for the first time a decrease in the number of enemy forces at Gallipoli.

On the European Continent, the session of quick German victories on the Easter Front pushed Bulgaria to join the Central Power in September 1916. With Bulgaria in their pocket, and the collapse of the Serb resistance a month later, the Germans were now able to re-supply the Ottomans with aircraft, parts and ammunition from the vast railroad system now available to them. A fact not lost on the Allied high command. As the flow of aircraft began to increase, so did the Turks air force capabilities. By late September, the Ottomans had setup another seaplane base near Canakkale. From there, the five assigned Gothas WD2 seaplanes began to harass the allied-held airfields of Imbros and Teredos.

By August 10th, the allies knew the situation on the peninsula had deteriorated to a point that they could not sustain reliable combat operations on the Conkbayiri line. On the other front, Anafartalar, the allies attacked once more on the morning of August 13th, but the assault was turned back with relative ease. By the 17th, the third and last great battle for Anafartalar was over. Despite the fact that all the allied vessels in the area bombarded the Turkish defensive positions, the Ottomans held. As series of bloody battles continued until Lord Kitchener visited the Gallipoli beachhead on November 14th. A month later, the French and British high commands decided to abandon the campaign. Now they would retreat to the sea as fast as possible. During the retreat operation, the R.N.A.S. Number 2 squadron, augmented by kite balloons from balloon-carrying ships; gave cover to the ground and naval forces. They were able to keep the rapidly expanded Ottoman air force in check during most of the retreat. What the Turks could not do on aerial combat, they did on reconnaissance operations. Observation reports from the abandoned allied positions revealed to them the scope of their enemy’s retreat. Occasionally, Turkish seaplanes were deployed in bombing missions over the allied camps and artillery positions. In all, Turkish seaplanes dropped more than thirty three free-fall bombs hitting seventeen different targets.

When the allies finally evacuated the peninsula in January 1916, the aerial defense of the entire Dardanelles sector of operations were assigned to the newly formed Dardanelles Squadron. Meanwhile, Fliegerabteilung Number 1 remained in constant combat readiness at Galata in case the allies decided to re-assault the peninsula. A feat no invader has attempted since.

– Raul Colon

References:

Air Power, Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Group 2004
The Churchill War Papers, Martin Gilbert, Norton 1993
Air Power and War Rights, JM Spaight, Longmans 1924

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