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helles cape

Landing at Cape Helles

The landing at Cape Helles was part of the amphibious invasion of the Gallipoli peninsula by British and French forces on April 25, 1915 during the First World War. Helles, at the foot of the peninsula, was the main landing area. With the support of the guns of the Royal Navy, a British division was to advance along the peninsula on the first day and seize the heights of Achi Baba. From there they would go on to capture the forts that guarded the straits of the Dardanelles. Another landing was made to the north at Gaba Tepe by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC).

The Helles landing was mismanaged by the British commander, Major General Aylmer Hunter-Weston. The two main beaches became bloodbaths, despite the meagre defences, while the landings at other sites were not exploited. although the British managed to gain a foothold ashore, their plans were in disarray. For the next two months they would stage a number of costly battles in attempt to reach the objectives that they had intended to take on the first day. In each battle they would inch closer but they never managed to get there.

Prelude

The military commanders of the Ottoman Empire was well aware that a land assault on the Dardanelles was being planned. A combined French and British Naval task force had carried out a series of attacks. Particular difficulty had been experienced by the force in sweeping the straits of naval mines because of gunfire from Ottoman forts and well-concealed mobile howitzer batteries. The naval operation culminated with the spectacular failure on March 18 to push a naval force through the straits during which three battleships were sunk and four more capital ships severely damaged by naval mines laid along the Asian shore.

Preparations began for an army landing to help the navy neutralise the forts and batteries guarding the straits. Security surrounding the preparations in Egypt was non-existent. The French commander even spoke of it in an interview with an Alexandria newspaper.

By the time the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF) was ready to land, the Ottoman forces had prepared their defences with the Fifth Army occupying the peninsula and the Asian shore of the straits. The German commander, General Otto Liman von Sanders made no attempt to defend the beaches strongly. He used two regiments of the Turkish 9th Division to guard the likely landing sites along the Aegean shore of the peninsula from Helles to north of Suvla. He kept his remaining forces in reserve, ready to move quickly to wherever the landing was made.

Consequently, only two battalions were between Achi Baba and Cape Helles. At the foot of the peninsula where the landings were made, there were only companies or platoons guarding the beaches.

The British landing plan

General Sir Ian Hamilton, commander of the MEF, chose to land at Helles because it allowed the navy to provide support from three sides. The disadvantage was that Helles was a long way from the forts that needed to be captured. The Helles forts made up the outer defences of the straits and had already been neutralised by naval gunfire and raids by Royal Marines. Between Helles and the forts were two naturally strong defensive positions; the hill of Achi Baba (today called Alçitepe) and the Kilitbahir plateau. Also, the Helles beaches were small, limiting the size of the force that could be landed.

As there was not room for ANZAC to land at Helles, the Australians and New Zealanders made a separate landing to the north, closer to the forts, but facing more difficult terrain. The intention was that if this secondary landing was unsuccessful, the Anzacs would be re-embarked and would be landed at Helles. The French were to make a diversionary landing on the Asian shore opposite Helles at Kum Kale. They would then cross the straits and join the British at Helles.

The Helles landing would be made by the British 29th Division, a regular army division that had been formed from garrison units that had be stationed throughout the British Empire prior to the outbreak of the war. The division was commanded by General Hunter-Weston who would be in charge of all operations at Helles. For the landing, the 29th would be augmented by two battalions from the Royal Naval Division; the Plymouth and Anson Battalions, bringing the total strength of Hunter-Weston's force to 12 battalions. These would be landing in two parts. Firstly a covering force, the 86th Brigade plus some additional units, would land and secure the beaches. The main force would follow up and advance to the first day objectives; the village of Krithia and the hill of Achi Baba.

The landing would be made after dawn and following a preliminary naval bombardment, starting at 5 am and lasting one hour. This differed from the ANZAC landing which was a surprise assault, with the covering force going ashore before dawn without any supporting bombardment.

Five beaches were designated for the landing. These were, from east (inside the straits) to west (on the Aegean coast), S, V, W, X and Y Beaches. (Z Beach was the designation for the ANZAC landing site.) V and W Beaches were the main landings at the very tip of the peninsula on either side of Cape Helles itself.

V Beach

V Beach was long with Cape Helles and Fort Etrugrul (Fort No. 1) on the left and the old Sedd el Bahr castle (Fort No. 3) on the right, looking from the sea. Ahead was Hill 141. The beach was defended by about a company of men from the 3rd Battalion of the 26th Regiment, equipped with four machine guns.

The first ashore was to be the 1st Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers which landed from ships boats that were towed or rowed ashore. The rest would be landed from a Trojan horse, the SS River Clyde, a 4,000 ton converted collier. On the bows were fitted eleven machine guns. Sally ports had been cut in the hull to allow the men to embark via gangways. The ship held 2,000 men; the 1st Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers plus two companies of the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Hampshire Regiment (from the 88th Brigade) and one company of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

The tows containing the Dubliners came in at 6 am. All appeared lifeless following the bombardment. As the boats were about to land, the Turkish defenders opened up, laying down a withering fire. The guns in the fort and castle enfiladed the beach, slaughtering the men in the boats. A few made it ashore and sought shelter under a sand bank at the edge of the beach where they remained, pinned down. Out of the 700 men who went in, only 300 survived, many of whom were wounded.

The River Clyde followed closely behind the tows. To connect the collier to the shore, a steam hopper, the Argyll, was to beach ahead of it, providing a bridge. However, the Argyll ended up broadside to the beach, out of touch with the River Clyde. The captain of the River Clyde, Commander Edward Unwin, led men outside to manhandle three lighters (transport boats) into place and so a bridge was formed. Two companies of Munsters emerged from the sally ports and tried to reach the shore but were cut to pieces, suffering 70% casualties. Around 9am another company made an attempt which also failed.

Hunter-Weston remained oblivious to the developments at V Beach. At 8.30am he instructed the main force to begin landing at V Beach. At 9.30am he ordered the covering force at V to link up with W Beach. This prompted a third attempt to get ashore from the River Clyde by a company of Hampshires who were likewise killed. The leader of the main force, Brigadier General Napier made an attempt to lead his force ashore and was also killed. Finally, at 10.21am, General Hamilton, who had been watching the landing from the HMS Queen Elizabeth instructed Hunter-Weston to land the main force at W Beach. The 1,000 men remaining aboard the River Clyde waited until nightfall before making another attempt to land.

Six Victoria Crosses were awarded at V Beach, all to sailors or men from the RND who had attempted to maintain the bridge of lighters and recover the wounded. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Doughty-Wylie was awarded a posthumous VC for leading the attack to finally capture Sedd el Bahr on the morning 26 April during which William Cosgrove of the 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers also won a VC.

W Beach (Lancashire Landing)

W Beach, on the other side of Cape Helles from V Beach, is about long and varies between 15 and wide. While it lacked the strong defensive structures provided by the fort and castle at V Beach, it was mined, and had extensive barbed wire entanglements including one extending for the length of the shoreline and another entanglement just under the surface of the water offshore. Trenches in high ground overlooking the beach provided good defensive positions, and the only exit was via a gully that could be easily defended.

The beach was protected by a single company of Ottoman troops, from the 3rd Battalion of the 26th Regiment; around 240 men, defending against a force of around four times their number who were taking part in the initial landing. British accounts say there was at least one machine gun, Turkish accounts say there were none.

The 1st Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers were embarked in the cruiser HMS Euryalus and the battleship HMS Implacable which took up positions off the beach. The troops transferred to 32 cutters at around 4 am. Euryalus closed in on the beach at around 5 am whilst Implacable moved off to land troops and provide covering fire at X beach, and opened fire on the defences. The cutters were towed towards the shore in groups of four by steam pinnaces, and at around 6:15 pm when they were about from the shore the cutters were cast off to be rowed to the shore.

As at V Beach, the defenders held their fire until the boats were almost to the shore. When they opened fire they caused horrific casualties amongst the troops tightly packed into the boats. As the troops landed many lept into deep water and sank under the weight of their equipment; others got caught on the barbed wire.

However, unlike V Beach, the Lancashires were able to get ashore and, although suffering horrendous losses managed to break through the wire entanglements and reach the cliffs on either side of the beach where the companies were reformed before storming the defending trenches. The battalion suffered 533 casualties, over half its strength.

In his account, Corporal John Grimshaw reported that, "In boats we got within 200 or from the shore when the Turks opened a terrible fire. Sailors were shot dead at their oars. With rifles held over our heads we struggled through the barbed wire in the water to the beach and fought a way to the foot of the cliffs leaving the biggest part of our men dead and wounded."

Reinforcements started landing at 9:30 and by 10 am, the lines of trenches had been captured and the beach was secured. By 12:30 the troops had linked up with the 2 Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers who had landed at X beach to the left with the capture of the defensive position called Hill 114. However it was not until 4 pm that the more heavily defended position to the right, Hill 138, was captured following heavy naval bombardment and an assault by the Worcester Regiment.

With V Beach still closed, the main force began to come ashore at W. The British commander in chief of the expedition, General Sir Ian Hamilton later ordered that the beach be renamed Lancashire Landing. In his first despatch to the Secretary of State for War he wrote "So strong, in fact, were the defences of 'W' Beach that the Turks may well have considered them impregnable, and it is my firm conviction that no finer feat of arms has ever been achieved by the British Soldier - or any other soldier - than the storming of these beaches from open boats on the morning of 25 April.

W Beach became the main British base at Helles for the rest of the campaign, until the evacuation on 9 January 1916. The cliffs were terraced and bunkers dug into them and the beach area itself was converted into a small port with piers built out into the sea to receive lighters from ships anchored offshore to bring in supplies and reinforcements, and to evacuate wounded troops. Lancashire Landing Cemetery is located a few hundred metres away.

'Six VCs before Breakfast'

Six Victoria Crosses were eventually awarded to troops who took part in the landing on W Beach, three in August 1915 and three more two years later in 1917, an event hailed in the Allied press as the winning of "six VCs before Breakfast". The men awarded with the medal were:

The six men were originally nominated by Major Bishop, the battalion's commanding officer, after consulting 'the officers who happened to be with him at the time and who did not include either of the officers awarded the Cross', and the recommendation endorsed by Hunter-Weston and Hamilton but was not carried forward by the War Office. In August, three medals were awarded after a second recommendation by Hunter-Weston; under the original 1856 warrant establishing the award up to 4 VCs could be awarded as a result of balloting the units involved. Hunter-Weston stated that a vote had been held and Willis was selected by the officers, Richards by the NCOs and Keneally by the private soldiers. The awards of the medal were published in the London Gazette on 24 August 1915.

However, Brigadier Owen Wolley-Dod, who was a member of Hunter-Weston's general staff and a Lancashire Fusilier himself, and who had landed on the beach shortly after noon continued pressing for more awards to be made. He eventually succeeded in having the other three men awarded the medal. The awards were published in the London Gazette on 13 March 1917, with an identical citation to the original three men. By this time Bromley had died when his troopship had been sunk and Grimshaw had already been awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions during the landing. Stubbs had died in the assault on Hill 114 on the day of the landing. Grimshaw had his DCM cancelled and replaced with a Victora Cross.

S & X Beaches

S and X Beaches were small landings on the flanks of the main V and W Beaches respectively. S Beach lay inside the straits on Morto Bay and was two miles (3 km) from V Beach. X Beach was under the cliffs on the Aegean shore, around from W Beach. The troops landed at these beaches were the divisional reserve and therefore had no immediate objectives of their own, other than to secure their beachhead.

The S Beach landing was made by three companies of the 2nd Battalion, South Wales Borderers, under Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Cassel. The landing was complete by 7.30am. The opposition of 15 Turks were swiftly captured and casualties were light. The landing was supported by the battleship HMS Cornwallis. These companies remained, virtually untouched, for two days until the French took over the right flank at Helles.

At X Beach, two companies of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, were ashore by 6.30am without a casualty. The beach had been covered by 12 Turks who fled from the point-blank bombardment by the battleship HMS Implacable and the cruiser HMS Dublin. As the day progressed, a Turkish counter-attack almost drove the British back to the beach before it was checked. The 1st Battalion, The Border Regiment and 1st Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, landed at X Beach later in the day. Troops from X Beach joined with those from W Beach to capture Hill 114 later in the morning.

After the initial period of fighting, the three battalions at X Beach remained stationary, awaiting the advance of the main force off of V and W Beaches.

Y Beach

The proposal for a fifth landing was made by General Hamilton, and not Hunter-Weston. Y Beach was a considerable distance north along the Aegean coast, close to the village of Krithia and well to the rear of the defences at the Cape. The "beach" was narrow and dominated by cliffs, the only way off being up a steep gully. Consequently it was completely undefended. Had the landing at Y Beach been properly managed, the outcome of the Gallipoli campaign could have been significantly different. Instead, it became a fiasco.

Two thousand men were landed at Y Beach, starting at 5.45am. They consisted of the Plymouth Battalion, RND, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Godfrey Matthews, the 1st Battalion, King's Own Scottish Borderers under Lieutent Colonel Archibald Koe and a company from the 2nd Battalion, South Wales Borderers.

Matthews discovered the area devoid of Turkish defenders. He and his adjutant were able to walk within 500 metres of Krithia village, which was utterly deserted and there for the taking. The British would never get so close again. The orders for the landing were vague. Instructions had been given to capture a Turkish artillery piece but none was found in the area. There was a dispute between Matthews and Koe as to who was in command. The British did not begin to fortify their beachhead until 3pm and as a consequence, their trenches were incomplete when the Turks launched a counter-attack at dusk.

The fighting continued all night and by dawn, the British had suffered 697 casualties, including Colonel Koe. Desperate pleas for reinforcement were completely ignored by Hunter-Weston. When boats were sent in to take off the wounded, a panicked and unauthorised withdrawal began. The landing was finally abandoned at 11.30pm on April 26.

In the afternoon, a naval officer returned to Y Beach in search of wounded who had been left behind. He was able to wander around the battlefield for two hours without sighting the Turks, who had moved south to fight at the other beaches!

Aftermath

The British went into the Gallipoli campaign believing the Turk to be an indifferent fighter. The failed Turkish assault on the Suez Canal and a farcical raid near Alexandretta had reinforced this opinion. One day at Helles wiped out the misconception. Until the end of the war, the British believed they faced two Turkish divisions south of Achi Baba. Actually they had faced two battalions at the landing and only three more (the remainder from the 26th Regiment and one from the 25th) were sent to Helles during the first day. The rest of the 9th Division was tackling the Anzacs north of Gaba Tepe.

The Turks intended to hold a line south of Krithia. On April 27 the British made no move in the morning, waiting for the French to come ashore on the right. At 4pm, the Allies made a general advance up the peninsula for two miles (3 km). From this line they would, on the next day, attack Krithia and Achi Baba in what would become the First Battle of Krithia. The delay allowed the Turks to reinforce and prepare their defences on ground of their choosing.

The two battalions that had landed at V Beach — the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers and 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers — had been so badly mauled during the landing that they were combined to form a composite battalion, known as the "Dubsters". The battalions were reformed following the evacuation. The Munsters moved to the 48th Brigade of the 16th (Irish) Division in May 1916. They were joined in the 16th Division by the Dubliners in October 1917. Of the 1,100 Dubliners, only 11 would survive the entire Gallipoli campaign unscathed.

External links

  • Royal Engineers Museum Royal Engineers and the Gallipoli Expedition (1915-16)
  • X Lighters Details of the X Lighter landing craft used at Cape Helles, including the wreck of X127, the only surviving example.

References

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