Excerpted from British Success in the Dardanelles: Submarines Score Victories in the Gallipoli Campaign, by Captain Richard F. Church, USN. Published in World War One Illustrated #2, Summer 2014. This issue is still available for purchase here. This issue also included an introductory game: Assassination in Sarajevo! that can play solitaire. Read more about the other issues of WWOI and our projects here. Help us to preserve the stories of this critical period of history. Here’s how.
The British submarines in the Gallipoli campaign consisted of three 1904-built B-class boats, They were gasoline powered, with very limited range of action. Despite these shortcomings and that the Strait’s defenses presented a formidable obstacle, B.11 was to penetrate the Strait on December, 13 1914. Lieutenant Norman Douglas Holbrook would be in command. Holbrook had to contend with uncharted shoals, strong currents, minefields, shore batteries and a massive anti-submarine net across the main shipping channel. They selected B.11 for the attempt for two reasons. Holbrook was the most experienced of the three British sub commanders, and B.11 had just completed a battery overhaul.
Underway at 0400 on the 13th, B.11 headed for an area about one mile south of Canakkale (also known as Chanak.) Turkish warships were known to anchor in a defensive posture to protect the Strait. B.11 submerged and tried to stay close to the western side of the channel but a southerly current and shoals hindered her progress. Holbrook’s voyage brought him under and through the minefield in about five hours. Coming to periscope depth he discovered he was in Sari Sighiar Bay opposite Canakkale. Amazingly, he was less than a mile from the anchored Turkish battleship, the Mesudiye.
Holbrook skillfully maneuvered B.11 into a firing position only 800 yards from the Mesudiye. Fighting the strong currents, he fired one torpedo and was rewarded by a loud thump. The periscope confirmed the hit. As the Turkish ship began settling by the stern, it fired its guns that could bear on the B.11’s periscope.
B.11’s Daring Escape
Holbrook turned B.11 south, heading down the Strait. The slowly sinking Mesudiye’s guns continued firing, and the Turkish shore batteries joined in. The loss of the ship’s compass and a badly fogged periscope impaired the B.11’s steering. Navigating by dead reckoning, Holbrook ran aground, exposing the ship’s conning tower to the Turkish fire.
Pushing the electric motors to full power, he was able to free B.11 from almost certain destruction. Despite splashes from near misses, Holbrook navigated the final distance to the open sea using the small portholes in the exposed conning tower. Holbrook’s exploit captured the imagination of the British Empire and he became the first submarine officer (and first British naval officer) in World War One to receive the Victoria Cross (VC), Great Britain’s highest military award.
In the frenzy of anti-German sentiment, the Australian town of Germantown was renamed Holbrook and a replica of Holbrook’s VC and a scale model of a B-class submarine are displayed in the city.