Share This Article

How a crafty German admiral led the Royal Navy on a wild chase across the Mediterranean and changed the balance of power in the First World War.

Almost a year into World War I, American diplomat Lewis Einstein met Wilhelm Souchon, a rear admiral in the German navy, at a social event in Constantinople. Einstein noted the encounter briefly in his diary, and was clearly unimpressed. The German, he said, was “a droop-jawed, determined little man in an ill-fitting frock coat, looking more like a parson than an admiral.”

 If Souchon didn’t look the part of a warrior, he had certainly proved himself a fierce and clever one. As commander of the German fleet in the Mediterranean, he had fired the first shots of the conflict at sea, then led a vastly superior British force on a merry chase, humiliating several proud officers of the Royal Navy. Barging through the Dardanelles on the battlecruiser Goeben and into the Ottoman royal court at Constantinople in August 1914, Souchon forced the hand of the on-the-fence Turks, who soon joined the war alongside Germany. Operating largely on his own, this “little man” changed the scope of the conflict, ensuring that Russia would be almost completely cut off from the other Allies. The Goeben, wrote Winston Churchill, then the civilian head of the Royal Navy, caused “more slaughter, more misery and ruin than has ever before been borne within the compass of a ship.”

Oddly, Souchon was in no position to influence events at the start of the war. The Goeben suffered chronic engine problems and was due to be replaced in the Mediterranean. But when the clouds of war gathered after the assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, Souchon put the Goeben in for repairs at the Austrian port of Pola, at the head of the Adriatic Sea. The ship was so run down that weeks later, upon Austria-Hungary’s July 28 declaration of war on Serbia, work on the boiler tubes was still not complete.

A modern battle cruiser, the Goeben stretched 612 feet and carried 1,100 men and ten 11-inch guns. At 23,000 tons, it was as heavy as a dreadnought and matched up well with the Allied vessels in the Mediterranean. With a top speed of 28 knots, it could outrun all of France’s major warships, and it was as fast and well armed as the three British battle cruisers stationed in the region. The other warship in Souchon’s fleet, the 4,500-ton light cruiser Breslau, mustered twelve 4.1- inch guns. It was the equal of any British light cruiser afloat.

Nonetheless, Souchon’s enemy enjoyed a supreme advantage in numbers. The French had 7 battleships, 6 armored cruisers, and 24 destroyers in the western Mediterranean. The Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet— with 3 battle cruisers, 4 armored cruisers, 4 light cruisers, and 16 destroyers—potentially posed an even bigger threat than the French. Together the two countries had more than 70 warships patrolling the waters.

Though Germany at the end of July was not yet at war with France or Britain, Souchon knew conflict was inevitable. To avoid being trapped in the Adriatic, he sailed from Pola on July 30, heading down to the southeastern coast of Italy, where he joined the Breslau. Ultimately, Souchon decided to strike the French on the coast of Algeria, where France’s 80,000-man colonial army was preparing to cross the Mediterranean and help defend the homeland. Algeria, the admiral hoped, would soon “echo to the thunder of German guns.”

On August 2, the two German ships reached the Strait of Messina—the narrow passage between the toe of Italy and Sicily—and entered the port of Messina. This was the Goeben’s third stop in Italy to replenish its coal stock, and again it was refused. The Italians, though allies of Germany and Austria-Hungary before the war, were jealously guarding their neutrality. (Later, of course, they would join the Allied powers.)

Not to be denied, Souchon rounded up German merchant ships at Messina and loaded their coal. After midnight, in the early hours of August 3, the Goeben stole away from Messina and pointed west, toward Algeria and the embarkation points for the French troop transports.

Perhaps no one on the Allied side worried more about the Goeben than Winston Churchill, then 39 years old and First Lord of the Admiralty. He believed the fast German ship could easily dodge its French counterparts and destroy the transports. On July 30,  he wired Admiral Archibald Milne, commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, who received the message at his Malta base in the central region of the Mediterranean. Churchill ordered him to provide protection for the French Algerian operation, keep an eye out for the Austrian fleet in the Adriatic, and engage the German ships, “particularly Goeben.” Later, he said: “Goeben is your objective.”

The 59-year-old admiral was not the ablest commander. Churchill had recommended Milne, a fixture in London society and a friend of the royal family, for the Mediterranean command in 1912, but critics denounced the selection, calling him incompetent and untrustworthy. “Winston has sacrificed the country to the court,” charged none other than Sir John “Jacky” Fisher, creator of the dreadnought and an immensely powerful figure in the Royal Navy since at least the turn of the century. The Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Robert K. Massie offered a moderating view in his book Castles of Steel: “Milne was neither wicked nor incompetent; he was ordinary.”

Handed multiple assignments by Churchill, this ordinary officer sent the Indomitable and the Indefatigable, two of his three battle cruisers, to the mouth of the Adriatic to watch for the Austrians. He also ordered the light cruiser Chatham to the Messina Strait to find the Goeben. But the British moved too slowly. The Chatham arrived at Messina on August 3 at 7 a.m., just six hours after the Goeben and the Breslau had weighed anchor.

Now hunted by the mighty Royal Navy, the Goeben and the Breslau steamed west toward Algeria. Around 2:30 a.m. on August 4, a day after leaving Messina, Souchon received a startling order from Berlin. Hours earlier, Germany had declared war on France. But the admiral was told to reverse course, turn east, and make for Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire.

Though still hobbled by the autocratic rule of a sultan, Turkey was no longer “the sick man of Europe,” as it was commonly called in the 19th century. The Young Turk nationalists who dominated Ottoman politics after 1908 were open to the West and innovation. Indeed, lacking modern warships, Turkey had two dreadnoughts on order from British shipyards. Though the powerful ships were scheduled for delivery in 1914, the British kept finding convenient delays as war loomed. Upon Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war, Churchill ordered the two ships commandeered for the British fleet.

That the two warships were deemed more important to the war effort than the friendship of the Ottoman Empire speaks volumes about British arrogance toward the Turks. Churchill, for one, dismissed the country as “scandalous, crumbling, decrepit, penniless.”

The Germans, however, eagerly courted the Turks. They invested in Ottoman railways and armed the Turkish army with Mauser rifles. At the outbreak of war, the two countries agreed to a secret defense alliance against Russia, but the Turks were slow to join the armed conflict. Berlin’s orders to Souchon: Sail to Constantinople and force the issue.

This assignment didn’t please Souchon, who wanted a taste of battle. “The idea of turning about,” he wrote, “so short a time before that moment so ardently desired by us all, before opening fire—my heart could not accept that.” Despite the orders, the Germans continued on to Algeria, where the Breslau was dispatched to the port of Bône and the Goeben to Philippeville— embarkation points for the French colonial troops.

Souchon approached the Algerian coast in the early morning light of August 4 and raised the Russian flag—a ruse to draw close without raising suspicion. (Though German rules of war permitted such deceit, it was prohibited by the Hague Convention, which Germany had signed.) As unsuspecting merchants came out in boats loaded with bananas and other goods, Souchon opened fire, raining shells down on Philippeville.

No transports were hit at Philippeville or Bône, but Souchon later bragged that his guns sowed “death and panic.” His appetite for war sated, the admiral decided to return to Messina and coal again before attending to his diplomatic duties in Constantinople.

Admiral Boué de Lapeyrère, commander of the French fleet in the Mediterranean, heard via radio of the German bombardment. He and his ships had left Toulon, in southern France, the day before to provide protection for the troop transports. Now, convinced that Souchon would continue west toward the Atlantic, and perhaps bombard Algiers on the way, he pressed forward. He hoped to catch the Germans but declined to send ships to scout for them. His primary task was to protect the transports. If Souchon did not attack those ships, then Lapeyrère would not pursue him.

The British, however, were soon in hot pursuit of the Germans. Around 10:30 a.m. on August 4, not long after the Algerian attack, British captain Francis Kennedy, commanding the Indomitable and the Indefatigable, spotted the Goeben and the Breslau between Sardinia and Algeria. Kennedy had initially been posted in the Adriatic to watch for the Austrians. But after the German attacks, Milne had ordered him to close the Strait of Gibraltar and prevent Souchon from breaking out of the Mediterranean to join German forces in the Atlantic. The two British ships were now steaming west. And to Kennedy’s surprise, the German ships were rushing east, away from the Atlantic and straight toward him.

A tense encounter followed. Germany and Britain were not yet at war—the formal declaration was still hours away—but the men on the Goeben and the Indomitable, Kennedy’s ship, scrambled to battle stations. The two vessels passed within 8,000 yards, both with guns trained on the other. “I don’t dare to open fire as I don’t know whether England is our enemy,” Souchon said.

After sliding past the Goeben, Kennedy discarded his orders, turned about, and began to shadow the two German ships. He wired Milne, who in turn told London. Churchill was excited. “Very good,” he wired. “Hold her. War is imminent.” If the two German ships attacked French transports, Churchill ordered, Kennedy was to engage.

“Winston with all his war paint on is longing for a sea fight to sink the Goeben,” wrote Herbert H. Asquith, the British prime minister. But Asquith’s cabinet was not yet ready to plunge into war. It had asked Berlin to guarantee the neutrality of Belgium and demanded an answer by midnight. Churchill was forced to retract his order.

Throughout the day of August 4, Kennedy’s two ships continued to trail the Germans. The Goeben’s engine problems slowed it to an average of 22 knots—well below top speed. Desperate to get away, Souchon pushed hard. Kennedy’s ships, under-crewed, began to lag.

In the afternoon, the speedier light cruiser Dublin joined the chase. After Kennedy’s battle cruisers finally gave up around 5 p.m., the Dublin continued the pursuit. But a few hours later, with the Mediterranean wrapped in fog, the ship lost sight of the Germans off the northern coast of Sicily. That very night, Britain officially declared war on Germany.

Now desperate for coal, Souchon called at Messina, where his men took on fuel from a German merchant ship in port—a process that took three times as long as normal coaling. That stop gave the British time to hatch a plan.

Thanks to the Dublin’s reports, the British correctly guessed that Souchon was at Messina. But Milne, under orders to respect Italy’s neutrality “rigidly,” could not enter the Strait of Messina. Instead, he set up a watch at both ends.

Milne was convinced the Germans would eventually head for the western Mediterranean and the relative safety of the Atlantic. Anticipating this move, he sent the Indomitable west to Bizerte, a Tunisian port, to coal. He stationed his two other battle cruisers—the Inflexible, his own ship, and the Indefatigable—at the Strait of Messina’s northern exit, which the Germans would take if headed west. Milne gave little, if any, thought to the idea that Souchon might head in the opposite direction. At the southern exit of the Strait of Messina, which would take the Germans east, Milne positioned only the light cruiser Gloucester.

With the British forces gathering outside Messina, Souchon’s situation inside grew dire. By noon of August 6, the coaling had exhausted his crew—“men lay collapsed on deck, shovels still gripped in their blistered hands,” wrote historian Massie—and Souchon was forced to call a halt. The Turks, he was told, would not yet welcome him. But knowing he could not survive long in the Allied-controlled western Mediterranean, and not wanting to be bottled up in the Adriatic, the admiral decided he would go to Constantinople and “force the Turks, even against their will, to spread the war to the Black Sea against their ancient enemy, Russia.”

As he readied to leave Messina, Souchon prepared his will. In the port, vendors hawked newspapers that previewed his dangerous attempt with posters headlined: INTO THE JAWS OF DEATH.

The German ships left Messina at the day’s end and steamed out the southern exit of the strait. But instead of heading toward the Aegean Sea and Constantinople, Souchon turned north. This was a feint. The German wanted to persuade the British that he was headed for the Adriatic and a friendly Austrian port.

The Gloucester, the lone British patrol at the southern exit, spotted the Germans and radioed Milne. The admiral ordered the Gloucester’s captain, Howard Kelly, to shadow the two ships and delay them until help could be summoned from four armored cruisers posted at the mouth of the Adriatic. Milne himself would wait just east of Sicily in case Souchon reversed and headed west for the Atlantic.

As he steamed north into the evening of August 6, Souchon tried in vain to shake the Gloucester. He hoped to end his feint and make an about-face away from the eyes of the enemy. But at 10 p.m., he gave up. With the Gloucester still in pursuit, he turned south and headed toward the Peloponnese and the Aegean Sea route to Constantinople.

Milne received word of Souchon’s change of course around midnight and began to steam to Malta to take on coal and then go out to cut him off. At the same time, the four armored cruisers in the Adriatic headed south with the same goal. Each weighed 14,000 tons and sported 9.2-inch guns. The flotilla’s commander, Rear Admiral Ernest Troubridge, was unsure of himself. He had been ordered by Milne not to attack a “superior force.” Milne had meant the Italian or Austrian navies, but Troubridge took the order literally. In his mind, the Goeben, which had a greater firing range than any of his ships, was a superior force. An observer with the Japanese during the 1904–1905 Russo-Japanese War, he had seen the devastation wrought by the big guns of the Japanese ships at the Battle of Tsushima. It was a lesson about range that he had not forgotten.

Troubridge eventually decided to try to engage the Germans before dawn on August 7. In daylight, his ships would be at the mercy of the Goeben’s long guns, he reasoned. Under the cloak of night, they might slip up close enough to sink it. But his fears did not ease, and a couple of hours before dawn, his courage cracked altogether. In tears he gave up pursuit of the Germans.

This left the Gloucester to trail the Germans with no help. Milne, worried that the Goeben would turn and fight the lone ship, ordered Kelly to break off the chase. But the captain defied the orders and kept on Souchon’s stern.

The chase continued across the Mediterranean, east toward Greece. To discourage his pursuers, the German admiral had the Breslau pretend to lay mines across the Gloucester’s course. Undaunted, Kelly pushed ahead and attacked the Breslau, hoping to draw the Goeben into a fight that would delay it. The two light cruisers exchanged fire before the Goeben turned and opened up on the Gloucester. No hits were scored and Souchon, without coal to spare, quickly broke off and continued east. The persistent Kelly picked up his pursuit again.

The brief battle was witnessed by passengers on a nearby Italian liner, including Alma Wertheim, daughter of Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador to Turkey. She described the scene:

We watched and saw another ship [the Gloucester] coming up behind them and going very fast. She came nearer and nearer and then we heard guns booming. Pillars of water sprang up in the air and there were many little puffs of white smoke. It took me some time to realize what it was all about, and then it burst upon me that we were actually witnessing an engagement. The ships continually shifted their position but went on and on….The two big ones [the Goeben and the Breslau] turned and rushed furiously for the little one, and then apparently they changed their minds and turned back. Then the little one turned around and calmly steamed in our direction.

At the end of that afternoon, August 7, Milne ordered Kelly not to pursue Souchon past Cape Matapan, the Greek peninsula at the entrance to the Aegean Sea. The Germans reached it before the end of the day and slipped into the Aegean as the helpless Gloucester watched.

Finally accepting that Souchon intended to operate in the eastern Mediterranean, Milne left Malta in the first minutes of August 8 with his three battle cruisers and the light cruiser Weymouth. He didn’t move with great haste, however; he was happy to keep the Germans penned in the Aegean, where Souchon could not move to attack the Suez Canal or run to the west. The Admiralty in London learned through diplomatic back channels that Souchon was ultimately headed for Constantinople. But Milne was inexplicably kept in the dark.

Meanwhile, Souchon continued into the Aegean, reaching the Greek island of Denusa early on August 9. Souchon still did not have permission to enter the Dardanelles, the strait that leads to Constantinople. He sent a message to Berlin proposing that, if necessary, he would blast his way through the series of Ottoman forts defending the strait: “Go to any lengths to arrange for me to pass through Straits at once with permission of Turkish Government if possible, without formal approval if necessary.” He waited with no answer for the rest of the day.

Finally, at 3 a.m. on August 10, Souchon got his reply from Berlin: “Enter. Demand surrender of forts. Capture pilot.” He did not know whether this meant to force the strait or put on a show of force to give the Turks cover for letting him through. Nevertheless, he left Denusa at dawn.

The Germans arrived at the entrance to the Dardanelles later that day, at 5 p.m. The forts on the coast trained guns on the two ships, and the men on the Goeben and the Breslau nervously manned battle stations. The Goeben signaled for a Turkish pilot to guide them through the mine-filled waters, but the request was met with silence as the Turks considered their answer. Allowing foreign warships passage during wartime was a breach of international law. And what of the British? Should they be fired upon if they tried to follow their prey into the Dardanelles?

A few hours later, a Turkish destroyer approached the German ships. Not sure of its intentions, Souchon’s men watched it closely. At last, it signaled for them to follow. At 9 p.m. on August 10, more than a week after leaving Austria, the Goeben and the Breslau entered the Dardanelles.

Shocked at the turn of events, the Allies demanded an explanation for this violation of international law. After some debate, the sultan’s court manufactured the fiction that the Germans were delivering two ships purchased to replace those the British had withheld. Turkish flags were raised on the Goeben and the Breslau, and the crew donned fezzes.

Livid, Churchill urged that the straits be stormed and the ships sunk. But others in Britain were eager to bury the incident and try to preserve Ottoman neutrality. Prime Minister Asquith arrogantly brushed aside any threat, insisting that Turkish sailors would man the ships. “The Turkish sailors,” he wrote, “cannot navigate her—except on to rocks or mines.”

The Goeben and the Breslau remained docked at Constantinople for more than two months, with the Turks deflecting efforts to push them into the war. Chomping at the bit to get into the action, Souchon sailed into the Black Sea with his two ships and a few Turkish vessels for what he said would be maneuvers. But on the morning of October 29, he bombarded several Russian ports, including Odessa and Sevastopol. “I have thrown the Turks into the powder keg,” the admiral wrote his wife.

Sure enough, the Russians declared war upon Turkey, followed closely by the British and the French. A new dimension to the Great War had opened. The coasts of the Aegean, the mountains of the Caucasus, and the deserts of the Middle East became battlefields. Souchon’s brazen move also transformed geopolitics. Closing off Russia’s only all-weather access to the rest of the world crippled her war effort and contributed to the fall of the tsars and the rise of the Bolsheviks. After its defeat in the war, Turkey had to forfeit Middle Eastern territory including modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel.

Souchon himself was not done. He spent the next few years harassing Russian shipping and ports in the Black Sea. In October 1916, he was awarded the Orden Pour le Mérite, also known as the Blue Max, Germany’s highest military order.

The British commanders, meanwhile, returned home to tough questions. Milne was recalled shortly after Souchon reached Constantinople, and he soon retired. Troubridge was court-martialed and, though acquitted, he never held command at sea again. As one top naval officer concluded, “The escape of the Goeben must forever remain a shameful episode in this war.”


Éric Grenier has a degree in history from Queen’s University and is a freelance writer in Ottawa, Ontario. Along with writing for historical publications, he is a frequent contributor to newspapers in Canada.

Originally published in the Spring 2012 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.