The amazing story of Lt Cdr Eric Naismilth, VC, KCB, KCMG of the Royal Navy and his exploits commanding HMS E-11.
From The Mad Monarchist (26 February 2014)
It may not come up much here, but yours truly has had a near lifelong fascination with submarines. I could bore anyone to tears on the subject. To be sure, the first time submarines really proved themselves to be a major, game-changing weapon was in the First World War. It was in that conflict that a submarine sank an enemy ship with a free-swimming torpedo for the first time and, although few are aware of it, the most successful submarine commander of all time took his toll in the First World War, sending nearly half a million tons of Allied shipping to the bottom. It was also the sinking of the RMS Lusitania by a submarine that is often credited with turning public opinion in America squarely against the Central Powers. All of these were u-boats (submarines) of the Imperial German Navy and undoubtedly, when it comes to submarine warfare, the Germans have every reason to be the most famous. However, they were certainly not the only ones to make deadly use of the submarine and, in fact, the Royal Navy of Great Britain actually had more submarines when the war began than Germany did. The British came up with a great many innovations in submarine and (of course) anti-submarine technology in that conflict. It was also in World War I that one of the best (certainly in my book) sub commanders of Great Britain made his name. That was Lieutenant Commander Martin Naismith of His Majesty’s submarine E-11. He, along with his first officer Lieutenant Guy D’Oyly-Hughes were tried veterans of the battle of Heligoland and cruises in the Baltic and North Seas when they gained their greatest fame in 1915 in the waters of the Ottoman Empire.
Winston Churchill had come up with the plan for an amphibious invasion of Turkey on the Gallipoli peninsula, a plan that turned into a bloody quagmire just as hellish as anything on the western front. While Allied troops were pinned down at Gallipoli, the Turks ferried over resources from Europe by way of the Sea of Marmara at the eastern end of the Dardanelles Straits. The Royal Navy determined that the only way to cut off this line of supply was with submarines. On May 19, 1915 Naismith steered the E-11 through a minefield into the Dardanelles. Spotting a battleship, the E-11 dove underneath another minefield but when coming back up to periscope depth found that the battleship had moved away and they were surrounded by destroyers. One of them spotted the periscope, opened fire and tried to ram the E-11 (a typical anti-submarine tactic of the time). They made their escape and within seven hours passed through the straits and into the Sea of Marmara. The E-11 was only the second British submarine to get so far into enemy waters and Turkish gunboats prowled the area intensely. Finally, Naismith spotted an old wooden dhow (a common sight) and had an idea. They surfaced right beside the vessel and the British sailors poured out and immediately jumped over and seized the boat, taking the Turkish crew prisoner and lashing the dhow to the submarine. With it drifting alongside them, with the E-11 awash, mostly concealed, it provided a perfect camouflage as they searched for valuable targets.
|Damaged periscope of the E-11|
At sundown Naismith had to cut the dhow loose and put the bewildered crew back on board. Two days of waiting followed and finally, on the 23rd, a large transport was sighted about eight miles off Constantinople. However, it was protected by a gunboat, the “Pelenk-i-Dria”. A torpedo from E-11 sent it to the bottom but in an astonishing piece of incredible bad luck, a piece of debris from the gunboat hit the periscope of the E-11, putting it out of action. The sub was blind and had no armament other than her torpedoes which could only now be fired on the surface and staying on the surface is suicidal for a submarine, particularly in waters so heavy with traffic. However, Commander Naismith was an officer a cut above the rest. He took his boat to the relative safety of a nearby island and set to work fixing the periscope himself. When he had taken command, he made it his business to learn absolutely everything about every last piece of equipment and machinery on his boat. His diligence now paid off as, almost miraculously (as it is an extremely delicate and complex device) Naismith was able to repair the periscope on his own.
By the next morning, the 24th, the E-11 was on the hunt again and soon spotted a large, civilian steamer. In accordance with the rules of the sea at that time, Naismith surfaced his boat and ordered the steamer to stop so that the crew could be offloaded before sinking the vessel. The ship did not stop though until the British sailors opened fire on it with their small arms. The crew were evacuated and Lt. D’Oyly-Hughes was sent onboard with a demolition charge that was later set off, sending the ship (which was found to be carrying a large amount of guns and ammunition) to the bottom. After spotting another target, E-11 submerged and stealthily followed it right into the harbor. The sub hit the bottom but Naismith kept pressing forward through the ever shallower water, determined to get his shot. As the water became more shallow the top masts of the sub were exposed and soon they were under Turkish small arms fire but Naismith kept his cool, lined up the shot and destroyed the transport with a single torpedo.
That, however, was only the beginning. On May 25, Naismith took the E-11 in an attack into the Bosphorus, the narrow channel connecting the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. It was a rather historic occasion as the famous “Golden Horn” had not been penetrated by an enemy in five hundred years. Upon entering the densely traveled area, their first problem was with a curious Turkish fisherman who kept trying to grab their periscope. Naismith finally allowed him to get a good hold and then quickly retracted the scope, nearly capsizing the little vessel and leaving the fisherman unharmed but quite bewildered. Their first target was a large ammunition ship but the torpedo went wild. Naismith fired again and that time the torpedo hit in a fantastic explosion which Naismith captured on camera in a shot taken through the periscope (the first time such a thing had ever been done). With that victory, the Turkish shore defenses leapt into action, vessels hurried to port and everyone was put on the alert. Right off the capital of the Ottoman Empire, naval traffic and operations had been brought to a halt by one very audacious British submarine.
The E-11 dove deep and headed back into the Sea of Marmara, having put a good scare into the enemy. Over the next two weeks Naismith and his crew sunk a transport and about a dozen dhows until they were down to only 2 torpedoes and, as the engineer discovered, they had a crack in one of their propeller shafts. It looked like it was time to head back to base in the Mediterranean. On June 6th the E-11 headed back, escaping unscathed though there was one very hair-raising incident as a naval mine was snagged on one of their diving planes. Naismith had to go deep, reverse engines and surface stern-first to get un-stuck from the deadly device. Once back to Malta the E-11 was fixed up and fitted with a 12-pounder deck gun. In the meantime, the E-11 having proven the viability of such an operation, the British had sent more subs into the Sea of Marmara and virtually cleared it of enemy shipping. However, the E-11 was not done yet. In August Naismith and his men returned just as the Allies were mounting another push on Gallipoli. Severing Turkish supply lines would be extremely beneficial.
Within days of arriving the E-11 sent another transport and a gunboat to the bottom. Then, on August 8, smoke was sighted and the E-11 submerged. Through the periscope, Naismith saw a destroyer escorting out the last Turkish battleship, the heavily-armed “Hairedin Barbarossa” (originally the Imperial German battleship ‘Prince Elector Friedrich Wilhelm’). It was being sent to support the Ottoman troops defending against a British attack on Suvla Bay. Naismith let the destroyer pass over and then rose to periscope depth and took out the Turkish battleship with a single torpedo. The destroyer continued on its way and Naismith took a parting shot at it but missed. Still, the last major Turkish warship had gone to the bottom thanks to Naismith and his men. But, they were not done yet. With sea traffic at a standstill, the Turks had to depend on the Berlin-Bagdad Railway for imported supplies and Naismith was determined to attack this last lifeline.
The E-11 surfaced and Naismith and his crew began shelling the bridge with their new deck gun. However, the Turks were well prepared and began returning fire with their shore batteries. Finally, Naismith had no choice but to order his men below and submerge to the safety of the depths. However, no one wanted to give up and Lt. D’Oyly-Hughes volunteered to go ashore, alone and blast the bridge with a demolition charge. Naismith gave the order and the intrepid British officer crept ashore, dodging Turkish troops and some noisy chickens in a nearby farm. However, the entire bridge was lit up like Broadway as teams worked to repair the damage the E-11 had inflicted the night before in their shelling. D’Oyly-Hughes was dismayed but still determined to strike a blow for King and country. He found another bridge, actually an enormous trestle over a dry-wash ravine that was even larger than the Izmit Bridge they had first targeted. D’Oyly-Hughes set his charge and then opened fire on a camp of Turkish soldiers with his pistol to distract them. He dashed back to the shore, dodging bullets along the way but his mission was a success. He made it back to the submarine and a huge section of the Berlin-Bagdad Railway went up in an enormous explosion. For his exploit on shore, Lt. D’Oyly-Hughes was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
In the two weeks that followed the Turks were forced to resort to transport by sea again, this time adopting the convoy system but the indomitable E-11 still took a heavy toll in spite of these measures, sinking 2 armed tugs and 2 sailing vessels in one convoy and 4 transports from another before leaving the Sea of Marmara on September 3. In two patrols, Commander Naismith and His Majesty’s submarine E-11 had sank 18 enemy ships, including the last Turkish battleship, destroyed a major section of the Berlin-Bagdad railway and almost totally choked off the line of supply to the Turkish forces on Gallipoli. Even more would be added to this total in a third cruise to the area and Commander Naismith was awarded the Victoria Cross, promoted to full Commander and later Captain and later Admiral, becoming Sir Martin Dunbar-Naismith. He retired in 1946 and died in 1965 but he became a living legend in the submarine community all over the world for his exploits and his name will never be forgotten by all those men who “sail” beneath the waves.