War history: Recognising the long, hard battle fought by troops during the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign
- Credit: Archant
But for the bravery and sacrifice of many men, the day may have ended in disaster...
Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, continues his look at the largest amphibious landing in history.
The name Gallipoli resonates through history. For many, it symbolises futile slaughter or failure on the grandest scale. The ill-fated Dardanelles campaign is often quoted as a shining example of the stupidity of First World War generals or, at best, in the case of Australia and New Zealand, the historic moment when their national identities were forged on landing beaches swept by Turkish machine gun fire.
I have to concede there are elements of truth in this, but there is much more to Gallipoli than these worn-out snap-shots that fail to do justice to the men involved and the long, hard campaign they fought. This week I am going to zoom in on the dramatic events at ‘V’ Beach.
‘V’ Beach is at the tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula, at Cape Helles. The landing operation here was intended to be the lynchpin of the British landings on the morning of April 25, 1915. Due to the importance of the task, General Sir Ian Hamilton had given his most experienced and best-trained troops the objective of securing the beach and surrounding area. The regulars of 29th Division formed the core of Hamilton’s Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF). As yet untried in action, they were keen to prove their mettle.
The division’s official history describes the area around Ertugrul Bay. “V-beach lies at the foot of a natural Amphitheatre which rises by gentle slopes to a height of a hundred feet. The actual beach is a sandy strip some 10 yards wide and 300 yards long, bordered in most places by a low bank about 5 feet high”. The British planners were not aware of the exact strength of the Turkish defences; on the day there were somewhere between 250-300 Turkish troops in positions overlooking ‘V’ Beach.
The landings were planned for 0630 hours, 29th Division landing at five beaches (from east to west round the coast S, V, W, X and Y).
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The British planners were very aware the beachheads were small and confined. Steps were taken to maximise the number of troops landing in the first minutes and hours of the landings; large numbers combined with naval gunfire would overwhelm Turkish opposition.
The ‘V’ Beach plan included an innovative centrepiece: the converted collier the SS River Clyde was to act as a floating 20th Century version of the wooden horse. The irony of this, given the close geographic proximity of the ruined city of Troy, was not lost on many involved in the plan.
The Clyde was the brainchild of Commander Edward Unwin; he wanted to run the ship aground and significantly reduce the danger to troops from Turkish fire. The ship had eight doors known as sally-ports cut in its sides to allow 2,000 assault troops to disembark via gangplanks directly onto the beach. The Clyde also carried ammunition, water and rations, and was to act as a platform for machine guns to support the landing. Once aground, the ship would act as a shelter for the wounded and, when troops began to move inland, it was to disembark motorcycles to carry ammunition.
On the morning of the landing, the River Clyde and a wave of troops in rowing boats and steam-powered pinnaces approached the beach. At first there was silence, suggesting that the naval bombardment had done its job. Then, suddenly, a ferocious storm of Turkish fire erupted from the beach and its surrounding high ground. Bullets lashed the water and thudded into the close-packed rows of soldiers seated in the boats.
The River Clyde sailed on and came to a halt on a sand spur.
Initial reports were disturbing. Of the 240 Dublin Fusiliers in the boats, no more than 40 had made it ashore without being wounded or killed. Many were killed in the water as they jumped out of the boats to wade ashore; the wounded drowned within sight of the beach, weighed down by their full kit.
Survivors who attempted to go back to assist their comrades were also killed. Witnesses recounted that eventually the water around the boats was red with blood.
Meanwhile, troops aboard the River Clyde anxiously waited below deck for the order to disembark; they could hear the bullets whipping off the ship’s hull. Cocooned in the bowels of the Clyde they were unaware there were serious problems establishing the landing jetty to the beach. It was only after a series of heroic acts by Commander Unwin and his crew that a makeshift pontoon bridge was eventually established.
Finally the sally-port doors were opened and the Royal Munster Fusiliers poured forth. Mayhem followed; the gangways quickly filled with dead and wounded. In spite of the carnage a second landing was attempted after the dead, dying and wounded were cleared from the gangways and jetty. The second wave suffered casualties but isolated groups managed to get across the beach to the low bank and establish a fragile foothold.
No further attempt was made to land troops until after dark. The remaining troops disembarked from the River Clyde and pushed inland. The battle-scarred ship remained where she was for the rest of what was to be a long, hard-fought campaign. Six Victoria Crosses were awarded for individual bravery on ‘V’ Beach.
If you would like to visit the battlefields and see where the last stages of the Second World War were fought, visit their website or a Galloway Travel Centre for information.