HM Submarine B11 in the Dardanelles


Submarine attacks at the Dardanelles began well before the land campaign at Gallipoli. The Allies had hoped to use submarines to disrupt the Ottoman Empire's sea communication routes and weaken Turkish forces. HM Submarine B11 was a British vessel commanded by Lieutenant Norman Holbrook of the Royal Navy, with a crew of 35 submariners. B11 was the first to prove that a submarine could go up the Dardanelles and threaten enemy shipping. B11 torpedoed and sank the Ottoman battleship, Mesudiye.

Sinking of the Ottoman battleship Mesudiye

On the morning of 13 December 1914, Cornelius Engert, the American Vice-Consul at Çannakale and an expert oarsman, was out on the water. He rowed himself to a spot just up from the great fortress of Kilitbahir, whose guns guarded the Narrows on the Gallipoli side of the straits. He was enjoying the winter sunshine when a huge explosion occurred.

Looking down the straits, Engert watched the last moments of the old Ottoman battleship Mesudiye. The ship was anchored off a minefield, part of Turkish defences against warships in the Dardanelles.

Engert saw the Mesudiye enveloped in a great cloud of smoke and shells from its guns landing in the calm water between it and Kepez Point. Then the battleship fell over to port and capsized. Black shapes, members of the crew, were swarming all over the hull and Engert rowed rapidly towards the wreck to help.

In a report to his government, Engert quoted the German Vice-Admiral Merten, in charge of the Dardanelles defences, that sinking the Mesudiye had been 'brilliant', 'daring' and a 'mighty clever piece of work'.

The battleship had been attacked and sunk by a torpedo from HMS B11.

'B' Class submarines in the Dardanelles

As the Ottoman Empire drifted into war with the Allies in late October 1914, British and French warships gathered off the Dardanelles. On 3 November 1914, British ships bombarded the fort at Seddülbahir (now Sed el Bahr) - the first shots fired in what became the campaign to force a passage through the Dardanelles. The bombardment caused the magazine at the fort to explode, leaving a dense cloud of smoke in the autumn air. Attached to the fleet, now effectively blockading the straits, was a force of British and French submarines, among which were HM Submarines B9, B10 and B11.

The 'B' class vessels had a fairly simple design. The submarine could do 12 knots (22km/hour) on the surface, and underwater its storage batteries produced 6.5 knots (12km/hour). On the surface, the petrol engine produced fumes in the cramped interior where 11 crew lived and worked among a mass of pipes, valves, pumps and motors. The fumes produced a form of drunkenness, followed by a bad 'hangover'.

As the submariners patrolled the mouth of the straits, they could see the masts of Ottoman ships and warships beyond Kepez Point. However, attacking up the Dardanelles in these early submarines was not easy. With a strong current against them, they could not get far before needing to come up to the surface to recharge their batteries. This made them vulnerable to mobile gun batteries on the Turkish shore, destroyers and gunboats.

The straits from just below Kepez Point to above Çannakale had been carefully mined. Submarines could proceed under the minefields if they were fitted with gear for pushing aside the mooring ropes that anchored the mines to the sea bed. The 'B' class vessels did not possess this gear, but B11 had been hastily fitted with guards and wires to deal with the mooring ropes.

At 3:30am on 13 December, Lieutenant Norman Holbrook took B11 up the Dardanelles with the intention of sinking whatever he could near Çannakale.

'Crawling' under the mines

Holbrook kept B11 submerged, running along the western side of the straits. He knew there were cliffs and that the current flowed with less turbulence. The captain needed to conserve the power of the batteries for the lengthy trip. It was 11km to the start of the Kepez minefields.

Another problem B11 encountered in the Dardanelles was the mixture of saltwater and freshwater at different depths. This upset the submarine's 'trim' - a balance between water and air in ballast tanks that kept the vessel submerged.

Every 2 hours, Holbrook brought B11 to periscope depth to fix his position. (In 1914, submarines were not fitted with the array of sophisticated navigational devices they possess now.)

As they made their way in an atmosphere of fumes, oil and petrol, the crew ate breakfast. The men had tea, ham, bread, butter and jam. Their captain had half a lobster given to him by a French submarine officer.

After 5 hours submerged, B11 approached the Kepez minefield. Holbrook took the submarine deeper to avoid the mines. But this meant that B11 was now travelling blind for at least 1 hour, hopefully heading in the right direction.

The hands of the clock crawled round as B11 continued on her course. The inside of a dived submarine is very quiet. The hull acts as a sounding board and noises outside are easily heard. Ears were stretched for the sound of a wire scraping on the hull, but the next hour was uneventful, though a very long one.

[from William Jameson, Submariners VC, London, 1962, p.22]

End of the Mesudiye

When Holbrook finally thought B11 was through the minefield, he brought the submarine up to periscope depth. Looking around, he realised they were quite far up the straits. Çannakale was visible less than 1km away. Swinging the periscope around across the broad sweep of Sari Siglar Bay, Holbrook saw what he was hoping for — an Ottoman battleship, the Mesudiye.

Nobody had yet spotted their arrival in the area. B11 possessed one of the elements vital for the success of any attack — surprise.

Holbrook manoeuvred B11 out into the channel, watching the current until he was within 1km from Mesudiye. Then he fired a torpedo. Half a minute later, still submerged, the crew heard the explosion as the torpedo hit home. The Mesudiye began to sink.

As Holbrook came back to periscope depth to see what had happened, he found the Turkish sailors, although caught unawares, were still prepared to fight.

Shells from the stricken ship fell around B11's periscope. The spray as they hit the water hid the battleship from Holbrook's sight. Soon, however, the warship turned over and sank.

Now Holbrook had the problem of getting out of the area safely. Turkish defences were on full alert.

The B11's compass had been damaged. Holbrook steered the submarine out of Sari Siglar Bay into the main channel on his own reckoning. As it dived deeper, B11 struck the bottom. The coastline here was shallow and full of hidden reefs.

Holbrook knew that if the submarine broke surface, it was finished. Ottoman patrol boats were already looking for them.

For 10 minutes, at full speed, B11 bumped and shuddered its way along the bottom of the bay, hitting bottom here and there and then breaking free. At 10:20am, Holbrook brought B11 back to periscope depth to guide it out into the main channel. Running submerged, and with the battery low, they now faced the long haul back down the Dardanelles. This time, through the minefield at low depth.

Without a compass, it was essential to surface regularly to get a fix on their position. B11 was only 44m long, and not nearly as wide as a standard warship, so with luck they would not hit a mine.

The crew had now been in this cramped space under water for over 8 hours - and the air was foul.

Eventually, Holbrook decided it was safe for the crew to take dinner in shifts. He finished off the other half of the lobster he had eaten for breakfast and then issued the crew a tot of rum to ease the tension.

After another 2 hours, B11 safely broke surface 3km west of Cape Helles.

They had proved that a submarine could successfully go up the Dardanelles and threaten enemy shipping.

Decorated commander and crew

Group portrait of sailors sitting and standing on the side of a ship
Lieutenant Holbrook and his crew on board the HMS B11. Image: We Dive at Dawn, 1939

Holbrook's crew were decorated for their courageous efforts. Holbrook received the first Victoria Cross (VC) of the war to a submariner - the first VC ever awarded for a naval action.

Holbrook's First Lieutenant, Sydney Winn, gained the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and the remainder of the crew were decorated with either the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) or the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM). Holbrook's VC citation read:

For most conspicuous bravery on the 13th December [1914], when in command of the Submarine B11, he entered the Dardanelles, and, notwithstanding the very difficult current, dived his vessel under five rows of mines, and torpedoed the Turkish battleship Messudiye, which was guarding the minefield. Lieutenant Holbrook succeeded in bringing the B11 safely back, although assailed by gun-fire and torpedo boats, having been submerged on one occasion for nine hours.

[The London Gazette, 22 December 1915, p.10920]

Germanton renamed 'Holbrook'

The story of the B11 would have been incidental to the Australian experience of Gallipoli were it not for the patriotic fervour that gripped Australia in 1914 and 1915. It was a particularly difficult time for German-born residents, many of whom were interned in special camps.

Some small towns around Australia changed their names in line with the anti-German feeling. This is why Germanton, on the Hume Highway north of Albury, New South Wales, became Holbrook.

Everyone in the British Empire and its dominions had heard of Lieutenant Holbrook VC and his daring feat in the Dardanelles. The first meeting of the new Holbrook Town Council was held on 24 August 1915. Holbrook visited the town a few times during his life.

A few years after his death in 1976, his wife donated his medals to the town. Not far away from where a replica of Holbrook's VC is on display in Holbrook, there is a scale model of a British 'B' Class submarine that was unveiled in 1972.

Close by is a Mark VIII torpedo, the sort of torpedo used in British 'E' class submarines that began operations in the Dardanelles in early 1915. The torpedo at Holbrook commemorates another submarine - HMA Submarine AE2.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), HM Submarine B11 in the Dardanelles, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 17 July 2024,
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