Battle of Imbros (20 January 1918)

Turkish Ottoman Navy vs Royal Navy

The end of the Ottoman fleet

Before the Autro-Hungarian Navy was condemned to inaction a few monthes afterwards in june with the sinking of the Szent Istvan, the fate of the Turkish Ottoman fleet was decided in January 1918, not by the Russians, but by the British Navy. As a reminder, the old Ottoman Navy was unexpectedly reinforced in August 1914 by two fleeing state-of-the-art German warships: The Goeben, a Moltke-class battlecruiser (1912) and the Breslau, an equally modern light cruiser of the 1912 Magdeburg class. They were renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim and Midilli repectively and remained a constant threat for the Russian Navy in the black sea, as well. However, the Russian revolution changed the situation, and now the Ottoman Navy had free hands to intervene against allied assets in the eastern Mediterranean at any moment.

Yavuz in the Bosporus
Battleship Yavuz in the Bosporus. Colorized photo by hirootoko jr. By far the most serious asset of the Turkish Ottoman navy since 1914

Strategic situation in the Aegean

At that time, the Balkan war pitted the allied armies, included the Greeks, against a coalition of Bulgarians and German troops while the Turks Ottoman Army in Palestine was in disarray, with British troops advancing steadily. The British Navy stationed in the Aegean Islands covered shipping and reinforcements to the whole area, and provided naval support with the heavy guns of monitors and other ships, close to the coast. The German commander of the Ottoman Black Sea fleet, Rebeur Paschwitz, which had these two precious ships manned by compatriots at his disposal, was thinking to relieve the pressure by taking on the Royal Navy assets there, not able to counter the German ships.

The Ottoman naval raid would include an attack on the british ships anchored at Kusu Bay off the islands of Imbros. Paschwitz would then turn the squadron against shipping and the local British naval base. Another decisive factor was at that time, that the allied squadron guarding the Dardanelles was weakened by the absence of the pre-dreadnough battleship HMS Lord Nelson, leaving just the HMS Agamemnon and a few destroyer to cover the sector.

Mudros camp
Mudros Camp

Respective Forces

Outside the HMS Agamenon anchored off Mudros, which had only four 305 mm guns versus ten faster 280 mm for the Yavuz (and was much slower), the British squadron also comprised the monitors HMS Raglan and M28, and the Acheron-class destroyers HMS Tigress and HMS Lizard which could be dealt with by the Midilli, flanking the Yavuz in the operation. Perhaps the Raglan, an Abercrombie-class monitor, was more seriously taken by the German head of staff, bearing with two 14-inch guns. However its fire controls were optimized for coastal bombardment, and she was slow and not well protected.

Monitor HMS Raglan, Abercrombie class (top: in 1915, bottom, leaving Malta for Brindisi – Imperial War Museum coll.

Attack on Imbros

On 20 January 1918 en route to Imbros, Yavûz Sultân Selîm struck a mine, but the damage was light. It was decided both ship would resume their advance and complete their mission. When in sight, Yavûz shelled the British signal station at Kephalo Point to cut out transmissions and prevent reinforcements. Midilli sailed to the entrance of Kusu Bay. Both ships then joined to approach Kusu Bay at 5:30 am. They spotted the destroyer HMS Lizard first. The latter spotted them in turn and attempted to close for torpedo attacks but was prevented to do so because of a barrage of heavy fire. The Turkish battlecruiser then spotted two British monitors just arriving in the bay.

The ship then broke to engage them, leaving the British destroyer to Midilli. Soon Yavûz shelled both monitors while Midilli had now to face the destroyer HMS Tigress arrived as a renforcement to Lizard. Both destroyers attempted to shield the monitors by deploying a smoke screen just in front of the Turkish battlecruiser with no effect.

HMS Tigress
Destroyer HMS Tigress, similar to Lizard, Acheron class

Both monitors also tried to evade fire but in vain. Raglan was soon squared and badly hit, her foretop and range finder destroyed, officers killed. The monitor tried to return fire with but missed and eventually her main armament was knocked out of action by a well-placed shell in the casemate, setting the ammunition on fire (soon drawned by a safety valve). The monitor was hit several more times in her magazines and through the hull, causing the ship to sink. HMS M28 was hit in turn amidships, set ablaze and later sunk after a magazine explosion. It was 6:00 a.m. The battle had lasted for 30 minutes. Meanwhile both destroyers were fast enough to escape the Midilli. With their mission accomplished both ships headed south to raid the allied naval base at Mudros.

Raid attempt at Mudros

Just leaving Kusu Bay, the two ships crossed a minefield, with the two British destroyers on their heals while several British and Greek aircraft had taken off Mudros and tried to strafe the ships. One of the pilots was famous Greek ace Aristeidis Moraitinis, which downed several Turkish aircrafts this day, but the naval aviation had to deal with the rock-solid heavy anti-aircraft armament of the Midilli. The latter however struck a mine near her aft funnel, followed by Yavûz Sultân Selîm. trying to escape, Midilli struck four more mines and sank. The battleships moved to rescue her crew but struck another mine en route and was forced to withdraw to the Dardanelles, closely followed by the Lizard and Tigress at a safe distance.

Soon informed of the situation, the Turkish Ottoman admiralty dispatched four destroyers and a cruiser to repel the British destroyers, hitting the leading ship badly, and forcing thel to retreat. The destroyers then came back to the Dardanelles at Cape Helles only to be greeted by heavy Ottoman shore battery fire. Both ships decided to withdrew back to Imbros. But the battle was not over yet.

Coastal Monitor HMS M28
Coastal Monitor HMS M28

HMS Ark Royal deployed its aircraft in an attempt to destoy the Yavuz, still not in safety. A dozen British seaplanes scored two hits on the battlecruiser near the coast. But they were eventually repelled by a resolute attack from ten Ottoman seaplanes combined with heavy anti-aircraft fire. One Sopwith Baby was lost and another damaged. The four Ottoman destroyers also now provided an additionan escort. However the Yavuz at this point was badly damaged and she she ran aground on a sandbar off Nagara Point.

Six days would follow with more allied air attacks, registering six more hits. However these 65-pound (29 kg) bombs were just a pinprick for her heavily armored decks. A submarine was planned to depart to finish her off, but only the HMS E12 which could have been available on paper was stuck by mechanical problems.


On paper, the Turkish attack was an easy win. Only because on unregistered minefield the operation could have seen Imbros and Mudros eliminated with relative impunity. Success was paid by the loss of the most modern ottoman cruiser, Midilli, and the Yavuz was out of action until the end of the war. The ship was left stranded in the sandbar until 26 January when the battleship Turgut Reis towed her back into the Black Sea.

At last, HMS E14 entered the Dardanelles on 27 January, just missing the Ottoman battecruiser. The submersible had to retreat, and en route met but near-missed an Ottoman freighter on her way back with her first torpedo. Her second torpedo exploded prematurely, badly damaging the submarine. She tried to escape, only to met heavy fire from Ottoman shore batteries, and was beached and the whole crew captured. Captain White died in the action but was posthumously awarded the VC.

HMS E14 crew posing in 1915 – AWM

Ater the battle, on the strategic level, the threat posed by the Ottoman Navy no longer existed. Nevertheless in the press, the loss of the two monitors and absence of battleship nearby was wildly criticized by the commanders of the British Aegean Squadron. Two pre-dreanought battleships, not useful in the home fleet anyway, could have not only dissuaded the Turkish ships, but also sink them. No praise was given however to the team responsible for the minefield…

RNAS Sopwith Baby similar to those operated by HMS Ark Royal

Read More attack over the dardanelles and the role played by naval aviation the loss of the raglan, press release (pdf)
The Battle of Imbros
Conway’s all the world’s fighting ships 1906-1921

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