After having ruled the waves for a very long time, the Ottoman Navy had entered a period as of the 18th century. Naval conquests had come to an end and defeats on the sea against rival powers were increasing in frequency, with the Battle of Çeşme in 1770 being the most disastrous of them, resulting in the destruction of the entire fleet. During the 19th century, however, there have been attempts to revitalize the navy. Following the defeat at the Battle of Navarino in 1827, Sultan Mahmud II prioritized the development of a modern navy, and to that end the first steamships of the Ottoman Navy were acquired from Europe.
During the reign of Sultan Abdülaziz (1861-1876), naval reforms continued at an increasing pace. It was a period of revolutionary progress in ship-building around the world, and having encountered modern warships for the first time during the Crimean War, the Sublime Porte was aware of the fact that it should not stay behind in the naval race. Not only were ships contracted to British, French and Austrian shipyards, but there was also local assembly made at shipyards in Istanbul, Izmit, Gemlik, Mudanya, Çanakkale, Sinop, Crete, Basra and Russe. At the end of Abdülaziz’s reign, the navy had 21 warships and 173 other vessels, which made it the third largest navy in the world after the British and the French. However, this was achieved at the cost of imposing a significant burden on the already collapsing economy.
After Sultan Abdülaziz, the navy was let into oblivion. His successor, Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1909) was disinterested in the navy, one major reason for this being the fact that he was suspicious of the reformist admirals who had dethroned Abdülaziz. Furthermore, for him the money spent for the navy was a waste as he believed that the navy was of no use at all during the Turkish-Russian War of 1877-78. Eventually, Abdülhamid ordered all the ships to remain anchored at the Golden Horn. They were not allowed to run their engines, to leave their bases or to undertake shooting practices without a permission from the sultan. Since there were not enough resources available, adequate maintenance was also not possible and the fleet rapidly became obsolete.
Although Abdülhamid can be blamed for the long inactivity and the decay of the fleet, it was also during his time when the Ottoman Empire purchased two submarines for its navy. In 1885, Greece had bought the first Nordenfeldt class submarine produced by Bolinders in Stockholm. In order to gain a competitive edge over the Greek navy, Abdülhamid bought the second and third Nordenfeldt class submarines for 11,000 pounds sterling each, despite a report by the Ottoman military attaché in Berlin, Maj. Halil Bey, who argued that these submarines could not be used in strong-current waters if their speed and torpedo capacity were not increased. Eventually, the submarines were built in pieces in Britain and assembled at the Taşkızak Naval Shipyard in Istanbul. The first one, named Abdülhamid, was launched on September 6, 1886 and the second, named Abdülmecid, on August 4, 1887. Although they suffered from stability problems and were too easy to swamp on the surface, both submarines were successfully tested, and having shot a target at the Bosphorus during a trial, Abdülmecid became first submarine in naval history to fire a torpedo while submerged under water. Still, these two submarines could not escape the fate of the rest of the Ottoman fleet. After a brief period of testing around Istanbul and Izmit, they anchored at the Golden Horn and left to decay.
During the Turco-Greek War of 1897, the navy was finally decided to leave the Golden Horn and sail to Çanakkale, in order to protect the straits. However, the attempt turned out to be a scandalous one, since after years of inactivity, the fleet was not in the shape even to move an inch, let alone to engage in battle. Of the six vessels that tried to sail out of the Golden Horn, one had its boilers exploded, another began to make water and the remaining ones lost their directions under the rain. Having no experience whatsoever, the sailors did not know what to do, as the admirals could not decide what action to take.
Two weeks after the Turkish-Greek War ended, on June 21, 1897, the Commander of the Navy, Hasan Rami Pasha, submitted a report to the Sublime Porte, pointing to the urgent need to revive the navy by purchasing new vessels from European shipyards. Abdülhamid did not object, since he agreed that there should be at least enough naval capacity to protect the Dardanelles. New ships were bought and existing ones were repaired. Among the new purchases, there were also two warships, Hamidiye and Mecidiye, bought in 1903 from Britain and the United States respectively.
Despite these attempts in the later years of Abdülhamid’s reign, the fleet was still in bad shape as the constitution was proclaimed in 1908. Most of the vessels were between 20 and 40 years old and the navy was incapable of defending even the Turkish homeland, let alone the overseas territories. Officers were trained on anchored ships; no maneuvers, no drills. Most sailors had never seen their ships, although they were receiving their salaries.
In 1909, the tide began to change, when Sultan Mehmet Reşad ascended to the Ottoman throne. He was aware of the urgent need for the strengthening and reactivation of the navy; however the problem was that the Empire did not have any naval experts.
British Naval Mission
For the modernization of his navy, Sultan Mehmet Reşad appealed to Britain, which in turn sent a naval mission to Turkey. Admiral Douglas Gamble, head of the first British naval mission, started from scratch and tried to reform and to reinforce the navy, during his tenure between January 1909 and February 1910. He organized the fleet, reduced the number of officers and sent some young naval officers to Britain for training. As a part of his reform program, the first maneuver of the active fleet took place in the Sea of Marmara on May 27, 1909 followed by a major maneuver held in the Mediterranean Sea in September the same year.
Gamble had a series of clashes with various Ottoman ministers regarding the organization of the fleet and finances. He was insisting that all decision in these matters should be left to himself. Following serious disagreements he resigned on January 26, 1910.
Gamble was followed by Admiral Hugh Pigot Williams (May 1910-February 1911), who went ahead with maneuvers in the Sea of Marmara. It was during his tenure that the two warships ordered from Germany joined the fleet. However the Sublime Porte was increasingly growing uneasy about the fact that the work of modernizing and enlarging the fleet was laying in the hands of foreigners. Consequently, the Ministry of Navy decided to “appoint an independent and fully authorized Turkish officer who will take over the command of the fleet in case of war” and on January 2, 1911, Col. Tahir Bey was appointed the Vice Commander of the Navy. Admiral Williams, who was in London at the time, resigned in protest. The next time he came to Turkey was to be on board the Irresistible that forced the Dardanelles on March 18, 1915.
After Williams, the Ministry of Navy did not employ British officers. At one point, Admiral Gamble was approached again, but he rejected the offer. Upon the recommendation of the British Admiralty, Admiral Arthur Limpus came to Istanbul on June 6, 1912. Limpus took the fleet all the way to Beirut on a maneuver, which was a great success at that time. His program was interrupted by the Turkish-Italian and Balkan Wars. In 1914, when Turkey allied with Germany and the command of the Turkish Navy was given to a German Admiral, Limpus left Turkey.
It was the end of a century long British influence on Turkish navy. The British naval mission has an important share in reviving the fleet and naval organization. The Minister of Navy, Cemal Pasha, wrote in his memoirs: “It is a moral obligation for me to stress once again that Admiral Limpus, his officers and all of the British engineers and officers, who worked to rehabilitate the shipyards of the Golden Horn, have decently fulfilled their duties."
The Navy Association
Since the Navy needed new warships, the government had prepared a ten-year program for purchasing new vessels and allocated a budget of five million liras. However it became soon obvious, that this money was not enough. In the meantime, Greece was rapidly strengthening its navy and it had recently purchased a new 10,000-ton heavy cruiser from Italy that was christened Averoff.
On July 14, 1909, a group of influential merchants led by Yağcızade Şefik Bey founded the “Navy Association” (Donanma Cemiyeti) that aimed to raise funds among the citizens and support the government’s efforts to purchase new battleships. In taverns, cafes, schools, markets everybody donated some amount of money for the Turkish Navy. To encourage this campaign, plentiful donations were awarded with a medal called "Navy Donation Medal".
Nejat Gülen quotes two contemporaries, who wrote in their memories how the Navy Association was raising funds. Muammer Tuksavul, who was 10 years old then, was reading a patriotic poem first, and “…when the poem was finished, I went down from the stage and together with a friend of mine we took the donations box of the Navy Association, which was decorated with ribbons, to the guests. Ladies were seated on the right and gentlemen on the left. In 5-10 minutes to box was so heavy that I could hardly carry it. Mecidiye coins and gold were flowing in it. Especially the ladies were generous. They were saying ‘good on you, boy’ and putting their gold coins, jewels, necklaces in the box.” Admiral Akif Büyüktuğrul wrote: “I was a child then. At the theatres in Şehzadebaşı, when it was the interlude, they were taking a table to the stage and placing a large bowl on it. Some people like the late poet Hamdullah Suphi were saying things like ‘Greeks have bought the Averoff! We are losing the homeland!’ and all the people were then putting whatever they have in that bowl. Soon the bowl was filled with gold and silver.”
In addition to the donations collected, the government also allocated new sources to the association. Taxes on matches and cigarette papers were directly channeled to the Navy Association, which was also allowed to organize lotteries and collect special donations during religious holidays.
The money was there and the government wanted to buy a dreadnought that would match the Greek Averoff. When this attempt failed, the Ministry of Navy bought two old warships from Germany for 1 million 70 thousand liras each. A German admiral took the ships to the Dardanelles, where they were taken over by their Turkish crew. These two warships, which were christened Barbaros and Turgut Reis, anchored in front of the Dolmabahçe Palace on August 21, 1910. Additionally, orders for four new destroyers were placed to German shipyards and the ships, that cost 480 thousand liras, joined the Turkish fleet in 1912. Their names were Yadigar-ı Millet, Muavenet-i Milliye, Numune-i Hamiyet and Gayret-i Vataniye.
Although there were new vessels and the British naval mission was working to restructure the Turkish Navy, in 1911 it was still inferior to the Greek Navy, which dominated the Aegean Sea. If the Empire had a strong navy at that time, Italians could be stopped on their way to Tripolitania, invasion of Aegean islands could be prevented, and the forces in West Thrace could be supported with naval artillery fire.
In December 1912 and January 1913, the Turkish Navy dared to leave the Dardanelles and came face to face with the Greek Navy, first off the Island of Imbros and then around the island of Mudros. In both cases, the Turkish fleet had to withdraw back to the straits. The only remarkable achievement of the Turkish Navy in the Balkan Wars was the heroic journey of the cruiser Hamidiye, which sailed around the Eastern Mediterranean for seven and a half months disturbing the operations of the Greek Navy. Although it could not change the course of the war, the world followed the cruise of Hamidiye and its captain Rauf Bey with great admiration.
Dreadnoughts Seized by Britain
There was still no vessel in the Turkish Navy that could match the Averoff, and therefore Turkey was determined to buy dreadnoughts. The Ministry of Navy placed an order with the British shipyard Vickers Ltd. The 27,500-ton ship was to be named Reşadiye and its price-tag was 2.3 million liras, to be paid in installments. A commission was appointed to monitor the construction of the dreadnought and this commission led by Maj. Vasıf Ahmet Bey went to Britain in 1912.
Meanwhile, a naval rivalry between Argentina and Brazil led the latter to order a dreadnought from the British shipyard Armstrong Whitworth in the spring of 1911, to be named Rio de Janeiro. However, by 1913 the two nations had solved their conflicts and Brazil ceased her payments. Turkey took over the contract for Rio de Janeiro, renaming her Sultan Osman. Both dreadnoughts were supposed to be delivered by mid-1914. A third warship, to be named Fatih, was ordered from Vickers Ltd. in 1914.
Construction was going slower than what the Turks had hoped for. Sultan Osman was actually completed, but its weapon systems had to be installed. Reşadiye was brought to the sea with a ceremony on September 3, 1913, with Naile Hanım, daughter of the Turkish ambassador to London, Tevfik Pasha, breaking a bottle of rose water on the dreadnought. Meanwhile, Sultan Osman was fully paid for, and only the last few installments were remaining for Reşadiye.
On January 8, 1914, Captain Rauf Bey together with his staff went to Newcastle to supervise the final phases of the work on Sultan Osman and take the ship to Turkey. New weapon systems had to be installed, some facilities in the ship had to be converted to Turkish standards, engines and weapons had to be tested. Rauf Bey was unhappy. The work was going too slow and the Greeks were about to receive new battleships from the United States. The weapons were also unsatisfactory for him. In a letter dated February 4, 1914, he wrote to Istanbul: “The contract for Sultan Osman does not include any clauses requiring the ship to be equipped with anti-zeppelin guns. It would be appropriate for Sultan Osman to be equipped with four pieces of 76 mm guns, which have been tested on Reşadiye at Vickers shipyard. If the Ministry of Navy does not have an objection, it would be advisable to contact the Armstrong shipyard and place an order accordingly with our needs.”
It was July 1914, and the dreadnoughts were still being tested on British waters and the Turks were losing their patience. Rauf Bey asked to run the Turkish flag on Sultan Osman with a ceremony on August 2, 1914 at 8 o’clock in the morning. Meanwhile the Turkish crew had arrived in Newcastle.
There was a reason why the British shipyards were so slow. As war approached, the British government could not risk such powerful vessels leaving British waters while Turkey was flirting with Germany. The First Lord of Admiralty Winston Churchill was aware that an embargo would mean a diplomatic crisis but he could not take the risk that these warships would be engaged against the Royal Navy.
In the morning of August 1, 1914, officials of Armstrong shipyard had a meeting with the local military officers and in the afternoon same day, the docks were filled with British troops. Only twenty hours before the Turkish flag was to be hoisted on Sultan Osman, the ship was confiscated and the Turkish crew was forced to evacuate the ship. On August 3, 1914, Churchill declared that the British government had embargoed the two warships. When Britain declared war the next day, the two ships were taken over by Britain without compensation because the Ottoman Empire was allied with Germany. Rauf Bey, Vasıf Ahmet Bey and the Turkish crew left Britain empty-handed and arrived in Istanbul on August 22, 1914.
On August 5, 1914, the Ottoman Ambassador to London, Tevfik Pasha, sent a telegram to Istanbul:
When I was informed that the British government has seized two warships of ours and asked our officers to leave, I went to see the under-secretary of the Foreign Office. He said that these measures have been deemed necessary by the Admiralty. When I asked if it is a definitive seizure, he said that it was not an act that obliges the British government to buy the ships, and the government is free to buy them or to return them to us in the future. I tried to question the legitimacy of this arbitrary action, but he didn’t want to discuss and simply repeated what he said before.
The seizure of two dreadnoughts by Britain caused a shock in Istanbul. The Minister of Navy, Cemal Pasha, protested to Admiral Limpus, whereas Enver Pasha termed this act as a clear evidence of “British treachery.” Meanwhile, Reşadiye was commissioned in the Royal Navy as Erin, and Sultan Osman became Agincourt.
Goeben and Breslau
As Captain Rauf Bey and his men were on their way from Britain to Turkey on board Reşit Pasha, two German battle cruisers, Goeben and Breslau entered the Dardanelles. They were the German Navy's Mittelmeerdivision (Mediterranean Division) under the command of Admiral Wilhelm Souchon. These two warships were being pursued by the British fleet and had asked for permission to enter the Turkish straits.
Following brief consultations between Enver Pasha and the German Military Mission in Istanbul, the former gave permission for the German battle cruisers to enter the Dardanelles. Goeben and Breslau passed through the mine barriers guarding the straits and were conducted to Istanbul, where on August 16, 1914 they became ships of the Turkish Navy in a diplomatic maneuver. The Sublime Porte announced that the two ships were “bought” from Germany. The Ottoman flag was hoisted on both ships and local hats (fez) were distributed to German sailors. Goeben was renamed Yavuz and Breslau became Midilli. During the entire war, these ships were to be operated by German officers and sailors wearing Turkish uniforms.
The transfer of two German ships to the Turkish Navy was protested by the Allied powers and especially by Britain, whereas it was not only Enver Pasha, but also the whole Istanbul that was celebrating the arrival of Yavuz and Midilli. On September 9, 1914, Admiral Souchon was appointed as the commander of the Turkish fleet, marking the beginning of German influence on the Turkish Navy that would last on until the end of the war. The second fleet commander was Col. Arif Bey.
The first thing Admiral Souchon has done was to intensify the training program of the navy, optimize the number of personnel and appoint a German officer to each warship. These German officers were to supervise the training and substitute the Turkish commander when necessary.
Admiral Souchon also restructured the organization of the Turkish fleet. At the outset of the war, the organization of the fleet was as follows:
Rauf Bey’s memoirs reveal the fact that there has been a serious tension between Admiral Souchon and the Turkish officers. The Minister of Navy, Cemal Pasha, was in Palestine with the Fourth Army, and as Rauf Bey claims, Souchon took advantage of this absence and took the Ministry under his control in way that it would serve the German benefits. Rauf Bey, who was the new Chief of the Staff of the Navy, writes: “This admiral recognized none of us. He didn’t even report to Enver Pasha, insisting that he is only responsible to the German headquarters.”
The Ottoman Empire officially entered the First World War, when Admiral Souchon took Yavuz and Midilli to the Black Sea and bombarded the Russian ports of Odessa and Sevastopol.
None of us did know about this. I thought that Enver Pasha must have been informed about what happened. However he swore to God that he did not have any information whatsoever about the incident. So, we entered the war as the result of a fait accompli. (Talat Pasha in his memoirs)
Although the Turkish Navy was considerably weaker than those of the Allied nations, its performance during the world war has been much better than what it had accomplished in the Balkan War and it contributed remarkably to the Turkish war efforts. First of all, in the Russian-dominated Black Sea, the Turkish fleet protected the transportation lines, especially the supply routes to the Caucasus front and the coal transportation route between Zonguldak and Istanbul. It also defended the Bosphorus preventing possible intrusions by the Russian Black Sea Fleet, raided Russian coasts and supply lines. There have been several instances when Turkish warships clashed with the Russian fleet in Black Sea. They managed to sink three Russian battleships with a total tonnage of 7,900 tons.
In the Sea of Marmara, the Turkish fleet guarded the supply lines between Istanbul and Çanakkale and fought the enemy submarines that attempted to break these lines. In the Gallipoli campaign, it played a significant role by laying mines and supporting the Turkish land units. Out of 16 British and French vessels (92,273 tons) sunk at the Dardanelles, 27,875 tons were sunk by German submarines in Turkish waters, 41,155 tons were sunk by mines, 13,150 tons were sunk by the destroyer Muavenet-i Milliye, 800 tons were sunk by the torpedo boat Sultanhisar and a further 1,115 tons were sunk by patrol boats.
At the Sinai front, during the assault on the Suez Canal, Turkish ships fought against British naval units with mines. In Mesopotamia, in addition to mine laying operations, a river flotilla was active. In all these operations, Turkish sailors cooperated with German experts who contributed substantially to Turkish naval capabilities.
The Turkish fleet suffered great losses during the war. In addition to the two dreadnoughts seized by the British government before the war, the Turkish Navy lost battleships with a total tonnage of 32,218 tons. These losses include Mecidiye, Yarhisar, Mesudiye, Barbaros, Gayret-i Vataniye, Yadigar-ı Millet and Midilli. Furthermore, 7,124 tons of support vessels were lost and seven warships of a a total tonnage of 26,309 tons were damaged.
In September 1917, Admiral Souchon returned to Germany and was replaced by Admiral Hubert von Rebeur-Paschwitz. The latter planned a raid to the islands of Imbros and Lemnos. This raid was a failure with Midilli sinking after hitting a mine and Yavuz hardly surviving serious damages and returning to the Dardanelles. This was one of the last operations of the Turkish fleet.
Turkey’s war was over with the armistice signed at the port of Mudros on Lemnos on October 30, 1918. On November 3, 1918, the Navy Commander Arif Pasha ordered all flags to be struck on all the battleships lying at the Golden Horn in Istanbul. When the ensign was lowered, the Imperial Ottoman Navy ceased to exist. During the last weeks of 1918, the battleships were disarmed in accordance with the terms of the armistice, as the Allied fleet was anchoring at the Bosphorus.