3.2 The Second Naval Attack, 18th March

 

For the decisive attack on the Dardanelles defences, De Robeck split up his fleet in three parts :

1. The four most powerful English battleships Queen Elisabeth, Agamemnon, Lord Nelson and Inflexible, with Prince George and Triumph on their flanks.

2. The four French battleships Gaulois, Charlemagne, Bouvet and Suffren with the English ships Majestic and Swiftsure as escorts

3. The remaining six battleships, the destroyers and the minesweepers which had to wait outside the Dardanelles.

The idea was that during the day the two first lines of ships would cause so much damage to the Turkish forts, that in the evening the minesweepers could be called for to create a safe pathway through the Narrows. The battleships would then steam into the Sea of Marmara in the morning.

 On 18th March the weather was perfect.

At 10.30 h, after the morning mist had cleared, the battleships entered the Dardanelles. Although they were continuously fired at by the light Turkish guns that were hidden on the coast, they did not pay too much attention to this inefficient bombardment and kept steaming on at a steady pace.

 

At 11.00 h the first line of ships reached its planned position at 8 miles from the actual Narrows and at 11.25 h the bombardment of Kilid Bahr, Chanak and some smaller fortifications began. The German and Turkish batteries that had been positioned there were unable to retaliate because of the distance. The different forts were hit several times and at 11.50 h there was a huge explosion at Chanak.

At the same time the English ships were continually being shot at by the small, mobile Turkish howitzers. Although there was no serious threat to their safety, this ongoing bombardment could well damage the superstructure of the big battleships and a number of installations on their decks.

Shortly after 12.00 h De Robeck ordered the French line of ships under Admiral Guepratte forward. The old French battle cruisers passed the line of their English colleagues and penetrated half a mile further towards the Narrows, so they could assist in subduing the fire of the annoying Turkish howitzers.

This move however, had brought the ships within the reach of the forts. This fact, combined with the unrelenting fire coming in from the coast, soon made itself felt. Before long, Gaulois was hit under her waterline and was forced to withdraw, to beach herself on a small island near the coast outside the Dardanelles. Inflexible's foremast was on fire and her hull showed a gaping hole at starboard. Agamemnon was hit no less than 12 times in less than half an hour. Nevertheless, at this point the allied fleet had suffered less than ten casualties among the crews and apart from Gaulois, all ships had retained their full battle-strength.

On the Turkish side, the situation was rapidly growing worse : an important percentage of their guns had been put out of action. A number had been buried under collapsing stonework, other guns suffered from mechanical failure. In different forts there had been massive explosions and all communication lines had been cut. Where the shooting went on, the ammunition supply was rapidly dwindling. At 13.45 h, after the fighting had been going on for two hours and a half, the last guns fell silent.  

At about the same time, De Robeck decided to recall the French line, to deploy his remaining six ships. With Suffren leading, they veered to the right to make a turn close to the Asiatic coast. At 13.45 h disaster struck for the first time : Bouvet, on her way back in Eren Keui Bay as second ship of the line, was suddenly shaken by a huge explosion while steaming at full speed. Within two minutes she disappeared beneath the waves, taking 650 crew members with her.

Not only the Allied commanders, but also the Turks thought that a heavy shell had pierced the ship's ammunition storage room, and the shooting from the forts in the Narrows resumed, as if this occurrence had given the gunners new courage. On the Allied side, the morning scenario was repeated : in turn, the English and French warships advanced and kept bombarding the Turkish positions until, at 16.00 h, all resistance had again been broken.

In De Robeck's opinion, the moment had come to call the minesweepers forward. At first, things went according to plan : some mines were indeed swept, but once the small boats approached the second line of mines, the fire coming in from the mobile guns on the coast grew stronger . Soon a panic started to spread among the crews and they fled.  

That the attack was not progressing well became even more apparent when at 16.11 h Inflexible suddenly started to tilt, and that not so far from the spot where also Bouvet had been hit. Heavily damaged, the ship tried to struggle back to the entrance of the Dardanelles.

No more than three minutes later, Irresistible signalled that she had been hit by a torpedo, again in that same bay of the Asiatic coast. Other ships had to come to her assistance to get the crew away from the crippled ship that helplessly drifted out of the Dardanelles.

It was now 17.00 h and three warships had been lost in mysterious circumstances. The area where all the damage had been done had several times been searched for mines before the attack, also through aerial observation. The only explanation that De Robeck could find was, that the Turks had started to let mines drift on the current, which would take them inevitably towards the Allied fleet. The only choice he had, was to break off the action.

While Keyes remained in the area to tow a badly crippled Irresistible away from the coast,  also Ocean hit a mine. The ship began to tilt badly and started steaming around in circles, as also her rudder had been damaged by the explosion. The crew were taken off the ship that sank four hours later. Also Irresistible had vanished from sight.