The Ottoman Navy

Published
September 1978
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Subjects:
Naval technology
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Originally published in the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)

IN THE YEARS FOLLOWING their conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Turks had dominated the Mediterranean with their fleets of galleys. For a hundred years they had raged unchecked, subjugating Greece and the Balkans. Not until the failure of the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 and the tremendous victory of the Christian Navies at Lepanto in 1571 did the pendulum swing.

The succeeding two hundred and fifty years marked the slow decline of the Turkish Empire as it fell back before the advancing West, a prey to corruption and internal strife. Russia became a threat and Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt was only aborted by the British victory of the Nile. Fast becoming the ‘sick man of Europe’, Turkey spent most of the remainder of the Napoleonic wars in a state of terrified neutrality, glad to retain what territories were left.

However, only a few years after the Congress of Vienna, the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire recommenced. Maritime Power was to play a major part in the War for Greek Independence.

Perceiving the vulnerability of Turkish seaborne trade, Greek patriots commenced action as privateers. Successful in this activity, the emboldened Greeks used fireships to attack Turkish held ports and ships therein. A major success was achieved when the Turkish flagship was destroyed with all hands at Chios.

A perturbed Sultan Mehmed IV despatched his son Ibrahim Pasha with a convoy of forty armed transports, protected by a Fleet, from Egypt to Greece. At Navarino Bay (1827), Ibrahim anchored his fleet and convoy preparatory to landing his troops to help suppress the Greeks. A combined British, French and Russian Fleet of 27 ships under Vice Admiral Sir Henry Codrington then arrived.

Codrington had instructions to prevent, if possible without the use of force, reinforcements reaching the Turks in Greece. In the tense situation, fighting broke out. The Turks suffered a resounding defeat, which is remembered today as a turning point in the Greek War of Independence.

Navarino was the last major fleet action fought wholly under sail. The Nineteenth Century saw the advent of major technological innovations to maritime warfare – armour, steam power, breech loading guns to name but a few. Whilst some effort was made to modernise the Ottoman Fleet, that organisation fell well behind its potential enemies.

The consequences of this were demonstrated painfully for the Turks at Sinope (in 1858 in yet another war with the Russians) when the entire Turkish Squadron of wooden hulled ships was destroyed by explosive shells fired from smooth bore Russian guns.

At Batum, in 1878, the Turks suffered another demonstration of the effectiveness of a new weapon when, in the final action of another war with the Russians, two Russian torpedo boats entered the harbour and destroyed the Turkish guardship in one of the earlier demonstrations of the effectiveness of the torpedo when used in a dawn attack.

The Turkish Fleet now sank into a long decline, a part of the general combination of entrenched conservativism, corruption and incompetence that was to permeate and ultimately destroy the Ottoman Empire.

In 1904, Captain M.E.F. Kerr, RN, HBM Naval Attaché at the Porte, wrote of the Turkish Fleet:

‘Of the ships that lie in the Golden Horn not one of them can go to sea, as the precaution is taken to remove some part of their machinery to ensure that they shall not leave their mooring without His Imperial Majesty’s permission. The part thus removed is kept in at the Imperial Palace.

Along the north bank of the Golden Horn lies a line of ships – wooden and composite, ironclad and torpedo boat – all in various stages of decay. Some have nothing but a few ribs left, some have the whole shell, but all are rotting . . . waiting for the cold winter which brings also the fuel seeker who helps himself as he requires it . . .’

On the subject of the dockyards. Captain Kerr wrote:

‘The shore is strewn with wrecks, and on the jetties . . . is a confused mass of boilers, engines, anchors, cranes etc all rotten or rotting and intermingled with heaps of refuse and pariah dogs. There are supposed to be 1,200 workmen in this dockyard, but certainly not more than 400 do any work. Whether they exist, or whether their pay goes into the pockets of the officials, it is impossible to say.’

The Naval Attaché went on to describe the Dardanelles Fleet, none of which had been to sea for seven years, and some of which had had their boilers removed.

The deplorable state of the Turkish Navy was by no means unique to that organisation. Most other official organisations were in a similar state of material and moral decay. At the centre of all this was Abdul Hamid II (known as Abdul the Damned), a weak monarch obsessed with the danger of his own overthrow – the reason he kept key parts of his Fleet’s machinery in his Palace.

In 1908, came Abdul’s overthrow by the Young Turks – a group of youthful nationalists determined to swing the pendulum back and restore Turkey’s national strength and prominence.

In December, 1908, Rear Admiral Sir Douglas Gamble was appointed to head a British Naval Mission to Turkey. This represented the first step towards rebuilding the Turkish Navy – a task that had to be undertaken virtually from scratch.

Britain, by now seriously concerned at the probability of a major war with Imperial Germany, saw that a strong and friendly Turkey would facilitate communications and supplies for Imperial Russia – Britain’s ally.

Nevertheless, it took time (and Herculean effort) to restore the Turkish Navy. In the 1912 War with Italy, the Ottoman Navy performed deplorably. In the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, performance improved a little, but the Turks were still far from ready for participation in the defence of their country against the attack which was to come in 1915.

The British Naval Mission exercised some political influence, the last Head (RADM A. H. Limpus from April 1912) particularly showing a wide grasp of both naval, strategic and Turkish political matters. The broad grasp was an invaluable asset in British efforts to counter Germany’s growing influence.

The naval new construction and warship acquisition programme – essential to rejuvenating the Turkish Navy – was the subject of much discussion and tension, with Britain and Germany competing with offers of two pre-Dreadnought battleships at bargain basement prices. The Germans won, with the 1891 launch of SMS Kurfurst Friedrich Wilhelm and Weissenburg becoming Haireddin Barrbarossa and Torgud Ries in 1910.

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