- Weston, Bert E.
- Biographies and personal histories, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1996 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Commander Norman Douglas Holbrook VC, who won the first Victoria Cross to be gazetted in the Royal Navy in WWI, for his exploit in sinking the Turkish battleship MESSOUDIEH, inside the Sea of Marmara. He died on the 3 July 1976, at the age of 87.
Holbrook, then a Lieutenant, had been a submarine specialist from 1910, and was in command of B-11 at Malta, at the outbreak of the war in 1914.
When war was declared against Turkey, B-11 (which was one of the oldest class of British submarines, having been launched in 1906) was ordered to proceed to the Eastern Mediterranean.
On 13 Dec. 1914, she was lying off the Dardanelles when Holbrook was informed that there was a Turkish battleship in DardanBay to the north of Chanak which was being used as the headquarters of the German Naval Staff. He was aware that there was a minefield from Kephez Bay to Kephez Point, and understood that it consisted of five rows of mines extending across the width of the channel. Feeling that he would like to make an attempt to get through and under the minefield, Holbrook obtained permission to do so from the senior submarine officer. It was recognised that the undertaking was perilous in the extreme, and each man in the crew of B-11 (which had a complement of 2 + 14) left a farewell letter to his friends, to be posted on to them if the writer failed to return.
In addition to the minefields and other obstructions by which the Straits were defended, the natural difficulties of navigation were so great as to be almost as threatening as the artificial dangers and a further difficulty was the current running from the Sea of Marmara to the Mediterranean, often at the rate of 5 knots. The passage through the Straits was likely therefore to be very slow as B-11 was unable to proceed at any more than 6 knots submerged. The return journey, on the other hand, had the possibility of danger from the strong following current. In spite of perils known and unknown, B-11 left her parent ship at 0300 on 13 Dec. Proceeding at first on the surface she later submerged until at a depth of 60 feet she crept, blind, along the treacherous passage, almost feeling her way. Risking rocks and shoals, she advanced in that fashion under the five rows of submerged mines which the Turks had laid for the defence of the Straits. There was the danger of an explosion at any moment, but luck was with the submarine and she successfully entered the Sea of Marmara and raised her periscope. In the distance, torpedo craft were observed but, more important, the battleship MESSOUDIEH was seen to be anchored on the inner side of the minefield, on the assumption that she would be safe from attack.
Immediately the battleship was sighted, Holbrook dived, and at periscope depth B-11 closed with her target, and at 800 yards the order to fire was given. The single torpedo had been accurately aimed; it sped on its way to the Turkish ship and after it had struck, MESSOUDIEH was seen to be sinking by the stern, with her quarterdeck awash. At that moment the submarine’s periscope was spotted by the enemy and it at once drew heavy fire from the forts and destroyers, as well as from the battleship which had been mortally wounded. Diving quickly, the submarine avoided being hit and she was soon grating along the bottom only 30 feet below the surface. Fortunately for B-11, the bottom shelved very rapidly, and soon gaining deeper water she headed for the mouth of the Straits, aided by the strong current.
The enemy destroyers however, proved persistent in their pursuit, and the submarine was compelled to remain submerged for nine hours. At length, however, the way became clear and she completed her voyage to her parent ship in safety.
The exploit of B-11 is historic, for it was the first case of a submarine sinking a battleship. The bravery of Lieutenant Holbrook was recognised by the award to him of the Victoria Cross, which was gazetted on 22 Dec, 1914. Lieut. Sydney Winn, second-in-command, was awarded the DSO, and each member of the crew the DSM.