What’s in a name?
The publishing of an historical story often comes about through accidental discovery. One stumbles across a snippet of information that leads to something else, and then the chase is on!
For me, one such event was the discovery in the National Archives here in the UK of a report about an attack on Constantinople from the Hellenic island of Mudros in 1917. Wait a minute, Mudros? – never heard of it!
A quick search shows no such island, but, given that this attack took place at the height of the British Empire, there was a good chance that this could be a case of the usual British military practice of ‘cannot pronounce a foreign word, so convert it to something that sounds similar’. Further research eventually solved the mystery. Moudros (Μούδρος) is a town and a former municipality on the island of Lemnos in the North Aegean.
On 13 1917 Squadron Commander Kenneth Stevens Savory, DSO, was recalled from 2 Wing, Royal Naval Air Service, in the Aegean Theatre and placed on the naval Special Service List for a highly secret mission.
Briefed by the Air Department of the British Admiralty, he was told of his appointment to investigate the possibility of ferrying one of the latest and largest of the new British bombers to the Aegean Theatre for strikes at the Turkish capital, Constantinople, where the ex-German battlecruiser Goeben and light cruiser Breslau were based. In 1914, in order to circumvent neutrality requirements, Germany transferred the two ships to the Ottoman Navy on 16 August, though the supposed sale was simply a ruse. The Breslau was renamed Midilli while the Goeben was renamed Yavûz Sultân Selîm; their German crews remained with the ships and donned Ottoman uniforms and fezzes. The British did not accept the sale of the ships to the Ottoman Empire and stationed a blockading force outside the Dardanelles with orders to attack the ships if they appeared, regardless of the flag they flew.
The Goeben was renamed Yavûz Sultân Selîm.
The four-funneled Breslau was renamed Midilli
Difficulties was being experienced in the cooling of the Rolls-Royce Eagle engines powering the new bombers, so Savory was posted to the Handley Page Squadron at Manston in Kent to assess the feasibility of a 2,000-mile flight. This unnumbered squadron, acting as a depot for the Royal Naval Air Service heavy bomber units based in France, allotted Savory a Handley Page 0/ 100 for flight trials.
Savory had been chosen because he knew the hazards in attacking the Turkish capital, having already made one attack from Lemnos on the evening of 14/15 April 1916. The raid was led by Squadron Commander Smyth-Piggott, and Savory was accompanied by Flight Sub-Lieutenant C. W. Dickinson and J H W Banarto. Flying B.E.2Cs, which had been shipped out, they had started out on their 360-mile flight in fine weather that soon deteriorated into rain and thunderstorms.
The BE.2c that bombed Constantinople - with Flt Lt Savory (left) and Sub-Lt Dickenson.
Savory dropped proclamations and went down to five hundred feet in an attempt to locate the Zeitunlik Powder Works, his primary target. These works were seven miles from the entrance to the Bosphorus, with the Demirkhan gun foundry one mile to the east, marked by a huge chimney. He was heavily fired upon and his aircraft received two hits. Spotting an airfield he dropped eight incendiary bombs on the hangars, causing a fire and returned to base. Dickinson dropped his eight bombs near the powder works and set off back, meeting strong head winds over the island of Marmara.
Now, having assured the Air Department of his confidence in the Handley Page O/100, Savory, was allotted No. 3124 for another attack on the capital. Only one machine could be spared from the Admiralty commitments of attacking German U-boat bases.
Handley Page had been asked to produce a floatplane version, since the route involved much over-water flying, but the company did not consider this practicable. As it was, No. 3124 came straight from the Cricklewood works to nearby R.N.A.S. Hendon to be prepared in the utmost secrecy for its operation.
As well as hammocks and rations for crew comfort at stops along the route, the aircraft carried spares including the stripped-down parts of a Rolls-Royce Eagle IV engine and a four-bladed propeller strapped on the fuselage top. The selected crew were:
Squadron Commander K. S. Savory, D.S.O. (Pilot)
Flight Lieutenant H. McClelland, D.S.C. (2nd Pilot)
Lieutenant P.T. Rawlings, R.N.V.R. (Navigator)
Chief Petty Officer (Engineer) J. L. Adams (Fitter)
Leading Mechanic (Carpenter) B. Cromack (Rigger)
Ready on 22nd May 1917, the O/100 was flown to Manston, where Savory collected the latest intelligence on the airfields en route. He was ordered to proceed at the earliest possible date and the aircraft was readied that night. With perfect weather next morning, Savory left Manston at 10.30 hrs. and touched down at Villacoublay on the outskirts of Paris three and a half hours later.
Handley Page O/100 3124 flown by Squadron Commander Kenneth Savory DSO about to set of from Manston to Lemnos.
With fair weather holding, Savory set off next morning to Fort Bron, a large airfield near Lyons. The weather then deteriorated and a day was wasted before the next stage when visibility was poor, particularly along the Rhône Valley. The airfield at Fréjus proved to be quite unsuitable for heavy aircraft. A three-day wait until the 29th was necessary before the leg to Pisa in Italy.
Following a coastal route, the Handley Page was subjected first to a beam and then a head wind. At times the aircraft was driven down to 400 feet above the water’s surface. At least the landing was easy. Pisa had two airfields, San Giusto and Coltano, which was described as having a perfect surface.
Next day, the sector to Rome was flown in constant rain. Good visibility was needed for landing at its Centocelle aerodrome as there was a high Marconi transmitting tower located near the airfield’s edge. Fine weather the following morning led to the flight to Naples and the Campo di Marti aerodrome. There, mist caused a further delay. To everyone's horror, the arrival of the Handley Page was reported in the Italian papers – and then picked up and repeated in the British press. It was inevitable that German intelligence would see the reports, but at least its final destination was not reported and it’s importance might not be realised.
The route taken.
It was 3 June before the flight across the toe of Italy to Otranto was made. There the Royal Naval Air Service had recently opened an airfield in connection with the naval barrage across the Strait, established to pen the Austrian fleet in the Adriatic. The field was small with a rough stony surface.
Now came the first difficulties. On the next stage the mountains of Albania proved higher than charted and the loaded aircraft could not climb over them. The aircraft returned to Otranto where some of the spares were off-loaded for forwarding by ship. The mountains were eventually crossed on 7 June with a landing at Thessaloniki - some reports suggest a place called Amberkui - before flying on to the new base, Marsh Aerodrome on Lemnos, was reached the next day. The precise location of this airfield is not known, but a study of the island and by looking at the name used, suggests that it was in the region close to the salt pans on the west of the island.
The O/100 3124 at Oranto. Note the four-bladed propeller strapped to the top of the fuselage just behind the wing.
In all, 1,955 statute miles had been covered in thirty one and a half hours' flying time, without any problems. For the bombing of the warships, a torpedo attack had been mooted but discarded in favour of 112-lb. bombs, the largest in the theatre, as it was thought that while in harbour the ships would be protected by anti-torpedo nets.
On 3 July all was ready. The 0/100 was bombed up in the afternoon in preparation for an attack that night. Shortly after dark 3124 took off on its first operational mission. Unfortunately on its flight northward it flew into a hot wind from the south. The warm air caused the engines to overheat and the loaded aircraft lost height rapidly. Savory was forced to drop a few of his bombs to prevent hitting the water. He then set a course that would take him over the enemy positions at Bulair [sic] where he dropped the remainder of his bombs. Bolayır is a town in the Gelibolu district of Çanakkale Province, situated on the Gallipoli Peninsula in the european part of Turkey.
Savory was taking no chances with his valuable and irreplaceable aircraft. The next night conditions were not quite right and he could afford to wait. So far it was assumed that the enemy were unaware of the presence of the threat. Even if Turkish troops had spotted the aircraft that warm starry night, it is unlikely that they knew a Handley Page. A number of B.E.2Cs and Henry Farmans had been sent out over the Turkish lines that night to confuse the defences. Only if an aircraft had penetrated 100 or more miles into their territory would the Turks be suspicious, and the Handley Page had turned back after barely an hour's flight.
The airship shed on Lemnos was used for the partial hangarage of the only O/100 in the Aegean theatre - 3124. The frames either side of the canvas hangar were also covered canvas and used as wind-breaks when airships were put into or removed from the building.
Weather reports for 5 July were favourable and the aircraft was bombed up. The crew boarded, the engines started, the ground crew dragged away the chocks and the Handley Page rolled forward - then one of the massive tyres exploded and the giant aircraft slewed round. Savory cut the engines and the flight abandoned. Quickly repaired, it was hoped it would be a case of third time lucky after take-off the following night, but halfway to Constantinople bad weather forced Savory to turn back.
The next evening a start was made before nightfall and shortly before midnight, the Goeben and Breslau were located in Stenia Bay near Constantinople. Savory circled three times before attacking from 800 ft. The first salvo of four 112-lb. bombs fell among adjacent moored destroyers and submarines, causing a fire and the second salvo of four appeared to hit Goeben just forward of amidships.
Turning towards the upper waters of the Golden Horn, Savory dropped two bombs from 1,300 ft. at the S.S. General, reputed to be the German liaison Headquarters, and the final two bombs were aimed at the Turkish War Ministry. Up to this time the defences had been taken by surprise and not until the aircraft was setting course for base was sporadic anti-aircraft fire sent up by the enemy. Records indicate that the Handley Page landed back at Lemnos at 0340 hrs.
Reports filtering back from Turkish agents reported that a destroyer had been sunk and a transport damaged, but that Goeben had not been hit. Bombs had fallen near the S.S. General and a bookshop near the Turkish War Office had been destroyed. A total of twenty-nine people were killed and five wounded.
Following this attack the Handley Page was given a complete overhaul. A major problem with the aircraft was its tyres which wore quickly under the great weight of the fully loaded machine on the stony airfield surface. Unfortunately there were no further spares were available in the Aegean.
On 4 August it was intended to use the aircraft for attacks on Panderma – or to give it it’s correct name, Bandırma (Πάνορμος, Panormos) in conjunction with a bombing flight of Henry Farmans. For this attack there was a change of crew, the original members being recalled for duty in Handley Page squadrons in France. Lieutenant John W. Alcock (later of Atlantic flight fame) was at the controls, with Flight Lieutenant S. H. Gaskell, and Sub-Lieutenant A. E. Sole ex-H.M.S. Ark Royal based in Lemnos, navigating and observing.
Although the worn tyres were reinforced with fabric, three burst on an attempted take-off. Tyres from a Short Bomber were fitted to 3124 for a second attempt on Panderma in the early hours of 7 August. Dumps and warehouses around the harbour area were the target. The town was blacked out and there was no anti- aircraft gunfire.
The same day enemy aircraft had set out from Suvla Salt Lake airfield on the Aegean coast of the Gallipoli peninsula in European Turkey, south of the Gulf of Saros to bomb the R.N.A.S. station on the island of Imvros at the time under Greek administration. Alcock passed one aircraft in flight on his way back.
On 1 September, again with Alcock and Gaskell, but this time with Engineer Warrant Officer S. J. Wise aboard, the Handley Page set out to bomb Adrianople. Off Samothraki a submarine was sighted and two delayed-action bombs were dropped as it submerged. Passing Kuleli Burgas, heavy anti-aircraft fire was met and a bomb was aimed at the battery. At Adrianople a variety of targets was attacked, including the railway bridge over the River Arda, warehouses, the station and railway workshops and a fort. Fires caused by the bombs could still be seen by the crew from 60 miles distant on their homeward leg.
The Turks, now fully understanding that their major towns were threatened, had finally realized that Lemnos was the base for the Handley Page. While the bomber was absent on the Adrianople raid, an 75 minute long air attack by seven aircraft was launched on the island. Bombs were dropped on the salt lake, presumably in mistake for Marsh aerodrome. Sixteen bombs also fell on the base depot, damaging two aeroplanes in their cases, pumps and a searchlight engine. There were no casualties.
With Alcock at the controls and Flt Lt H. R. Aird, commanding "A" Flight of 2 Wing at Thasos, as second pilot, together with the engineer Wise, O/100 3124 set course on 30 September to bomb railway stations on both sides of the Bosphorus. After 90 minutes' flying an engine failed and Alcock was forced to jettison his bombs and turn back. Unable to maintain height, the aircraft was ditched near the coast in the Gulf of Xeros some five miles north of Sulva Bay. For nearly two hours while the aircraft floated, Very signal lights were fired to alert rescue craft, but to no avail and all three crew swam ashore where they were taken prisoner by the Turks and then, taken to Constantinople. - Meanwhile on Lemnos, where the aircraft was declared overdue at dawn on 1 October, aeroplanes were sent up in different directions, bombed up to combine anti-submarine patrolling with a search for 3124. All that was found was a strut that was picked up off Imvros by a patrol boat, indicating that the Handley Page was probably not in enemy hands.
Then local intelligence picked up from papers for 3 October the report: ‘ln the Gulf of Xeros an English aeroplane was compelled to come down by anti-aircraft fire from our land batteries. The crew which was composed of three men fell into our hands.’ The primary object of disabling Goeben and Breslau had failed as both ships put to sea later and the R.N.A.S. made further attacks on the ships with DH.4s which started to reach the theatre in late 1917. What was achieved was the diverting of German and Turkish aircraft and anti- aircraft guns to the protection of Constantinople and other Turkish towns that might otherwise have been used on the Palestinian Front.
So ends a little-known but fascinating story that was almost certainly the world’s first inter-continental air strike that took days of unraveling due to multi-lingual spellings, slang and changes of national ownership! Such is the task of a historian!