Amphibious Warfare: First World War

1915 - Allied landings at Gallipoli

Soon after World War I erupted in August 1914, Turkey and Germany signed an agreement giving German forces control over the Dardanelles, the narrow strait between the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Together, the Germans and Turks built formidable defensive works. The Germans added to the minefields that Turks had already laid, generating a defensive belt consisting of more than 300 mines arrayed in ten lines across the narrowest part of the Dardanelles. These minefields were defended by outer, intermediate, and inner shore-based fortifications, which in turn were reinforced with mobile artillery batteries, searchlights, and land-based torpedo tubes.

Looking for a quick and decisive operation in an otherwise static war, the British War Cabinet in 1915 ordered the Royal Navy to force the Dardanelles without any sort of land-based support. The move was designed to assist Russia and help that country maintain an active second front against Germany. Opening the Dardanelles also would free shipping trapped in the Black Sea, restore sea lines of communication to southern Russia, and allow grain shipments to pass from Russia's wheat fields to Great Britain.

The first, purely naval attempt to pass through the Dardanelles occurred on 18 March. The Turkish coastal defenses and minefields repelled this foray, inflicting heavy damage on the Allied task force. Rear Admiral John de Robeck, commander of the combined French-British fleet, subsequently decided that the Dardanelles could not be forced without land-based support.

The Allies subsequently scraped together a Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, consisting of British, Australian, New Zealand, and French troops, and placed them under the command of General Sir Ian Hamilton. This force was to land on the narrow, rugged, 45-mile long Gallipoli peninsula that flanked the eastern side of the Dardanelles. They were then to clear the Turkish defenses on the Kilid Bahr plateau that dominated the narrowest part of the waterway.

To accomplish this, Hamilton decided to put his force ashore at the southern tip of the Gallipoli peninsula, on or near Cape Helles. In doing so, he eschewed the options of landing on the Asian side of the strait or at the base of the peninsula, which would have cut off any Turkish units farther to the south. Hamilton's reasons for discarding these options were based upon somewhat sketchy intelligence on Turkish ground dispositions, the concerns of naval commanders, and his instructions from his superiors.

Two map views of the Dardanelles, April 1915

Two map views of the Dardanelles in April 1915, displaying both Turkish defenses and the execution of the initial Allied landings.
U.S. Military Academy, Department of History.

Hamilton's plan involved an amphibious landing by the British 29th Division on five beaches at Cape Helles, a decision driven by a lack of beach space and a shortage of ship-to-shore lift. Half the division would go ashore in the first wave, seizing the beaches and acting as a covering force through which the second half of the division would pass. The second wave's objective was six miles inland - the 800-foot high hill Achi Baba that would serve as a stepping-stone to Turkish positions on the Kilid Bahr plateau.

Meanwhile, the 1st Australian Division and the Australian and New Zealand Division, which together comprised the Anzac Corps - would go ashore on a single beach 13 miles to the north of Cape Helles, near Gaba Tepe. One Australian brigade would land first to defend the northern flank of the beachhead, while the remaining troops would push inland toward another high point, Mal Tepe. After seizing that terrain, the Anzac forces would join the 29th Division in a two-pronged drive on the Kilid Bahr plateau.

Hamilton also planned to keep the Turks guessing about his specific plans by having the Royal Naval Division conduct a feint off the Bulair isthmus at the head of the Gallipoli peninsula. Elements of the French Division would also go ashore temporarily at Kum Kale on the Asian side of the strait. They would eliminate Turkish defenses that could interfere with the main assault and possibly deceive Turk and German commanders as to Hamilton's main objective.

In addition to his operational planning challenges, Hamilton was likewise confronted with the host of practical problems associated with amphibious operations. His troops had little or no training in making even simple, "administrative" landings, and the Gallipoli assaults promised to be more dangerous and complex. Even worse, while at the jumping-off point at Mudros Bay on the Aegean island of Lemnos, Hamilton discovered that his force's transports were haphazardly loaded. Moreover, there was not enough room at Mudros to reload them properly - Hamilton had to send the entire force to Alexandria, Egypt where a proper loading and some additional training could be accomplished.

When Allied force again sailed for the Dardanelles in April 1915, the situation ashore was even more daunting than it had been in March. The three-week Allied hiatus in Alexandria gave the Turkish 5th Army and its German commander, General Otto Liman von Sanders, the opportunity to collect intelligence and improve the Dardanelles defenses. Emphasizing a mobile defense, von Sanders placed two regiments near likely landing points at the southern end of the peninsula, and a third in a position from which it could rapidly reinforce the other two. A full division was placed near Mal Tepe, and additional troops were dug in near Bulair. Turkish troops also manned heavily fortified positions overlooking likely landing sites.

The Initial Landings

Nevertheless, the more than 300 ships of the Allied amphibious task force arrived off Gallipoli on the morning of 25 April 1915, and the landing began shortly after daybreak. Allied troops disembarked from their transports into ships' cutters and lifeboats, none of which were designed for amphibious assaults. Steam picket boats towed these craft part of the way toward their assigned beaches, then cut them loose. From there, the boat crews would have to row their craft ashore.

At Cape Helles, the landing force achieved mixed results. Two battalions from the 29th Division made flanking landings at "Y' beach on the western side of Cape Helles and "S" beach inside the Dardanelles. Both were designed to cover the main landing beaches farther south on the cape, and to potentially threaten the lines of communication of their Turkish defenders. Both flank landings encountered little or no resistance. However, neither unit exploited its initial success - both commanders decided to remain immobile due to their uncertainty over what course of action they should take and an overestimation of the strength of local Turkish defenders.

On "Y" beach, no communications passed between the battalion and higher echelons, so the former had no idea of events occurring on the southern beaches and the division commander remained unaware of the opportunity that the undefended beach presented. By mid-afternoon, Turkish reinforcements deployed and initiated a series of attacks on the isolated unit, all of which were repulsed. The next morning, as they watched boats evacuating their wounded comrades, British troops believed that their unit was abandoning the beachhead and began an unauthorized withdrawal, climbing into the boats as well. Unable to stop this panicky flight, British commanders ordered the remaining troops to be taken off the beach by late morning.

As for the main landings, only the assault at "X" beach - also on the western side of Cape Helles - went essentially as planned. A well-executed naval bombardment prevented any interference from a small, isolated Turkish position. Heavy fighting did ensue when British troops moved inland and encountered local Turkish reserves, but the beachhead was consolidated by late morning.

The situation was much different on the other main landing beaches. On "W," Turkish defenders opened fire as the first boatloads of Lancashire Fusiliers rowed close to the beach. Suffering heavy casualties, the British troops were nevertheless able to establish themselves ashore and after hard fighting take the Turkish trenches on the cliffs above the beach.

The main landing site at "V" Beach was the scene of the heaviest British casualties, and the point where the success of the initial landings was most in doubt. Turkish fire ravaged British troops in open boats. It also caused severe casualties among the 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers who approached the beach in the converted steamer River Clyde. This ship was designed to run aground and the discharge troops sheltering in its hold through large hatches cut in its sides. From these hatches, men would, in theory, run down gangways suspended from the side of the ship onto causeways. River Clyde towed the causeway sections, and when the ship grounded, inertia was to carry them to the ship's bow, where they would be lashed together and form a platform from the ship to the shore.

Unfortunately, the ship grounded gently, and the causeway did not function as anticipated. Troops trying to manhandle them into place were exposed to enemy raking fire, which caused severe casualties. Almost half of the Fusiliers were trapped on board the steamer; those who did make it ashore took shelter behind an earthen bank and could not move.

Photo of the River Clyde, April 25th

Lighters clustered round the bows of the River Clyde on the morning of 25 April.
On the shore troops can be seen sheltering under the earth bank.
Imperial War Museum, Q 50473b, Crown Copyright 2000.

Turkish fire stymied any movement inland as well as any attempt to reinforce the survivors on the beach. At one point, Hamilton considered an evacuation of the remaining troops. However, the bloodied British forces held until nightfall when firing died down and the rest of the troops sheltering on board River Clyde could make it ashore. Fighting resumed the next day, but 29th Division troops were able to seize their first-day objectives and establish a continuous line between the separate landing beaches.

On the 28th, Hamilton was able to send French Division reinforcements - including troops who had made the temporary landing on the Asian side of the strait - to "V" beach.

Farther to the north, plans for the Anzac beach envisioned a surprise landing at dawn - a naval bombardment would only commence once troops were ashore. A brigade would land and secure the beach for a subsequent landing of two additional divisions. The initial wave from the brigade would deploy into boats from the decks of three British battleships. As at Cape Helles, steam launches would tow the boats of the first wave most of the way to shore. The second wave of boats would launch from seven destroyers in shallow water just off the beach.

Photo of Landing Party Approaching Gallipoli, 1915

A landing party approaching the shore at Gallipoli. 1915; photographer unknown.
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Reference no.: PA1-o-471-20-2.
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any reuse of this image.

On the morning of 25 April, however, the crews of the steam launches did not have a clear idea where the landing beaches were. That led to the first troops coming ashore under fire almost a mile north of its designated beach, into a confined area later referred to as Anzac Cove. The second wave followed shortly thereafter, and confusion reigned. Anzac forces managed to push their way inland through the Turkish defenses and rugged terrain, with some eventually reaching high ground overlooking the cove. Before they could proceed farther, however, Turkish forces under Mustapha Kemal (who as Kemal Ataturk later became the first president of newly created Republic of Turkey) launched a vigorous counterattack. Despite being outnumbered, Kemal's forces pushed the surprised and exhausted Anzac troops back upon their beachhead. At one point, Hamilton was forced to consider whether he would have to evacuate these forces as well, but the Anzac forces dug in and held on.

Photo of Landing at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, 25 April 1915

Landing at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli. 25 April 1915; photographer L.E. Tatton.
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Reference no.: PAColl-0063-03.
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any reuse of this image.

By the end of 26 April, Hamilton's forces had consolidated their beachheads, but they were far their ultimate objective of clearing Turkish defenses from the Kilid Bahr plateau. Their containment of the Allied landings gave the Turks time to bring reserves forward from farther north on the peninsula and from Turkey's Asian territory. Hamilton's forces felt the presence of these reserves when they tried unsuccessfully to break out of their encircled Cape Helles beachheads on 27 April. After this effort, the next three months witnessed a series of heavy but ultimately inconclusive attacks by both sides.

The summer of 1915 also saw the Allies and Turks rushing available reinforcements to Gallipoli. Turkish forces had the advantage in this race, despite the lack of good roads on the peninsula. For their part, fresh British troops entering the theater by sea first had to sail to Alexandria, and then move by convoy to Mudros harbor, where they debarked into smaller craft that could take them to the beachheads. This process usually took two weeks or longer. Later, British commanders were able to alleviate this situation to a degree by packing troops onto the converted ocean liners Mauretania and Aquitania, which steamed from Britain directly to Mudros. With top speeds of 25 knots, these fast transports were almost immune to the torpedo attacks by German U-boats that threatened slower ships.

Initial Allied losses and the failure to break out of the beachheads occurred despite the naval surface fire support available to Hamilton and his forces. Potentially devastating fires from supporting the Allied battleships the landings were hampered by obsolete fire control systems and shortages of high-explosive ammunition. Forward observers did not have the means to rapidly pass target data to offshore warships, which affected the timeliness and effectiveness of fire support from all the Royal Navy ships. In addition, the relatively flat trajectories of naval ordnance made it difficult to strike Turkish targets on the reverse slope of the high ridgelines and hills that ran the length of the Gallipoli peninsula.

Nevertheless, Allied targeting and fire support did improve in the weeks and months following the April landings. Hamilton's men practiced and perfected a system of spotting by aircraft and kite balloons, which led to more effective counterbattery fire against Turkish artillery. The nature of the Gallipoli battlefield, one marked by static positions, also gave naval gunners time to zero in on and deliver flanking fires on Turkish positions and strike their lines of communication. When the Turks turned to night attacks to avoid naval fires, Royal Navy warship illuminated the battlefield with searchlights.

Initially, the main source of fire support for Hamilton's force was French and British battleships and cruisers. However, when the German submarine U-21 sank two Royal Navy battleships in May, most heavy fleet units and transports withdrew from the amphibious operating area. Light cruisers, monitors, and destroyers took over fire-support duties, and troops and cargo bound for Gallipoli were shipped to Mudros, where they were placed on board destroyers and other small craft for the last leg of their voyage. Actual runs to the beach usually occurred at night to escape Turkish shelling.

The Suvla Bay Gambit

By mid-August, the Allies were ready to try another amphibious landing to break the stalemate on the peninsula. Units from the five-division IX Corps were to land at Suvla Bay, to the north of the Anzac beach, on 6 August 1915. Their immediate assignment was to capture Koja Chemen Tepe, the highest point on the Sari Bari ridge that dominated Anzac Cove. The landing - which would occur on two beaches - took place in conjunction with an attempted breakout attack from the Anzac beachhead. However, this attack would not be easy - von Sanders now had 12 divisions and corps artillery and other assets at his disposal.

The landing plans at Suvla Bay incorporated many of the lessons learned in April. Instead of going ashore in exposed ships' boats, troops traveled in armored lighters, known as “beetles". Also, coordination between ground and naval forces would be vastly improved. Surface fires from cruisers, destroyers, and monitors were integrated into the ground scheme of maneuver. Rapid-fire guns on cruisers and destroyers blanketed the flanks of any British unit on the move. These ships also provided on-call counter-battery support, while monitors fired on more distant targets.

Even with these improvements, however, the actual Suvla Bay landings had mixed results. The ship-to-shore movement went smoothly on the northern beach near Nibrunesi Point. Royal Navy destroyers ferried troops and towed beetles to a point off the landing beach. Troops embarked upon the lighters, which then made their run to shore, guided by picket boats. The beetles then returned to the destroyers for another load. The entire Nibruseni force, including artillery and horses, went ashore in slightly more than five hours and suffered no casualties. The landing did not go as smoothly on the Suvla Bay beaches. These landing sites had not been well-surveyed and lighter crews were unfamiliar with them. The first wave from the British 11th Division went ashore on the wrong beach and lighters grounded offshore. Attempts to correct the problem only led to more confusion and delays. Lack of logistics support - and in particular the movement of fresh water ashore - soon became a serious problem.

Nevertheless, the situation stabilized, and British division commanders found themselves opposed by no more than three lightly entrenched Turkish battalions. However, the commander of IX Corps, Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Stopford, was hypercautious. Moreover, he never gave his division commanders a clear appreciation of the reason for the operation or the importance of speed in reaching their objectives. Consequently, British troops moved slowly and without resolute direction while Turkish reinforcements moved into the area from the north.

Photo of British Troops Landing at Suvla Bay, Turkey, 1915

British troops landing at Suvla Bay Turkey. 1915, photographer Rev. Ernest Northcroft Merrington.
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Reference no.: PAColl-6407-85.
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any reuse of this image.

During the next two weeks, Turkish forces repelled the breakout attack from the Anzac beach, occupied the high ground around Suvla Bay, and effectively contained British attempts to break out from their encirclement. The British were able to effect a link-up between the two bridgeheads, but only at great cost in casualties. Moreover, their position was still shallow and subject to a near-constant Turkish harassing fire. Stopford and several division commanders were relieved, but it was too late - the Allies had again lost the initiative. Hamilton was also relieved of command in October.

After several more fruitless frontal attacks on Turkish defenses around Suvla Bay, a stalemate prevailed once more on the peninsula. Allied forces continued to endure constant Turkish shelling and sniping, as well as shortages of artillery shells and weapons such as grenades and mortars that were critical to the kind of trench warfare they had been facing since April. Supplies of fresh food and drinking water were also difficult to come by. Both sides dealt with heavy casualties, many of them caused by disease - the percentage of Allied sick at times reached almost 50 percent. Dysentery ran rampant, and the stench of rotting corpses permeated the static battlefield.

Finally, the British and French governments agreed that the expedition should come to an end. The Royal Navy began to evacuate the landing force from Suvla and Anzac Cove in December. The operation, which removed more than 83,000 men from the beachhead, was a masterpiece of planning and deception. The Royal Navy began taking off the troops at Cape Helles in early January 1916; the last man left "W" beach on 8 January.

From a strategic and operational-level perspective, the Gallipoli landings were an abject failure. However, they did hold many lessons about amphibious warfare that would be applied in later operations conducted by the British, the Japanese, and the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

Sources:

Simon Foster, Hit the Beach! (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1995).

T.A. Gibson, "Gallipoli," in Lieutenant Colonel Merrill L. Bartlett, USMC (ret.), ed., Assault from the Sea (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1983).

Imperial War Museum, Gallipoli 1915: The Drama of the Dardanelles, online exhibition at http://www.iwm.org.uk/online/gallipoli.

Jeter A. Isely and Philip A. Crowl, The U.S. Marines and Amphibious Warfare (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951).

Alan Moorehead, Gallipoli (Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth Editions, 1997).

Richard Pelvin, Sea Power at Suvla, August 1915: Naval Aspects of the Suvla Bay Landings and the Genesis of Modern Amphibious Warfare, The Joint Imperial War Museum/Australian War Memorial Battlefield Study Tour to Gallipoli, September 2000.

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