A sea-battle you’ve never heard of – Elli 1912

The era between the end of the American Civil War and the outbreak of World War 1 saw only a few fleet actions between naval powers, though three of these – the Battles of Manila Bay, Santiago and Tsu-Shima – were to have major consequences for the history of the 2oth Century and beyond. At a smaller scale however two engagements between the fleets of Greece and Turkey were to have major local significance and it is with the first of these, the Battle of Elli in December 1912, with which this article is concerned. One notable aspect of the battle is that it mixed outdated relics of the ironclad age with ultra-modern vessels, some of which were to go on to play active roles in both World Wars.

Bulgarian artillery, 1912 – the shape of things to come two years later

Outside the countries in involved few today remember the First and Second Balkan Wars fought in 1912 and 1913 against the background of the Ottoman Turkish Empire still holding extensive territory – including Albania – in South East Europe. Both conflicts were vicious affairs and to a significant extent they set the scene for much that was to happen in the area during World War 1.

The Ottoman Empire (in pink) still controlled much European territory in 1912

The first of these conflicts was fought between October 1912 and May 1913 and in it the “Balkan League”, consisting of Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria, was matched against the Ottoman Empire. Still in turmoil in the years after the “Young Turk Revolution” of 1908, which had aimed at political, economic and social reform, but which was to descent in due course to genocide and defeat, the poorly led Ottoman forces were soundly defeated. The result was that almost all remaining European territories of the Ottoman Empire were captured and either partitioned among the allies, or made part of a new an independent Albanian state. In the Second Balkan War the victors fell out over the division of the spoils. It allowed Turkey to regain some territory and left Bulgaria embittered by loss of territory at the end of it. The latter was an important factor in Bulgaria’s stance – a strategically important one – in the First World War.

Bulgarian auxiliary troops attacking Turkish positions at Kirklareli, First Balkan War

Of the nations involved only Greece and Turkey possessed significant naval forces and in the immediately preceding years both had invested in modernisation and in acquirement of new or second-and units. The Ottoman Navy purchased two obsolescent pre-dreadnought battleships from Germany and – somewhat unwisely, as the money could have been better spent on new vessels – modernised two ironclad survivors from the 1860 and 70s. It purchased in addition several large torpedo boats (essentially small destroyers) from Germany.

Obsolete Greek Battleship Hydra, one of a class of three, built in France 1889

The Greeks already possessed three obsolete French-built battleships of late 1880s vintage but in 1911 acquired a modern – and new – armoured cruiser from Italy which was to prove the deciding factor in the war ahead. In addition they purchased four powerful new destroyers in Britain.

When the war opened the Greek Navy was better organised and trained then its opponent and its primary objective was to control the Aegean Sea, thereby allowing capture of many Ottoman-controlled islands, the majority with ethnic Greek populations. To do so demanded bottling up Turkish naval forces in the Sea of Marmara by preventing them exiting through the Dardanelles.

The Dardanelles Straits (at Canakkale) control transit from the Marmara to the Aegean

The Greek armoured cruiser Averof

In December 1912 a Greek force of one modern armoured cruiser, the Averof, three old battleships, Hydra, Spetsai and Psara, and four new destroyers, Aetos, Ierax, Panthir and Leon lay just outside the Dardanelles.  (Basic specifications of these craft are shown at the end of this article). It was through this force that the Ottoman Navy must break if it was to gain access to the Aegean.

The Greek destroyer Aetos

On December 16th an Ottoman force emerged in line ahead. It consisted of the two ex-German pre-dreadnoughts Barbaros Hayreddin and Turgut Reis and two semi-modernised ironclads, the Mesudiye and the Âsâr-ı Tevfik, as well as the large torpedo boats Muavenet-i Milliye, Yadigâr-i Millet, Taşoz and Basra. (Basic specifications of these craft are shown at the end of this article).

Given the lack of sea room, the Ottoman freedom to deploy was limited and the Greek Admiral Kountouriotis, flying his flag in the fast and powerful Averof, saw his opportunity. Frustrated by the slow speed of his three old battleships, and recognising his ship’s advantages of speed, guns and armour, he hoisted the Flag Signal “Z”, which stood for “Independent Action”.  The Averof  tore forward alone at over 20 knots, and succeeded in crossing the Ottoman fleet’s “T”, thereby beng able to concentrate her fire on the leading the Ottoman vessel, the flagship Barbaros Hayreddin.

Barbaros Hayreddin in her previous incarnation as Kurfürst Friedrich Wilhelm

The Ottomans turned away and retreated, the Averof still raining shells on the Barbaros Hayreddin, hitting also the Turgut Reis and the Mesudiye. Pursued by the Greek destroyers, the Ottoman ships headed for the Dardanelles, where the shore batteries on either side of the narrow waterway precluded pursuit. Ottoman losses had been small numerically  – 7 killed and 14 wounded on the Barbaros Hayreddin,  8 killed and 20 wounded on the Turgut Reis, and 3 dead and 7 wounded on the Mesudiye, but the action was nevertheless a major strategic defeat. Greek forces were now free to realise a long-held Greek ambition, the seizure of the islands of Lesbos, Lemnos, Samos and Chios. The Ottoman Navy was to make one more, and equally unsuccessful, foray from the Dardanelles – but that’s different story, perhaps for a later blog.

The climax of the battle – Averof breaks out Flag Z and races ahead of her consorts

The Greek victory of Elli had been made possible by determined leadership, good training and one amazing warship – the Averof – which was virtually a “one ship navy” in terms of effectivness. Her career was long from over – it extended into the Second World War – and it’s gratifying to know that she still exists today, preserved as a museum ship at Palaio Faliro.

Other ships involved were to meet more unpleasant fates in the next few years.  The Mesudiye was torpedoed in the Sea of Marmara by the Royal Navy submarine HMS B11, which had managed to pass up the Dardanelles. The Mesudiye capsized in 10 minutes, trapping most of the crew. She sunk however in shallow water, leaving much of her hull exposed so that many could be rescued by cutting through the plating. Losses were 37 killed. The Barbaros Hayreddin was also to be torpedoed in the same area in August 1915 by the British submarine HMS E11, this time with heavy loss of life. The Ottoman Navy had its revenge when the torpedo boat Muavenet-i Milliye, a veteran of Elli, sank the Royal Navy pre-dreadnought HMS Goliath off Gallipoli in May 1915, again with heavy casualties. This action was to have major historical consequences as it triggered the resignations of Lord Fisher as First Sea Lord and of Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty.

In the aftermath of the war both countries hastened to buy more modern capital ships abroad – but that’s yet another story!

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