The Victoria Cross, as we have already pointed out, is awarded to sailors as well as to soldiers; the reason why there are few recipients in the former class is not far to seek. Our sailors have fewer opportunities to distinguish themselves; when chances offer they are every bit as brave and skilful as their comrades in the sister service.
Among the V.C.s gained by the Navy in the great war some have been awarded to the brave sailors who fought at the Dardanelles; two of these were conferred on dashing young officers for submarine exploits.
The proud distinction of being the first naval V.C. of the war is held by Lieutenant-Commander Norman Douglas Holbrook, who gained this honour for a conspicuous act of bravery on December 13, 1914. When in command of submarine B II he entered the Dardanelles, dived his vessel under five rows of mines, and torpedoed the Turkish battleship Messudiyeh. His exploit has been hailed as unmatched in naval warfare for cool courage and fearless daring. This young officer proved to all the world that our Navy still produces men with the Drake and Nelson touch.
Lieutenant Holbrook had not previously become known to the public. In the Senior Service he was regarded as a promising and able young officer, but this was his first opportunity to show that he possessed superb naval qualities. Doubtless he is one of many able young men of whom the Navy will have just cause to be proud, and of whom great things will yet be chronicled.
Lieutenant Holbrook is thirty years of age, and one of five officer sons of Colonel A. R. Holbrook, a Portsmouth newspaper proprietor, and, at the time of which we write, field officer in charge of the transports and supplies on Salisbury Plain. He comes of a martial family. One brother, Lieutenant-Commander L. S. Holbrook, M.V.O., is gunnery officer of H.M.S. Devonshire; the others are in the Army. Lieutenant-Commander R. N. Nicholson, who is on the staff of Sir John Jellicoe, is his brother-in-law.
Lieutenant Holbrook became a midshipman in 1905, was gazetted sub-lieutenant in rgo8, and lieutenant in 1909. The latter rank he reached by taking four first-class certificates in his examinations. Three months after becoming lieutenant he was appointed to the Mercury at Portsmouth to qualify as a submarine officer, and after serving in various boats at Portsmouth and Harwich, was given the command of A 13, stationed at Portsmouth in March 1913. He was transferred to B II—the submarine he has for ever made famous—at Malta in December 1913.
Writing to his sister in November 1914, a month before his great exploit, he refers to the arduous work of the Fleet during the cold and wet days of winter. "I've just had a shocking week of it," he said. "The weather has been awful. For eight days we have been at it hammer-and-tongs. . . . I've been soaked through to the skin the whole time." These words give some idea of the discomforts undergone by our naval heroes.
Then, continuing, he asks for "wool helmets, scarves, mittens, jerseys, warm underclothing, and sea-boot socks for my crew. The poor souls have no warm gear, and are freezing." The hero of B II is thinking of others. He finishes the letter in breezy style: "Hurrah for the life of a sailor!"
It is not necessary to describe here the Dardanelles operations beyond stating that those in charge of the Allied naval and military strategy of the Great War decided that the forcing of these Straits was an essential part of the general plan of campaign. The Turkish fleet, if somewhat negligible, was at an advantage. It rode the narrow seas protected by mines.
On December 13, 1914, it was decided that a Turkish battleship, the Messudiyeh, would be better at the bottom of the Dardanelles than riding upon its waters. The mine-field and the forts prevented access to her upon the surface. The only other way was under the sea, and Lieutenant Holbrook was entrusted with the perilous task of attempting to destroy her.
It is no reflection on the other great deeds of the war to say that his performance was superbly daring. For to appreciate better the young naval officer's enterprise, it must be borne in mind that in all probability his mission involved certain death.
The underwater navigation of the Dardanelles is made most perilous and difficult by the swift currents which sweep through the Straits, and, striking various projecting points, are turned into eddies and whirlpools. In such conditions, to take a submarine, blind as she is, and feel a way along the bottom of the sea, evading the moorings of the mines, is a task which few would care to attempt.
But Lieutenant Holbrook laughs at danger. He possesses in an unusual degree caution and daring. He has nerves of steel, and when the moment came for setting forth on his sensational deed of heroism he welcomed the call.
Submarine B II was not a modern craft fitted with the latest appliances. She dates from 1905, and her submerged displacement is but 313 tons, as compared with 800 tons in the E class. Her length is 135 feet, with a submerged speed of nine knots, and her armament is two torpedo-tubes.
After proceeding some distance through the Dardanelles, the submarine entered the danger zone. In front were five rows of mines under which the submarine must dive. This feat required skilful handling. Holbrook knew that contact with an anchor-chain of the mines would entangle his vessel's screw and draw one or more mines into contact with her hull.
However, the mine-field was safely passed and the submarine came to the surface for its deadly work. The Messudiyeh was seen near at hand. She was an old Turkish warship constructed in the Thames as far back as 1874, and reconstructed at Genoa in 1901; her displacement was 9,120 tons. As submarine B II crept near, the vessel was all unconscious of her impending fate. In another minute the torpedoes had done their work, and the Messudiyeh began to sink by the stern.
Now came the supremely difficult part of the submarine's operation. Lieutenant Holbrook had the choice of dashing back the way he came at all possible speed, or carefully waiting and watching for an opportunity to get away with the least risk to his vessel and its gallant crew. He chose the latter course.
Quietly the B II started back. She was eagerly watched for by enemy torpedo craft and by the batteries on either bank. The least sign of movement in the water and the gallant commander and his men were doomed. The way he handled his boat speaks well for the wisdom of those who chose Lieutenant Holbrook for the task. He was daring yet cool, able yet cautious. While he could use the periscope he knew where he was going. But for the most part he had to remain submerged.
On one occasion the submarine was submerged for nine hours. One can hardly realize what this must have meant to those inside.
Mile by mile the intrepid commander guided his vessel back, under the same five rows of mines, until at last all danger was past.
Lieutenant Holbrook's feat was not simply a daring piece of useful naval work. It fulfilled its primary object—the sinking of the Turkish battleship; but it had another result. The effect of striking this blow upon the Ottoman Navy not only impressed the mind of the Turk; it showed to all the world what our underwater craft, handled by adventurous and undaunted commanders, might achieve if German ships of war would only provide the targets.
The gallant young lieutenant was uproariously greeted by his sailor comrades upon his return. On board H.M.S. Indefatigable, Lieutenant Holbrook was presented with a huge imitation Iron Cross by his brother officers, the ceremony being the occasion of much mirth as well as congratulations. It was the Navy's jocular little way of recognizing a brave comrade. A few days later the lieutenant was awarded the V.C.
The other submarine officer to win the V.C. in the Dardanelles was Lieutenant-Commander Martin Eric Nasmith, whose famous exploit was performed at the end of May 1915, and resulted in the sinking of nine ships engaged on Turkish war service. His vessel, the E II, penetrated the Straits to the very gates of Constantinople, and threw the city into a panic.
There is but little this young naval officer does not know about submarines. He has studied them, experimented with them, and performed with them wonderful feats such as Jules Verne himself never imagined in his thrilling romances. He has brought lasting credit to the new and powerful naval arm of which he is so brilliant a member. He is thirty-two years of age, and the son of a well-known City stockbroker, Mr. Martin A. Nasmith, who lives at Weybridge. From boyhood Lieutenant Nasmith, V.C., was set upon going to sea. On the other hand, his three brothers are in the Army—all captains at the time of which we write.
Our naval lieutenant was educated at Eastman's College, from which he went straight to Dartmouth. His father avers that his distinguished son "was not much good as a scholar, but he has always had a strong inventive faculty, of which he has made good use."
During the sixteen years he has been in the Navy, the 'Constantinople V.C.' has seen many adventures, and to his lot has fallen a larger share of thrilling exploits than is usual for one so young in the Senior Service. One of his first cruises was with Admiral Lord Fisher, aboard the Renown, to which he was attached for four years.
The first occasion when Lieutenant Nasmith came before the public notice was before the War. He was the hero of the A 4, which, it will be remembered, was sunk while a new scheme of signaling was being tested. His pluck and devotion to duty at this time were highly commended by the Admiralty. When the submarine went down, the crew was saved because all kept their heads in the best Navy style, inspired by Nasmith. Two men were insensible at their posts, but the young lieutenant succeeded in reaching them and brought them to safety. For this cool 'underseamanship' the Admiral sent a signal to the Fleet congratulating the young commander on his performance.
The next time Lieutenant-Commander Nasmith came into prominence was during the naval review at Weymouth. He then had the honour of taking King George and Prince Albert for a trip in submarine D 4—a striking tribute to his reputation for skill and careful handling of undersea craft.
Early in the war Lieutenant Nasmith was to the fore in the raid on Cuxhaven. This daring feat by British seaplanes took place on Christmas Day, 1914, and our submarines accompanied the flying men. Nasmith did service on this occasion by gallantly rescuing with his submarine five men from three of the seaplanes which had flown over Cuxhaven Harbour. During the rescue operations a German airship was dropping bombs.
It should be mentioned that when war broke out Lieutenant Nasmith was appointed to the depot ship Maidstone, for command of submarine E II. Later he was ordered with other units of our Fleet to the Dardanelles, but it was not until the end of May 1915 that he got his big chance.
It had become essential to the plans of our naval leaders in these operations that some conspicuous attack on the Turkish vessels should be attempted. Our battleships could engage the enemy's ships whenever they presented targets. But beyond the mine-strewn waterway they could not proceed. The plan decided upon was a daring submarine attack in the Sea of Marmora, right up to Constantinople itself, a distance of 170 miles from the Dardanelles entrance. The attack, if successful, was intended to have important consequences. In addition to destroying hostile warships, it was hoped the submarine would prevent reinforcements coming to the Gallipoli Peninsula by sea, and, further, have the effect of dealing a smashing and decisive blow at Turkey's naval and maritime prestige.
Lieutenant Nasmith was chosen to carry out this plan of dashing up the mine-strewn Straits. He set out in the E II, and performed his appointed task in thorough British style. There was the Drake touch about it—this penetrating to the sacred precincts and singeing the Sultan's beard in Constantinople itself.
Despite the lurking dangers he got his submarine safely into the Sea of Marmora. First he attacked a large gunboat. Then two transports fell victim to his attentions. There were thousands of troops on board these vessels, and the unfortunate soldiers became panic-stricken when their ships were torpedoed. So great was the terror inspired that afterward Turkish soldiers refused to embark. It was directly due to Lieutenant Nasmith's visit to Constantinople that subsequently all the Sultan's reinforcements for the front were dispatched by rail, via Uzunkenpru.
Nasmith from his place of observation had detected further prey. An ammunition ship rode at anchor within reach, and he decided to send it to the bottom. A torpedo was launched and a terrific explosion followed, which told that the intrepid sailor had again scored. The loss of this ship and its contents was irreparable to the Turks. Three store ships were next destroyed by the submarine, while in addition a fourth was driven on shore.
But the tale of Nasmith's exploits was not finished. He had decided to run the gauntlet of fort and mine and make for home, and had passed the most difficult part of the journey when it was observed that another Turkish transport, hitherto unseen, had come within range. Most men would have regarded the morning's work as quite sufficient without wanting to run further risk. But it was not like Nasmith to surrender so good a prize for his adventurous craft. He at once steered an unerring course for the transport, and neatly torpedoed her. This brought his morning's bag' up to nine.
It is well established that consternation reigned in Constantinople on this May morning. When the noise of the successive explosions resounded through the city the shops were closed and men and women rushed about the streets in terror. The survivors who had been got ashore from the sinking transports added to the confusion by running amok. People went mad; they hurried along shouting and cursing, exclaiming: "The Russians are coming!" All vessels retired to the inner harbour of the Golden Horn. The bridge connecting Galata (on the north side of Golden Horn) and Stamboul was protected by extra pontoons. To this day the name of Nasmith has dread import in Constantinople, for the people now know who it was who gave them the greatest fright of their lives.
The swiftness and unerring accuracy of the raid were amazing. No sooner had an ammunition ship blown up than a transport was seen to be sinking. Guns were fired at the supposed place where the submarine lurked. They were trained at random from Seraglio Point, Tophianeh, and Harem Iskelessi, but very few shells hit the submarine. One managed to make a hole in her periscope, but the damage was trifling.
The hand and brain of Lieutenant Nasmith guided the E II with such skill that the Turks failed to do the craft any serious damage. The sense of lurking danger was very real in Constantinople; those who were there at that time testify to the almost uncanny feeling caused by the rapidity of the E II's destructive tactics. This one little craft made so much noise and damage that many thought that the British Fleet must have arrived. The most serious loss to the Turks was the ammunition ship, for they were none too well supplied with this vessel's precious cargo.
Submarine E II, when returning to its base, had a perilously narrow escape. Retreat lay through a Turkish mine-field. Commander Nasmith had risen just above the surface, when he made the ominous discovery that he had run the bow of E II into the chain that moored a mine. It was a critical moment for Nasmith and his crew. A sudden jar and there would have been a terrible and fatal explosion. He kept his head, and, reversing his engines, managed to elude the threatened danger. After this adventure the little craft crept safely back to the Fleet. Our men on board the warships cheered themselves hoarse, waved caps, and shouted: "Bravo, E II!"
Judged by results, the thrilling exploit of Lieutenant-Commander Martin Nasmith may well be regarded as one of the outstanding feats of the war.