How “Goeben” Changed History, by Dal Newfield

How “Goeben” Changed History, by Dal Newfield

It is 40 years since this Goeben sto­ry, and the pass­ing of its author. With­out Dal­ton New­field there nev­er would have been an Inter­na­tion­al Churchill Society—at least not the one many of us knew, worked for and cher­ished for long years. 

The orga­ni­za­tion arose from an unlike­ly pastime—philately. It attract­ed Dal’s inter­est because, while a devot­ed all-pur­pose “Churchillian,” he was also a stamp col­lec­tor. His enthu­si­asm was infec­tious, com­bin­ing an ency­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge of Churchill with our own pass­ing inter­est in Churchill com­mem­o­ra­tive postage stamps.

Official Biography
Dal New­field at his retire­ment par­ty, Sacra­men­to, 1981.

New­field cre­at­ed an infor­ma­tive adjunct to Churchill phi­lat­e­ly with what he called “CRs”—Churchill-related stamps not depict­ing him but close­ly involv­ing him. They were a main­stay of the orig­i­nal Churchill Study Unit until it mor­phed into the larg­er Churchill Soci­ety. That too, was the work of Dal New­field, who real­ized that stamps were but a blip in the Churchill story—that a broad­er approach was indicated.

Dal’s imag­i­na­tion pro­duced many “CR” sto­ries, among which this was most intrigu­ing. It fea­tures the Ger­man bat­tle­cruis­er Goeben, lat­er the Turk­ish flag­ship Yavuz. It involves fate­ful deci­sions by the British Admi­ral­ty, and their effect on career of Churchill—which the activ­i­ties of Goeben almost stopped in its tracks.

“For Want of a Nail”: The Goeben Story

by Dalton Newfield

In the ear­ly years of the 20th Cen­tu­ry, Turkey was known as “The Sick Man of Europe,” torn between rival fac­tions, between old and new worlds. On one side was Sul­tan Mehmed V and the con­ser­v­a­tives. On the oth­er was Enver Pasha‘s group, the Young Turks. They agreed about one thing: Rus­sia must be oust­ed from the Caucasus.

Rais­ing mon­ey by pop­u­lar sub­scrip­tion, Turkey ordered two Dread­nought-class bat­tle­cruis­ers from Britain. They also asked the British to mod­ern­ize their fleet, and the Ger­mans to mod­ern­ize their army.

By 1914 Win­ston Churchill, First Lord of the Admi­ral­ty, was bring­ing England’s navy up to fight­ing trim. War was immi­nent, and the Turk­ish ships were almost com­plete. In fact, the crew of one was already stand­ing by to take over. Churchill, unsure of Turkey, decid­ed to com­man­deer the ships for the Roy­al Navy.

War between France and Ger­many was declared on August 3rd. The Turks, divid­ed, were in a quandary. Enver Pasha, on his own, signed an alliance with Ger­many. The next day, pan­ic strick­en, he tried to make an alliance with Rus­sia! Sul­tan Mehmed V stood fast for neutrality.

Drama in the Med

SMS Goeben steam­ing at flank speed, 1911. (Ger­man Fed­er­al Archives)

One of France’s best army corps was in North Africa, and with war threat­en­ing was need­ed back in France. To pro­tect the cross­ing, France had a pow­er­ful navy. But the swiftest cap­i­tal ship in the Mediter­ranean was SMS (Sein­er Majestät Schiff) Goeben, a two-year-old Ger­man bat­tle­cruis­er. She had just fin­ished refit­ting in Pola, the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an navy base on the Adri­at­ic. Goeben was capa­ble of mak­ing mince­meat of the French convoys.

On 30 March 1914, Admi­ral Lord Berke­ley Milne, Com­man­der-in-Chief of the British Mediter­ranean fleet, received new orders. Even then, war scares were preva­lent. Milne’s pri­ma­ry mis­sion was to pro­tect French con­voys from Goeben, and not to let Goeben escape into the Atlantic. This was tall order, since war had not yet been declared by any country.

Milne sent a force of light war­ships under Admi­ral Charles Troubridge toward the mouth of the Adri­at­ic. He con­cen­trat­ed the rest of his forces includ­ing HMS Indomitable and Inde­fati­ga­ble, at Mal­ta. Togeth­er the two forces were capa­ble of destroy­ing Goeben.

Then the French had sec­ond thoughts about cross­ing the Mediter­ranean at this time. Inex­plic­a­bly, they did not tell the British of this deci­sion. Next, Italy declared her­self neu­tral and Britain informed Italy that she would respect her neu­tral­i­ty with­in six miles from Ital­ian shores.

Easy prey

On August 2nd Goeben coaled at Messi­na, then, with her accom­pa­ny­ing cruis­er SMS Bres­lau, bom­bard­ed the French North African ports of Bone and Philippeville. On that day Britain sent an ulti­ma­tum to Ger­many: Get out of Bel­gium by mid­night. At about 3pm, west of Sici­ly, Goeben passed with­in 10,000 yards of Indomitable and Inde­fati­ga­ble—easy prey for the British, who could fire three times more met­al at Goeben than she could return. Troubridge regret­ted that the Ger­man admiral’s flag was not fly­ing. Oth­er­wise he would have fired a salute which, in view of the tense sit­u­a­tion, might have pre­cip­i­tat­ed war on the spot.

In Lon­don, Churchill and the Sec­re­tary of State for War, Lord Kitch­en­er, begged the Prime Min­is­ter, H.H. Asquith, to allow the British war­ships to strike. Asquith agreed, but the Cab­i­net declared it would not be “crick­et” to fire before the British ulti­ma­tum expired on August 4th. The Ger­man ships steamed away unmolested.

Goeben returned to Messi­na where she topped off her bunkers. Again, the British could have sunk her with lit­tle trou­ble. Again, it was decid­ed that to attack her inside Italy’s six-mile lim­it was unsporting.

Ger­man Kon­ter­ad­mi­ral Wil­helm Sou­chon made out his will and sailed south out of Messi­na, to what he was sure would now be the long-await­ed British attack and his almost cer­tain death. To his sur­prise, only light cruis­ers await­ed him. Milne’s force was still to the west, screen­ing nonex­is­tent French convoys!

Escape of Goeben

Click to enlarge map. (

Then the sec­ond inex­plic­a­ble inci­dent occurred: Indomitable need­ed coal, but Milne, instead of send­ing her to Malta—where the oper­a­tion would take less time and from where she could cov­er Messi­na and the Adriatic—sent her to Biz­erte, North Africa. There she was well out of the action. Goeben and Bres­lau sailed for Pola at the head of the Adri­at­ic, with only Troubridge’s light war­ships in their way.

Sud­den­ly the Ger­man ships altered course to the east-south­east. Admi­ral Sou­chon had been advised of the chances of a Ger­man alliance with Turkey. The British, still igno­rant of the sit­u­a­tion, were puz­zled. Milne gave Troubridge no orders, so final­ly he decid­ed to give chase, hop­ing to get in at least a crip­pling blow before daylight.

Then the third inex­plic­a­ble event occurred. Troubridge had 16 ves­sels, far more than Goeben could sink with the ammu­ni­tion in her hold. Despite this advan­tage, Troubridge decid­ed the odds were against him, and turned back to the Adri­at­ic! Milne, by then, was com­ing up at flank speed.

Then the fourth inex­plic­a­ble event occurred: A clerk in the Admi­ral­ty office, with­out any author­i­ty at all, radioed that war had been declared against Aus­tria-Hun­gary. Milne’s orders were clear. He reversed his course and head­ed for Mal­ta. It was 24 hours before Milne’s course was not­ed and reversed. Except that the British still could not imag­ine where Goeben was head­ed, the chase now looked hope­less. But was it?

Another opportunity lost

In Con­stan­tino­ple Enver Pasha and Sul­tan Mehmed were still at odds. For almost two days Goeben and Bres­lau wan­dered about the Greek islands, await­ing per­mis­sion to pass into the Dar­d­anelles. Final­ly they were allowed through. With her arrival, Turkey’s alliance with Ger­many was sealed.

Still the British did not know of the alliance. Win­ston Churchill protest­ed the pres­ence of Goeben in a “neu­tral” port, demand­ing she be interned. Ger­many respond­ed by announc­ing that Goeben and Bres­lau had been “sold” to Turkey. It was a bla­tant ruse that Churchill rec­og­nized. He ordered her sunk if she came out, “regard­less of what flag she flew.”

TCG Yavuz, sub­ject of this arti­cle on “Churchill-relat­ed” stamps. (Scott #994)

On Octo­ber 27th Goeben, in com­pa­ny with the Turk­ish Navy, steamed into the Black Sea, bom­bard­ed the Russ­ian fortress of Sev­astopol, sank a trans­port, raid­ed Odessa, tor­pe­doed a gun­boat and prac­ti­cal­ly destroyed Novorossiysk, its oil tanks and all the ship­ping in port. At last the British declared war on Turkey.

“For want of a nail…”

But why is a Turk­ish com­mem­o­ra­tive show­ing the bat­tle­cruis­er Yavuz a Churchill-relat­ed postage stamp?

Had Goeben not passed the Dar­d­anelles, it was very pos­si­ble Turkey would have remained neu­tral in the First World War. Absent Turkey, the Allies lost their only sup­ply route to Rus­sia. This loss was so seri­ous that in 1915 Churchill felt it imper­a­tive to assault the Dar­d­anelles. The result­ing deba­cle was the prin­ci­pal rea­son Churchill was oust­ed from the Admi­ral­ty. Because of Goeben, the Russ­ian armies starved for food and materiel. The Czar fell and the Bol­she­viks took over. And the rest is history….

Yavuz and her fate

Kaiser Wil­helm II, greet­ed aboard the ex-Goeben, now TCG Yavuz, dur­ing his Octo­ber 1917 vis­it to Con­stan­tino­ple as a guest of the Sul­tan. (Ger­man Fed­er­al Archives)

After being mined sev­er­al times, beached and bombed by Han­d­ley Page bombers, Goeben was giv­en to the Turks in  the Treaty of Lau­sanne. She was ulti­mate­ly refit­ted and renamed Yavuz Sul­tan Selim. She served as flag­ship of the Turk­ish Navy until 1954.

Yavuz was offered to West Ger­many as a muse­um ship in 1963, but the arti­facts of the Kaiser’s war were not pop­u­lar, and the offer was turned down. She was sold for scrap in 1971. Yavuz was the last Dread­nought in exis­tence out­side the Unit­ed States and the longest-serv­ing of all Dread­nought-class war­ships. She was also the last sur­vivor of the Impe­r­i­al Ger­man Navy.

One thought on “How “Goeben” Changed History, by Dal Newfield

  1. Very well done sto­ry. Inter­est­ing to learn she was the last sur­vivor of the old Impe­r­i­al Ger­man Navy.

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