The Coward? by Steve Dunn

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  • Steve Dunn, businessman turned naval historian, here presents the first-ever biography of Admiral Sir Ernest Troubridge, the man universally blamed, after the event, for the escape of the German warships Goeben and Breslau to Constantinople in 1914.

    The political, social and family aspects of Troubridge’s life and actions are excellently and very readably described. The author brings out very well Troubridge’s ability to get on with senior people, including foreigners, attributes honed by the appointments of his early career. The real personal friendship between him and King George V makes fascinating reading as does the juicy saga of the collapse of the subject’s disastrous second marriage. Troubridge’s post-1914 activity as, effectively, a highly successful diplomat in the Balkans gives us insights into what was going on in Serbia and, later, Hungary which I found most interesting.

    Sadly, when it comes to naval matters the book begins to go wrong. It is evident in many ways that Dunn does not understand the Royal Navy of 1914 (or any other time). Solecisms of terminology warn of this, but also he appears to be astonished by some aspects of the RN when they are merely part of the ordinary process of its administration.

    Marder provides a more understandable narrative of the ‘escape’ of the Goeben in 1914 which is the main subject of the book.

    The villains in order of seniority were:
    1. The King, for insisting on the unintelligent Berkeley Milne being made C-in-C Mediterranean.
    2. Churchill, for his pushy meddling in matters beyond the proper scope of his office, particularly in the Admiralty instructions to Milne of 30th July (Dewar saw this as the seed of the whole debacle) and the ambiguity of subsequent signals that further confused the issue, and in particular decreed split aims - watching the Adriatic on the one hand and shadowing the Goeben on the other.
    3. Berkeley Milne for misinterpreting his mission by keeping his battlecruisers too far to the West and not deploying them to back up Troubridge; and crucially for failing to bottle up Goeben at Messina on 6th August so forcing her to action against a superior force. Fisher did not refer to him as Berkeley-Goeben for nothing.

    Goeben was faster than the British battle cruisers (as demonstrated on 2nd August) let alone our other cruisers. Her boiler problems were unknown to the British and Troubridge would have assumed her possessing a four knot advantage over his ships.

    Troubridge’s flag captain, Wray, was merely doing his duty in giving his admiral appropriate technical advice relating to Goeben, and his advice was technically correct. What Troubridge did with that advice was Troubridge’s responsibility but it was clear that if Goeben accepted action the 1st cruiser squadron would be annihilated to no purpose and Goeben could go where she wished. She had the legs to decide the fighting range, the gunpower to do great and immediate damage, and the armour and internal protection to ensure that our cruisers’ gunfire could inflict little damage (see Jane‘s). That she was directed to Constantinople was unknown, but now we know what happened it is clear that Troubridge could not have prevented this, and if Goeben did not choose to fight the analysis had to be that she could give Troubridge the slip anyway.
    Wearing the German admiral, Souchon’s, hat for a moment, he was going to a place where repair and resupply were available, and he would win whether he fought or not. Without that, he was immediately welcome; winning a fight and sinking four British cruisers would have made that rhapsodic, and done enormous damage to the British position, not least to the Admiralty - as indeed was the case when Cradock got Good Hope and Monmouth sunk by von Spee. That Churchill did not have the grace to acknowledge what he had been spared politically need be no surprise.

    Dunn’s and others’ attempts to draw a parallel with the 1939 River Plate action are argument by false analogy. Langsdorff’s decision to scuttle was driven by his total lack of repair support and re-supply, which was not the case for Souchon, who could therefore risk an engagement. Also the speed situation was reversed: Harwood’s British cruisers’ maximum speed exceeded that of a German pocket battleship by more than the margin that Goeben was thought to have in 1914, and as Harwood demonstrated, he was thus able to dictate the tactical terms of the 1939 engagement.

    Troubridge may be charged with an error of judgment, which is unsurprising in a man who seems to have reached the ceiling of his capability as a Captain, but any charge of cowardice is totally unfair - this is a man who had been recognised for diving overboard to save a sailor. For Dunn, demonstrably not qualified to do so, to try and brand Troubridge with cowardice - perhaps to sensationalise his book? - is to my mind disgraceful.

    Two anchors.

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