Airpower over Gallipoli, 1915-1916

  • Published

Airpower over Gallipoli, 1915-1916 by Sterling Michael Pavelec. Naval Institute Press, 2020, 215pp.

Sterling Michael Pavelec is a multibook author with four previous books focused on airpower and the military industrial complex.

This is a concise military airpower history book describing airpower in the World War I Gallipoli Peninsula campaign. It has nine chapters, a conclusion, three appendices, notes, bibliography, and index. Airpower during this world war was in its infancy yet added an immense font of knowledge for future conflicts. However, according to Pavelec, the strategic use of airpower in the Gallipoli campaign was limited and underreported.

The author establishes the direction of his book through the chapter titles. From the birth of airpower to the decision to wage war against Turkey, Pavelec follows the men of Great Britain, France, Germany, and Turkey with their flying machines in the Gallipoli campaign, 1915-16. He terminates with concise evaluation and conclusion sections.

By September 1914, the European war theater had devolved into trench warfare. When Turkey joined the Central Powers, Winston Churchill, first lord of the British Admiralty, strongly suggested an invasion to remove them from the conflict and open the logistics supply train to Russia, another ally. Churchill also believed that the Navy and Army, augmented by airpower, would lead to a more decisive and successful battle. A Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) squadron was ordered to Gallipoli.

The Navy and Army, however, focused upon traditional approaches to any invasion; bombard the enemy into submission and mop up with the infantry. Airpower, not a traditional element of either Navy or Army at the time, was used limitedly from the beginning of the campaign.

From the beginning, the Gallipoli Peninsula campaign was going to be a difficult battle assignment. Geographically, it is a choke point in the passage to the Bosphorus Strait leading to the Black Sea. It is dotted with difficult landing places, steep terrains, deeply incised slopes, narrow beaches, and inadequate water supplies.[1] Still, it was an alluring risk. And, if the Allies could capture it, it could push the Turks out of the war.

The invasion of the peninsula began according to a scripted series of bombardments followed by amphibious landings. At first, Turkish forces abandoned the outer forts but then met the approaching Allied minesweepers with heavy fire stalling the advance. Allied battleships then entered the straits; but, again, Turkish fire, including undetected mines, sank three ships and severely damaged three others.

In the wake of the failed naval attack, the Navy began supporting large scale troop landings on the peninsula. On 25 April 1915, the Allies launched the invasion and, despite suffering heavy casualties, managed to establish two beachheads. Although the initial landing occurred, the Allies were unable to make progress. In an attempt to break the stalemate, the Allies made another major troop landing and proceeded against little opposition, but Allied indecision and delay stalled their progress in all three landings, allowing reinforcements to arrive and shore up defenses. The stalemate continued.

As the stalemate of the Gallipoli campaign continued during 1915, the RNAS and the French Air Force were in the fray from the beginning. The RNAS’ 3rd Squadron was assigned to the campaign during April of that year and led by Squadron Commander (later Air Commodore) Charles Rumney Samson. The squadron became innovators in the use of airpower. The author reports that Samson used his aircraft for reconnaissance, close air support, bombing, and “anything that would delay, destroy, or cause the enemy to retreat.” More tactical use, rather than strategic, was Samson’s result. The French at Escradille de Tenedos, commanded by Antoine Marie Cesari, flew their aircraft often as “independent airmen.” They, too, had to contend with little support using their aircraft in a strategic manner. Adding to the misery were the long supply lines, obsolete equipment, and a lack of coordination and communication with upper command.

On the other side, led by Germany’s Maj Eric Serno, the Turks built up their air force. Germans, in Turkish uniforms, flew and maintained the aircraft. Interestingly, the Turks were the recipients of the first bombing from an aircraft in their war with Italy in 1911. Turkey wanted to build an air force but later abandoned the effort leading to the situation in the Gallipoli campaign. The Turks, as well, had long supply lines often interrupted by nonbelligerents on the supply route, obsolete equipment, and lacked personnel.

However, throughout the year of battle, strategic airpower was not efficiently used by Allied commanders. Commodore Samson and Captain Cesari could not convince these commanders to use airpower for further advantage. Poor decisions, lack of communication, and an unwillingness to use airpower for strategic means led to an Allied defeat.

Conversely, both Allies were superb in the year of battle. Left to fly independently, the RNAS flew more than 2,600 hours and more than 156,000 miles in the air. Both British and French air forces were instrumental in the tactical use of airpower but were limited strategically. The only strategic use of the squadron supported the evacuation of the troops on the peninsula. The Gallipoli Peninsula campaign ended 9 January 1916 with more than 141,000 Allied casualties.[2] Only in defeat was airpower used strategically.

Military traditionalists, relying on massive bombardments and infantry, led to the limited use of airpower in the campaign. Underreporting the exploits of airpower may have been the result of losing so many lives and not the advantages an air arm flying over the peninsula provided. Although the British and French air forces enjoyed air superiority throughout the campaign, the Allies retreated from the field in defeat. Aiding in the defeat was the inability to overcome the geography of the peninsula.

The book is very concise since almost 40 percent of the content consists of additional material rather than narrative. However, historians of World War I will benefit from the detailed Appendices: Gallipoli Personalities, Aircraft, and Literature. If there is a shortcoming in the book, it is repeating many ideas and facts throughout the chapters.

The limited and underreporting of airpower in the Gallipoli campaign is no longer overshadowed by defeat. It is now available with the author’s well-written, well-researched, and exciting book.

Maj James A. Boyless, USAF, Retired, PhD

[1] P. Doyle and M. R. Bennett (eds) Fields of Battle in Terrain in Military History: An Introduction, GeoJournal Library 64, https://doi.org/.

[2] Ministry for Culture and Heritage, “Gallipoli Casualties by Country,” New Zealand History, 1 March 2016, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."