Saturday, December 13, 2014

December 13th, 1914

- Grand Duke Nicholas confers with Generals Ruszkii and Ivanov at Brest-Litovsk today regarding the strategic situation on the Eastern Front.  Since the evacuation of Lodz on the 6th the German 9th Army has been hammering at the lines of the 1st and 2nd Russian armies west of the lower Bzura River, while the Russian 8th and 4th Armies are falling back in the face of the Austro-Hungarian victory at Limanowa-Lapanow.  The Grand Duke orders his front commanders to pull back their armies in Poland - the 1st, 2nd, and 5th Armies of North-West Front are to retreat to the defensive positions already established along the lower Bzura and Rawka Rivers which protect Warsaw, while the 9th and 4th Armies of South-West Front are to withdraw to a line running north-south along the Nida River.  By shortening the line in central Poland, the Grand Duke seeks to free up units that can then be deployed on the flanks - to 10th Army facing East Prussia, and 8th Army in the Carpathians.

In Galicia south of the Vistula River, the Austro-Hungarians attempt a vigorous pursuit of the retreating Russians, but are largely frustated both by enemy rear-guard actions and the sheer exhaustion and depletion of the Austro-Hungarian infantry.

- The Austro-Hungarian 5th Army endures another day of battering south of Belgrade at the hands of the advancing Serbs.  General Potiorek signals General Liborius Frank, commander of 5th Army, that he should abandon Belgrade unless he was absolutely sure it could be held without serious damage to his army.  Frank replies that he can guarantee neither point - his army is down to forty thousand combatants and there are insufficient fortifications facing the enemy.

- Since the arrival of Goeben and Breslau at Constantinople in early August, an Entente squadron of French and British warships have patrolled the western exit of the Dardanelles, prepared to sink the two German warships should they attempt to break into the eastern Mediterranean.  Other than the brief (and unsuccessful) bombardment of the forts in early November designed to dissuade the Ottomans from entering the war, the squadron has seen no action.  There are, however, also a half-dozen submarines attached to the squadron, and today one - the British submarine B11 - attempts to enter the Dardanelles.

The British submarine B11 - the size of the sailors around the conning tower gives a good idea of how small early submarines were.

At 415am B11 submerges and enters the straits, making painfully slow progress against the current.  A number of Ottoman minefields are known to have been laid across the Dardanelles, and to combat this steel tubes have been attached to the hydroplanes and other sharp edges to prevent them from snagging the mine cables.  Over five hours later B11 clears the minefields, and rises to periscope depth in Sari Siglar Bay.  When the captain, Lieutenant-Commander Norman Holbrook, views the horizon, he is astonished to see the Ottoman pre-dreadnought Messudieh anchored less than a mile away.  At a range of eight hundred yards, one torpedo is fired at what is, for all intents and purposes, a sitting duck.  The torpedo runs true and strikes the Ottoman warship, which immediately begins to sink.

As shore batteries open up on it, B11 quickly submerges to make its escape.  However, the compass has fogged, leaving Holbrook to navigate the ship by instinct.  The current has also pushed them into the path of several shoals, and B11 bounces from one to another running at full speed to avoid getting stuck.  In the shallow water the conning tower is visible, signaled by the nearby splashes of fire from more shore batteries.  The Ottoman gunners fail to strike B11, and it manages to escape to open water.  The success is celebrated in Britain, and Holbrook becomes the first submariner to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

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