Escape of Goeben and Breslau

The following discussion appeared on WW1-L in July 1999, and appears here courtesy of the authors, the "two Geoffrey's".

From Geoffrey Miller (

I agree that Churchill's qualities outshone his faults, but I am afraid that, with regard to the Goeben fiasco, it was Churchill himself who drafted the notorious "superior force" telegram which was so instrumental in causing Troubridge's cruiser squadron to turn away after he had initially intended to intercept the German battle cruiser. Even the orders which did originate from Battenberg during the first week of August 1914 contain many alterations and additions in Churchill's own, distinctive, hand.

Geoffrey Miller (

I would be the first to acknowledge that Churchill's telegram was woolly and imprecise, and, in any case, it was not the First Lord's business to interfere.

I cannot agree that WSC's inept telegram was "so instrumental in causing Troubridge's cruiser squadron to turn away after he had initially intended to intercept the German battle cruiser". The determination of what was a "superior force" was the responsibility of the Admiral on the spot. It was Troubridge's responsibility, alone, to decide whether the Germans should or should not be intercepted. He could have attacked in order to try and cripple the Goeben so that she could not escape the heavy forces under Milne. Troubridge's four ships each had a broadside weight of 8480 lbs. to Goeben's 8270 lbs. The Goeben was not sailing at her full speed of 28 knots, she had engine problems, and Troubridge's ships could sail at 22 knots and Troubridge knew of her speed following the reports of Captain Kelly of the Gloucester who was shadowing the Germans. Milne actually queried Troubridge on this, he signalled : "Why did you not continue to cut off Goeben, she only going 17 knots and so important to bring her to action"

Troubridge replied that with the visibility at the time, he could have been sighted from 20 to 25 miles, he could never have got nearer unless Goeben wished to bring him to action "which she could have done under circumstances most advantageous to her. I could never have brought her to action. ... I would consider it a great imprudence to place squadron in such a position as to be picked off and sunk while unable to effectively reply".

It was only after the action that Troubridgementioned the orders not to engage a "superior force"

There were other telegrams, not originating from WSC, that confused the issue and contributed to the escape of the Goeben. Grey misjudged the effect on the Italians of having a German powerful force, capable of linking up with the Austrians, hence the telegram from the Admiralty to Milne at Malta, that Italy was neutral and " you are to respect this neutrality rigidly and should not allow any of HM ships to come within six miles of the Italian coast". This suggests that neither the Admiralty nor Grey were paying any regard to Turkey at that time.

Incidently, another factor, leading to the escape of the Germans, wasthat Milne did not seem to appreciate any urgency; he failed to send the Indomitable to support Troubridge, keeping her with the rest of the fleet while they coaled. He was in no great hurry because he was more concerned with intercepting the Goeben when she turned west. But she never did!

From Geoffrey Miller (

Certainly there were compounding factors in the catalogue of errors which allowed Goeben to escape, but, looking solely at Troubridge's actions, Churchill's telegram was the principle determinant behind his decision not to intercept. Churchill's original draft of the "superior force" telegram (sent to Admiral Milne) is given below [the words struck through were deleted in the final version, and the words in square brackets were added]:

"Shd war break out and England and France engage in it, it now seems probable that Italy will remain neutral and that Greece can be made an ally. Spain also will be friendly & possibly an ally. The attitude of Italy is however uncertain and it is especially important that your squadron shd not be seriously engaged with Austrian ships before we know what Italy will do. Your first task shd be to aid the French in the transportation of their African army by covering and if possible bringing to action fast German or Austrian ships [particularly Goeben] wh may interfere with that transportation. You will be notified by telegraph when you may consult with the French Admiral. Do not [at this stage] be brought to action against superior forces in any w except [in combination with the French] as part of a general battle. The speed of your squadrons is sufficient to enable you to choose your moment. We shall hope to reinforce the Mediterranean and you must husband your forces at the outset. W.S.C. 30.7"

Most of Churchill's subsequent alterations occur in the sixth sentence. As originally drafted it read: 'Do not be brought to action against superior forces in any w[ay?] except as part of a general battle.' As it stood, this was hopelessly ambiguous, failing to define what constituted either "superior forces" or "a general battle". The addition of the qualifying clause "in combination with the French" after "except" tends to indicate what Churchill later admitted he had clearly meant: do not engage the Austrians single-handed. However the weight of the additional clause fell on the first half of the sentence, leading to the possible interpretation that "superior forces", whatever they might be, could be engaged with French assistance. The sentence, as Churchill meant it, was, in any case, superfluous: Milne had already been warned off the Austrians. Had Churchill simply deleted the sentence, instead of altering it in three instances, Troubridge's torment on the night of 6/7 August could have been avoided.

Troubridge was shown a copy of Churchill's telegram by Milne at 9 a.m. on Sunday 2 August. Although both officers later agreed that a conversation then ensued as to the definition of superior force Troubridge subsequently maintained that his views as to the relative merits of the armoured cruiser type (none of which had been laid down since the Minotaur class early in 1905, which included Defence, now his own flagship) were well known; as was his opinion that a single battle cruiser was a superior force to a whole cruiser squadron 'on a day of perfect visibility.'

On the question of what constituted superior force, Troubridge recalled his conversation with Milne later that Sunday afternoon: 'I hope, Sir, that this is left to my judgement', adding, 'You know, Sir, that I consider a battle-cruiser a superior force to a cruiser squadron, unless they can get within range of her.' Milne remembered that Troubridge did speak of the difficulty his armoured cruisers might encounter in engaging Goeben but that they agreed that it would be possible to fight a successful action if Goeben could be caught unawares, or in a situation where manoeuvring would be difficult for the German ship. Milne however was adamant that Troubridge 'did not leave me with the impression that he would not engage, although he said it would be difficult', while, with regard to the question of superior force, Milne was equally convinced that this part of his orders applied only to the Austrian fleet alone and not to the German squadron. This again was Churchill's fault.

When Troubridge found himself in a position to intercept Goeben, the consequences of following what he called his 'mature and measured judgment - that is, refusing to fight, in accordance with his orders, what he considered to be a superior force - were initially so abhorrent that, when approached by his Flag Captain, Fawcet Wray, at 2.45 a.m. on 7 August, with the question, 'Are you going to fight, Sir? because, if so, the squadron ought to know', Troubridge relented and, at 3 a.m., sent a signal to Milne that he intended, in any case, to engage at 6 a.m. 'I know it is wrong', he sighed, 'but I cannot let the name of the whole Mediterranean Squadron stink.'

Fawcet Wray then saw Troubridge again at 3.30 a.m. and said, 'I do not like it, Sir.' Troubridge replied, 'Neither do I; but why?' Wray then proceeded to point out several things, including his belief that : "There are two courses open to the Goeben; one was directly on sight of you to circle round you at a radius of the visibility of the time, and another course was for her to circle round you at some range outside 16,000 yards which her guns would carry and which your guns will not. It seems to me it is likely to be the suicide of the squadron."

Troubridge, whose thoughts regarding the question of superior force coincided with Wray's, then gave the order to turn away from the enemy. Troubridge later maintained that, in addition to the arguments above, Wray had gone into far more detail on technical matters - 'penetration of armour, and so on' - and had tendered advice on the excellence of German gunnery, while the shooting of the First Cruiser Squadron left much to be desired. Fawcet Wray would categorically deny making these additional statements, years later claiming that Troubridge's assertion 'was an absolute lie'. But the controversy did not end there. Wray believed that the change of course was to allow Troubridge time to reconsider the situation and ask Milne for instructions; when, however, Troubridge announced his intention of abandoning the chase altogether, Wray confessed to being 'astounded' and argued that his advice had been directed towards abandoning the idea of lying across Goeben's bows in the open sea but not against completely abandoning the chase.

Troubridge had decided that a single battle cruiser constituted a superior force in relation to his four heavy cruisers and, according to his sailing orders, based on Churchill's instructions, he was not to become engaged with a superior force. Milne's dispositions and tactical awareness were also at fault but in the case of Troubridge, Churchill was the culprit.

From Geoffrey Miller (

Thank you for your last detailed post. It does seem that WSC's list of errors includes much more of the Goeben affair than I thought. What a fascinating character he presents, in many ways he behaved like an enthusiastic schoolboy, yet withal he had great capacity and could exhibit skill and good judgement.

I have read a number of accounts of Churchill and the Goeben affair and it is interesting to compare the way that different historians treat their material. Hough is scathing of Troubridge and he quotes Peter Scott as being rather pro-Churchill. Andrew Gordon blames Churchill, Gilbert's biography and Corbett's Naval Operations are rather noncommittal and Ponting, as would be expected, is very anti-Churchill so I found your post to be very useful in clarifying the issue of the Churchill telegram and Troubridge.

Last Updated: 25 July, 1999.

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