David and Goliath

  “First in the love of women
First in the field of fight
First in the death that brave men die
That is the Douglas right!”

Sometimes, it’s best not to know what you are getting yourself into. As was written in the letter that ended up in the hands of my Grandmother : –

“When in the water I swam and swam amidst the cries of ‘boat ahoy’ from everyone around. I knew it was no use shouting as I should want every bit of strength. Twice I called to 2 men ahead who I thought might be strong swimmers and asked them if they could give me a hand as I was nearly done but they replied they were nearly done. I then lost all my natural strength so to speak but swam mechanically for life. I could see nothing but the shore, and in the distance a dark object which I knew must be a ship at anchor.”

Swim for your life!

I’d done my research. I knew the Dardanelles was like the Bosporus, a narrow channel connecting two seas with tricky surface currents that flowed one way like a river, at walking pace and faster. I also knew that deeper down, the vast body of water flowed in the opposite direction, a natural phenomenon I preferred not to dwell on since just the idea of it spooked me. Apart from that, nothing much to fear apart from an outdated internet race report describing rough conditions that ended with the line delivered deadpan that three swimmers ‘had gone missing’, except they had, it was no joke. From times before health and safety became a serious local issue, I mused.

Relaxing before the race

On the ferry boat to the start, commandeered for the 750 odd registered to swim in the Turkish Victory Day Aug 30th official race across the Dardanelles that celebrated the Allied withdrawal from Gallipoli, a South African born Journalist living in Ankara and filing for several international news agencies sat next to me. After I tried to break the pre race nerves by observing that at least there was no chance we’d be eaten by sharks, he, a two race veteran, described from first hand experience some of the other dangers.

The first time he’d competed, he’d failed to make adequate allowances for the current, swum too direct to the finish, tried in futile desperation to swim back up stream, and ended up being fished out of the water by a boat hired for the day to catch ‘done’ fish like him before they got swept out to the Agean Sea. Hardly surprisingly, the next year he’d over compensated by swimming across stream too high and too close to the shore before he thought he’d take a comfy current assisted ride down to the finish, only to find a back current that took him further upstream towards the Marmara Sea, where his race again finished up in the back of a local fishing boat. So he was on third time lucky.

The only person now more nervous and focused on the job at hand than him was me, since I’d arrived into Çanakkale the day before too late to attend the pre race recce organized by the excellent Çanakkale Rotary Club, so was winging it with a ‘less is more’ race strategy, where less was nothing at all. What worried my empty inbox most was a message posing problems that came with no answers. My new found guide didn’t seem to have any tactical rabbits to the pull from his trunks after his double disaster, except perseverence. ‘Can’t you just follow someone who knows the way?’ I asked, hopefully. ‘Like who?’, he replied, ‘Anyone can make a mistake’. I could see his point. This was a race that preyed on those that played it too safe or too risky, without any prior indicators as to how to find the in between.

So with the ferry now half way across the strait, I sprang up from the seat with a downstream view and crossed the decks for an upstream view, where I was lucky enough to meet a Canadian man who had done the race recce that I missed. His briefing went like this. ‘First swim at right angles from the shore for that prominent radio mast on the hills North of Çanakkale on the other side, then aim for the town’s stadium lights, and finally go for the big ship moored to the outer harbor walls, and not more than 20 meters from it, or risk being swept past the spectators at the finish.’ To the ignominy of the downstream fishing boat, I could have added. Great, except still absolutely no indication on moving water of when and where to make the vital adjustments to distant sitings seen through misted goggles. Anyhow he seemed more concerned by the mass bladder relief we’d have to swim through at the start. I told him not to worry, it was all salt water.

‘You’ll have to trust to your instincts’, I told myself, as the ferry arrived and we all piled back onto the busses that carried us to the start, where I pulled a few warm up moves, marked the radio mast on the far side, stuck in my ear plugs, indispensable to any chances I’d have of finishing, and watched the disabled competitors enter the race from boats just off shore. Then at 9am sharp the gun went off, we all jostled our way to the waters edge, yellow hats for locals, which the South African and I resident in Turkey and all Turks wore, orange for foreigners like the Canadian (on the ferry I’d half joked that if they had to choose between a drowning yellow or orange hat, the rescue boats were sure to go for the orange to prevent any leery ‘Tourist Drowns In Çanakkale’ international headlines, leaving the lost yellow hats to the ‘gone missing’ mention at the end of an article buried in the middle pages of the Çanakkale Sun), ran down the stony beach and waded into the sea. I swam a bit, relieved myself, tread water, and had a look around. I noticed a group of about 30 enthusiastic orange hats had entered the water way upstream, headed for the radio mast, while a group of maybe 50 serious yellow hats entered downstream, and powered forward in what looked a direct line to the finish. I struck out, three strokes crawl breathe left, three strokes right, with some breaststroke mixed in for positioning and siting, hoping to find the middle way.

The swim was less Zenful than what I had experienced in my six weeks of Bosporus and Princess Islands ocean training, but it went well, I finished in 1hr 25, about 430th. There were times out in the middle of the channel when I was alone, and times when I nearly collided with other swimmers, both yellow and orange hats, one a huge lady with a slow motion whale-like stroke and swimming stockings up to her knees, who my inner Mark Spitz ruefully noted must have been going at my speed, since we were by then about three quarters the way across, and I was aimed at the stadium lights. As far as I know, most of the 750 finished, the fishing boats had a lean time, conditions were benign, I was told after the race that a even a moderate swimmer could have gone straight for the finish that year. Oh well, next time! The South African and the Canadian made it, we congratulated each other at the finish. My Mother and Wife were relieved and happy, my 15 month old Anglo Turk Son fast asleep in his pram, so no smiling baby in the arms mind over matter photo ops for the swashbuckling ‘Undercurrent Affairs’ blog this time.

Is that David Hasselhoff in Baywatch?

But what of my Great Grandfather, David Douglas, whose war ship Goliath was sunk by a German torpedo fired from a Turkish warship at the start of the Gallipoli campaign in 1915, to whom I dedicated my relatively insignificant effort 100 years later, along with the family call to arms that perhaps drove him? His was a different type of swim. Out of a crew of over 700, many never even got the chance to compete for their lives.

The Goliath

“I think there are twenty officers saved and 168 men. I hear from one or two who came up from between decks that many poor fellows thought it was the enemies shells that had struck us and they rushed to their stations below.”

“So there it is – some of us have been saved and many lost. The former to serve on till Constantinople is reached and peace restored – the latter to rest from their labours on earth and begin anew in the kingdom of heaven.”

“I have nothing to be proud of and nothing to be ashamed of. I did what everyone else who realized the gravity of the situation and waited till it was obvious no human effort could save the ship and then plunged for the chance of life. And I do not think it could have been 3 minutes from the time the second torpedo struck until she turned over.”

I seem to have better nerves than I thought and I do not think the scenes will be constantly coming before me and I am looking forward to my new duties on W beach.”

Best love to you both and all.
Ever your affectionate husband,

David’s Daughter and my Grandmother Lady Bettina Thomson on the right

My Grandmother, his daughter, 100 years old last Jan 1st 2015, ends her account of his life in her ‘A Douglas Family Chronicle’ with this, which must have occurred around late 1915 or early 1916 :

“After home leave, when he saw me, his daughter, for the first time, he was promoted to Lieutenant Commander and appointed to the ‘Black Prince’

On May 31st 1916 he was drowned in action at the Battle of Jutland. It was never known what happened to the ship. She simply disappeared with all on board”.

So what happened to the Black Prince?

the black prince
The Black Prince

Sometimes you have to wait a hundred years to arrive at the potted truth.

Through the fog of war, which includes eyewitness accounts of the battle and how it gets reported afterwards by the naval brass and the press, you can read that the Black Prince engaged with one German battleship, got separated from the main fleet, bumped into a group of four or five others, tried to turn about and took a wave of enemy shells while broadside that sunk her in fifteen minutes. A mix of bad luck and heroic defense, and there might well have been elements of that in her loss.

But that doesn’t explain how a battle or armoured cruiser like the Black Prince could have gone down with all hands. Ships were designed to remain afloat even after heavy shelling. One German battleship recorded 22 hits from the Dreadnought battleship’s massive shells, and still limped back to harbour. British warships were at least the equal of their German counterparts in design. And in every case, a slow sinking caused by heavy shelling would allow some to swim for their lives, and even if the ship was struck and sunk by torpedoes like Goliath during Gallipoli men above decks were rescued from the sea. My Great Grandfather’s account demonstrates this perfectly.

To come up with what really happened, the loss of the Black Prince has to be taken in the wider context of the battle of Jutland, the Grand Fleet, the Great War, and a culture of botched leadership and extended coverups that ends up in this case with the Admirals who presided over the debacle getting plinths and fountains under Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square, when a court martial and a firing squad would have been more appropriate.

Unlike their hero Nelson, who fought a different style of battle at close quarters a hundred years earlier and died winning it, these clowns survived their own ineptitude, closed shoulders with their buddies in the Admiralty, and rewarded themselves with gongs, plinths and fountains!

They’d be better commemorated at the 100th anniversary of Jutland by Village People’s song ‘In the Navy’.

No wonder no one learns any lessons. This is all the more galling when one considers how often superior weaponry and firepower have been squandered by a deadly combination of incompetence, arrogance and stubbornness. In the case of Jutland, while accepting errors were made, there is a tendency to try to skip over the calamitous failures and loss of life by searching for positives, so you hear well-meaning naval officers and journalists today claiming the German fleet was dealt a blow that prevented it breaking the blockade or taking any further meaningful part in the war, when it should have been destroyed and the war ended, saving millions of lives in the process.

So what went wrong?

So many things like in all cockups, but one in particular that it is worth focussing on that explains the unprecedented sinkings, in so short a time.

In an effort to copy Nelson’s tactic of getting maximum lead in the air, the Jutland battleships were overstocked with heavy artillery shells, the bulk of them stored in the ship’s Deep Magazine.

Shells comprised of metal and cordite which weighed the same as a small modern car, just shy of 1,000 kg, were loaded into the chambers of the heavy guns along with up to four bags of cordite. It wasn’t hard to work out what the effect of a direct hit on the Deep Magazine would be, a threat minimised by the battleships heavily armoured exterior, reinforced metal inches thick.

The cordite that propelled the shells burns, like it’s predecessor gunpowder, slowly in open air. But in a confined metal space like the Gun Turret, where the bags of cordite were stored on the battleships, a fire would create a serious explosion. Unfortunately the Gun Turret was connected by the hoist directly to the Deep Magazine, and in a scaled down replica where the Gun Turret was set on fire, the force of the explosion drove a jet of flame straight down into the Deep Magazine, causing an explosion that would sink a ship pretty much instantaneously, exactly as happened to the battleships sunk at Jutland including, in all likelihood, the battlecruiser Black Prince.

hmsblack prince echoscansjpg
Echo Scan of the Black Prince on the North Sea seabed

So a bit like having a giant hand grenade on board. All the enemy had to do was hit the Gun Turret, and they’d pulled the pin that would sink the ship! So the Germans needed accuracy, and although their fleet weaponry was less powerful with a shorter range, their gunners were more experienced and comfortable with what they had, and more accurate. Did they discover this suicide bomber’s handgrenade belt strapped to the midrift of their enemies battleships during the conflict, and quickly pass the message around so that lower rates of fire could be focussed on the Gun Turret, or did they get their hands on this design flaw in other ways, prior to engagement? The fabled Room 40 that collected German messages and translated them served up some bad intel that might have been fed them by the enemy. Or was there a mole in Room 40? Or did the Admiral’s natural antipathy to the new technology create the misunderstanding? They preferred the established navy communication system that used flags, fine for Trafalgar but hopeless at Jutland where battleships were spread further apart. Then there was the disconnect between Admirals, who cares let’s get stuck in where the gung ho Beattie was concerned, let’s fiddle around saving fuel where the hesitant Jellicoe was concerned, and the split two-paced battle strategy that resulted.

The Grand Fleet couldn’t have made the Germans’ job much easier if it had tried. Range finders didn’t match up to the power and range of the new guns, gunners hadn’t had time to even practice firing these monsters, Admirals part in reponse to this and part in thrall of Nelson’s Trafalgar tactics ran in too close to the Germans, turning their huge firepower advantage into a disadvantage. It was a miracle the Grand Fleet didn’t end up at the bottom of the sea. The reason for that as always can be attributed to crews who, despite the Admiral’s best efforts, fought with a courage that averted what would otherwise have been a total catastrophe rather than an inconclusive calamity.

The Douglas family crest is a salamander in flames above the words ‘Jamais Arriere’. The rest of his letter, and no doubt his life, is an example of more of the understated bravery of the average, mostly obscure, men or women who rose to the occasion when asked without question, many of whom were lost in the craziest war of them all, a war which seemed to start an era that coincided with the death of campaign common sense and guile on a grand scale. Was any of it worth it, or should they all have stayed at home changing nappies and tending the vegetables? Yes and no, according to Pericles, who my Grandmother wisely quotes at the beginning of her family chronicle below the Douglas raison d’etre, whose insight seems to offer solace to those driven by an inner courage and sense of purpose that ends without recognition or fanfare. Remember, this was the Ancient Greek statesman who ruled Athens and built the Parthenon :

‘For the whole earth is a sepulchre of famous men, and their story is not graven only over stone in their native earth, but lives on far away without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives’. Pericles 495 – 429 BC.

What the Greeks would do for a Pericles to lead them out of the darkness now!


I’d say, let those who want to go, go, arm them as best you can, let them fight to win, to the last man standing if necessary, if they return, winners or losers, support them, if they don’t, remember them. Just never waste them, or their efforts. And encourage them not to fight for weasels or losers who waste theirs. We are talking about war and women and wealth creation and cultural values, and even sport and business when it’s done right, not red herrings like naturally recurring climate change cycles, which swim round to provide convenient cover for the inexpedient once every few thousand years, leaving their man made messes caused by Quantitative Easing and Islamofascism to the next generation of the Douglas’s of the World to clean up, for the sake of future generations.

Which reminds me, time for a North Sea swim from North Berwick to the Bass Rock to commemorate my Great Grandfather’s life, and the Battle of Jutland.

My respect to all those lost on both sides. The courage of men who loved life in the face of death defies description. But if it has to happen, and war should be the last resort, when all other civilized efforts to reconcile two opposing sides with contrary cultural values have broken down, where one side seeks the destruction of the other, someone is going to get destroyed, or defeated, or occupied, so may the best side win.

JWDRoberts 04.09.2015

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