Gallipoli – 1

Was Anzac Cove the right place?

It was only shortly after the landing that high command let it be known that an error had been made – the landing should have been made on Brighton Beach, south of Anzac Cove and in a locality of relatively friendly topography. Instead and by accident, the men found themselves in the heart of precipitous country to the north of the intended landing area. Two explanations were proposed: a sea current had drifted the tows northwards and in the dim light of dawn the silhouette of Hell Spit or Ari Burnu had been mistaken for the intended aiming point, Gaba Tepe.

Both explanations can be safely rejected. If a stiff wind blew from the south-west, a set of one and a half knots flowed north-east. This fact was well known to the Mediterranean fleet, which had often visited Lemnos before the war, and was allowed for in orders issued to the marker ship Triumph: “It is absolutely essential for the success of the expedition that your ship should be accurately in this position [coordinates given]. Also record the direction of the tide and strength of the current and communicate both to Admiral Thursby after his arrival at the rendezvous.” In the event, naval log books recorded a breeze blowing at just one knot during the landing, with the result, as Hamilton put it in his memoirs, that “Birdwood had no current to trouble him”. On the point of silhouettes, no one could possibly have mistaken the headlands in question. The high mountain of Sari Bair rises immediately behind Anzac Cove. The Khilid Bahr Plateau, on the other hand, is some distance behind Gaba Tepe and appears much lower from the sea, with a flatter top. If the tows had lost their direction during the period of darkness, there was time to make any necessary adjustments during the inshore journey because (so Bean told a correspondent) the outline of the land could be seen fifteen minutes before the tows set off.

The navigators accompanying the tows were certainly well qualified to make those adjustments. They had studied the shore’s profile on a reconnaissance voyage just before the landing and would have made a particular effort to establish their bearings before moonset (2.57 am on the 25th). They would have had plenty of time to do so as well. Thursby’s report on the landing states that the loom of the land could be clearly seen at 2.30 am and, even one hour later, Colonel Johnstone found that he could “just see a faint outline of the coast.” Godfrey went further. His memoirs state that he was “conscious of the loom of the land about 3 am”, little more than an hour before the landing.

The significance of this degree of visibility was later explained by Hedley Howe, an Australian who landed with the first wave “Throughout the approach to Anzac,” he wrote, “until the moon set at 3 am, navigating officers in ships were able to fix their positions at all times by accurate bearings of the land and in view of the large number of ships involved in the manoeuvre, there cannot be the slightest doubt that the commander of every vessel would be continuously occupied in maintenance of his correct station. Precise navigation is not merely a tradition in the navy. It is an obligation rigorously enforced on the commanders of all ships and on their navigation officers …

Put simply, Howe was saying that the tows were released at a point and in a direction exactly calculated. Since there was virtually no current on the morning of the 25th, any deviation in the tows’ course requires explanation. And there was a deviation – or, to be exact, two deviations, both noted by Major James Robertson of the 9th Battalion and others. “The naval people in the pinnaces seemed a bit hazy about the landing spot,” Robertson wrote. “They stopped, changed course, and stopped again; and finally, when they were about two chains from the shore, a rifle shot rang out. This was the signal for full steam ahead and land as soon as possible.” Metcalfe, then a midshipman, was more exact in the chart he sent to the War Memorial in 1973. “My effort was to show there was no error in navigation nor any current,” he explained. On that chart he marked two places where the course had been changed, on each occasion by two points or 22.5 degrees.

The journal of Midshipman Dixon records the first change halfway in and Bean later confirmed his assessment when he briefed Lambert for his painting of the landing: “After fifteen minutes, the tows were sailing more or less in a line. They were swung to port by the naval officer in charge.” Since the tows set off at 3.30 am and landed around 4.10 am, that change would have been made at 3.45 am, a little less than halfway in. The second change was made just before the tows landed. According to Bush’s midshipman’s log, it was a shift of two points. Metcalfe judged that the change had been made two hundred yards from shore, while Leane of the 11th Battalion put it at three hundred yards, at the moment when the northernmost tow was Opposite Hell Spit. That was the change of course that sent the tows in a cluster towards the Ari Burnu peninsula, where they landed. The second would have been a visual one because the shore was close and dawn just breaking. But how had the first change been carried out in the dark?

Bean’s working papers show him puzzling over the matter for years. The wording of the first reference in his draft, written in 1920, suggests his bewilderment: “The naval men appeared to see far more in the dark than the troops did, for as the land grew closer one after another picked up this movement and swung several hundred yards northward.” Three years later, Bean’s address to cadets at Duntroon Military Academy, shows that his puzzlement remained. “Naval officers may have been able to see each other’s tows but the soldiers could not for a long time.” In other words, Bean had still been unable to discover how the first change of course had been made by all tows simultaneously. He was to go on puzzling into old-age, trying to explain why none of the soldiers had been able to tell him much when he interviewed them. Perhaps, he reasoned, “the overpowering strain of suspense (Was the coast defended? Had the Turks seen them?) [had] caused the raw soldiers in the boats to concentrate their thoughts and be less aware than the handful of British sailors who steered the tows”.