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The Royal Navy and the Royal Marines in Action in the Red Sea

12th January 1917


Yemen
in 1917

The remote and mountainous country of Yemen was in 1917 theoretically part of the Turkish Empire, however during preceding years the Imam of Yemen had loosened Turkish ties so that only in the capital Sanaa, and in Red Sea coastal ports such as Hodeida, and along the Aden border was Turkish military authority paramount.  The Turks in Yemen were confronting British troops across the border on Aden territory with what resources they possessed, but basically Yemen was a backwater. Lawrence of Arabia’s line-cutting exploits on the Hedjaz Railway ensured that reinforcements and military weapon and ammunition resupplies did not get through. 

Above: Yemen - To see further Maps and Photographs please click HERE

The Royal Navy maintained a blockade of Red Sea ports to prevent arms traffic, but this was not fully effective as British political considerations allowed ‘friendly’ nations to trade across the Red Sea without too much interference.  Since 1915 the largest Yemeni island in the Red Sea, Kamaran, had been garrisoned by Indian Army troops based in Aden; this island was a quarantine station for pilgrims travelling to Mecca and there were some large and useful structures on it.


Salif


Opposite Kamaran was the small Yemeni town and port of Salif, garrisoned by around 100 Turkish troops with a few artillery pieces.  Before the war the Turks had exported local rock-salt deposits from Salif, and a British company had been contracted to upgrade the port facilities.  This company, Messrs Sir John Jackson Limited, had evacuated Salif quickly when hostilities were declared between Turkey and Britain, leaving some valuable heavy plant and equipment behind.  

The Royal Navy Commander-in-Chief, East Indies, wished to remove or destroy this plant to prevent the Turks from putting it to military use.  He requested the loan of a company of Indian troops to assist the Royal Navy in this task, but the Government of India dissented and refused to agree to the use of the troops; perhaps the feeling at that time in Delhi was that India could not afford to be sucked-in to garrisoning any more foreign locations. 

Above: Sergeant J.F. McLoughlin (be-ribboned) and the Royal Marines on HMS Topaze 1917

The Royal Navy Squadron

The Commander-in-Chief now decided to use his own resources to accomplish his self-imposed mission.  A squadron of five ships – Northbrook (Royal Indian Marine), Topaze, Odin, Espiegle and Minto (Royal Indian Marine) – were placed under the command of the Senior Naval Officer, Captain W.H.D. Boyle.  Captain Boyle’s orders were to hold the enemy whilst the plant was being removed or destroyed, and that he was to be guided by circumstances as to the capture of the enemy garrison.  The squadron sailed from Aden on 10th January 1917.


The attack

At dawn on 12th January Captain Boyle approached Salif with four ships in line; Northbrook close inshore to the south, then Minto, Topaze and Odin to the north.  Espiegle was ordered to sail north around the Salif peninsula and operate from the bay there.  Northbrook’s men landed on the shore and took up a position to the right of the town.  The men from Minto, Topaze and Odin landed at Salif pier and formed a line behind a ridge with a salt mine on the south and houses to the north.  The Royal Marines were in the centre of the line.  Commander A.R. Woods DSO, Royal Navy, of the Topaze commanded the landing party with Commander J.S.C. Salmond, Royal Navy, as his second in command; there was no Royal Marines officer present.  Signalling parties established communications with the ships.

On sighting the naval squadron the Turkish defenders withdrew into a crater-like depression on the hill behind the town.  Here they were out of line-of sight of the naval gunners, however in the depression their two Krupp mountain guns and three 1-inch Nordenfeldt guns could not engage the squadron or the landing party effectively because the forward lip of the depression needed to be cleared by their shells.  This resulted in the Turkish guns being fired at too long a range.  Near-misses were recorded by the squadron but no ship was hit.

Right: Salif Port today


Commander Woods moved his line forward to attack the enemy-held hill from three sides, the fourth side being closed by the guns of the Espiegle.  Behind him Odin’s seamen entered the village and took possession of the telegraph office and water condensation plant.  The shore-to-ship signals worked well and the assault party advanced methodically behind barrages of naval shells, despite the naval gunners having the sun in their eyes.  On Commander Wood’s signal the hill was rushed and the Turks surrounded.  Skirmishing now cleared up the pockets of resistance and prisoners were taken; three hours after the landing enemy resistance ceased.  The Turks had fought well but individual acts of gallantry by British seamen and marines, backed by the overwhelming firepower of the squadron, had won the day.


Dealing with the contractor’s plant


With hostilities ended the squadron, minus Espiegle, sailed away to fresh duties.  Espiegle loaded the plant and enemy weapons that were still serviceable and destroyed the remainder; a company of Indian troops did now come from Kamaran to garrison Salif, but only temporarily.  The prisoners and the ladies and children found in a couple of Turkish military recreational establishments in the town were transported to Aden.

British casualties at Salif

One man was wounded and recovered but another man, a Royal Marine private, died of wounds.

Above: The Medals of Serjt. James Francis McLoughlin, Royal Marine Light Infantry, Po. 8873. Courtesy of Christopher Hill of Dix, Noonan & Webb (DNW) Ltd, Coin & Medal Auctioneers.  

Gallantry Awards for Salif

Bar to the Distinguished Service Order:

Commander Alexander Riall Wadham Woods, D.S.O., Royal Navy.
In recognition of his services in command of the landing party at the capture of Salif on the 12th June, 1917. The place was attacked at dawn and captured after a three hours' resistance at the cost of only two casualties to the attacking -force. This was largely due to the skilful manner in which Cdr. Woods conducted the advance.

  The Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (three awards):

   Serjt. James Francis McLoughlin, Royal Marine Light Infantry, Po. 8873.
For conspicuous gallantry at the capture of Salif on the 12 June, 1917. Just before the surrender he came across 11 unwounded and one wounded Turkish soldiers. Followed by one petty officer, Serjeant. McLoughlin jumped among them, shot one, and made seven surrender.

    A.B. Francis George Noble, O.N. 205234 (Po.).
For conspicuous gallantry at the capture of Salif on the 12 June, 1917. When a private of Marines was fatally wounded, and was lying in an exposed position, Noble went out from cover and brought him in. His behaviour throughout was most praise worthy.    

   Pte. Henry George Bartlett, Royal Marine Light Infantry, Po. 15558.
For conspicuous gallantry at the capture of Salif on the 12 June, 1917. Singlehanded he entered a hut occupied by two unwounded and one wounded Turks and three Arabs and took them prisoner.    

Mentions in Despatches

Capt. William Henry Dudley Boyle, Royal Navy.
Cdr. James Sacheverell
Constable Salmond, Royal Navy.  

Above: The Medals belonging to Able Seaman F.G. Nobel. Photo and text below courtesy of Dix Noonan Webb.


C.G.M. London Gazette 11 August 1917:

‘For conspicuous gallantry at the capture of Salif on 12 June 1917. When a Private of Marines was fatally wounded, and was lying in an exposed position, Noble went out from cover and brought him in. His behaviour was most praiseworthy.’

Francis George Noble was born at St. Helier, Jersey in the Channel Islands in April 1884 and entered the Royal Navy as a Boy 2nd Class in July 1899. Having then been advanced to Able Seaman and fulfilled his 12 years of continuous service, he was discharged ashore in April 1914 and enrolled in the Royal Fleet Reserve.

Quickly mobilised on the advent of hostilities, he joined the battleship H.M.S. Glory, in which capacity he served on the North American Station and in the Dardanelles; during one bombardment in support of the Gallipoli operations, Glory was hit by Turkish fire.

Noble came home to an appointment in Portsmouth in April 1916 but returned to sea with an appointment in the cruiser Topaze in the Mediterranean that October. In early 1917, Topaze was ordered to the Red Sea and it was here, in June, that Noble won his C.G.M. for the landings at Salif. The Navy Everywhere takes up the story:

‘The village of Salif is situated on a peninsula, of which the northern end is merely a mud flat, covered by the sea at high tide. To the east of the village is a hunch-back of a hill, which is doubtless of volcanic formation, and in fact has a hollow in it suggesting the relics of a crater. It was in this hollow that the Turkish garrison had taken up their position when, at daybreak on 12 June 1917, our ships approached Salif. The enemy's position was well chosen, for nothing could be seen of it from the sea, and only the high-angle fire of a howitzer could be expected to drop shells into it. Captain Boyle ordered the Espiegle to go northwards round the end of the peninsula, and enter the inlet between peninsula and mainland, possibly with the idea that the Turkish position might be more accessible from the eastern side of it. In any case the presence of a ship on that side would subject the enemy to a cross-fire, which is always disconcerting. The only danger to be avoided was that of the Espiegle's gunlayers, in an excess of enthusiasm, plumping shells right over the hill into the other ships; but fortunately no contretemps of this kind occurred.

The Northbrook anchored close inshore at the southern end of the peninsula, while Minto, Topaze, and Odin made a line to the north of her. They all kept as near to the shore as the depth of water would allow, in order that the landing parties might have as short a distance as possible to cover in the boats. As it turned out, the Topaze and Odin unconsciously followed the example of Lord Charles Beresford in the Condor at the bombardment of Alexandria, when he ran his ship in so close that the enemy ashore could not depress their guns sufficiently to hit him. The Turks in their hollow were in exactly the same predicament. They had two Krupp mountain-guns and three one-inch Norden-feldts, with which they blazed away persistently, but their shells, in clearing the sides of the crater, also cleared our ships, and they did not score a single hit, though they occasionally dropped near enough to create an uncomfortable feeling on board.

The Northbrook’s men landed at the south end of the peninsula, and took up a position near their ship to the right of the town. The others all landed at the pier, and extended themselves behind a ridge, flanked by a salt-mine at the south end, and by some houses at the north end. They then advanced cautiously to the foot of the hill, making a crescent-shaped line round it, with a party of Marines in the centre. The Odin’s seamen remained behind in the village (where there were no signs of any Turks) and took possession of the condensing plant, the telegraph office, some mines, and one or two harems belonging to the Turkish officials. The last-named were transferred at the first opportunity to the Northbrook, which in due course took the women and children and the civilian males to Aden. Commander A. R. W. Woods of the Topaze was in charge of the landing party, with Commander Salmond of the Odin as his second in command. His plan was to advance up the hill from three directions towards the Turkish position, and thus effectually surround it, for the fourth side was closed by the inlet from which the Espiegle was steadily plumping shells at the Turks. It is probable that the enemy, knowing that our force was a very small one, hoped to cause such havoc in it with their rifle-fire, while our men were coming up the hill, that we should be compelled to abandon the attack. If this was their calculation it failed to take into account the effectiveness of our gunnery.

An excellent system of signals had been arranged, and by means of this Commander Woods was able to turn on or off a barrage of fire as if it were a water-tap. The gunlayers were unfortunate in having the sun in their eyes, but, in spite of this, their shooting was so accurate that the men on shore could follow with confidence close behind the barrage. Under its cover they gradually crept towards the foot of the hill whereon the enemy were posted, and then, at a given signal, they made a rush forward and completely surrounded the Turks. The whole business lasted about three hours before the enemy surrendered. In justice to them, it must be said that they put up quite a good fight.

There are one or two amusing incidents to be recorded. Sergeant McLoughlin of the Royal Marines came across twelve Turkish soldiers, of whom one was wounded, decided that they were just about his own fighting weight, and went for them without a moment's hesitation. It was perhaps fortunate for him that Petty Officer Beaver was close behind him, for as a general rule the Turk does not allow estimates of this kind to be made with impunity. Between the pair of them they shot one of the twelve, took seven of them prisoners, while the rest retreated precipitately, but only to fall into other hands. Meanwhile Private Bartlett of the Royal Marines was having a little adventure of his own. He chanced upon a hut, and was prompted by curiosity to poke his head inside. There he discovered three Turks and three Arabs, all fully armed. Some people might have been disconcerted and even embarrassed by such a discovery, but Private Bartlett regarded it as merely coming within the day's work. He was no great linguist, but he had his own methods of explaining to the assembled company that they were his prisoners, and he left not a shadow of doubt in their minds that he meant business. So they meekly handed over their rifles, and in due course Private Bartlett, wearing little more than a bland smile (for the sun was beating down hotly) handed them over to his commanding officer.

Having captured the whole garrison, together with their guns, ammunition, and stores, and having placed the prisoners aboard the Topaze for transport to Aden, the squadron moved off, leaving only the Espiegle behind to collect what was serviceable of Messrs. Sir John Jackson's plant, and to destroy the rest. Three days were spent in clearing up the place, during which time a company of Indian troops were sent over from Kamaran Island to do garrison duty. There was no idea of holding Salif permanently, for no object was to be gained by doing so. The removal of the condensing plant made the place uninhabitable, since the only water supply is too brackish for ordinary consumption, and it was therefore most improbable that the Turks would attempt to re-occupy the village. Their removal made matters more comfortable for our small garrison at Kamaran, and we must also reckon on the credit side of the account the recovery of a certain amount of useful plant. On the other side we must place the death of Private Read of H.M.S. Odin, who had the misfortune to jump almost on top of a Turk, and to receive a rifle-bullet at point-blank range. It would seem that the Turk fired by accident rather than holding up their hands, realising that they were completely surrounded.’

To the aforementioned winners of the C.G.M. at Salif may now be added Noble’s name, who brought in the fatally wounded Private Read; his award of the French Medaille Militaire followed in 1919 (T.N.A. ADM 171/111 refers).

SOURCES:
Blumberg, General Sir H.E. (compiler).  Britain’s Sea Soldiers.  (Swiss & Co, 1927).  Now a Naval & Military Press reprint.
London Gazette of 11th August 1917, pages 8204-8205.
Cato, Conrad. The Navy Everywhere. (E.P. Dutton & Co, New York, 1919) http://archive.org/stream/navyeverywhere00cato#page/n9/mode/2up .

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