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Horses on Submarines: A Transportation Nightmare

When we talk about the submarine in a war, we immediately focus on the German U-boat effort during the colossal Battle of the Atlantic or the massive Soviet attempt to achieve parity with the United States in the nuclear delivery strike platforms during the Cold War. Thereís even talk of Imperial Germany attempt to cut and starve the British Isles during the Great War, but seldom, if ever, the fact that submarines were used as transportation platforms for the transferring of, not only troops and war related materials, but animals, mainly combat horses; have not received any notice from historians. But such were the cases, especially during World War I. A conflict permeated by the transition of war technologies. From observation balloons to combat airplanes. From a surface navy to an underwater fleet. And from horse mounted cavalry and infantry, to an all mechanized force centered about a new tool of war: the main battle tank. As all these changes were occurring, transporting and supplying and expeditionary force was still the domain of the horses in those early years of the war. Such was the case in the battle for the Dardanelles, most commonly known as the Battle of Gallipoli. There, the largest concentration of submarines, outside European waters, took place beginning in the spring of 1915. The Dardanelles, a strait formation in what is todayís north-west Turkey, represented an opportunity for the then struggling Western Allies to inflict a major blow to Germanyís main allied in the Middle East: the Ottoman Empire. The British Admiralty knew that if the Turks could be dislocated from the Gallipoli peninsula, the Germans would have a hard time supplying their troops fighting the Russians on the Eastern Front, thus the planning for the Gallipoli invasion commenced at earnest in the fall of 1914. As soon as the plan was ready, the French jumped aboard enthusiastically. They saw the operation as distraction affair. One that, if it played out to their planning, would divert German attention from its incursion into northern France.

The operation, mounting an invasion on a far away strip of land occupied by a determinate and well defended enemy, was a planning and logistical nightmare. The Dardanelles straits where well defended by the Turks. They recognized early on the importance of the peninsula to their own war effort and made a conscious decision to fortify it. Naval guns were mounted on each approaching ridge. Heavy minefields were laid out near the straitís gateway. Thousand of troops were available within a five mile radius. Even combat planes, a first for the tradition rich Ottomans, were dispatched to Gallipoli. How then will the vaunted Royal Navy and elements of the French Navy ship tons of supplies, thousand of combat troops and thousand of combat horses without being detected by a suspecting enemy? The logical answer was the submarine. The submarine could penetrate Gallipolisís defenses at night, unload its cargo and leave the area before the enemy knew it had been there, so the thinking was. A series of small submarine incursions began in December 1914 in order to test the concept. They meet with unexpected success paving the way for a large scale deployment of submarines in the area. Boarding men and equipment into submarines of that era, they were crude vessels fitted with just the basic systems needed to perform an assigned task, was a tall order, but the housing of a horse force inside those steel monsters was an almost impossible feat. A feat that, not only was accomplished, but will be respite many times during the Gallipoli campaign. The British selected their newly commissioned E class submarines. The E class boats represented a major leap in submarine design and development. It was bigger than the previous classes, the dreaded C and Ds, and could hold more cargo due to an expanded cargo hold in the aft section of the boat. The E class was destined to become the British main submarine platform during the four years of the struggle.

Back in England, the British Imperial Army began a massive effort to recruit as many horses as possible for the impending Gallipoli expedition. But by this time, horses were a hot commodity. Purges of horses for deployment to northern France lifted the once vigorous horse breeding industry in a flat state. No major horses were available for operation in the straits. Scotland and Wales were also purged of their horses in an attempt to fill the assigned quota. Fortunately for the British, there was the Commonwealth. Australia filled the requirement gap shipping between December 1914 and February 1915, 8,450 horses to the British bases at Dover where they would be prepared for the fifteenth day journey to the Dardanelles straits. Due to the smallness of the cargo hold, it was never intended that live stock or even humans could be placed in the hold for a medium to long range voyage, and the fact that the horses needed space to eat and stretch, the Royal Navy decided to ferry just one company of horses, (10) per trip. At this rate, it would take the entire E fleet twenty five trips in order to supply the estimated 250 horses needed to support one fully manned expeditionary combat brigade. A real tall order indeed. Nevertheless, the journeys began in earnest on March 21, 1915.

The loading of the horses by itself was more difficult than shipping horses on commercial cargo ships. The E boats used were modified to use a loading ramp, instead of the regular loading hatch. The loading compartment was enclosed to avoid the horses to divert to sensitive areas where cables and pipes were exposed. Provisions for the horses were stored in the front of the sub, in the area where torpedoes were stored. This deprived the boat of its full capacity of torpedoes. In fact, some E boats would carry only the torpedoes already placed on their firing tubes, a fact not lost on the submariners. And a fact that would make them resent the gallant animalís role in the eventual loss of some of their shipmates. Once onboard, the caring of the horses began an imposing proposition. Due to the lack of space, soldiers assigned to feeding and caring for the animals usually found themselves in precarious spots in the hold. The journey was a tenuous one for both crew and cargo. The E boats would depart the Dover area in route to the Mediterranean by way of Spain. That route was infested with U boats. When and if they survived the trip to Gibraltar, the subs would make out for the Island fortress of Malta, where they would be re-fueled and re-supplied for the last leg of the trip. On Malta, the horses where off boarded for stretching and carrying. A waiting team of veterinaries, shipped from the main British naval base at Scapa Flow three weeks before, was tasked for the evaluation of the horseís condition as well as caring for any sick or injured animal. Many of the horses received thigh cuts due to the smallness of the cargo hold. They would collide with with each other or just simply collide with with one of the exposed sharp edges of the welded hatches. The horses that stayed on Malta was a matter of hours, not days. In those pressure hours, the vets sometimes worked miracles. The veterinary service tried to prepare the horses the best they could. Sometimes the cuts on the animals were such that the horse was deemed unfit for combat, thus relegating it to pastoral duties. When the animal was fully recovered, it would be shipped aboard another E boat to the combat zone.

In just four days, the horses would be asked to depart the un-comforts of the submarines for the treacherous beaches of Gallipoli. They needed all the stretching and preparing that the soldiers could give them. The journey from Malta to Gallipoli was relatively easy. No major U-boat concentration was expected and what ever force the Turks could muster, was utterly defeated. The problem for the E boats and its precious cargo, was not getting into Gallipoli, it was disembarking on a heavy defended peninsula. Once the sub arrived on the area, it would make for the upper left corner of the Dardanelles where it would distribute its precious cargo to a gathering of soldiers in dire need of it. Having traveled for nearly sixteen days, the horses welcomed the respite of an open area, not knowing of course that this would probably be their last ride. Once on land, the British, Canadian and French troops already fighting the Turks, would use the horses as transportation vehicles around the rugged Gallipoli terrain. Unfortunately for the allies and their animal comrades, the expedition was a complete failure. The combine British and French force was unable to establish a sustained beach head in the peninsula, furthermore, they were being pushed to the sea and by the end of the spring a complete evacuation of the Gallipoli beach head was ordered. The Dardanelles operation would cost the British much. It would cost Winston Churchill his post at the Admiralty and would seed the idea on the Germans that if the poorly trained Turks could out gun and out perform a professional British army in a remote location, they could certainly destroy in France.

For the horses onboard these submarines and the voyage itself proved deadly. Of the twenty-one horse-carried E boat trips to Gallipoli, three were lost at sea. One near the Canarias Islands, the cause of its loss is still unknown; and the other two near the strait itself. These were probably lost due to minefield engagements. All three boats went down with all hands, humans and animals. Of the nearly 2,100 horses deployed in Gallipoli, only five hundred survived the affair, even less made it back to England, and the ones that did make it, were shipped to northern France, where they would battle a more savage enemy, the dreaded trenches. Today, we can see the valor of this animal entrenched on a monument atop of A4 ridge in the Gallipoli peninsula. The monument, described the valor of the invading soldiers and its four-legged comrades.


Submarines of the World, Robert Jackson, Friedman/FairFax Books 200

The First World War, New Strachan, Penguin Books 2003

Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War, Robert Massie 1991

Article By: Raul Colon


Telephone / Fax 787-748-7312-Mobile 787-297-1593

PO Box 29754

Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico 00929


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