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Sailor in the Desert: The Adventures of Phillip Gunn, DSM, RN in the Mesopotamia Campaign 1915, David Gunn

Sailor in the Desert: The Adventures of Phillip Gunn, DSM, RN in the Mesopotamia Campaign 1915, David Gunn


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Sailor in the Desert: The Adventures of Phillip Gunn, DSM, RN in the Mesopotamia Campaign 1915, David Gunn

Sailor in the Desert: The Adventures of Phillip Gunn, DSM, RN in the Mesopotamia Campaign 1915, David Gunn

Phillip Gunn served in the Royal Navy during both World Wars, eventually rising to the rank of captain. At the start of the First World War he was a very junior seaman, serving on HMS Clio, one of the last sail and coal powered warships to be serving in the Royal Navy. His ship soon joined the fleet supporting the Mesopotamia campaign, and ended up going up the Tigris as part of the first attempt to capture Baghdad. Gunn found himself moved to ever smaller ships as the army advanced into shallow waters, eventually commanding two horse boats armed with 4.7in guns and towed by a single launch. He commanded these boats all the way to Ctesiphon, 20 miles outside Baghdad, where the previously victorious expedition was eventually forced to turn back. Gunn was struck down by Malaria during the battle, and thus missed the siege of Kut and the risk of Turkish captivity. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his role in the campaign.

Gunn did suffer from the appallingly flawed medical services of this campaign. After falling ill he was taken back to Basra on a notorious 'hospital' ship and probably only survived because he was moved back to his own ship, where he could be treated by the ship's doctor. He took months to recover from the illness, and was eventually moved back to Home Waters to avoid further illness.

This book has been written by Gunn's son David, and is based on diaries and conversions with his father. The book also includes Phillip's own splendid oil paintings of the campaign.

This is a fascinating account of one of the less familiar British campaigns of the First World War and the Navy's role in it.

Chapters
1 - A Shark Steals the Dinner
2 - The International Arms Race
3 - A Seaman's Work - Early 1914
4 - War
5 - The Navy's Fuel Supply is Threatened
6 - Turks Attack the Suez Canal
7 - A Brief Refit in Bombay
8 - HMS Clio's Role in Mesopotamia
9 - The Politics
10 - The Aim Surreptitiously Changes
11 - Phil Meets the Arabs
12 - The Disgusting Garden of Eden
13 - A Punitive Expedition
14 - Conditions up the Tigris
15 - Townshend's Regatta
16 - They Destroy a Turkish Gunboat
17 - An Arab's Anaesthetist
18 - Travelling with the General
19 - Amara Gives in to Nine Men
20 - Amara Formally Surrenders
21 - The Army Arrives Just in Time
22 - Phil Volunteers for 'Hazardous Duties'
23 - Savagely Attacked by Mosquitoes
24 - A School Friend
25 - His Muslim Crew Need Halal Meat
26 - Nixon Presses the Case for Baghdad
27 - What's Happening in Mesopotamia?
28 - Phil to Lead the Entire Expedition
29 - They Land the Army
30 - A Briefing for the Fight
31 - The Forgotten War
32 - The Mirage
33 - The Attack on Kut al Amara
34 - Death of a Friend
35 - A Gun Battle
36 - Reflection but Still no Recognition
37 - Ordered Forward to Destroy a River Obstacle
38 - A Victoria Cross
39 - Horror after the Battle
40 - Phil to Work for Townshend
41 - Collecting Canoes for a Bridge
42 - Where is the Medical Back-up?
43 - Nixon Wins the Argument for Taking Baghdad
44 - Townshend Points out Baghdad Risks
45 - Memories of Street Games
46 - A Bullet in His Pillow
47 - The Fighting Becomes Intense
48 - The Battle of Ctesiphon
49 - Phil is Carried Ashore
50 - The Ox Cart
51 - The Medics are Overwhelmed
52 - The River Journey Through Hell
53 - Phil Moves Towards Death
54 - Besieged in Kut
55 - 'One Less To Watch Dyin'
56 - 'Alive But That's About All I Can Say'
57 - A Conversation with the Captain
58 - The Fate of Townshend's Force
59 - Recovery
60 - Farewell to Clio

Author: David Gunn
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 160
Publisher: Pen & Sword Maritime
Year: 2013



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Sailor in the Desert: The Adventures of Phillip Gunn, DSM, RN in the Mesopotamia Campaign 1915

Sailor in the Desert is the personal account of a Royal Navy sailor's experiences during the Mesopotamian campaign of 1915. As an able seaman on an armed sloop supporting the British expedition up the River Tigris, Philip Gunn's recollections give a rare perspective of this ill-fated campaign.At the outbreak of war, Phillip Gunn was serving on HMS Clio, a naval sloop fitted with sails and guns stationed in China and immediately tasked with hunting the soon-to-be-famous German cruiser Emden, but failed to prevent her escape. Gunn and Clio were next in action defending the Suez Canal against an attempted Turkish invasion before joining the expedition to invade Turkish-held Mesopotamia (Iraq). When the River Tigris became too shallow for Clio, Gunn took over a Calcutta River Police launch. He towed improvised gunboats to bombard the enemy in close support of the advancing land forces, whose assaults on enemy positions he witnessed. Though he repeatedly came under fire, it was malaria which finally struck him down during the pivotal Battle of Ctesiphon. He was fortunate to survive the journey back down river. Sailor in the Desert is an authentic account drawn from Phillip Gunn’s unpublished memoirs as well as conversations with the author, his son David. It is illustrated with archive photographs and color paintings by Philip Gunn himself.

L'autore

David Gunn is a former Royal Navy officer, Fleet Air Arm pilot and TV newsreader. He is also the son of the subject Phillip Gunn. He lives in Warwickshire.


Sailor in the Desert

This fascinating account follows the wartime experiences of Phillip Gunn, who joined the Royal Navy in 1911. At the outbreak of war he was serving on a sloop, HMS Clio, in Singapore. Sent to the Persian Gulf to protect British interests, they eventually ended up in Mesopotamia. With the Clio armed with 4” guns, they headed to Qurna to provide gun support for the army and deal with any Turkish vessels.

Leading the Indian Expeditionary Force up the River Tigris, they then advanced further upriver to Amara, taking out Turkish strongholds along the way. Gunn was then transferred to a flat-bottomed paddle steamer, required to negotiate the narrow waters they were encountering. The boat was part of General Townshend’s motley regatta, who with an assortment of boats and just 50 men, captured Amara unopposed, taking 2,000 Turkish soldiers prisoner.

The advance continued upriver towards Baghdad. Gunn was again engaged in supporting the troops in the Battle of Ctesiphon. However during the battle he fell unconscious, succumbing to the effects of malaria. He was sent back to Kut, but due to the medical services being overwhelmed was returned to his ship at Basra.

His illness was to be his saving grace in the retreat from Kut the boat he had been on was hit and sunk, with the loss of all the crew. However, this fate was perhaps better than that suffered by those besieged at Kut, who surrendered in April 1916 and were marched to Turkey, a march that cost many of them their lives.

Phillip was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his actions during the advance on Kut, and later served in the Second World War, but this aspect of his life is not described in any detail.

The book is based on the diaries and memoirs of, and conversations with, the subject, who was the author’s father. However the diary entries themselves are not reproduced, rather a narrative is used which recreates many of Phillip’s conversations. Whilst the style is very readable, personally I would have preferred seeing the diary entries or memoirs perhaps with additional notes to give context or extra information.

An added bonus is the colour reproduction of many of Phillip Gunn’s paintings of the events portrayed in the book, which he painted later in life. These wonderful pictures capture the day to day life on board the Clio, as well as some of the more dramatic events covered in the book.

The Mesopotamia campaign remains an understudied aspect of the war – at least in popular literature – and the book highlights some of the difficulties of the campaign, notably the poor supply lines and lack of medical facilities, crucial in a theatre where half of the deaths were caused by disease. The short chapters also provide an interesting insight into many aspects of the sailor’s life, and are possibly a unique account of this particular aspect of the Mesopotamia campaign.


Thoughts of a Depressive Diplomatist

After serving on HMS Clio during her defence of the Suez Canal and in the occupation of Basra, he volunteered for 'hazardous duties'. He then, quite literally, found himself at the pointy-end of the advance up the Tigris - ahead of the main force in a steam launch taking soundings to check that the river was navigable for the vessels commandeered down-river to act as troopships.

Later in the war, the Fly Class of gunboat was developed for these riverine operations, but at this time, two steam launches each towed horseboats which carried antiquated naval ordnance. Gunn lashed a ladder to his cabin to accommodate a Royal Artillery spotter. The launch also served to ferry senior officers up- and down-river.

For his services before he was invalided out, Gunn was awarded the DSM. His obvious merit is reflected in the fact that he ended his career as Captain, RN.

All in all, this is a good read, but I found it slight and a little disappointing. I gave it Three Stars out of Five.


The British Capture Kut-Al-Amara 28 September 1915

In June and July 1915 the British captured Amara and Nasiriyah in Mesopotamia. The force that did so was nicknamed Townshend’s Regatta because most of the troops of Major-General Charles Townshend’s 6th (Poona) Division of the Indian Army travelled along the Euphrates and Tigris in a flotilla of various types of ship and boat.

The British had landed troops at Basra in November 1914 in order to protect their interests in the region, notably but not only the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s refinery at Abadan and the pipeline to its Persian oilfields. The capture of Amara and Nasiriyah meant that the oil facilities and the vilayet (province) of Basra were securely held and the British should then have halted.

Townshend and his division were, however, ordered to advance on Kut-al-Amara, with the intention of taking Baghdad. He argued in his memoirs that this operation should not have taken place. Basra vilayet and the oilfields should have been defended by a force based at Basra, with outposts at Qurna, Nasiriyah and Ahwaz.[1] He was right, but the campaign continued for a number of reasons: the need for a victory somewhere after defeats elsewhere over confidence by local commanders and momentum created by a series of easy victories early in the campaign.

The need for re-fits and the fact that the larger ships could not move any further up the Tigris meant that the naval force was reduced to the armed tug Comet, the armed launches Shaitan and Sumana and four horse boats carrying 4.7 inch guns towed by the motor launches RN 1 and RN 2. Captain Wilfrid Nunn, the Senior Naval Officer, and his successor, Captain Colin Mackenzie, were both ill, so Lieutenant-Commander Edgar Cookson of the Comet took over.[2]

The horse boats were so called because they had no engines and were normally towed by horses walking along the river or canal bank. The 4.7 inch guns were elderly, but the launches and horse boats had very shallow draughts, so could provide fire support for the troops in waters too shallow for the sloops that had provided this earlier in the campaign. RN 1 was commanded by Leading Seaman Thompson, a veteran, and RN 2 by Able Seaman Phil Gunn, a young sailor who would later be commissioned and rise to the rank of Captain: the rest of their crews were Indians. RN 1 and RN 2 were protected against sniper fire by steel plates around their cabins and engine rooms.[3] Phil Gunn’s RN 2 would lead the advance of the whole expedition.[4]

The advance began on 12 September, with the troops moving to Ali-al-Gharbi by ship. From then on, the shallow water meant that the troops had to march along the river bank, with the shallow draught tug, launches and horse boats providing fire support. The Ottomans withdrew without offering any resistance and the British force halted at Sanniaiyat from 15-25 September, during when it received reinforcements. The temperature was 110-16° F in the shade, of which there was little.[5]

The engines of the aircraft that had operated in Mesopotamia so far had proved to be unsuitable for the hot, dusty atmosphere: 70 hp Renault ones in the Maurice Farmans and 80 hp Gnomes in the Caudrons and Martinsydes. In early September three Royal Naval Air Service Short seaplanes with 150 hp Sunbeam engines under the command of Squadron-Commander R. Gordon arrived from Africa, where they had been involved in the operation that resulted in the destruction of the light cruiser SMS Königsberg. Their climbing ability was poor and it was difficult to get a long enough take off run on the Tigris. Two had their floats replaced to allow them to operate from land, thereafter giving good service despite engine problems.[6]

Aerial and naval reconnaissance discovered that Nureddin Pasha’s Ottoman troops were dug in astride the river in a strong defensive position 8 miles from Sannaiyat and 7 miles from Kut. There were two Ottoman divisions with 38 guns plus two cavalry regiments and 400 camelry. Most of the mounted troops were away on a raid and missed the battle of 28 September.[7] The Ottoman divisions had only six battalions each, meaning that they were outnumbered by the 14 British battalions. Some of the Ottoman guns were obsolete, giving the British an small artillery advantage.[8]

Townshend decided to divide his force into two columns. Column A would demonstrate against the Ottoman troops on the south bank of the Tigris. Column B, its flank protected by the naval flotilla, would attack on the right bank in order to pin the enemy’s centre. Column A would then cross the river and attack the enemy’s left flank.[9]

A boat bridge was laid across the river on 27 September. Column B advanced to within 2,000 yards of the enemy, whilst Column A demonstrated during the day before crossing the river under the cover of darkness. It was ready to attack by 5:00 am, with Column B advancing at the same time. The Ottomans advanced on the south bank at 11:00 am in order to enfilade Column B, but were thrown back by fire from the naval 4.7 inch guns and army 4 and 5 inch guns. The gunboats had moved forward at 11:00 am to engage Suffra Mound, which was taken by Column B by 2:00 pm. The boats came under shell and rifle fire, but the Ottoman artillery was largely silenced by the afternoon. Contact between the two columns was maintained by the aeroplanes and seaplanes, as the strong wind created clouds of dust that made visual signalling between the columns impossible.[10]

At 4:50 pm Column A began to advance on the rear of the enemy facing Column B. Enemy reinforcements appeared 40 minutes later, but Brigadier-General W. S. Delamain re-deployed his troops to face them. A bayonet charge routed the Ottomans, who escaped under the cover of darkness, suffering heavy casualties and leaving four guns behind.[11]

At 6:00 pm the naval flotilla heard of Delamain’s success from a seaplane. Townshend asked Cookson to advance to an obstruction that blocked the river in the hope of destroying it and allowing a pursuit by water and land. The flotilla set off after dark at 6:30 pm, coming under heavy rifle and machine gun fire, as they approached the obstruction, which consisted of a dhow in the centre, attached by wire hawsers to two iron lighters. An attempt to ram the dhow failed, so Cookson jumped on it in an attempt to cut the hawsers with an axe. He quickly suffered several bullet wounds and died 10 minutes later. The flotilla then withdrew.[12]

The flotilla, now commanded by Lieutenant Mark Singleton of the Shaitan, resumed its advance the next morning, 29 September. The Ottomans had retreated from the obstruction and the British vessels reached Kut at 10:00 am. The low level of the river made navigation difficult, but they continued past Kut. On 30 September they encountered two armed Ottoman vessels, the Poineer and Basra. Sumana and Shaitan had both run aground, the former breaking both rudders, so the Comet engaged the two enemy steamers herself before being joined by the Shaitan. The Basra was damaged and withdrew. The British pursued, but then came under fire from shore based guns astern of them. The Shaitan ran aground again and there was a risk that she and the Comet would be cut off, but the Shaitan managed to re-float herself and the British retired to Kut. The difficulty of conducting a pursuit when the only means of transporting heavy equipment was along a low river meant that the Ottomans were able to withdraw to a prepared position at Ctesiphon.[13]

The British suffered 1,233 casualties of whom 94 were killed. They captured 1,700 men and 14 guns: total Ottoman casualties were 4,000.[14] Twelve men on the Comet, four of them soldiers, were wounded.[15] Cookson is the only sailor listed on naval-history.net as being killed in Mesopotamia from 27-30 September. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. The same website gives the citation:

29446 – 21 JANUARY 1916

Admiralty, 21st January, 1916.

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the grant of the Victoria Cross to Lieutenant-Commander Edgar Christopher Cookson, D.S.O., R.N., in recognition of the following act of most conspicuous gallantry during the advance on Kut-el-Amara:

On the 28th September, 1915, the river gunboat “Comet” had been ordered with other gunboats to examine and, if possible, destroy an obstruction placed across the river by the Turks. When the gunboats were approaching the obstruction a very heavy rifle and machine gun fire was opened on them from both banks. An attempt to sink the centre dhow of the obstruction by gunfire having failed, Lieutenant-Commander Cookson ordered the “Comet” to be placed alongside, and himself jumped on to the dhow with an axe and tried to cut the wire hawsers connecting it with the two other craft forming the obstruction. He was immediately shot in several places and died within a very few minutes.

[1] C. V. F. Townshend, My Campaign in Mesopotamia (London: T. Butterworth Ltd, 1920), pp. 35-36.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1921 vol. iv, Naval Operations in Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf. pp. 75-76.

[3] D. Gunn, Sailor in the Desert: The Adventures of Phillip Gunn, DSM, RN in the Mesopotamia Campaign, 1915 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2013). Kindle edition, locations 812-22, Chapter 22. This well researched book, by Phil’s son David, gives an excellent description of the Mesopotamian Campaign from the viewpoint of one of the RN’s lower deck.

[4] Ibid. Kindle locations 1067-79, Chapter 28.

[6] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. v pp. 253-58. Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 76 says that there were four RNAS seaplanes

[8] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, p. 192.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 195 and footnote 2.

[15] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 78. Footnote 1.

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