‘We only escaped because of the Turks’ poor shooting’

Keith Dunn's wartime jottings in old Portsmouth Grammar School notebooks. Picture courtesy John Sadden, Portsmouth Grammar School
Keith Dunn's wartime jottings in old Portsmouth Grammar School notebooks. Picture courtesy John Sadden, Portsmouth Grammar School

THIS WEEK IN 1993: ‘Despicable’ attack on Armistice Day

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It was a proud day when, at the beginning of the spring term 1914, William Davies was made a prefect at Portsmouth Grammar School.

Eleven months later he was on active service in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey in HMS Irresistible, the flagship of the British Dardanelles Squadron.

Keith Dunn's diaries written in HMS Prince of Wales

Keith Dunn's diaries written in HMS Prince of Wales

The aim of the Dardanelles campaign was to capture the Gallipoli peninsula, knock Turkey out of the war and free up the strait(s) which provided a sea route to the Russian Empire, one of Britain’s allies.

January 9 marks the centenary of the end of the Dardanelles campaign which claimed more than 100,000 lives with almost 124,000 wounded and victory to Turkey.

William wrote a letter to the bi-monthly school magazine The Portmuthian describing the beginning of the campaign:

Probably you have seen in the papers news referring to the bombardment of this waterway.

William Davies in the Navy Class at PGS, 1914

William Davies in the Navy Class at PGS, 1914

Edged in with high hills (in some cases snow-clad) it bristles with forts from one end to the other, by far the strongest and the heaviest guns being at the Narrows (where the maximum width is only 3/4-mile), which is the real stumbling block.

These Narrows are situated at the far end of the Dardanelles, some 15 miles from the entrance. When once these forts at the Narrows fall, our job is practically ended.

It is indeed a fine sight to see us bombarding, when we shell the forts at a range of about 5,000 yards. There is a terrific concussion as the gun is fired – a pause – and then an answering explosion on shore as the shell bursts. The burst is accompanied by dense clouds of brown fumes and masses of earth and brickwork are shot into the air.

When the enemy gunners have been killed and the forts silenced, demolition parties are landed, and the guns totally destroyed with guncotton.

Only a few days ago we were shelling a fort, and in the town behind it the enemy had lodged themselves. The demolition party met with a stubborn resistance on landing, and the town was shelled in consequence. In a very short time all that remained was a heap of blazing ruins, forming a very fine sight at night time.

Up to the present we have penetrated some eight miles from the entrance and have destroyed 40 guns. Some of them large fortress guns, and others field guns of smaller calibre.

Naturally in our operations we have not gone unchallenged. The mountainous shores offer unique facilities for the concealment of hostile batteries and we have had several narrow escapes from heavy howitzer shell, but have not been actually hit. In this respect I consider we have been exceptionally lucky, and can only attribute our escape to the poor shooting of the German-officered Turks... ‘

On February 1, 1915, Keith Dunn wrote the first entry in his PGS Practical Physics notebook which he was recycling as a diary. The previous year he had come fourth in science but now, instead of drawing diagrams of science experiments, he was illustrating his wartime jottings with plans of the Gallipoli peninsula and sketches of ships.

Like William Davies, Keith had joined the Royal Navy and was also on active service in the Dardanelles, aboard HMS Prince of Wales.

On April 9 he received a letter informing him that William was ‘missing and believed dead’ after HMS Irresistible had hit a submerged mine.

Seven former pupils of Portsmouth Grammar School are known to have died at Gallipoli.