‘Tell the colonel the damn fools have landed us a mile too far north,’ yelled Royal Navy commander, Charles Dix, at dawn on 25 April 1915, as the first Australian troops jumped ashore at Anzac Cove.
A lot of things went wrong early that morning. And one hundred years later historians still debate how the original Anzacs found themselves scrambling up the tangled, scrubby slopes of Sari Bair rather than the intended landing place, Brighton Beach—more open country two kilometres south of Anzac Cove
Robin Prior, one of Australia’s finest military historians, argues that it’s a ‘myth’ that the initial landing was in the wrong place. He contends that there were no precise instructions given to Australian commanders as to where the initial 1500-strong covering force were to step ashore.
In his 2009 book, Gallipoli: The End of the Myth, Prior writes that an exact landing point for the Anzacs wasn’t seen as a high priority by those who planned the amphibious landing on the Gallipoli peninsula. ‘Certainly they did not want to land too close to Gaba Tepe with its artillery and machine guns. Nor did they want to land to the north of Fisherman’s Hut because that was too far from the main ridge and distant from the desired line of advance across the peninsula.’
More recently the Australian War Memorial’s principal historian, Ashley Ekins, has argued a similar case. Had the Anzacs been landed on Brighton Beach, Ekins says, things would have been much worse. The more heavily fortified coast closer to Gaba Tepe ‘would have been like Omaha Beach in the Normandy landings.’
Denis Winter, a military historian, concluded in 1994 that the first wave of Australians came ashore exactly where the Anzac corps commander, Lieutenant General William Birdwood, intended them to land. Anzac Cove offered protection from Turkish artillery located on Gaba Tepe further south; according to Winter, Birdwood had made a secret last-minute change to the plan.
The original Anzacs were convinced they’d landed in the wrong place. The operational orders for the Australian and New Zealanders, drawn up in early April 1915 after extensive reconnaissance, clearly marked the intended landing place—‘Z beach’—as the northern section of Brighton Beach. The saving grace was that they encountered little resistance from Turkish forces whereas further south it may have been a different story. A young Australian army lieutenant named Richard Casey (who would later become Australia’s Governor-General) thought it providential that the Royal Navy had made a navigational error after examining Turkish barbed wire and trenches closer to Gaba Tepe soon after the actual landing.
Most historians of the Gallipoli campaign have agreed the landing at Anzac was in the wrong place and should have happened a mile further south. In a 1934 revised edition of his official history, The Story of Anzac, Charles Bean wrote that the diversion of the tows carrying the Anzacs to shore was due to a strong current flowing in a northerly direction:
‘When Ari Burnu appeared ahead of the boats, the naval officer in the southernmost tow, who was directing the course, mistook the headland for Gaba Tepe and swung the tows still farther north. At the last moment Commander Dix in the northern tow endeavoured to modify this mistake by swing his tow to the south, past the sterns of the others.’
British historian, Basil Liddell Hart, also writing in 1934, concluded: ‘darkness and the strong current caused the tows to arrive off the beach a mile north of the intended point.’ Thirty years later Robert Rhodes James concluded that it wasn’t possible to say whether the Anzacs were propelled by the ‘mysterious northerly current or as a result of inaccurate navigation….’ The real answer, according to Rhodes James, ‘lay in the general confusion and imprecision which bedevilled all known orders about the landing of the covering force.’
Fifty years later we know a good deal more about the waters off Anzac Cove thanks to detailed survey work, more accurate nautical charts, and GPS navigation. In a paper delivered at the AWM’s Gallipoli 1915 conference last month, naval historian Tom Frame dispelled one of the accepted myths of the Landing: the long-held view that a current had taken the Australians too far north.
Frame, who spent many hours in small boats off Anzac Cove and Gaba Tepe, says the prevailing current, if it existed on 25 April 1915, was likely to have been to the north-east at 0.25 knots. ‘It was certainly not of sufficient strength to have resulted in the Anzacs being landed one mile or more to the north of their intended location.’ He adds that none of the naval orders issued just before the landing make any mention of a northerly current in the intended landing place.
A significant problem lay with the navigational charts used by the campaign planners in 1915. In the late 1990s, the most recent Admiralty chart of the approaches to the Dardanelles was compared with 1915 charts. The 1915 chart showed an error of some 460 yards in the location of Gaba Tepe. In 1915 Gaba Tepe was designated as the key navigational point for the Anzac landings with the British warship, HMS Triumph, standing five miles offshore, used as the marker ship. Frame recognises that, ‘while the inaccuracies in the charts used by the Royal Navy do not fully account for the Anzacs being landed well to the north of the intended destination, it is clear that all of the possible navigational errors compound to the north.’ He adds that in overlaying naval charts with military maps of the peninsula it becomes clear they weren’t based on the same underlying survey data. The distance between Gaba Tepe and Anzac Cove varied between the naval charts and the military maps. The army wanted a level of precision in the landing of troops in pre-dawn darkness that the Navy was simply unable to guarantee.
One hundred years on Gallipoli continues to exert a strange fascination for military historians. Perhaps we should leave the last word to Alan Moorehead, one of Australia’s finest war correspondents, and author of the magisterial, Gallipoli, published in 1956:
‘A strange light plays over the Gallipoli landing on April 25, and no matter how often the story is retold there is still an actuality about it, a feeling of suspense and incompleteness. Although nearly half a century has gone by, nothing yet seems fated about the day’s events, a hundred questions remain unanswered, and in a curious way one feels that the battle might still lie before us in the future; that there is still time to make other plans and bring it to a different ending.’