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From The Navy in Mesopotamia

by Conrad Cato

Published in 1917

"The voyage of the Julnar was never anything more than a forlorn hope. She was a twin-screw steamer and faster than most of the river craft, and if any vessel at all could slip through the blockade she was that vessel. In order to gauge her chances we must appreciate the nature of the task in front of her.

First of all, she had to face the ordinary difficulties of navigation - a winding river with hairpins and occasional shoals, which even in the flood season were capable of pulling up a heavily-laden vessel. Secondly, she had to face these difficulties in the dark, for to make the attempt by daylight was, of course, out of the question. Thirdly, she had to run the gauntlet of the Turkish guns on both banks from Annaiyat to Kut - a distance of over twenty miles by river - to say nothing of a possible fusillade by rifles and machine guns. Fourthly, there was the possibility that the Turks might have sown a minefield, or, what was more probable, have stretched a wire hawser or some obstruction across the river, in anticipation of the attempt being made.

Aeroplane reconnaissance was made, and the airmen reported that they could see no signs of minefields or obstructions, but the waters of the Tigris are muddy and it was more than possible that objects beneath the surface would escape detection. Turkish prisoners, however, were unanimous in declaring that no obstructions had been prepared. This information, however, if it could be relied on, only served to emphasise the first two difficulties - the negotiation of the sharp bends  in the river and the ticklish job of navigating in the dark. The Admiral himself said that he had very little hope of the success of the undertaking, for the odds against it were too great.

A journey to Kut by a naval vessel had been suggested some weeks previously by a member of the Army Commander's Staff and debated at the highest level of the Army and Navy in Mesopotamia and was at first considered to be out of the question. But the  beleaguered garrison was, by now, nearing the end of its tether. The fate of some 900 officers and men as in the balance and the Army had appealed to the Navy for help. The appeal was not made in vain. The Admiral sent out private letters to the officers of the Mesopotamia squadron asking for volunteers for the command of the Julnar. There was no need to point out to them the dangers of the enterprise, or the slender hopes upon which the mission  finally had been sanctioned.

Most of the officers went in their names and the Admiral's next problem was that if making the selection. His choice fell upon Lieutenant Humphrey O B Firman, RN and to support  him, Lieutenant Commander Charles H Cowley, RNVR was chosen; his intimate knowledge of the river  gained in the service of Messrs Lynch Brothers who ran the steamer tours that attracted thousands to the region in times of peace. Mr Reed, another of their employees, volunteered to accompany the expedition and was given a temporary commission as an Engineer Sub-Lieutenant. The crew consisted of one engine-room artificer, one leading stoker, three stokers, one leading seaman and six able seamen - all were volunteers drawn from the gunboat flotilla.. The Admiral said of them: "They are under no misapprehension as to the dangers they will run."


SS Julnar ready to srart out

SS Julnar readt to start out

In April 1916, in the days before the Julnar's final mission took place, the ship was loaded up at Basra with some 250 tons of food; a party of Naval Ratings were put  on board to reinforce steelwork around steering positions and engines and countless  messages and rumours took flight so that this potentially top secret mission became common gossip in the Arab Bazaars and the subject everywhere of bets and wagers. Small wonder then, that the Turks knew exactly what was happening, well ahead of the event and could plan their counter-move.


At eight o'clock on the evening of April 24, the Julnar started from Falahiyah on her perilous voyage, and, as though to give her an enthusiastic send-off, our artillery at once opened a terrific bombardment of the enemy's lines. The object of this was, of course, to keep the Turks in their trenches, and so reduced their chances of detecting the blockade-runner; and at first, it really looked as if f the ruse had been successful, for there was no indication that she had been detected. |We began to make calculations as to her probable progress; but in so-doing  we were obliged to guess her speed, for there had been no opportunity for testing it after she had been armour-plated and loaded.


The moon was due to rise at 1.15 am, which gave her just over five hours to cover the twenty odd miles; and taking into account a strong adverse current of about four knots, the allowance was not excessive. After Sanna-i-yat, her course would be fairly straight for the first tow miles or so, as far as Beit Aieese, but after that there would be several nasty bends, including a specially difficult one at the end of the Nakhaila reach. Then came the Ess Sinn position, where it was reasonable to suppose that the Turks would be on the look-out, and some four miles further on was the hairpin bend of Magus's Ferry (sic), which is eight and a half miles from Kut by river, but only four miles as the crow flies.


Our only hope lay in the darkness of the night, which was intensified by the high banks of the river; if she had really managed to pass through the front enemy position at Sanna-i-yat without being seen, it was just conceivable that the Turks in the back positions might be caught napping.


While we were in the midst of these anxious speculations, a report came from HMS Mantis that a red light had been seen at some distance up the river, and we were told that this was a recognised Turkish signal that a vessel was passing up the river. The futility of further speculation became painfully obvious; there was nothing for it but to sit down and wait patiently for the issue, whatever it might be.



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