Thanks for introducing the story of Ben-my-Chree as it is one of my soft spots. This ship and its crew put themselves in danger on a daily basis to support the Light Horse in the Sinai deserts. The brave pilots from the ship took their frail aircraft and patrolled the deserts. They had no rescue service. If they became lost, there was no radio and little prospect of rescue. It took tremendous courage to put their lives on the line like this on a daily basis.
Here is one such story of this co-operation just after Romani and Bir el Abd in August 1916.
Surrounding the 3rd LH Brigade camps and more particularly, north of Salmana, there was a sizeable Bedouin population who thought nothing of sniping at Australian soldiers. This was a hazard that occasionally produced a casualty. Their more common activity was to spy upon the various military camps and pass information about allied troop movements to the Turks. This made their presence on the battlefield quite a nuisance for the allied formations. Added to that, they assisted the regular Turkish patrols, which originated at Bir el Mazar. These patrols would spread out over the expanse of territory covering the area bounded by Bir el Ganadil and Bir el Geisi, some 8km south east of Hod Salmana. Apart from checking out the disposition of Allied troops, they also did everything possible to cut communications. Telegraph and telephone lines needed to be constantly repaired as a consequence.
To solve this problem, Chauvel put into place two teams to interrupt the Turks. The first team was the No 2 Section Mobile Column, which operated in the south at Um el Rueisat, a bleak and barren hill that dominated the sand dunes in the near vicinity. It was some 16km south east from Hod Nabit over almost trackless desert. The job of the Mobile Column was to catch the Turks at their task of destroying communications. However, because of the porous nature of the land, they were not having much luck. The Turks still passed by this cordon and cut communications.
Covering the northern passages from Bir el Mazar, the NZMRB was called in with orders for them to scour the country north of Salmana. In doing so they sent out patrols all the way to the Sabkhet Bardawil. Again, the hope to interrupt harrying raids did not eventuate as the Turks snuck past the patrols. Chauvel added to their task by sending a series of patrols across from the Zugba Peninsular over the Sabkhet Bardawil to find a way to El Gales, an oasis near its centre. At the time the Sabkhet Bardawil was in its low marshy state where there were bars of solid earth leading to the Bardawil Peninsular and El Gales. While the water was low, it was possible to cross despite being treacherous. When filled with seawater, which was only a couple metres in depth, it was perilous to cross, even by boat.
Royston received orders to support these two units with the 3rd LH Bde. His orders were to hold any high ground around Ganadil and keep an eye out to the east for any Turkish movements. When the NZMRB left their camp, it was the role of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade to cover them. A secondary task assigned to them was to find any well used track south of the road running through Bir el Geisi or Bir el Ganadil. While Royston was an instinctive soldier, he knew how to delegate. In this case he went to the man with the best track record for successful desert expeditions, Scott from the 9th LHR and his team. He delegated the task of planning Brigade movements to Scott. The date for the operation was set for Thursday evening, 24 August 1916.
The second arm to this operational plan for the Allies was the novel introduction of modern technology injected into the Sinai. This was more a glimpse into the future rather than a standard feature of the day. This was the cooperation between the Royal Navy, the Fleet Air Arm and the Light Horse in a reconnaissance action. It had never been done before. The aim was to squeeze the Turks in a pincer movement, one conducted by the Fleet Air Arm from the El Arish direction while the other by the Light Horse deploying south and then moving north.
To carry out the Naval part of the plan, out on the sea, just off the shore by the Bardawil Peninsular, stood the Seaplane Carrier, a converted passenger ferry for the England–Isle of Man route called HMS “Ben-my-Chree”, which in Manx means “Lady of My Heart”. This ship carried several Schneider seaplanes, which were employed in harrying the Turks. Over the last week, the ship had taken an active roll in conducting air raids around the Turkish rail junctions at El Afuleh. They were now ready for flying in the Sinai. On 24 August 1916, while the HMS “Ben-my-Chree” was on its return run to Port Said, the Schneider seaplanes were launched. They crossed the Bardawil Peninsular until they reached the mainland and separated. One aeroplane followed the tracks to Mazar and almost to Salmana, then turned around and flew back to HMS “Ben-my-Chree”. The other aeroplane flew to El Arish and returned. The pilots were debriefed and the information gained was radioed to the EEF with the relevant information reaching Chauvel in anticipation of his mission for the 3rd LH Bde later that day.
This mission undertaken by the pilots was prone to a great deal of danger as there was little prospect of rescue if an aeroplane was lost. When the HMS “Ben-my-Chree” arrived in Port Said the next day the ship’s captain, Commander Charles Rumney Samson expected some praise to be extended to his men. Instead, in typical bureaucratic manner, he received a letter from the Admiralty demanding an explanation as to the increase in ammunition expended over the last operational quarter compared with earlier accounting periods. The bemused Cdr Samson gave the following concluding comment dripping with irony to the relevant bureaucrat when he said ‘… that there was unfortunately a war on’.
Once Samson’s information from the air reconnaissance had been passed on, the 3rd LH Bde was able to move out.
To put all the action into some sort of context, I have also posted a map of the region and the places mentioned below.
What this indicates to me as that both the Turks and Allies demonstrated incredible heroism despite the nature of the tasks and governments for whom they fought during the war.
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