Monthly Archives: April 2017

The Aptera Blockhouse

In spite of the failure of the Cretan Christians and their Greek allies to capture and hold Fort Malaxa, the insurgents continued to threaten the outposts of Fort Izzedin; the Ottoman fortress that dominated the entrance to Suda Bay, the main anchorage of the European Fleet.

Fort Izzedin viewed from Blockhouse. Fort Suda is across the Bay. (Photograph courtesy of Fred Rodgers.)

Austro-Hungarian Army map. Fort Izzedin and Aptera Blockhouse 1897

While realistically there was never any chance of them capturing the main fortress, the threat to it, and to the European naval forces using Suda Bay, was such that any move on Fort Izzedin was taken very seriously. Matters came to a head when in March 1897, the insurgents attempted to storm the blockhouse at Aptera, immediately above Fort Izzedin. The initial assaults were repulsed by fire from European ships

HMS Camperdown shelling insurgents above Fort Izzedin; view from HMS Revenge.

“On March 28th the insurgents made a second attempt on the Aptera blockhouse, near Fort Izzedin, which commands the entrance to Suda Bay. They were repulsed by the fire of the English, Italian and Russian warships, but resumed their attack two days later. “

A British sailor on board H. M. S. Camperdown described events in a letter to his mother:

Well last Tuesday [29th March] we heard that the Greeks were going to try and take the fort at the entrance to the harbour, The admiral sent all the small ships down to the mouth of the harbour near where the Greeks would come we also got orders to open fire. The battle started about 7pm as soon as the Greeks started firing the small ships fired shell at them it was a splendid sight to see at 8.30 we got orders to fire we fired at a distance of 4 miles the battle finished at 10pm for the night but started in the morning again at 9am we received orders to fire our heavy guns at them as well as the others our heavy guns weigh 67 tons each & throw a shell weighing 1250lbs which bursts at any distance you like from ½ mile to 15 miles we fired 4 rounds from these guns at them & a lot from the others The Greeks retreated then in the afternoon the Admirals visited the place we had shelled & they were astonished at the damage they had done they said the damage was inconceivable They couldn’t say how many were killed but it must have been a lot. We have quite a record what with sinking the Victoria & and being the only ship in the British Navy that has fired a modern heavy gun in action [1]

The Turkish garrison in the fort responded with its artillery, and the war-ships in the bay kept up a constant fire upon the besieging forces. At daylight next day the fight was resumed, but the Cretan Christians failed to storm the fort. In light of its strategic importance, the blockhouse commanded the water supply to Fort Izzedin, it was eventually determined that the outpost would be occupied by a force from the European Powers under the command of Colonel Bor, Royal Marine Artillery, who, for the purposes of this expedition, was awarded the ‘honorary’ rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Major Bor’s sketch map of Fort Izzedin and the Aptera Blockhouse. 30 March 1897.

Lt Col. Bor RMA

On 18 April at about 6p.m., Bor’s command occupied both Fort Izzedin and the Aptera blockhouse.

Austro-Hungarian and Russian troops in Fort Izzedin.

Ottoman and Russian flags over Fort Izzedin

Bor reported that he placed the Austrian and Russian contingents within the Fort, ordering them to hoist their flags to alert the insurgents to the European presence, while he went with the French and British contingents to the blockhouse; similarly hoisting their respective national flags. Both buildings apparently suffered from bad latrines and the accommodation in the blockhouse was so ‘indifferent’ that the French detachment requested, and were granted, permission to camp outside the building.

Izzedin Blockhouse February 2017 (Photograph courtesy of Fred Rodgers)

Shortly after his arrival firing broke out between Ottoman troops and insurgents to the east of the block-house, but following Bor’s instruction to the Ottomans to cease fire, the insurgents also stopped. The next morning the insurgents renewed their attack on the eastern outposts and their reinforcements could be seen advancing towards the firing line. Believing that the Cretan Christians could not see the French and British flags on the block-house from their firing line, Bor “ …marched out the French and British contingents with their flags to a conspicuous place, and, having previously sent to the Turkish outposts to cease firing, […] sounded the English ‘retire’ three times in order to attract the attention of the insurgents. They at once ceased firing and soon afterwards dispersed and went away, leaving slender guards for the rest of the day with two Greek flags which they planted along their line.”[2]  For the next few days there was little insurgent activity and the locals resumed working in their fields.

On 20th April, a group of 30 or so insurgents approached the abandoned village of Megalo Chorafia and planted a further Greek flag. No shots were fired by either side, and Bor issued strict instructions that the Ottoman and European troops were not to open fire unless a serious attack was threatened. The following day the Greek flags by the eastern outposts disappeared and more people, ‘very few of [whom] are armed’ appeared working in the fields within 1000 yards of the Ottoman lines. There were also indications that a few people were taking up residence in the Megalo Chorafia.[3]

The lull in the fighting was not to last and on 23 April Lt Col. Bor sent the following report to his superiors on H.M.S Revenge:

“…shortly before 11pm last night the insurgents commenced an attack on the eastern outposts of this position which lasted about an hour and a half and only ceased when some Krupp guns and Nordenfelts came into action from the Fort and Blockhouse. Reinforcements of uncertain strength were at this time coming down the valley as could be seen by a number of lights they were carrying but they had not come under fire when the attacking force fell back. In the meantime another, though lesser, attack had been made on the southern outposts which lasted about half an hour. At one o’clock as all appeared to be over, the garrisons of the Fort and the Blockhouse went to bed but an hour later a second and more determined attack was made on the same outposts and on two of the western outposts. The main attack this time was on the south side where the enemy closed to within 500 yds of the defence but retreated under heavy rifle fire.

On the east the attackers were crossing the river in considerable numbers when I again ordered the Krupp and Nordenfelts that side of the Blockhouse to open fire with the result that the attack fell back almost immediately.

About 2p.m. nearly all firing ceased and at 2.40 a.m. the garrison again lay down to sleep. Up to 5.30 a.m. occasional shots were exchanged between the outposts and the insurgents by which time most of the latter had got away over the hills out of sight. The total strength of the attacking force must have been at least 300 men and in this was included one company of about 40 men which appeared to be well trained and under good control as I saw it fire repeated good and well timed volleys. Two well trained buglers were also with the force.

The force in action holding the position numbered about 500 men including the Russians and Austrians in the Fort and the French and English in the Blockhouse. No casualties occurred probably owing to the fact that the outposts are very well defended by loopholed stone walls and that the bullets of the attackers were fired very high. The ammunition expended by the defence was as follows:

3 rounds from 15 cm Krupp gun

4 rounds from 6cm Krupp gun

10 from light field guns

56 from Nordenfelts

About 1800 rounds rifle ammunition.

There was a great deal of unnecessary and useless firing from the Turkish outposts which I was unable to control personally as I felt bound to remain close to the Blockhouse where the French and English were manning the battlements and which was central. At daybreak I visited all outposts and informed officers and men of the folly of wasting their ammunition.

There are no grounds for forming any opinion as to whether the attack will be renewed during the next few nights or not. But the position is quite strong enough even without the from the ships near the coast.[4]

As far as can be determined, this was the last serious attempt by the Cretan Christians to take over the Blockhouse and with the evacuation of Greek troops from Crete in May 1897, the situation quietened down.

 

[1] National Maritime Museum MS86/074 Letter dated 5 April 1897 from Fred (Blomeley?) to his grandmother describing firing on Greek attack on the Aptera outpost of Fort Izzedin. The reference to ‘sinking the Victoria’ relates to the fact that H.M.S. Camperdown had accidentally sunk the battleship H.M.S. Victoria, while on manoeuvers on 22nd June 1893.

[2] National Archives. ADM 116-92. Inclosure 183, Major Bor to Flag captain H.M.S. Revenge. 20 April 1897.

[3] National Archives. ADM 116-92. Inclosure 184, Major Bor to Flag captain H.M.S. Revenge. 21 April 1897.

[4] National Archives. ADM 116-92. Inclosure 192. Major Bor to Flag captain H.M.S. Revenge. 23 April 1897.

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The battle for the Malaxa blockhouse.

In early 1897 one of the few lengths of properly paved road on Crete was the stretch between the then capital, Canea, and Suda Bay, the only large and safe deep water anchorage on the island. Commanding both the road, the main approach to Canea from the east, and the entrance to the harbour, was Fort Izzedin and its associated outworks.

British map of Suda Bay, April 1897.

While realistically  the Christian Cretan insurgents were never going to be able to take over the Fort Izzedin, the capture and occupation of the outlying blockhouses would put pressure on the Ottoman forces, both within the fort and in Canea. Accordingly, several attempts, some more successful than others, were made to capture these positions.

The first assault was on the Malaxa blockhouse.   An initial attack on Sunday 28th February was forced back by fire from the Ottoman iron-clad Mukaddami Khair. (In illustration of how little control the Ottoman authorities actually had over the events unfolding at that time, the Mukaddami Khair was obliged to seek, and was eventually given, the permission of the European Admirals to open fire on the insurgents. She eventually fired three shells, ‘…the first a well-directed one, which had the effect of rapidly clearing the hillsides.’[1])

The insurgents were more successful when they attacked again three weeks later.

Cretan Christians assaulting the Malaxa Blockhouse

While the illustration above is from the French magazine Le Petite Journal, the original appeared in the Illustrated London News of 10th  April 1897 with a text which reads;

“Early on the morning of March 25th a large force of Christian insurgents took up its position, with three guns, for an attack upon the Turkish blockhouse at Malaxa, a village near Canea. After prolonged artillery firing, the insurgents advanced on the blockhouse. The Turkish garrison eventually raised a white flag, and the Christians entered the blockhouse with a rush. The first of the insurgents to enter the fort was a young Cretan, Manos, who was recently an undergraduate at Oxford and is now the leader of a band of young patriots. Thanks to his intervention, the lives of most of the garrison were spared, forty-three prisoners being taken to Kontopoulo by the insurgents when their bombardment by the war-ships of the Powers obliged them to evacuate the blockhouse.”

The Illustrated London News drawing is described as being ‘[d]rawn by R. Canton Woodville R.I., from a Sketch by our Special Artist, Mr. Melton Prior’, and has Canton Woodville’s initials on the bottom left hand side and what appears to be an engraver’s mark on the bottom right. The identical illustration  published in Le Petite Journal contains no attribution to the artists.

From other contemporary reports in the Illustrated London News it would appear that in addition to the intervention a British educated insurgent, the assistance of an American journalist and a Greek Army officer were instrumental in preventing a massacre of the Ottoman defenders and facilitating the transfer of the Ottoman prisoners to the Greek Army HQ in the nearby village of Alikianos.

“When the Cretan insurgents had stormed the blockhouse of Malaxa and rushed forward to occupy the stronghold, the first men to enter the fort was the young insurgent leader, Manos, who was but latterly and undergraduate at Oxford. He was closely followed by Mr Benn an American correspondent and these two between them prevailed on the victorious forces to spare the lives of most of the garrison, and rest content with taking them prisoners. Forty-three of the Turkish soldiers were taken as prisoners to [Kastropoulo/Kontopoulo?] under fire of the war-ships of the Powers.”

Not all of the garrison were captured or killed, some managed to make their way down the steep hill-side to safety.

The fall of the Malaxa Blockhouse; The flight of Ottoman troops

In spite of having captured the Malaxa blockhouse, the insurgents were not to remain there for long. The Illustrated London News reported;

‘One heavy shell from the Combined Fleet passed through the blockhouse, demolishing one of its main walls. Some hundred shells fell around the position, doing considerable damage in the villages of Malaxa and Kontopoulo. The Christians fired the ruined blockhouse before withdrawing from this bombardment, and carried forty-three of the garrison with them as prisoners.’

European forces bombard Malaxa Blockhouse.

Again according to the Illustrated London News, below;

‘[During] the Christian attack upon the blockhouse (…..) Turkish war-ships in Suda Bay kept firing upon the attacking force at intervals throughout the fight, with the object of relieving the garrison, and after the occupation of the blockhouse the war-ships of the Powers fired upon the victorious Christians, and forced them to evacuate the now ruined stronghold.’

The fall of Malaxa blockhouse.

A handwritten note on the illustration describes the figures in the foreground as ‘Turkish troops from roofs of houses in Nerokouron. The smoke from the Malaxa  blockhouse is shown in the top right hand corner of the illustration.

The Ottoman prisoners were taken to the headquarters of the Greek invasion force at Alikianos and kept there until the evacuation of the Greek army a month or so later.

Ottoman prisoners from Malaxa.

Malaxa Insurgents

The date of the above photograph is unknown and the caption might refer simply to the location of the shot. However, it is possible that it may contain images of some of the Cretan Christians who fought at Malaxa.

 

 

 

 

[1] Command Paper No Turkey No.9, 1897. No1. Admiral Harris to Admiralty, 24 February 1897.