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TGC Dumlupinar: Revisiting the Turkish navy’s biggest maritime disaster

This month marks the Turkish military’s deadly marine accident in the Canakkale Strait, a historically strategic location where the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor state to Türkiye, landed a surprising defeat to the Allied armies during WWI. 

Seventy years ago, TGC Dumlupinar was on the return journey from the Mediterranean Sea, where it had taken part in a NATO training exercise alongside TCG Birinci Inonu (S330), another Turkish submarine. The two vessels were heading to the Golcuk port in the Marmara Sea, where the headquarters of the Turkish Navy were located.

But heavy misty weather covering the strait, the scene of countless battles and voyages, would fatefully hamper Dumlupinar’s voyage on the dark night of April 4. 

At around 2 am, as the submarine approached Nara Burnu or Nagara Point, one of the deepest and narrowest points of the Canakkale Strait known for strong currents, a Swedish cargo ship, MV Naboland, suddenly emerged from a blind turn and was on the same track as the Turkish vessel.

“As Naboland was turning around Nara Burnu at a speed unusual for a waterway passage, the ship slid inward of the strait and went into Dumlupinar’s lane, leaving little space for the Turkish submarine to safely surpass the Swedish vessel,” says Ercument Ozmen, a retired senior chief petty officer at the Turkish navy and an expert on the Dumlupinar disaster. Ozmen served as a radar operator at TGC Murat Reis, a Turkish submarine, for nearly two decades.

“If Dumlupinar stayed steady, it would have hit Naboland head-to-head.”

Amidst the nerve wracking ordeal, Ozmen added, Dumlupinar’s leading officers made an announcement that the submarine will move to the right near the eastern shores of the Canakkale Strait.

But if Dumlupinar had steered too far to the right, it would have hit the shore. The submarine was caught between a rock and a hard place, Ozmen explains. 

The fateful decision

Hearing the announcement, Sabri Celebioglu, Dumlupinar’s commander, climbs onto the deck from his cabin to personally oversee the situation. Celebioglu thought taking the right turn would mean crashing into the shore, so he decided to move to the far left of Naboland near the western shores of the strait in a bid to avoid a collision with the Swedish vessel, says Ozmen. 

But the submarine was racing against time in the extremely narrow strait. Although it completed its turn towards the left, it could not escape the incoming Swedish cargo ship. Soon after, a head-on collision occurred.

Many military experts believe that at this moment, it would have been a better choice to turn the ship completely to the right even though it could possibly be stranded on land, instead of turning the ship to the left, says Ozmen.

Eight sailors standing on deck fell into the sea due to the sheer force of the collision. Two were instantly killed by the Naboland propellers and another drowned in chaotic circumstances, while five sailors struggling with the Canakkale Strait’s strongest currents were saved by the Swedish ship’s rescue boats and lifesavers. They were later transferred to a local hospital by a Turkish customs ship. 

The situation below the deck was as bad as the events unfolding on the surface as the heavily damaged Dumlupinar was quickly descending towards the seabed. The crash left the Turkish submarine without electricity, severing most communication as water entered from the bow. 

According to the Turkish defence ministry, some survivors of the disaster and experts, including Ozmen, 81 sailors lost their lives. Of the 81 deaths, three happened on the deck during the crash, while 78 died stuck inside the sunken submarine. As a result, 86 sailors were believed to be aboard Dumlupinar prior to the crash, according to both experts and authorities.

While the 78 sailors stuck in the submarine rushed to reach the stern to secure their lives in the torpedo room, many of them did not make it under the increasing pressure of rising waters. 

Only 22 sailors were able to reach and lock themselves in the stern torpedo section as Dumlupinar completely sank on the Canakkale Strait’s deepest and darkest bed after an explosion in the ship’s central compartment. 

Some accounts suggest that besides those 22 sailors, several also temporarily survived in other parts of the submarine. Ulvi Erhazar, a non-commissioned officer, was one of those surviving sailors who attempted to reach the surface by swimming from the sunken submarine, but he did not make it. 

Selami Ozben, a petty officer, had sent an emergency communications buoy to the surface to let the Turkish authorities know that there were survivors inside the sunken ship. But amid the dark night, the buoy was invisible to any nearby vessel.

When the sun rose, the Turkish customs ship, which had rescued five sailors the night before, was the first to spot the communications buoy. Selim Yoluduz, the customs ship’s second engineer, had looked for a telephone inside the floating buoy and saw the inscription on the telephone, which connects the buoy with the submarine through a cable.

“The submarine TCG Dumlupinar, commissioned in the Turkish Navy, has sunk here. Open the hatch to establish contact with the submarine,” said the inscription on the telephone. When Yoluduz picked up the phone, he reached Ozben. 

The Turkish authorities alerted naval forces, including Kurtaran, Turkish for rescuer, a submarine rescue ship, to rescue the remaining 22 sailors. From the seabed, Ozben told Yoluduz of the ship’s condition and the number of surviving sailors in the section they sheltered inside the submarine. 

Yoluduz informed Ozben where Dumlupinar had crashed with the Swedish ship and that they were 90 metres below sea. He also told trapped sailors that a rescue ship was on the way to save them from certain death and that they would try everything to get them out alive.

Yoluduz had then passed the telephone to Zeki Adar, the top navy officer of Canakkale at the time. “My son, we will rescue you. Don’t worry!” Adar said. “Thank you! Long live my country!” replied Ozben. After this conversation, several contact attempts were reportedly made with the sunken submarine survivors.

Kurtaran arrived at the crash site 10 hours later, but it would take another 12 hours to place the rescue ship in a location parallel to the sunken submarine due to severe weather conditions and strong currents. Placing the rescue ship on the right location close to the submarine is always crucial for submarine rescue operations. 

As if that wasn’t enough, within those 12 hours, a rope on board the rescue ship had severed the buoy cable, disrupting communication between trapped sailors and the surface. 

The biggest challenge during the attempted rescue mission was getting the wires of the diving bell, a chamber used to transport divers from sea surface to depth and back up, to the escape hatch of the older-fashioned submarine, which was a former American ship transferred by the US to Türkiye in 1950 to hasten Ankara’s entry to the Western alliance in 1953.  

Unfortunately, strong currents and bad weather prevented divers from reaching the sunken ship to get the wires of the diving bell to the submarine’s escape hatch, says Ozmen. According to experts, only three days worth of oxygen was probably available for 22 sailors and on April 7, rescue efforts ceased after 10 failed attempts to dive towards the submarine. 

The same day, the Turkish navy announced that all 78 sailors inside the sunken submarine were considered dead. The Dumlupinar incident was Turkish military’s most deadly naval maritime disaster, and the Turkish navy has since commemorated Marine Martyrs’ Day on April 4 each year in remembrance of the 81 victims of the disaster. 

Bad luck?

For centuries, sailors across different continents have believed that luck always played a critical role in their survival during their dangerous voyages. “If a ship had an accident a short time after its launch, they would consider it a sign of bad luck. That ship is always considered unlucky from then on,” says Ozmen. 

Interestingly, Dumlupinar, which was originally called USS Blower before the US gave it to Türkiye, had a bad accident in the Pacific two months after it was commissioned by the US army in August 1944. 

Even after that, the USS Blower had had a number of accidents during its commissioning under the US army, according to Ozmen. 

Running a 20,000-tonne submarine is a very difficult task, says Ozmen, who had gone through seven near-sink experiences, two accidents and many hard times in which he had thought that his ship would go down during his long career. “The submarine is always trying to go down,” he says. As a result, the submarine’s crew always need luck. 

Perhaps another bad omen is the ship’s name (Dumlupinar is a district in Türkiye’s Kutahya province in which the Turkish army inflicted a final blow to the invading Greek armies during the Independence War between August 26 and 30, 1922). Within the Turkish navy, three submarines bearing the same name had their fair share of trouble.

Prior to the 1953 disaster, there was another Dumlupinar, imported from Italy, which was in an accident close to Istanbul’s Anatolian side in 1949 and was decommissioned. 

A third ship of the same name crashed in the Canakkale Strait in 1976. After being repaired in Golcuk, there was a fire onboard the ship. It returned to sea in 1978 but was decommissioned five years later. 

“After this point, the Turkish navy made the decision not to name any ship Dumlupinar,” says Ozmen. 

Mithat Atabay, an academic and writer of several books on the Dumlupinar disaster and other submarine accidents, echoed the sentiment. “Unfortunately, ships named Dumlupinar were ill-starred ships for us,” Atabay tells TRT World

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