Istanbul for the First World War aero enthusiast

I’ve had the good fortune to visit Istanbul twice in the past two years. It’s a storied city that offers many paths through its rich past. I chose to be guided by its place in First World War aviation history. I hope these notes prove useful to fellow air-minded tourists.

The obvious place to start is Yeşilköy (San Stefano), birthplace of Ottoman military aviation and probably your point of entry into Turkey – it’s now home to Istanbul Atatürk Airport. A window seat on the starboard side of the passenger jet will give you a fantastic view of the city as you land.

Turkish air force museum. Flight officer badge designed by Cemil (Uçman) Bey.

From the arrivals hall, a five minute taxi ride will see you at the Turkish air force museum (Havacılık Müzesi). Here in 1912 was established the first Ottoman airfield and flying school. In the museum, some, but not all, captions are in English so it’s worth reading up on early Ottoman and Turkish aviation ahead of your visit. Look for the British WW1 propeller, a trophy taken in air fighting over the Dardanelles. In the grounds there are no First World War aeroplanes but plenty of more modern machines like the Starfighter, Phantom and Sabre. At least one aeroplane sports the square red roundel (in use 1918 to 1972) that has a direct link to WW1 and the Ottoman insignia of black square with white border. A small gift shop sells souvenirs and cold drinks.

Turkish air force museum.

Having entered the Byzantine walls of Constantinople, you’ll find, between the fourth and third hills of the city and near the Valens aqueduct, a small park centred on the Aviation Martyrs’ Monument (Hava Şehitleri Anıtı formerly Tayyare Şehitleri Abidesi). Dedicated in 1916, the elegant memorial commemorates the first flyers in Ottoman service to fall. Fethi Bey, Sadık Bey and Nuri Bey died in their attempt to reach Cairo from Istanbul in 1914. A broken column rises from a marble base that bears the Ottoman flying insignia and two bronze medallions, one naming the pilots, the other depicting a Bleriot over Istanbul and the pyramids of Giza.

Aviation Martyrs’ Monument.

German airmen in Ottoman service are commemorated at Tarabya (Therapia), midway up the Bosphorus. The Soldatenfriedhof is found in the grounds of a cultural academy, once the German ambassador’s summer residence. Stone terraced and darkly wooded, the cemetery is an atmospheric place that shouldn’t be missed. About 25 German airmen and air crew from WWI are buried here. A 1917 newsreel shows Kaiser Wilhem II visiting Tarabya. To follow in his footsteps, email the German consulate (ku-10@ista.diplo.de) with the date you plan to visit at least a week in advance. You can only visit Monday to Friday. Your passport will be checked at the entry just north of the main gate. Ask to see the small exhibition that has recently opened.

German airman who fell in Ottoman service, Tarabaya.

A few kilometres south of Tarabya is the small bay that harboured the battleships Goeben (Yavuz Sultan Selim) and Breslau (Midilli). On the night of 9 July 1917, Lt Cdr Kenneth Savory and his observer Lt MacLelland in Handley-Page 3124 made, from Mudros, the first aerial bombing attack on Constantinople, beginning their run with two passes over Stenia Bay (İstinye). Savory thought they’d hit Goeben but the ‘heavy conflagration’ visible from the air was the sinking of a torpedo boat moored alongside. The surrounding hills are now covered in apartment buildings but from them the view of the bay can be matched to contemporary postcards and photographs.

Goeben in Stenia Bay.

To follow Savory’s raid on Constantinople – after Paris and London, the third national capital to be bombed from the air – head back south and take a ferry up the Golden Horn. Just past Atatürk Bridge was moored the headquarters ship General. Here Savory and MacLelland released a second salvo of bombs. Their final target was the Ministry of War, now Istanbul University. You can see the grand entrance gate at Beyazıt Square, two tram stops west of Sultanahmet. One bomb slightly damaged the adjacent stables and the other fell just outside the gates, perhaps where you’re standing. Think of those like Tasmanian captain Thomas Piper, RNAS, who, shot down and captured by the Turks in March 1918, was held in a basement cell at the War Ministry before transport to a prisoner of war camp in Anatolia.

Entrance to Istanbul University, once the gate to the Ministry of War.

Piper had attacked Breslau in January of that year when she and Goeben sortied from the straits. Outside the naval museum at Beşiktaş you can see a screw from Goeben. At the military museum near Taksim Square, one of the big Krupp guns from the Dardanelles forts is on display. A large mural depicting the Anzac landing sports two ‘Taubes’ but I saw nothing else telling of the air war. Both museums will be of interest if you have time to spare.

Krupp gun from the Dardanelles.

Rare Ottoman air service militaria alongside indicative uniforms and dioramas can be seen at the Hisart Müzesi. All eras of Ottoman and Turkish history are covered over its 5 floors. I found it fascinating and idiosyncratic, the way a museum should be.

Hisart Müzesi.

On the Asian shore of the Bosphorus is Haidar Pasha Cemetery. It’s a hot and dusty walk north from Kadıköy wharf but you’ll get a fine view of the grand Haydarpaşa railway terminus, sadly not operational, when you cross the bridge that spans its tracks. Continue on past the hospital and turn left down Burhan Felek street.

There are four Royal Air Force (1918-1920) and two RNAS men (1917, Russian Armoured Car Division) buried here, as well as a number commemorated with no known grave.

Haydarpaşa cemetery.

15 Anzacs also lie here. They were prisoners of the Turk, captured in fighting at Gallipoli (13) and Palestine (2). They died of wounds or sickness or both. Their remains were brought to Haidar Pasha after the war, from cemeteries in and near Istanbul.

Getting around

A prepaid SIM card can be purchased at the airport from Turk Telecom or Vodafone. As well as data, this gives you a local phone number which can be handy. I bought a 10 GB sim for $90 but could have managed with 5 GB for 3 weeks. Be aware that it takes an hour or two for the number to be activated and, in mobile network settings, I had to add an Access Point Name (APN) for Vodafone (live.vodafone.com). Customer support wasn’t the salesmen’s strong suit.

Getting around Istanbul is easy. At the airport metro station buy an Istanbulkart for light rail, metro, bus, funicular and ferry. Instructions on screen can be set to English when you buy or top up the card. The Trafi app will help you find public transport stations and stops. For taxis I used the BiTaksi app rather than hailing cabs on the street. It’s like Uber but with legitimate taxis. Pay cash or save a credit card to your account. Compared to Sydney, taxis are cheap. Roads can be congested so choose the metro or tram when that’s an option.

Reading

  • Ottoman Aviation 1909-1919 – Ole Nikolajsen, 2012 (www.ole-nikolajsen.com)
  • Bombs on Constantinople – A D Harvey (Cross & Cockade International, Vol 38 No 3)
  • Emil Meinecke, Fighter Ace of the Dardanelles – translated and edited by Brian P Flanagan (Cross & Cockade, Vol 12 No 3)
  • The History of the Ottoman Air Force in the Great War: The reports of Major Erich Serno – translated, edited and prepared by Brian P Flanagan (Cross & Cockade, Vol 11 Nos 3-5)
  • Air Defense: Turkey in the First World War http://www.turkeyswar.com/aviation/airdefense.html

Written for the email newsletter of the Australian Society of WW1 Aero Historians, January 2018. Updated December 2018.