Disaster 1914: The loss of HMS Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue
September 22nd 2014 saw the hundredth anniversary of the first massive loss by the Royal Navy in the First World War. This disaster in question was to cost 1459 men their lives and destroy three ships. The impact on British public-consciousness was massive – comparable to the loss HMS Courageous and HMS Royal Oak in 1939 – and all the more so since it was recognised not only as avoidable, but the result of poor professional decision-making.
At the outbreak of war in 1914 all major navies had small numbers of submarines. There was little over a decade’s experience of their employment and designs were largely experimental. Limited range and armament, low speed and, above all, short underwater endurance led many to believe that the offensive threat they posed, especially to warships, would not be great. Fevered development during the First World War was to change such views but in September 1914 many commanders who had grown up in purely surface navies still held to such opinions.
The first indication of the submarine’s potential came on September 5th 1914, when the British cruiser HMS Pathfinder was sunk in the North Sea off the Scottish coast. Hit by a torpedo fired by the German submarine U-21, she was to gain the unfortunate title of being the first British warship to be sunk in this way. The Pathfinder was a “Scout Cruiser”, a type which was to evolve in time into the Light Cruiser. Launched in 1905, she was just under 3000 tons, 385 feet long and carried nine 4-in guns and smaller weapons. She could make 25 knots top speed but her limited coal capacity was the class’s Achilles heel. On the day of her destruction her bunkers were so depleted that she was restricted to 5 knots, making her an easy target for the U-Boat. A magazine exploded within minutes after the ship was hit and she went down with a loss of 259 men from her crew of some 270. The ship was sufficiently close inshore for her loss to be witnessed by many on the coast, including the future novelist Aldous Huxley. In a family letter he recounted in appalling detail what he had heard from members of the local lifeboat about the state of the human remains found when the area was searched.
HMS Cressy when new – still in Victorian livery
Despite this “wake up call” regarding vulnerability of warships at low speed the Royal Navy initiated a patrol of the northern entrance of the English Channel with five obsolete Cressy class armoured cruisers. This group was known as “Cruiser Force C” and the patrol area they were assigned to was in the shallow waters off the Dutch coast known as the “Broad Fourteens”. The logic of maintaining a patrol in the area was unassailable as a fast German raiding force of destroyers could wreak havoc on British maritime supply lines between the English Coast and Northern France should they enter the Channel. Though destroyers and light cruisers would have been more suited to the task it was believed that destroyers would be unable to maintain the patrol in bad weather and insufficient modern light cruisers were available. The solution was to deploy old armoured cruisers which had at least got the necessary station-keeping capability. This was perhaps their only positive attribute.
The vulnerability of these cruisers was recognised by many senior officers, not only because of their obsolescence but because of their manning. Taken hastily from reserve –which meant they had been unmanned and poorly, if at all, maintained – on outbreak of war they were quickly overhauled and put back in service. Originally capable of 21 knots they now found it hard to make 15. Crews were in short supply, leading the ships to be manned by reservists, many middle-aged, many of them pensioners, who had not previously served or exercised together as teams. In addition, nine naval cadets, some as young as 15, were allocated to each ship, being taken directly from the Royal Naval College. The general view of Cruiser Force C’s fighting potential was summed up in the nickname it quickly acquired – the “Live Bait Squadron”.
HMS Aboukir at Malta – note 6″ weapons in casemates along sides
Britain’s armoured cruisers can be fairly described as the most unsuccessful and unfortunate type of warship ever employed by the Royal Navy. The 34 vessels of this type that were in service at the outbreak of war had entered service between 1902 and 1908 – they were not old ships. Of these 34, a total of 13 were to be lost in the next four years. Intended to form part of the battle fleet, they had been rendered obsolete by the advent of the almost equally-disastrous battle-cruiser concept. The earlier classes – the six ships of the Cressy class being the oldest – had very limited offensive capability, especially in rough weather. They were large – and expensive – ships and they needed large crews. Details of the Cressy class, of which Cruiser Force C was composed, were as follow:
Displacement: 12,000 tons
Length: 472 feet
Engines: Triple Expansion, 21,000 hp
Maximum Speed: 21 Knots on completion, probably 15 in 1914
Armament: 2 X 9.2”, 12 X 6” and many smaller. Also 2X18” torpedo tubes
Crew at commissioning: 760
On September 20th 1914 Cruiser Force C’s patrol consisted of HMS Euryalus, HMS Aboukir, HMS Hogue and HMS Cressy, with a fifth vessel, HMS Bacchante in remaining in port. Rear Admiral Christian, in Euryalus, was in temporary command of the force. Poor weather made it impossible for the protecting destroyer force to remain in company and Euryalus had to drop out due to lack of coal and weather damage to her wireless. Christian had to remain with his ship as the weather was too bad to transfer. He delegated command to Captain Drummond in Aboukir . A further step in the path leading to disaster was made when Christian did not make it clear that Drummond had the authority to order supporting destroyers to sea if the weather improved, as it indeed did later the following day.
HMS Hogue – the 6″ weapons in the lower casemates were unworkable in rough seas
The other main actor in the drama was also moving towards the Broad Fourteens. Kapitaenleutnant Otto Weddigen, in command of the German submarine U-9 – the low number indicting just how early a unit this vessel was in the Imperial Navy’s submarine force – had left Wilhelmshaven on September 20th. His orders were to attack British transports landing troops at Ostend, on the Belgian coast. Though only 32, Weddigen was an experienced submariner and had survived a peacetime accident to the U-3, from which he and 27 others had escaped though a torpedo tube. The U-9 was very primitive by later standards, her surface displacement 505 tons, her length 188 ft. Her heavy-oil engines, of 1040 hp, gave her a surface speed of 13.5 knots. She was armed with four torpedo tubes, two forward, two aft, and carried reloads for the forward tubes only. Her greatest weakness was her heavy-oil engine, which produced a very visible exhaust plume.
The same weather that plagued Cruiser Force C battered the U-9 unmercifully – her limited underwater endurance meant that she had to remain on the surface – and her gyrocompass became inoperable. Weddigen attempted to navigate by soundings – a doubtful technique even in the best of circumstances. On September 21st he identified his position as some 20 miles off the Dutch coast at Scheveningen, the port of The Hague. He took his vessel down to 50 ft for the night, stopping his batteries, and resting his crew.
A contemporary German drawing of the U-9 on patrol. Note the heavy exhaust
At dawn on September 22nd U-9 surfaced to find the storm over, the sea calm but for a slow swell. Smoke was seen on the horizon and the U-9’s engines were immediately shut down to get rid of their exhaust plume. A quick appraisal led Weddigen to order diving but he continues to observe through his periscope. Three vessels were approaching – the Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue – and Weddingen steered on his electric motors towards the central vessel, Aboukir.
Undetected, U-9 came within 600 yards of Aboukir’s port bow before firing a torpedo. As this was still running Weddigen took his craft down to 50 feet, then heard “a dull thud, followed by a shrill-toned crash”. Cheering erupted on U-9.
Aboukir sinking – by the famous British maritime painter Norman Wilkinson
– the Hogue is seen dropping boats to pick up survivors
A contemporary illustration of the Aboukir’s end
The magazines of the time left little to the imagination
The single torpedo was to prove enough to destroy Aboukir. Hit amidships on the port side, the engine and boiler rooms were flooded and the ship listed to port. Assuming that he had hit a mine – even after the loss of the Pathfinder the submarine threat was still underestimated – Captain Drummond ordered Cressy and Hogue to come closer so that Aboukir’s wounded could be transferred. Even had a mine indeed been responsible the order would have been an unwise one, but with the U-9’s presence still unsuspected it was to prove fatal.
Attempts to counter Aboukir’s list by counter flooding proved unsuccessful and when it was obvious that she was going to roll over “abandon ship” was ordered. Only one boat got away, the others either wrecked by the explosion or impossible to launch. Twenty-five minutes after the torpedo strike Aboukir capsized, remained on the surface, bottom-up, for a few minutes with a few wretches clinging to her, then disappeared.
U-9, still unsuspected, observed the disaster through the periscope. Hogue and Cressy were now creeping towards Aboukir’s survivors and lowering boats. Weddingen ordered the empty torpedo tube reloaded and identified Hogue as his next victim. She was now stationary and Weddigen fired both bow tubes at her. This action altered U-9’s balance and her bow broke surface, drawing fire from Hogue. Weddingen managed to get his craft under again and as he did heard two explosions.
The Hogue’s end was almost identical to her sister’s and the “abandon ship” order meant leaping into the water as her boats were already busy with saving Aboukir’s survivors. Now only the Cressy remained and she was transmitting distress signals by wireless.
U-9’s batteries were almost depleted but Weddigen was determined to continue his attack. Through his periscope he could see the surface strewn it wreckage, bodies, swimmers and overcrowded boats. Cressy was stationary and her boats had been lowered. U-9’s periscope was spotted and the cruiser opened fire, the surged forward in an unsuccessful attempt to ram. Then, unaccountably, she stopped again. Weddigen still had three torpedoes left, two aft, one forward. He manoeuvred to bring U-9’s stern tubes to bear and fired both at a range of a thousand yards. One torpedo struck the Cressy but the second missed. Hit on the starboard side, the cruiser heeled over, then began to right herself. Some ten minutes later Weddigen fired his last torpedo from its bow tube. Now hit on the port side the already stricken Cressy rolled over and remained on the surface, bottom up, for a further twenty minutes. Then she too sunk, her crew’s plight all the worse since the boats she had sent off were already crowded with Aboukir’s and Hogue’s survivors.
A drawing of the Cressy’s end by the American artist Henry Reuterdahl (1870-1925)
The reality cannot have been much different to this, horrible as it was
Two Dutch trawlers had approached initially but bore away in fear of mines. (Note that the Netherlands was neutral throughout World War 1). About a half hour after Cressy went down a small Dutch steamer, the Flora, approached and managed to pluck 286 men from the water. A second Dutch ship, the Titan, rescued 147 more. Two British trawlers arrived and joined in the rescue effort and eight British destroyers arrived from Harwich two hours later. In all 837 men were saved from the three cruisers but 1459 had been lost.
The U-9, having spotted British destroyers, but managing to escape detection, signalled news of her success when she reached the Ems Estuary. On September 24th U-9 entered the main German naval base at Wilhelmshaven to the cheers of the entire fleet. The crew were immediately national heroes and Weddigen was awarded the Iron Cross, First Class, as well as other decorations. Every member of the crew received the Iron Cross, Second Class.
U-9’s triumphant return to Wilhelmshaven
The lessons of the Pathfinder, Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue sinkings still did not appear to have been learned at the Admiralty. Six even-older old cruisers, the 10th Cruiser Squadron, were left patrolling off Aberdeen, on the North-East Scottish coast. Among these was HMS Hawke, a protected cruiser of 7700 tons which dated from 1893 and was the survivor of a collision with the liner RMS Olympic in 1911. Kapitaenleutnant Weddigen was by now back at sea and on the morning of October 15th – three weeks after his previous exploit – he found Hawke and her sister Endymion stationary and transferring mail. As Hawke got under way again – without zigzagging – Weddigen sank her with a single torpedo. She capsized almost immediately and 524 of her crew died.
Weddigen was appointed to command of the new submarine U-29 but his tenure was to be tragically short – U-29 was rammed by HMS Dreadnought in the Pentland Firth on 18 March 18th 1915.There were no survivors.
Though the three ships lost in the Broad Fourteens were of little fighting value the impact on British public opinion was massive, not least because of the heavy loss of life. The numerous “artists’ impressions” of the sinkings which were published in illustrated magazines did nothing to understate the horror involved. German reports that the sinkings were the work of a single submarine and the Times newspaper speculated that an entire German submarine-flotilla had been responsible, from which only the U-9 had returned safely. The subsequent court of inquiry attributed blame to all of the senior officers involved – Captain Drummond for not zigzagging and for not calling for destroyers and Rear Admiral Christian for not making it clear to Drummond that he could summon the destroyers. The most devastating criticism was of Rear Admiral Campbell, who had been Christian’s superior, and for whom the latter had been acting – at the inquiry he made the remarkable statement that he did not know what the purpose of his command was. The bulk of the blame was directed at the Admiralty for persisting with a patrol that was dangerous and of limited value against the advice of senior sea-going officers.
The impact on neutral opinion was equally powerful. The supremacy of British naval power had been assumed ever since Trafalgar and was now suspect. The First World War had opened badly at sea for Britain, and yet more disasters were imminent. But that’s another story.