For over two thousand years the British Isles had been subject to invasion be it from legions of Roman soldiers, Nordic Vikings or the Spanish Armada. It was therefore embedded on the British psyche that a strong navy was essential for the island nation to survive. After the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 where the Royal Navy defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets Britain was the dominant naval power in the world and for the first time in its history the island nation was safe. The situation remained largely unchanged for over a hundred years and so entire generations grew up believing that thanks to the Royal Navy Britain was impervious to invasion even as the German leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II, began building his own fleet to challenge it.
Among the home fleet were a force of cruisers known as the Cressey-class. Built between 1899 and 1901 the Cressey-class cruisers displaced 12,000 tons and were well armoured for their day with some sections having as much as 152mm of steel protecting it. They were powered by two 4-cylinder triple expansion steam engines driving two shafts that propelled them to a speed of 21 knots. Main armament was two 9.2inch Mark X which could fire a 380lb shell out to a range of 29,000 yards and these were backed up by 12 6-inch and 12 12-pounder guns. Each Cressey-class ship had a crew complement of up to 760.
Such was the rapid pace of the arms race between Britain and Germany in the years leading up to the First World War that these ships were soon declared obsolete in the face of new equivalent German cruisers and so became part of the Royal Navy Reserve going to sea occasionally for training purposes. The outbreak of war saw the activation of the Royal Navy Reserve and the Cresseys formed the 7th Cruiser Squadron assigned to patrol the North Sea entrance to the English Channel. The inexperience of the reservist crews and the fact the Cresseys were slower than their German counterparts sparked widescale criticism of their use in this way from analysts and the more realistic members of the Admiralty. However the Royal Navy at large was gearing up for its Second Battle of Trafalgar in which the premier ships of both sides would meet in honourable combat for control of the sea. The Cresseys therefore had to perform the more mundane patrol taskings and there were those who believed that when the Germans learned of these ships it would actually encourage an attack. The 7th Cruiser Squadron therefore earned the unflattering nickname of the Live Bait Squadron.
In mid-September 1914 four of the Cresseys (Aboukir, Cressey, Euryalis and Hogue) and a variety of supporting ships were at sea under the command of Rear-Admiral Arthur Christian aboard Euryalus. Severe weather was hampering their progress and while this was of little concern to ships the size of the Cresseys it was more worrying for the relatively tiny destroyers. On the 17th September Christian decided that the weather was too bad for them to remain at sea and ordered them to return to port leaving the four Cresseys to continue the patrol. The weather remained poor and the ships had to work hard to keep at sea. Then on the 20th September Christian was given some unfortunate news from his flagship’s engineering crews. HMS Euryalus had expended a considerable amount of its fuel and needed to return to port soon. Frustrated by this development he considered transferring his flag to one of the other cruisers however the weather was proving so fierce that it was almost impossible to launch a sea boat and therefore he signalled to Captain J. Drummond aboard HMS Aboukir that he was to assume command of the squadron while Euryalus returned to port. The three remaining Cresseys continued their war patrol alone.
On the morning of September 22nd 1914 the weather began to settle and after days of rolling and pitching the three crews looked forward to a welcome respite as they patrolled an area known as the Broad Fourteens located around 18 miles from the Dutch coast (then a neutral country in the fighting). Unknown to them however another crew nearby were pleased to have a rest from the storm – the crew of German submarine U-9 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen. U-9 had attempted an attack on British transports a few days earlier but the storm had forced Weddigen to call off the operation and now he and his men were returning to their home port.
At 06:00 U-9 had surfaced to replenish its batteries when lookouts spotted the shape of the three Cresseys in the distance travelling at a rather conservative 10 knots. Sensing an opportunity, Weddigen ordered U-9 to submerge and he plotted an attack. At 06:20 he fired a single torpedo at the lead cruiser, Aboukir, striking the British ship on the starboard side. The resulting explosion tore a hole big enough to flood the engine room and Aboukir ground to a shuddering halt before beginning to list to starboard. Drummond was overwhelmed. He had no idea what had caused the explosion and suspected they had blundered in to a minefield. Despite counter flooding the ship continued to list and it became obvious that the Aboukir was lost. Hogue and Cressey were therefore signalled to assist in recovering the Aboukir’s crew.
Weddigen couldn’t believe his luck!
After his initial attack Weddigen had surfaced once more and observed the two other ships going to the aid of their comrade. After 25 minutes he saw Aboukir finally slip below the surface taking 527 men with her and both Hogue and Cressey were launching boats to rescue the men in the water. Weddigen decided to take full advantage of the situation and fired a pair of torpedoes at the nearest ship, Hogue. The firing of the torpedoes raised the forward hull of the submarine out of the water and lookouts aboard Hogue spotted her. The British, finally realising they were under submarine attack, began firing on the submarine but it was too late and at 07:05 the torpedoes struck Hogue. The damage inflicted was even greater than that upon Aboukir and just 10 minutes later she sank beneath the surface.
Horrified at what was happening, HMS Cressey went after U-9 looking for revenge firing a salvo of gunfire in the submarine’s direction. Going to full power Cressey then attempted to ram U-9 but failed. Weddigen responded by firing his two aft torpedoes at the ship one of which missed but the other struck the British vessel although the damage was not fatal. Seeing this Weddigen turned U-9 around and he fired his last two bow torpedoes at the cruiser. The torpedoes impacted on the Cressey’s starboard side. Heavy flooding caused the ship to turn turtle and she remained upside down for nearly an hour before slipping beneath the waves thus closing this tragic chapter of the Royal Navy’s history. In all 1459 men were killed while 837 were rescued by British and Dutch ships.
Back home, the British press were furious. Having saturated the British public with the belief that the Royal Navy was invincible the loss of the three cruisers in such spectacular fashion shook the population to its core and there were calls for someone to answer for the tragedy.
There were several factors that attributed to loss.
- A large portion of the blame was attributed to Rear Admiral Christian in that he had not made clear to Drummond when he handed over command of the squadron just how much much authority he had. On the morning of the attack the weather had calmed but Drummond did not know if he had authority to order the destroyers to sea and provide a defensive screen for the cruisers against submarines.
- The British completely failed to recognise the threat posed by the German U-boats. The first few months of the war had been disastrous for Germany’s submarine force and this lead many in the Royal Navy to believe that they were a null threat. A damning fact emerged after the incident that the three cruisers were sailing in a straight line at the time of the initial attack on Aboukir despite standing orders that all large warships must patrol in a zig-zag pattern to make them more difficult targets for torpedo attack.
- Inexperience of the three reserve crews played a significant part in the incident primarily over what happened immediately after the first torpedo struck Aboukir. It was not until U-9 was sighted that anyone aboard the three ships considered the possibility of a submarine attack. Therefore no measures were taken that could have saved Hogue and Cressey.
Weddigen and his crew returned to Germany as heroes; the entire crew were awarded the prestigious Iron Cross medal for the action. The British propaganda machine made much of the fact that Hogue and Cressey were attacked rescuing survivors from Aboukir but in the eyes of his people he remained a hero until two years later while in command of another U-boat, U-29, he was killed when his vessel was rammed by the legendary British battleship HMS Dreadnought.
While the whole incident was a tragedy for the Royal Navy it did demonstrate the awesome power of the submarine and this changed the face of naval warfare forever.