How it Feels to a Clergyman to be Torpedoed on a Man-of-War

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How it Feels to a Clergyman to be Torpedoed on a Man-of-War is the account of Chaplain George Henry Collier, B.A. of the Royal Navy, who was on board H.M.S. Cressy when that ship was torpedoed in 1914. This account is taken from True Stories of the Great War by Francis Trevelyan Miller, pp. 212-217.

Article

I—"MY LIFE SPARED IN MIRACULOUS WAY"

As you know, I was on the cruiser Cressy on September 22, 1914, when in company with the cruisers Aboukir and Hogue she was torpedoed by a German submarine. My life has been spared in a most miraculous way.

About 6:15 a.m. I was awakened by some marines waking their comrades. "Get up quick, the Aboukir is sinking."

I tumbled out of my bunk, put on my shoes and slipping my big coat over my pajamas I hastened up to the sheltered deck. I should tell you that we were proceeding in line formation, the Hogue leading, our ship, the Cressy, bringing up the rear. We were steaming between six to nine knots, and at a distance of about a mile or so apart. When I got on deck the Hogue had fallen back on the starboard side of the Aboukir, while we stood by on the port side, both of us a good distance off.

The Aboukir had signalled asking for boats, which, of course, were sent off to them. Their ship gradually began to turn turtle, and it was an inspiring sight to see the ship's company lined up on the side of the ship awaiting the order, "Every man for himself." After a while I went down to the quarter deck and began with the others to throw planks of wood, etc., overboard.

[213] While doing this the Hogue was hit by a torpedo from a German submarine and very quickly settled down. Indeed, no sooner was she hit than her quarter deck was below water. She then listed, turned turtle, and in about ten minutes had disappeared.

Our captain sent me word to take photographs, and I had taken five when I saw the white line of a torpedo approaching us in the starboard side, in line with the aft-bridge.

A few shouts heralded her approach, but nothing could be done, as our engines were not going, and she bored her hole in our side.

The impact was not so great or so terrible as I should have thought, indeed it was a dull thud, and did not even throw me off my feet. Previous to this the order to close watertight doors had been given, an order which prevented this torpedo doing so much serious damage.

We listed to starboard about 40 degrees, and after a time the ship righted herself to about 30 degrees. Everyone was on the look-out for submarines, and guns were fired at every suspicious-looking object that looked like like a periscope. I am not going to make any assertions, as I am much too inexperienced. I was standing by when three guns were fired.

The first was fired at what I thought to be a man's head. At any rate the shell hit something, for it exploded.

Unfortunately, I was called down from the boat deck then, so did not see what ensued, but the gunner says he saw two men pop up from the spot after he fired a second shot, and the torpedo lieutenant supports his assertion of having hit the submarine.

The second shot I saw (of course, other guns were fired) was at what I feel sure was a submarine. She came up, and it was a plucky thing to do, amid a mass of struggling men. I do not know if she was hit, but I [214] admit I felt a spasm of horror at the damage to our own men in the water.

The third shot went right home, and did its work, and I cheered heartily with the rest. The Germans evidently attacked us under cover of a sailing trawler carrying the Dutch flag. This trawler, after we had all been hit, made no attempt at rescue work, a heartless act that roused our anger, and the captain of the after 9.2 gun trained his gun on her and fired. The shell hit her in the stern and she at once took fire.

II—"I SAW THE TORPEDO APPROACH"

While this was going on the German had fired another torpedo at us, but it missed and went astern. Meanwhile several men had swum alongside, and we helped them aboard, rubbed them down, pumped water out of them, and wrapping them in blankets gave them hot tea. One of those rescued was a midshipman. He was taken to the sick bay and after drinking his tea, he turned to his commander and said :

"Why shouldn't we get into these cots, sir ?"

"Quite right, sonny, jump in." He hadn't been there long when we were struck again. The plucky boy jumped out and said, "Look here, sir, I'm off," and away he went and jumped over the ship's side, and was picked up by a boat some half-an-hour later.

It was this torpedo that settled our fate.

I saw her approaching about 400 yards distant, and she entered the ship's side just abaft of the fore-bridge and entered No. 5 boiler room. No doubt many poor fellows were killed outright. The ship seemed to rise out of the water, settled back and at once listed badly and began to turn turtle.

[215] There was no panic whatever. The officers supervised the collecting of all woodwork, etc., and the order was then given, "Every man for himself."

Our middies were awfully brave and busily set to work to construct a small raft with chairs and a boxing dummy. Staff-Surgeon Sawdy came up to me, after Dr. Martin had procured me a lifebuoy, and said, "Shall I come with you, Padre?" He is a west-country man and you may guess how readily I said "Yes."

After a time we had to kneel on the deck and hang on to the side. It was just before this that I slipped off my coat and shoes. When the ship was at an angle of 75 to 80 degrees, we stepped over the port side on to a ledge, and hung on to the chains. A wave caught us and knocked us against the side a bit, but not enough to injure us, but with the next the ship turned over.

I retained my hold of the chain and the lifebuoy, and when I felt the ship steady I let go the chain, and after what seemed a very long time came to the surface. Dr. Sawdy had also retained his hold of the lifebuoy and we appeared together in the water.

You may not realize how we could do it, but we actually laughed. He complained of the length of time below water (I had been keeping him down), and to suddenly pop up together, was really funny. We at once struck out with our feet (as I can't swim) and succeeded in getting away from the ship.

We were soon joined by others, and six of us stuck to our lifebuoys and a plank of wood which came floating by. After about ten minutes I began to shake badly and my teeth were chattering.

It was a horrible feeling, and I told the doctor I couldn't hang on much longer, but he told me—good fellow that he is—to hang on, and after a while the shivering passed off, but a sort of numbness set in and occasionally [216] we had cramps. To keep the circulation going we rubbed each other's legs, or kicked about a bit.

III—THE WAY MEN MEET DEATH

The scenes in the water were not so terrible as you may think. Here and there men were singing, "It's a Long, Long Way to Tipperary," "We All Go the Same Way Home," indeed, one man who joined us actually began joking.

The way men met their death was wonderful. They would give a smile to their comrades, wish them luck, and slide away quite peacefully without a struggle.

Floating spars, etc., occasionally put us in difficulties and several of us were badly bruised. It was a strange sight to see one's comrades, some fully dressed, even to their caps, others naked, while others like myself were clothed only in their pajamas.

Before going into the water I happened to look at my watch and it was 7:50. It speaks well for an English watch, doesn't it? when I tell you it didn't stop till 9:15. This watch and my crucifix I still have.

Well, there we were floating about until 9:45, when we sighted some trawlers approaching. It seemed as if they would never come to the doctor, a marine, and myself—for we were but three then.

At 10:20 I turned and saw a steam trawler near us and I suppose the relief was too much for me, as I became unconscious, so from then till I p.m. I must give information supplied me by the doctor. Becoming unconscious, he tells me I released my hold of the plank, but still kept my arm around the lifebuoy.

The steam trawler did not see us and headed away in another direction, but from behind her came a small cutter. The doctor shouted "If you come now you can [217] save the Padre," and come they did, and, thank God, saved our lives. They hauled me into the boat and pumped away at me. I just remember being conscious for a moment and hearing voices.

We were then put on the Lowestoft trawler, S.S. Coriandar, and put in the stokehold. It was not until 1 p.m. that I became conscious, a most painful awakening and I was very sick. The fishermen had put an under flannel over me and given me hot tea. They were indeed good to us.

Our commander was picked up by the same boat and was superintending the boats which were in company with the Lowestoft trawler and others transferring us to H.M.S. Lennox. (They had their reward off the Dutch coast, eh ?)

We buried one poor fellow there and then, but brought home another. After being massaged, I was put to bed, where I remained till 5 p.m. until the worst of the soreness had passed off. We were landed at Harwich at 8:30. The passage home, I'm told, was not without interest!

An order was given to "clear for action." Those who could, rushed on deck to see what was happening, and in the far distance saw an aeroplane and a waterplane approaching, but as they put it, "There was nothing doing," as they turned out to be British.

On landing we were received at the Great Eastern Hotel, equipped as a hospital, by the matron and her staff of Red Cross nurses. After being examined by the doctor, and found to have no bones broken, I had my first meal since 7 p.m. the previous day, and it was good!