The Loss of the Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue

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On 22 September, 1914, three British cruisers, the Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue, were torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U 9 in the North Sea. The ships, part of the Seventh Cruiser Squadron (also known as Cruiser Force E) of the Southern Force, were under the temporary command of Captain John E. Drummond. Rear-Admiral Henry H. Campbell, Rear-Admiral Commanding, Seventh Cruiser Squadron, and Rear-Admiral Arthur H. Christian, Rear-Admiral Commanding, Southern Force, were both absent.

Early in the morning of the 22nd the Aboukir, Captain Drummond, was torpedoed by U-9. Both Hogue and Cressy, presuming their consort had struck a mine, closed to give assistance and were each torpedoed in turn. 1,459 officers and men were killed. As a direct consequence, large ships of the Royal Navy were ordered to leave torpedoed and mined consorts to their fate to avoid a similar occurrence.

Background

In the first month and a half of WWI both British and German submarines sank an enemy light cruiser. Some British admirals, such as Admiral Sir John Jellicoe , the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, realised the threat that submarines posed to surface ships and acted accordingly. Others failed to recognise it.

At the start of the war, a Royal Navy force commanded by Rear Admiral Arthur Christian was ordered 'to keep the area south of the 54th parallel [which runs a little south of the Dogger Bank and Heligoland] clear of enemy torpedo craft and minelayers.'[1]

Christian's force was called the Southern Force by Sir Julian Corbett, the author of Naval Operations, the British Official History, but appears to have had no official name, although it was sometimes referred to as a "combined force." [2]

Christian flew his flag in the armoured cruiser H.M.S. Euryalus and had under his command the attached light cruiser H.M.S. Amethyst, the armoured cruisers H.M.S. Bacchante, Cressy, Aboukir and Hogue of Rear Admiral Henry Campbell's Seventh Cruiser Squadron, the Seventh Submarine Flotilla and the First and Third Destoyer Flotillas. The armoured cruisers were all old ships of the Cressy class, but were frequently called the Bacchantes by the Admiralty. They were unreliable, with no more than three of the five usually being available at any one time.[3]

The cruisers were meant to be at sea except when coaling, with a half flotilla of destroyers that should be relieved every two or three days. The destroyers, however, were often forced in port by bad weather. The cruisers were supposed to patrol at 15 knots but their coal consumption was high over 13 knots, so their actual speed was usually between 9 and 12 knots. Zigzagging was neglected because no enemy submarines had been sighted in the area.[4]

The Southern Force, operating from Harwich, conducted patrols in two areas. The force off Dogger Bank, covering the southern approaches to the North Sea, was generally stronger than the one in the Broad Fourteens, watching the eastern entrance to the English Channel. However, the latter was sometimes increased according to circumstances, such when the British Expeditionary Force crossed the Channel.[5]

Commodore (S) Roger Keyes, commanding the British submarines at Harwich, wrote to Rear Admiral Arthur Leveson, Director of the Operations Division at the Admiralty on 21 August urging that the Bacchantes should be withdrawn. He feared that they were vulnerable to an attack by 'two or three well-trained German cruisers.'[6]

It was later asserted by more junior officers such as then Lieutenant, later Admiral, William Tennant that the deployment of the of cruisers was 'asking for an attack by submarines.'[7] However, at more senior levels the concern, even by Keyes, was about German cruisers, not U-boats

At a conference held on board H.M.S. Iron Duke, flagship of the Grand Fleet, on 17 September Keyes and Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt, commander of the Harwich destroyers, put their objections to the Bacchantes' deployment to Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty. They were backed by Jellicoe. Churchill was persuaded, especially when he learnt that the force was nicknamed 'the live bait squadron.'[8]

The principal supporter of continuing with the patrols was Vice Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee, the Vice Chief of the Naval Staff.

At the meeting Sturdee is famously supposed to have informed Keyes, "My dear fellow, you don't know your history. We've always maintained a squadron on the Broad Fourteens."[9] Given the dubious nature of the claim—Marder got it from Admiral Sir William M. James, no fan of Sturdee, who supposedly got it from Keyes—it's is probably safe to disregard it, unless, of course, Lord Keyes's diaries confirm it.

Churchill sent a memo to Prince Louis Battenberg, the First Sea Lord, on 18 September strongly recommending that the old armoured cruisers should be withdrawn from this patrol: 'The risk to such ships is not justified by any services they can render. The narrow seas, being the nearest point to the enemy, should be kept by a small number of good modern ships.'[10]

Battenberg, who had not liked the idea of the Bacchantes patrolling up and down the North Sea, agreed. However, Sturdee was also concerned by the possibility of a German attack on the cross-Channel supply line. As destroyers had been unable to cope with the recent weather, he persuaded Battenberg that the Bacchantes should continue their patrols until more light cruisers became available.[11]

Action

On 19 September Sturdee persuaded Battenberg to authorise a telegram, concentrating the Bacchantes in the South: 'The Dogger Bank patrol need not be continued. Weather too bad for destroyers to go to sea. Arrange for cruisers to watch Broad Fourteens.' Churchill later said that it was a 'routine message' that he did not see.[12]

There were then four of the armoured cruisers on patrol, Campbell's flagship H.M.S. Bacchante being in dock for repairs. H.M.S. Euryalus, Christian's flagship, was added to the Seventh Cruiser Squadron in order to keep its numbers up, but Christian's command responsibilities were wider, and Campbell should have transferred his flag to one of his other cruisers. James Goldrick, a retired Royal Australian Navy Rear Admiral, comments that, although Campbell's absence probably did not make much difference, he should have been at sea, not in harbour.[13]

Also on 19 September the 2,600 men of the Marine Brigade, followed by the Queen's Own Oxfordshire Hussars Yeomanry Regiment and aircraft and armoured cars of the Royal Naval Air Service, were sent to Dunkirk. The Marine Brigade arrived on the evening of 20 September, but it is not clear when the Yeomanry arrived.[14]

The Germans believed wrongly that a British force was being sent to Ostend, so they despatched S.M.S. U 8 and S.M.S. U 24 on a reconnaissance mission and S.M.S. U 9, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen, to intercept the alleged Ostend expedition.[15]

U 9 was one of the earliest German submarine designs, carrying only four 17.7 inch torpedo tubes and just six torpedoes. She was capable of only 8 knots submerged. On the surface her Körting paraffin engines gave off a lot of smoke and sparks and gave her a speed of only 14 knots.

At 0621 on 20 September Euryalus had to return to port for coaling and because her wireless aerials had been damaged by the bad weather. Christian would normally have transferred by boat to one of the other cruisers, but the high seas made this impossible. In Campbell's absence command of the squadron fell to Captain John Drummond of H.M.S. Aboukir.[16]

The Admiralty orders were that patrols should generally consist of three of the five armoured cruisers. There was no order that one of the two flag officers should always be present. Christian had wider responsibilities and was entitled to transfer his flag to any of the ships under his command or to command from Harwich or some other place as appropriate.[17]

Weddigen initially assumed on spotting the three cruisers that they were part of the screen of a larger force. They were steering on a steady course at 9 or 10 knots. Not having spotted any more valuable ships, he fired a torpedo at Aboukir from 500 yards range at about 0625.[18]

Richard Hough says that one reason for not zigzagging was that their captains thought 'that seas a destroyer could not endure were equally impossible for a submarine.'[19]

If true, this was a bad mistake, as the seas had been rough when U 21 sank H.M.S. Pathfinder and when H.M.S. E 9 sank S.M.S. Hela. At least one of the captains should have understood submarine operations. Captain Robert Johnson of H.M.S. Cressy, although not a submariner, had captained the submarine depot ships H.M.S. Forth, Hazard and Thames between January 1905 and January 1909.

The torpedo struck Aboukir on the port side abaft the main funnel, flooding two compartments and causing an immediate 20 degree list and a loss of steam. The wounded were out into her cutter, the only one of her boats that could be lowered. Some of had been landed at the start of the war, one was destroyed in the explosion and the others could not be hoisted out because of the loss of steam. An attempt was made to correct the list by counter flooding starboard compartments but it was too late save her and the crew was ordered to abandon ship. Loose wood was thrown into the water for them to cling to. Aboukir capsized and sank 20-30 minutes after being hit.[20]

Drummond initially assumed that his ship had hit a mine and ordered the other two cruisers to close but to be careful to avoid a line of mines. He soon realised that his ship had been torpedoed by a U-boat and ordered the other two cruisers away. Captain Wilmot Nicholson of Hogue, however, decided to close on Aboukir, hoping to minimise the risk by keeping to the side of her that had not been hit.[21]

Weddigen, however, had circled round Aboukir's bows and fired two torpedoes into Hogue from only 350 yards away, whilst she was stopped to avoid running. U9's bows rose out of the water, but none of Hogue's guns could bear on her. Both torpedoes struck Hogue's engine room, whose watertight doors were only half closed, and she sank quickly.[22]

Cressy was also stationary, launching her boats. A periscope was thought to have been spotted, although it was probably wreckage as U9 was at least a mile away. Johnson ordered his ship to make full speed in order to ram the U-boat and opened fire. He then had the first wireless signals for help sent out.[23]

Five minutes later, with Cressy having slowed to resume rescue operations, U9 fired two torpedoes at her starboard side from 600-1,000 yards range. It was then almost an hour since Aboukir had been torpedoed. Cressy opened fire and Johnson ordered full speed ahead but one torpedo hit hit, with the other missing by about 20 feet. Cressy listed by about 10 degrees but her watertight doors were all closed and it seemed likely that she would survive. The rescue operations continued but about 15 minutes later fired a torpedo into her boiler room and she rapidly capsized. Her keel remained above the surface for about 20 minutes before disappearing.[24]

The weather by 0500 had improved sufficiently for Reginald Tyrwhitt to put to sea in the light cruiser H.M.S. Lowestoft, accompanied by eight destroyers. At 0707, he received Cressy's distress signal and increased speed.[25]

The first rescue ship to arrive was the Dutch steamer Flora, which picked up 286 men, many badly wounded and took them about 30 miles to Ymuiden. Another Dutch ship, the Titan, which rescued 147 men, and two Lowestoft trawlers, the Coriander and J. G. C. picked up more. The civilian ships could not have been sure whether or not they were in a minefield.[26]

Tyrwhitt's force arrived at 10:30. They initially thought they had spotted a submarine but Weddigen had departed the scene after firing all his torpedoes. To be safe, Tyrwhitt had four destroyers circle Lowestoft during the rescue operations.[27]

A total of 62 officers and 1,397 men died in this tragedy, while 60 officers and 777 men were saved. The Dutch repatriated to Britain the survivors taken initially to the Netherlands. Casualties on Cressy were particularly high because her boats were full of survivors from the other two cruisers when she was sunk. Many of the crews were middle-aged reservists recalled at the start of the war and there were also a number of young cadets from the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth on board, most of them no older than fifteen.[28]

Naval-History.net lists the casualties and survivors for all three cruisers.[29] The men listed as being either RFR (Royal Fleet Reserve) or RNR (Royal Naval Reserve) were reservists. Men who were rescued but later died of wounds are listed as having died on the dates of their deaths rather than the date of the sinkings. Captain Johnson of Cressy was amongst the dead, but Drummond and Nicholson both survived.

Aftermath

The Admiralty issued orders that armoured ship should zigzag, make at least 13 knots and not stop in waters where enemy submarines might be present.[30]

At 1100 on 22 September, the Admiralty signalled all ships 'that if one ship is torpedoed by submarine or strikes mine, disabled ship must be left to her fate and other large ships clear out of dangerous area, calling up minor vessels to render assistance.[31]

The Court of Inquiry said that Drummond 'should have zigzagged his course as much as possible. Johnson and Nicholson were guilty of 'an error of judgment' in stopping their ships. However, Battenberg thought that they 'were placed in a cruel position, once they found themselves in waters swarming with drowning men.'[32]

Christian told Jellicoe that 'certainly Cressy need not have been sacrificed and probably not Hogue if they had only dashed up within say a mile to windward, out all boats and away again.'

Campbell, Christian and Drummond were all placed on half pay, but the two admirals were later given new employment. The Court of Inquiry's criticism was mainly directed at the Admiralty, meaning Battenberg and Sturdee. The Third and Fourth Sea Lords, who had little involvement in operational matters, agreed with this, as did Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Wilson, a former First Sea Lord. Most thought that the absence of an admiral was not significant, but the Third Sea Lord disagreed, arguing that Drummond, concerned with saving his ship and lacking an admiral's staff, was unable to consider the fate of the rest of the squadron.[33]

Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher was characteristically blunt in his views, describing the deployment of the armoured cruisers as 'pure murder' and calling Campbell a 'damned sneak' for remaining in port. Lieutenant Bertram Ramsay, who in WWII organised the naval parts of the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940 and the invasion of Normandy in 1944, wrote in his diary that it 'just shows how utterly without imagination the majority of our senior officers are.' Much of the public criticism fell on Churchill, who was prone to interfere in operational decisions. In fact, on this occasion he had recommended that the Bacchantes should be withdrawn from this patrol, but had not interfered in order to make sure that this was done.[34]

The action showed the potency of submarines to both sides, although some in Britain thought that more than one U-boat must have taken part. The Times wrote on 25 September that: 'It is well-known that German submarines operate in flotillas of six boats. If it is true that only one, U9, returned to harbour, we may assume that the others are lost.'[35]

The Kaiser awarded Weddigen the Iron Cross First Class and every other member of U9's crew the Iron Cross Second Class.[36]

The action cancelled out the moral advantage that the RN had gained from its victory at the Battle of Heligoland Bight on 28 August 1914.

Honours

On 2 October 1914, the Admiralty inserted into its Weekly Orders a note of "Appreciation of Conduct of Officers and Crews of Ships recently destroyed", mentioning these ships along with three other early losses whose men displayed "exemplary steadiness and coolness... in face of imminent death".[37]

Post-War

In response to Churchill's claims in The World Crisis, Admiral Christian, by now retired, wrote to The Times:

Sir,—May I, as the officer who was then commanding the Seventh Cruiser Squadron, be permitted to offer a few remarks and criticisms in answer to Mr. Churchill's statements regarding the disaster which overtook the Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue, September, 1914? It is not my intention to enter into any controversy as to whether any responsibility rested on the Admiralty for that occurrence. My chief concern is in respect to the reflections Mr. Churchill has been pleased to make against the professional reputation of the officers of those ships, many of whom lost their lives, as well as of myself.
In the first place, when Mr. Churchill enunciates the obvious truism that "in war all repetitions are perilous," he clearly suggests, by inference, that the ships had been maintaining the same patrol since the commencement of the war. The Broad Fourteens area, which the three ships were then patrolling, was not a fixed one. During sixteen days prior to the disaster, the squadron had patrolled this particular vicinity for five days; the remaining days it had either been withdrawn or employed elsewhere.
Secondly, after correctly stating that the rough weather of the 19th and 20th made it necessary for the cruisers to forgo the protection of the destroyers, Mr. Churchill remarks, "but they nevertheless were allowed to continue the patrol." If, as one must suppose, Mr. Churchill infers that the continuance of the patrol, without protecting cruisers [read "destroyers"], was due to my initiative, I beg to call attention to the following wireless message received by me from the Admiralty at 5 p.m., September 19th:—
The Dogger Bank patrol need not be continued. Weather too bad for destroyers to go to sea. Arrange with cruisers to watch Broad Fourteens.
It will be observed that this was a direct order to "watch the Broad Fourteens" with cruisers, and left no option as to the area to be patrolled. Also, it clearly indicated that the patrol was to be continued, whether the destroyers were present or not.
Thirdly, Mr. Churchill states that the cruisers were steaming under ten knots. The maintenance of a three-quarter speed of thirteen or fourteen knots would have entailed an expenditure of coal which would have resulted in continual withdrawal of vessels from patrol. Indeed, the necessity for careful coal economy made it very difficult to maintain a proper proportion of the squadron at sea; and, in fact, it was the urgent necessity of coaling, and, incidentally, the disablement of wireless of my flagship by the gale, which was the cause of my temporary absence from the squadron on the actual day of the disaster. I pointed out that the state of the weather prevented me from shifting my flag at sea, and the Admiralty approved of my leaving the squadron temporarily.
Incidentally, the destroyers came out on September 21, but were sent in at dusk on account of the bad weather. They were sent out again at dawn on the 22nd, but, most unfortunately, arrived after the disaster had occurred.
Mr. Churchill's reference to the action of Hogue and Cressy in standing by their stricken senior officer's ship as an act of "chivalrous stupidity" amounts to nothing less than a veiled sneer at the judgement of officers who preferred to take great risks rather than abandon all their comrades to their fate. What would he have done in similar circumstances? At any rate, it is not in keeping with naval tradition that any officer or man in it should ever attempt to preserve his own reputation or safety, either in writing or in action, at the expense of others.
At the commencement of a great war, with innumerable fresh problems confronting the belligerents, it is inevitable that mistakes will be made, and 1914 was no exception. But I venture to assert that, in any case, such mistakes afford no excuse for a civilian ex-Minister of State, armed with confidential papers, to which no others have access, making attacks on the professional reputation of officers, who, in very trying circumstances, were trying to do their duty. Indeed, it is lamentable that an ex-Minister should stoop to publish a book containing confidential reports, which are the property of the State.
Personally, I am content to abide by the finding of the Court of Inquiry which heard the evidence and went exhaustively into the case. It has never been communicated to me, and an application for a further inquiry—namely, a Court-martial—was apparently not approved.
Yours faithfully,
A. H. CHRISTIAN. Admiral.
3, Sloane-gardens, S.W.1, Feb. 20.[38]

See Also

Footnotes

  1. Naval Operations. Volume I. p. 171.
  2. Naval Staff Monographs. Volume III. p.112 Footnote.
  3. Naval Operations. Volume I. p. 170.
  4. Goldrick. Before Jutland. p. 143-44.
  5. Naval Operations. Volume I. p. 172.
  6. Goldrick. Before Jutland. p. 143.
  7. Goldrick. Before Jutland. p. 143.
  8. Goldrick. Before Jutland. p. 143.
  9. Marder. II. p. 57n.
  10. From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow. Volume II. p. 56.
  11. Goldrick. Before Jutland. p. 144.
  12. From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow. Volume II. pp. 56-57.
  13. Goldrick. Before Jutland. p. 145.
  14. Naval Staff Monographs. Volume XI. pp.48-49.
  15. Naval Staff Monographs. Volume XI. p.53.
  16. Naval Staff Monographs. Volume XI. p. 52.
  17. Naval Staff Monographs. Volume XI. p.53 footnote.
  18. Naval Staff Monographs. Volume XI. p.54.
  19. Hough. Great War at Sea. p. 62
  20. Naval Staff Monographs. Volume XI. pp.54-55.
  21. Naval Staff Monographs. Volume XI. p.55.
  22. Naval Staff Monographs. Volume XI. pp.55-56.
  23. Naval Staff Monographs. Volume XI. p. 56.
  24. Naval Staff Monographs. Volume XI. pp.56.
  25. Naval Staff Monographs. Volume XI. pp.56-57.
  26. Naval Operations. Volume I. pp. 176-77.
  27. Naval Staff Monographs. Volume XI. pp.57.
  28. Goldrick. Before Jutland. p. 148.
  29. Naval-History.net
  30. Goldrick. Before Jutland. p. 148.
  31. Naval Staff Monographs. Volume XI. p. 59.
  32. From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow. Volume II. p. 55.
  33. From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow. Volume II. pp. 58-59.
  34. Goldrick. Before Jutland. pp. 150-51
  35. Massie. Castles of Steel. p. 137
  36. Massie. Castles of Steel. p. 137
  37. Admiralty Weekly Order No. 426 of 2 Oct, 1914.
  38. "The Three Cruisers" (Letters to the Editor). The Times. Friday, 23 February, 1923. Issue 43273, col A, p. 10.

Bibliography

  • Corbett, Sir Julian S. (1921). Naval Operations. Volume II. London: Longmans, Green and Co..
  • Goldrick, James (2015), "Before Jutland: The Naval War in Northern European Waters, August 1914-February 1915". Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.
  • Hough, Richard (1983), "The Great War at Sea, 1914-1918". Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Marder, Arthur Jacob (1965). From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919: The War Years : To the Eve of Jutland.. Volume II. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Massie, Robert (2004), "Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea". London: Jonathan Cape.
  • Naval Staff, Training and Staff Duties Division (1921). Naval Staff Monographs (Historical). Fleet Issue. Volume III. Monograph 6.—Passage of the British Expeditionary Force, August, 1914. Monograph 7.—The Patrol Flotillas at the Commencement of the War. Monograph 11.—The Battle of Heligoland Bight, August 28th, 1914. Monograph 8.—Naval Operations Connected with the Raid on the North-East Coast, December 16th, 1914. Monograph 12:—The Action of Dogger Bank, January 24th, 1915. O.U. 6181 (late C.B. 1585.). Copy No. 127 at The National Archives. ADM 186/610.
  • Naval Staff, Training and Staff Duties Division (1924). Naval Staff Monographs (Historical): Fleet Issue. Volume XI. Home Waters—Part II. September and October 1914. O.U. 5528 A (late C.B. 917(I)). Copy at The National Archives. ADM 186/620.