Action of 22 September 1914
|The Action of 22 September 1914|
|Part of the First World War|
|British Empire||German Empire|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Captain John Edmund Drummond
Captain Wilmot Nicholson
Captain Robert Warren Johnson †
|Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen|
|3 armoured cruisers||1 submarine|
|Casualties and losses|
3 armoured cruisers sunk
The Action of 22 September 1914 was a naval engagement that took place during the First World War, in which three obsolete British Royal Navy cruisers, manned mainly by reservists and sometimes referred to as the "livebait squadron", were sunk by one German submarine while on patrol.
Approximately 1,450 sailors were killed, and there was a public outcry at the losses. This incident eroded confidence in the British government and damaged the reputation of the Royal Navy at a time when many countries were still considering which side in the war they might support.
The cruisers were part of the Royal Navy’s 7th Cruiser Squadron, which was assigned patrol duties in the North Sea, supporting destroyers and submarines of the Harwich Force to guard against incursions by the German Navy into the channel.
Although concerns had been expressed about the vulnerability of these ships, particularly to attack by more modern German cruisers, no changes had been made before the events of 22 September. There was less concern about submarine attacks at this point in the war than later, as the U-boat threat was not taken seriously by many in the Royal Navy.
The U-boat was treated equally lightly by the Imperial German Navy; in the first six weeks of the war, the U-boat Arm had lost two boats and seen little result for their effort. The morning of 22 September found a single U-boat — U-9 (under the command of Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen) — passing through the Broad Fourteens on her way back to base.
On patrol on 22 September were three cruisers of 7th CS, Aboukir, commanded by Captain J Drummond (senior officer present), Hogue, and Cressy. A fourth cruiser — Euryalus, flagship of squadron commander Rear-Admiral Arthur Christian — had returned to port for re-fuelling on the 20th, while the squadron's accompanying destroyers had been forced to depart by heavy weather on the 17th.
At 06:00 on 22 September, the weather had calmed and the ships were patrolling at 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph), line abreast, 2 nmi (3.7 km; 2.3 mi) apart. Lookouts were posted for submarine periscopes or ships and one gun either side of each ship was manned. U-9 had been ordered to attack British transports at Ostend, but had been forced to dive and shelter from the storm. On surfacing, she spotted the British ships and moved to attack.
At 06:20, the submarine fired one torpedo at the nearest ship from a range of 550 yd (500 m), which struck Aboukir on the starboard side, flooding the engine room and causing the ship to stop immediately. No submarines had been sighted, so Drummond assumed that the ship had hit a mine, and ordered the other two cruisers to close in to help. After 25 minutes, Aboukir capsized, sinking five minutes later. Only one boat could be launched, because of damage from the explosion and the failure of steam-powered winches needed to launch them.
U-9 rose to periscope depth from her dive after firing the initial torpedo to observe two British cruisers engaged in the rescue of men from the sinking ship. Weddigen fired two more torpedoes at his next target, Hogue, from a range of 300 yd (270 m). As the torpedoes left the submarine, her bows rose out of the water and she was spotted by Hogue, which opened fire before the submarine dived.
At 07:20, U-9 fired two torpedoes from her stern torpedo tubes at a range of 1,000 yd (910 m). One missed, so the submarine turned to direct her one remaining bow torpedo toward Cressy, and fired at a range of 550 yd (500 m). Cressy had already seen the submarine, had opened fire and attempted to ram, but failed. The ship had then returned to picking up survivors.
The first torpedo struck the starboard side at around 07:15, the second the port beam at 07:30. The ship capsized to starboard and floated upside down until 07:55. Two Dutch sailing trawlers in the vicinity declined to close with Cressy for fear of mines, which led to the cruiser's aft 9.2 in (234 mm) gun firing on one of them in anger.[dubious ]
Distress calls had been received by Commodore Tyrwhitt, who, with the destroyer squadron, had already been at sea returning to the cruisers now that the weather had improved. At 08:30, the Dutch steamship Flora approached the scene (having seen the sinkings) and rescued 286 men. A second steamer — the Titan — picked up another 147. More were rescued by the two Lowestoft sailing trawlers Coriander and J.G.C.; before the destroyers arrived at 10:45, 837 men were rescued while 1,397 men and 62 officers — mostly part-time men from the Royal Naval Reserve rather than regular sailors — had died.
- "He went overboard when the Aboukir was going down and he swam like mad to get away from the suction. He was then just getting on board the Hogue and she was torpedoed. He then went and swam to the Cressy and she was also torpedoed. He eventually found a bit of driftwood, became unconscious and was eventually picked up by a Dutch trawler."
The destroyers began a search for the submarine, which had little electrical power remaining to travel underwater and could only make 14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph) on the surface. The submarine submerged for the night before returning home the next day.
The disaster shook public opinion in Britain, and the reputation of the Royal Navy worldwide. The surviving cruisers were withdrawn from patrol duties; Admiral Christian was reprimanded, and Captain Drummond was criticized by the resulting inquiry for failing to take the anti-submarine precautions recommended by the Admiralty. However, he was praised for his conduct during the actual attack. The 28 officers and 258 men rescued by the Flora were landed at Ymuiden and were repatriated on 26 September.
By contrast, Weddigen and his crew returned to a hero's welcome; Weddigen himself was awarded the Iron Cross, 1st Class, while his crew each received the Iron Cross, 2nd Class. The reputation of the U-boat as a potent weapon of war was established.
The future First Sea Lord Dudley Pound — then serving in the Grand Fleet as a commander aboard the battleship St. Vincent — wrote in his diary on 24 September, "Much as one regrets the loss of life one cannot help thinking that it is a useful warning to us — we had almost begun to consider the German submarines as no good and our awakening which had to come sooner or later and it might have been accompanied by the loss of some of our Battle Fleet".
In 1954, the British government sold the salvage rights to the ships and salvage is ongoing.
Order of battle
- U-9, submarine
- Massie. Castles of Steel. p. 130.
- Massie. Castles of Steel. pp. 133–134.
- Massie. Castles of Steel. p. 134.
- Massie. Castles of Steel. p. 135.
- Corbett. Naval Operations I. p. 181.
- Collier. True Stories of the Great War VI. p. 214.
- Brown, Malcolm, (1993). The Imperial War Museum Book of the First World War: A Great Conflict Recalled in Previously Unpublished Letters, Diaries, Documents and Memoirs. Univ. of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-2525-X
- "BBC Inside Out – Yorkshire dive". bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 19 March 2010.
- Wykeham-Musgrave survived the war and rejoined the Royal Navy in 1939, reaching the rank of commander. "Commander Wenman Humfrey Wykeham-Musgrave". Archived from the original on 11 February 2010. Retrieved 2010-03-19.
- Massie. Castles of Steel. p. 136.
- Corbett. Naval Operation I. p. 182.
- Corbett. Naval Operations I. p. 183.
- Quoted in Halpern. Naval Miscellany VI. p. 413.
- "Booty Trawl". Private eye (Pressdram Ltd) (1302): 31. 2011.
- Collier, Chaplain George Henry, R.N. (1918). Miller, Francis Trevelyan, ed. True Stories of the Great War VI. New York: Review of Reviews Company.
- Corbett, Sir Julian Stafford (1920). Naval Operations. Volume I. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
- Halpern, Paul G. (2003). Duffy, Michael, ed. The Naval Miscellany VI. London: Navy Records Society. ISBN 0-7546-3831-6.
- Massie, Robert K. (2004). Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea. London: Johnathan Cape. ISBN 0-224-04092-8.
- World War I Naval Combat - Despatches