Action of 22 September 1914
The Action of 22 September 1914 was a German U-boat ambush that took place during the First World War, in which three obsolete Royal Navy cruisers, manned mainly by reservists and sometimes referred to as the livebait squadron, were sunk by a German submarine while on patrol.
About 1,450 British sailors were killed and there was a public outcry in Britain at the losses. The sinkings 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 they might support in the war.
The cruisers were part of the Southern Force (Rear-Admiral Arthur Christian) composed of the flagship Euryalus, the light cruiser Amethyst and the 7th Cruiser Squadron (7th CS, also known as Cruiser Squadron C, Rear-Admiral H. H. Campbell), comprising the Cressy-class armoured cruisers Bacchante, Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy, the 1st and 3rd Destroyer flotillas, ten submarines of the 8th Oversea Flotilla and the attached Active-class scout cruiser, HMS Fearless. The force was assigned patrol duties in the North Sea, supporting destroyers and submarines of the Harwich Force to guard against incursions by the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial German Navy) into the English Channel.
Concerns had been expressed about the vulnerability of these ships, particularly to attack by more modern German cruisers but no changes had been made before the events of 22 September; the possibility of submarine attacks was considered to be a lesser threat. The War Orders of 28 July 1914, which conformed to pre-war assumptions about attacks by destroyers rather than submarines, had not been modified. The orders required the ships to patrol the area "south of the 54th parallel clear of enemy torpedo craft and destroyers" with the support of Cruiser Force C, during the day. The Harwich Patrol was given two patrol areas, at the Dogger Bank and further south in the Broad Fourteens; usually three of the cruisers were to the north, closer to the Dogger Bank and sailed south during the night. The cruisers shifted area to the Broad Fourteens and reinforced the fourth cruiser there, during troop movements from Britain to France. Heading south meant sailing towards German bases and becoming more vulnerable to submarine attack.
On 16 September, Christian had been allowed to keep two cruisers to the north and one at the Broad Fourteens but had kept them together in a central position, able to support operations in both areas. The next day, the destroyer escorts had been forced to depart by heavy weather, which remained so bad that neither patrol could be reformed. The Admiralty ordered that the ships were to cancel the Dogger Patrol and cover the Broad Fourteens until the weather abated. On 20 September, Euryalus returned to port to re-coal and by 22 September, Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy were on patrol under the command of Captain J. E. Drummond of Aboukir. The U-boat was treated lightly by the Imperial German Navy; in the first six weeks of the war, the U-boat arm had sent out 10 boats, sunk no enemies and lost two boats for their effort. Their fortunes would change however on the morning of 22 September, when U-9 (Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen) passed through the Broad Fourteens on her way back to base and spotted three British ships: Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy.
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 (2.3 mi; 3.7 km) 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, U-9 fired a torpedo at the middle ship from a range of 550 yd (500 m) and 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 and sank five minutes later. Only one lifeboat 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 torpedo, to observe two British cruisers engaged in the rescue of men from the sinking ship. Weddigen fired two more torpedoes at Hogue, from 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. The two torpedoes struck Hogue; within five minutes, Captain Wilmot Nicholson gave the order to abandon ship and after 10 minutes she capsized before sinking at 07:15.
Watchers on Cressy had seen the submarine, opened fire and made a failed attempt to ram, then turned to pick up survivors. At 07:20, U-9 fired two torpedoes toward Cressy from her stern torpedo tubes at a range of 1,000 yd (910 m). One torpedo missed, so the submarine turned and fired her remaining bow torpedo at 550 yd (500 m). The first torpedo struck the starboard side at around 07:25, 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.[a]
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—Titan—picked up another 147. More were rescued by 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 been killed. 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 confidence in Britain and the world in the reputation of the Royal Navy. Surviving cruisers were withdrawn from patrol duties; Admiral Christian was reprimanded and Captain Drummond was criticized by the inquiry for failing to take the anti-submarine precautions recommended by the Admiralty and praised for his conduct during the attack. The 28 officers and 258 men rescued by Flora were landed at IJmuiden and were repatriated on 26 September.
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.— Pru Bailey-Hamilton
Weddigen and his crew returned to a heroes' welcome: Weddigen was awarded the Iron Cross, 1st Class and his crew each received the Iron Cross, 2nd Class. The sinking of the three ships caused the danger of U-boat attack to be taken more seriously by the Admiralty. Commander Dudley Pound, serving in the Grand Fleet as a commander aboard the battleship St. Vincent (who became First Sea Lord) 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.— Pound
In 1954, the British government sold the salvage rights to the ships and work began in 2011.
Order of battle
- U-9, submarine
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- Corbett 2009, p. 174.
- Massie 2004, pp. 133–134.
- Massie 2004, p. 134.
- Massie 2004, p. 135.
- Corbett 2009, p. 181.
- Collier 1917, p. 214.
- Massie 2004, p. 136.
- Corbett 2009, pp. 182–183.
- Brown 1993, p. page needed.
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- WHW-M 2010.
- Marder 1965, p. 59.
- Halpern 2003, p. 413.
- Eye 2011, p. 31.
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