Monday, 22 September 2014

The loss of the Cressys

It had been a rough voyage for U-9, she had left port on the 20th September with sealed orders to

Silent killer SM U-9
patrol and molest shipping off Belgium and immediately fell fowl of a malfunctioning gyroscopic compass that took them fifty miles in the wrong direction. Then as a storm broke the German submarine was forced to take shelter on the bottom of the sea off Scheveningen but after several bumps along the sea bed the order was given to sail submerged to avoid collision. She sailed around aimlessly trying to ride the storm out but just before day break she was forced to surface to recharge the batteries.

The first officer, Johannes Spiess was in the conning tower on lookout and in the heavy swell and early morning light he spotted a warship's top mast. The boat's Captain Otto Weddigen, a competent and skilled commander, ordered the vessel to submerge and consult the periscope.

Three "small four-funnelled" cruisers were seen on the horizon moving at 10 knots in a line abreast possibly Birmingham class. Spiess was ordered to prepare the spare torpedoes, the vessel to dive to 15 metres and the crew stood by. At 7.20 (ship's time) the number 1 bow torpedo was launched but nothing seemed to happen. The young crew expected a mammoth explosion to mark their victory and a wave of disappointment washed over them. Weddigen checked the depth manometer to confirm his measurements and the periscope brow furrowed. Why had there been nothing?

In the distance they heard a dull thud as the torpedo detonated on the hull of the lead ship. Weddigen looked through the periscope and saw the lead vessel listing - it had been a direct hit!

Private Harry Sams RMLI was 46 years old and originally from Chipsted, Surrey. He was a naval reservist called up before the War started and kept on by Churchill and Battenberg's orders. Most of the crews of HMS Aboukir and her sisters Cressy and Hogue were reservists and midshipman joining the "Nucleus crews" of professionals and freeing up men to serve with the Grand fleet at Scappa flow. The assignment for the 7th Cruiser squadron, optimistically nicknamed the "Live bait squadron" was to patrol the long fourteens in the southern North sea, their mission was three fold but part of an agreement with France that the Royal Navy would secure the Channel and the northern French coast so that they could secure the Mediterranean from attack. They were also to keep the Belgium port of Scheldt open (a rumour of German merchant ships filling their holds with sand and cement destined to form block ships had reached the Admiralty), keep out mine layers and more importantly be the first warning in case the German High seas fleet was heading down the channel. Rear Admiral Campbell, who was in charge of the squadron was ordered to use his ships to patrol south of the 54th parallel to carry out this task as well as support Rear Admiral Christian's Harwich flotilla.

The Royal Navy Admiralty had theorised that the main threat to their supremacy was the German surface units which were in comparable number and quality to their fleet and the idea of submarines was somewhat of a novelty and not taken seriously. Commodore Keyes of the Harwich submarine flotilla wrote to his superior on the 21st August voicing concerns about the vulnerability of the squadron. Should the German fleet sail they would not waste half an hour on these ships, he also voiced his concerns about the vulnerability of the ships to submarine attack. His concerns were soon brought to the attention of Winston Churchill who stopped at Harwich on his way to Scapa flow to speak to Commodore Tyrwhitt (the destroyer commander) and Keyes with Admiral Sturdee, the Admiralty's chief of staff. He was so impressed that he consulted with the First sea lord, Louis of Battenberg and it was agreed that the 7th Squadron should be withdrawn in favour of newer cruisers could be deployed in their place. This was not a new concern as pre-War Admiral Mark Kerr raised similar concerns in a memo to the Admiralty. He theorised that should the Germans win a battle against surface units early on it would give them greater confidence, he argued the gap needed to be guarded by modern warships but the masters of the Grand fleet saw it differently

Now Sturdee tragically intervened this time and in conference with Battenberg it was decided to over rule Churchill and keep the cruisers on their important mission of keeping the Channel shut for the Germans until they could be replaced with Arethusa cruisers, which were still being fitted out. It was a temporary stopgap but one that would suffice.

The 7th Squadron was caught in the same bad weather as the U-9 as the ships were tossed about it was decided that the Destroyer flotilla should stay in port with the light cruiser HMS Hawke and Admiral Christian aboard the Eurayles was forced to abandon the rest of his vessels and return to port for re-coaling and repair his storm damaged W/T sets. He would later cite the bad weather as preventing him from transferring his flag to the Aboukir and suffered much criticism. Captain Drummond of Aboukir, as the senior officer took charge of the ships and the proceeded along their course at the slow rate of 10 knots, to save on coal, in a straight line. Another oversight was that Christian failed to tell Drummond he could call for destroyer escort should he think it necessary.

Aboukir began to list at 20 degrees as the water seeped into the boiler rooms. Captain Drummond signalled Hogue and Cressy requesting assistance as she had lost all but one of her life boats. As the damage was evaluated Drummond realised it wasn't a mine but a torpedo, he ordered a signal sent to the other vessels to warn them away. In the mean time anything that could float was jettisoned as men dived into the cold early morning sea. As the temperature hit them panic set in and their core temperatures began to drop. The boats tried to clear the stricken vessel which capsized and disappeared into the abyss at 6.55 am.
Then believing that her sister ship had struck a mine and the Admiralty's assurance that a U-Boat could not be at sea in such bad weather, the Hogue slowed to a stop and lowered her boats, to be safe Captain Nicholson placed himself on the opposite side of Aboukir thus putting the stricken cruiser between him and a possible U-Boat.
Aboard the German submarine the crew was elated at their success but were told to search the ship for any leaks caused by the concussion. Weddigen couldn't believe his eyes when he saw the second cruiser stop and was struck by conscience. As a chivalrous officer he was torn at whether or not to fire at a ship on a mercy mission - then again they were enemy warships.

Two torpedoes struck Hogue tearing her open. Within five minutes her quarterdeck was awash, five minutes later she was gone. However when the U-9 fired the sudden weight loss of two torpedoes meant she broke the surface at some 500 yards of Hogue who promptly opened fire at her, as did Cressy who also added speed to attempt to ram the U-boat. 

U-9 had been too close to Hogue and had to turn astern on one engine and dive despite her Chief Engineer's warnings about low batteries. Weddigen decided to press the attack loading the last reserve torpedo and trying to get a shot on the remaining cruiser. 
Cressy's deck crew scanned the surface of the water and sighted what they thought was a periscope and fired again. Weddigen fired two torpedoes, one of which was seen to go wide and the second striking her on the Starboard side boiler rooms, the cold water hit the red hot boilers and sent up clouds of steam that scalded several stokers to death. U-9 fired its last remaining torpedo that struck Cressy who sank a quarter of an hour later. The whole action had taken an hour.

As U-9 fled the scene the Dutch merchant vessels Flora and Titan as well as the British trawlers JCG and Corriander arrived to pick up survivors from the mass of splashing sailors and marines. Soon they were joined by Tyrwhitt's destroyers. In total 837 men were saved from the sea, 286 by the Dutch who repatriated them. 
In total 1459 men, mostly reservists and cadets lost their lives in that hour. Among them was Harry Sams who never returned to his wife Alice or 14 year old daughter (also Alice). He is remembered on the Plymouth Naval memorial.
Weddigen was hailed as a hero on his return. A jubilant Kaiser was said to be in "Seventh heaven" and awarded the ship the Iron cross. Weddigen would receive the highest decorations from Prussia, Saxony, Bavaria and Wurtemberg but was to die early in 1915 when his U-boat was rammed by HMS Dreadnought.
A court of enquiry found that Captain Drummond was at fault for travelling in a straight line without destroyers. The other Captains were blamed, though it was deemed understandable, for stopping to pick up survivors and presenting easy targets. Admiral Christian was criticised for not transferring his flag and Admiral Campbell was criticised even more for not being with his squadron at all and for staying with HMS Bacchantes as it underwent repairs, hardly the post of the squadron's CO!
Admiral Campbell defended his position by saying that he had never been given any real instruction as to what to do with his command

Churchill, undeservedly, took the most criticism for ordering them there in the first place and because of an ill timed speech on the 21st in which he said that if the German fleet didn't come out and fight then "they would be dug out like rats from a hole"
The King was quick to comment after the tragedy; "The rats came out of their own accord and to our cost!"

This was somewhat unfair criticism as Churchill had agreed that the situation was dangerous and it was Sturdee and Battenberg who thought better of it.

Admiral Christian later defended his order of travelling at 10 knots by saying;

The maintainance 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 the patrol.

Battenberg decided that court martialling Drummond was not a good use of time. The board of enquiry ultimately decided that no one person was to blame and it was considered that lessons had been learnt. From now the Long Fourteens were to be patrolled by smaller vessels, no large vessel was to go below 13 knots, they had to travel in zigzags and if a vessel was torpedoed then large vessels were forbidden to stop.

Whilst the press played down the incident as regrettable in the UK, in Germany it was hailed as a great victory against the Naval super power.

At 49 New Road, Gravesend, it was met with tears and pain at a husband and father who was lost at sea and would never come home again.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Royal Navy's hunt for von Spee in the Pacific

The Royal Navy were well aware of Vice Admiral von Spee's East Asian Squadron and even its numbers. Before the war officers of HMS Minotaur dined upon Scharnhorst in Tsingtao harbour on 12th June 1914 on an occaision that prompted one German officer to remark;

 "They desired a little glimpse at our readiness for war."

SMS Cormoran was well known in Brisbane  where she had regular refits and the squadron as a whole had been active in policing the colonies but now at this important juncture no one knew for certain where they were.

Conflicting information put the Scharnhorst in the Pacific, perhaps near Yap, Gneisnau was reported in Singapore to Admiral Jerram on the China station, which turned out to be the Geier, she was also sighted at Nagasaki (possibly with Scharnhorst) to Admiral Patey of the Australian station. They had very accurate information of the forces in Tsingtao but were unaware of the Emden's departure at the end of July.

The Royal Navy had been quite fortunate and had captured a lot of the auxiliary cruisers and commerce raiders in the Indian ocean. Although the Yorck and Prinz Eital Friedrich were being fitted out in Tsingtao and the Ryzlan was also under tow by Emden, the  Dirfflinger and Sudmark had been captured. There were others though, Seydlitz had disappeared off the coast of Australia, Princess Alice was last seen in the Phillipines and the Tabora, Zeiten and Kleist disappeared into the Indian ocean.

Admiral Jerram who had served on the China station since 1913 decided the best course of action was to try and isolate Tsingtao as soon as possible. British strategy had stated that it would take a couple of months to organise an invasion force to take the German stronghold and that would be reliant on gaining Naval Supremacy, should von Spee's fleet get amongst the transports it would be certain death for the soldiers aboard ship. In his report after the events the Admiral stated that;

I regarded it as likely that the German Admiral intended to concentrate his forces in the South seas but I did not feel justified in leaving China station to search for him through the southern pacific ocean and more over, the Australia, Sydney, Encounter and three destroyers were comparatively close to him.

In lieu of orders from the Admiralty Jerram decided the best course of action was to trap German shipping in the harbour and deny von Spee of a vital supply base, he was however over ruled by London who ordered his vessels back to Hong Kong.

HMS Triumph
Jerram's orders on the 28th July were to await the commissioning of the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Triumph which had been put in the fleet reserve  on 25th August 1913 and which was hurriedly being equipped with crews and weapons from a flotilla of river gun boats as well as 100 volunteers from the Duke of Cornwall's light infantry and two of their officers. Once activated she would provide Jerram's cruiser squadron enough firepower to deal with the Germans. These repairs were completed and Captain Fitzmaurice steamed out of Hong Kong with HMS Yarmouth, four destroyers, the French cruiser Dupleix and began an interdiction sweep of Tsingtao under strict radio silence on 6th August.

Meanwhile Jerram planned to catch  Emden which he thought was heading to the strategic communications hub at Yap. He dispatched the Cruisers Minotaur, Hampshire and Newcastle at 15 knots, which he thought would be more than enough to overtake the German ship and its slow colliers. Unfortunately for the British the only vessel encountered was the SS Elsbeth who was on a routine journey with a cargo of Government coal for Yap from Tsingtao. Hoping to still catch Emden the German vessel was pulled over, her crew placed upon Hampshire and the vessel sunk with her cargo. Hampshire, which was low on coal and could have used some of the Elsbeth's cargo, was sent back to Hong Kong with the prisoners.
The German radio station at Yap Island

Yap was completely defenceless save for a party of soldiers from Rabaul who were preparing trenches and fire pits near the landing place but Jerram hadn't come to take the island, he did not have the men to spare or the time - his target was much more specific. The long range radio station was powerful enough to reach Tsingtao, Shanghai, Bismarck Archipelago and the Dutch colonies. Whilst the station stood it allowed von Spee to coordinate all of his vessels in the Pacific including colliers into a resupply network. With this still remaining in German hands he would be able to strike anywhere at anytime and it would make sense that Emden would be here to defend it.

At 9.30 on 12th August the two British cruisers opened fire from 4500 yards having given the civilian operator a signal to get clear. The new German garrison stood powerless as the 7.5" shells brought down the 200ft tower and caused fires in buildings and the oil depot. At 10am the British left to rejoin Triumph at Saddle Islands dividing in the hope of increasing their chance of catching any colliers or Auxiliary cruisers. Their voyage was uneventful and they discovered that Tsingtao had locked itself down and begun preparing for the inevitable siege.

The whole of the China station had been moving under radio silence and Jerram was unaware of the message sent by the Admiralty on the 11th August;

Practically certain Japan declares war against Germany on 12th August. Communicate by wireless with the Japanese Commander in Chief and concert measures. Send forth with one light cruiser to close Rainbow at Vancouver, coaling at Honolulu. You may now have whole protection of British trade north of Hong Kong to Japanese, concentrating your attention in concert with Australian squadron on destroying German cruisers.

At the same time the British forces were reinforced by two Russian cruisers (Askold and Zhemchug).  After their patrol the China squadron pulled in to Hong Kong on the 17th August and the C-in-C sent a message to the Admiralty:

Probably Scharnhorst, Gneisnau, Emden and Nurnberg are now together, but their position is still unknown, though Marshall Islands seems likely. I'm watching Tsingtao and arranging to protect trade routes between Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore with all available ships... Possible objective of German Squadron may be Dutch Indies, but ore likely Pacific coast of America.

He also asked the Admiralty if any vessels were available from home waters to help search the blue abyss and asked if they had any more news on the possibility of Japan joining the war. There was just too much sea and too many trade routes to cover for such a small force and von Spee's ships had disappeared like ghosts. Churchill would go on to describe that;

 von Spee and his squadron could turn up almost anywhere. On the other hand we could not possibly be strong enough every day to meet him

Ships were vital and already Admiral Patey's Australian squadron was being reassigned to escort troop ships as part of the Australian (and New Zealand) Naval & Military expeditionary force which was busy taking German colonies and facilities that could provide safety to von Spee but would be better used to search for the cruisers themselves. The only source of new vessels were the Home fleet on the other side of the world which were also being held in reserve in case the German High Sea's fleet were to set sail in numbers, or Japan which despite its anti-German stance and territorial ambitions in Asia was still uncommitted and denying the Allies 12 battleships, 11 armoured cruisers and 12 light cruisers that would have been invaluable to the search for von Spee.

Despite Jerram's theory that von Spee was heading toward South America he was concerned that he could double back having distracted the Allies. A transmission came from the Admiralty, its vagueness and penmanship point to it originating from Churchill;

How is China Station disposed? Destruction of Scharnhorst and Gneisnau is of first importance. Proceed on this service as soon as possible with Minotaur, Hampshire and Dupleix, keeping in communications R. A. Australia who together with Montcalm is engaged on same service. They are at present searching for them at Samoa.

However Admiral Patey wasn't at Samoa and had moved on and wasn't actively searching for the German squadron, merely hoping that they would run into them. Like Jerram his hands had been tied by the Admiralty and other events beyond his control.

HMAS Melbourne
Admiral Patey had originally deployed his squadron of Australian (and New Zealand) ships where he 
thought von Spee might attack and so the Sydney and a destroyer escort headed for Brisbane, Melbourne was at Fremantle and his light cruiser fleet went to Port Moresby ready to react. The Australian coast was large and unprotected and a bold bombardment of one of her coastal towns could make a large statement and be a major morale blow to the Allied cause. 

Patey also began to plan his own bold stroke of heading to Neu Pommern where the deep harbour would make an excellent base of operations for the German fleet. He hoped to catch von Spee there or failing that destroy the facilities there, any vessels or W/T transmitters. 

Things came to a head on the 6th August when the Australian Naval board reported that the German fleet were heading South East from the Solomon islands and were clearly on their way towards Australia. Patey swung into action and ordered the light cruiser Pioneer to relieve Melbourne so that the heavier ship could join his flotilla in the St George channel that led up to Neu Pommern. and meet the Germans head on. He was so convinced that the Germans would be hiding in the Bismarck Archipelago that he signalled Admiral Jerram to sweep down from the north whilst he probed from the south and catch the Germans unawares. His message didn't arrive until the 9th as Jerram's fleet were under radio silence heading for the Saddle islands and Yap. During this time Patey organised his fleet and briefed the Captains with a brave and audacious plan that involved HMAS Sydney and his destroyers to sail for Simpson harbour, Neu Pommern and after dark strike the German fleet at anchor catching Scharnhorst, Gneisnau and Nurnberg at anchor with the survey ships Komet and Planet which were on the Australian station. Landing parties would then search and destroy any W/T station they could find. No sooner were his plans laid out than the Admiralty in London sent an telegram to tell him to do what he was already doing and to do it quickly before the Australian government called his force to other things.

His forces swung into action and reached the port but found no German warships and the only evidence of a W/T station was one captured engineer who had recently arrived to make the hidden station operational. His vessels requiring coal and having failed to find anything of worth to destroy Patey's men destroyed all telephones and the post office and then withdrew.

On 12th August the New Zealand government alerted Patey that they were ready to send an occupation force to Samoa and enquired if it was safe to send transports. The bewildered Admiral had had no prior consultation and had to reassign his vessels as escort in case von Spee attacked it. He did agree that, having not found any German activity in Neu Pommern that the Germans must be concentrating at Nauru via Samoa and by occupying it they would cut the German line of retreat. Patey decided that the New Zealand's older P' class cruisers would not be sufficient to meet Scharnhorst and Gneisnau and so sent a message to meet Australia and Melbourne 400 miles south of Fiji before proceeding to Port Moresby to recoal for the final approach. He had unknowingly over ruled. The Admiralty in its' wisdom believed that there was enough local superiority and ordered the lightly escorted troop transports to sea, it was exceptionally fortunate that they did not meet von Spee's forces and invited a massacre. The Admiralty had also now directed that the French cruiser Montcalm should join Patey's force which was now divided in two and effectively neutered in its search and destroy capability. Instead of taking his heavy ships to Samoa straight away he had to send Sydney and Encounter to meet the Australian Expeditionary force that was intended to take Rabaul whilst he took Melbourne, Montcalm, and Australia to meet the New Zealanders at Noumea.

The New Zealand force arrived on the 22nd August and reached the final coaling point at Suva on the 25th August some two weeks later having effectively tied up the half of Patey's squadron that would have been most effective against the German squadron. Escort duties for Expeditionary forces had been the concern the Admiralty had warned Patey about on the 9th but yet a week later they were guaranteeing his forces to such duties without the Admiral's knowledge. Had they given Jerram and Patey more free reign to hunt for von Spee and catch him then the German colonies could have mopped up at their leisure without need for heavy escorts as without the Kreuzerwaffe only German commerce raiders and unprotected Bussard class cruiser Geier would have remained at sea.

Although significant in their actions in the Pacific the Allied commanders were left pouring over their maps asking... Where was Admiral von Spee and his cruisers?