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.

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