This site is dedicated to one of the largest naval disasters in world history and to the memory of its 1459 British victims. It happened close to home on the North Sea, 22 September 1914, exactly seven weeks into the First World War.
Then, three large but old British cruisers -HMS Cressy, Hogue and Aboukir- were shot at and went down just off the Dutch coast. Eight torpedoes launched by stealth from an unnoted German submarine sufficed to sink the ships whose crews were totally unprepared for the attack. The number of victims almost equalled that of the other big sea disaster that had occurred a few years earlier, when the Titanic hit an iceberg.
Yet this closer to home North Sea calamity never seems to have become as widely known as that of the wreck of the glamorous ‘unsinkable’ luxury liner.
For weeks after this catastrophe bodies of British sailors were washed ashore on the Dutch coast. A few dozens of these men are buried at cemeteries in Holland. Of the combined crew of 2296 there were 837 survivors, a few hundred of whom could be rescued by Dutch merchant vessels. The wrecks of the three unfortunate cruisers still rest on the seabed, forming as many mass graves.
The year was 1914, mid September, seven weeks after the United Kingdom had declared war on Germany. Most people were still quite unaware, of course, of the magnitude that war would soon assume and of the unimaginable toll of dead and injured it would eventually take.
Following mobilisation orders all navy reservists had returned to active duty early August. The entire mighty British naval fleet was now at fighting strength. Reservists were mainly deployed on old battle ships, many of which had been mothballed for ages, waiting and bobbing on small rivers. Also the cruisers that were so sadly going to play the leading part in this story had just come off their mooring posts in the river Medway in the Thames estuary area. The aged ships received their new crews of old salts and very junior cadets and underwent a thorough clean up before setting out to assume their patrol duties on the North Sea. They were HMS Cressy, Hogue and Aboukir. Obsolete, unwieldy, badly armed and poorly armoured.
Those old cruisers of the Bacchante class [displacement 12,000 tons * length 472 ft (144m) overall * beam 69,5 ft (21,2m) * draft 26 ft (7,9m) * 4 steam engines * 21,000 hp * speed 21 knots * complement 760] were considered totally unfit to take part in modern warfare at sea. Because of this they were soon given the rather wry but spot-on surname The Live Bait Squadron, first within the Navy and later, after the disaster, also in popular speech. Together with sister ships they were assigned to a patrol unit of the North Sea fleet, making up the 7th Cruiser Squadron of the Southern Force. Their homeport was Harwich in the Thames estuary, not far from the River Medway embouchure. And not only the ships – the thousands of reservists who manned the cruisers were also mostly from the Medway region.
During those first weeks of the war the 7th Cruiser Squadron’s main duty was to patrol the North Sea between the English and the Dutch coasts. They were to intercept German navy vessels on their way to the Straits of Dover and the English Channel where the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was being ferried over to the Continent in order to be rushed to the Belgian-French border, where the German armies were marching on.
It was foul weather over the North Sea during that third week of September 1914. So forceful were the winds that the fast and manoeuvrable destroyers that were meant to convoy and protect the ageing cruisers were unable to stay out at sea and had to turn back to their home ports, waiting for the weather to improve. Meanwhile, HMS Cressy, Hogue and Aboukir went on patrolling, unprotected, and eye-catching as ever thanks to their four big smoking funnels.
In the early morning of 22 September 1914 the weather had finally changed for the better. The sky was clear now, the wind had died down, and the sea had become much calmer. As it turned out, however, the men aboard the British cruisers were not the only ones to admire this scene. A German submarine crew had also been taking shelter during the stormy night, tucked away on the sea floor. When they surfaced to take in fresh air, they too were pleasantly surprised to find that the storm had ended.
But then the German U-boat commander Otto Weddigen thought he saw something else, a faint dot on the horizon under the clear morning sky. To make sure, he scanned the skyline through the periscope. And yes indeed, a tall ship with four big smoking funnels, coming ever closer. HMS Aboukir – enemy in sight! And then two more ships got nearer, of similar appearance: Hogue and Cressy.
The destroyer flotilla belonging to the same force, meant to protect these cruisers, had not come back yet to do their duty after the storm had subsided.
Thus, U9 had been handed its three unsuspecting and unprotected targets like breakfast on a silver platter. It was easy hitting them from below the waterline. Their first torpedo was aimed at the heedless Aboukir. Then, after she’d been hit and become paralysed, keeling over, U9 turned her sights on Aboukir’s two sister ships, whose crew with might and main were busy picking up drowning men from the sea. Most of those on board however didn’t have a ghost of a chance when the ship exploded. They went down with the burning and sinking cruiser.
One by one the three cruisers sank, taking with them to the grave 1,459 souls. Officers and crew were completely taken by surprise. No enemy ships had been sighted and no hostilities had taken place. Despite the instructions that had been issued them in order to recognize and minimize the submarine danger, the phenomenon had not yet really sunk in with the officers. They had let slacken off the particular precautions prescribed to avoid the danger, like maintaining maximum speed and sailing a zigzag course.
After this calamitous event the effectiveness and danger of the submarine weapon was a given thing. Its many adversaries and sceptics within the German military fell silent and the Royal Navy never underestimated its threat any more. In later years of this war, particularly during the unrestricted U boat warfare on the Atlantic set up by the Germans, an estimate of 15,000 seamen would fall victim to torpedo attacks. In this first major incident alone one tenth of that number perished.
Promptly after having witnessed the three cruisers go down the German U9 submarine made a hurried exit. Back home, where they were given a heroes’ welcome.
There were 837 survivors of the combined crews of 2296. A goodly number of them were picked up by two small Dutch merchant vessels, SS Flora (287 survivors) and SS Titan (114). Most of them were taken to neutral Holland, where they received a warm welcome and medical and personal care. After briefly having been accommodated in some refugees’ camp, they were transported back to England, thanks to a flash of inspiration that must have hit some governmental official, claiming they were not to be regarded as prisoners of war now that they had come ashore on non-military vessels.
In the towns and villages of the Medway area, home ground to the vast majority of the ill-fated seamen, feelings of despair, sadness and disbelief reigned. The dauntless and supposedly invincible Royal Navy had been dealt an ugly blow. Thousands of families were plunged into grief. They had lost their fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers – many breadwinners among them. The lives of the bereaved would forever be different – and very difficult at that.