The Live Bait Squadron

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.

10 comments / Add your comment below

  1. unbelievable for this catastrophy to have occured even at the start of the war.
    to be sailing in hostile waters without any realistic and defensive strategy is mind boggling.
    hogue cressy and aboukir should have been recalled with the rest of the fleet and not left to
    their own devices, unprotected and alone against a new type of enemy.
    heads should have rolled for these callous decisions high up in the admiralty.

  2. I agree with the above sentiment ‘heads should have rolled for these callous decisions high up in the Admiralty’.
    My Great Uncle Percy Oliver (my Nana’s brother) was an Armourer on HMS Hogue and sadly went down with his ship, together with many of his shipmates.
    I visited Chatham Dockyard in 1914 to pay my respects to those who died 100 years ago from that date.

    1. My grandfather, Robert JOHNSTON from Rose street Sheerness lost his life on HMS Houge also. He was 40 years old and my Father was 3. He really never knew him as my father informed me. Grandad had received a medal but I never saw it, only a photograph on live bait, paprer number 5.

  3. Viewing the pictures of the ships I have to say that, even for the time, they look ancient, with their upright stems and casemated guns. They shouldn’t have been anywhere near the action. Interestingly in a recent documentary about the development of HMS Dreadnought, it was mentioned, as things always are in hindsight, that by 1900, the boast “Britannia Rules the Waves” was only true in theory. Much of the fleet was ageing and would have been up against it in direct conflict with the navy of another major power e.g. France or Germany.
    Unpleasant as it is to admit, Otto Weddigen did a very efficient job that day. It was war; and had the roles been reversed, the commander of a British submarine would have been hailed a hero instead. Awful isn’t it!

  4. Wikipedia quotes an entry in Commander Dudley Pound’s diary on the disaster. “Much as one regrets the loss of life one cannot help thinking that it is a useful warning to us…our awakening which had to come sooner or later and it might have been accompanied by the loss of some of our Battle Fleet.”
    My father, Frederick Stewart, an Australian, served in the Merchant Navy in WWII. Many of my Webb cousins were fishermen, and some served in the Royal Naval Reserve in both world wars.

  5. Sad to say this is all new to me but having worked hard discovering my ancestral past and that of my wife’s, I have just discovered that my wife’s great uncle Francis Robert Taylor was a reservist seamen on HMS Hogue and he went down with the ship leaving his pregnant wife and three children behind. So sad. But having discovered the LBSS Website has opened my eyes. Such a mass of information is fantastic to see although it will take me some time to read through it all. Well done. I’m also looking forward to watching the documentary. Sad that the wreck site was plundered!

  6. My 2nd Great Uncle Anthony Moore K/13950 (1890-1914) went down with HMS Hogue.
    He was a Sto. 1st Cl. 24 years of age and came from Peckham, South London. i have only just discovered him recently and will now remember him every year, passing all the family members lost in the wars down to my daughters to commemorate them in years to come.

    1. My great grandfather was also stoker 1st class on the hogue he survived was picked up by the cressey sunk again then rescued by a Dutch trawler, transferred to hms Manchester then back to harwich lasted the war out on hms barham taking part in the battle of jutland. So very proud

  7. My grandfather fredrick Henry King also known as Fredrick Henry Richards. Got bombed while serving on the Aboukir had to swim to the cressy or hogue not sure what order but boats were bombed before he got there. He was picked up by the Dutch boat Flora and named his first daughter after that rescue boat. If it wasn’t for the Dutch and my grandfather repatriated to England I would not be here. I never knew my grandad as he died of natural causes before I was born. But my Dad would relay the account of what happened.

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