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The Action of 22 September 1914 was a naval engagement that took place during the First World War, in which three obsolete British Royal Navy cruisers, manned mainly by reservists and sometimes referred to as the "livebait squadron", were sunk by one German submarine while on patrol.
Approximately 1,450 sailors were killed, and there was a public outcry at the losses. This incident 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 in the war they might support.
The cruisers Aboukir, Hogue, and Cressy were part of the Royal Navy’s 7th Cruiser Squadron, which was assigned patrol duties in the North Sea, supporting destroyers and submarines of the Harwich Force to guard against incursions by the German Navy into the channel.
Although concerns had been expressed about the vulnerability of these ships, particularly to attack by more modern German cruisers, no changes had been made before the events of 22 September. There was less concern about submarine attacks at this point in the war than later, as the U-boat threat was not taken seriously by many in the Royal Navy.
The U-boat was treated equally lightly by the Imperial German Navy; in the first six weeks of the war, the U-boat Arm had lost two boats and seen little result for their effort. The morning of 22 September found a single U-boat — U-9 (under the command of Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen) — passing through the Broad Fourteens on her way back to base.
The ships were assigned to the 7th Cruiser Squadron shortly after the outbreak of World War I in August 1914. The squadron was tasked with patrolling an area of the North Sea called the Broad Fourteens in support of a force of destroyers and submarines based at Harwich which protected the eastern end of the English Channel from German warships attempting to attack the supply route between England and France.
On the morning of 22 September, Cressy and her sisters, and , were on patrol without any escorting destroyers as these had been forced to seek shelter from bad weather. The three sisters were steaming in line abreast about 2,000 yards (1,800 m) apart at a speed of 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph). They were not expecting submarine attack, but had lookouts posted and one gun manned on each side to attack any submarines sighted. The weather had moderated earlier that morning and Tyrwhitt was en route to reinforce the cruisers with eight destroyers.
U-9, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen, had been ordered to attack British transports at Ostend, but had been forced to dive and take shelter from the storm. On surfacing, she spotted the British ships and moved to attack. She fired one torpedo at 06:20 at Aboukir which struck her on the starboard side; the ship's captain thought he had struck a mine and ordered the other two ships to close to transfer his wounded men. Aboukir quickly began listing and capsized around 06:55 despite counterflooding compartments on the opposite side to right her.
As Hogue approached her sinking sister, her captain, Wilmot Nicholson, realized that it had been a submarine attack and signaled Cressy to look for a periscope although his ship continued to close on Aboukir as her crew threw overboard anything that would float to aid the survivors in the water. Having stopped and lowered all her boats, Hogue was struck by two torpedoes around 06:55. The sudden weight loss of the two torpedoes caused U-9 to broach the surface and Hogue's gunners opened fire without effect before the submarine could submerge again. The cruiser capsized about ten minutes after being torpedoed and sank at 07:15.
Cressy attempted to ram the submarine, but did not hit succeed and resumed her rescue efforts until she too was torpedoed at 07:20. Weddigen had fired two torpedoes from his stern tubes, but only one hit. U-9 had to maneuver to bring her bow around with her last torpedo and fired it at a range of about 550 yards (500 m) at 07:30. The torpedo struck on the port side and ruptured several boilers, scalding the men in the compartment. She too took on a heavy list and then capsized before sinking at 07:55. From all three ships 837 men were rescued and 62 officers and 1,397 enlisted men lost: 560 of those lost were from Cressy.
The disaster shook public opinion in Britain, and the reputation of the Royal Navy worldwide. The surviving cruisers were withdrawn from patrol duties; Admiral Christian was reprimanded, and Captain Drummond—who did not survive—was criticized by the resulting inquiry for failing to take the anti-submarine precautions recommended by the Admiralty. However, he was praised for his conduct during the actual attack.
By contrast, Weddigen and his crew returned to a hero's welcome; Weddigen himself was awarded the Iron Cross, 1st Class, while his crew each received the Iron Cross, 2nd Class. The reputation of the U-boat as a potent weapon of war was established.
The future First Sea Lord Dudley Pound — then serving in the Grand Fleet as a commander aboard the battleship — 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".
Commonwealth War Graves Commission website: CWGC.org
"Victories of U-9" — a contemporary German postcard showing the sinking Aboukir and Hogue with the photo of Weddigen in the corner
Photos - US Library of Congress and Wikipedia