In the first month and a half of WWI British and German submarines both sank an enemy light cruiser. Some British admirals, such as Sir John Jellicoe, the commander of the Grand Fleet, realised the threat that submarines posed to surface ships and acted accordingly. Others failed to recognise it.
At the start of the war, the Royal Navy’s Southern Force under Rear Admiral Arthur Christian was ordered ‘to keep the area south of the 54th parallel [which runs a little south of the Dogger Bank and Helgoland] clear of enemy torpedo craft and minelayers.’
Christian flew his flag in the armoured cruiser HMS Euryalus and had under his command the light cruiser HMS Amethyst, the armoured cruisers HMS Bacchante, Cressy, Aboukir and Hogue of Rear Admiral Henry Campbell’s 7th Cruiser Squadron, the 8th Submarine Flotilla and the 1st and 3rd Destroyer Flotillas. The armoured cruisers were all old ships of the Bacchante class: some sources call them the Cressy class, but contemporary RN papers refer to them as the Bacchantes. They were unreliable, with no more than three of the five usually being available.
The Southern Force, operating from Harwich, conducted patrols in two areas. The force off Dogger Bank, covering the southern approaches to the North Sea, was generally stronger than the one in the Broad Fourteens, watching the eastern entrance to the English Channel. However, the latter was sometimes increased according to circumstances, such when the British Expeditionary Force crossed the Channel.
Commodore Roger Keyes, commanding the Harwich submarines, told the Admiralty on 12 August that the Bacchantes should be withdrawn. He feared that they were vulnerable to an attack by ‘two or three well-trained German cruisers…Why give the Germans the smallest chance of a cheap victory and an improved morale[?]‘ However, even the Commodore for Submarines worried about an attack by surface ships, not U-boats.
On 17 September Keyes, supported by Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt, commander of the Harwich destroyers, had the opportunity to put his views to Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiral. He pointed out to Churchill that the Grand Fleet nicknamed the 7th Cruiser Squadron ‘the live bait squadron.’
Churchill sent a memo to Prince Louis Battenberg, the First Sea Lord, on 18 September strongly recommending that the old armoured cruisers should be withdrawn from this patrol:
‘The risk to such ships is not justified by any services they can render. The narrow seas, being the nearest point to the enemy, should be kept by a small number of good modern ships.’
Battenberg, who had not liked the idea of the Bacchantes patrolling up and down the North Sea, agreed. However, Vice Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee, the Vice Chief of the Naval Staff told Keyes that ‘[w]e’ve always maintained a squadron on the Broad Fourteens.’
Sturdee was also concerned by the possibility of a German attack on the cross-Channel supply line. He admitted that the Bacchantes were not really suitable for their role, but argued that they were better than nothing until the new Arethusa class light cruisers were ready. HMS Arethusa was under repair after being damaged at the Battle of Helgoland Bight and her seven sisters had not yet been completed.
On 19 September Sturdee persuaded Battenberg to authorise a telegram concentrating the Bacchantes in the South: ‘The Dogger Bank patrol need not be continued. Weather too bad for destroyers to go to sea. Arrange for cruisers to watch Broad Fourteens.’ Churchill later said that he did not see it.
There were then four of the armoured cruisers on patrol, Campbell’s flagship Bacchante being in dock for repairs. Euryalus, Christian’s flagship, was added to the Cruiser Squadron in order to keep its numbers up, but Christian’s command responsibilities were wider, and Campbell should have transferred his flag to one of his other cruisers. James Goldrick comments that Christian ‘should not have allowed Campbell, nor should the latter have been willing, to remain in harbour.’
At 6:00 am on 20 September Euryalus had to return to port for coaling and because her wireless aerials had been damaged by the bad weather. Christian would normally have transferred by boat to one of the other cruisers, but the high seas made this impossible. In Campbell’s absence command of the squadron fell to Captain John Drummond of Aboukir.
Christian sent Drummond an ambiguous signal, which did not make it clear that it was Drummond who was responsible for summoning the destroyers when the weather improved. By midnight on 21 September the wind had died down on the Broad Fourteens, but it was still strong in Harwich, so the destroyers were not sent out until 5:00 am on 22 September.
The Bacchantes‘ coal consumption was very high if they made 13 or more knots. Consequently they were sailing at barely 10 knots and not zigzagging on the morning of 22 September. They were in line abreast, two miles apart.
Richard Hough says that one reason for not zigzagging was that their captains thought ‘that seas a destroyer could not endure were equally impossible for a submarine.’ If true, this was a bad mistake, as the seas had been rough when U21 sank HMS Pathfinder and when E9 sank SMS Hela. At least one of the captains should have understood submarine operations; Captain Robert Johnson of HMS Cressy, although not a submariner, had commanded a submarine flotilla for three years before the war.
Just before 6:30 am on 22 September Aboukir suffered a major explosion. Drummond assumed that she had hit a mine and signalled so to the rest of the squadron. In fact, she had been struck by a single torpedo fired by U9, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen.
U9 was an early German submarine, carrying only four 17.7 inch torpedo tubes and just six torpedoes. She was capable of only 8 knots submerged. On the surface her Körting paraffin engines gave off a lot of smoke and sparks and gave her a speed of only 14 knots. She could make 8 knots submerged.
Drummond soon realised that his ship had been torpedoed by a U-boat and ordered the other two cruisers away. However, Captain Wilmot Nicholson of Hogue thought that his ship would be safe if she kept to the side of Aboukir that had not been hit. Hogue stopped about a mile from Aboukir in order to launch her boats.
However, Weddigen had re-positioned his boat. At 6:55, as Aboukir sank, he fired two torpedoes into Hogue from only 300 yards away. U9’s bows rose out of the water, and Hogue fired on her, without scoring any hits. The cruiser sank within 10 minutes.
Cressy was also stationary, launching her boats. A periscope was spotted and Johnson ordered his ship to make full speed in order to ram the U-boat. At 7:20 Weddigen fired his two stern torpedoes at her; one missed and the other hit, but did not cause serious damage. He then closed to 500 yards and at 7:30 fired his last torpedo into Cressy, which sank 15 minutes later.
The first rescue ship to arrive was the Dutch steamer Flora, which picked up 286 men, many badly wounded and took them to Ymuiden. Another Dutch ship, the Titan, which rescued 147 men, and two British trawlers, the Coriander and J. G. C., were still picking up survivors when Tyrwhitt’s force of the light cruiser HMS Lowestoft and eight destroyers arrived between 10:30 and 10:45. The civilian ships could not have been sure whether or not they were in a minefield.
A total of 60 officers and 777 men were saved and 62 officers and 1,397 died. The Dutch repatriated to Britain the survivors taken initially to the Netherlands. Casualties on Cressy were particularly high because her boats were full of survivors from the other two cruisers when she was sunk. Many of the crews were middle-aged reservists recalled at the start of the war. Each cruiser also had nine cadets from the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth on board, most of them under the age of 15.
The website Naval-History.net lists the casualties and survivors for all three cruisers. The men listed as being either RFR (Royal Fleet Reserve) or RNR (Royal Naval Reserve) were reservists. Men who were rescued but later died of wounds are listed as having died on the dates of their deaths rather than the date of the sinkings. Captain Johnson of Cressy was amongst the dead, but Drummond and Nicholson both survived.
The Admiralty issued orders that armoured ship should zigzag, make at least 13 knots and not stop in waters where enemy submarines might be present. It said:
‘that if one ship is torpedoed by submarine or strikes mine. disabled ship must be left to her fate and other large ships clear out of dangerous area calling up minor vessels to render assistance.’
The Court of Inquiry said that Drummond ‘should have zigzagged his course as much as possible. Johnson and Nicholson were guilty of ‘an error of judgment’ in stopping their ships. However, Battenberg thought that they ‘were placed in a cruel position, once they found themselves in waters swarming with drowning men.’
Christian told Jellicoe that ‘certainly Cressy need not have been sacrificed and probably not Hogue if they had only dashed up within say a mile to windward, out all boats and away again.’
Campbell, Christian and Drummond were all placed on half pay, but the two admirals were later given new employment. The Court of Inquiry’s criticism was mainly directed at the Admiralty, meaning Battenberg and Sturdee. Later, when they had left the Admiralty, the Third and Fourth Sea Lords, who had little involvement in operational matters, agreed with this, as did Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Wilson, a former First Sea Lord.
Much of the public criticism fell on Churchill, who was prone to interfere in operational decisions. In fact, on this occasion he had recommended that the Bacchantes should be withdrawn from this patrol, but had not interfered in order to make sure that this was done.
Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, who in WWII organised the naval parts of the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940 and the invasion of Normandy in 1944, was a Lieutenant in 1914. He wrote in his diary that it ‘just shows how utterly without imagination the majority of our senior officers are.’
The action showed the potency of submarines to both sides, although some in Britain thought that more than one U-boat must have taken part. The Times wrote on 25 September that:
‘It is well-known that German submarines operate in flotillas of six boats. If it is true that only one, U9, returned to harbour, we may assume that the others are lost.’
The Kaiser awarded Weddigen the Iron Cross First Class and every other member of U9’s crew the Iron Cross Second Class. The action cancelled out the moral advantage that the RN had gained from its victory at Helgoland Bight on 28 August 1914. U9 and the light cruiser SMS Emden were the only German ships to be awarded the Iron Cross during the war.
 Quoted in J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 171.
 Quoted in R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 129.
 Quoted in Ibid.
 Quoted in A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. ii, p. 56
 Ibid. vol. ii, p. 57, footnote 27. Marder’s source was Admiral Sir William James, who was told the story by Keyes.
 J. Goldrick, The King’s Ships Were at Sea: The War in the North Sea, August 1914-February 1915 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), p. 127.
 R. A. Hough, The Great War at Sea, 1914-1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 62.
 Goldrick, The King’s Ships, p. 126.
 Quoted in Ibid., p. 133.
 Quotes in this paragraph from Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 55.
 Quoted in Goldrick, The King’s Ships, p. 133.
 Quoted in G. A. H. Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (London: John Murray, 1996), p. 390.
 Quoted in Massie, Castles, p. 137.