Antoine Vanner recounts the tragic story of the sinking of three Royal Navy armoured cruisers (HMS Aboukir, HMS Hogue, and HMS Cressy) early in the First World War:
Despite this “wake up call” regarding vulnerability of warships at low speed the Royal Navy initiated a patrol of the northern entrance of the English Channel with five obsolete Cressy class armoured cruisers. This group was known as “Cruiser Force C” and the patrol area they were assigned to was in the shallow waters off the Dutch coast known as the “Broad Fourteens”. The logic of maintaining a patrol in the area was unassailable as a fast German raiding force of destroyers could wreak havoc on British maritime supply lines between the English Coast and Northern France should they enter the Channel. Though destroyers and light cruisers would have been more suited to the task it was believed that destroyers would be unable to maintain the patrol in bad weather and insufficient modern light cruisers were available. The solution was to deploy old armoured cruisers which had at least got the necessary station-keeping capability. This was perhaps their only positive attribute.
The vulnerability of these cruisers was recognised by many senior officers, not only because of their obsolescence but because of their manning. Taken hastily from reserve – which meant they had been unmanned and poorly, if at all, maintained – on outbreak of war they were quickly overhauled and put back in service. Originally capable of 21 knots they now found it hard to make 15. Crews were in short supply, leading the ships to be manned by reservists, many middle-aged, many of them pensioners, who had not previously served or exercised together as units. In addition, nine naval cadets, some as young as 15, were allocated to each ship, being taken directly from the Royal Naval College. The general view of Cruiser Force C’s fighting potential was summed up in the nickname it quickly acquired – the “Live Bait Squadron”.
Britain’s armoured cruisers can be fairly described as the most unsuccessful and unfortunate type of warship ever employed by the Royal Navy. The 34 vessels of this type that were in service at the outbreak of war had entered service between 1902 and 1908 – they were not old ships. Of these 34, a total of 13 were to be lost in the next four years. Intended to form part of the battle fleet, they had been rendered obsolete by the advent of the almost equally-disastrous battle-cruiser concept. The earlier classes – the six ships of the Cressy class being the oldest – had very limited offensive capability, especially in rough weather. They were large – and expensive – ships and they needed large crews.
At dawn on September 22nd U-9 surfaced to find the storm over, the sea calm but for a slow swell. Smoke was seen on the horizon and the U-9’s engines were immediately shut down to get rid of their exhaust plume. A quick appraisal led Weddingen to order diving but he continues to observe through his periscope. Three vessels were approaching – the Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue – and Weddingen steered on his electric motors towards the central vessel, Aboukir.
Undetected, U-9 came within 600 yards of Aboukir’s port bow before firing a torpedo. As this was still running Weddingen took his craft down to 50 feet, then heard “a dull thud, followed by a shrill-toned crash”. Cheering erupted on U-9.