- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.
September 22, 1914, 3 a.m. A tentative calm had finally descended on the North Sea after three days of savage storms, and the British admiralty ordered a resumption of patrols off the coast of Holland. An hour before dawn, three aging battle cruisers were sent out to take positions on the line, three miles apart. While the ships were old, the crews were not. Aboukir, Hogue, and Cressy were part of a five-boat contingent manned mostly by young reservists and thus nicknamed the “Live Bait Squadron.” They would certainly be so that day. With the seas still rough, the cruisers’ usual destroyer escort was ordered to remain at anchor.
At 6.30 a.m., the three ships separated to take up their stations. Almost immediately, a huge explosion shook Aboukir. The two other ships turned at once to steam to her aid and when they had closed sufficiently to pick up survivors, Hogue and Cressy came to a halt. As the rescue boats were returning with burned and wounded sailors, two tremendous blasts devastated Hogue. Soon after that, Cressy exploded amidships and, like the other two, sank almost immediately.
Two Dutch vessels helped rescue 60 officers and 777 men. But another 60 officers and some 1,399 sailors died in the explosions, were roasted to death, or drowned.
In this singular battle, lasting less than 90 minutes, the three British cruisers had been attacked by a vessel that, until six weeks earlier, had never been employed by the German navy, or in a real sense by any navy at all. It sailed not on the sea, but under it.
It was only after Aboukir and Hogue had been torn apart that Captain Robert W. Johnson, aboard Cressy, realized what had befallen his comrades. According the official report, “five minutes after Captain Johnson maneuvered the ship so as to render assistance to the crews of the Hogue and Aboukir…a periscope was seen on the starboard quarter, and fire was opened. The track of the torpedo she fired at a range of from 500 to 600 yards was plainly visible, and it struck on the starboard side just before the after bridge.”
The periscope belonged to submarine U-9, commanded by dashing, 32 year old Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen. The boat was 188 feet long and only 19 feet across. Its crew of 26 officers and men lived in impossibly cramped conditions, stuffed along with provisions and armaments into a narrow cylinder that provided little room to move and even less to sleep. Fans to circulate the air were so feeble that most of the sailors were left constantly gasping for breath, even when U-9 was running on the surface. Heat from the engines was stifling and sanitary facilities were worse than in a prison. But neither Weddigen nor his crew would ever register a single complaint. They were pioneers, entrusted with a potent new weapon they were certain would be instrumental in their nation’s victory.
Just days before he left on patrol, Weddigen he had been married to his childhood sweetheart. With the sinking of Aboukir, Hogue, and Cressy, U-9’s captain became a national hero. “I reached the home port on the afternoon of the 23rd,” he said later, “I learned that my little vessel and her brave crew had won the plaudit of the Kaiser, who conferred upon each of my co-workers the Iron Cross of the second class and upon me the Iron Crosses of the first and second classes.”
In Great Britain, the reaction was far different. But one thing was certain.
War on the high seas had changed forever.
Excerpt from Going Deep: John Philip Holland and the Invention of the Attack Submarine by Lawrence Goldstone, published by Pegasus Books, June 2017. Reprinted with permission.