“There was a fountain of water, a burst of smoke, a flash of fire, and part of the cruiser rose in the air. Then I heard a roar and felt reverberations sent through the water by the detonation.”
Otto Weddigen describing the sinking of HMS Aboukir
Ninety years ago this month an event took place that changed naval warfare and introduced the world to how deadly a single submarine could be. In September 1914 most naval experts held the submarine was not much of a threat. The submarines of the day were limited in range, diving depth, speed, armament and endurance.
The U-9 was powered by kerosene engines on the surface which charged batteries which were used when the boats were submerged. Later submarines would be powered by diesel engines. U-9 was small, displacing only 543 tons on surface and 674 submerged. She was 188 feet long and just 19.7 feet in beam. The living conditions for her crew of 4 officers and 25 enlisted men were less than spartan. She was armed with four 17.7 inch torpedo tubes, two forward and two aft and carried six torpedoes, four in the tubes and two reloads for the forward torpedo tubes. The boat had been commissioned in April 1910 and on the outbreak of the First World War she was commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen.
On September 22nd 1914 with enormous battles raging on the Western Front and the High Seas Fleet in port the soon to be famous submarine was patrolling in the North Sea. The U-9 was about 18 miles off the Dutch Coast near the Hook of Holland when she encountered three ships of the Royal Navy’s 7th Cruiser Squadron, or Cruiser Force C. The squadron was composed of three obsolete Cressy Class Armored Cruisers, the HMS Cressy, HMS, Aboukir and HMS Hogue displacing 12,000 tons and mounting two 9.2” and 12 6” guns each.
HMS Aboukir at Malta before the War, HMS Cressy (below)
HMS Hogue shortly after being commissioned
The three ships were manned primarily by recently called up reservists and were derisively known throughout the fleet as the “Live Bait Squadron.” On that September morning they would be just that. The squadron was reduced in number as the squadron flagship was not present and the HMS Euryalus had to drop out due to lack of coal and weather damage to her wireless. The weather was bad, so the admiral in command was had to remain with the ship, unable to transfer. As such he delegated command to the captain of the Aboukir. The same bad weather also kept the destroyers that would of accompanied the patrol in port.
The ships were steaming in a line ahead formation when Weddigen on the U-9 spotted them about 0600 on the morning of September 22nd. They were not zig-zagging to lessen the chance of submarine attack and thought they had posted lookouts had no idea that U-9 was stalking them.
Weddigen on worked the boat into what he felt was a better firing position and launched his first torpedo at the center cruiser, the Aboukir at 0620 from a distance of just 550 yards. The torpedo struck her midships and broke her back. She began to sink and within 25 minutes capsize taking 527 of her crew of 760 down with her. Weddigen wrote in his post battle report:
“Her crew were brave, and even with death staring them in the face kept to their posts, ready to handle their useless guns….”
Thinking that Aboukir had struck a mine the Captains of the Cressy and Hogue moved their ships close to rescue survivors. Weddigen had surfaced to observe the British and then fired two torpedoes into Hogue from a range of just 300 yards and then dived with Hogue opening fire as she did so. Hogue capsized and sank in 15 minutes.
The British now knew that a submarine was responsible for the attack and the last ship and after reloading his forward tubes attacked Cressy at 0720 firing two torpedoes from her stern tubes. Weddigen then surfaced to bring his bow tubes into action and fired another shot, as he dis so the British cruiser opened fire and attempted to ram. Cressy was struck by two torpedoes during the attack, the doomed ship capsized and then sank at 0755.
In a little over an hour the U-9 had sunk three British cruisers. A total of 1459 British sailors died in the attacks and only 837 crew members from all three ships survived. Weddigen withdrew from the area as he knew that the British would be looking for the U-9. When the boat returned to port, Weddigen, and his crew were hailed as heroes. Weddigen was awarded the Iron Cross First Class and later the Pour le Merite which he received personally from Kaiser Wilhelm II. The U-9 was one of only two ships of the Imperial Navy awarded the Iron Cross. The other was the Light Cruiser Emden, nicknamed the “Swan of the East” which tied down a large number of British, French and Russian ships in the Pacific and Indian Ocean during her short but productive deployment as a commerce raider.
The Return of the U-9 to Wilhelmshaven
The plucky U-9 would survive the war, sinking another cruiser, the HMS Hawke in 1915 and 13 other merchant ships or fishing boats. She was withdrawn from front line service in 1916 and assigned to training duties.
The Crew of U-9
Weddigen was less fortunate, the aggressive young officer was killed on March 18th 1915 when his new command the U-29 was rammed and sunk by the HMS Dreadnought.
Future First Sea Lord Dudley Pound then serving on the Battleship HMS St. Vincent wrote:
“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.”
Submarines would go on to be one of the most feared and effective weapons ever developed for naval warfare. German U-Boats nearly brought Britain to its knees in both World Wars and the submarines of the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet decimated the Japanese merchant fleet and inflicted great losses on the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Second World War. After Pearl Harbor and the many defeats of early 1942 it was the submarine force that according to Admiral Chester Nimitz “held the lines against the enemy.”
Today the most deadly submarines ever built prowl underneath the surface of the world’s oceans. Nuclear powered and advanced diesel electric boats armed with torpedoes and cruise missiles, and giant nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines armed with long range nuclear ballistic missiles provide an invisible and nearly undetectable deterrent.
Unlike 1914 today all navies take the submarine threat seriously. Should any significant naval war be fought in the Persian Gulf or the Pacific submarines will certainly have an impact not only at sea but in strategic strikes on enemy installations and land based units. In 1914 no one would have thought that the success of the tiny U-9 would eventually lead to such a dominating weapon.