As promised here as some of the readings/research made in West Norfolk for the Scars of War project in the autumn of 2018: The research for this piece was undertaken by Lindsey Bavin, manager at the True’s Yard Fisherfolk Museum. You will find a memorial to these three ships at the museum.
The Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue
The Live Bait Squadron
William Allen, John Rose and Hubert Penny
During a conference Churchill had been annoyed to overhear the expression ‘Live Bait Squadron’ and to learn it was the Fleet’s nickname for the Southern Force’s cruisers which were over fourteen years old.
The ships were manned by reservists, who were mainly married men, and young cadets from Osborne House Naval College and Britannia Royal Naval College. It was thought these ships would not be involved in great battles, so would be safe. Churchill pointed out the danger of exposing cruisers so close to enemy positions especially without any destroyer escort and where numerous fishing boats could report their movements. Churchill said:
“The risk to such ships is not justified by any service they can render. The narrow seas, being the nearest point to the enemy, should be kept by a small number of good modern ships.”
Although First Sea Lord Louis Battenburg agreed with Churchill two days later, on Saturday 19th September, Admiral Sturdee persuaded the First Sea Lord to approve an order for the cruisers to stay in their original patrol area and not move to the western approaches of the Channel as Churchill had ordered.
Thus the scene was set for the morning of 22nd September 1914
U-boat 9 was commanded by Lieutenant Commander Weddigen. He saw the three cruisers had no destroyer escort. Initially he mistook the cruisers for the newer and faster Birmingham class which had recently sunk a U-boat U15.
At 6.20 a.m. the submarine fired a single bow torpedo at HMS Aboukir. The torpedo struck the starboard side. The vessel heeling as water poured in the hole torn in its hull. HMS Aboukir listed 20o to starboard while efforts were made to right the ship by counter-flooding. Commander Norton of HMS Hogue reported that HMS Aboukir floated bottom up for about five minutes and took about thirty-five minutes to sink. Although HMS Aboukir was the first ship to be hit, it was the last to sink as it was only hit by one torpedo.
William Allen of Sir Lewis Street, King’s Lynn was a survivor of HMS Aboukir he described the moment the torpedo struck
“I was sleeping in my hammock, near my gun position, at the time the ship was struck. At first I was thought the ship had struck a German mine, rather than being torpedoed by one of the recently introduced submarines. There was not a great deal of noise caused by the torpedo, it was more of a thud. There was no panic, but soon it was obvious that the ship had no chance, and it listed heavily.”
William Allen slipped into the water between a boat and the side of HMS Aboukir. He began swimming towards HMS Hogue. His brother, Thomas Martin Allen, and another King’s Lynn man, William Fysh, both drowned. William Allen last saw his brother signalling to the other cruisers for assistance. Orders came for the men who had been injured by the earlier gales to be put into one of the ship’s boats. Many of the men were struggling in the water on pieces of wood. William Allen had passed William Fysh a piece of wood with a rope attached, telling him to look after himself and wishing him good luck.
At 6.55 a.m. the submarine fired both bow torpedoes at the stationary HMS Hogue. Both torpedoes hit and one near its aft magazine. There was a large explosion. HMS Hogue immediately began to heel starboard. Dense black smoke, from either coal or torpedo cordite, was seen from HMS Hogue’s starboard battery. HMS Hogue sank only ten minutes after being hit.
One of HMS Hogue’s officers recalled that
‘Within three minutes of the first torpedo hitting, the list had increased to about 40 degrees, and realising that her end was very near all hands began to tear off their clothes and crawl down the high side or jump overboard to leeward. To add to the general confusion, the stokehold crowd suddenly poured up on deck, their blackened faces dripping sweat and tense with apprehension. It was now a case of every man for himself, and tearing off my boots and clothing and then fastening to my wrist by its chain my gold watch, which I greatly prized, I walked down the sloping deck into the water and struck out for dear life’.
At 7.15 a.m. a torpedo struck HMS Cressy on the starboard side, just before the aft bridge. The ship listed about 10 degrees to starboard and remained steady. Following Captain Johnson’s order all HMS Cressy’s watertight doors, deadlights and scuttles had been securely closed before the torpedo hit. All the available timber, from below and on deck, including mess tables and stools, had been thrown over the side to help save the crew.
At 7.30 a.m., about a quarter of an hour after the first torpedo had hit, the submarine turned and fired a bow shot with its last torpedo. The torpedo passed over the sinking hull of HMS Aboukir, narrowly missing it. The torpedo then hit HMS Cressy’s No. 5 boiler room, again on its starboard side. Captain Johnson then ordered ‘Every man for himself’.
Hubert Penny in a letter to Mrs Penny, his mother
“Just a brief message to tell you how brother Alfred and I parted as the ship took her final plunge. The scene was terrible. After the captain gave the order ‘every man for himself’ the sea became literally alive with men struggling and grasping what they could to support themselves, whilst to add to the horror and the confusion, the Germans kept firing their torpedoes at us. It was a sight I shall never forget. Before I went into the water I was granted one wish, for I suddenly stumbled against brother Alfred, and although the decks were awash, we were just permitted to shake hands and kiss each other and tell each other that, whichever got saved, he was to tell dear mother that our last thoughts were of her. We could see nothing of brother Louis, so with a hurried goodbye we plunged into the water together, and we saw no more of each other. I shall never forget that parting. I was in the water for two hours before being picked up.’
Another Northender aboard the Cressy was John Rose – Seaman 27358 RNR
John Rose lived in Whitening’s Yard, North Street and was described as a Corn Porter in 1911. He was 38 years old and left a widow, Mary and nine children.
The King’s Lynn Advertiser, Friday 2nd October, reported that one survivor from HMS Cressy said
‘When in the water he was clinging to some wreckage with eight other men, and he saw all eight sink. One of the Lynn men was also clinging to the same wreckage, but he afterwards swam off to a spar. Some of the men were singing ‘We all go the same way home’, while others sang ‘Nearer my God to Thee’. Jokes were intermingled with occasional shrieks, and some of the men bade each other farewell as they felt themselves sinking. One sailor seeing a comrade to whom he had lost half-a-crown while card playing, swimming towards him, called out ‘What do you want? Are you afraid I shouldn’t pay you that half-crown?’’