The Loss of the Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue
On 22 September, 1914, three British cruisers, the Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue, were torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-9 in the North Sea. The ships, part of the Seventh Cruiser Squadron (also known as Cruiser Force E) of the Southern Force, were under the temporary command of Captain John E. Drummond. Rear-Admiral Henry H. Campbell, Rear-Admiral Commanding, Seventh Cruiser Squadron, and Rear-Admiral Arthur H. Christian, Rear-Admiral Commanding, Southern Force, were both absent.
Early in the morning of the 22nd the Aboukir, Captain Drummond, was torpedoed by U-9. Both Hogue and Cressy closed to give assistance and were each torpedoed in turn. 1,459 officers and men were killed. As a direct consequence, large ships of the Royal Navy were ordered to leave torpedoed and mined consorts to their fate to avoid a similar occurrence.
At the meeting Sturdee is famously supposed to have informed Keyes, "My dear fellow, you don't know your history. We've always maintained a squadron on the Broad Fourteens." Given the dubious nature of the claim—Marder got it from Admiral Sir William M. James, no fan of Sturdee, who supposedly got it from Keyes—it's is probably safe to disregard it, unless, of course, Lord Keyes's diaries confirm it.
On 2 October 1914, the Admiralty inserted into its Weekly Orders a note of "Appreciation of Conduct of Officers and Crews of Ships recently destroyed", mentioning these ships along with three other early losses whose men displayed "exemplary steadiness and coolness... in face of imminent death".
In response to Churchill's claims in The World Crisis, Admiral Christian, by now retired, wrote to The Times:
Sir,—May I, as the officer who was then commanding the Seventh Cruiser Squadron, be permitted to offer a few remarks and criticisms in answer to Mr. Churchill's statements regarding the disaster which overtook the Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue, September, 1914? It is not my intention to enter into any controversy as to whether any responsibility rested on the Admiralty for that occurrence. My chief concern is in respect to the reflections Mr. Churchill has been pleased to make against the professional reputation of the officers of those ships, many of whom lost their lives, as well as of myself.
In the first place, when Mr. Churchill enunciates the obvious truism that "in war all repetitions are perilous," he clearly suggests, by inference, that the ships had been maintaining the same patrol since the commencement of the war. The Broad Fourteens area, which the three ships were then patrolling, was not a fixed one. During sixteen days prior to the disaster, the squadron had patrolled this particular vicinity for five days; the remaining days it had either been withdrawn or employed elsewhere.
Secondly, after correctly stating that the rough weather of the 19th and 20th made it necessary for the cruisers to forgo the protection of the destroyers, Mr. Churchill remarks, "but they nevertheless were allowed to continue the patrol." If, as one must suppose, Mr. Churchill infers that the continuance of the patrol, without protecting cruisers [read "destroyers"], was due to my initiative, I beg to call attention to the following wireless message received by me from the Admiralty at 5 p.m., September 19th:—
The Dogger Bank patrol need not be continued. Weather too bad for destroyers to go to sea. Arrange with cruisers to watch Broad Fourteens.
It will be observed that this was a direct order to "watch the Broad Fourteens" with cruisers, and left no option as to the area to be patrolled. Also, it clearly indicated that the patrol was to be continued, whether the destroyers were present or not.
Thirdly, Mr. Churchill states that the cruisers were steaming under ten knots. The maintenance of a three-quarter speed of thirteen or fourteen knots would have entailed an expenditure of coal which would have resulted in continual withdrawal of vessels from patrol. Indeed, the necessity for careful coal economy made it very difficult to maintain a proper proportion of the squadron at sea; and, in fact, it was the urgent necessity of coaling, and, incidentally, the disablement of wireless of my flagship by the gale, which was the cause of my temporary absence from the squadron on the actual day of the disaster. I pointed out that the state of the weather prevented me from shifting my flag at sea, and the Admiralty approved of my leaving the squadron temporarily.
Incidentally, the destroyers came out on September 21, but were sent in at dusk on account of the bad weather. They were sent out again at dawn on the 22nd, but, most unfortunately, arrived after the disaster had occurred.
Mr. Churchill's reference to the action of Hogue and Cressy in standing by their stricken senior officer's ship as an act of "chivalrous stupidity" amounts to nothing less than a veiled sneer at the judgement of officers who preferred to take great risks rather than abandon all their comrades to their fate. What would he have done in similar circumstances? At any rate, it is not in keeping with naval tradition that any officer or man in it should ever attempt to preserve his own reputation or safety, either in writing or in action, at the expense of others.
At the commencement of a great war, with innumerable fresh problems confronting the belligerents, it is inevitable that mistakes will be made, and 1914 was no exception. But I venture to assert that, in any case, such mistakes afford no excuse for a civilian ex-Minister of State, armed with confidential papers, to which no others have access, making attacks on the professional reputation of officers, who, in very trying circumstances, were trying to do their duty. Indeed, it is lamentable that an ex-Minister should stoop to publish a book containing confidential reports, which are the property of the State.
Personally, I am content to abide by the finding of the Court of Inquiry which heard the evidence and went exhaustively into the case. It has never been communicated to me, and an application for a further inquiry—namely, a Court-martial—was apparently not approved.
A. H. CHRISTIAN. Admiral.
3, Sloane-gardens, S.W.1, Feb. 20.
- Marder. II. p. 57n.
- Admiralty Weekly Order No. 426 of 2 Oct, 1914.
- "The Three Cruisers" (Letters to the Editor). The Times. Friday, 23 February, 1923. Issue 43273, col A, p. 10.
- Marder, Arthur Jacob (1965). From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919: The War Years : To the Eve of Jutland.. Volume II. London: Oxford University Press.