About World War 1: U-Boat U-9 Puts World's Navies on Notice
Submarines Are only Toys
When World War One started, on July 28, 1914, the world's two most powerful navies, the British Royal Navy and the German Imperial Navy, were built around dreadnought and super-dreadnought battleships. The competition to build dreadnoughts had in fact contributed to the start of the war. The Royal Navy also had 74 submarines and the Imperial Navy had 20 U-Boats available. Neither navy took the enemy's submarines seriously, or their own, for that matter. Submarines had not yet proven their worth. For the first six weeks of the war, German U-Boats were ineffective, causing little damage, while suffering two losses. That all changed on September 22, when the U-Boat SMS U-9 attacked three British cruisers.
The three Cressy -class armored cruisers were patrolling the North Sea between England and the Netherlands to keep the Germans from entering the English Channel from the east. HMS Cressy, HMS Aboukir and HMS Hogue e ach displaced 12,000 tons, was 472 feet long and had a main armament of two 230-mm and 12 150-mm guns. Though only 14 years old, they were already considered obsolete and were therefore manned mainly by part-time Royal Navy Reserve sailors.
SMS U-9 was a 500 ton submarine with six torpedoes commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen . In the weeks prior to the war, U-9 managed to reload her torpedo tubes while submerged, becoming the first submarine to ever perform this difficult task. This would become critical during her engagement with the cruisers.
U-9 was patrolling about 20 miles off the Dutch coast looking for enemy targets. It was September 22, 1914, a sunny, calm morning, perfect for a hunting submarine. Along the Western Front, the massed armies, unable to break through each others' lines were attempting to outflank each other in the race for the sea. Soon their trenches would stretch unbroken from the Swiss Alps to the English Channel.
Luckiest Man in the Royal Navy?
One sailor, Wenman "Kit" Wykeham-Musgrave (1899–1989), was on board HMS Aboukir when he was thrown overboard. He was then picked up by HMS Hogue, but soon found himself back in the sea. He was then picked up by HMS Cressy, only to end up in the sea one more time. A Dutch trawler finally picked him up (obviously without knowing about his “luck”). He lived until he was 90.
And in case you didn't do the math (1914 – 1899), Wykeham-Musgrave was only fifteen years old at the time. He later rejoined the Royal Navy in 1939 and rose to the rank of Commander.
At 6:00am, Weddigen spotted the three cruisers sailing in a triangular formation and managed to position
the U-9 in their center. Although they weren't zigzagging, the cruisers had lookouts posted searching for periscopes and at least one gun on each side was manned. At 6:20, at a range of 500 meters, Weddigen fired a single torpedo at HMS Aboukir, which struck, breaking her back. She sank within 20 minutes.
Thinking Aboukir had struck a mine, both Cressy and Hogue turned and approached their stricken sister to pick up survivors, throwing anything that would float into the sea. At a range of 270 meters, Weddigen loosed two torpedoes at HMS Hogue. In doing so, U-9's bow broke the surface and she was spotted by Hogue, which opened fire on the u-boat. U-9 successfully submerged and HMS Hogue was hit by both torpedoes. The cruiser capsized and sank at 7:15am.
Five minutes later, Weddigen fired two more torpedoes at HMS Cressy at a distance of 900 meters. Cressy spotted one of the torpedoes and turned to try to ram the u-boat, but one torpedo struck her with such force she was lifted out of the water and the second torpedo passed safely beneath her. U-9 then fired her last torpedo from 500 meters away, which sealed HMS Cressy's fate. As the stricken ship started listing, two Dutch trawlers, afraid of mines, refused to approach and Cressy's crew fired on them in anger. She then capsized and, at 7:55am, disappeared beneath the sea.
Meanwhile, U-9 had fled the scene, knowing the Royal Navy would soon be swarming over the area and Weddigen was out of torpedoes. Their earlier success at reloading torpedoes while submerged had allowed them to use their full complement of torpedoes during the engagement.
Royal Navy Rocked on its Heels
In the space of little more than an hour SMS U-9 had engaged and destroyed three armored cruisers-- a feat no one had thought possible. Although 837 men were rescued, 1,397 men and 62 officers died that morning. The Royal Navy's reputation was rocked and the public was outraged that a tiny submarine was able to inflict so much damage. Almost overnight, the u-boats were recognized as very real threats to the entire Royal Navy.
The German Imperial Navy also took notice. Weddigen and his crew returned as national heroes. The German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, awarded each member of the crew the Iron Cross, 2nd Class and Weddigen the Iron Cross, 1st Class.
Another Cruiser and Death by Battleship
Only three weeks later, on October 15, 1914, the U-9, under Weddigen, sank a fourth cruiser, HMS Hawke. After that action, Captain Weddigen received the military's highest award, the Pour le Merite. He was later given command of U-29 and died, with the rest of his crew on March 18, 1915, when the battleship HMS Dreadnought rammed U-29 and broke it in two in Pentland Firth. It was the height of irony that the actual battleship that had launched a major arms race contributing to World War I, should, in its only action, be the only battleship to sink a submarine.