Centenary of Ulster casualties when tragic trio was torpedoed by U-Boat

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Exactly 100 years ago this coming Monday, September 22, the second of two significant sea tragedies from the early days of WWI claimed the lives of over 30 local men.

Previously, on the 5th September 1914, HMS Pathfinder became the first ship to be torpedoed and sunk by a submarine.

The so-called ‘spar’ torpedo - a bomb on the end of a long pole - had been used not too successfully since the 1870s. The device thata annihilated HMS Pathfinder was its successor, the ‘locomotive’ torpedo that’s still in use today.

The doomed vessel, a Scout Cruiser, was commanded by Captain Francis Martin Leake who started his career as a young Lieutenant on HMS Caroline, now one of Belfast’s major tourist attractions.

U-21 sank Leake’s ship off St Abbs Head on the Scottish Borders. Only 18 crew survived from over 260 on board Pathfinder. Six of the casualties were Ulstermen.

And just seven weeks into the war, on the 22nd September, three ships were sunk in the North Sea by one U-Boat, U-9.

A terrible total of 1,459 men were lost from the three torpedoed ships - HMS Aboukir, HMS Cressy and HMS Hogue.

Of these, at least 31 men had connections with Ulster; most of them were stokers and three quarters of them part time reservists.

Their average age was only 27 years old. The 30 Ulstermen were buried at sea, with just one local man laid to rest in a grave.

Marking the on-going centenary of WWI, the History Hub Ulster organisation has researched these little-recounted sea tragedies, and many more wartime events that involved local people.

The names of the men who were lost, and those who survived, are listed along with vivid details of their heroic actions on historyhubulster.co.uk

The majority of HMS Pathfinder’s crew were below deck when the torpedo stuck. With neither the time nor the opportunity to escape most went down with the ship.

Captain Leake stayed with his vessel as she went down by the nose and was lucky to be picked up and saved.

He wrote in a letter to his mother - “The torpedo got us in our forward magazine and evidently sent this up, thereby killing everyone forward”. He said of HMS Pathfinder - “She then fell over and disappeared leaving a mass of wreckage all around, but I regret very few men amongst it, for at the time they were all asleep on the mess decks and the full explosion must have caught them, for no survivors came from forward.”

This Monday’s tragic triple-anniversary of the sinking of HMS Aboukir, HMS Cressy and HMS Hogue will be marked at the Historic Dockyard, Chatham with a Drumhead service and a poignant ‘shower’ of 1,459 poppy petals, one for each life lost.

In one of the largest naval disasters in history, the trio of vessels, part of the ‘Livebait Squadron’, was patrolling the North Sea. For 31 Ulstermen it was their final voyage.

On the morning of 22nd September 1914 the German U-9 surfaced after a storm and spotted the three large, old British Royal Navy cruisers.

The Admiralty had expressed concerns about the vintage vessels and their outdated armaments, but despite the loss of HMS Pathfinder a few weeks earlier, the chances of torpedo attacks hadn’t yet been given high priority.

U-9 moved closer, fired one torpedo from a range of 500 metres, and dived. The torpedo slammed into HMS Aboukir and erupted. With her engine room a hissing morgue of bodies amongst jagged, red-hot metal and flames, and awash with boiling seawater, the vessel slurred to a halt and started listing.

Aboukir capsized and sank within 30 minutes. Assuming that she’d struck a mine the other two cruisers closed in to help. U-9 resurfaced amidst the turmoil of HMS Hogue and HMS Cressy trying to rescue HMS Abouker’s crew.

The U-Boat fired two torpedoes at Hogue from a range of 270 metres. Both struck their target and Hogue lay torn and twisted on the seabed after only 15 minutes.

Another deadly duet of U-9’s torpedoes followed, and after floating upside-down for over half an hour HMS Cressy joined her two mangled colleagues in the depths of the North Sea.

Of the three vessels’ combined crew of 2,296 men there were only 837 survivors. A total of 1,459 men, mostly part-time men from the Royal Naval Reserve rather than regular sailors, had died.

For weeks afterwards bodies of British sailors were washed ashore on the Dutch coast, and a few men were buried at cemeteries in Holland.

One survivor explained that many of the men were “much bruised and the skin was knocked off their bodies by the buffeting of the waves and contact with the wreckage.”

Another survivor recounted “the sea was literally alive with men struggling and grasping for anything to save themselves. To add to the horror of the scene the Germans kept firing their torpedoes at us.”

Three brothers were serving on HMS Cressy. Two died in the attack, and the third told their grieving mother: “I was just going to jump when I saw dear brother Alfred coming along the deck which was then all awash.

“Together we lingered for a moment, shook hands and told each other that whoever was saved was to tell dear mother that our last thoughts were of her.

“We then kissed, wished each other goodbye, and plunged into the sea together, and we never saw each other again. Nor did we see any sign of brother Louis.”

U-9 returned home the next day to a hero’s welcome and three weeks later sank HMS Hawke with the loss of 524 men, over 40 of them from Ulster.