At the beginning of the First World War, nobody questioned the strength of the British naval fleet. It was the best in the world.
However, there were some who doubted whether the British admiralty recognized the true potential of submarines. Indeed, the official British strategy for defense against these new weapons seems quite primitive, in retrospect: upon sighting a U-boat, a detachment of sailors should take a small boat, row up to the enemy, and attempt to smash the periscope with a mallet!
After the defeat at Heligoland Bight in late August, the Kaiser had admitted that it might be best for the German navy to be used primarily as a defensive weapon. This strategy, however, was to be limited only to the surface ships. The U-boat arm of the navy, on the other hand, would be given free rein to cause as much damage as it could.
The events of September 22, 1914, threw the strategies of both the British and the Germans into sharp focus. On this day, the German submarine U-9 was traveling back to base from the North Sea through an area called the Broad Fourteens (roughly NorthWest of Amsterdam). She had seen little action on patrol, and had plenty of torpedoes remaining.
This seemed the story of most U-boat patrols up to this point: little gain in these first few weeks of the war, while two submarines had themselves been sunk. Fortune was about to change, however.
At 6AM, the U-9 surfaced after taking refuge from a storm beneath the waves, and quickly spotted the British cruiser Aboukir and two other ships.
At a range of 550 yards, the U-9 fired a single torpedo at 6:20AM which slammed into Aboukir‘s side near the engine room. The cruiser immediately lost power, and began to sink very quickly, capsizing only 25 minutes later.
Meanwhile, the two other British ships had not spotted any submarines, so they thought that she had struck a mine. They therefore moved in closer to Aboukir in order to help the survivors. The U-9 had dived after firing the torpedo at the Aboukir, but came near the surface again about a half hour later, having not been attacked. Captain Otto Weddingen went for the next ship.
This turned out to be the British cruiser Hogue. Weddingen fired two torpedo’s at her around 7AM from a range of only about 300 yards. The sudden loss of weight made the submarines bow breach the surface, and the crewmen of the Hogue immediately spotted the U-boat and began to fire.
Both of Weddingen’s torpedo’s found their mark, and the Hogue‘s captain gave the order to abandon ship only five minutes later. She capsized in only 10 minutes, and sank at about 7:15AM.
There remained but one more surface ship in the area, the British cruiser Cressy. She had spotted the U-9 along with the Hogue and fired at her, even attempting to ram the submarine though failed. As the Hogue went down, the Cressy returned to the task assisting survivors. Perhaps she thought that the submarine would be satisfied with sinking two cruisers and call it a day.
No such luck. The U-9 launched two torpedoes against the Cressy almost simultaneous with its attack on the Hogue, but only one of these struck home, a non-fatal blow. Weddingen therefore turned his submarine in order to use his last available torpedo, and fired it at around 7:25.
This second torpedo struck the Cressy at about 7:30, and quickly sent her into a steep list as had Aboukir and Hogue. The Cressy soon capsized, but floated upside-down until 7:55. Distress signals had been sent, resulting in the arrival of several destroyers to both assist in rescuing survivors as well as to hunt the submarine. The U-9, however, waited until nightfall to make good her escape, and returned to base safely.
These events had an enormous effect upon both the British and the Germans. For the British admiralty, they immediately recalled all of their cruisers from patrol duty, and severely criticized the actions of her captains in the battle. Both the admiralty and the public, however, began to have doubts whether the British navy was properly equipped to deal with submarines.
The Germans, however, could take great pleasure in seeing how just one U-boat could cause so much damage in such a small expanse of time. Weddingen received a hero’s welcome and the Iron Cross, 1st class. The victory of September 22 became a great source of pride and confidence not only for the German U-boats, but for Germany as a whole.