There’s a major action on the Western Front, but today is a Navy day. A Kaiserliche Marine day at that, as U-9 arguably changes the way people think about naval warfare.
The Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet has been patrolling the North Sea against any attempt by the German High Seas Fleet to do anything much. Today it’s the turn of three members of the 7th Cruiser Squadron. This squadron comprises six Cressy-class cruisers, which the arms race has written off as creaking and elderly despite having been completed at the turn of the century. (They’re slightly older than Pegasus, but not much.) They’re crewed mostly by men of the Naval Reserve, and some have nicknamed them the “Live Bait Squadron”.
Live bait they may be, but nobody expects them to come to grief quite this way. Their patch is the Broad Fourteens, an area of the North Sea so-named because it’s quite wide and fourteen fathoms deep. The weather in the area has been even more awful than usual. The squadron is usually accompanied by destroyers, but they’ve been forced back to port. Finally, the storm begins to calm down this morning. It’s then their bad luck to trip over the German submarine U-9. She had been ordered to Ostend in search of British troop transports, but had been sheltering from the storm in the Broad Fourteens.
When U-9 surfaces, there are the cruisers. Twenty minutes later, she’s in position to attack. A torpedo hammers into HMS Aboukir amidships, flooding the engine room and disabling her. No submarines have been sighted. The fatal assumption is made. Aboukir must have struck a mine. Her fellows, HMS Hogue and HMS Cressy, close to offer assistance. One of her midshipmen, Wenman Wykeham-Musgrave, abandons ship and spends the next half an hour swimming for his life. Aboukir sinks and the suction nearly pulls him under, but he somehow holds out long enough to be picked up by Hogue.
At which point, U-9 wallops Hogue with two more torpedoes, having spent the last half an hour sidling up to point-blank range. This time she is seen, and forced to dive to avoid Hogue’s fire. Midshipman Wykeham-Musgrave (no, that really is his name) ends up back in the water again, and the ship sinks some fifteen minutes after being hit. Presumably with a long-suffering sigh, he swims over to Cressy. I think you can probably see where this is going.
Yes, after just enough time for the poor sod to bemoan his rotten luck, U-9 pops up again and plants Cressy with another torpedo. The submarine avoids Cressy’s ramming attempt and then exits stage left. Wykeham-Musgrave returns to the water, and is eventually pulled out for the final time, some hours later, unconscious and draped over a large piece of driftwood, by a Dutch trawler. As far as we know, his achievement of being torpedoed three times in one day is unique. U-9 has done a little over an hour’s work, but returns home to a hero’s welcome and Iron Crosses all round. It’s obvious to all that modern submarines are a major game-changer and a serious threat.
Admiral von Spee’s improbable attempt to return to Germany continues. His fleet has made it to Tahiti, but could do with some more coal. Via an improbable deception, he’s discovered that a large stock of good-quality coal is being held at the port of Papeete, and he wants it. Unfortunately, he’s been discovered, and the French authorities (consisting of 25 local soldiers and 20 suddenly rather nervous gendarmes) receive a tip before his arrival. Their defences are negligible, but the coal has been prepared for destruction and it’s set alight as soon as von Spee’s ships appear and identify themselves.
Scharnhorst and Gneisenau open fire anyway, and the town is extensively bombarded without hope of retaliation, firing hundreds of irreplaceable shells and causing millions of francs of damage. It’s no doubt highly cathartic, but von Spee has just given away his own position. When news of this reaches the Admiralty, it’s quickly obvious what he’s trying to do, and plans are laid to intercept him.
But wait! There’s more! Emden’s wanderings around the Indian Ocean continue. Her story is rather less exciting and stirring than U-9’s. All she’s done is wander up to Madras in the evening, but doesn’t find much shipping of interest. She bombards several large (and full) oil tanks of the Burmah Oil Company, which explode in pleasing fashion, and then makes a speedy departure when the harbour’s shore batteries start to answer back. This was the only time that India would come under direct attack during the war.
There’s so much happening today, one post just isn’t enough! On the Western Front, the Germans and the French are trying to outflank each other at the same time, in the same place.