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How a shocking naval disaster nearly sank Winston Churchill


Just six weeks into the First World War, three British armoured cruisers, HMS Hogue, Aboukir and Cressy, patrolling in the southern North Sea, were sunk by a single German U-boat.

The defeat made front page news across Europe. It was the biggest story from the war to date; it shocked the British public; established the submarine as a major naval threat; threatened wartime morale and undermined confidence in the supposedly invincible Royal Navy. It also handed a priceless propaganda coup to Germany.

Forced to abandon ship, men desperately clung on to pieces of driftwood battling hyperthermia, as the frigid North Sea was turned inky black by the coal released from the ship’s bunkers. The incident claimed the lives of 1,459 men and boys, some as young as 15 years old. The death toll was higher than that at the Battle of Trafalgar or the sinking of the RMS Lusitania.

Many of those lost were professional mariners drawn from the Royal Naval Reserve and Royal Fleet Reserve. These tended to be mature family men so the impact on families and communities ashore was devastating.

The King expressed his disquiet, naval correspondents from the leading newspapers second-guessed the Admiralty’s strategy and questions were asked in Parliament.

Given the scale of the loss and its massive impact, it is curious that the events of 22 September 1914 were never designated an official action by the Royal Navy. The incident still doesn’t even have a proper name. Most official historical accounts relegate it to the margins, as a tragic anomaly that had little, or no bearing on the war at sea.

Thanks to the efforts of Dutch physics lecturer Henk van der Linden, more have heard of the incident, which is now sometimes referred to as the Broad Fourteens Disaster, or the Live Bait Squadron. He wrote a book on the subject in 2012 and initiated a major commemorative service at Chatham Historic Dockyard to mark the centenary of the event in 2014. Some are also familiar with the extraordinary story of Midshipman Wykeham-Musgrave of HMS Aboukir who was sunk three times before breakfast.

What was never understood was why one of the most significant wartime events in modern British naval history managed to retain such a low profile for so long.

My book – The Coal Black Sea: Winston Churchill and the Worst Naval Catastrophe of the First World War – seeks to tell the extraordinary story as a non-fiction narrative from the decks of the three cruisers and the men who served there and explore the dusty corridors of Whitehall for an answer to this question.

Eight years of research revealed compelling evidence that the incident was deliberately played down and that facts were covered up as part of a political conspiracy orchestrated at the very top of the Admiralty to protect both wartime morale and personal reputations.

In 1914, the political boss of the Royal Navy, the First Lord of the Admiralty was a highly ambitious, energetic, 39-year-old celebrity politician by the name of Winston Churchill.

When Churchill was appointed to this prestigious post in 1911 by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, few questioned his qualifications for the job. He had already held two cabinet posts and witnessed several wars as a correspondent and as a junior army officer. He had the Midas touch and the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, offered him the opportunity to write his name in history.

The British public expected a latter-day Battle of Trafalgar when the invincible Royal Navy inspired by Churchill would crush the upstart German fleet and secure the empire in time for Christmas. The loss of the three cruisers and the ignominious defeat it represented, was simply not part of the script.

What was worse, it followed a series of embarrassing naval blunders, minor losses and defeats that had shaken confidence in the Admiralty and in Churchill too.

“There was our little army fighting for its life and playing to British eyes almost as large a part as all the armies of France and meanwhile our great Navy, the strongest in the world-lay apparently in an inertia diversified only by occasional mishap,” he later wrote.

Churchill was under pressure and the last thing he needed was another naval public relations disaster that would provoke more press criticism, public opprobrium and probing questions in Parliament.

So, while the families ashore waited anxiously for news of loved ones and many dealt with their grief and braced themselves for the financial catastrophe of losing their sole breadwinner, Churchill set to work.

The First Lord carefully undertook an exercise in damage limitation and constructed a carefully crafted narrative issued by the Press Bureau via the office of the Chief Naval Censor at the Admiralty. The official line was that these were old, obsolete vessels of negligible strategic significance. What’s more, they were manned by amateur part-timers and that the commanding officers had made errors of judgement in stopping to pick up survivors struggling in the water. Blame was artfully deflected from the Admiralty, to those serving at sea.

For many at the higher echelons of the Royal Navy, this was a step too far. Behind the scenes, they were outraged about what they saw as an unnecessary and avoidable loss. They were even more furious that serving officers were being arbitrarily blamed in the press before an official inquiry had been held. Captain Robert Warren Johnson, the highly respected commanding officer of HMS Cressy and one of the few with knowledge of submarines, died in the action, so could hardly defend himself or his reputation.

It was also a huge disservice to the reservists who augmented the regular nucleus crews of about 40 per cent. These reservists were either Royal Naval Reserve, professional mariners from the merchant service who undertook regular training, or the experienced former navy regulars of the Royal Fleet Reserve who had completed 12 years’ service before joining the reserve. These were professional seamen through and through, who according, to all accounts, conducted themselves with great courage and professionalism in hopeless circumstances.

Not everyone bought into Churchill’s version. Newspapers continued to ask why the cruisers were deployed without escort in such a vulnerable position and why the Admiralty had failed to provide any anti-submarine weapons or even any basic anti-submarine measures? There were no life jackets either and most of the ship’s boats had been landed at Chatham dockyard at the advent of war.

The court of inquiry found the Admiralty largely to blame for placing the cruisers so close to a German submarine base, for no apparent reason and with no destroyer escorts. The classified findings concluded that a submarine attack was inevitable, so Churchill hushed them up. But the criticism of him and the accusations that he was meddling in operational matters continued.

“In spite of being accustomed to years of abuse, I could not but feel the adverse and hostile currents that flowed about me,” wrote Churchill.

Fortunately for him, the First Lord had a ‘get out of jail card’—a crucial memo that absolved the future prime minister of personal responsibility and saved his career at least for a few more months. Buried in the cabinet archives, I discovered original documents that raise serious questions about the validity of that memo and the role of Churchill in the death of 1,459 men and boys.

By Stuart Heaver

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