16 Sep 20
Posted by: Andrew Lambert

On 22 September 1914 three Cressy class armoured cruisers, Cressy, Aboukir and Hogue, were sunk by a single German submarine, a tragedy that has come to define the historical memory of these powerful ships. This striking book combines the as fitted drawings made at Portsmouth dockyard when Cressy entered service with other contemporary technical records, and an expert discussion of the design and function of the ship.

Cressy and her five sisters were designed by the Director of Naval Construction, Sir William White, ahead of Admiralty instructions. On a displacement of 12,000 tons White provided substantial armour protection, a powerful gun battery of two 9.2 inch and ten 6-inch guns, and a top speed of 21 knots. The only weakness was relatively limited bunker capacity, reflecting the design function of supporting fleet operations in the Channel and Mediterranean, rather than long range oceanic warfare. That relatively limited endurance explains why they were in the Broad Fourteens in September 1914, while other armoured cruisers of similar vintage were patrolling the outer oceans. In 1897 the enemy had been France, which relied on large armoured cruisers for fleet and commerce warfare. To operate with the battlefleet these ships had the deadwood aft cut back to reduce their turning circle to conform with that of the shorter battleships. Another hint as to their role can be drawn from the decision to use the names Euryalus and Bacchante, honouring famous frigates of the Napoleonic era. Euryalus led the frigate force at Trafalgar, Bacchante had been commanded by Nelson’s protégé William Hoste. The ships sunk in 1914 were named after victories over France on land and sea, while Sutlej referenced the first Anglo-Sikh War of the 1840s.

While the Cressy’s were never tested in battle with similar ships, contemporary British designed and built armoured cruisers of the Imperial Japanese Navy stood up well to 6- and 8-inch gunfire, and even occasional 12-inch hits, in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. While watertight subdivision proved to be inadequate this was hardly surprising, no modern warship had been sunk by a torpedo underway and closed up for action at the time they were built.

The Cressy’s did not undergo any major modifications before 1914 and were obsolescent when war broke out. They were recalled to service because there were not enough modern light cruisers for work in the North Sea. The Admiralty was well aware of the risk they ran, and was about to withdraw them, but ran out of time. The three ships were cruising without a destroyer escort, due to recent bad weather. Aboukir was torpedoed first, the other ships stood by to rescue the crew, and were sunk in succession. 1,459 men were lost, and the Navy’s reputation took a hit. Old ships and equally old-fashioned codes of honour were no match for modern methods. On another day, 18 March 1915, Otto Weddigen, who had commanded U9 was killed when HMS Dreadnought ran down his new boat, which inadvertently surfaced after firing on the Grand Fleet.

As Andrew Choong argues, these impressive ships deserve to be studied as cutting-edge cruisers of the late 1890s, not the tragic victims of poor staff work and a skilled opponent. The other three ships gave good service in the war, Euryalus playing a key role in T E Lawrence’s 1917 campaign. While the drawings dominate the book, the interpretation provided to guide readers is exceptional, examining fittings, operations, and accommodation, along with weapons, rigging and all the myriad elements that made these big warships the pinnacle of late Victorian engineering. This is a study of technology, delivered as art, and explained by an expert, part of a new and impressive series. The production standards are exceptional.