war memorial at dusk, photographed by Michelle Cooper



Extract from "WHEN MY ANCESTOR DIED" by Marilyn Stephenson-Knight

Very many of the 1,459 sailors who lost their lives in the infamous U9 submarine attack on the HMS Aboukir, HMS Cressy, and HMS Hogue in September 1914 came from Kent. Twelve, including my great uncle Coulson Crascall, are commemorated on the Town War Memorial outside Maison Dieu House in Dover.

Local newspapers the Dover Express and especially the Deal, Walmer, Sandwich and East Kent Mercury (now the Mercury) provide detailed information about local casualties and survivors.

In Dover, the first news of the disaster was given by a telegram publicly displayed in a shop window. The papers record the distress of the relatives. Some wives fainted, while others ran around in despair, having, just over two weeks before, like Mrs Bailey of Deal, already lost family through the torpedo attack on the HMS Pathfinder. Particularly distraught was the widow Mrs Penn, again from Deal, whose three sons were aboard the Cressy. The Mercury saw blinds drawn and shutters half-closed throughout the town, denoting "that yet another one has fallen for the sake of his Hubert Penn, courtesy the Mercurycountry."

At first crew members believed the Aboukir had struck a mine. Both the Hogue and the Cressy went to her aid, lowering rescue boats. The Penn brothers, Hubert, Louis, and Alfred, were amongst those hurling down anything floatable - tables, stools, spars, sofas, even doors - as makeshift buoys. It was only when the Hogue too was hit and then sank within ten minutes that they understood it was a submarine attack. By then it was too late for the Cressy to avoid her fate. Corporal Pilcher on the foredeck heard a sudden yell of "Go astern, sir!" as the crew saw a torpedo heading directly towards them.

Hit amidships the Cressy heeled by 10 degrees, but, with all watertight doors closed, seemingly recovered. The second was the fatal strike, hitting the starboard bows and shooting a fountain of water high into the air as a magazine apparently exploded. It was then that the captain ordered "every man for himself". Until that moment gunners on the Cressy had stood by their posts trying to locate submarines, while the Cressy herself was believed to have rammed one. Such was the manoeuvrability of the single U-boat in comparison with the three elderly armoured cruisers, and such was the confusion of the attack, their crews believed five submarines had attacked them.

The Cressy tipped onto her side, and some hundred or more men scrambled up towards the keel until they were washed away by a wave. Warrant Officer Rowe saw the starboard propeller rise from the water, and watched as the Cressy hung on the surface for five minutes before finally disappearing. Having thrown floatables into the water to help the other crews many men were lost from the Cressy as there was little left for them to use. WO Rowe had to swim four or five hundred yards before reaching any wreckage to cling to, and Seaman Donald Hickman said, "I struck out with all my might to get clear of the struggling mass of men". Mr Mills also was swimming as fast as he could away from the ship, as he was "afraid of being drawn down with her". He, like Donald Hickman, had removed his clothes - he noticed that many of those still dressed eventually sank.

Some, said Hubert Penn, completely "lost their heads". He heard "horrible and pitiful" cries as men "gasped for breath" and saw that "all around were hundreds of men, struggling and grasping at anything and everything", even at the legs of those trying to swim. A Marine sharing a door with Donald Hickman and three others lost his grip. Sinking, he clutched at a sailor near him, nearly pulling him down too and all but capsizing the table. Mr Mills had jumped into the water with a buoy and invited four exhausted swimmers to share it with him. Struggling to seize it they pushed him away, then "they were drowning each other", and eventually three of them sank.

The water was icy cold, and rough from the remains of a storm. Hubert Penn said that the plank to which he was clinging "turned over and over". He and his three companions, constantly ducked and with mouths filled with salt water, could hardly hold on. The three were eventually dislodged by a particularly large wave. Even those who could cling to wreckage succumbed to the cold; Private Thompson shared a rum breaker with a poor swimmer named Anderson for two hours before Anderson could no longer move his legs and disappeared. Hubert Penn was left alone amidst scores of dead bodies.

Those sharing wreckage encouraged one another by talking and by calling out to others. A "jolly nice chap" clung to Mr Mills' buoy with him, and constantly prayed to God to help them. Mr Mills believes He did, for after losing consciousness he awoke to find himself aboard a Dutch steamer named Titan. Like other survivors he'd been in the water for around three hours. "It wanted a bit of sticking," he said, and many, even after they were rescued, were too exhausted and cold to survive. One lucky man was a parson. He was a non-swimmer and it took two hours to revive him when he was taken aboard a tiny fishing smack from Lowestoft, the Coryander.

Titan, Coryander, and another Dutch steamer, Flora, picked up as many men as they could. The Flora took to Holland where Donald Hickman said they were seen as heroes and treated with great kindness. Private Thompson had the devastating experience of being partially concealed by rough waves and watching the Coryander turn away as he'd nearly reached it. In a supreme understatement he declared himself, "just a little bit downhearted". Fortunately a coxswain on one of the lifeboats eventually spotted him, and he and the coxswain then picked up another seventeen before finally being rescued by the Coryander. The seventy-one survivors aboard Coryander, as did those aboard the Titan, enjoyed hot drinks and fresh clothes before being transferred to British destroyers and taken home to England. In all 837 men were saved.

The accounts in the newspapers give a background to how many of our forebears lost their lives. Such events, tragic though they are, highlight a moment in time and thus may also yield genealogical gems. Lists of casualties and survivors give addresses and names of parents or wives, along with the number of children. (Mr and Mrs Cambridge from Dover were patriotically able to claim five sons in the navy and three in the army.) It may even be possible to obtain images - William Sizer, courtesy the Mercury both papers have pictures of many of the seamen who were aboard the three armoured cruisers.

Obituaries detail the schools attended, service records and trades, and in some instances give also other activities. From the Cressy, Willie Chittenden was a treasurer and deacon at his Congregational Church, and also sang in a choir. George Coleman helped with pleasure boats on Walmer sea front, while William Sizer's task was the flipside, for he was a member of the lifeboat crew and had helped rescue a steamer from the Goodwin Sands on the very morning he was called up.

Even character is mentioned - Christopher Hood was kind and cheerful, and George Coleman was fine-looking, popular, and a "good boy" to his mother. But on the day of his departure for Chatham William Sizer was gloomy and depressed. It was almost as though he'd had a premonition, the Mercury stated, because he continually exhorted his wife to take care of their baby and at Chatham Wallace Bailey, courtesy the Mercuryhe insisted that the three of them should be photographed together. "It would be nice for my wife to look at and keep in the event of anything happening," he'd said.

And finally - Mrs Penn also had photographs and a premonition. Hubert had been pictured alone but Louis and Alfred were on an image together. Only Hubert survived. He wrote a letter to his mother about their last moments. Louis had already disappeared, but he and Alfred shook hands and made a promise that if either were to survive he would tell their mother that their last thoughts had been of her. They then kissed and said goodbye, and Alfred jumped into the water. The rolling of the Cressy as she turned on her side prevented Hubert from following his brother. He never saw Alfred again.

As for Mrs Bailey, her worst fears were realised. Her son Wallace, a few days before the tragedy, had written to her about his brother, lost on the Pathfinder. "The photo of poor old George in the paper looks good," he'd said. "I expect you feel very upset about it." His own photograph appeared just three weeks afterwards.


This article first appeared in the Kent Family History Society Journal, volume 12, number 7, dated June 2009

casualties, top to bottom: Hubert Penn, William Sizer, and Wallace Bailey, reproduced by permission of the Mercury
door of HMS Cressy, now at Chatham Historic Dockyard

For the final fate of the U9 and her crew, with an illustration, see here, at the foot of the article

Copyright 2009-21 © Marilyn Stephenson-Knight. All Rights Reserved