Recently I attended a family history fair, and on one of the stands, was a leaflet asking for information on the “Live Bait Squadron”, something I hadn’t heard of until now…..
Three large but old British cruisers -HMS Cressy, Hogue and Aboukir- were shot at and went down just off the Dutch coast. Eight torpedoes launched by stealth from German submarine U-9 sufficed to sink the ships whose crews were totally unprepared for the attack. The action lasted barely 90 minutes, an attack which awoke the Grand Fleet to the dangers of the U-boat – but condemned 62 officers and 1,397 men to a watery grave. Weeks after this catastrophe, bodies of British sailors were washed ashore on the Dutch coast. A few dozens of these men are buried at cemeteries in Holland. Of the combined crew of 2296 there were 837 survivors, a few hundred of whom could be rescued by Dutch merchant vessels. The wrecks of the three unfortunate cruisers still rest on the seabed, forming as many mass graves.
By early August 1914, the British naval fleet was at fighting strength. The aged ships received their new crews and underwent a thorough clean up before setting out to assume their patrol duties on the North Sea. They were HMS Cressy, Hogue and Aboukir. Obsolete, unwieldy, badly armed and poorly armoured, these had been mothballed just before the war as being out of date, and no longer fit for peacetime service.
Those old cruisers of the Bacchante class were considered totally unfit to take part in modern warfare at sea. Because of this they were soon given the rather wry but spot-on surname The Live Bait Squadron, first within the Navy and later, after the disaster, also in popular speech. Together with sister ships they were assigned to a patrol unit of the North Sea fleet, making up the 7th Cruiser Squadron of the Southern Force. Their homeport was Harwich in the Thames estuary, not far from the River Medway embouchure. And not only the ships – the thousands of reservists who manned the cruisers were also mostly from the Medway region.
There were 837 survivors of the combined crews of 2296. A goodly number of them were picked up by two small Dutch merchant vessels, SS Flora (287 survivors) and SS Titan (114). Most of them were taken to neutral Holland, where they received a warm welcome and medical and personal care. After briefly having been accommodated in some refugees’ camp, they were transported back to England, thanks to a flash of inspiration that must have hit some governmental official, claiming they were not to be regarded as prisoners of war now that they had come ashore on non-military vessels.