It was an act of war which spawned both heroes and victims. Nostalgia writer Sarah Stoner marks the centenary of a tragedy which left a Wearside family in mourning.
GEORGE Brantingham’s determination to fight for King and Country in World War One placed the Wearsider right in the firing line – and left him dead within weeks.
The man who killed him, Prussian U-boat commander Otto Weddigen, was hailed as a hero and presented with an Iron Cross after torpedoing the fitter’s ship in 1914.
But back home in Britain, as news of the tragedy broke, Margaret Brantingham was left mourning the death of 51-year-old George – the father of her five children.
“He was my father’s cousin and I believe he was the first Wearsider killed in a U-boat attack in World War One,” said local historian John Brantingham, of Thorney Close.
“At the age of 51 he didn’t have to go off and fight, but he obviously wanted to serve his country. Sadly, he died for his country too. It was a terrible time for his family.”
George, eldest son of ship broker and steamship owner Phillip Brantingham and his wife Jane, was born in Bishopwearmouth in April 1863 and grew up in the Hylton Road area.
As a young man he enlisted with the Royal Navy as a fitter, travelling the world as he worked his way up to the rank of Engine Room Artifcer First Class.
He also found time to marry his Sunderland sweetheart Margaret in 1885 and the couple set up home in Wallsend. A move to Portsmouth, then Weymouth, followed.
But, despite the demands of his growing family, George continued his Royal Navy service and in 1914, as the call came to fight for Britain, he signed up immediately.
“Just a few weeks later, he found himself aboard the armoured cruiser HMS Aboukir – lead destroyer in a convoy of three heading towards Holland,” said John. “The ship had been launched in 1900 and served with the Mediterranean Fleet for 12 years. She was recommissioned for the war, and George became part of her crew.”
Although still early in the war, the German Imperial Navy had already been hard at work developing a deadly underwater weapon – the U-boat.
The submarines boasted crews of up to 56 men, could carry 14 torpedoes and used the element of surprise to stalk and shoot their victims.
But it was not until September 1914 that the stealth machines managed to claim any victims, other than their own sailors. Tragically, George was among the first.
“All seemed routine on the morning of September 22 as Aboukir led her sister ships Cressy and Hogue across the North Sea towards the Hook of Holland,” said John.
“But, just as dawn started breaking at 6.20am, Aboukir was struck on her starboard side by a torpedo fired by U-boat 9. Within minutes, she was ‘floating bottom up’.”
Indeed, by the time Captain John Drummond gave the order to abandon ship, most of Aboukir’s lifeboats had been smashed – or lacked the power needed to be lowered.
An engineer from the Aboukir later told The Times: “The weather was bad when our ship reeled under the shock of a tremendous explosion.
“At first we thought we had struck a mine, but we then found that we had been torpedoed. A great hole was torn out of her side.”
Many sailors on the upper deck were killed instantly and, as the Aboukir started turning over, so the order was given of “Every man for himself.”
“There was no question of jumping off the ship. Her deck was almost at a right angle with the water,” recalled the surviving engineer.
“I just slid into the sea. I don’t know how long it all took – it might have been five minutes, it might have been ten.”
Survivors clung desperately to wreckage as the destroyer sank quickly beneath the waves and, as HMS Hogue came to their rescue, so she was struck by two torpedoes.
Hogue commander Reginald Norton later recalled: “The Aboukir appeared to take about 35 minutes to sink. The Hogue turned turtle very quickly.
“I clung to a ringbolt for some time, but eventually dropped on to the deck and a huge wave washed me away. I climbed up the ship’s side, and was again washed off.”
While Reginald Norton survived the sinking of his ship, eventually being rescued by a lifeboat, George Brantingham was not so lucky.
Indeed, it is doubtful whether he would have even managed to leave the engine room, where he was posted as an artificer, once the torpedo struck Aboukir.
However, there was more tragedy to come. Just as the Hogue was hit by two torpedoes, so the crew of the Cressy spotted a periscope peering at their own ship.
As Cressy headed towards the U-boat at full steam, trying to ram it, one of the ship’s gunners fired at the periscope and the submarine sank beneath the water.
The Cressy sailors “clapped and cheered” at the destruction of the U-boat but, just five minutes later, the periscope of another enemy sub was spotted.
Cressy commander Bertram Nicholson later revealed: “Fire was opened. The track of the torpedo she fired was plainly visible, and it struck us.”
The first missile hit the starboard side of the Cressy, but she remained upright. A second missed, but a third hit the area of Number 5 boiler room.
“The tip began to heel rapidly and finally turned keel up, remaining so for about 20 minutes before she finally sank at 7.55am,” reported Nicholson.
Although dozens of survivors from all three ships were rescued by Dutch and British boats, nearly 60 officers and 1,400 men lost their lives to the U-boats that day.
The disaster prompted the Admiralty to instruct ships to leave vessels targeted by U-boats ‘to their own resources’ – rather than try to help out.
“No act of humanity, whether to friend or foe, should lead to a neglect of the proper precautions and dispositions of war,” the Admiralty stated.
“The loss would not have been grudged if it had been brought about by gunfire in an open action, but it is peculiarly distressing under the conditions which prevailed.
“The absence of any excitement of engagement did not, however, prevent displays of cheerful courage and ready self-sacrifice among all ranks exposed to the ordeal.”
George’s final resting place was at the bottom of the sea, as his body was never recovered for burial.
Today he is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.
The commander of the U-boat, Otto Weddigen, was also to die at sea just a year later – after his new sub, U-29, was rammed by British battleship HMS Dreadnought.
“This year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of my father’s cousin, and I believe tragedies such as the one he died in should never be forgotten,” said John.
“The story of what happened has never told on TV or in film, which is a great shame – especially when you think of the countless war documentaries that have been made.”
Eyewitness tells of destruction
GERALD Knowles Martin – a surgeon on HMS Cressy – witnessed the destruction of the three ships at first hand and later recalled his experience.
“At about half-past six in the morning on the day of the disaster, I was awakened by the chaplain. I asked him the time, and he told me the Aboukir was sinking,” he said.
“I expressed my incredulity and turned over to go to sleep again. But he persisted that what he had said was true. I got up and dressed in shirt, trousers and rubber boots.
“Going on deck, I found that the Aboukir was going down. As I scanned the decks, I noticed with admiration the wonderful order maintained even at that critical time.”
Dr Martin watched as Cressy’s lifeboats helped rescue “20 or 30” of the Aboukir’s crew before the ship “turned turtle”. Before it sank, however, HMS Hogue was hit.
“I cannot profess to have seen a submarine, but when our gunner fired at a submarine and the shell burst, I saw two men come to the surface and swim towards us,” he said. “Within minutes of our firing the gun at the submarine, we were struck by a torpedo. The effect was similar to that produced by the vessel running against a huge rock.
“I was rendered unsteady on my feet, although I did not actually fall. Everyone was calm and collected; the behaviour of officers and men was admirable.”
It was only after the third torpedo strike that the Cressy began to sink. As the order was given to abandon ship, so the doctor started stripping off his clothes.
He was washed off the vessel, however, before jumping into the sea – and “went down a considerable distance under the water”.
“As soon as I got to the surface, I struck out to avoid being drawn under by suction. I saw the Cressy keel upwards; there were perhaps 50 men clinging to her,” he said.
Gerald clung to a plank of wood for a few minutes to catch his breath before swimming off once more – eventually spotting a fishing smack and shouting for help. After more than two hours in the North Sea, he was dragged to safety – and lived to tell the tale.
•Otto Weddigen, right, was born in Hertford, in the Prussian province of Westphalia in 1882.
•He started his military career in the Kaiserliche Marine – the Imperial German Navy – in 1901.
•Weddigen was given command of one of the first German submarines, U-9, in 1910. It would be this U-boat which would kill George Brantingham.
•The fatal shots were fired as Weddigan patrolled the North Sea and intercepted the three ships Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy. More than 1,450 men were killed.
•Weddigen was awarded the Iron Cross for his actions, as well as Prussia’s highest military order – the Pour le Merite.
•He went on to command U-29, but died on March 18, 1915, when the submarine was rammed by HMS Dreadnought in the Pentland Firth.