Wenman Wykeham-Musgrave, a midshipman aboard HMS Aboukir at the outbreak of the First World War, earned himself a dubious distinction in the annals of naval history. The 15-year-old novice officer went down with three separate warships — and all in a single morning!
It happened when Aboukir and two other British cruisers were patrolling the waters off the Dutch coast on Sept. 22, 1914. Just after dawn, the three-ship squadron was spotted by U-9, an enemy submarine lurking in the nearby shallows.
At approximately 6:30 a.m., the German skipper, Otto Weddigen, loosed a single torpedo against the Aboukir from a range of 500 yards. The warhead blasted a hole in the British vessel’s starboard hull. The ship quickly listed, capsized and then sank taking down more than 500 sailors, most of them civilian reservists. The 15-year-old Wykeham-Musgrave managed to escape the doomed cruiser along with a handful of his shipmates and was soon bobbing in the frigid North Sea.
Believing the Aboukir had collided with a mine, the two other British cruisers, Hogue and Cressy, moved in to to recover what survivors they could. Lookouts aboard the Hogue spied Wykeham-Musgrave in the water and lowered a rope to him. Just as the dazed teenager was being hauled aboard, a pair of torpedoes from the U-9 slammed into the ship’s hull. Within 15 minutes that vessel had joined Aboukir on the bottom. Wykeham-Musgrave threw himself back into the sea before the Hogue slipped beneath the waves. He and a group of survivors from both ships began paddling frantically for the last remaining British vessel, the Cressy.
By this point, the remaining cruiser had a fix on the sub and began lobbing shells at the attacker. Assuming he had driven off the U-boat, the Cressy’s captain, ordered his crew to begin rescue operations.
Moments after the exhausted midshipman had been plucked once more from the choppy waters, the U-9’s last two torpedoes exploded into the Cressy. By 8 a.m. the warship had turtled and Wykeham-Musgrave was in the drink yet again – his third plunge in fewer than 90 minutes.
In all, more than 1,300 British sailors perished in the attacks, which became known as the Action of September 22. Wykeham-Musgrave was eventually saved by a Dutch fishing boat. Nine hundred more were rescued by other ships. Young Wenman survived the war and lived to the age of 90. He died in 1989.
Another Aboukir crewman, Glen Kidston, was rescued by (and also escaped from) both the ill-fated Hogue and Cressy. A civilian trawler rescued him later. Kidston became a crewman aboard the battleship HMS Orion and would take part in the Battle of Jutland. The young officer survived the war to command British submarines. Kidston cheated death again in 1925 while aboard the experimental British submarine HMS X1. While on a test run, the submerged vessel suffered a mechanical failure and was left stranded on the sea floor. It eventually surfaced. Kidston left the Royal Navy and became an aviator. He miraculously survived a crash in a Junkers tri-motor aircraft. He also enjoyed a brief but successful career as an auto racer. Kidston’s uncanny luck finally ran out in 1931 when he died in a car crash.
Serving as the vessel’s official mouser, Sam was among the 114 German sailors rescued from the North Atlantic by Allied warships following the fierce May 1941 naval battle that saw the notorious Nazi dreadnaught destroyed. More than 2,000 German sailors were lost in the decisive action.
Plucked from the drink by sailors from HMS Cossack, Sam was warmly welcomed aboard and soon added to the crew as the ship steamed for the Mediterranean. In October of that year, the Cossack herself was sunk by U-563 while escorting a convoy out of Gibraltar. The entire ship’s company, including Sam, was saved by HMS Legion and put ashore. Back at base, a group of sailors from HMS Ark Royal adopted Sam. He lived aboard quite happily until the carrier was fatally damaged off Malta by the Nazi submarine U-81. Sam and all but one of the stricken vessel’s complement were rescued from the Med.
The incident marked the end of Sam’s career at sea. After returning to Gibraltar with his shipmates, the lucky feline was taken on by the staff of colony’s governor with whom he remained until after the war. A sailor later took the cat home with him to Belfast. Sam died of old age in 1955.