Sailor recalls naval battle of Heligoland

News often travelled slowly during World War One, especially when it came in letters home from soldiers and sailors on active service. They not only had to find time to write but it also took a while for their letters to arrive.HMS Legion

Luton man Cyril J. Abbott, son of Mrs Abbott of 96 Oak Road, was an officer's steward on board the destroyer Legion which had helped to sink the four German ships since he wrote. In a letter to his mother that appeared in The Luton News on October 22nd he recalled "thrilling experiences" that had taken place in August, particularly in the Heligoland battle on the 28th.


Mr Abbott writes: "As you know war was declared at midnight on August 4th. About six o'clock in the morning we left harbour for sea, and about noon we were informed that a German ship had been seen acting rather a funny way for a merchant-man. All the flotilla at once put on full speed and before long we came in sight of a big two-funneller. As soon as she saw us she turned round and 'nipped'. Three of our ships seemed to shoot out of the line after her.

"A little later we heard the boom of guns, so we knew that out ships had caught her and were engaging her. By the time our ship came up she was a blazing furnace. We stood round till she sank (she was the 'Koenige Luise'). Then we began to pick up the German sailors. We took four aboard us. One had his heel blown off, another had a lump taken out of his wrist. I felt sorry for them at the time."

Mr Abbott described the rescuing of the men of HMS Amphion after she had first been damaged. He proceeds: "Our sub-lieutenant was shouting to ask if there were any men aboard, when the Amphion magazine blew up. What a sight! I shall never forget it as long as I live. The foremost gun was blown sky high, and a big spar fell just alongside our sea-boat, just missing the boat's crew by inches. As it was the boat's crew were swamped with the wash. Our 'sub' had a big bolt hit him on the head. It cut through his cap. When he took off his cap the bolt fell through. It had not even hurt him.HMS Amphion sinking in 1914

"We stood by the poor old Amphion until she went right under. I can't put in writing the different things I saw. Some were terrible sights.

"On August 27th, the Captain told us that on the morrow we should very likely meet some German ships. You can guess how excited we were at the prospect of having a go at them. On the morning of the 28th those not on watch got up (no need to dress as we don't take off our clothes at sea), had a bath, put on clean clothes and white suits, had our breakfast, went to our stations and waited for the enemy.

"About 6.30 we saw some dark patches on the sky line. We knew that it was the smoke from the enemy's ships, so we went for them at once, the saucy Arethusa leading the way. When the German ships saw us they at once turned round to steam back to their harbour, but we were not letting them off so easily - oh no.

"Some of our ships got two of theirs. One ship cleared the quarter-deck of one of their boats, dismounting the gun, taking away the after searchlight and killing the gun's crew, but we didn't succeed in sinking her as at that minute a big cruiser hove in sight, letting us have it.

"Then the fun commenced. Shells were falling and bursting all around us. I saw one fall three feet away from me in the water and burst. They were firing shrapnel. Some of the pieces struck the ship - luckily without doing any damage. Some more shells went under our wireless and over our funnels, and burst about 100 yards further on. I believe it was the Laurel that caught the lot. I can't explain the feeling one gets.Battle of Heligoland Bight

"I know I felt a bit nervous at first, but I soon came to myself and did my work with the rest. There was one little incident there that shows you how calm some of our gunners are under fire. There was one fellow firing at this big cruiser for all he was worth, smoking a bine (Woodbine), when a shell came so close that the rush of wind took his cap off. All he did was to look up at the officer in charge of the gun and say 'That was a close shave, sir', and went on firing, still smoking.

"Then we lined up for a torpedo attack at this cruiser (the Arethusa was engaging her at the time with only two guns to the Mainz's six). We made a dash at her and, getting in under her fire, we let go our torpedoes. There were three other ships beside up making the attack. One of them got in a hit. There was a cloud of black smoke, and when we looked again she was minus two funnels and one mast.

"No sooner had we returned from the attack and were getting ready for another than a salvo of shells fell amongst us. At first we couldn't see where they came from as the weather was so misty. We looked again and saw a line of flashes as this cruiser fired again. Then we knew we were being attacked by another German. We all thought we were in for a hot time of it when out of the mist came our light cruiser squadron. We felt like shaking hands with ourselves, especially when we saw them put the Germans under.

"To cap the lot our Dreadnoughts appeared. What a pot-mess they made of those Germans. I don't think they will want much after that gruelling. We have got a scroll 'Heligoland, August 28th, 1914' on our after searchlight. There is plenty of room for more.

"Nothing else happened until last Tuesday (the letter is dated September 26th). We came across a trawler laden with men and towing two service boats. One of the men signalled to say they had been torpedoed by submarines. We at once made a search for the submarines, but they had completely disappeared, so we returned to take the men from the trawler.

"When we had got all the poor fellows aboard we at once gave them cocoa and soup; also rum to bring them round. Some of them hadn't a bit of clothing, so all the ship's company emptied their bags and lockers and gave them clothes until they got kitted out again."Heligoland in 1916

Mr Abbott mentions that two men known to his family were on the Hogue and another on the Aboukir [both sunk by German submarine U-9 on September 22nd]. The man on the latter was rescued by the Legion and, says Mr Abbott, "I gave him a suit as he also had lost everything. In fact he was hanging on the side of the Aboukir as she was going down. As she reeled over he was buried under her, but the wash flung him up the other side. He was in the water four hours."