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Q-ships, also known as Q-boats, decoy vessels, special service ships, or mystery ships, were heavily armed merchant ships with concealed weaponry, designed to lure submarines into making surface attacks. This gave Q-ships the chance to open fire and sink them.They were used by the British Royal Navy (RN) during the First World War and by both the RN, the United States Navy and the German Kriegsmarine during the Second World War (1939–45).Edward Keble Chatterton (1878-1944) was a sailor and prolific writer from Sheffield. His voyages across the English Channel, to the Netherlands, around the Mediterranean and through the French canals led to many articles and books. Joining the R.N.V.R. at the outbreak of WWI he commanded a motor launch flotilla, leaving the service in 1919 as a Lieutenant Commander. Between the wars his output included works about model ships, juvenile novels, and narrative histories of naval events; from 1939, his writing focused upon WWII.
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E. Keble Chatterton
Q-SHIPS AND THEIR STORY
Arcadia Ebooks 2016
E. Keble Chatterton
Q-Ships and Their Story
ADMIRAL SIR LEWIS BAYLY,
C. V. O., K. C. B., K. C. M. G.,
THE wonderful and brave story of ships and men here presented needs but the briefest introduction. The deeds will forever remain one of the most glorious chapters in the chronicles of the sea. No excuse is offered for adding another volume to the literature of the war, for the subject is deserving of greater attention than has hitherto been possible. Lord Jellicoe once remarked that he did not think English people realized the wonderful work which these mystery ships had done in the war, and that in these vessels there had been displayed a spirit of endurance, discipline, and courage the like of which the world had never before seen.
To few naval historians, I believe, has it ever been permitted to enjoy such complete opportunities for acquiring authentic information as is here presented. Unquestionably the greatest sphere of Q-ship operations was off the south-west coast of Ireland, owing to the fact that the enemy submarines from the summer of 1915 to 1918 concentrated their attacks, with certain intervals, on the shipping in the western approaches to the British Isles. It was my good fortune during most of this period to be at sea patrolling off that part of Ireland. These Q-ships were therefore familiar in their various disguises at sea or in harbour at Berehaven and Queenstown during their well-earned rest. Throughout this time I kept a diary, and noted down much that would otherwise have been forgotten. Many of the Q-ship officers were my personal friends, and I have enjoyed the hospitality of their ships. Valuable data, too, were obtained from officers of merchant ships who witnessed Q-ships engaging submarines.
A considerable number of authentic manuscripts has been examined. By the courtesy of commanding officers I have been lent documents of priceless historical value, such as copies official reports and private diaries, plans, sketches, photographs, and so on. All this information has been further augmented by personal conversation, correspondence, and valuable criticism. I submit, therefore, that with all these sources of information available, and with knowledge of much that has been published from the German side, it is possible to offer a monograph that is at once accurate in detail and correct in perspective.
‘With respect to single-ship actions,’ wrote James in his monumental Naval History a hundred years ago, ‘the official documents of them are also very imperfect. The letters are generally written an hour or so after the termination of the contest, and, of course, before the captain has well recovered from the fatigue and flurry it occasioned. Many captains are far more expert at the sword than at the pen, and would sooner fight an action than write the particulars of one.’ That statement is true to-day of the Q-ships, and it would have been negligent not to have availed oneself now of the calm and considered version of the chief actors in the great mystery-ship drama while they are still alive. Although the time for secrecy has long since passed, nothing has here been included of a confidential nature that can be of assistance to enemies past or potential. In one instance, for political reasons and in the interests of the service, I have made a certain omission. Those concerned will recognize this and understand: the rest will not notice it.
Among those who have rendered me the greatest assistance in regard to information, advice, criticism, the loan of manuscripts, illustrations, and in other ways, I desire especially to return thanks to Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly, C. V. O., K. C. B., K. C. M. G., and Miss Voysey, C. B. E.; to Captain F. H. Grenfell, D. S. O., R. N., Captain Gordon Campbell, V. C., D. S. O., R. N., Captain W. C. O’G. Cochrane, R. N., Commander Godfrey Herbert, D. S. O., R. N., Commander Stopford C. Douglas, R. N., and to Lieutenant G. H. P. Muhlhauser, R. N. R.
E. KEBLE CHATTERTON.
‘The necessitie of a Historie is, as of a Sworne Witnesse, to say the truth (in just discretion) and nothing but the truth.’
Samuel Purchas in ‘Purchas His Pilgrimes’ 1625.
ALL warfare is merely a contest. In any struggle you see the clashing of will and will, of force against force, of brain against brain. For the impersonal reader it is this contest which has a never-ending interest. A neutral is just as keenly entertained as the playgoer who sits watching the swaying fortunes of the hero in the struggle of the drama. No human being endowed with sympathetic interest, who himself has had to contend with difficulties, fails to be moved by the success or disaster of the contestants in a struggle of which the spectator has no part or lot. If this were not so, neutral newspapers would cease to chronicle the wars of other nations, novels would cease to be published, and plays to be produced.
Human nature, then, being what it is, man loves to watch his fellow-man fighting, struggling against men or fate or circumstances. The harder the fight and the nearer he is to losing, so much the more is the spectator thrilled. This instinct is developed most clearly in youth: hence juvenile fiction is one mass of struggles, adventures, and narrow escapes. But the instinct never dies, and how few of us can resist the temptation to read the exciting experiences of some entirely fictional character who rushes from one perilous situation to another? Is there a human being who, going along the street, would not stop to watch a burglar being chased over roofs and chimneypots by police? If you have once become interested in a certain trial at the law courts, are you not eager to know whether the prisoner has been acquitted or convicted? You despise him for his character, yet you are fascinated by his adventures, his struggles, his share in the particular drama, his fight against heavy odds; and, contrary to your own inherent sense of justice, you almost hope he will be acquitted. In a word, then, we delight in having before us the adventures of our fellow humanity, partly for the exciting pleasure which these arouse in us, but partly also because they make us wonder what we should have done in a similar set of circumstances. In such vital, critical moments should we have played the hero, or should we have fallen somehow a little short?
The following pages are an attempt to place before the reader a series of sea struggles which are unique, in that they had no precedent in naval history. If you consider all the major and minor sea fights from the earliest times to the present day; if you think of fleet actions, and single- ship contests, you cannot surpass the golden story of the Q-ships. As long as people take any interest in the untamed sea, so will these exploits live, not rivalling but surpassing the greatest deeds of even the Elizabethan seamen. During the late war their exploits were, for very necessary reasons, withheld from the knowledge of the public. The need for secrecy has long since passed, and it is high time that a complete account of these so-called ‘mystery ships’ should be published, not merely for the perpetuation of their wonderful achievements, but for the inspiration of the new race of seamen whose duty it will be to hand on the great tradition of the sea. For, be it remembered, the Q-ship service was representative of every species of seamen. There were officers and men of the Royal Navy both active and retired, of the Royal Naval Reserve, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and men from the Royal Fleet Reserve. From warship, barracks, office, colony, pleasure yacht, fishing vessel, liner, sailing ship, tramp steamer, and elsewhere these seafarers went forth in unarmoured, slow-moving, lightly-armed vessels to perform the desperate adventure of acting as live-bait for a merciless enemy. It was an exploit calling for supreme bravery, combined with great fighting skill, sound seamanship, and a highly developed imagination. The successes which were attained were brought about by just this combination, so that the officers, especially the commanding officers, and the men had to be hand- picked. The slow-reasoning, hesitating type of being was useless in a Q-ship; equally out of place would have been the wild, hare-brained, dashing individual whose excess of gallantry would simply mean the loss of ship and lives. In the ideal Q-ship captain was found something of the virtues of the cleverest angler, the most patient stalker, the most enterprising big-game hunter, together with the attributes of a cool, unperturbed seaman, the imagination of a sensational novelist, and the plain horse-sense of a hard business man. In two words, the necessary endowment was brains and bravery. It was easy enough to find at least one of these in hundreds of officers, but it was difficult to find among the many volunteers a plucky fighter with a brilliant intellect. It is, of course, one of the happy results of sea training that officer or man learns to think and act quickly without doing foolish things. The handling of a ship in bad weather, or in crowded channels, or a strong tideway, or in going alongside a quay or other ship — all this practice makes a sailor of the man, makes him do the one and only right thing at the right second. But it needed ‘something plus’ in the Q-ship service. For six months, for a year, she might have wandered up and down the Atlantic, all over the submarine zone, with never a sight of the enemy, and then, all of a sudden, a torpedo is seen rushing straight for the ship. The look-out man has reported it, and the officer of the watch has caused the man at the wheel to port his helm just in time to allow the torpedo to pass harmlessly under the ship’s counter. It was the never-ceasing vigilance and the cool appreciation of the situation which had saved the ship.
But the incident is only beginning. The next stage is to lure the enemy on, to entice him, using your own ship as the bait. It may be one hour or one day later, perhaps at dusk, or when the moon gets up, or at dawn, but it is very probable that the submarine will invisibly follow you and attack at the most awkward time. The hours of suspense are trying; watch has succeeded watch, yet nothing happens. The weather changes from good to bad; it comes on thick, it clears up again, and the clouds cease to obliterate the sun. Then, apparently from nowhere, shells come whizzing by, and begin to hit. At last in the distance you see the low-lying enemy engaging you with both his guns, firing rapidly, and keeping discreetly out of your own guns’ range. Already some of your men have been knocked out; the ship has a couple of bad holes below the waterline, and the sea is pouring through. To add to the anxiety a fire is reported in the forecastle, and the next shell has made rather a mess of the funnel. What are you going to do? Are you going to keep on the bluff of pretending you are an innocent merchantman, or are you going to run up the White Ensign, let down the bulwarks, and fire your guns the moment the enemy comes within range and bearing? How much longer is it possible to play with him in the hope that he will be fooled into doing just what you would like him to do? If your ship is sinking, will she keep afloat just long enough to enable you to give the knock-out blow as the inquiring enemy comes alongside? These are the crucial questions which have to be answered by that one man in command of the ship, who all the time finds his bridge being steadily smashed to pieces by the enemy’s fire.
‘If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting …’
then, one may definitely assert, you have in you much that goes to the making of an ideal Q-ship captain and a brave warrior. As such you might make a first-class commanding officer of a destroyer, a light cruiser, or even a battleship; but something more is required. The enemy is artful; you must be super-artful. You must be able to look across the tumbling sea into his mind behind the conning tower. What are his intentions? What will be his next move? Take in by a quick mental calculation the conditions of wind, wave, and sun. Pretend to run away from him, so that you get these just right. Put your ship head on to sea, so that the enemy with his sparse freeboard is being badly washed down and his guns’ crews are thinking more of their wet feet and legs than of accurate shooting. Then, when you see him submerging, alter course quickly, reckon his probable position by the time you have steadied your ship on her course, and drop a series of depth- charges over his track. ‘If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance, run’; if you have acted with true seamanship and sound imagination, you will presently see bits of broken wreckage, the boil of water, quantities of oil, perhaps a couple of corpses; and yours is the U-boat below, my son, and a D. S. O.; and a thousand pounds in cash to be divided amongst the crew; and you’re a man, my son!
That, in a few phrases, is the kind of work, and shows the circumstances of the Q-ship in her busiest period. As we set forth her wonderful story, so gallant, so sad, so victorious, and yet so nerve-trying, we shall see all manner of types engaged in this great adventure; but we cannot appreciate either the successes or losses until we have seen the birth and growth of the Q-ship idea. As this volume is the first effort to present the subject historically, we shall begin at the beginning by showing the causes which created the Q-ship. We shall see the consecutive stages of development and improvement, the evolution of new methods, and, indeed we may at once say it, of a new type of super-seamen. How did it all begin?
Turn your attention back to the autumn of 1914. It was the sinking of the three Cressys on September 22 by U 9 that taught Germany what a wonderful weapon of offence she had in the submarine. Five days later the first German submarine penetrated the Dover Straits. This was U 18, who actually attacked the light cruiser Attentive. But it was not until October 20 that the first merchant ship, the British S.S. Glitra in the North Sea, was sunk by a submarine. Six days later the French S.S. AmiralGanteaume, with Belgian refugees, was attacked by a German submarine. A month passed, and on November 23 the S. S. Malachite was attacked by U 21, and after being on fire sank. Three days later the S. S. Primo was sunk also by U 21. It was thus perfectly clear that we had before us a most difficult submarine campaign to contend with, and that merchant ships would not be immune. On the last day of October H. M. S. Hermes was torpedoed off Calais, and on November 11 H.M.S. Niger had a similar fate near Deal.
What was to be done? The creation of what eventually became known as the Auxiliary Patrol, with its ever increasing force of armed yachts, trawlers, drifters, and motor craft; the use of destroyers and our own submarines formed part of the scheme. But even at this early stage the Q-ship idea came into being, though not actually under that name. Officially she was a special-service ship, whose goings and comings were so mysterious that even among service men such craft were spoken of in great secrecy as mystery ships. This first mystery ship was the S.S. Vittoria, who was commissioned on November 29, 1914. She had all the appearance of an ordinary merchant ship, but she was armed, and went on patrol in the area where submarines had been reported. It was an entirely novel idea, and very few people knew anything about her. She never had any luck, and was paid off early in January, 1915, without ever having so much as sighted a submarine. The idea of decoy ships suggested itself to various naval officers during December, 1914, and their suggestions reached the Admiralty. The basic plan was for the Admiralty to take up a number of merchantmen and fishing craft, arm them with a few light quick-firing guns, and then send them forth to cruise in likely submarine areas, flying neutral colours. This was perfectly legitimate under International Law, provided that before opening fire on the enemy the neutral colours were lowered and the White Ensign was hoisted. Seeing that the enemy was determined to sink merchantmen, the obvious reply was to send against them armed merchantmen, properly commissioned and armed, but outwardly resembling anything but a warship. Thus it came about that on January 27, 1915, the second decoy ship was commissioned. This was the Great Eastern Railway S. S. Antwerp (originally called Vienna), which operated in the English Channel. She was placed under the command of Lieut.-Commander Godfrey Herbert, R. N., one of the most experienced and able officers of our submarine service. The choice was a happy one, for a submarine officer would naturally in his stalking be able to realize at once the limitations and possibilities of his opponent. It was a most difficult task, for the U-boats at this time were still very shy, and only took on certainties. Neither in boats nor in personnel had Germany yet any to spare, and there were periods when the submarine campaign fluctuated. Thus, day after day, week after week, went by, and Antwerp never had any chance. The enemy was now beginning to operate further afield, and at the end of January, 1915, for the first time, a U-boat made its way up the Irish Sea as far as off Liverpool, and then, on February 18, was inaugurated the German Submarine Blockade. Shipping began to be sunk in various places, but the western end of the English Channel was now a favourite zone, especially in the neighbourhood of the Scillies; and it was with the hope of being taken for a merchant ship that Antwerp had come out from Falmouth and made her way westward. Thus, on March 12, we see her, about three o’clock in the afternoon, twelve miles north of the Bishop Rock Lighthouse. A submarine1 was sighted steering in a northerly direction for a steamer on the horizon. Here, at length, was a chance. Twenty minutes later, Antwerp came up to a sailing ship, and found she had on board the officers and crew of the Ellerman liner Andalusian, which had been captured and scuttled 25 miles W. N. W. of the Bishop Rock. Antwerp continued her chase, and got within four miles of the Andalusian, still afloat, but then the submarine dived and was never sighted again. So Antwerp was never able to sink a submarine, and she was paid off on April 5, 1915.
During the summer of 1915 there was a small steamer called the Lyons, which one used to see in various naval ports, and under various disguises. Her primary object was to carry naval stores from one port to another, but it was always her hope to fall in with a submarine. I remember seeing her one day alongside Pembroke Naval Dockyard, painted a certain colour and with one funnel. A little later I saw her elsewhere with a different coat of paint and a dummy funnel added to her, so that she resembled an oceangoing tug. Lyons also was unable to entrap the enemy, and terminated her decoy-ship period at the beginning of November of the same year.
Thus the war had gone on for several months, and an apparently sound idea had failed to produce a single good result. All kinds of shipping were being sunk, and yet the German submarines somehow could not be persuaded to attack these disguised ships. How was it? Was there something in the disguise which gave the steamers away? Was it purely hard luck? We cannot say definitely, but the fact remained, and it was rather disappointing. Of course the idea of disguise had been employed almost from the very first days of the war; for, in August, 1914, Admiral Jellicoe had requested that the armed trawlers, though commissioned, should not be painted grey like other warships, but retain their fishing numbers and funnel markings just as in peace time. In the early summer of 1915, a number of disguised armed trawlers were also sent out to the Dogger Bank in the hope of catching an unsuspecting submarine, who might think they were fishing. The idea had been further developed by a clever scheme involving the co-operation of a disguised armed trawler towing a submerged British submarine. This began in May; on June 23 it was the means of sinking U 40, and on July 20 it brought about the loss of U 23; but a few months later this idea was thought to be played out, and came to an end in October, 1915, though it was eventually revived in the following summer.
Another variation of the decoy- ship principle at this time was that employed by Admiral Startin, who was in charge of the naval base at Granton. In view of enemy submarines having recently held up neutral merchant steamers in the North Sea, he disguised two big trawlers so as to resemble small neutral merchant ships. This was in July, 1915. So successfully was this done that one of them actually deceived British destroyers, who took her for a Danish cargo steamer. The next development was further to disguise them by adding a false deck cargo of timber, boats, and other details, so as to resemble closely a Norwegian cargo ship, with Norwegian colours hoisted at the mizzen, two derricks placed on the trawler’s foremast, and Norwegian colours painted on prepared slips of canvas placed on each side of the hull amidships. Those who were at sea in those days will recollect that it was customary for neutral ships to have their national colours painted on each side of the hull in the hope that the enemy would not mistake the ships for Allies’. Thus cleverly disguised, the two Granton trawlers Quickly and Gunner went into the North Sea, armed with nothing more powerful than a 12-pounder, Admiral Startin being himself aboard one of the ships. A large submarine was actually sighted on July 20, and at 1,000 yards the enemy began the action. Quickly thereupon lowered her Norwegian flag, ran up the White Ensign, removed the painted canvas, replied with her 12-pounder, and then with her 6-pounder. A fine, lucky shot was seen to strike the submarine, and much smoke was seen to issue. Although the enemy made off and was not sunk, yet it showed that it was possible to fool German submarines by this disguise. The decoy-ship idea was not merely sound in principle, but it was practicable and was capable of being used as a valuable offensive weapon. Most of a year had passed since the beginning of war, and there were no decoy ship results to show except those which had been obtained by British submarines working in conjunction with disguised trawlers. However, just as the seaman often finds the dawn preceded by a calm and followed by a breeze, so it was to be with the decoy ships.
The dawn of a new period was about to take place, and this was followed by such a wind of events that if anyone had dared to doubt the value of this specialized naval warfare it was not long before such hesitation vanished. Disguised trawlers had in the meantime been further successful, but there were obviously greater possibilities for the disguised merchant ship, the collier and tramp types especially. But this all depended on three things: First, the right type of ship had to be selected very carefully and with regard to the trade route on which she would normally in the present conditions be likely to be found. For instance, it would have been utterly foolish to have sent a P. and O. liner to cruise up and down the waters of the Irish Channel or an Atlantic liner up and down the North Sea. Secondly, having once selected the right ship, much depended on the dockyard authorities responsible for seeing that she was fitted out adequately as to her fighting capabilities, yet externally never losing any of her essential mercantile appearance. This meant much clever designing, much engineering and constructive skill, and absolute secrecy. Thirdly, the right type of keen, subtle, patient, tough officer had to be found, full of initiative, full of resource, with a live, eager crew. Slackers, ‘grousers,’ and ‘King’s-hard-bargains’ were useless.
WE turn now to the northern mists of the Orkneys, where the comings and goings of the Grand Fleet were wrapped in mystery from the eyes of the world. In order to keep the fleet in stores — coal, oil, gear, and hundreds of other requisite items — small colliers and tramp steamers brought their cargoes northward to Scapa Flow. In order to avoid the North Sea submarines, these coal and store ships used the west-coast passage as much as possible. Now, for that reason, and also because German submarines were already proceeding in earnest, via the north-west of Scotland, to the south-west Irish coast, ever since the successful sinking of the Lusitania, it was sound strategy on our part to send a collier to operate off the north-western Scottish coast. That is to say, these looked the kinds of ships a suspecting U-boat officer would expect to meet in that particular locality.
Under the direction of Admiral Sir Stanley Colville, a handful of these little ships was, during the summer of 1915, being fitted out for decoy work. One of these was the collier S.S. Prince Charles, a little vessel of only 373 tons. In peace-time she was commanded by her master, Mr. F. N. Maxwell, and manned by five deckhands, two engineers, and two firemen. These men all volunteered for what was known to be a hazardous job, and were accepted. In command was placed Lieutenant Mark Wardlaw, R. N., and with him went Lieutenant J. G. Spencer, R. N. R., and nine active-service ratings to man the guns and use the rifles. She carried the weakest of armament — only a 3-pounder and a 6-pounder, with rifles forward and aft. Having completed her fitting out with great secrecy, the Prince Charles left Longhope in the evening of July 21 with orders to cruise on routes where submarines had recently been seen. Proceeding to the westward at her slow gait, she saw very few vessels until July 24. It was just 6.20 p.m. when, about ten miles W.N.W. of North Rona Island, she sighted a three-masted vessel with one funnel, apparently stopped. A quarter of an hour later she observed a submarine lying close to the steamer. Here was the steel fish Prince Charles was hoping to bait.
Pretending not to see the submarine, and keeping on her course like a real collier, Lieutenant Wardlaw’s ship jogged quietly along, but he was closing up his gun’s crews behind their screens and the mercantile crew were standing by ready to hoist out the ship’s boats when required. The German now started up his oil-engines and came on at full speed towards the Prince Charles. It had just gone seven o’clock and the submarine was 3 miles off. The collier had hoisted her colours and the enemy was about five points on the bow when a German shell came whizzing across. This fell 1,000 yards over. Lieutenant Wardlaw now stopped his engines, put his ship head on to the Atlantic swell, blew three blasts, and then ordered the crew to get the boats out, in order to simulate the movements of an ordinary merchant ship in the presence of an attacking submarine.
In the meantime the enemy was approaching rapidly and fired a second shot, which fell between the funnel and the foremast, but landed 50 yards over. When the range was down to 600 yards the enemy turned her broadside on to the collier and continued firing; and this was now the time for the Q-ship’s captain to make the big decision. Should he maintain his pretence and continue to receive punishment, with the possibility of losing ship and lives in the hope that the submarine would come nearer? Or should he reveal his identity and risk everything on the chance of winning all? This was always the critical moment when the Q-ship captain held in his judgment the whole fate of the fight, of the ship, and his men.
Lieutenant Wardlaw, seeing that the enemy could not be enticed to come any nearer, took the second alternative, and opened fire with his port guns. The effect of this on the German was remarkable and instantaneous; for her gun’s crew at once deserted the gun and darted down into the conning-tower. But whilst they were so doing, one of Prince Charles’s shells struck the submarine 20 feet abaft the conning- tower. The enemy then came round and showed her opposite broadside, having attempted to dive. She now began to rise again as the collier closed to 300 yards, and frequent hits were being scored by the British guns. By this time the surprised Germans had had more than enough, and were observed to be coming out of the conning-tower, whilst the submarine was settling down by the stern. Still the British fire continued, and when the submarine’s bows were a long way out of the water, she took a sudden plunge and disappeared. A large number of men were then seen swimming about, and the Prince Charles at once made every effort to pick them up, fifteen officers and men being thus saved out of thirty-three.
So ended the career of U 36. She had left Heligoland on July 19 for a cruise of several weeks via the North Sea, and, up till the day of meeting with Prince Charles, had had a most successful time; for she had sunk eight trawlers and one steamer, and had stopped the Danish S.S. Louise when the Prince Charles came up. It was not until the submarine closed the latter that U 36 saw the Englishmen clearing away some tarpaulins on deck, and the next moment the Germans were under fire, and the captain gave orders to dive. By this time the submarine had been hit several times, and as she could not be saved, she was brought to the surface by blowing out her tanks. The crew then took to the sea, and the engineer officer opened the valves to sink her, and was the last to leave. Inside, the submarine was wrecked by Prince Charles’s shells and three men were killed, the accurate and rapid fire having immensely impressed the Germans. Thus the first Q-ship engagement had been everything that could be desired, and in spite of the submarine being armed with a 14-pounder and carrying seven torpedoes, the U-boat had been beaten in a fair fight. Lieutenant Mark Wardlaw received a D. S. O., two of the crew the D. S. M., and the sum of £ l,000 was awarded to be divided among the mercantile crew.
Another of the ships fitted out under similar auspices was the Vala, who commissioned on August 7, 1915. She was of 609 tons, and could steam at nothing better than 8 knots. In March of the following year she was transferred from Scapa to Pembroke, and her career was long and eventful.
In April of 1917 she was in action with a submarine, and she believed that one shell hit the enemy, but the latter then submerged. One day in the middle of August Vala left Milford Haven to cruise between the Fastnet and the Scillies, and was last heard of in the early hours of the following day. She was due to arrive at Queenstown, but, as she did not return, the Q-ship Heather was ordered to search for her in the Bay of Biscay. For a whole week there had been a series of gales, and it was thought that the little steamer had foundered in the bad weather, but on September 7 the German Government wireless announced that ‘the U-boat trap, the former English steamer Vala,’ had been sunk by a U-boat.
Besides the Vala and Prince Charles, three other Q-ships were fitted out in the north. These were the Glen Isla, of 786 tons; the Duncombe, 830 tons; and the Penshurst, 740 tons, and they all performed excellent work. But before we go any further we have to consider still another novelty in naval warfare, or rather a strange revival. Who would have thought that the sailing-ship would, in these days of steam, steel, and motor, come back in the service as a man-of-war? At first it seems almost ludicrous to send sail-driven craft to fight against steel, mechanically propelled vessels. But, as we have seen, this submarine warfare was not so much a matter of force as of cleverness. It was the enemy’s unimaginative policy which brought about this reintroduction of sail into our Navy, and this is how it all happened.
During the summer of 1915 German submarines in the North Sea had either attacked or destroyed a number of neutral schooners which used to come across with cargoes of pit-props. One used to see these fine little ships by the dozen arriving in the Forth, for the neutral was getting an excellent return for his trading. It annoyed the enemy that this timber should be able to enter a British port, and so the submarines endeavoured to terrorize the neutral by burning or sinking the ships on voyage. It was therefore decided to take up the 179-ton schooner Thirza, which was lying in the Tyne. Her purchase had to be carried out with great secrecy, lest the enemy should be able to recognize her at sea. She was an old vessel, having been built as far back as 1865 at Prince Edward Island, but registered at Whitstable. She changed her name to Ready, and began her Q-ship service at the end of August, 1915, when soon after midnight she sailed down the Forth. Armed with a couple of 12-pounders, having also a motor, carrying a small deck cargo of pit-props, and suitably disguised to resemble a neutral, this schooner, manned by a hardy volunteer crew, used to pretend she was coming across the North Sea, though at first she never went many miles away from the land. Under the various aliases of Thirza, Ready, Probus, Elixir, and Q 30, this old ship did splendid work, which did not end until Armistice. We shall have occasion to refer to her again.
Who can avoid a feeling of intense admiration for the men who, year after year, were willing and eager to roll about the sea in a small sailing ship looking for the enemy, well knowing that the enemy had all the advantage of speed, handiness, and armament? Even the motor was not powerful, and would give her not much more than steerage way in a calm. The submarine could always creep up submerged, using his periscope but now and then: the schooner, however, was a conspicuous target all the time, and her masts and sails advertised her presence from the horizon. These Q-ship sailing men deserve much for what they voluntarily endured. Quite apart from the bad weather, the uncomfortable quarters on board, the constant trimming of sheets and alteration of course off an unlit coast, there was always the possibility that some U-boat’s crew would, after sinking the schooner, cut the throats of these British seamen. The Q-ship crews knew this, and on certain occasions when U-boat prisoners were taken by our ships the Germans did not conceal this fact. Life in these sailing craft was something quite different from that in a battleship with its wardroom, its cheery society, and a comfortable cabin to turn into. In the latter, with powerful turbines and all the latest navigational instruments, bad weather meant little inconvenience. After all it is the human element which is the deciding factor, and the Q-ship service certainly wore out officers and men at a great pace. It is indeed difficult to imagine any kind of seafaring more exacting both physically and nervously.
But the Navy pressed into its use also sailing smacks, and sent them out to sea. This began at Lowestoft in August, 1915. In that neighbourhood submarines had been doing a great deal of damage to the local fishing ketches, so it was decided to commission four of these smacks, arm them, strengthen their fishing crew with a few active service ratings for working the gun, and let the craft resume their fishing among the other smacks. With any luck at all a German submarine should come along, and then would follow the surprise. The original fishermen crews were only too delighted to have an opportunity of getting their own back, and these excellent fellows certainly were afforded some good sport. So well did the idea work that within a very few days the smack G. and E. engaged one submarine, and the Inverlyon sank UB 4. During the same month the smack Pet fought a submarine, and on September 7 Inverlyon had a fight with another.
And still the Admiralty were not over optimistic as to the capabilities of the decoy ship, and had to be convinced of the real worth of this novel idea. However, an incident happened on August 19 which was so successful and so significant that it entirely changed the official mind, and all kinds of craft were suggested as suitable decoys. Some thought that oil-tankers would have made ideal bait: so they would, but such ships were few in number and too valuable. Others suggested yachts, and actually these were used for intelligence work in the Bay of Biscay. Many other schemes, too, were brought forward, but they were not always practicable, or had to be discarded for particular reasons.
In March, 1915, the Admiralty had taken up the S.S. Baralong, a typical ‘three- island’ tramp, as a decoy. For nearly six months she had been cruising about and had already steamed 12,000 miles, but during the afternoon of August 19 she was at last to have her chance. This was an historic day in the submarine campaign, for in that area between the south-west coast of Ireland and the western end of the English Channel eight British steamers were sunk, including the 15,801-ton White Star liner Arabic. It is quite certain that there was more than one submarine operating, and they had reaped a good harvest on the 17th. In the hope of falling in with one of these U-boats, the Baralong found herself in Lat. 50.22 N., Long. 8.7 W. (that is, about a hundred miles south of Queenstown), steering on an easterly course. She was disguised as a United States cargo ship with American colours painted on boards on her sides. These boards were made so that they could be hauled in, and the ensign staff would fall away as soon as the ship should go into action with the White Ensign hoisted. At three in the afternoon Baralong sighted a steamer manoeuvring rather strangely, and almost immediately picked up a wireless ‘S. O. S.’ signal from her. Baralong therefore now altered course towards her, and the two ships were soon steering so that they would presently meet. Then a submarine was sighted about seven miles off heading towards the steamer, whom she was shelling. By this time the crew of the steamer, which was the Leyland liner Nicosian, were rowing about in the ship’s boats, and towards these the Baralong was seen to be approaching, but the submarine U 27, which had a 22-pounder forward of the high conning-tower, and a similar gun aft, steered so as to come along Nicosian’s port side and towards the latter’s boats, apparently to prevent Baralong rescuing the men. One who was present told me the full story, and I made notes and a sketch at the time. This is what happened:
As soon as the submarine was blanketed by Nicosian, the Baralong, who was now roughly parallel with the other two craft, struck her American colours, hoisted the White Ensign, and trained her guns ready for the moment when the submarine should show herself ahead of Nicosian’s bows. In a few seconds U 27 came along, and had the greatest of all surprises. The range was only 600 yards, and 12-pounder shells, accompanied by rifle fire, came hurtling along, penetrating the craft on the waterline below the conning-tower before the enemy could reply. The conning-tower went up in the air, panic-stricken Germans jumped into the sea, the submarine heeled over, and in about another minute sank for good and all. The whole incident had happened so quickly that Nicosian’s people were as surprised as they were amused. The whole of Baralongs tactics had been so simple yet so clever and effective; deliverance from the enemy had followed the sudden attack so dramatically, that it was not easy to realize quite all that had happened. Nicosian had been holed by the German shells, but Baralong took her in tow and headed for Avonmouth. She was down by the head and the tow-rope parted during the night, but she managed to get to port all right.
The sinking of this U 27 was a most useful piece of work, for her captain, Lieut.-Commander Wegener, was one of Germany’s best submarine commanders; she had left Germany a fortnight before. This incident, with many of its details, reached Germany via the U. S. A.; for Nicosian was carrying a cargo of mules from across the Atlantic to be used by our army, and some of the muleteers were American citizens. On their arrival back home the news came out, and was published in the newspapers, causing considerable sensation. The German nation was furious and made some bitter accusations, forgetting all the time that on this very day they had fired on and killed fourteen of the crew of the British submarine E 13, which had grounded on the Danish island of Saltholm. All the officers, with one exception, and most of the crew of Baralong were of the Royal Naval Reserve. A number of decorations was made and the sum of £ 1, 000 was awarded.
This great success in the midst of a terrible tale of shipping losses finally convinced the authorities of the value of the Q-ship. There was a great shortage of tonnage at this time, for ships were being required for carrying mules and munitions from America, munitions to Russia, and every kind of stores across to our armies. However, it was decided to take up some more steamers as decoys and fit them out in a similar manner. Thus the two tramp steamers Zylpha (2,917 tons) and the Lodorer (3,207 tons) were assigned to Queenstown. The former, after doing excellent work, was sunk on June 15, 1917; the latter, commanded by the officer who eventually became Captain Gordon Campbell, V. C., D. S. O., made history. Under the aliases of Farnborough and Q 5 she became the most famous of all the decoy ships. Tramp steamer though she may be, she has a career which, for adventurous fights, honourable wounds, and imperishable glory cannot be approached by any ship in the world, with the solitary exception, perhaps, of the Vindictive, for, in spite of everything, Lodorer was able at the end of the war to resume her work in the Merchant Service. In another place we shall soon see her exploits as a warship.
In addition to these two a few small coasting steamers were taken up and a couple of transports, and the work of selecting officers of dash and enterprise had to be undertaken with great secrecy and discretion. Unquestionably the most suitable type of Q-ship was the tramp, and the worst was the cross-Channel railway steamer. The first was slow, but could keep at sea a long time without coaling; the latter was fast, but wasteful of coal and had limited bunker space. Of these railway steamers we have already mentioned the G. E. R. Co.’s S.S. Vienna (alias Antwerp). Another decoy ship was the L. & S. W. R. Co.’s S.S. Princess Ena, which was built to run between the Channel Islands and Southampton. She had been commissioned in May, 1915, armed with three 12-pounders, and could steam at 15 knots, but she ceased her decoy work in the following August. The Lyons, already referred to, was really a salvage steamer, but much resembled a tug, especially when she hoisted her dummy funnel. She was of 537 tons, could steam at 11 knots, and was armed with four 12-pounders. But it was the ‘three-island’ tramp type of the Baralong
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