By the beginning of World War I all the larger navies of the world were equipped with effective submarines. Climaxing centuries of dreams and efforts by such pioneers as Leonardo da Vinci, David Bushnell, Gustave Zede, and J. P. Holland, a mobile underwater craft had not only become an actuality but had been absorbed into the great armament race of the early twentieth century. Hardly a secret weapon, the submarine was the subject of much controversial discussion. The war was still in its first weeks, however, when the British cruiser Pathfinder was sunk by the U-21, and on September 22, 1914, the U-9 settled the argument for all time by destroying three British cruisers, Aboukir, Hogue, and Cressy. But it was against merchantmen that submarines proved most effective.
The first months of the war quickly demonstrated the principal advantage that Germany enjoyed. While England was forced to import not only her sinews of war but also the everyday necessities of food and clothing, Germany was almost 80% self-sufficient Her strategic position on the easily defended North Sea provided excellent naval bases, and as long as the effectiveness of her fleet remained unimpaired Germany was mistress of the Baltic. Therefore, to preserve these surface forces, Germany turned to its new weapon, the submarine, to carry the naval war to Great Britain, and this it accomplished with amazing success. By early 1917, although the great land offensive was completely bogged down on the continent, the German High Command could safely predict victory by midsummer. It was a simple exercise in mathematics (and Germans have always excelled in that science): If A has so many ships and is building so many more each month, and B is sinking so many ships each month more than A can replace, how long will it be before A is incapable of carrying on a war? But certain all-important unknowns were not included in the computation, and the equation of German Victory fell to pieces. These unknowns have since come to be called “Anti-Submarine Warfare.”
Grappling with the unknown, with unseen adversaries, has always been the heritage of Americans. The United States can be justly proud of its successful efforts against submarines. We developed hydrophones into an effective weapon. We manufactured efficient depth charges and performed miracles of invention and production by mining the North Sea area, denying it to the German submarines. Convoying of merchant vessels, the step that finally broke the back of the" submarine menace, was advocated by the United States Navy. Add to this the American destroyers put on anti-submarine patrol in European waters and the “splinter fleet” that drove the U-boats from the inshore waters, and the sum is impressive. But for all this, it was the British who pioneered the war against an undersea enemy.
The submarine, despite its early successes, was far from being a perfected weapon. At the beginning of the war, overnight cruises were studiously avoided, the crews rarely slept aboard because of the unhealthy atmosphere, and the much-dreaded dives seldom exceeded fifty feet, with an absolute maximum of twice that depth.
As a weapon for underwater attack the submarine’s effectiveness was doubted by even the commanding officers. On the surface, the early kerosene-burning U-boats were attended by a pillar of smoke, and submerged their speed was something less than five knots. At the first sight of an enemy the submarine would dive to escape detection, and if, contrary to the laws of probability, the enemy blundered to within maximum range, optimistically placed at two thousand yards, an attack would be launched. In spite of their designed effective range, torpedoes were rarely fired at more than five hundred yards because of their easily visible trail of air bubbles. Usually the attack was pressed home as far as humanly possible, and more than one submarine was unintentionally rammed by its unsuspecting target, or “hoisted by its own petard’’; that is, sunk or damaged by the explosion of its own torpedo against the target. To add spice to the entertainment, the release of torpedoes often sent the attacking U-boat bounding to the surface like a jubilant porpoise.
From all this it can be seen that such underwater adventures 'endangered the attacker almost as much as the attacked. But new and greener vistas were opened when, on October 20, 1914, the U-17 stopped the British steamer Glitra, ordered the crew into boats and opened its sea-cocks. Result: laurels for the U-17, and an enemy vessel sunk with a minimum of danger and expense. The advantages of this action immediately attracted the submarine commanders. No more dangerous underwater stalking and attacks; when a merchant vessel was sighted the U-boat would submerge. Then, when the closest-point-of-approach was reached, it would come to the surface and fire a shot across her bow, or if necessary, give chase; a surfaced submarine could overtake the average merchantman. Then it was a matter of choice; open the sea-valves, place a bomb in its vitals, or stand off and shell. The crew was given a decent chance to get off and told the direction to the nearest land, and best of all, the ship’s papers or master could be taken back to Germany as positive proof of the sinking. A torpedoed vessel often left no evidence behind, and Iron Crosses were not given out on hearsay.
If a U-boat didn’t manage to sink itself, it was surprisingly safe from hostile action. Submarines submerged on the first hint of a contact and, even with their periscopes raised, were practically impossible to detect. Shells were wasted on periscopes, since no structural damage was inflicted, even in the unlikely event of a hit, and a second periscope was always available. Also, the early “water bombs” were ineffective, and ramming tactics were rarely successful against previously undamaged undersea boats. Even with its conning tower exposed, a submarine was far from vulnerable; its pressure hull was still submerged and the conning tower could be separated from the rest of the vessel by a watertight hatch. Only the pressure hull offered a worthwhile target, and this was not exposed unless the submarine was fully surfaced, as when she was chasing a merchantman. And so the warships dashed helplessly about while the U-boats went their destructive way.
As the tonnage sunk by German U-boats steadily mounted it became increasingly apparent to the British Admiralty that such passive phases of the anti-submarine campaign as barriers and huge nets would never seriously hamper the foe. The war had to be carried to the undersea craft. Despite the secrecy that later surrounded the operation, the solution was the simple product of logic. British naval guns had to be put in a position from which they could fire upon the U-boats, but the only craft that ever got within range of the raiders were helpless merchantmen. Therefore, the guns must be aboard the merchantmen, and hidden so that the submarines would nibble.
But if the plan itself came easily, the details were something less than simple. It must be remembered that the concept of an effective submarine raider was entirely new to the navies of the world, and many of the officers facing this new menace had been trained in sailing ships. The psychological upheaval can only be imagined. Add to this inexperience the hampering element of secrecy, and the task attains fantastic proportions.
The first step was to obtain suitable vessels to play the part of trap ship. In some cases an officer chosen for command was allowed to choose his own ship. The principal restrictions were that it must be capable of carrying concealed arms and that it must be inconspicuous. In the course of the war over 180 trap ships were sent out, ranging from small wooden schooners to luxury liners, but many of the ships were limited in use by their very nature; any U-boat skipper would immediately sense a trap if he sighted a Great Eastern Railway steamer in the English Channel, or any other such unlikely combination. Therefore, the class most commonly employed was the common tramp steamer, at home in any waters on any course.
The mystery ships were manned by officers and men who had volunteered blindly for particularly hazardous duty, and in some cases the merchant marine crew of the purchased vessel was allowed to continue in that capacity at their own request. The actual appointments to vessels came as a blow and a source of disgust to many officers. One described his new ship:
She was a dirty old tramp of some 2,000 tons. I gazed at her in disgust—I had recently been in a battleship. What in the world were they going to use her for, I wondered, and why had I been appointed to her? She had obviously no speed and less accommodation. . . . From end to end she was absolutely filthy, added to which she was certainly no longer in her teens. . . . The lieutenant- commander who was to command the ship had . . . arrived; but after seeing the vessel he had returned to the barracks in disgust. I felt that I should get on well with my new skipper. Our taste in ships would be a bond of union.
The Admiralty’s orders were simple in the extreme; “Here is your ship, here are three guns, get them mounted, put your crew into plain clothes and go out and sink a submarine.”
The mystery ships were outfitted in navy yards, and dockyard workers unquestioningly mounted the guns where the naval architects indicated; then it was up to the various commanders to get them hidden. Folding deckhouses, collapsible hen coops, and false lifeboats were all used. Additional voice tubes, phones and “rattler” alarms were installed. Flagstaffs were hinged so that the White Ensign could be quickly flown, and huge battens painted with false colors were suspended over the side of the ship and secured so that they could easily be cut away. Even the men were disguised by garbing them in disreputable secondhand clothes, and this phase delighted the men immensely. Some wore womens’ clothing and carried “babies” about the deck, while one captain frequented the bridge of his own ship rigged out as a corpulent, shaggy-headed Dutch pilot. And so they went to sea.
The first such vessel employed was the Vittorio, which served from November 28, 1914, to January 7, 1915, when she was withdrawn from the service without ever having made a submarine contact. Unknown to the Allies, Germany had virtually withdrawn her undersea fleet from action until the extent of mining in certain North Sea areas could be determined. In early February her submarines invaded the English Channel in force and scored repeatedly. Many of the British Q-ships were types common only to the North Sea and so were useless elsewhere, but by spring the first decoy vessels had followed their quarry into the Channel.
First blood went to the S. S. Prince Charles under Lieutenant Mark Wardlaw, and served as a pattern for the early successes. On July 24, 1915, this tiny (373 ton) collier sighted a neutral merchantman and a submarine, the U-36, hove to on the horizon. Wardlaw continued blithely on his way, but the U-boat left the prize and fired a shot across his bow, whereupon Wardlaw put the helm up, blew three blasts on the whistle and ordered the “crew” over the side into the boats. When the submarine had closed to 600 yards and opened fire with intention to sink the collier, the Prince Charles revealed its true nature with a murderous burst of gunfire. Badly damaged in the first exchange, the raider attempted to escape, but quickly sank with a loss of 18 of its crew of 33.
Less than a month later, the U-27 became the victim of the Baralong under Commander Godfrey Herbert, R.N., with the same simplicity. The Baralong picked up a distress signal from a nearby steamer, the Nicosian, stating that two submarines were stopping her. Herbert immediately steered for her position, and when he sighted the vessels he hoisted the American colors and the International Code signal, “To save life only.” He approached to within easy range, then maneuvered so that the Baralong was momentarily shielded from the submarine’s view by the Nicosian, during which time he cleared his ship for action. As the submarine, advancing to stop him, came into sight on the other side of the Nicosian, Herbert opened fire so effectively that the U-boat only had time for one wild round before it sank. The survivors in the water started to board the deserted Nicosian, whereupon Herbert, for fear that they might scuttle her, ordered his riflemen to shoot them. Even so, six managed to reach the deck and scurry below. A party of marines was put aboard and all six Germans were ferreted out and shot. This aroused a storm of criticism, both in Germany and in the then-neutral United States. Germany demanded that the responsible commander be shot or turned over to them, but on the same day German destroyers had discovered a British submarine, the E-13, aground in the neutral waters of Denmark and inexcusably shelled the helpless craft, killing fifteen men. Great Britain offered to surrender the Baralong's captain to the United States for trial, provided that Germans would do the same with their offenders, whereupon the case drifted into obscurity. A month later the Baralong, this time under Lieutenant Commander A. Wilmot-Smith, R.N., scored again by sending the U-41 to the bottom. The pattern has a familiar ring; the Baralong, renamed the Wyandra, sighted the S.S. Urbino being shelled at close range by the U-41, but maintained course and speed and displayed American colors. The submarine hoisted “Stop instantly” and the Baralong hove to, although the extreme range of over two miles did not please the British. Then came the order demanding a boat with the ship’s papers. Wilmot-Smith got underway slowly and went through the motions of preparing to launch a boat. When within 700 yards he put the helm over, as if to provide a lee in which to launch, but when all guns bore the disguise was dropped and fire opened. Badly wounded, the U-boat dove rapidly, but soon reappeared momentarily; then she plunged to her death. Only two survivors were found.
During the winter of 1915-1916 the number of Q-ships grew, but there were no contacts. The strained relations between the United States and Germany caused the cautious Kaiser to order his undersea fleet into inactivity through the winter. That spring they were sent out again in force, and at dawn on March 22, 1916, the U-68 and the S.S. Farnborough, Captain Gordon Campbell commanding, met. The submarine was sighted on the horizon, but as she immediately dove, no apparent notice was taken of her, though the men loafing about the deck spent some time in argument as to whether the attack would be made by shell or torpedo. The answer was soon resolved by an approaching torpedo track. No evasive action was taken, but the torpedo passed a few inches ahead of the ship. A moment later the submarine appeared and put a shell across the bow of the Farnborough. Campbell stopped the engines and the panic party abandoned ship with such a convincing air that the submarine, which had been riding awash and ready for a fast dive, came fully to the surface. While still 800 yards off she opened fire to sink the “deserted” steamer, so Campbell was forced to spring his trap although the range seemed “a bit greater than I wished.” Several hits were scored without causing vital damage, but as the submarine dove the Farnborough made a run over her and dropped depth charges. At almost the same moment, the U-boat rose beneath the Q-ship, struck its keel and scraped along one side. The Q-boat fired several more rounds at point-blank range and dropped more depth charges as the submarine sank, out of control. Oil and wreckage came to the surface, but no survivors.
Indicative of the increasing caution of the Germans, the next successful Q-ship action did not occur until eight months later, on November 30, 1916. The Penshurst under Captain F. H. Grenfell, D.S.C., R.N. had sighted a submarine the previous day and had been taken under fire. The U-boat steadfastly refused to come closer than 3000 yards, however, so Grenfell reluctantly opened fire and the raider withdrew. Having compromised the Penshurst's disguise, Grenfell spent the night of the 29-30th in changing the ship’s color and lowering the mizzen. The next day contact with a submarine, the U-19, was again made, but as the two hunters approached each other a British seaplane appeared and attacked the submarine, forcing it to dive. Grenfell decided to aid by depth charging and revealed his identity to the seaplane which then landed alongside to obtain instructions for spotting. In taking off again, however, the plane crashed and the submarine, which had been watching, surfaced and began to shell the apparently helpless merchantman. Grenfell’s plans underwent a second alteration, and the panic party went over the side. Possibly the misfortune of the aircraft had rendered the submarine skipper careless, for he approached to a range of 250 yards and was easily sunk by gunfire.
Strangely enough, the Penshurst followed the example of the Baralong by sinking a second submarine within six weeks of the first. On January 14, 1917, a U-boat was sighted dead ahead, and at 3000 yards the submarine opened fire. Following the established routine the Penshurst hove to and was “abandoned.” At about 700 yards the submarine, which had been firing quite inaccurately, placed two shells into the bridge in quick succession, practically wiping out the crew of the 6-pounder hidden there. Grenfell gave the order to open fire; the decoy’s first round literally blew the conning tower off, and the second penetrated the pressure hull. The submarine sank rapidly amid further fire, and depth charges were dropped to clinch the matter.
But in mid-winter of 1916-1917 the German High Command issued new and drastic orders to its U-boat commanders; every Allied merchant vessel was to be attacked without delay. “This form of warfare is to force England to make peace and thereby to decide the whole war.” “Energetic action is required, but above all, rapidity of action.” Germany had finally launched her all-out unrestricted submarine warfare. Commanders were threatened with removal if they did not increase the number of their sinkings. Larger guns were mounted on the new submarines until the 5.9 inch guns became standard, and improved torpedoes permitted attacks at greater ranges. The “game” was growing progressively rougher, and the Germans played with caution.
To combat these changes the Q-ship commanders developed their trade to a fine art. In the earlier encounters certain members of the crew were told off to man the lifeboats and pull away from the ship, such action being deemed sufficient to lure the submarine closer. Later this “panic” party reached the proportions of a Broadway production. The submarine usually approached while the ship was being abandoned; therefore, the longer the crew took to get over the side, the closer the submarine would be. To accomplish this many different techniques were developed. One of the favorites was letting one of the lifeboat falls go with a run, capsizing the boat and delaying the departure. Invariably the men ran about frantically, gathering their gear, dumping it into a boat and rushing off again. One ship always used a huge stuffed parrot in a cage as a prop, and a man always donned the skipper’s coat and cap, so that the “captain” might be seen going over the rail. As a final touch, after the boats had shoved off, a grimy fireman would appear at the stoke-hole, shouting and yelling until one of the boats returned for him. Even then their job was not done. Because the new German orders required that the ship’s master and engineer be taken prisoner, the boats maneuvered so that the submarine, as it approached them, would provide the best possible target for the waiting trap ship.
Just as Q-boat techniques had undergone revision, so had the ships’ construction. Heavier guns aboard the submarines, as well as their more aggressive orders, indicated that the decoy vessels must expect to be damaged in the course of their duties. Therefore, more attention was given to the structural soundness of the ships, and watertight bulkheads and similar internal changes were added to insure an ability to take punishment. In many cases the ships were loaded with lumber or kegs in the hope that it would aid them in staying afloat until the attacking submarine had been sunk.
As merchantmen had taken to arming themselves with a light gun aft, the Q-ships were forced to follow suit, but this gun was usually abandoned after one or two rounds, and in some cases was incapable even of being fired. Another device was the installation of perforated auxiliary steam lines around the midships section so that a hit in the engineering spaces could be simulated by dense clouds of steam.
Typical of the new type of Q-ship—-U-boat encounter was the give-and-take struggle between the U-29 and the Par gust, under the same Captain Campbell who had sunk the U-68 and the U-83. On June 7, 1917, the Pargust was torpedoed without warning and the engineering spaces destroyed. The panic party pulled away while the submarine warily inspected the sinking vessel through its periscope. Finally it surfaced and headed for the boats, which in turn pulled, “terror- stricken,” around the stern of the Pargust, despite the German’s signals. Enraged, the submarine dashed after them and, when only 50 yards from the Q-ship, was taken under fire. Badly hurt, the German pretended to surrender, then made a dash for freedom, only to be sunk with the loss of all but two men. Supported by her cargo of lumber, the Pargust was successfully towed into Queenstown.
Another Q-ship encounter was described by the German submarine commander:
At sunset I was sitting at supper in our little officers’ messroom. . . . We were running awash.
“Sailing ship ahoy!” the call came.
I hurried to the conning tower and, telescope at eye, scrutinized a little three-mast schooner to our starboard. A warning shell at a distance of four thousand yards, and the schooner lowered her topsails. The crew took to the lifeboats. Everything looked all right, but I was suspicious.
“Keep on firing,” I called to our gun crew, and then sent the order through the speaking tube: “Half speed ahead.” I wanted to investigate, and we might as well be certain that the ship was abandoned before we drew too near. . . .
We drew up slowly, our shells popping on the deserted deck. “Good shooting,” I remarked to my two companions, Lieutenants Ziegner and Usedom. The schooner’s deck was a mass of wreckage. The U-93 circled round the craft while we all scanned it through our powerful binoculars. No, it had no submarine in tow, and was surely deserted. Nobody could stay aboard and take that kind of shelling. We were only eighty yards away, lying parallel with it, when I gave the order. “Hit her at the water line and sink her.”
As our first shell hit just at the water line, there was a loud whistle aboard the schooner. The white war ensign of Great Britain ran up the mast. A movable gun platform slid into view. A roar and a rattling, and 7.5 cm. guns opened at us, and machine guns, too. We offered a fair, broadside target. One shell put our fore gun out of commission and wounded several of the gun crew. Another crashed into our hull. ... I felt the vibration of our engines stop. . . I had given no such order. The only explanation was that shell fire had damaged them. . . . Then I felt a cold sensation about my legs. We were up to our knees in water. A moment later we were swimming in the Atlantic. The U-93 had sunk beneath us.
. . . The little schooner, which hadn’t seemed worth bothering about—I wish we hadn’t—was the Prize, the British Q-21. Those Britishers played the Q-ship game with skill and nerve. The Prize was little more than a tin shell filled with wood. She was stuffed with lumber, the idea being to keep her afloat as long as possible as little more than a camouflaged gun platform. Any other craft would have sunk a couple of times from the damage our shells did. We had shot her pretty nearly to pieces. The deck was knocked to kindling wood, and below every wall was smashed. You could see through partition after partition into ten rooms. I marvelled at the bravery of those Britishers who in their hiding place could take a shelling like that and then run up their gun platform and start to fight. . . . Some of them had been wounded during the encounter.
Such was the enthusiasm and courage displayed by the crews of the mystery vessels that on at least one occasion they lost their lives by remaining aboard their rapidly sinking ship in the vain hope of a chance to even the score, and frequently the men in the boats would station themselves where all the Q-ship’s guns could bear, and allow the submarine to come alongside them, knowing full well the risk they stood of dying in the ensuing battle.
But of all the fights between the mystery ships and their undersea quarry none can match that between the U-71, Commander Salzwedel, and the Dunraven, Captain Campbell. Admiral Sims, in a letter to Campbell, stated in part, “I know of nothing finer in naval history than the conduct of the aftergun’s crew—in fact, the entire crew of the Dunraven.” The justness of this remark can be appreciated only when the reader is fully acquainted with the encounter, but briefly the details are these: on August 18, 1918, the Dunraven sighted a submarine on the horizon. After a submerged approach the submarine opened fire from 5000 yards astern. Campbell reduced speed, sent out a false S.O.S., and returned the fire, although the shells were very carefully pitched short to lure the raider closer. Repeated hits were made on the Dunraven's fantail, setting it afire. Finally the panic party was sent over the side, the submarine being less than 400 yards astern but obscured by smoke. Although the flames were enveloping the after magazine, Campbell still waited for the submarine to become more visible. Suddenly the explosion of a depth charge aft blew the hidden gun and its crew into the air and accidentally set off the alarm gongs throughout the ship. The other gun positions immediately revealed themselves but only one gun bore, and the submarine dove before any damage could be inflicted. While waiting for the torpedo that he knew must follow, Campbell sent out a signal requesting that no warships come to his aid and that any other merchantmen be diverted from the scene. A few minutes later the Dunraven was struck by a torpedo just aft of the engine room, so an additional party of men left the ship on a raft to indicate that the Q-ship had despaired of its trap. For the next fifty minutes the submarine inspected the Dunraven through its periscope, while aboard the ship the fire was spreading out of control, and the waiting gun crews were forced to hold the ammunition boxes in their arms to prevent the heated deck from setting them off. Although the depth charges and their ready-ammunition was exploding, the gun crew on the faintail stayed at their post, still hoping for a shot. Finally the enemy approached to 150 yards and Campbell fired two torpedoes, one of which struck the submarine but failed to explode. Immediately the raider dove deeper, and Campbell, once again compromised by bad luck, was forced to put out a distress signal. It seemed that the submarine would fire another and undoubtedly fatal torpedo into the helpless Dunraven. It is typical of the fighting spirit of Captain Campbell that he then ordered the rest of the men to abandon ship, leaving only himself and one gun crew aboard the flaming wreck in the futile hope of getting a few rounds home before they died. Fortunately the U-71 had no more torpedoes, and before it could surface to administer the coup de grace with its deck gun the approach of rescue craft frightened it from the scene. On this anticlimactic note the battle ended. The Dunraven was beyond help and sank early the following morning, but its crew was rescued and received the acclaim and gratitude of an empire for their efforts. The U-71 was lost on a later patrol, and its captain, Commander Salzwedel, who had been given a different command, was also killed in action later in the war.
But Q-ships had had their day. There could no longer be any hope of secrecy about the actions of the mystery ships, and without secrecy there was no hope of success. The very numbers of the craft helped defeat their purpose; toward the end of the war there were more Q-ships at sea than submarines. Also, convoys were used so extensively that a lone merchantman instantly aroused the suspicion of any submarine commander. Over a year passed without a single successful engagement, and the mystery ships returned to the silence which had bred them.
If secrecy was the element that rendered the Q-ships effective, it was also the reason that they received little of the credit due them. For the major part of the war the British Admiralty worked on the assumption that German morale would suffer more from receiving no word of the U-boat actions than from definite news of their destruction. Consequently the successful Q-ship actions were rarely made known, and this helped keep the secret of the decoy vessels. When the public finally heard of the mystery ships its fancy was caught. Admiral William S. Sims has written:
In most of the talks that I have given before various audiences in America, the questions most frequently asked concerned the Battle of Jutland and the operations of the mystery ships. Both have been largely misunderstood by the public, the former because of the technicalities involved, and the latter simply because the nature of their actions was necessarily kept as secret as possible, as their success depended upon decoying the enemy submarine within gun range.
It was not until 1929 that Rear Admiral Gordon Campbell, V.C., D.S.O., published the first really authoritative account of the Q-ship operations. Because of this apparent reticence, figures concerning the total number of encounters, Q-ship sinkings and casualties, and even accurate listings of these special service craft are unobtainable. The released statistics give little hint of the dramas that went into their creation.
Germany lost 199 submarines in World War I. Of these the Germans credit the mystery ships with twelve, while paradoxically the British claim only eleven. The British estimate that Q-ships damaged approximately sixty submarines so that they required repairs or overhauling. To accomplish this, about 180 Q-ships were employed.
An interesting sidelight of statistics is this statement by Admiral Campbell:
... If one eliminates the period when there were no submarines about, . . . such as the winter of 1915-1916, . . . and further eliminates the times in harbor refitting or fitting out, I have estimated that we sighted a submarine once every ten days. In other words, when the submarines were there to be found, we, by attempting to keep in the danger zone, could expect to get in touch every ten days; this was due largely to having the right type of ship, and keeping to sea as long and as often as possible.
He goes on to point out that, while every conceivable type of ship was used as a trap ship, all the successful Q-boats were ordinary steamer type with tonnages' varying from 800 to 3000 tons. The Prince Charles, a 373 ton collier, was the only exception. It is interesting to note that four different mystery ships each sank two submarines.
The Q-ship was an anti-submarine weapon, and as such its primary purpose or reason for being was the destruction of submarines. German and British records agree that the mystery ships accounted for at least eleven U-boats, or seven per cent of those lost to enemy action. Add to this approximately sixty submarines damaged to a greater or lesser degree, requiring precious time for repairs.
But the effect of Q-ships on the submarine menace was not limited to submarines sunk or damaged. Their very existence insured a radical change in the method of waging submarine warfare against merchant vessels. In the early months of the war all it required to sink a merchantman was a shot across her bow, and a pleasant trip aboard her to open the sea-cocks. Then a tiny collier named the Prince Charles put an end to it all with a burst of gunfire, and every ship afloat became a potential trap in the minds of submarine men. There were some who persisted in their surface attacks. The German authorities had discovered certain embarrassing discrepancies between their skippers’ reports and actuality, so proof of each reported sinking was demanded before credit was given. This hit the young and ambitious German commanders where it hurt; many of them took unwarranted risks and paid the price. The rest soon resigned themselves to making submerged attacks. The justification of the Q-ships can be found in this change of tactics.
Successful Mystery Ship Encounters with Submarines
Name of Mystery Ship
24 July 1915
Prince Charles, Lieut. Mark Wardlow
19 August 1915
Baralong, Cdr. Godfrey Herbert
24 September 1915
Baralong, Cdr. A. Wilmot-Smith
22 March 1916
Farnborough, Capt. Gordon Campbell
30 November 1916
Penshurst, Capt. F. H. Grenfell
14 January 1917
Penshurst, Capt. F.H. Grenfell
17 February 1917
Farnborough, Capt. Gordon Campbell
12 March 1917
Privet, Lcdr. C.G. Matheson
7 June 1917
Pargust, Capt. Gordon Campbell
17 September 1917
Stonecrop, Cdr. M. Blackwood
9 November 1918
Privet, Lt. Cdr. C.G. Matheson
As torpedoes almost invariably sank the vessels they struck, whereas shelled merchantmen frequently escaped, it has been argued that Q-ships did more harm than good by forcing the submarines to make underwater attacks. A little reasoning should be sufficient to demonstrate the fallacy of this belief. I have tried to indicate earlier in this writing the difficulties of a submerged approach and attack, how the reduced speeds of the raiders were frequently insufficient to put it in an attacking position, and how the torpedoes were far from reliable even when launched correctly. It can safely be assumed that more merchantmen reached port safely because the submarines were not able to reach torpedo range than would have escaped those same submarines if they had surfaced. But the effect goes even further.
The U.C. type submarine carried three torpedoes, the later U-boats were armed with ten; all other types carried some number between the two. When surface attacks were practiced, the duration of the raiders’ cruises was limited only by fuel and food. When the dread of hidden guns pushed them beneath the surface their limiting factor overnight became torpedoes. The submarines outfitted at their North Sea bases, felt their way through the barriers and mine-fields, past the ever-present DD’s and drifters and into the broad Atlantic. Once there they torpedoed and sank ships. Then, only a few days after they had arrived they had to put the North Star on the other beam and face the dangers of a homeward voyage. It has been estimated that for every submarine on station there were at least two others on their way to or from the shipping lanes. Admiral Sims wrote:
Could Germany have kept fifty submarines constantly at work on the great shipping routes in the winter and spring of 1917, nothing could have prevented her from winning the war.
Nor can the effect of mystery ships on the morale of the U-boat crew be denied. Conditions aboard the submarines were execrable, and instead of the encouragement of victories, the men heard tales of harmless merchantmen that greeted their comrades with the broadside of a warship. Gaps appeared in their ranks without a why-or- wherefor from the British, unless one wanted to read between the lines of laconic English press releases:
The King has been graciously pleased to approve of the grant of the Victoria Cross to Commander Gordon Campbell, D.S.O., R.N., in recognition of his conspicuous gallantry, consummate coolness and skill in command of one of His Majesty’s ships in action.
It was not difficult for even the realistic Germans to imagine guns aboard ships where there were none; many unarmed ships were saved from attack by the presence of an over-imaginative U-boat skipper.
To carry the thought to its inevitable conclusion, if it was solely the Q-ships that forced the U-boats to engage in unlimited submarine warfare (there could be no other reason; they lost everything by such a move) and if it was the repeated submarine sinking incidents that finally brought the United States into the war in time to help Great Britain break the back of the submarine menace, then indirectly to these mystery ships must go a sizable portion of the credit and gratitude.
It has been asked if Q-ships will ever be again used. I understand that the United States used them during World War II, but without any notable success or failure. Also, the guns necessary to meet a present-day submarine on even terms could not be hidden as readily as the tiny 3- and 6-pounders of the Prince Charles. Underwater attacks are now a matter of choice rather than of necessity. But for all that, as long as men or nations meet in conflict, deception will play a part. The principle of the trap or decoy will not be forgotten, and new mysteries will be developed and unravelled, but never has the game been better played, than when the U- boat met the Q-ship.