The secret U-Boat killers and their Royal Navy crews during the Great War at sea
The idea of the Q ship as a decoy vessel is not new for they were employed by the Royal Navy in the 17th century to lure Mediterranean pirates to destruction. However, by 1915 during the First World War the war at sea was becoming desperate for the allies. To ensure ultimate victory British and French armies needed materiel from America which was, of course, carried to Europe in merchant vessels. Germany knew that its surface fleet of warships would be unable to neutralise the Royal Navy and so created the U-Boat submarine fleet to significantly disrupt the security of the Atlantic crossing for merchant vessels. One of the more imaginative allied responses to deal with this threat was the creation of Q ships (a code name taken from the vessels home port of Queenstown in Ireland) which would appear to be vulnerable merchant men but which would carry hidden armaments that would be quickly brought in action by special crews whenever a U-Boat made a surface attack. Panels would drop on the side of the Q ships, the White Ensign would be run up the mast and the U-Boat was usually doomed, though this was a perilous pursuit and of the 366 Q ships employed during the course of the war, 66 were lost in action. The vulnerability of the Atlantic crossing was ultimately resolved when the United States joined the war and an effective destroyer escort force based on both sides of the ocean could guard the merchant fleets throughout their voyage. Nevertheless this story of the Q ships, which had their moment in the history of naval warfare, is fascinating and is recommended.
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At 2.30 p.m. the ‘ketch’ proved her submarine identity by opening fire, the first shot falling 10 yards clear of the brigantine’s beam. Probus then hove-to, the crew went to action stations, and the boat was got ready to be launched, while the submarine kept up a rapid fire from about 4,000 yards, shells falling unpleasantly close. By now Probus was heading about S.W. with fore-yards aback, and, owing to the light wind, was making a stern board. Then her head fell round slowly to the west. The enemy was now bearing about W. to W.S.W., firing rapidly, and heading to the south-east so as to cross the brigantine’s bows. It was a beautifully clear summer’s afternoon, and you could see the convoy and the smoke from the escorting trawler quite easily. After the submarine had maintained a continuous long-range fire for ten minutes, Probus ran up the White Ensign, and at 3,500 yards opened fire with her starboard 12-pounder. The first round fell 500 yards short, but the crew of the submarine’s gun hurriedly left their station and made for the conning-tower. The second shot seemed to be a hit, for the enemy, lying across the brigantine’s bows, stopped, and a large cloud of smoke went up, and he temporarily ceased fire.
Probus then went about on the other tack, and the enemy took advantage of this to resume firing, while shots began to fall all round; but the port 12-pounder of the British ship now came into action, and the fourth shot was certainly another hit, for it dismantled the German’s sails and mast, and raised a cloud of smoke from the fore part of the conning-tower. Shelling continued, and the enemy was compelled to submerge, Probus’s parting shot hitting him on the top of the conning-tower. It was now about 3.30 p.m., and nothing was seen of the German until a quarter of an hour later, when he was sighted 6 miles away approaching Probus. He had probably been stopping his shell-holes, and was now ready to give the sailing ship the knock-out blow; but the armed trawler, with its fishermen crew eager to have a hand in the fight, was by this time making towards the submarine, and this compelled the German to break off the engagement and scurry to the north-east.
Unfortunately, this duel demonstrated yet again the great weakness of the sailing ship as a man-of-war. In the olden days, when the swift-moving galley fought the sailing carrack or caravel, the galley was able to press home her attack if the weather fell light, and left the other ship rolling helpless in the calm, with yards and tackle grievously creaking and chafing. The submarine is the modern galley, and the Q-sailing-ship is the carrack’s counterpart. As long as there was a good breeze she could be manoeuvred, and if there was a hard breeze it would make it difficult for the enemy’s gunnery. Probus was practically becalmed, so the submarine could run rings round her, and the sailing ship could not be worked up to windward. Of course, on these and similar occasions troubles seldom come singly; for when the brigantine Probus made a stern board her starboard propeller had fouled the log-line, so this was out of action. However, Probus resumed her original course, followed the convoy, and in spite of the light airs duly arrived at Morlaix on June 25.
Although the submarine escaped, Probus had succeeded in luring him from the convoy, and had sent him right away. These sailing Q-ships became, in fact, one of the best types of escort for other sailing vessels in convoy, and thus allowed armed steam patrol vessels to be employed elsewhere. Looking in no way different from the rest of the convoy, but fitted with concealed wireless and, later, even with howitzer armament, they had a much better chance than the armed trawler or destroyer of enticing the submarine. Apart altogether from these important considerations, the scheme of carrying freights was a big financial success, and Probus paid for herself over and over again. It was nothing unusual for her to earn over £1,000 a month. Naturally enough, then, we find other sailing ships being taken up for this dual work.