Q is for Q-ship

a to z - q-ship U Boat & USfreighter

During the Great War, U-boats were a truly great menace. The Admiralty, being strapped for funds, did not have the resources to organize the convoys that were so successful during the Second World War and the depth charges of 1915 were primitive and fairly ineffective. The only way to sink a U-boat was to ram it or sink it with gunfire. The problem was how to lure it to the surface. The answer was the Q-ship. A Q-ship was a seemingly innocuous vessel, like a tramp steamer, a fishing trawler or a coastal cruiser sailing vessel that was in fact heavily armed with the guns camouflaged. The term Q-ship originates from their original home port, Queenstown in Ireland. It was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the Great War. In addition to their armament, the cargo holds were usually packed with floatable stuff like balsa wood, cork, or even sealed wooden caskets, so that even if they were torpedoed they would not sink very easily, again a lure to draw the U-boats in closer.

a to z QShip_aft_combo.jpg57c3c465-1b26-4ca8-9cee-05706151031aLargerQ-ship_gun

The first unassisted Q-ship victory (as opposed to a Q-ship posing purely as a decoy) was in July of 1915, when the Prince Charles, commanded by Lt. Mark Wardlaw, sank the U-36. The civilian crew received a cash award. Yes, it was not uncommon for Q-ship crews to be civilian, since they had to pose as civilians to maintain their appearance as slow fat civilian prizes. The method was this, that the ship would be converted from a freighter, for example, and armed to the teeth with cannon, which were then covered up with droppable panels. The freighter would then sail in sea lanes were U-boats were known to patrol. Often the U-boats would surface to sink vessels with gunfire in order to conserve their torpedoes. When the submarine was close enough, the vessel would drop the gun-camouflage panels, raise their battle ensign and open fire. By the way, it was necessary to raise the battle ensign first to maintain the legitimate use of the ruse de guerre or ruse of war. Deception has always been part of warfare, examples being the Royal Navy during their wars with the French flying under French flags until they were close enough to engage, which is known as flying false colors. Uses of ruse de guerre that are not legitimate would be firing from a hospital ship or combatants posing as medical personnel, basically anything that involves treachery or perfidy. The actions of Quisling or Benedict Arnold are prime example of that.

a to z - Q-Ship 2

So the Q-ship is within the ‘rules of war’. Eventually they were largely phased out because they were, overall, found to be not all that effective when compared to the cost. In the Great War, British Q-ships sunk a total of 14 U-boats against a cost of 27 Q-ships, and were only responsible for about 10% of U-boats sunk, which was below the use of minefields. That made service about one of them extremely hazardous duty, especially since the Germans sank them with some anger, having viewed them as being an underhanded tactic. Which is really backwards, since they were talking about a vessel intended as defense against submarines, who’s raison d-etre was undetected surprise attack. Is that ironic or not? You be the judge.

Q was a tough one for me. I’ll try harder for ‘R’.


3 thoughts on “Q is for Q-ship

  1. Bob, I really enjoyed this. I love a bit of subterfuge and have watched a few documentaries about the WWII convoys before.
    Yesterday morning at Palm Beach on Pittwater, we looked out and saw what looked like a pirate shop and thought it might have been from the Black Pearl from shooting the film Pirates of the Caribbean up on the Gold Coast. However, it turned out to be a ship called Notorious, a replica of a Portuguese Caravel. Keep an eye out. I’ll be sticking a post up either today or tomorrow. Might even get to go onboard next weekend.
    My post for today is “Living with Question Marks” and when I have more time, I’d like to revisit it and develop the ideas further. Today’s post is more of a fly-by tour. xx Rowena

    • Thanks, I’m glad some of my little scribblings are working out. Some of them I have trouble with, for instance ‘x’ is proving problematic. I will keep an eye out for your posts. xx

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