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. The use of Q-ships contributed to the abandonment of cruiser rules restricting attacks on unarmed merchant ships and to the shift to unrestricted submarine warfare in the 20th century.
They were used by the British Royal Navy (RN) and the German Kaiserliche Marine during the First World War and by the RN, the Kriegsmarine and the United States Navy during the Second World War (1939–45).
In the 1670s, HMS Kingfisher (1675) was specially designed to counter the attacks of Algerian corsairs or pirates in the Mediterranean by masquerading as a merchantman, hiding her armament behind false bulkheads. She was also provided with various means of changing her appearance.
First World War
In 1915, during the First Battle of the Atlantic, Britain was in desperate need of a countermeasure against the U-boats that were strangling her sea-lanes. Convoys, which had proved effective in earlier times (and would again prove effective during the Second World War), were rejected by the resource-strapped Admiralty and the independent captains. Depth charges of the time were relatively primitive, and almost the only chance of sinking a submarine was by gunfire or by ramming while on the surface. The problem was how to lure the U-boat to the surface.
A solution to this was the creation of the Q-ship, one of the most closely guarded secrets of the war. Their codename referred to the vessels' home port, Queenstown, in Ireland. These became known by the Germans as a U-Boot-Falle ("U-boat trap"). A Q-ship would appear to be an easy target, but in fact carried hidden armaments. A typical Q-ship might resemble a tramp steamer sailing alone in an area where a U-boat was reported to be operating. By seeming to be a suitable target for the U-boat's deck gun, a Q-ship might encourage the U-boat captain to make a surface attack rather than use one of his limited number of torpedoes. The Q-ships' cargoes were light wood (balsa or cork) or wooden casks, so that even if torpedoed they would remain afloat, encouraging the U-boat to surface to sink them with a deck gun. There might also be pretence of "abandoning ship" with some crew dressed as civilian mariners taking to a boat. Once the U-boat was vulnerable, the Q-ship's panels would drop to reveal the deck guns, which would immediately open fire. At the same time, the White Ensign (Royal Navy flag) would be raised. With the element of surprise, a U-boat could be quickly overwhelmed.
The first Q-ship victory was on 23 June 1915, when the submarine HMS C24, cooperating with the decoy vessel Taranaki, commanded by Lieutenant Frederick Henry Taylor CBE DSC RN, sank U-40 off Eyemouth. The first victory by an unassisted Q-ship came on 24 July 1915 when Prince Charles, commanded by Lieutenant Mark-Wardlaw, DSO, sank U-36. The civilian crew of Prince Charles received a cash award. The following month an even smaller converted fishing trawler renamed HM Armed Smack Inverlyon successfully destroyed UB-4 near Great Yarmouth. Inverlyon was an unpowered sailing ship fitted with a small 3 pounder (47 mm) gun. The British crew fired nine rounds from their 3-pounder into UB-4 at close range, sinking her with the loss of all hands despite the attempt of Inverlyon's skipper to rescue one surviving German submariner.
On 19 August 1915, Lieutenant Godfrey Herbert of HMS Baralong sank U-27, which was preparing to attack a nearby merchant ship, the Nicosian. About a dozen of the U-boat sailors survived and swam towards the merchant ship. Herbert, allegedly fearing that they might scuttle her, ordered the survivors to be shot in the water and sent a boarding party to kill all who had made it aboard. This became known as the "Baralong Incident".
HMS Farnborough (Q-5) sank SM U-68 on 22 March 1916. Her commander, Gordon Campbell, was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC). New Zealanders Lieutenant Andrew Dougall Blair and Sub-Lieutenant William Edward Sanders VC, DSO faced three U-boats simultaneously in the Helgoland (Q.17) while becalmed and without engines or wireless. Forced to return fire early, they managed to sink one U-boat and avoid two torpedo attacks. Sanders was promoted to lieutenant-commander, eventually commanding HMS Prize. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for an action on 30 April 1917 with U-93, which was severely damaged.
Perhaps remembering the early action aboard Q.17, Sanders waited, while his ship sustained heavy shellfire, until the submarine was within 80 yards, whereupon he hoisted the White Ensign and the Prize opened fire. The submarine appeared to sink and he claimed a victory. However, the badly damaged submarine managed to struggle back to port. With his ship accurately described by the survivors of U-93, Sanders and his crewmen were all killed in action when they attempted a surprise attack on U-43 on 14 August 1917.
There may have been as many as 366 Q-ships, of which 61 were lost. After the war, it was concluded that Q-ships were greatly overrated, diverting skilled seamen from other duties without sinking enough U-boats to justify the strategy. In a total of 150 engagements, British Q-ships destroyed 14 U-boats and damaged 60, at a cost of 27 Q-ships lost out of 200. Q-ships were responsible for about 10% of all U-boats sunk, ranking them well below the use of ordinary minefields in effectiveness.
The Imperial German Navy commissioned six Q-boats during the Great War for the Baltic Sea into the Handelsschutzflottille. None were successful in destroying enemy submarines. The German Q-ship Schiff K heavily damaged the Russian submarine Gepard of the Bars-class on 27 May 1916. The famous Möwe and Wolf were merchant raiders.
A surviving example of the Q-ships is HMS Saxifrage, a Flower-class sloop of the Anchusa group completed in 1918. She was renamed HMS President in 1922 and served as the London Division RNR drill ship until 1988, when she was sold privately and remains moored at King's Reach on the Thames.
The United States had the USS Gold Star (AK-12), a civilian cargo ship purchased in 1922. During the 1920s and 1930s Gold Star became a familiar sight in the far-flung ports of Asia. Though assigned as flagship of the US Navy at Guam she made frequent voyages to Japan, China, and the Philippines with cargo and passengers. Prior to World War II, much of her crew was made up of Chamorro, natives of Guam with American non-commissioned officers and commissioned officers.
Gold Star became a bit of a veteran Q-Ship dealing with communications intelligence as she moved from port to port and while in port in the Orient. As a station ship she was assigned to monitor 1) Internal Japanese Fleet frequencies 2) Frequencies measurements and DF or direction finder azimuths. She had three intercept operators and one chief radioman supervised by an officer. This all started in 1933 during the reconstruction of the Japanese fleet by Tokyo and continued into the summer of 1941. Gold Star along with ground stations in Guam, Olongapo and Beijing provided significant intelligence before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Second World War
Germany employed at least 13 Q-ships, including the German "Dutch" Atlantis, which sank a number of ships with a total tonnage of 145,960t including the Norwegian tanker Tirranna on 10 June 1940, and Schürbeck which sank the British submarine HMS Tarpon.
- 610-ton HMS Chatsgrove (X85) ex-Royal Navy P-class sloop PC-74 built 1918
- 5,072-ton HMS Maunder (X28) ex-King Gruffyd built 1919
- 4,443-ton HMS Prunella (X02) ex-Cape Howe built 1930
- 5,119-ton HMS Lambridge (X15) ex-Botlea built 1917
- 4,702-ton HMS Edgehill (X39) ex-Willamette Valley built 1928
- 5,945-ton HMS Brutus (X96) ex-City of Durban built 1921
- 4,398-ton HMS Cyprus (X44) ex-Cape Sable built 1936
- 1,030-ton HMS Looe (X63) ex-Beauty built 1924
- 1,090-ton HMS Antoine (X72) ex-Orchy built 1930
Prunella and Edgehill were torpedoed and sunk on 21 and 29 June 1940 without even sighting a U-Boat. The rest of the vessels were paid off in March 1941 without successfully accomplishing any mission.
The last Royal Navy Q-ship, 2,456-ton HMS Fidelity, was converted in September, 1940, to carry a torpedo defense net, four 4-inch (10-cm) guns, four torpedo tubes, two OS2U Kingfisher float planes, and Motor Torpedo Boat 105. Fidelity sailed with a French crew, and was sunk by U-435 on 30 December 1942 during the battle for Convoy ON-154.
By January 12, 1942, the British Admiralty's intelligence community had noted a "heavy concentration" of U-boats off the "North American seaboard from New York to Cape Race" and passed along this fact to the United States Navy. That day, U-123 under Kapitänleutnant Reinhard Hardegen, torpedoed and sank the British steamship Cyclops, inaugurating Paukenschlag (literally, "a strike on the kettledrum" and sometimes referred to in English as "Operation Drumbeat"). U-boat commanders found peacetime conditions prevailing along the coast: towns and cities were not blacked-out and navigational buoys remained lit; shipping followed normal routines and "carried the normal lights." Paukenschlag had caught the United States unprepared.
Losses mounted rapidly. On January 20, 1942, Commander-in-Chief, United States Fleet (Cominch), sent a coded dispatch to Commander, Eastern Sea Frontier (CESF), requesting immediate consideration of the manning and fitting-out of "Queen" ships to be operated as an antisubmarine measure. The result was "Project LQ."
Five vessels were acquired and converted secretly at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Kittery, Maine:
- the Boston beam trawler MS Wave, which briefly became the auxiliary minesweeper USS Eagle (AM-132) before becoming USS Captor (PYc-40),
- SS Evelyn and Carolyn, identical cargo vessels that became USS Asterion (AK-100) and USS Atik (AK-101) respectively,
- the tanker SS Gulf Dawn, which became USS Big Horn (AO-45), and
- the schooner Irene Myrtle, which became USS Irene Forsyte (IX-93).
The careers of all five ships were almost entirely unsuccessful and very short, with USS Atik sunk on its first patrol; all Q-ships patrols ended in 1943.
American Q-ships also operated in the Pacific Ocean. One was USS Anacapa (AG-49) formerly the lumber transport Coos Bay which was converted to Q-ship duty as project "Love William". Anacapa was not successful in engaging any enemy submarines, although she is believed to have damaged two friendly subs with depth charges when they were improperly operating in her vicinity. Anacapa was also withdrawn from Q-ship duty in 1943 and served out the remainder of World War II as an armed transport in the South Pacific and Aleutian Islands.
The Imperial Japanese Navy converted the 2,205-ton merchant ship, Delhi Maru, into a Q-ship. On 15 January 1944, she departed from Nagaura (now Sodegaura on Tokyo Bay) on her first mission in company with the submarine chaser Ch-50 and the netlayer Tatu Maru. At 22:00 that evening, the vessels were detected by the USN Navy submarine USS Swordfish (SS-193), which launched three torpedoes. Delhi Maru was hit by all three on her port bow; following a number of internal explosions, she broke in two, the forward section sinking immediately and the aft section sinking later in heavy seas. Although the Swordfish was depth charged by Ch-50, she escaped unscathed.
Proposed use against modern pirates
Attacks on merchant ships by pirates originating on the Somalia coast have brought suggestions from some security experts that Q-ships be used again to tempt pirates into attacking a well-defended ship.
Q-ships in fiction
Malcolm Lowry's novel Under the Volcano (1947) tells the story of Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic British consul in the small Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, on the Day of the Dead, 2 November 1938. Geoffrey Firmin reflects back to his time as a naval officer during World War I, when he was court-martialed and subsequently decorated for his actions aboard a Q-Ship (the captured German officers disappeared and were allegedly burned alive in the boiler).
In Nevil Shute's novel Lonely Road (1932) the main character, Malcolm Stevenson, was a Royal Navy Lieutenant on the Q-ship Jane Ellen which sank a U-boat in World War 1.
The climactic battle of the novel Run Silent, Run Deep by Edward L. Beach pits main character "Rich" Richardson's U.S. submarine, Eel, against a Japanese anti-submarine team consisting of a Q-ship, the destroyer Akikaze, and a submarine. This team had killed several U.S. subs, two of them commanded by close friends of Richardson. Coordinated by the destroyer, the Japanese sub would ambush the American while it focused on shooting at the Q-ship.
In the Clive Cussler book series Oregon Files, the main base of operations is a Q-ship, a converted lumber carrier. The crew are mercenaries and former US covert and military personnel who carry out missions around the world in support of US policy while earning their living performing mercenary operations.
As with other naval concepts, the idea of a Q-ship has also been applied to space vessels in fictional works:
Q-ships feature prominently in David Weber's Honor Harrington series of books. Harrington destroys a Q-ship in the first novel, On Basilisk Station, and commands a squadron of Q-ships in the sixth novel, Honor Among Enemies. Harrington's snotty cruise captain, Thomas Bachfisch, commands a pair of privately owned Q-ships in the tenth in the series, War of Honor.
A Q-ship is the first command of Kimball Kinnison in the 1937 science fiction novel Galactic Patrol.
In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Return to Grace", Major Kira and Gul Dukat convert a Cardassian freighter into a Q-ship to pursue a Klingon vessel which had destroyed an outpost.
In the Star Fleet Universe (based on Star Trek), all major spacefaring races use Q-ships disguised as small and large freighters as convoy escorts to thwart attacks from enemy races and the Orion Pirates.
In the Shatnerverse, a series of Star Trek novels co-authored by William Shatner that are not a part of the non-canonic expanded universe's continuity, Captain James T. Kirk commands the S.S. Belle Reve, one of Starfleet's best Q-Ships.
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- Commerce raiding
- Unrestricted submarine warfare
- Tonnage war
- Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907
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- Armed merchantmen
- CAM ship
- Merchant aircraft carrier
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