British First World War Q-ship HMS Tamarisk

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) and the German Kaiserliche Marine during the First World War and by both the RN, the Kriegsmarine and the United States Navy during the Second World War (1939–45).

Early uses

In the 1670s, HMS Kingfisher (1675) was specially designed to counter the attacks of Algerine 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.

During the French Revolutionary Wars, a French brig, disguised as a merchantman with hidden guns and most of her crew below decks, was beaten off by the privateer lugger Vulture out of Jersey.[1]:183

First World War

In the First Battle of the Atlantic, Britain was by 1915 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.[2] 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. The crew might even pretend to "abandon ship". 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.

Q-ship Cymric sank RN submarine J6, in error. Pictured here in her WWII neutral livery. Oil painting by Kenneth King from the National Maritime Museum of Ireland

The first Q-ship victory was on 23 June 1915, when U-40 was sunk off Eyemouth by the submarine HMS C24, cooperating with the decoy vessel Taranaki, commanded by Lieutenant Frederick Henry Taylor CBE DSC RN. The first victory by an unassisted Q-ship came on 24 July 1915 when the 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 9 rounds from the 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. 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.[3] Forced to return fire early they managed to sink one U boat and avoid two torpedo attacks.[4] 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.

HMS President in the Thames

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.[5] 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.[6] 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 [7] 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.

USS Gold Star (AG-12), at anchor off Sitka, Alaska, in September 1922, before her partial conversion into a communication intelligence ship in 1933

Interim period

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.[8]

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.[9]

Second World War

Yeomen and supply clerks of USS Anacapa (AG-49) exhibiting non-regulation attire typical of Q-ship duty to imitate merchant ships.

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.

Nine Q-ships were commissioned by the Royal Navy in September and October 1939 for work in the North Atlantic:[10]

Hinged flaps aft of the anchor hid 3-inch guns aboard USS Anacapa.

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.[11]

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.[10]

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."

SS Carolyn, aka USS Atik AK-101

Five vessels were acquired and converted secretly at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Kittery, Maine:[12]

The careers of all five ships were almost entirely unsuccessful and very short, with USS Atik sunk on its first patrol;[2] 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.[13]

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.[14]

Q-ships in fiction

In Ernest Hemingway's novel Islands in the Stream the main character Thomas Hudson commands a Q-ship for the US Navy around Cuba as he hunts the survivors of a sunken German U-boat.

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 James H. Cobb's novel Phantom Force (2005) the main character Amanda Lee Garrett commands a modern Q-ship of the US Navy. In contrast to other Q-ships this ship is not a retrofitted merchant vessel but a newly constructed military vessel built to look like a bulk carrier. The main deck of the Q-ship can be converted to a flight deck. The ship is capable to deploy several rotary wing aircraft and amphibious vehicles that are stored in its cargo holds. In the novel the ship is used to intervene in a military coup in Indonesia while the United States formally do not intervene.

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.

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.[15]

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.

See also


  1. Jamieson, A.G. A people of the sea. Methuen. ISBN 0-416-40540-1.
  2. 1 2 Beyer, Kenneth M.: Q-Ships versus U-Boats. America's Secret Project. Naval Institute Press. Annapolis, Maryland, USA. 1999. ISBN 1-55750-044-4
  3. http://tauranga.kete.net.nz/remembering_war/images/show/6325-helgoland-q17
  4. "WWI Special Service - Q ship or Mystery ship operations".
  5. McMullen, Chris (2001). "Royal Navy 'Q' Ships". Retrieved 14 December 2011.
  6. Preston, Anthonu (1982). Submarines. London: Bison Books. p. 58. ISBN 0-86124-043-X.
  7. Lutz Bengelsdorf: Der Seekrieg in der Ostsee 1914-1918 Hauschild, Bremen 2008, p. 94-98, 106-108. ISBN 978-3-89757-404-5.
  8. Lademan, J. U. Jr. (1973). USS Gold Star - Flagship of the Guam Navy. December 1973. United States Naval Institute Proceedings. pp. 68–69. Retrieved May 24, 2012.
  9. National Security Agency - Naval Security Agency Report (1986). "The Origination and Evolution of Radio Traffic Analysis - The Period between the Wars" (PDF). NSA. National Security Agency. Retrieved June 4, 2014. DOCID: 3362395 - Approved for Release by NSA. on 06-16-2008, FOIA Case #51505 - UNCLASSIFIED See pages 31 & 32.
  10. 1 2 Lenton, H.T. and Colledge, J.J.: British and Dominion Warships of World War II, 1968, p. 279
  11. Marder, Arthur: "The Influence of History on Sea Power: The Royal Navy and the Lessons of 1914–1918", The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 41, No. 4. (Nov., 1972), pp. 413–443.
  12. New Hampshire v. Maine, 426 U.S. 363 (1977)
  13. Howard, Ed. "The Short Life of the First Japanese Q-Ship". www.subsowespac.org. Retrieved 22 September 2016.
  14. "Use Q ships against pirates?". Safety at Sea International. Lloyd's Register. 9 April 2009. Retrieved 2009-04-11.
  15. http://baencd.thefifthimperium.com/09-AtAllCostsCD/AtAllCostsCD/War%20of%20Honor/0743435451___4.htm
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