Killers in Drag: Q-ships

In 1915, depth charges were unsophisticated devices and not very successful, and the only way to sink a submarine was by shooting at them or ramming them while they were on the surface. The problem was in how to lure the U-boat to the surface where they could be fired upon. Q-ships (named for their home port of Queenstown, Ireland) were designed with this in mind. They were basically war ships with heavy weapons disguised as merchant ships, with lightweight “cargoes” consisting of materials such as balsa wood or cork which enabled the vessels to stay afloat in the event it was torpedoed. The U-boat would surface to seize a “merchant” ship, and once it was in position, the Q-ship would raise the British colors, bring out the hidden artillery and start firing.

Early in the war, German submarines usually surfaced before sinking a British cargo ship and gave the crew time to get off first. Only afterward did the Germans sink the ship, usually with its deck gun to save on valuable torpedoes. Sometimes, the Captain of the U-boat even radioed the British with the survivors’ location. The Q-ship took advantage of this act of chivalry and used the opportunity to shoot the Germans. Therefore, this noble procedure could no longer be safely followed.

The Q-ships were a deadly hazard to German ships during World War One. The first successful use of the U-Boot-Falle (“U-boat trap”) took place on June 23, 1915, when U-40 was sunk near Aberdeen Scotland. There were in total approximately 200 Q-ships used, and they were engaged about 150 times, during which 27 were lost. In all, they destroyed 14 U-boats and damaged 60, and were not that effective other than arousing disgust as whole crews were lost and in some cases, as illustrated below, massacred.

The British freighter Nicosian was hauling 750 mules from New Orleans to Liverpool, England on August 19, 1915 when it was stopped by German U-boat, U-27, about seventy miles from Queenstown. The submarine fired a warning shot from the port side of the Nicosian and allowed the crew to abandon ship. Suddenly, the a “cargo” ship appeared flying an American flag and bearing two name boards with the name ULYSSES S GRANT, USA. She signaled that she was going to rescue the crew, who were in lifeboats, but it was a ruse. She was really the British warship Baralong.

Once out of sight behind the Nicosian, and about a hundred yards from U-27, Baralong raised her British flag and opened fire, sinking U-27, killing six crew members on the ship instantly. Some of the German crew knocked into the water managed to swim to the nearby Nicosian hoping for a rescue, but the British shot at least six of those Germans who were struggling in the water, including the captain who had raised his arms in surrender. Then they boarded the Nicosian with orders to take no prisoners, and hunted down and shot the rest of the defenseless German sailors who had made it aboard. When the German government lodged protests over the massacre, the British denied that such an atrocity had occurred. However, some American mule-handlers who were aboard the Nicosian verified the horrible facts of the situation, and the dishonorable truth came to light. The media largely ignored it.