At the outset of World War One, submarines were constrained by the prize law regulations which placed an obligation on warships operating against merchant shipping – warning the ship to stop, examining papers and cargo and ensuring the safety of the crew. This required submarines to approach on the surface and communicate with the merchant ship. Q-Ships were submarine decoy ships, designed to look like a merchant ship to entice a German submarine to come within range of its concealed guns and to then sink the submarine.
In 1914 the submarine was a new weapon, yet to show its potential. Before the war nations had much difficulty coming to terms with the concept of a vessel that could attack surface ships while being invisible to the victim. This was considered by many to be somewhat dastardly and in 1901, the British Third Sea Lord and Controller of the Navy, Rear Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson VC, had suggested that submarines should treated as pirates in wartime and that the crews should be hanged. He later went so far as to suggest that submarines were “unfair, underhanded and damned un-English”.
On a more pragmatic note it was considered that submarines should be operated under the conventions of cruiser warfare, whereby they would approach ships, warning them to stop, examine papers and cargo and ensure the safety of the crew. This assumed that the merchant ship was not armed. However from the beginning of the war the Admiralty began to arm merchant ships.
British Third Sea Lord Rear Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson VC, suggested that submarines were “unfair, underhanded and damned un-English”
The other major problem faced by the Admiralty in 1914 was that there was no way of detecting submarines underwater. Directional listening devices (hydrophones) were developed by mid-1915, but these only gave the direction, not the distance away a submarine was. In favour of the surface ships was the fact that when underwater submarines were powered by batteries, which could only operate for a short time and to re-charge them required the submarine to be on the surface. Additionally the speed of a submarine beneath the water was very slow.
The ‘panic party’ would appear to abandon ship, leaving it seemingly unmanned. Once the submarine was in range the hidden guns would be un-masked, the White Ensign broken out and the submarine sunk.
As the war progressed, shipping losses increased and the concept of deceiving a submarine as to the true identity of its victim was proposed. This took the form of having a vessel which appeared to be an innocent merchant ship, but which was in fact armed. To enhance the illusion, false colours would be flown and on the approach of the submarine part of the crew, known as the ‘panic party’ would appear to abandon ship, leaving it seemingly unmanned. Once the submarine was in range the hidden guns would be un-masked, the White Ensign broken out and the submarine sunk.
On the part of the submarine, seeing the crew apparently abandon ship, it was then free to sink the vessel, usually by gunfire as torpedoes were carried in limited quantities and were also very expensive. This meant that the men remaining on board to man the guns had to endure accurate shell-fire, from close range, requiring discipline and courage of the highest order.
The first Q-Ship as these decoy vessels were known, the designation being taken from the letter of their pendant number, was commissioned in late 1914. To the Germans they were known as “trap” ships. About half of the Q-Ships were sailing vessels and the bulk of the others, colliers. During 1915 – 1917 the number of these vessels entering service increased to a peak of 49 in 1917, with the last being commissioned in mid-1918, a total of about 100. In addition to the mercantile conversions, the Admiralty built 39 sloops to resemble merchant vessels and these were also employed as Q-Ships.
All those who served in these ships were volunteers for what was termed “special service”. Amongst those who volunteered were a number of New Zealanders, including Bill Sanders, Walter Frame, James Jickell and Edward Grey, all of whom were decorated for gallantry, Sanders being awarded the Victoria Cross.
Notwithstanding the undoubted courage of those involved, the Q-Ship concept was not a success. Although in many of the actions, the submarine was seen to ‘sink’, it was actually seldom the case. In a post-war analysis, out of the 202 U Boats sunk during WWI, only ten sinkings were the result of action with a Q-Ship, the last being in June 1917 when HMS Pargust sank UC 29, the action for which Walter Frame received the Distinguished Service Cross. Additionally, coupled with the arming of merchant ships, they were a major factor leading to Germany abandoning the conventions of cruiser warfare by submarines and the institution of unrestricted submarine warfare, a move that almost won the war.