Join Date: Aug 2005
THE TACTICS OF THE Q-BOATS
I HAPPENED to be on a mission in England and had a chance one day to lunch with a friend at a base where the Q-Boats put in for supplies. Despite the fact that he was a lieutenant-commander attached to the General Staff, he was for the moment Quartermaster on board the Pargust, commanded by Gordon Campbell.
Campbell himself was not there, but around the table was ranged the strangest assortment of men I have ever seen. They were dressed in second-hand clothing and almost no one had shaved for a week (the week it took us to get from Dunkerque to the base); their language, their attitude, their manners, were all assumed. These officers certainly gave one the impression of being the lowest type of tramp sailors.
Even among tramp sailors there is a certain order and neatness; there was no trace of anything of the sort in the men about me. It was incomprehensible. My friend had been watching me, a smile on his face. Suddenly he asked: "You don't. seem to feel at home! What could there possibly be here to disturb you?"
"Well-nothing, I assure you! Except that as I know you all, I don't quite get the idea of your "disguise.' "
"I assure you that all this is not for disguise. We have voluntarily 'resigned' for the duration of the war. I'll tell you why."
"As long as the 'Huns' (the nickname, you remember, that our English friends applied to the Germans) didn't know that there were such things as Q-Boats, every day as regularly as clockwork, one or more of their submarines would fall into the trap. Now all that is changed and we have on our hands a contest which, distasteful as it is to people of our temperament, is none the less necessary. As it is our ambition to lure the submarines within range of our guns, we have been forced to assume the outward appearance of a merchant ship. As you know, there couldn't be a greater contrast than between a sailor in the royal navy and one on a merchantman. To play our part successfully, we have had to imitate all of the characteristics of tramp sailors. There now remains nothing at all about us that, whether seen at a distance or close at hand, might lead to our being mistaken for military men. We have been advised to assume the uncouth carriage, the speech, and the untidy dress of the lowest type of sailor.
"As our officers are really distinguished men, and as many of our comrades are of high rank in the service, it is a hardship to obey orders and not to show them any signs of respect. We address them, pipes in our mouths and hands in our pockets, for who can be sure that somewhere there isn't a periscope peeking at us. . . . You may be sure that our crew is much larger than that of the usual merchantman; but while we are at sea there must never be more men on deck than there would be on a freighter. The rest are hidden away between decks, in the hold---anywhere, so long as no one can see them.
"On land the orders are the same. We are absolutely forbidden to abandon our pose. There might---as you, better than anyone else, should know---be spies watching. If instead of hanging. about in sailors' saloons, we went to clubs or first-class hotels, you can well imagine how soon we should be found out. That must never happen. Consequently all of us, regardless of rank, have had to give up the pleasures of family life upon entering this service. Each of us is married; we all have children. Yet as long as the war lasts none of us will see our wives or our little ones!
"As with our persons, so with our boats. They are camouflaged. And it is so well done that scarcely a day passes that we are not hailed by French or even by English warships. At first our guns were on deck concealed by netting. For a while that was enough. We had merely to push a lever and the netting fell to the deck leaving the guns in position to blaze away at the submarine. Now they have become suspicious. Before hailing us they examine us minutely through the periscope and if anything at all is out of the ordinary, they submerge and depart. It thus became necessary to conceal the guns in the hatches and the life-boats. By means of a very simple mechanism they may still be uncovered and fired in a jiffy. To all appearances the only gun on the boat is the one in the stern, such as all freighters carry. If we did not have that, the submarine would be suspicious.
Seeing that from a distance, they are sure that we are just an ordinary freighter. That is what we are hoping for.
"As soon as they come within range we fire a few shells, taking good care to make no direct hits. As our shells consistently fall short, they become self-confident. They suppose they are toying with a 'pop-gun.' They continue to approach and, at last sure that we are harmless, they order us to cease firing. Of course we obey instantly. Taking us for neutrals, they order us to prepare the life-boats, to take the crew off, and to row away. We obey them, merely taking the precaution of turning so that our guns are in perfect position to open fire. Approaching confidently with the intention of taking possession of our belongings, our provisions, or our papers, the submarine finally gets within good range. It rises to the surface and, when its gun is ready, it fires a shell, usually aiming it at the engine room which it supposes to be our most vulnerable spot.
"That is a tragic moment for those of our comrades who have remained on board and who, eyes fixed on the submarine, are getting ready to sink it. They are forbidden to make any move. They must keep up the deception. If one of them is wounded by the explosion of a shell, he must make no sound. As the crew is supposed to be in the life-boats, we must not let them know that anyone is on board. As the first shell doesn't have the desired effect, the submarine comes closer to send a second one home more accurately. This is the moment we have waited for. An order rings out and our guns are suddenly uncovered. They deliver a broadside that sends the submarine to the bottom."
"How absolutely wonderful," I exclaimed.
"Oh. it's just a matter of getting used to it. Do you want me to tell you the greatest deed ever accomplished by a Q-Boat?"
As you can imagine, I answered affirmatively, and this is what he told me.
"That day---it was in August, 1917---our ship, the Dunraven, was cruising in the Gulf of Gascony. Any sailor would have taken it for one of those tramps which at that time used to ply between England and the Levant by way of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean. They usually had a cargo of food and munitions for the Allied troops in the Orient. As a matter of fact the Dunraven, commanded by Gordon Campbell himself, although it apparently carried only the one useless gun in the stern, was heavily armed. Not only were cannon hidden about everywhere but in tubes in the prow we also had two torpedoes all ready for action.
That was the lay of the land when one day at daybreak a submarine caught sight of us and gave chase. As soon as we saw it we pretended to be scared to death. We put on full speed, zigzagging as we went, as though to avoid a torpedo, and then we began to open up at the submarine . . . taking great care not to hit it. That was, I can tell you, a great hardship for our gunners. All of them, or almost all, were officers intensively trained for such shooting. With anything but a 57 they would have taken the greatest delight in sending the submarine to the bottom with one shot, had they received permission to do so. But it would have been stupid to risk so much out of mere pride in their marksmanship. All of us on board had just one wish---to lure the submarine within safe range, and then to open fire.
In about three-quarters of an hour, the submarine fired a shell which seemed to have been well directed. A thick cloud of black smoke arose from the engine room. The smoke really came from tubes concealed on deck. It arose in thicker and thicker clouds so that the Huns, not guessing the truth, naturally felt sure that they had done serious damage to our vessel.
Immediately after the firing of that shell, the commander ordered us to stop and to launch the lifeboats. Our Panic Party, that is, those of us whose task it was to pretend to be terrified, got to work at once and arranged our little byplay so well that two of the boats tipped over as they were being lowered, dumping their occupants into the sea. We on board could hear the German sailors laughing and cheering. Such desperate confusion struck them as first-class entertainment. The swimmers were fished out and, following directions, the boats departed in the direction agreed upon. They chose their course so as to bring the submarine within range of our guns if it should decide to take a chance on inspecting the life-boats to make sure what was in them.
Unfortunately they didn't bite. Closing in to within three hundred meters of the Dunraven, they fired three more shots at us and this time they did real damage. The first of these shells ignited a bomb containing seventy pounds of cordite. The explosion hurled the officer who was in charge of the firing off his feet. Although he was seriously wounded, the officer crawled back to his post with the greatest composure and without saying a word. Two other shells had just burst in the midst of the powder magazine. Soon clouds of smoke---and this time they were not fake---showed Commander Gordon Campbell that his ship was doomed to blow up. Aware of the danger, he was on the verge of giving the order to open fire when a gust of wind blew the smoke between him and the submarine, entirely blotting out his adversary. It was out of the question to fire under such conditions; not only would they have failed to score a hit, but they would have put the enemy completely to flight.
Sentimentality does not carry much weight on the Q-Boats. As our duty was to sink the submarine, even if the whole boat was in flames, it was up to us to risk being roasted alive or blown to pieces by the explosion of the shells in the hold. There was nothing for it but to wait until the submarine was within range again. Looking death straight in the face, Gordon Campbell decided to do this. Therefore, we waited until the submarine, which was as annoyed as we were, had circled our boat so as to get into position to fire more shells. Meanwhile, fire was raging in the powder magazine. The iron deck on which the sailors were crouching grew hotter from minute to minute. These brave men, oblivious to danger and disdainful of their pain, had but one worry.
They must not let themselves be seen and thus betray the true nature of the ship!
When the submarine finally came into range, Gordon Campbell was about to order us to open fire, when, unfortunately, the hold in which the munitions were stored blew up. The 100 mm. gun which was ready for action was blown into the air along with the officers, range finders, and sailors who operated it. As soon as the Huns saw the explosion, they realized that they were mixed up with a trap-boat and they made haste to submerge and disappear.
Knowing them as we did, we were perfectly sure that we were about to be torpedoed. That was what happened. Scarcely had we recovered from the first shock of the explosion in the hold when we felt another, caused by a torpedo of which we could hardly see the wake. Even more disastrous than the first one, this second explosion put out of order the last of our means of communication. The telephones would no longer work; the speaking tubes had long since been destroyed. Although the entire stern was on fire, Gordon Campbell was not down-hearted. He knew he could still rely upon two of the guns and the torpedoes. He conceived the wild idea of launching a second Panic Party on a raft and the one remaining life-boat. Several men carried the dead and wounded down to the raft, which was then taken in tow by the life-boat.
The commander's idea, of course, was to coax the Germans into believing that the Dunraven, in flames and abandoned by the last remnant of her crew, was harmless and that nothing could be easier than to finish her off. Crouched down on deck, joking with his gunners, he kept careful watch of the submarine as it rose slowly to the surface towards the stern of the Dunraven. From that position not one of our guns could reach it. Although our boat was on fire (for the fire raged during the entire four hours that the struggle lasted) and the flames kept creeping up farther and farther, the submarine feared some new surprise and kept shelling us, sweeping our decks' with shrapnel. At last, satisfied that nothing on board had survived, it came out into the open.
That was what Gordon Campbell was waiting for. With the enemy to one side and in plain sight, we launched a torpedo that missed them by a few inches. We cried with rage! Luckily they didn't notice it and continued to go forward. We launched a second torpedo. It struck home, and the submarine plunged to the bottom of the sea. The Dunraven soon followed suit. Although it contained large quantities of wood and cork, which should have made it impossible to sink it, they had been destroyed by the fire, and slowly the ship disappeared beneath the waves.
Gordon Campbell, as calm as ever amid the wreckage of his ship, at length sent out an SOS. A few minutes later the American yacht Norma and the English destroyers Alcock and Christopher arrived on the scene of battle. We climbed aboard as the last of the good ship Dunraven vanished into the sea. . . .
"Perfectly marvelous," I exclaimed. "That is one of the most heroic deeds performed during the war!"
My friend smiled, then he added,
"Oh, you French! You call that an heroic deed! How do you describe what is at this moment happening at Verdun? We 'held the line' against the Huns for four hours! But at Verdun they've been doing it for six months, and against the whole German army! No. That is the most heroic act of the war."
While he spoke, all the officers present---each wearing the ribbon of the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration that an Englishman can receive---stood at attention, eyes fixed on the word Verdun which glittered from the military map on the wall, and saluted.
I know of nothing more touching than that salute by heroic British sailors in honor of our heroic soldiers.
( On Special Missions - chapter 5, by Charles Lucieto, of the Allied Secret Service, 1927)
BTW, you should also read:
* chapter 3 - How Germany Almost Won the War
* chapter 4 - At Grips with the German Submarines
* chapter 10 - Why the Germans Decided to Sink Ships so as to Leave No Trace of Them
* chapter 11 - A Trip to Cattaro, the Austro-German Submarine Base
* chapter 12 - Some Dastardly "Work" Done by the German Submarines on Our Coast
* chapter 13 - Destroyer and Airplane Against Submarine
You know what's funny ? This article
describes the same event,
but there is a little
difference, both torpedoes fired by HMS Dunraven missed,
and the U-boat escaped...it was UC-71, commanded by Oberleutnant zur See Reinhold Saltzwedel...
you'll find an article about the real fate of UC-71. (written in german)