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Gordon Campbell and the Crew that Won 5 VCs

The 11 medals, including the Victoria Cross, awarded to Vice Admiral Gordon Campbell were recently sold at auction for £840,000, a record for a set of British medals. Most VCs sold in recent years have been bought by Lord Ashcroft, part of whose collection is on display at the Imperial War Museum. Campbell’s medals, however, were bought by his great nephew Lorne Thyssen-Bornemisza. He intends to display them in a British museum. The seller, the Fellowship of St John (UK) Trust Association, intends to use the proceeds to support a number of charitable projects.

Campbell was born in Croydon, Surrey on 6 January 1886, although his family were originally from Airds, Argyll. He was educated at Dulwich College. At the outbreak of the First World War he was a Lieutenant-Commander captaining HMS Bittern, an elderly destroyer. In September 1915, bored with escort duties, he volunteered for ‘special service’ and found himself captain of an elderly collier called Loderer that was fitted as a Q-ship, one of a number of apparently innocuous merchant ship that were manned by the RN and given heavy but concealed armaments. She was renamed HMS Farnborough before going into action.

Farnborough was initially armed with a Maxim machine gun in a fake hen coop abaft the funnel, a 12 pounder gun in a fake engine housing aft and two 12 pounder amidships, one on each side, hidden behind gunwales. The gunwales and the walls of the fake hen coop and engine housing were hinged so that they could easily fall and the staff that would fly a neutral flag would fall with the fake engine housing to avoid any risk that Farnborough might open fire whilst flying neutral colours. Campbell managed to obtain two more 12 pounders, which were housed in fake extensions to cabins just forward of the funnel, and two 6 pounders, which were placed on the wings of the bridge, behind easily removable screens.

The early drafts of men for Q-ships had mostly comprised hard men with poor disciplinary records, either because such men were thought to be suited to this type of work or because they were the most expendable. In fact it required very disciplined men. Eventually highly disciplined and efficient men were recruited and trained.

Farnborough would have carried a crew of about six officers and 24 men but as a warship needed 11 officers and 56 men in order to work her armament. It would have been very suspicious if they had appeared on deck on their way to their action stations, so Campbell arranged a series of trap doors and hidden alley ways to allow them to get to their gun and lookout positions without being seen.[1]

Although most of a Q-ship’s crew would remain concealed when a U-boat was sighted, a small number would appear on deck and pretend to panic, making deliberately clumsy attempts to abandon ship. The last man off HMS Farnborough would carry a large cage containing a stuffed parrot.[2]

Farnborough was commissioned on 21 October 1915, but did not encounter any U-boats until 22 March 1916 She was off the coast of Kerry when U68 (Kapitänleutnant Ludwig Güntzel) fired a torpedo at her. Farnborough ignored the torpedo, so U68 surfaced and fired a shot across her bows. The British ship’s crew appeared to be abandoning ship, so U68 closed to 800 yards and attempted to sink her by gunfire.

Farnborough, however, raised the White Ensign, revealed her guns and opened fire. Her crew believed that they scored hits before U68 dived. Campbell took his ship over the spot at which the U-boat had dived and dropped a depth charge. U68 shot out of the water, her bow clearly damaged. Five more shots were fired into the base of her conning tower before she dived again. Farnborough dropped two more depth charges. A lot of oil and some wood fragments came to the surface. Nothing more was seen of U68 or her crew. Campbell was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, two other officers the Distinguished Service Cross and three men the Distinguished Service Medal.[3]

Farnborough’s next action came on 17 February 1917. At 9:45 am on she was flying a Norwegian flag when  U83 (Kapitänleutnant Bruno Hoppe) fired a torpedo at her. Her guns and most of her crew remained concealed whilst the panic party attempted to abandon ship.

U83 at first watched through her periscope, coming within 10 yard of Farnborough. She then surfaced about 300 yard from the Q-ship. Campbell held his fire until all his ship’s guns were bearing. Her first shot hit the conning tower and allegedly decapitated Hoppe. Farnborough fired 45 shells at U83 from point blank range.[4]

Only eight of the submariners managed to get into the oily water as their boat sank, and Farnborough’s boat could find only two of them, one of whom died after being rescued.[5]

Farnborough was badly damaged and sinking. Campbell signalled:

From Q5. To Vice-Admiral Queenstown, via Valencia. 12.00 hours, Feb 17th, Q5 slowly sinking respectfully wishes you goodbye 1110.[6]

However, the destroyer HMS Narwhal arrived before noon and took Farnborough’s crew off her. The sloops HMS Buttercup and Laburnum took her under tow. She listed badly at 3:30 am on 18 February, but managed to reach Mill Cove in County Cork, where she was beached at 9:20 pm.

Campbell, by now promoted Commander, was awarded the VC, two other officers the DSO, three the DSC, seven petty officers or ratings the DSM and another a bar to a DSM previously awarded. The other 25 members of the crew were Mentioned in Dispatches.[7]

Following the loss of HMS Farnborough, Campbell was given command of another Q-ship. She was a 3,000 ton 10 year old tramp steamer, originally called Vittoria and at first named HMS Snail. This was then changed to HMS Pargust. She was armed with a 4 inch gun aft under a dummy boat; four 12 pounders, two 14 inch torpedo tubes and an 11 inch bomb thrower. All were concealed but could be quickly brought into action, Most of Farnborough’s crew volunteered to follow Campbell to Pargust. Campbell was unable to discover what the name of his new ship meant or any previous ship of any country that had been called Pargust. Neither have I, even though unlike him I have Google.

On 8:00 am on 7 June 1917 Pargust was about 90 miles off the coast of southern Ireland when a torpedo struck her, killing Petty Officer Isaac Radford and badly injuring Engineer Sub-Lieutenant John Smith RNR. The explosion dislodged the pins that held in place the screen concealing one of the 12 pounders. Able Seaman William Williams, DSM, RNR [Royal Naval Reserve, then a reserve of professional seamen from the Merchant and fishing fleets], a 26 year old Welshman, took the weight of the screen on himself in order to keep the gun hidden, Campbell could not see any sign of the U-boat, but ordered the panic party to abandon ship. Eventually, he spotted a periscope 400 yards away.

The submarine, UC29 (Oberleutnant Ernest Rosenow), approached Pargust. U-boat captains had now learnt to be wary of apparently innocuous merchantmen, so Rosenow spent half an hour examining Pargust and her lifeboat before surfacing 50 yards away from Pargust. At first nobody came onto the U-boat’s bridge or deck, but an officer eventually appeared, shouting at the  men in the lifeboat to hand over the ship’s papers. Lieutenant F. R. Hereford, DSC, RNR, the man with the parrot and apparently the merchantman’s captain, pretended not to answer. A man with a rifle then appeared on the bridge.

Pargust now had a good angle of fire on UC29, whilst the lifeboat was out of Pargust’s arc of fire but at risk from the rifleman. At 8:36 am Campbell ordered gunners to open fire. A number of hits were scored, slowing UC29. She was listing to port and leaking oil and men appeared on her deck and conning tower with their arms raised. The U-boat, however, gained speed, washing the men on her casing overboard. Campbell ordered his guns to recommence firing. Only one 12 pounder could now bear, but UC29 exploded and sank about 300 yards away. Only two survivors were found. Pargust had fired 38 shells, plus a torpedo that missed, in four minutes. She was immobile but afloat. She was towed to Queenstown (now Cobh) by HMS Crocus, escorted by HMS Zinnia and the USS Cushing.

It was decided that one officer and one other rank from Pargust’s crew should receive the VC as recognition of the entire crew’s gallantry. The warrant establishing the VC allows for a secret ballot to be held amongst the survivors of a unit of ship’s crew to choose one or more of their number when it is impossible for the higher command to single out any individuals. The officers wanted Campbell to be the officer recipient, but he refused on the grounds that he already had a VC, which he regarded as having been awarded to the entire crew.

The ballot chose Lieutenant Ronald Stuart, RNR, a 30 year old from Liverpool, and William Williams as two men to be awarded the VC. Coincidentally, Seaman William Charles Williams had been awarded a posthumous VC at Gallipoli in 1915. He and Commander Edward Unwin used the weight of their own bodies to secure lighters that were intended to provide a bridge for troops to land from the steamer River Clyde. Campbell, now a Captain, did receive a bar to his DSO.[8]

Pargust was too badly damaged to be repaired, so Campbell was given command of another Q-ship, HMS Dunraven, a 3,117 ton collier. Her modifications incorporated various lessons learnt from previous Q-ships, including armouring the bridge and fitting a perforated pipe that would give off enough steam to make it appear that the ship had been hit in the boiler or engine room. Many British merchantmen heading for the Mediterranean carried railway trucks on their deck. Dunraven had four fake ones made of canvas, which could be collapsed in order to change her appearance.

Most of Pargust’s crew volunteered to transfer to Dunraven, but Stuart had been appointed to command the Q-ship HMS Tamarisk. He was replaced as First Lieutenant by Lieutenant Charles Bonner, RNR, Second Office of Pargust. Smith tried to join Dunraven, but Campbell insisted that he had not recovered fully from his wounds.

U-boats were now wary of solitary merchantmen that might turn out to be Q-ships. On 5 August HMS Chagford (Lieutenant Douglas Jeffrey, RNR) was torpedoed by a U-boat. Jeffrey launched the panic party and the U-boat surfaced 800 yards away. The first explosion, however, knocked down the screens hiding Chagford’s guns, so Jeffrey had to open fir at once. The U-boat dived and fired two  more torpedoes into Chagford. The Q-ship was badly damaged and sank the next day, although most of her crew were saved.

Three days after Chagford was attacked Dunraven was about 100 miles west of Ushant. Campbell had decided that his ship would act as if she was one of a number of British merchantman that by then were armed instead of as a helpless victim.

On 10:58 am Dunraven spotted UC71 (Oberleutnant Reinhold Satzwedel) but proceeded on her way as if she had not seen the submarine, which dived. Satzwedel was a leading U-boat captain who sank 111 Allied ships of a total tonange of 172,824 tons before being killed on 2 December 1917 when his new command, UB81, hit a mine. He was awarded Germany’s highest decoration, the Pour Le Mérite, nicknamed the Blue Max.

Half an hour later UC71 surfaced and opened fire. Dunraven opened fire with her single unconcealed gun, but its crew, including William Williams, deliberately fired short and acted clumsily in order to tempt UC71 closer.

Campbell and his crew gave the impression that they were panicking by making lots of smoke and sending uncoded distress signals. UC71 ceased fire, closed to 1,000 yards and reopened fire. Campbell used Dunraven’s perforated pipe to make it appear that she had been hit in the boiler or engine room and ordered the panic party to abandon ship.

A massive explosion made Campbell think that Dunraven’s magazines had been hit, so he sent a genuine distress call. A nearby battleship sent one of her escorting destroyers to help, but Campbell signalled her to stay away once he learnt that it was a depth charge that had exploded and that Dunraven’s secret was still safe.

Dunraven was, however, badly damaged. A fire on the poop deck was close to setting off the 4 inch gun’s magazine. The heat of the deck meant that the gun crew had to sit with boxes of shells and cordite on their knees, as they might otherwise explode. Campbell did not want to open fire until UC71 was in the arc of his three hidden 12 pounders. At 12:58, however, an explosion sent the gun into the air. Remarkably all the crew survived. One ended up in the water and the fall of the others was broken by the canvas fake railway trucks.

Dunraven was now revealed to be a warship and UC71 dived. At 1:20 pm she torpedoed Dunraven, which was now sinking and on fire. UC71 observed the Q-ship through her periscope for nearly an hour. Unknown to Campbell she had no torpedoes left. At 2:30 UC71 surfaced and opened fire. She was astern of Dunraven, which no longer had any guns able to bear on her. One shell hit the bridge and would have killed the four men on it had it not been armoured.

At 2:55 UC71 dived to periscope depth. Dunraven fired both her torpedoes, but one missed and the other failed to explode. The armed yacht USS Noma then appeared and fired at UC71’s periscope. The U-boat dived deeper at 4:00 and the action was over.

The destroyers HMS Attack and Christopher then arrived. The wounded were treated and Dunraven taken under tow. She sank at 3:17 am but all the crew had been taken off. However, on 19 September Seaman Alex Morrison died of wounds received in this action.

Again two VCs were awarded. The one for an officer went to Bonnar, whilst the lower deck one was awarded to Petty Officer Ernest Pitcher, DSM of the 4 inch gun crew by ballot. The other members of the 4 inch gun crew received the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. Campbell was awarded a second bar to his DSO and his crew received a DSO, three bars to DSCs, three DSCs, seven CGMs, 3 bars to DSMs, including one to William Williams, 21 DSMs and 14 Mentions in Dispatches. As well as the VC Pitcher received two French medals, the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille Militaire, to add to the DSM he was awarded after Pargust sank UC29.[9]

On 14 August the Q-ship HMS Prize was sunk with all hands by UB48: a previous post in this series told the story of how her captain William Sanders earned the VC. Q-ships did not destroy any more U-boats. A significant number of British merchantmen were now armed. U-boats would often surface to engage them but would take up a position that favoured the submarine. Dunraven’s action with UC71 showed that a Q-ship then had the choice of taking heavy damage before fighting back or revealing her guns early, in which case the U-boat would dive and escape.[10]

Campbell, who also received two French decorations, the Croix de Guerre and another French award, the Legion d’Honneur captained  the cruisers HMS Active and Patrol later in the war. His final seagoing appointment was as captain of the battlecruiser HMS Tiger in 1925-27. He was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1928 but immediately retired. He was briefly an MP and returned to the RN in WWII. He died in 1953.

Pitcher retired from the RN in 1927 with the rank of Chief Petty Officer. He was then a woodwork teacher and a publican. He returned to the RN in WWII and died in 1946. Bonner became a marine salvage expert after the war and died in 1951. Williams was a founder member of his local branch of the British Legion and died in 1965. Stuart, who received the DSO, Croix de Guerre and US Navy Cross as well as the VC, returned to the Merchant Navy after the war. His final sea going command was the 42,000 ton transatlantic liner RMS Empress of Britain. In WWII she became the largest ship to be sunk by a U-boat, but he had by then moved to shore duties.

One of Stuart’s sons was awarded the DSC and the other a Mention in Dispatches in the WWII Battle of the Atlantic. Campbell’s nephew, Brigadier Lorne Campbell received the VC, DSO and Bar, OBE, four Mentions in Dispatched and the US Legion of Merit in WWII.

Because of the secrecy behind Q-ships the medals awarded to their crews were announced without any details of why they were awarded. The names of the men decorated can be found on Naval-History.net. They were announced in the London Gazette issue 29603 of 30 May 1916 for Farnborough’s first action, 30029 of 20 April 1917 for her second, 30194 of 20 July 1917 for Pargust and 30363 of 30 October 1917 for Dunraven. The VCs citations were finally published in full in issue 31021 of 19 November 1917.

 

 

[1] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), pp. 12-15.

[2] Ibid., pp. 18-19.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xv, Home Waters part vi, October 1915 to May 1916, pp. 101-2.

[4] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1933 vol. xviii, Home Waters part viii, December 1916 to April 1917, pp. 204-5.

[5] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 73-74.

[6] Quoted in Ibid., p. 74.

[7] Naval Staff vol. xviii, p. 205.

[8] This account of Pargust’s story is based on Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 90-96 and websites linked in the text; R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1931), p. 181.

[9] This account of Dunraven’s story is based on Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 105-15;  J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938) vol. v, pp. 107-9 and websites linked in the text.

[10] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval vol. v, 109-111.

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William Sanders VC

On 22 June 1917 Lieutenant-Commander William Sanders was awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation, available on Naval-History.net, said merely that Sanders ‘had been decorated because of his conspicuous gallantry, consummate coolness, and skill in command of one of H.M. ships in action.’ The reason for the vagueness was that Sanders was one of a number of sailors awarded the VC in 1917 for actions involving Q-ships, apparently innocuous merchant ships that were manned by the RN and given heavy but concealed armaments. First World War submarines carried relatively few torpedoes (12 in the newest German boats and six or eight in older ones), so often surfaced to sink smaller targets with gunfire.[1]

William Sanders was a thirty-four year old New Zealander who has been a merchant seaman before the war. He had already been awarded a Distinguished Service Order for unspecified reasons whilst serving in a Q-ship. In early 1917 he was given command of HMS Prize, a Q-ship that had originally been a German ship called Else and was the first enemy ship to be captured by the British in the war.[2]

Prize, a 227 ton schooner, was  armed with two 12 pounder guns [76.2mm} and a Lewis machine gun. At 8:35 pm on 30 April 1917 she spotted a surfaced submarine two miles away. She was U93 (Kapitänleutnant Edgar Freiherr von Spiegel von und zu Peckelsheim) and was on her maiden voyage.[3]

Speigel had previously commanded U32 and wrote a book called Kriegstagebuch U 202 based on his experiences: there was no U202 in WWI. It was translated into English after the war under the title War Diary of U202.

By 28 April U93 had sunk three sailing ships and a steamer, totalling 5189 tons. One  of the sailing ship was Danish and the other two plus the steamer Norwegian. The largest sailing ship was torpedoed after being stopped, with the others being sunk by gunfire. That day she damaged the 207 ton Danish sailing ship Diana, which was towed into Queenstown: see U-Boat.net.[4]

On the evening of 29 April U93 torpedoed the defensively armed steamer Comedian (4,889 tons) and then the Ikbal (5,434 tons), both British and carrying ammunition. Both were first torpedoed and then finished off by gunfire. In the early hours of 30 April U93 torpedoed and sank the defensively armed British steamer Horsa (2,949 tons). She picked up survivors from both Ikbal and Horsa, who reported that their treatment ‘left nothing to be desired.’[5]

At 6:30 am U93 was in sight of the Russian sailing ship Borrowdale (1,268 tons) and two defensively armed steamers: the Italian Ascaro (3,245 tons) and the British Huntsmoor (4,957 tons). She torpedoed and sank the Ascaro at 7:05 am. Five minutes later the Huntsmoor opened fire. She then sighted U21 and HMS Begonia (Q10) headed to her. Begonia was a fleet minesweeping sloop that had been modified to look like a merchantman rather than a secretly armed merchantman.

At 09:00 am U21 sank the Borrowdale by gunfire. U93 surfaced and transferred her prisoners to the Borrowdale’s boats. At 09:40 am U93 opened fire on Begonia, which replied, forcing U21 to dive. U93 remained on the surface until Begonia had reduced the range to 1.5 miles, when she dived and escaped. At 5:30 pm the same day U93 torpedoed and sank without warning the Greek steamer Parthenon (2,934 tons): see U-boat.net for a list of the ships sunk by U93.[6] 

U93 by now had only two torpedoes left.[7] Three hours after sinking the Parthenon, she encountered what appeared to him to be an innocuous sailing ship but was actually HMS Prize. Following his normal tactics of surfacing to attack small ships with gunfire and torpedoing large ones whilst submerged, Spiegel opened gunfire on the sailing ship at 08:45 pm. Some of its crew apparently panicked and abandoned ship.

U93 scored several hits on her, wrecking her radio room and one of her two engines, and had closed to 80 yards range by 9:05 pm when Sanders raised the white ensign and ordered his concealed guns to open fire. Spiegel tried to ram but U93 was too close to Prize to do so. The British quickly hit the U93′s conning tower and forward gun. Spiegel and two other Germans ended up in the water. U93 withdrew to 600 yards range. Prize could not close the range because her second engine had given out, but U93 disappeared and appeared to have sunk.

Prize picked up Speigel, Warrant Officer Wilhelm Knappe and Petty Officer Walter Deppe. She was very badly damaged but managed to reach Kinsale on 2 May. Three of her crew were wounded. Sanders was awarded the VC and promoted to Lieutenant-Commander. Lieutenant W. D. Beaton received the DSO.[8]

U93 had not sunk. After her forward gun was put out action her executive officer Oberleutnant Wilhelm Ziegner ordered her to zigzag. Hits to her fuel and diving tanks meant that she was listing 14 degrees to starboard, but she was able to get out of range. As well as the three men who went overboard, several were wounded and one died during the night.

U93 had been hit at least nine times, her guns, periscope and wireless masts were out of action and there was damage to he fuel and diving tanks and several valves and compressed air tanks. A hole in the pressure hull meant that she could not dive, although it was above the waterline when surfaced. She had only just enough oil to get home, with no reserve for high speed dashes if she met Allied warships.

Ziegner managed to get her round Shetland, narrowly avoiding British patrols. U93 met a German trawler near Sylt Island and was towed into Wilhelmshaven after running out of fuel. She was cheered by all the ships she passed and Admiral Reinhard Scheer, C.-in-C. of the High Seas Fleet went on board to congratulate her crew.[9]

Prize was lost with all hands, including Sanders, on 14 August. She encountered UB48 whilst operating with the British submarine D6. The idea was that Prize would attract a U-boat and then signal its position to D6 which would torpedo the German vessel. Sanders, however, opened fire on UB48, which dived and escaped. Now knowing that Prize was a Q-ship, UB48 returned and torpedoed her without surfacing.[10]

Spiegel wrote more books after the war and served in the German diplomatic service in WWII: see Wikipedia. He died in 1965. Ziegner captained UC87 in 1918 but died in December 1919: see U-boat.net.

 

 

[1] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 175-78.

[2] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), p. 83.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1933 vol. xviii, Home Waters part viii, December 1916 to April 1917, pp. 424-26.

[4] Ibid. pp. 424-5 says Diana was sunk.

[5] Ibid., p. 425.

[6] Ibid., pp. 425-26.

[7] Friedrich Ruge, The Submarine War: a U-Boat commanders view in B. Fitzsimons, Warships & Sea Battles of World War I (London: Phoebus, 1973), p. 140.

[8] Naval Staff vol. Xviii, pp. 426-27.

[9] Ruge in Fitzsimons, Warships, p. 141.

[10] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 117-18; R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1931), p. 170.

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First Successful Use of Depth Charges on 22 March 1916

Q-ships, apparently innocuous merchant vessels with heavy but concealed armaments, were used by the British to combat U-boats. Submarines often surfaced to sink small merchant ship with their deck guns in order to conserve their torpedoes for more attractive. One of the Q-ships was HMS Farnborough, captained by Lieutenant-Commander Gordon Campbell, which was armed with five 12 pounders, two 6 pounders, a Maxim machine gun, rifles and depth charges.[1] She had originally been the collier Loderer. Her crew as a Q-ship was 11 officers and 56 men, compared with six officers and 25 men as a collier.[2]

On 22 March Farnborough was off the coast of Kerry when SM U68 (Kapitänleutnant Ludwig Güntzel) fired a torpedo that missed her. The U-boat surfaced and fired a shot across the bows of what appeared to be a collier. The crew apparently abandoned ship, but the gun crews had remained behind.

U68 closed to 800 yards and opened fire. The collier then raised the white ensign and opened fire. U68 was hit but managed to dive. Campbell then took Farnborough over her and dropped a depth charge. The U-boat came out of the water at a perpendicular angle, revealing damage to her bow. Farnborough fired five more shots into her and then dropped two more depth charges as she dived. Oil and wood then came to the surface and U68 was lost was all hands.[3]

The British first ordered depth charges in August 1915 and began to issue them to the fleet in January 1916. This was the first ever sinking of a submarine by depth charges.[4]

Campbell was promoted to Commander and awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Two of the other officers received the Distinguished Service Cross and three men the Distinguished Service Medal.[5]

 

 

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xv, Home Waters part vi, October 1915 to May 1916. p. 101.

[2] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), p. 14.

[3] Naval Staff vol. Xv. p. 101.

[4] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. ii, p. 350.

[5] (Naval Staff vol. Xv. p. 101.

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Allegations of War Crimes at Sea in 1915

Germany announced on 4 February 1915 that it would conduct unrestricted submarine warfare in the waters round the United Kingdom from 18 February. It justified this on the grounds that the British blockade of Germany contravened international law. This led to heavy losses in Allied shipping, most infamously the sinking of the liner Lusitania on 7 May with the loss of 1,201 lives including 128 Americans.

A number of incidents involving submarines that occurred between 18 and 21 August led to both Germany and the UK accusing the other of being guilty of atrocities.

The first of these took place in the early hours of 18 August. The submarines HMS E8 and E13 were on their way to the Baltic to join their sister boats E1 and E9 when E13 suffered problems with her magnetic compass. She went off course and ran aground in Danish waters. At 5:00 am a Danish torpedo boat arrived, informing Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Layton, E13’s captain, that he had the normal 24 hours to get his boat underway, but that no help would be given.

At 9:00 am, by when another Danish torpedo boat had arrived, two German destroyers appeared. One of them, SMS G132, fired a torpedo at E13 from a range of 300 yards and opened fire with all her guns, although the submarine was in neutral waters. She was soon in flames and her crew abandoned ship. The Germans fired on them in the water until one of the Danish torpedo boats put herself between the German ships and the swimming survivors. Fifteen men were killed and the others picked up by the Danes.[1] They were interned, but Layton escaped after three months. He rose to the rank of Admiral, holding commands in the Mediterranean and Far East during the Second World War.

The next two incidents both took place on 19 August. The website uboat.net lists seven British and one Spanish merchant ships as having been sunk that day by U24, U27 and U38, which were operating between Ushant and St George’s Channel. A Norwegian ship was also sunk by U25 in the North Sea. Two days earlier U-boats had sunk 11 merchantmen, but they were on average smaller, with a total tonnage of 15,733 tons versus 38,434 tons for the nine sunk on 19 August. The largest ship sunk on 19 August, the 15,801 ton British liner SS Arabic was bigger than all the ships sunk on 17 August combined.

Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Schneider’s U24 was in the process of sinking the 4,930 ton merchant ship Dunsley by gunfire when she observed the Arabic, which was on her way to the USA, approaching. Earlier that day, U24 had survived attempts to ram her by the armed yacht Valiant II and the unarmed trawler Majestic and had been fired on by the defensively armed liner City of Exeter. Schneider was therefore wary of the Arabic and mistook her zigzag course for an attempt to ram his boat. U-boats had been ordered not to sink passenger liners without warning unless the liner was attacking them. Schneider thought that the Arabic was attacking him, so fired a single torpedo which hit her. She sank about ten minutes later.[2]

There is some doubt about the number of people on board the Arabic and the number of dead, with the three British Official Histories giving different figures: Naval Operations says 40 dead out of 428 onboard; The Merchant Navy gives 39 killed out of 429; and Seaborne Trade states that 44 died.[3] The Naval Staff Monograph, an internal Admiralty document written in 1926, says that she was carrying 429 people, 181 passengers and 248 crew, of whom 40, 18 passengers and 22 crew, were killed.[4] A document later published by the British government in response to German accusations that the British Q-ship HMS Baralong had murdered members of U27’s crew claimed 47 dead, a number that was increased to 49 in a later note.[5] Paul Halpern says that 44 died, including two or three US citizens.[6]

Baralong was one of a number of merchantmen given concealed armament and RN volunteer crews in order to act as decoy ships that could trap and destroy U-boats. She was a 4,000 ton ship, capable of carrying 3,000 tons of coal in four holds, that had been requisitioned as a supply ship by the RN. She was given three 12 pounder guns, two of which were concealed by dummy life belt lockers and the other by a sheep pen. Two of her holds were used for coal and the other two were filled with empty barrels that would help to keep her afloat if torpedoed. She was captained by Lieutenant-Commander Godfrey Herbert RN, a submariner, with Sub-Lieutenant Gordon Steele RNR as first lieutenant. Her maximum speed was 12 knots ‘on a good day.’[7]

Baralong received the Arabic’s SOS, but arrived too late to help.[8] At 3:00 pm she spotted that a steamer 9 miles away had changed her course significantly. She then received a radio message from the steamer, which was the Nicosian, saying that she was being chased by a submarine. Herbert headed for Nicosian, hoisting the signal for ‘Save life’ when 3 miles away.[9]

The Nicosian was a 6,250 ton ship of the Leyland Line, carrying a cargo of cotton, timber, steel rods and tinned meat plus mules for the British Army from New Orleans to Liverpool. She was unarmed, but carried a dummy gun on her stern. She was British but most of the 48 muleteers who tended to the mules were Americans. Baralong then flying the US flag and also had boards along her sides indicating that she was a US ship.[10] Sailing under false colours was legitimate under the rules of war, provided that the ship lowered and replaced them by her true ones before opening fire.

The submarine, which was U27, was firing on the Nicosian, whose crew had taken to her boats, from 1,000 yards. Baralong passed behind the merchantman, meaning that she was out of sight of the U-boat, dropped her neutral colours, raised the White Ensign and opened fire at 600 yards range once U27 was in sight. Several of the German deck gun crew were hit before they could fire on Baralong. She scored 34 hits with her 12 pounder guns and U27 sank, with the surviving members of her crew jumping into the sea and swimming for the Nicosian. Herbert claimed in her after action report that he was worried that they might try to scuttle or set fire to the ship in order destroying her and her cargo. He consequently ordered his crew to fire on them. Six succeeded in getting on board, so Herbert sent a party of marines across, warning them to be careful in case the Germans found the rifles that were in the Nicosian’s charthouse. According to Herbert, the six Germans who made it on board the Nicosian all ‘succumbed to the injuries they had received from lyddite shell.[11]

The German government issued a memorandum to the British government via the US government that accused ‘Captain William McBride’, a pseudonym adopted by Herbert as part of the pretence that Baralong was a merchant ship, of murder. They produced affidavits sworn by six of the American muleteers made to US public notaries. The witnesses were either on or in the process of boarding Baralong when she fired on the Germans in the water. They agreed that U27’s captain, Kapitänleutnant Bernd Wegener, was shot in the water after raising his hands in surrender. [12]

One of them, James J. Curran, claimed that Baralong had opened fire before she lowered her US colours. He also stated that Herbert said to his crew ‘Boys, we’ll shoot those poor wounded devils in the water’ and then told the men that he sent aboard the Nicosian ‘Get them all, take no prisoners.’[13] Another American muleteer, Bud Emerson Palen, said that he heard Herbert tell one of the boarding party that ‘My orders are to take no prisoners.’[14]

The testimony of a seventh American can be disregarded. Larrimore Holland had joined the RN, claiming to be a Canadian. He said that he had been a member of Baralong’s crew, but in fact never went to sea during his four months in the RN. He admitted to being American on 11 August and was discharged from the RN on 24 August.[15]

The British responded to the German demand that ‘McBride’ be charged with murder by suggesting that an impartial court of investigation, perhaps comprising United States Navy officers, should be set up to investigate the alleged incidents in four sinkings that occurred close together: E13 on 18 August, the Arabic and U27 on 19 August and the SS Ruel on 21 August.

The 4,029 ton collier Ruel was attacked by a surfaced submarine whilst returning from Gibraltar to Barry Roads in ballast. After a chase lasting an hour and half Ruel’s crew abandoned ship once the U-boat was a mile away. It then fired on her lifeboats, killing one man and wounding eight. The Ruel sank just as the armed trawler Dewsland and the drifter Campania appeared, chasing off the U-boat.[16]

The Germans said in reply to this that they had already investigated the three incidents in which accusations had been made against their navy. They claimed that that E13 was sunk in the final stage of an engagement and noted that British ships had attacked German ships in neutral waters, that Schneider thought that the Arabic was attacking U24 and that the attack on Ruel was in line with the policies that they had introduced in retaliation to the British blockade. They reiterated their demand that the British take action against ‘McBride.’[17]

The British awarded Herbert the Distinguished Service Order but did not say why, a normal security measure when decorations were given to Q-ship crews.

E13 was certainly attacked whilst helpless in neutral waters. The light cruiser SMS Dresden was sunk by the British in Chilean waters, but she had stayed there longer than allowed by international law, which E13 had not.

It is unlikely that the Arabic was trying to ram U24, but Schneider may well have genuinely believed that she was trying to do so.

The Germans may have intended to scuttle the Nicosian. However, Herbert’s claim that all the Germans who managed to swim from U27 to the Nicosian and haul themselves onboard her by ropes were so badly wounded that they soon died is impossible to believe, suggesting that he had something to hide. There are two witnesses that he told his marines to take no prisoners. Curran was an Irish-American who may have been prejudiced against the British.[18] Palen, however, was born in Canada.[19]

There was no justification for the Germans continuing to fire on the crew of the Ruel after they had abandoned ship.

The allegations made by both UK and Germany against the other would therefore appear to be justified, but there was little hope of either side admitting to this in the midst of a war in which the level of violence and ruthlessness was increasing. The first successful use of poison gas was by the Germans at Ypres on 22 April: the French had earlier made limited use of tear gas and a German attempt to use gas on the Eastern Front in January had failed because it did not work in temperatures below zero.[20] The first raid on London by an airship took place on 31 May, killing five people and injuring 35.[21]

The blockades imposed by Germany and the UK both aimed to starve the enemy. Diplomatically, the big difference was that the Germans killed Americans as well as British.

The USA sent Germany a series of strong diplomatic notes after the sinkings of the Lusitania and the Arabic. On 27 August Kaiser Wilhelm II accepted the view of his Chancellor, Theodore von Bethman-Hollweg, that passenger ships, even enemy ones, should not be sunk without warning. Three days later the order was amended to included ‘small passenger steamers’, without defining what this meant.[22]

The naval high command objected, Grosse Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the State Secretary of the Imperial Naval Office, and Admiral Hugo von Pohl, Commander-in-Chief of the High Seas Fleet, both offered their resignations, which were rejected. Pohl argued that the 30 August order meant that U-boats would have to examine ships before attacking them in case they carried passengers, making it impossible to conduct submarine warfare against commerce.[23] Tirpitz was told that he would no longer be needed at ‘consultations on naval questions connected with foreign politics.’[24]

Vize Admiral Gustav von Bachmann was removed as Chief of the Naval staff. On 18 September his replacement, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorf, announced that U-boats would be withdrawn from the west coast of the UK and the English Channel. The minelaying UC-boats based in Flanders and some U-boats continued to operate in the North Sea, but the latter were required to follow prize rules . Others were sent to the Mediterranean, where they could attack Allied commerce and communications with much less risk of sinking American ships or killing Americans. The transfer of boats to the Mediterranean and the need to repair others meant that only four would have been available for use west of the UK.[25]

On the night of 4 September the passenger liner Hesperian, bound from Liverpool to Canada, suffered an explosion 125 miles south west of Queenstown. The Germans insisted that she had struck a mine, but fragments of a torpedo were found on Hesperian before she sank. Kapitänleutnant Walter Schweiger’s U20, which had sunk the Lusitania, was in the area.[26] It is unlikely that the Germans would have mined an area in which their submarines were operating..

The last U-boat patrol to the south west of the UK was carried out by U41, which sailed on 14 September. She sank three British ships on 23 September. The next day she stopped and sank the liner Urbino. Another ship then appeared, which U41 approached and ordered to stop. She was HMS Baralong, now captained by Lieutenant-Commander A. Wilmot-Smith. She opened fire and quickly sank U41, before picking up the crew of the Urbino and the two survivors from the U-boat.[27] One of them, Oberleutnant Iwan Crompton, was later repatriated to Germany because of the severity of his wounds. He claimed that Baralong had been flying the US flag when she opened fire, which the British denied.[28]

The switch of U-boats to the Mediterranean did not prevent them killing Americans. On 7 November U38, a German boat that was flying Austro-Hungarian colours because Germany and Italy were not yet at war, sank the Italian liner Ancona off Bizerte, killing over 200 people, including about 20 Americans.[29]

From the outbreak of war to the start of unrestricted submarine warfare on 28 February 1915 U-boats sank 13 merchant ships with a total tonnage of 23,490 tons. From March to September they sank 431 ships of 677,184 tons.[30] New construction and seizure of enemy shipping meant that the British merchant fleet actually increased in size in the first year of the war. Construction, however, began to fall as shipyards switched to naval construction and repair work and shipyard workers joined the armed forces. At the same time, overseas campaigns increased the demand for shipping.[31]

Five U-boats were lost in 1914, two in January 1915 and 15 from March to September 1915.[32] New construction, meant that Germany had 46 boats at the end of September, but 15 of them were UB coastal boats and 14 were UC coastal minelayers. Only 17 were ocean going, compared with all 26 available at the start of the year. These figures exclude U25, which had been damaged too badly to return to active service, the obsolete U1-4 and U66-70, built in Germany, originally for Austria-Hungary, and then undergoing trials.[33]

The U-boats had shown that they were a potentially deadly weapon. The numbers available in 1915 could not, however, do enough damage to Allied shipping to balance the harm that they did to German relations with the USA.

[1] The last two paragraphs are based on J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, pp. 135-36.

[2] Ibid., p. 131.

[3] Ibid; C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. ii, p. 103; A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, p. 25.

[4] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xiv, Home Waters part v, July 1915 to October 1915. pp. 81-82.

[5] PP, Further Correspondence with the German Government Respecting the Incidents Alleged to Have Attended the Sinking of a German Submarine and Its Crew by His Majesty’s Auxillary Cruiser “Baralong” on August 19, 1915, HMSO 1916 [Cd. 8176]. p. 4; Memorandum of the German Government in Regard to Incidents Alleged to Have Attended the Destruction of a German Submarine and Its Crew by His Majesty’s Auxiliary Cruiser “Baralong” on August 19th, 1915 and Reply of His Majesty’s Government Thereto’, January 1916, HMSO 1916 [Cd. 8144]. p. 16.

[6] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 301.

[7] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), pp. 21-22.

[8] Ibid., p. 23.

[9] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. ‘Appendix N, Report from M.F.A. Baralong’, p. 229,

[10] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 24-27.

[11] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. pp. 229-30.

[12] PP, Cd. 8144. pp. 1-4.

[13] Ibid., p. 11.

[14] Ibid., p. 8.

[15] Bridgland, Sea Killers, p. 37.

[16] Hurd, Merchant. vol. ii, pp. 33-34.

[17] PP, Cd. 8176.

[18] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 26, 36.

[19] PP, Cd. 8144. p. 6.

[20] H. H. Herwig, The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914-1918 (London: Arnold, 1997), pp. 135, 168-69.

[21] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. iii, pp. 97-98.

[22] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. p. 173.

[23] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 141

[24] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. p. 173.

[25] Halpern, Naval, p. 302.

[26] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. p. 175.

[27] Ibid., pp. 176-77.

[28] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 51-54.

[29] Halpern, Naval, p. 385.

[30] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), pp. 152-53.

[31] Halpern, Naval, p. 303.

[32] Tarrant, U-Boat, p. 24.

[33] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), pp. 63-64.

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The First Sinking of a U-Boat by a Q-Ship

The Royal Navy, faced with increasing losses of merchant ships to U-boats, came up with the idea of using decoy ships to trap German submarines. They were eventually known as Q-ships after Queenstown, now Cobh, in Ireland, where many of them were based.

Early war U-boats carried only around six torpedoes, so their captains preferred to surface and sink smaller merchant ships by gunfire. A Q-ship would give the impression of being an innocuous tramp steamer. Her armament would be hidden inside false deck houses or lifeboats or on swivel mountings that could appear when needed. Most of her crew, who were volunteers, would also be concealed, with hidden alleyways and special trap doors allowing them to get to their action stations without being seen. The majority of the crew of a warship are concerned with fighting rather than sailing her, so Q-Ships had far larger crews than they would have had as merchantmen. The collier Loderer had a crew of about six officers and 25 men in merchant service and 11 officers and 56 men after being converted to the Q ship HMS Farnborough.[1]

The first Q-ship to see action was HMS Prince Charles, a 373 ton collier that was given an armament of two 6 pounder guns, two 3 pounders and a number of rifles. Her civilian crew of Captain F. N. Maxwell and Chief Engineer Anderson and nine other men volunteered to remain on board. Lieutenant William Mark-Wardlaw RN was given command, with the crew being completed by Lieutenant J. G. Spencer RNR, two RN petty officers and nine RN ratings.[2]

Prince Charles was a civilian ship under charter to the RN and based at Scapa Flow. The terms of her charter allowed her to defend herself. Mark-Wardlaw’s orders of 20 July 1915 from Admiral Sir Stanley Colville included the following clauses (the earlier ones describing the area in which he was to operate have been omitted):

  1. ‘The object of the cruise is to use the Prince Charles as a decoy, so that an enemy submarine should attack her with gun fire. It is not considered probable, owing to her small size, that a torpedo would be wasted on her.

  2. In view of this, I wish to impress you to strictly observe the role of decoy. If an enemy’s submarine is sighted make every effort to escape, if she closes and fires, immediately stop your engines, and with the ship’s company (except the guns’ crews, who should most carefully be kept out of sight behind the bulwarks alongside their gun, and one engineer at the engines) commence to abandon ship. It is very important, if you can do so, to try and place your ship so th a t the enemy approaches you from the beam.

  3. Allow the submarine to come as close as possible, and then open fire by order on whistle, hoisting your colours (red ensign).

  4. It is quite possible that a submarine may be observing you through her periscope unseen by you, and therefore on no account should the guns crews on watch be standing about near their guns.

  5. If by luck you should succeed in sinking a submarine, on no account are you to allow the information to leak out of your ship, the strictest precautions are to be taken on arrival in a harbour, or meeting a ship at sea, that none of the officers or men give away the information.’[3]

Prince Charles left Scapa Flow at 8:00 pm on 21 July. In the early hours of 24 July she encountered a merchant ship stopped near a surfaced submarine 10 miles WNW of Rona. Mark-Wardlaw’s report stated that:

‘Shortly after this the submarine was observed to start her oil engine and proceed towards us at full speed. I then hoisted my ensign. At about 7.5 p.m., submarine being about 3 miles distant, 5 points on the port bow, she fired a shot which pitched about 1,000 yards over.

I then stopped engines, put ship’s head to swell from NNW, blew three blasts, and boat’s crews were ordered to get boats out.

All this time the submarine was coming very fast towards us (20 knots) and at 7.10 she fired a second shot which went between funnel and foremast and landed 50 yards over.

The submarine then turned so as to bring her broadside to us at about 600 yards, and as the submarine continued to fire and seeing that the range could not close any more, I opened fire with both port guns.

Directly I opened fire the gun’s crew of the submarine deserted their gun and entered conning tower and she apparently attempted to dive.’[4]

The submarine, which was U36, was struck by a shell as she dived. She came back up, turning. Prince Charles closed to 300 yards and continued to fire, scoring several hits. U36’s crew abandoned ship, with 15 out of 33 men, including her captain, Kapitänleutnant Ernst Graeff, being saved by the British.[5]

The steamer that had been near U36 when Prince Charles came upon them was Danish. Mark-Wardlaw suspected that she had been supplying the U-boat, so ordered her to follow him to port for inspection. The Danes turned out to be pro-British and delighted at the outcome of the action. They agreed to keep quiet about it and were released. [6]

­U36 had sunk a Norwegian sailing ship and steamer, a French steamer, a Russian steamer and nine British trawlers during her cruise. She had also fired on but missed the armed merchant cruiser HMS Columbella and captured the US sailing ship Pass of Belhama, which was sent to Cuxhaven with her cargo of cotton. She later became the German commerce raider Seeadler, like Prince Charles an apparently innocuous vessel with a concealed armament.[7]

 

[1] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), pp. 14-15.

[2] Ibid., pp. 8-9.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xiv, Home Waters part v, July 1915 to October 1915. Appendix J, p. 220.

[4] Ibid., p. 37.

[5] Ibid., p. 38.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., pp. 38-40.

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