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The Mystery Ships: Encounter with a Submarine




     SIR ERIC GEDDES,1 First Lord of the Admiralty, speaking at an entertainment to American troops at the Palace Theatre last night, said they were going to fight to the end, and they all knew what the end was going to be. For the first time that night he was able to tell them a story about the British Navy, a story which could not be told before because it would have given the enemy valuable information about a ruse of war which they were still using with effect. But now that ruse was a thing of the past, and he could tell them of the “Mystery Ships.” In the Service they were called “Q” ships, and were used as decoys. They might be an old sailing ship, obviously unarmed and an easy prey to submarines. They were manned by volunteers, the very best and the very bravest their service could produce. “The Mystery Ship is a veritable quick change artist,” said Sir Eric; “in half a dozen seconds or so she is converted from an apparently harmless trader to a formidable man-of-war by simply pressing a button.” As an instance of how Mystery Ships operated, Sir Eric told a story of mystery ship “Q” 50. She was a dingy looking collier, steaming about eight knots, and she sailed under sealed orders.


     They were, “Submarines are sinking British and American ships in such and such an area. Proceed there.” Her crew were attired as merchantmen. She had a little gun mounted in her stern. A submarine was sighted. She fired at “Q” 50, who turned as if to escape, and feebly returned the submarine fire. The submarine came on, keen for her destruction. To deceive her further “Q” 50 eased down to seven knots, then to six knots, all the time firing intentionally short, then she flushed out a wireless message in plain English: “Submarine chasing and shelling me—abandoning ship.” The submarine read the message that was intended and thought they had an easy prey. The captain in his report stated, “Shells were falling on deck. A big explosion took place; projectiles were blown about the ship.” The panic party were put off, leaving on board the captain and a number of picked men in hiding until the submarine came close to finish its “helpless” prey. After further shelling there was an outbreak of fire in the magazine, followed by an explosion which blew a concealed after gun and her naval crew in the air. The submarine saw that he at last had met the “Q” ship, which was the German submarine commander’s dread. It submerged, and torpedo after torpedo were fired at “Q” 50. The captain again gave the order to abandon ship, but he, with an officer or two and the picked gun’s crew, still remained hidden, whilst the submarine deceived, lay aft. The captain signaled the man-of-war waiting on the horizon to keep away, and they blew off steam to make the submarine think the boiler was holed. Completely deceived, the submarine came up. It was to her death. Shell after shell was fired at her, and she went down, her end being hastened by the fire from the warship which had come up. The fight he had described lasted from eleven in the morning till about four in the afternoon, and “Q” 50 was left blazing with fire, her ammunition exploding and sinking fast.


     Sir Eric, in giving further details of the action, said to further deceive the submarine the Captain again gave the order “Abandon ship,” and an additional party of naval men this time were sent away on a raft and in a damaged boat, whilst the remainder still remained hidden. For another hour the submarine circled round “Q” 50. During the time bags of cordite, shell, depth charges, and every imaginable kind of explosive were detonating. The ship was on fire, the decks were red hot, but the Captain and his men remained at their posts. His report ended with the words: “The White Ensign was hoisted when I opened fire, and remained hoisted throughout the action.” (Cheers.) Sir Eric in conclusion said that way of killing the submarine no longer works, but the British and American Navies had more ways than that of defeating the submarine, and new ones were added as old ones ceased to be effective.2

Source Note: Printed, London Morning Post, 5 August 1918.

Footnote 1: First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Eric Geddes.

Footnote 2: In a cable to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, this final detail was a ploy to trick the Germans into thinking Q ships were no longer in use. See: William S. Sims to Opnav, 5 August 1918.