Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Rear Admiral Albert Gleaves, Commander, Convoy Operations in the Atlantic, and Lieutenant Fred M. Perkins, Destroyer Force Engineer Officer, to Vice Admiral William S. Sims, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters


First Endorsement.



July 13, 1917.

FROM:     Commander Destroyer Force1

TO:       Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Atlantic Fleet.2

SUBJECT:  Special Service Ships for submarine offensive.

     1. Forwarded. An interesting report.

     2. Should the Department decide to fit out a Special Service Ship as herein described and suggested, Lieutenant Perkins would be in every way a fit selection for the duty.

Albert Gleaves3        


St. Nazaire, France, July 10, 1917.

FROM: Destroyer Forces Engineer Officer (Lieut. F. M. Perkins, U.S.N.)

TO:  Commander Destroyer Force.

SUBJECT: Special Service Ships for submarine offensive.

     1.   The following informationand comments with regard to the use of merchant vessels for offensive work against submarines are respectfully submitted. This information was obtained from various naval officers, principally from the officers of our own destroyers that have been operating out of Queenstown, Ireland, for the past two months. I have talked with a considerable number of officers who have had opportunity to obtain information on the subject but there is undoubtedly more to be learned from the British officers who have been actually engaged in the work. A good many special service ships are based on Queenstown and several of the officers with whom I talked on the subject have been aboard the vessels and have had their methods explained by the commanding officers. Among these commanding officers is Captain Gordon Campbell, R. N., who is said to have sunk six enemy submarines and who has been awarded the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and promotion from Lieutenant to Captain.4

     2.   The merchant vessels used against submarines have been variously called “Mystery Ships”, “Decoy Ships”, and “Q-Boats” until recently, when the designation “Special Service Ships” was adopted by the British government and the use of the other names forbidden. The British are doing everything to keep the existence of these vessels and their methods of operation as secret as possible. The vessels are manned by officers and men who request this duty; that is, calling for volunteers is forbidden; it is left to the individual to take the initiative.

     3.   The Special Service Ship is an ordinary merchantman with extra water-tight compartments and carrying concealed guns that can be run out quickly or uncovered and brought into action. As a rule when a vessel that has been torpedoed remains afloat for any considerable length of time the submarine remains in the vicinity, circling around the vessel and keeping her under observation through the periscope until satisfied that all hands have abandoned ship. The submarine then frequently comes to the surface for the purpose of boarding the vessel before sinking her by gun fire. Frequently the vessel is shelled from a distance of three or four thousand yardsfor a while before the submarine close in to board. The submarine adopts this procedure for the following reasons:

(a) It is necessary to use guns to preserve the torpedo supply.

(b) Submarines obtain supplies from torpedoed merchantmen, such as oil, food, brass, copper, gold, silver, rubber, clothing, chronometers, sextants and valuable instruments.

(c) To make prisoners of the Captain and Chief Engineer, apparently with the idea of crippling the merchant service.

(d) They attempt to obtain the secret codes in use in the merchant service.

     4.   The Special Service Ship was developed to take advantage of this procedure on the part of the submarine. It appears to be the only offensive against submarines that has proved effective. I have been told that there is no known case of a submarine being sunk by gun fire from a capital ship, that only one submarine has been sunk by gun fire from a destroyer and that there are very few authentic cases of submarines being destroyed by depth charges. It is generally believed that the existence of the Special Service Ships is well known to enemy submarine commanders, yet the necessity for conserving torpedoes apparently requires the use of gun fire by the submarine against a disabled but floating ship and the need of food, metals, supplies etc., is apparently great enough to tempt the submarine commander to board in many cases.

     5.   If the fear of Special Service Ships becomes so great that submarines refuse to expose themselves by shelling merchantmen or by attempting to board them for stores the Special Service Ships will yet be of great value in that they will force the submarine to expend additional torpedoes and to give up the use of his gun which is now a very valuable weapon to him. It is the general impression of our destroyer officers that the Germans are becoming hard pressed to maintain the supply of torpedoes and that the quality of their output is deteriorating. This appears to be confirmed by the large number of misses and the increased number of sinkings by gun fire. I was told that a German submarine commander recently taken prisoner by a Special Service Ship stated that their submarines are now making only about thirty per cent of hits, whereas, in the early part of the war, he said, they seldom missed.

     6.   The almost unanimous opinion of the U.S. destroyer captains and their officers, based on their own experience and their intercourse with British officers, is that the role of destroyers, patrol vessels and submarine chasers cannot extend beyond patrol and convoy duty, that is, they lessen the effect of submarine warfare by protecting shipping and keeping submarines at a distance or submerged. They are very effective in this way but they are not sinking submarines. Within the knowledge of these officers the Special Service Ship is the only weapon that has been at all effective up to date. England, I was told, has a total of about forty of these ships built and building. Special ships designed just for this work are now being constructed. I was told that France has but three or four.

     7. The type of vessel used as Special Service Ship is usually a trampsteamer of from 2000 to 5000 tons displacement. A few sailing vessels also have been fitted out for this duty. The advantages of a large vessel are greater ability to absorb the shock of torpedoes without foundering or breaking up, better opportunity for concealing guns and greater attraction for submarines. Additional fore and aft and athwartship bulkheads are worked into the structure of the vessel to make it possible for her to receive two or three torpedo hits without sinking. There have been a few instances of losing the ship but usually she is merely disabled and towed into port. Many of the compartments, holds and double bottoms, if any, are loaded with lumber to preserve as much buoyancy as possible after the ship is opened to the sea by torpedo or gun fire. It is probable that cellulose and cork could also be used for this purpose to good advantage. The engine and fire room compartments, in particular, being usually the largest single compartments, should be subdivided if practicable. The submarines, I was told, send their torpedoes into the engine room if they can.

     8. The number of guns installed varies with the size of the ship and her adaptability to concealing them. The following methods of concealment are used:

(a) Collapsible deck house. By pulling a lever the walls of the deck house fall apart, leaving the gun and crew in the open ready for immediate action.

(b) Hinged plates, either in the bow, stern or sides which can be instantaneously dropped allowing the gun to be trained outboard ready for use.

(c) A false poop or top-gallant forecastle, the deck of which can be quickly run forward or aft exposing the gun ready for use. A special gunmount has been developed for use with this method of concealment. It permits the gun to be installed in less than half the usual vertical space. This is accomplished by using a special low stand and by pivoting the gun in trunnions on this stand so that it can be turned down ninety degrees on its side when not in use. The gun has a counterweight so that it may easily be turned by hand. It is held in its firing position by latches.

(d) Sometimes a small gun is simply covered with a piece of canvas to represent a deck winch, capstan, etc.

(d) The usual merchantman’s gun is mounted aft and left unconcealed. As this gun may be destroyed by submarine gun fire it is usually an old gun of little value or a wooden dummy.

    It is suggested that sky guns could also be used by elevating them to the vertical position and concealing them in ventilators, which could easily be made collapsible. The ventilators could be split in the vertical plane and arranged so that the two halves could be made to fall apart leaving the sky gun ready for use as an ordinary broadside gun.

In general, the guns should be kept as high up in the ship as possible due to the fact that she will probably settle considerably before they are used.

     9. Three and four inch guns are used. There should be at least one four inch gun on each ship. If they can be properly concealed there should be not less than four guns, two on either side, of which one should bear ahead and one astern. There is a strong sentiment in favor of larger guns for anti-submarine work, the general opinion being that nothing less than four inch should be used. Care must be taken to cover all arcs of fire to prevent the submarine from closing in without being exposed to fire. This occurred on one occasion, I was told, when a submarine came in from dead ahead and torpedoed and shelled a Special Service Ship that could not reply because none of her guns would bear ahead.

10. When the Special Service Ship is outfitted and her officers and crew are properly trained she is sent out on a prearranged cruise. She proceeds to sea from one hundred to three hundred miles and turns back on a steamer track for some given port. She is sufficiently laden with lumber to give her the appearance of a loaded steamer bound for an English or Irish port. This is done for the reason that submarines devote most of their attention to in-bound loaded vessels.

     11. To avoid suspicion she observes the usual rules for merchantmen with regard to zig-zagging, darkening ship at night, etc. This procedure is followed for several days or perhaps for a month or two until the expected torpedo arrives. When the ship is finally torpedoed there occurs what is known as “Panic Drill”- a carefully devised and executed simulation of passengers and a merchant crew abandoning a sinking ship. Every officer and man has previously executed this drill many times and great attention is paid to every little detail to make it realistic and, at the same time, to avoid over-acting the part. The look-outs aloft scramble down the mast or rigging, the two or three men at the exposed poop gun make two or three attempts to fire the gun and after a shot or two or, perhaps without a single shot, finally desert the gun and run for a life boat. A few passengers in civilian’s clothes and life belts run around the deck looking for a raft or life boat. The crew tumbles up from below in the mixed clothing of a merchant crew; rafts are launched, some of the passengers and crew jump overboard. The life boats are hurriedly lowered, one of them being allowed to go with a run and capsizing or spilling some of the crew. Some of the passengers attempt to save their clothing, bundles, a dog, a parrot in a bird cage etc. Finally the navigator in merchant captain’s uniform leaves in the last boat or raft with a chart and navigational instruments. Many other variations which suggest themselves to an active imagination are introduced to avoid similarity of procedure by different ships and to preserve the realism of the drill. In the meantime the Captain, officers and gun’s crews lie flat on deck at their gun stations behind light armor or some other shelter and remain absolutely quiet and motionless. The game then becomes a matter of waiting for the submarine to come up to board or to finish the business by gun fire. Sometimes, when he comes up he picks out the Captain (actually the navigator) and heads for his boat to take him prisoner. The navigator, in this event, steers his boat into a favorable position for gun fire by the ship. If the submarine shells the ship the men on board must remain perfectly quiet under fire and not move or cry out if wounded. If the ship settles they should remain by the guns until the upper deck is awash. There have been instances where the submarine delayed coming up until this moment. Finally, if everything goes well, the submarine closes the range or comes in to board and when, in the judgment of the Captain, the range is sufficiently closed, he pulls the lever, drops the walls of the deck-house, lowers the merchant ensign, runs up the man-of-war flag and opens fire. Having arrived at this stage of the game satisfactorily he usually gets the submarine. All this, of course, is not done without the loss of a few lives on the Special Service Ship caused by the torpedo explosion and by gun fire. A few of the ships have been sunk by torpedoes and their Captains made prisoners. I was told that it is believed that the Germans execute captured officers of these ships, treating them as pirates because of their civilian and merchant clothing.

     12. The life boats in the meantime remain in the vicinity of the ship. They have, of course, been well provisioned previously. They sometimes carry concealed machine guns to drive the submarine crew below in the event of shelling the life boats.

     13. In a very recent case off the Irish coast the submarines remain in the vicinity for twelve hours after torpedoing the Special Service Ship. The ship remained afloat over night and at daylight the submarine shelled her for an hour and a half from a considerable distance and then came in submerged, periscope up, and circled several times before coming to the surface. Finally she appeared on the surface within a few hundred yards and the merchantman immediately dropped his guns and opened fire. A number of the submarine’s crew then appeared on deck of their boat holding up their hands to indicate surrender but as soon as the merchantman ceased firing the submarine started off, closing the hatches and sweeping her own men overboard. The Special Service Ship again opened fire and sank the submarine.5

     14. The fitting out of a ship for this duty requires that the greatest care be taken not to alter her external appearance perceptibly. The workmanshipon hinged plates, collapsible deck houses, etc., must be such that nothing suspicious can be detected. It should be kept in mind that the submarine commander knows the game and knows where to look for anything suspicious. Befor coming to the surface he is going to inspect carefully through his periscope at a comparatively short distance. Everything must then appear absolutely natural or he will probably put another torpedo or two into the ship and leave her to sink. An officer who has seen several British Special Service Ships said that he immediately noticed their trim appearance-, they were too neat and clean. A few scrub and wash clothes hanging about, a little dirt and rust, a few rope’s ends and Irish pennants in sight might help to divert suspicion.

     15. After a Special Service Ship has been fitted out and her crew assembled she should be given at least two weeks of uninterrupted drill at abandoning ship and target practice in order to perfect the shooting, to develope rapidity of the crews in manning the guns, to develope the “Panic Drill” and to eliminate suspicious signs and false notes in the drill. The success of this business depends upon absence of suspicious appearances, either of material or conduct and upon rapid team-work on the part of the entire crew. For target practice the ammunition allowance should be liberal.

     16. I was informed that a French Special Service Ship recently caught on fire after being torpedoed and shelled and that the submarine, upon seeing the flames, immediately came to the surface to get what she could from the vessel and was sunk. This suggests the use of an oil fire as a variation to add to the appearance of reality and perhaps hasten the movements of the submarine, but, of course, like all subterfuges, it should not be carried too far.

     17. I do not know whether torpedo tubes have been installed in any Special Service Ships but I believe that their use is contemplated. It would appear practicable to install one or two torpedo tubes either in a collapsible deck house or on the second deck behind hinged plates. This would give a fair chance of getting the submarine with a torpedo if she circled near the ship, periscope up, but refused to come to the surface. In view of the growing wariness of submarines the installation of torpedo tubes in Special Service Ships would appear to be particularly well worth trying.

     18. It is suggested that an oil tanker could be easily and readily adapted to special service duty. The high poop and forecastle afford a good means of concealing guns with an all around are[a] of fire and the construction of the hull is such that it can be subdivided into small water-tight compartments. These compartments can then be filled with logs, lumber, cellulose and cork for buoyancy and to sufficiently load the vessel to give the required appearance of a laden ship. Furthermore, submarines have devoted considerable attention to tankers and it is probable that little time would be lost in waiting to be torpedoed.

     19. The Standard Oil Company has been using schooners recently in the oil trade with France. These schooners, I believe, have auxiliary power. Such a vessel would make an excellent Special Services Ship. It is suggested, if the idea of Special Services Ships is to be taken up by the Department, that a good sized auxiliary schooner be fitted out for the purpose and made to simulate a vessel in the oil carrying trade. The vessel could carry on deck a load of empty oil drums or cases and these could easily be made of further use by securing them to the deck to add to the buoyancy of the ship after being torpedoed. A few drums of oil could be carried and rigged so that they could be released and allowed to go overboard immediately upon being torpedoed. It could also easily be arranged for the vessel to leave a slight trace of oil in her wake, thereby making it easier for the submarine to find her and also making her character known to the submarine. The use of the oil ship is suggested as being a probable temptation to the submarine to come alongside and replenish her oil supply. It follows that such a vessel should operate in an area of submarine activity fairly well removed from the submarine’s base, where he will probably need oil. The special advantage of an auxiliary oil schooner is due to her small engine room, which, if flooded, is not such a menace to the safety of the ship. Because of splinters a vessel with a steel hull should be used.

     20. As a variation to divert suspicion, it is suggested that two Special Service Ships could work together to good advantage, one appearing to be disabled in tow of the other. A tug could be used to tow in a ship that, apparently, had been torpedoed and abandoned at sea without sinking. A steamer, fitted out for special service, could be used to tow in from sea a disabled or dismasted sailing ship that apparently had suffered from the weather, the sailing vessel, as well as the steamer, of course, being equipped with concealed guns.

     21. In order to give the Special Service Ship a chance to get the submarine in case he refuses to come to the surface it is suggested that each such vessel carry a small high speed boat, made to resemble one of the ship’s boats and carrying a large high-explosive depth charge, such as those supplied to United States destroyers by the British.

     22. When a Special Service Ship is torpedoed it is necessary for her to send out a radio call for help in order to maintain the deception. This is done in the usual manner; S O S with the ship’s call letter and position. Patrol vessels receiving the call do not go to her assistance. If the ship actually requires assistance another S O S with a secret identification call is sent out, to which the patrol vessel in her vicinity responds.

     23. I believe that there is now an excellent opportunity for Special Service Ships in French waters, particularly off the northern coast, as submarines are quite active there and operations of this kind against them have been and are quite limited in these waters.

     24. If the Department contemplates fitting out any vessels for this duty I respectfully offer my services for duty in connection with the selection and fitting out and the command of one or more Special Service Ships for service in French, English or Mediterranean waters.





Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 520, Box 415.

Footnote 1: Cmdr. Joel R. Poinsett Pringle, Chief of Staff, Destroyer Flotillas.

Footnote 2: VAdm. Henry T. Mayo, Commander, Atlantic Fleet.

Footnote 3: RAdm. Albert Gleaves, Commander, Convoy Operations in the Atlantic.

Footnote 5: The name of the ship was the H.M.S. Pargust and U-boat was UC-29. The engagement took place on 7 June 1917. Gordon Campbell, My Mystery Ship (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1928).

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