Q is for… Q-Ships

The sudden appearance of U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean at the beginning of the Second World War led the Allies to lose ships at a rapid rate. It was quickly established that U-boats were concentrating on tankers, and the majority of attacks were happening at night, on the surface, and from close range.[1] The solution settled on was to begin fitting out Allied tankers as Q-ships.

The Mid-Atlantic gap was an area outside the cover of land-based aircraft. The blue dots show destroyed ships of the Allies

There was nothing new about the principle of Q-ship operations. In the First World War, when the German U-boats where at their most prevalent, the British Admiralty approved the conversion of merchant vessels to heavily armed raiders, with guns disguised or concealed.[2] The idea was that the merchant vessels could potentially serve as decoys, therefore encouraging U-boats to attack them.[3] Then, providing the disguised vessel had enough buoyancy to withstand one or two torpedoes, the disguise would be removed, the guns readied, and the U-boat sunk.[4]

The entire idea of Q-ships depended on the successfulness of surprise, and once the U-boats were aware of the subterfuge the chances of success were greatly reduced. Only a few Commanding Officers were able to conduct Q-ship campaigns throughout the First World War with any real worth.[5] Therefore, when the same tactic began to be employed during the Second World War, they began to explore other vessels which could be of use. Not only were tankers used, but other vessels “of such a relatively insignificant appearance,” such as small schooners, tramp steamers, fishing smacks and luggers were also suggested as suitable to serve the purpose of deception.[6]

Nine Q-ships were commissioned by the Royal Navy in the final months of 1939 to work in the North Atlantic.[7] Two were torpedoed without ever sighting a U-boat, and the rest were paid off in March 1941 without ever successfully completing any missions.[8]

[1] Naval History and Heritage Command, “Q-ships during World War II,” last accessed 8 January 2022, https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/q/q-ships-during-world-war-ii.html#qships

[2] Naval History and Heritage Command, “Q-ships during World War II”

[3] Naval History and Heritage Command, “Q-ships during World War II”

[4] Naval History and Heritage Command, “Q-ships during World War II”

[5] Naval History and Heritage Command, “Q-ships during World War II”

[6] Naval History and Heritage Command, “Q-ships during World War II”

[7] H. T. Lenton and J. J. Colledge, British and Dominion Warships of World War II (London: Ian Allan Ltd, 1968), 279

[8] Arthur Marder, “The Influence of History on Sea Power: The Royal Navy and the Lessons of 1914-1918,” The Pacific Historical Review 40 (1972): 413 – 443

[Image 1] “The battle of the Atlantic, Mid-March to December 1941,” Wiki Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_battle_of_the_Atlantic_1941_map.svg

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