Q-Ships: The Story of Secret Ships Built to Combat U-Boats

Source: HMS Crispin, A British World War Two-Era Q-Ship, before her conversion. Credit: Wilson and Howe.

Step aboard the Q-Ship, one of the best kept naval secrets across both World Wars.

Somewhere in the North Atlantic, U-68 was stalking a convoy of British ships. This convoy was a juicy target because it had no escorts and was sailing west to the British Isles in a loose fashion. Its ships would be ripe for the sinking. Kapitänleutnant Ludwig Güntzel had been stalking the convoy for hours, and he had already attacked it once, submerged with torpedoes. However, his first attack had miscarried, and none of the ships in the convoy had been hit or damaged. However, they had at least slowed the convoy sufficiently to permit another attack. Güntzel and his crew were now moving in close for their next strike.

Hunting U-Boats

A Q-Ship concealed gun. Credit: Wikipedia
A Q-Ship concealed gun. Credit: Wikipedia

Low on oxygen, with a mostly depleted battery, and facing a convoy which was now outpacing him, Güntzel made the fateful choice to try a surface attack at close range. Given the lack of escorts, he hoped this attack would be easy, and so he ordered his ships to close within 1,000 meters of the rearmost ship and surface. Unfortunately for him and his crew, the ship he was about to attack was no ordinary unarmed merchant! It was the HMS Farnborough, a British built Q-ship. And while it looked helpless and unarmed, the Farnborough had a potent armament concealed behind secret compartments and flaps across the ship.

Oblivious, U-68 surfaced, moved alongside the Farnborough, and fired a warning shot across her bow. Had the U-68 been more aggressive, his first shots still may have taken the crew of the Farnborough by surprise. But the warning shot had given the Q-ship just enough time to react. Dropping flaps to reveal hidden 12-pound guns, the gunners of the Farnborough unleashed a short, devastating broadside against the U-68. Once the Farnborough had it, the U-68 didn’t stand a chance. It quickly sank and most of the crew with it.

When we think of the clash between submarines and convoys, we often imagine a romanticized version of these conflicts. Daring, stealthy submarine captains penetrate convoys while submerged to find the perfect position from which to launch a spread of torpedoes. Meanwhile, men aboard escort destroyers huddle over ASDIC and SONAR machines waiting for the hint of enemy action. Once the battle was on, these destroyers would make fierce passes against the submerged threat, dropping depth charges in an eerie undersea struggle. These encounters did occur throughout both World Wars, and they make for great movie moments, to be sure. But in actuality, submarine warfare was a lot messier.

Download and Play World of Warships for Free Today

Command some of the greatest ships in history and fight epic naval battles online!

The Q-Ship's Gambit

The British and American Q-ships lived in this grey and messy area. Named after their World War One base in Queenstown, Ireland, the Q-ships were a way to combat the growing German submarine threat. First commissioned in 1915, Q-ships were merchantmen, tramp steamers, passenger ships, and even sailing vessels, all converted to carry a secret battery of weapons.

Their job was simple. They would sail alone or with small convoys and bait submarines into attacking them. Once the submarines were detected, the Q-ships would attempt to engage and sink them, as the Farnborough did to the U-68. To do this, these ships exploited the two biggest limitations of early submarines, their underwater speed and endurance. Most German submarines, especially during World War One, could do approximately 10 knots submerged. Their time underwater was limited by their propulsion system, electric engines powered by battery units. Once the batteries ran dry, the submarine would have to surface and engage their diesel motors to run them. This was the Q-ships’ gambit. If they could sail at 11 knots, the attacking submarine would eventually have to surface and engage their main motor to catch up and reengage them, and then the Q-ship would reveal its true identity and attack.

These tactics proved extremely successful during World War One, and the Q-ship fleet was one of the Royal Navy's biggest kept secrets through the war. And when war returned in 1939, the Royal Navy deployed an even larger and more sophisticated fleet of Q-ships armed with both concealed guns, depth charges, and sonar equipment. Once the United States entered the war in 1941, the US Navy created its own Q-ship fleet, converting several Liberty ships and fleet oilers into Q-ships. This American fleet operated with great success against German U-boats in the North Atlantic, and was also deployed in the Pacific Ocean to counter Japanese submarines. However, differences in submarine doctrine meant that these ships went largely unused as submarine chasers, and instead became more traditional convoy escorts.

HMS Hyderabad. Note the disapperaring gun aft, the gun concealed in a crate midships, and another hidden gun in between. Disguises such as these were key to the success of the Q Ships.
HMS Hyderabad. Note the disappearing gun aft, the gun concealed in a crate midships, and another hidden gun in between. Disguises such as these were key to the success of the Q Ships. Credit: Byrdwords' Blog

Life on a Q-ship was also not as romantic and attractive as on the more well-known Atlantic destroyers. Space was tight, the food was poor, and the tours were long and mostly uneventful. However, when the Q-ships succeeded, their crews were often in extreme danger. The nature of convoy warfare meant that the crew of these ships never knew when the enemy would strike, and they may not know about the approach of a German submarine until a torpedo exploded amidships. Many Q-ships were sunk by German commanders who succeeded in their attacks better than Kapitänleutnant Güntzel. Even if the Q-ship succeeded in getting the Germans to surface, wolf-pack tactics often meant that these ships would have to deal with several threats all at once. All told, assignment to a Q-ship was secretive, dangerous, unpleasant, and thankless. These crews worked hard to keep convoy lanes open, and many of them paid for it with their lives.

What do you think of this kind of warfare? Do you know of any examples of Q-ships? Leave your thoughts below!

Contributing Editor

B.T. Graves lives far from the sea amidst the trees and the hills. He spends every night at home with his two cats in a soft leather chair reading about great captains and legendary battles while he dreams of the salty sting of the ocean air.