Q-ships, also identified as Q-boats, decoy vessels, special service ships, or mystery ships were heavily armed merchant ships having concealed weaponry and were designed to bait enemy submarines into making surface attacks so that the Q-ships could then attack and sink or disable them. They were employed by the British Royal Navy, and the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial German Navy) during the First World War, and by the Royal Navy, the Nazi Kriegsmarine (navy of Nazi Germany) , and the United States Navy during the Second World War.
A surviving WWI example of the Q-ships was The United States’ USS Gold Star AK-12, a civilian cargo ship purchased in 1922. During the 1920s and 1930s Gold Star operated in the waters and far-flung ports of Asia. Though assigned as flagship of the US Navy at Guam she made frequent voyages to Japan, China, and the Philippines with cargo and passengers. Prior to World War II, much of her crew was made up of Chamorro, natives of Guam with American non-commissioned officers and commissioned officers.
Gold Star became a communications intelligence ship and was moved from port to port in the Orient and she was assigned to monitor Japanese Fleet radio frequencies, and calculate radio direction finder (DF) frequency measurements. Her assignment began in 1933 during the rebuilding of the Japanese naval fleet by Tokyo and continued into the summer of 1941. Gold Star along with ground stations in Guam, Olongapo and Beijing provided significant intelligence prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
In January 12, 1942, the British Admiralty’s intelligence community had observed a “heavy concentration” of U-boats off the North American seaboard from New York to Cape Race, Newfoundland and passed along the information to the United States Navy. And, on that very day
, the German submarine U-123 torpedoed and sank the British steamship Cyclops, inaugurating Paukenschlag “a strike on the kettledrum” and sometimes referred to in English as “Operation Drumbeat. This was during “The Second Happy Time”, also known among German submarine commanders as the” American shooting season”, was the informal name for a phase in the Battle of the Atlantic during which Axis submarines attacked merchant shipping and Allied naval vessels along the east coast of North America. The first “Happy Time” was in 1940–41 in the North Atlantic and North Sea. “U-boat commanders found peacetime conditions prevailing along the U.S. east coast as towns and cities were not blacked-out and navigational buoys remained lit; shipping followed normal routines and “carried the normal lights. This presented the opportunity for “wolf packs” of German U-Boats to begin patrolling the eastern coastline of the U.S. with specific orders; Attack and sink any and all sea worthy vessels they may encounter during their mission to help win the war by disrupting supply lines and everyday life in the U.S. “Paukenschlag” had caught the United States unprepared and so losses mounted rapidly. Then on January 20, 1942, Commander-in-Chief, United States Fleet (Cominch), requested the immediate consideration of the manning and fitting-out of “Queen” ships to be operated as an anti-submarine measure. And, the result was “Project LQ.”, the secret project initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that specified the use of decoys disguised as merchant ships but were heavily armed warships again designated as “Q-ships.”
Although, little information about them has been recorded over the past fifty years, its known that five vessels were acquired for the project and then were converted in secret at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Kittery, Maine: They were the Boston beam trawler MS Wave, which briefly became the auxiliary minesweeper USS Eagle (AM-132) before becoming USS Captor (PYc-40), the SS Evelyn and Carolyn, identical cargo vessels that became USS Asterion (AK-100) and USS Atik (AK-101) respectively, the tanker SS Gulf Dawn, which became USS Big Horn (AO-45), And the schooner Irene Myrtle, which became USS Irene Forsyte (IX-93).
Shakedown, for the Atik and the Asterion required them to operate independently in waters 200 miles off the United States Atlantic Coast. Enemy submarines had been attacking in the area under darkness and they were rarely seen until after a vessel was struck by a torpedo. Sadly, before the shakedown cruise was four days in, USS Atik (SS Carolyn) was attacked and sunk with all hands by a U-boat. The details of the battle are too scant. But, it is known that the Atik had been cruising in an area 300 miles east of Norfolk, Va. and that the Asterion had been cruising some 240 miles to the south of her. Then on March 26th at 2053, radio stations at Manasquan, New Jersey, and at Fire Island, New York, intercepted a distress message from SS Carolyn giving her location and stating that the ship was under torpedo attack, burning forward and required assistance.
Early the next morning, an Army bomber was sent to search the area of Carolyn’s last reported position and the USS Noa DD-343 and the tug USS Sagamore AT-20 were sent to assist in the search. Later, the Army bomber returned and reported not sighting anything, and the tug and the destroyer encountered heavy weather so the tug was recalled; but the destroyer Noa continued the search until her fuel ran low and compelled her to return to New York on March 30th. Additional flights by Army and Navy planes were unsuccessful until two Army planes and one PBY-5A; Navy patrol bomber out of Norfolk reported that they had sighted wreckage ten miles south of the original reported position. Then, twelve days later the Commander Eastern Sea Frontier reported it was believed that there was little chance that any of Carolyn’s crew would be found alive so they were considered lost.
So far as United States Q-ships were concerned in World War II, this was the first and the last action with U-boats that produced any positive results. It appears from this unsuccessful beginning that the Germans had become aware of the mission of the Q-ships and so the element of surprise which had made this type of vessel effective against submarines in World War I had been so completely lost that the Q-ships had become something of an anachronism. Nevertheless, the plan was continued, and the details of those later developments deserve a place in the history.
The first cruise of USS Asterion (alias SS Evelyn) began with her shakedown and continued until April 18, 1942 when she had several contacts with Nazi U-boats, as well as the sighting of torpedoed merchant vessels and life boats, and rescued their survivors. However, the first cruise was concluded without any action against enemy submarines.
Next, USS Asterion was given an overhaul. However, Inspection after her sixth uneventful cruise raised significant doubt as to her ability to remain afloat if hit by a single torpedo because she had only three large holds that if one became flooded was enough to sink her. And, a plan to install five more bulkheads proved too timely and costly.
Consequently, on October 14, 1943, the decision was made that Asterion would discontinue her Q-ship duties and that she would be inspected by a Board of Inspection and Survey to determine “suitability for useful service” in some other capacity. Consequently, USS Asterion was converted for use as a weather-vessel in the North Atlantic.
The various cruises of the beam trawler, MS Wave, commissioned USS Eagle (AM-132) were as futile as were those of USS Asterion. Her first cruise was intended for her to operate independently as a Q-ship in the general vicinity of the beam trawler commercial fishing fleet out of Boston, Massachusetts. Subsequently she entered the yards for a three-week overhaul and conversion before she began her first cruise and upon completion on May 19, 1942, her classification and name were changed from USS Eagle (AM-132) to USS Captor (PYC-40).
Her new operation plan stipulated that she patrol in the area of Georges Bank and her first cruise began May 26, 1942. USS Captor continued to operate in the area during the next twelve months without seeing any action and when U-boat activities in those waters decreased significantly, the vessel was removed from her secret status and was assigned to the First Naval District as a regular armed patrol craft.
The most formidable of the USN Q-ships was the tanker SS Gulf Dawn, and her conversion was begun in March 1942 at Bethlehem Shipbuilding, Brooklyn Yard and was continued at the Boston Navy Yard where the work was finally completed on July 22, 1942. Her armament comprised of five 4-inch .50 caliber single purpose guns, two .50 caliber machine guns, five “Tommy” guns, five sawed-off shotguns, as well as sonar equipment. She was commissioned USS Big Horn (AO-45) and she cleared the Boston Navy Yard on July 22, 1942 then proceeded to Casco Bay, Freeport, the Bahamas for training under Commander Destroyers, Atlantic Fleet. The training period was followed with a shakedown cruise completed on August 26, 1942; her complement was 13 officers and 157 enlisted men.
The first cruise of USS Big Horn began on September 27, 1942, when the ship proceeded from New York as part of a convoy destined for Guantanamo, Cuba and taking a position as a “straggler”. However, the trip was completed without incident and thereafter the Big Horn was attached to Naval Operating Base, Trinidad, with orders to operate over the Bauxite route to and from ports where it was loaded.
Many ships in this area had been sunk in the recent weeks and on October 16, 1942; the Big Horn sailed in convoy from Trinidad. That same afternoon, three U-boats attacked the convoy and the British steamer SS Castle Harbor was hit on the starboard side by a torpedo and quickly sunk. While simultaneously the United States steamer Winona, laden with coal, was struck forward on the starboard side however was able to limp back into Trinidad under her own power. Soon afterwards, lookouts on the Big Horn sighted a U-boat moving at periscope depth on their port beam, but in a position that no action could be taken without threatening friendly ships within the convoy. Thereafter, the cruise was continued without incident for several days and the Big Horn returned to port.
Big Horn made multiple cruises without experiencing any action until on April 14, 1943 when she along with the three PC’s proceeded to sea with convoy #UGS-7A. Prior to their arrival in the vicinity of the Azores the group dropped astern of the convoy to proceed with Big Horn acting as straggler-with-escorts, however the escorts remained far enough astern of her so that they would not be visible allowing an enemy submarine to sight Big Horn. The cruise was uneventful during the first two weeks, until noon of May 3, 1943. Early that morning, a surfaced vessel had been sighted on the horizon and PC-618 sent in pursuit. Then, at 1104, PC-618 reported a submarine on the surface, range 6 miles. Next, at 1235, Big Horn got a sonar contact and launched a hedgehog attack after sighting a periscope on the starboard bow, followed by a heavy swirl as the U-boat dived to evade. Subsequently, a second attack was initiated but the contact was lost. Then, at 1540, the contact was regained at 3700 yards and with her speed 5 knots; the Big Horn launched a third attack. But five of her hedgehog projectiles detonated upon water entry, however the Big Horn proceed to drop depth charges on the enemy sub. Soon, a substantial amount of light oil was spotted on the water and it continued to spread on the sea surface for two hours. By 0100 on May 4th the slick was spread over an area of 200 to 300 yards, and by daylight that morning all traces of the oil slick had dispersed and contact with the sub was lost over the next 44 hours, so it was presumed that one submarine had been destroyed.
One more routine cruise was made by the Big Horn in company with PC-617 and PC-618, following training exercises in the New London area from October 29th through November 10th then the Task Group returned to New York to refuel and resupply; on November 15th, the Task Group departed and proceeded on an eastward course until they had reached the hunting grounds north of the Azores. The search tactics were carried out for the next three weeks without success, and then the Task Group set course for the United States, arriving in Cape Cod Bay on December 31, 1943.
In summarizing this cruise, the Commanding Officer of the Big Horn wrote, “It may be noted that during the period from 27 November to 1 December, this Task Group was in the midst of a group of from 10 to 15 U-boats. Nine contacts, sightings or attacks on U-boats took place in our immediate vicinity, so that it is most unlikely that we were not seen by some U-boats. Evidently the U-boats are wary of attacking an independent tanker. If the Q-ship program has contributed to this wariness, as is suggested in several prisoner-of-war statements, many independent merchant ships may thereby have escaped attack, and the Q-ship program has thus been of value.” Subsequently, new orders were that the Big Horn join the Asterion in the new assignment to Weather Patrol Duty in the North Atlantic, under the supervision of the Coast Guard and manned by Coast Guard officers and crew.
The fifth vessel to be converted as a Q-ship was the three-masted schooner USS Irene Forsyte which after refit and shake-down reported for duty on September 24, 1943, and was then instructed to sail for Recife Brazil along the Maury Track. On the first leg of this cruise, the Irene Forsyte ran into heavy weather which opened up her hull seams and caused such serious flooding that the vessel nearly foundered before she could put in at Bermuda. Immediately, questions were raised as to why the vessel had been permitted to go to sea in such an obviously unseaworthy condition. The consequence of the situation was the appointment of a Board of Investigation to ascertain responsibility for material failure of the vessel. In commenting on the report of the Naval Inspector General wrote “The conversion of USS Irene Forsyte is an instance of misguided conception and misdirected zeal, which, coupled with inefficiency resulting from lack of supervision by competent authority; has cost the government nearly half a million dollars in money and a serious waste of effort”; thus, ending the short career of Irene Forsyte.
The careers of all five ships were almost entirely unsuccessful and very short lived and all Q-ships patrols ended in 1943. But, despite their somewhat sketchy record of success Q-Ships have been celebrated in mainstream literature. In Ernest Hemingway’s novel “Islands in the Stream”, the main character Thomas Hudson commanded a US Navy Q-ship in Cuban waters as he searched for the survivors of a sunken German U-boat.
And, in Malcolm Lowry’s novel “Under the Volcano” of 1947 he tells the story of Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic British consul living in the small Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, on the Day of the Dead, 2 November 1938, a Mexican holiday celebrated throughout Mexico that focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember deceased friends and family members. Geoffrey Firmin reflects back to his time as a naval officer during World War I, when he was court-martialed and subsequently decorated for his actions aboard a Q-Ship.
Too, as with other naval concepts, the idea of a Q-ship has also been applied to spacecraft in fictional works:
Q-ships feature prominently in David Weber’s “Honor Harrington” series of books. Harrington destroys a Q-ship in the first novel, “On Basilisk Station”, and commands a squadron of Q-ships in the sixth novel, “Honor Among Enemies.” Harrington’s snotty cruise captain, Thomas Bachfisch, commands a pair of privately owned Q-ships in the tenth in the series, “War of Honor.”
And, In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Return to Grace”, Major Kira and Gul Dukat converts a Cartesian freighter into a Q-ship to pursue a Klingon vessel which had destroyed an outpost.
And lastly, in the “Star Fleet Universe” based on Star Trek, all major spacefaring races use Q-ships disguised as small and large freighters as convoy escorts to thwart attacks from enemy races and the Orion Pirates.