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Q-ships and Zeppelins

Although not barrage balloon related, I thought readers might like to read a little-known story of deceit and deception involving a "Zeppelin" and our maritime forces in the Great War. Due to horrendous losses of allied shipping, much ingenuity was needed to defeat the German U-boat menace. This resulted in the formation of a top-secret fleet of ships known only as "Q-Ships". Originally known as special service ships, as decoys, then as Q-ships, the "Q" was said to denote the home port for this fleet in Queensferry in Ireland, but the Q-ships came from many other ports. These vessels during 1917 were also known as "H.M.S. So-and-So", but it was under the designation of Q-ships that they reached their pinnacle of fame, and as such they will always be known.






Their role was to sail in U-boat infested waters and present themselves as an easy target. Often when finding a British merchant ship unarmed ship at sea the U-boats would surface and order the crew into lifeboats and sink the ship and the cargo with gunfire. This saved the torpedoes for bigger ships. The British plan was to secretly turn these merchant ships into armed merchant ships with hidden guns. On being challenged at sea by a surfaced German U-boat they would allow the submarine to come into range while feigning an "abandon ship" drill. Then suddenly they would reveal the guns and attack the submarine aiming for the prominent conning tower.

Most, though not all, of the ships and officers and men came from the Mercantile Marine, and in this special force we saw the perfect co-operation between the two branches of our national sea service. The Royal Navy could teach them all that was to be known about the technicalities of fighting, and gave them with guns and expert gunners, and gave them all the facilities of His Majesty's dockyards, whilst at the same time the Mercantile Marine provided the ships and the personnel who knew what were the normal habits and appearances of a tramp, a collier, or a coaster.

They were comparatively small, ranging in size from 4,000 tons to small sailing ships, old and made to look poorly maintained. Their outward appearances were indistinguishable from ordinary merchantmen.Much thought had gone into considering how to make their ships of interest to the Germans. One daring plan was to try to make a ship look like a German airship or Zeppelin that had crash-landed on the sea. It was thought that on viewing through the periscope the Germans would see one of their Zeppelins floating on the surface and surface to see if they could aid or rescue the crew.

General orders to Q-ship skippers stipulated that Q-ships:

"…strictly observe the role of a decoy. If an enemy submarine is sighted, every effort is to be made to escape, and if the submarine opens fire, engines are to be stopped, and the ship‘s company (except the necessary engine-room staff and the guns‘ crews, who must be kept carefully out of sight) commence to abandon ship. The submarine should be allowed to come as close as possible to decoy, and fire then opened by order of the whistle or steam siren with white ensign being hoisted at the same time. Do not fire unless you are pretty sure of making a hit." The "crashed Zeppelin" masquerade was first begun in August 1915. The concept was that a well-armed trawler, suitably disguised as a disabled airship forced to land at sea, would trap any U-boat coming to the rescue, while a C-class submarine waited in the vicinity to attack. Cardiff docks had 24 fishing trawlers registered there. The hired trawler CF 23 Oyama from Cardiff was chosen for this unique masquerade. She would sail out into the channel and shut down her engines while covering the ship with a fake skin obtained from an old observation balloon. She must have been quite a sight.

Chief Petty Officer R. Keoman was serving as coxswain on Oyama in 1915 under the command of Commander Reginald G. H. Henderson. Oyama was sent to sea into Heligoland Bight to act as a downed Zeppelin. The weather was atrocious and there were several sets of girders on the deck to act as ribs for the Zeppelin. Over these would be draped the fabric to create a downed airship. These ribs were destroyed in the storm making the exercise fruitless. In addition there was a lack of freeboard -the distance from the water line to the main deck of a decked vessel on Oyama‘s maiden voyage in disguise. As a consequence, Oyama never fooled the Germans and because of this and the difficulties associated with making this ploy look realistic, she was withdrawn from service after about three months.

Elsewhere, with several successes under their belt the Q-ships became a tactic that the Germans became aware of and their success diminished.

The net effect of all these factors was that decoys lost their effectiveness and the Q-ship campaign ground to a halt by the end of 1917. By all accounts, no U-boats were sunk by Q-ships after September 1917.

The mystery and derring-do created by these events caused much interest as the story was slowly presented to the public and in 1928 there was a film "Q Ships" made by the New Era company which starred Lord Jellicoe and was shown for the first time at the Scala Theatre, Leeds. It was said that the public were weary of war dramas, but this film was said to be unlike anything made before. It was a box office success.

In 1938 there was a radio play "Q5" which was described as a thrilling drama based on the sinking of U83. Despite their termination in the Great War, imitation was the sincerest form of flattery that meant the Germans quickly set up their own versions. The concept of Q-ships was brought back into being during the Second World War with several German submarines being sunk.


        Peter Garwood August 2020




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