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Q-ships, also known as Q-boats, Decoy Vessels, Special Service Ships or Mystery Ships, were heavily armed merchant ships with concealed weaponry, designed to lure submarines into making surface attacks. This gave Q-ships the chance to open fire and sink them. The basic ethos of every Q-ship was to be a wolf in sheep's clothing.

They were used by the British Royal Navy (RN) during the First World War and by both the RN and the United States Navy during the Second World War (1939–1945), as a countermeasure against German U-boats and Japanese submarines.


First World War

Following the First Battle of the Atlantic, by 1915 Britain was in desperate need of a countermeasure against the U-boats that were strangling her sea-lanes. Convoys, which had proved effective in earlier times (and would again prove effective during the Second World War), were rejected by the resource-strapped Admiralty and the independent captains. Depth charges of the time were relatively primitive, and almost the only chance of sinking a submarine was by gunfire or by ramming while on the surface. The problem was luring the U-boat to the surface.

A solution to this was the creation of the Q-ship, one of the most closely-guarded secrets of the war. Their codename referred to the vessels' home port, Queenstown, in Ireland[1]. These became known by the Germans as a U-Boot-Falle ("U-boat trap"). A Q-ship would appear to be an easy target, but in fact carried hidden armaments. A typical Q-ship might resemble a tramp steamer sailing alone in an area where a U-boat was reported to be operating. By seeming to be a suitable target for the U-boat's deck gun, a Q-ship might encourage the U-boat captain to make a surface attack rather than use one of his limited number of torpedoes. The Q-ships' cargoes were light wood (balsa or cork) or wooden caskets, and even if torpedoed they would remain afloat, encouraging the U-boat to surface and sink them with a deck gun. The crew might even pretend to "abandon ship". Once the U-boat was vulnerable, the Q-ship's panels would drop to reveal the deck guns, which would immediately open fire. At the same time, the White Ensign (Royal Navy flag) would be raised. With the element of surprise, a U-boat could be quickly overwhelmed.

The first Q-ship victory was on 23 June 1915, when U-40 was sunk off Eyemouth by the submarine HMS C24, cooperating with the decoy vessel Taranaki, commanded by Lieutenant Frederick Henry Taylor CBE DSC RN. The first victory by an unassisted Q-ship came on 24 July 1915 when the Prince Charles, commanded by Lt Mark-Wardlaw, DSO, sank U-36. The civilian crew of Prince Charles received a cash award. The following month, an even smaller converted fishing trawler renamed HM Armed Smack Inverlyon successfully destroyed UB-4 near Great Yarmouth. Inverlyon was an unpowered sailing ship fitted with a small 3 pounder (47 mm) gun. The British crew fired 9 rounds from the 3 pounder into U-4 at close range, sinking her with the loss of all hands despite the attempt of Inverlyon's skipper to rescue one surviving German submariner.

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