Wednesday 2 October 2013, 09:01
Some ships lead quiet, uneventful lives, hardly warranting a mention in the history of the Royal Navy.
Others leap from one dramatic action to another and, sometimes, even their endings are full of turmoil and chaos. The Welsh-built HMS Curacoa was just such a ship.
The Curacoa was launched from the Royal Naval dockyard at Pembroke Dock on 5 May 1917. Although she was named after a West Indian island more usually called Curacao, the ship's name was deliberately spelled differently - as had been another ship built in the same dockyard in the nineteenth century.
The Curacoa was one of the last vessels to be built at Pembroke Dock which, by 1917, was already an obsolete and out of date yard. The dockyard was still capable of producing exquisite warships, however, and the Curacoa was a beautiful, sleek C Class cruiser, typical of her class and age. She undoubtedly had an eventful and full career.
Completed in February 1918, she had just enough time for a brief spell with the Home Fleet before hostilities ended in November that year. She was then sent to the Baltic where Britain was supporting the White Russians in their fight against the Russian Communist government.
While in the Baltic the Curacoa had the misfortune to strike a mine and had to limp back to Britain for vital repair work.
Quickly patched up, she did not stay in home waters for long, being posted, first, to the Mediterranean and then to the Far East. By the 1930s the Curacoa - originally a fast, 28 knot vessel – was almost obsolete and, with the growth of air power already causing headaches for the Navy, plans were put in hand to convert her for use as an anti-aircraft cruiser.
Before this could happen, however, the Curacoa was given a taste of glamour when she was suddenly and unexpectedly loaned to a film company. It was the first time any Royal naval vessel had ever been used in a commercial film and the Curacoa, along with two other cruisers, spent several months on location.
She played the part of the German battle cruiser Ziethen in the 1935 film Brown On Resolution. The film, starring a young John Mills, was based on a novel by CS Forester and involved Mills single handedly taking on the crew of the Ziethen, delaying her departure from a remote Pacific island and, ultimately, causing her destruction by a British fleet.
Her moment of glory over, the Curacoa was duly converted to an AA ship, her main armament removed and replaced by high angle pom-poms. When the Second World War broke out she was soon involved in the disastrous Norwegian Campaign where she was badly damaged in an air attack and over 30 of her crew killed.
By 1942 the Curacoa was on convoy duty in the Atlantic. On 2 October she was in company with the RMS Queen Mary when the giant liner was in the process of carrying 10,000 American soldiers, men from the 29th Infantry Division, to Britain as part of the build-up to the D Day landings in Europe.
Early in the afternoon of 2 October, some 50 miles north of the Irish coast, disaster struck. The Queen Mary was following a standard zig-zag course, eight minutes to port, eight minutes to starboard, four minutes dead straight, before resuming the pattern again.
The Curacoa was supposed to replicate these moves but, her engines old and struggling to keep up with the giant liner, Captain John Boutwood decided to forgo the zig-zag course.
Communication between the two ships was poor and, in addition, the liner's compass was off by two degrees. At 2.12pm the Queen Mary, forging ahead at nearly 30 knots, sliced into the Curacoa, striking her amidships and cutting her in half.
The stern section of the mortally wounded cruiser sank immediately but the bow half righted itself and, for a while, Captain Boutwood thought that there was a possibility it might be saved. It was not to be and the bow section soon slipped under the waves.
The Queen Mary sped on – getting her soldiers to port was the most important thing she could do – and although her bow was damaged and a few plates were sprung she suffered no serious damage.
Many of the men on board did not even realise there had been a collision and those who had felt a bump or jolt simply assumed that the liner had hit a particularly large wave. But, of course, that left the survivors of the Curacoa struggling in the freezing waters of the Atlantic.
It was several hours before destroyers arrived to pick up the remaining members of the cruiser's crew. Out of a total of 439 officers and men, only 101 were picked up, Captain Boutwood among them. After the war the Admiralty decided to sue the Cunard White Star Line, owners of the Queen Mary, over the incident.
The Court of Inquiry originally laid the blame at the door of Captain Boutwood and the Curacoa but, on appeal, it was decided that the fault lay two thirds with the Curacoa, one third with the Queen Mary. It was all rather pointless and unrewarding – and, of course, nothing could ever compensate for the hundreds of dead sailors.
The Curacoa had led an eventful and full life, serving in two world wars and a campaign against the Bolsheviks. She had been a film star and had been damaged by mines and aircraft attack. Finally, she was sunk by the greatest liner in the world. Not a bad record for a ship built and launched in a small west Wales dockyard.
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Tuesday 1 October 2013, 14:09
Wednesday 2 October 2013, 13:55